Abiy Ahmed has admitted to state torture and headed off forex crisis with $3bn from UAE
Aftermath of the explosion in Meskel Square on Saturday when Abiy Ahmed was making an address © EPA
John Aglionby in Nairobi and David Pilling in London
June 26, 2018
Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s youthful prime minister, may be the most popular politician in Africa but he has also made enemies. On Saturday, at a huge rally in Addis Ababa, an explosion that may have been intended to kill him left two dead and 156 people injured, five of them critically.
No one took responsibility for the blast and Mr Abiy did not try to pin the blame on anyone. “To those who tried to divide us, I want to tell you that you have not succeeded,” he said.
Analysts said perpetrators of the explosion, which occurred after Mr Abiy ended an address to tens of thousands of supporters in Meskel Square, could have been disgruntled members of the security forces. Their power is threatened by the sweeping reforms Mr Abiy has launched since becoming premier in April.
There was also speculation that his peace overtures to Eritrea, in which he said Ethiopia would give up its claim to disputed land, might have triggered the attack.
Mr Abiy came out of the blocks so fast in his first few weeks in office that few believed he could maintain the pace. But, if anything, the 42-year-old former army officer has stepped it up.
Since being appointed just more than two months ago, Mr Abiy has overseen the release of thousands of political prisoners, ended a state of emergency that was imposed to quell two-and-a-half years of deadly anti-government protests, and announced an economic liberalisation plan, including partial sale of state telecom and airline assets.
More recently, he has has reorganised the once-untouchable intelligence services and admitted publicly that the authoritarian government has committed acts of torture and terrorism on its own people.
"He is our Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau and Nelson Mandela all in one Addis Alemayehou
His charm offensive in the Gulf also appears to have borne fruit. The United Arab Emirates agreed last week to provide $3bn in badly needed loans and investments to ease a chronic foreign exchange shortage.
“He is our Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau and Nelson Mandela all in one,” enthused Addis Alemayehou, an Ethiopian media consultant, echoing the sense of euphoria that has accompanied the elevation to power of Africa’s youngest leader.
That, say analysts, has raised expectations that Mr Abiy can transform the political and economic landscape. But it has also prompted concerns of a political backlash from within the ranks of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Over the 27 years the EPRDF has been in power, Ethiopia has won plaudits in the west for its rapid development, including official growth rates approaching 10 per cent. But it has been severely criticised for rights abuses.
Ethiopian politics remains opaque but, say analysts, there are hints of discontent within the ruling four-party coalition, whose 180 council members are far from unanimously behind Mr Abiy. There are already signs, for example, of an attempt to roll back his plans to sell off state assets.
“There’s a risk of getting ahead of ourselves because he’s only been in power for two months,” said Ahmed Salim, vice-president East Africa of Teneo Intelligence, a US-based think-tank. Mr Salim pointed to the huge gamble Mr Abiy was taking in challenging the security forces and, especially, in making concessions to Eritrea.
Abiy Ahmed delivers a speach from behind glass during a rally on Meskel Square in Addis Ababa on Saturday, before an explosion killed two and injured more than 150 © AFP
Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s president, said last week he would send a delegation to Addis to discuss a peace deal.
The unexpected appointment of Mr Abiy, a relative unknown from the majority Oromo group, followed an internal crisis within EPRDF after it failed to contain protests. The Oromo, who make up 35 per cent of the population, have led a popular rebellion against the government, which was dominated by Tigrayans, who comprise 6 per cent of Ethiopians.
Mr Abiy’s reorganisation of the Tigrayan-led army and intelligence services — seen by many as the real locus of power — has convinced sceptics that the new leader represents a genuine power shift. The replacement army chief is still a Tigrayan, but the new head of intelligence is from Amhara, the region that has historically held most power and has also experienced political unrest.
“Those are institutions that needed changing,” said Awol Allo, an Ethiopian law lecturer at Keele University in the UK, referring to the army and the intelligence apparatus. “He's demonstrating a fierce desire to shake up the system.”
Mr Awol said it was possible that members of what he called the “Tigrayan deep state” were responsible for Saturday’s explosion, but added that it was impossible to know.
Opposition forces, including in Amhara, have seized the moment by setting up political parties in anticipation of what they hope will be free elections in 2020.
Mr Abiy has received plaudits for condemning the EPRDF for what he said were rights abuses. Last week, he told parliament the constitution did not allow “people to be flogged, to be injured, to be kept in dark rooms”.
Befeqadu Hailu, an activist and former political prisoner, welcomed Mr Abiy’s admission of state torture. “The regime has lived in denial,” he said. “A former detainee who said he was tortured told me he cried when he heard the prime minister.”
Mr Befeqadu added that, while Mr Abiy’s instincts were good, he feared a pushback from vested interests being challenged. To consolidate change, he said, Ethiopia needed “institutional reform and the repeal of key laws”.
Without that, he said: “widening democratisation cannot happen”.