Ethiopia: Is Abiy’s new cabinet a means to reset the country or grab power?

By Fred Harter
Posted on Monday, 11 October 2021 21:08

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed takes oath during his incumbent ceremony at the Parliament building in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia October 4, 2021. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was sworn in for his first full five-year term on Monday last week, having scored a landslide win in elections held in June.

He appointed his cabinet two days later, bringing in three opposition figures for the first time in  Ethiopia’s history, while opting for continuity in big jobs such as health, finance and foreign affairs. The move was mirrored in Ethiopia’s regional states where several opposition politicians were granted ministerial and institutional posts.

Announcing his new cabinet, Abiy told Ethiopia’s federal parliament that “efforts have been made to involve political parties in Amhara, Addis Ababa, Afar and almost all regions. Ethiopia will benefit if you are involved in ministerial positions and other institutions because your opinion is also important.”

It remains to be seen whether this will have a tangible effect on the way governance is conducted and whether these new ministers will have any real influence on shaping policy…”

The inclusive tone was markedly different compared to some of his recent statements, which he has used to lash out at the international community over increasing pressure to resolve the conflict in Tigray and to denounce what he has called “the wicked desire to challenge our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Ethiopia’s ‘new beginning’

The June election was a key part of Abiy’s reform agenda and his office has billed the formation of the government this month as a ‘new beginning’ for Ethiopia. The previous regime – headed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – dominated politics and stamped on opposition parties.

However, the election was marred by the imprisonment of several opposition figures, especially in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most populous state, and by the fact that no voting took place in Tigray, home to 38 of the country’s 547 constituencies.

One of Abiy’s most striking cabinet appointments was that of Abraham Belay to the ministry of defence. An ethnic Tigrayan, Abraham was previously the head of the interim administration appointed by Abiy to govern Tigray until rebels there retook much of the region in June.

It is not clear whether Abraham’s appointment will have much effect on the war, which has spread to Ethiopia’s Afar and Amhara regions. Most operational decisions are made by the chief of staff, the national security adviser and prime minister’s office, but his appointment carries strong symbolic connotations.

Abiy also brought in the veteran opposition leader Berhanu Nega as education minister and appointed Belete Molla, chairman of the ethno-nationalist National Movement of Amhara party, as minister of innovation and technology.

Both have been vocal in their support for the war in Tigray. Berhanu, in particular, is seen as close to Abiy with regards to several key issues, sharing his vision of a unitary Ethiopia not governed along ethno-linguistic lines, while Abiy has come to rely on Amhara politicians such as Belete to shore up his support, as his popularity wanes among Oromos – his own ethnic group.

Elsewhere, Kejella Merdassa, from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), was made minister of culture and sports. He belongs to a faction of the OLF that has split from the main party led by Dawud Ibssa, which boycotted the June election over the detention of several of its leaders.

Bringing these people in seems like a worthwhile exercise, but when you scratch the surface and look at three individuals, you see people who are allies of the prime minister and likely to be compliant.

Ahmed Soliman, an analyst at London-based think tank Chatham House, says the appointment of opposition figures in Ethiopia’s government is “significant” since, on paper, it represents a partial shift away from the one-party domination of Ethiopia’s recent past, even if the impact may be limited.

“It remains to be seen whether this will have a tangible effect on the way governance is conducted and whether these new ministers will have any real influence on shaping policy, but the fact that there is some change within the new government in itself is interesting.”

Means to consolidate control?

However, others believe their appointments represent an attempt by Abiy to consolidate his control, rather than bringing alternative voices that might oppose parts of his agenda.

“Bringing these people in seems like a worthwhile exercise, but when you scratch the surface and look at three individuals, you see people who are allies of the prime minister and likely to be compliant,” says Cameron Hudson of the Atlantic Council.

Indeed, the appointment of the new cabinet coincided with an administrative shakeup, which means 20 key institutions now directly answer to the prime minister’s Office. They include intelligence and security, which were previously under the ministry of peace, and important financial institutions including the National Bank of Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Capital Market Authority and Ethiopian Investment Commission.

Having brought these financial bodies into his office’s direct orbit, and having kept Ahmed Shide as finance minister, it is likely that Abiy will forge ahead to liberalise Ethiopia’s economy despite record high inflation, the waning enthusiasm of foreign investors and the threat of sanctions over the war in Tigray. Whether his government can usher in its ‘new beginning’ remains to be seen.

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