Abiy Ahmed becomes Ethiopia’s second prime minister in just five years since the death of long time dictator Melles Zenawi. His reform and unity rhetoric coupled with his long time membership of the brutally authoritarian regime makes him a confusing figure but that confusion has produced a huge hope as he ends up anywhere between maintaining the status-quo or actually reforming the dictatorship.
By Betemariam hailu
Perhaps for the very first time since the EPRDF dictatorship was installed in Ethiopia in the early 1990s, a prime minister that almost everybody from Ethiopia and the international community agreed on assumed office on monday. Abiy Ahmed, an urban Oromo politician in his early forties is now Ethiopia’s prime minister. He was everybody’s favorite prior to his selection. His ethnic region, the Oromo have paid too much price in the three years old pro-democracy protests. So someone from them becoming a prime minister is at least for the moment a happy end. The Amhara of the north also revolted and showed solidarity with the Oromo protesters. A reformist Oromo who praised their key role on their own regional state TV is not a bad choice. The Amhara regional party chief and the deputy prime minister dropped out of the race to pave the way for Abiy. And The party overwhelmingly voted for him.
The capital Addis Ababa that surprisingly remained calm and unfazed by the three years of wave in the Oromo and Amhara loves politicians who talk too much about unity, history and education. Abiy did that often. The inaugural speech was a perfect fit. His fluent urban Amharic and gentle look has already made him a celebrity among folks in the most developed and urbanized part of the country. he’s by far an interesting figure than the terribly boring Hailemariam Desalegn who he replaced for the the nation’s capital. With no cost, Addis Ababa got its choice from the EPRDF coalition.
The international community that prefers to prop up the status-quo or reform it with less costly measures as was described by the fired US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, as “Greater freedom” also favored someone from the restive Oromo to get the top job, thinking it might calm their horn Africa ally. The only one that didn’t get their man are the ruling Tigrean elite for the obvious reasons.
Given the brutal violent history of power struggle in the last fifty years, there have always been two choices for any Ethiopian opposition, the bad and worse. This is why the Ethiopian opposition is puzzled about Abiy Ahimed. He is not necessarily bad but he still came from EPRDF. Chairman of the powerful rebel movement, Patriotic Ginbot 7 threw his cautious optimism on a VOA interview. Top Oromo politicians hailed his selection as a victory for the Oromo protests but doubted if he could really hold real power. His first speech was positive for most of them.
Actually nobody knows whats on the mind of Abiy. This is where it is interesting. He came out to the front 0nly in the last three years after protests began. He and his former boss, the Oromo regional president became front runners after a leadership shuffle following the violent protests. When Melles Zenawi was replaced by his deputy Hailemariam Desalegn in 2012 in a natural death, there was no hope. It was clear that Hailemariam would only be a weaker shadow of his deceased mentor as he embarrassingly praised the dead man several times as an immortal man with an immortal spirit even to the surprise of his Christian family.
But Abiy Ahmed don’t seem to go that way. The news of his selection came after a long long wait of weeks. It was clear that the ruling coalition fought too much on his selection. He is not defiantly the new Hailemariam. They didn’t name him as a prime minister easily. They labored too much. This is a clear signal that there is fear among the ruling elite that Abiy is a gamble. He embarrassed them by missing the parliamentary voting session on the draconian state of emergency. He didn’t vote Yes or no for the martial law the country is now under. For the deep state that rules the nation from behind, that was a stab in the back. Why didn’t he attend the session? It is simple. He did not want to. He does not agree with them on the state of emergency. Thats clearly a rebel act and still they were forced to name him as the nation’s prime minister. Its intriguing!
Under the new leadership of Abiy Ahmed and Lema Megersa, the Oromo region looked to have some space. There were massive peaceful rallies held for released political figures in big cities in which regional officials gave speeches too. Despite killings by the national army, there was a sense of bravery and emboldening in Oromia. This is what many people hope would translate to the national level with the coming of Abiy as a prime minister. This is a huge gamble for the deep state that rules the nation with a state of emergency. Just like the Oromo region was out of their control, their fear is that under Abiy, the whole country might be out of their control. He has lately been a target of attack by some state affiliated media.
Abiy Ahmed as a person has somehow got everybody’s support. The people’s and the Opposition’s optimism accompanied by foreign moral support. This all depends on him. If he will bring the political leadership under his control, that will be the first step. Given the support he has from the Amharas, yes he can do that with some time but he must be willing to take the risks. The prime minister’s seat is now a hot seat. Its never like the one Hailemariam sat on. He got to fight the deep state stairing him. The deep state is a group of rebel veterans of the Tigre liberation front who are determined to hang on power at any cost with their monopoly of the military and the security apparatus. Abiy did not vote for their state of emergency and he’s openly their enemy.
Actually the majority of the armed forces come from the Amhara and Oromo ethnic communities. The military has shown full obedience to the political leadership in the past. In 2016, after Hailemariam Desalegn declared he had ordered the military to take action in the north against Amhara protesters, the military killed hundreds in Bahir dar and Gondar. Its true Hailemariam himself was ordered to do that by the deep state but still the military acted in accordance with his words. The hope of some observers is that the majority of the military might follow Abiy Ahmed if he fully controls the political leadership of the country.
Controlling the political leadership also alienates the reactionary forces with in the regime. They will only hang on the military and the security. Ethiopia is a huge country with 100+ million population. Its truly hard to control it with only military power. But nobody knows how new Prime minister feels about these sensitive issues. The deep state has much more experience in calculating political steps than him. Does he have the courage to take on them? Does he have the wisdom to outsmart them? Is he brave enough to make life harder for himself? Because without these key issues, he will not be ruling in anyway. The deep state is my way or no way. They can go as far as a coup to stop him from taking the nation out of their control. They don’t want to see a rebel Ethiopia as is the Oromo.
Nobody knows if he had made any deals behind the scenes to get the job. Only the days will tell that. His first speech to the parliament was a darling to populist views but not brave enough to single out why the country is suffering from ages old brutality, authoritarianism and corruption. He never talked about democratic reform, restructuring of electoral system, releasing political prisoners, repealing the designation of the opposition as terrorist groups. Several questions remain unanswered regarding his position.
Still thousands are behind bars including top figures like Andargachew Tsiege. Officers from his own Oromo region have been arrested in recent weeks. More interestingly Abiy joined EPRDF as a young boy, spent nearly two decades inside the authoritarian system. He was a military officer with a rank of lieutenant colonel. He had actively worked in the security system. He never said nothing about his political ideology. But as a long time EPRDF member, may be he’s still a fan of revolutionary democracy ( modern day Marxist Leninist authoritarianism). His rhetoric is attractive and unifying unlike his predecessors but still lacks the substance issues facing this big country.
Nobody really knows what is on his mind. It is really confusing. Talking about unity is good but doing practical things to promote unity is a different thing. He reportedly speaks the Tigre language. He can travel to Tigray and impress the Tigre youth. He possibly help them see light that there is life without TPLF’s monopoly. The man has everything at his disposal, but we still do not know what he plans to do. Its just him. This confusion has caused hopes as it might end anywhere. He may make himself one of the greatest politicians ever born to help heal Ethiopia from the messes of authoritarianism. Or he may make a deal with the status-quo and rule with words, enjoying the luxury of being a prime minister. We live by hope. We hope he will be the earlier. And God help him.
Betemariam Hailu is an Ethiopian journalist and media personality. His works have appeared on several media including the BBC. He can be reached on Twitter @betehailu