The Abiy effect

By Nicholas Norbrook

Posted on Monday, 15 October 2018 11:55, updated on Tuesday, 2 November 2021 18:46
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed rides a wave of popularity by promising vast reforms. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, File)

Ethiopia is changing in the blink of an eye thanks to its new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. The Africa Report takes a look at the man and his impact on politics, economics and the wider East African region.

In a short few months, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has upended the canons of Ethiopian politics, diplomacy and business. He has closed a prison, opened the economy and ended a war. In his religious oratorical style and his pledges of unity and democracy, he recalls former US president Barack Obama. Through his youth and reforming zeal, he shares similarities with France’s President Emmanuel Macron.

It is hard to point to an African peer. “Difference is not a curse,” Abiy told parliament during his maiden speech in April of this year. “In argument, solutions will be found.” In a country where the government often put members of the political opposition in jail, this is a revolution. Over the past three years, thousands of political opponents were silenced; now Abiy has promised free and open competition in elections planned for 2020. He has a long way to get there, and he needs the cooperation of his peers in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

In the youngest continent, which suffers from having the oldest presidents, a 42-year-old leader is a strong signal. But it is one thing to talk about Africa’s ‘youth bulge’ in the abstract; it is another to actually govern millions of young people. Ethiopia’s youth want to see the new government create jobs, support innovation and foster debate – not just in the capital, Addis Ababa.

Abiy has a chance to tweak the model that took Ethiopia from the famine-hit 1990s to its present-day strength. If he can marry the state-backed development that has delivered high growth to an open and vibrant private sector, he might just create a blueprint for other African countries: one that goes beyond the dead-end of authoritarianism and which offers genuine opportunities for shared growth.

But while there is much to be said for the soft power of example, Abiy is also at the centre of a tectonic shift in hard power in the Horn of Africa and the wider region. Ethiopia holds a key position in East Africa’s 21st-century power dynamics, as competing Gulf powers try to yoke neighbouring Eritrea into proxy wars in Yemen, and China and the US are quietly measuring each other up in Djibouti.

With adept diplomacy, Abiy has defused conflicts with neighbours. For the first time in 20 years, an Ethiopian ship docked at an Eritrean port and regular flights between the two countries have started, all of which was unthinkable a few months ago.

Healing a nation

This fresh dynamic has helped Eritrea solve its own conflict with Djibouti. Even the South Sudan peace process has received a lift. Cairo and Khartoum are on board, for now. Suddenly, the possibilities of a genuinely integrated Afro-Gulf region seem alive.

It is at home in Ethiopia, however, that the real possibilities lie. First, in avoiding the politics of fracture that had experts worrying about a Yugoslavia-style scenario. In asking forgiveness of the families of individuals who were broken by state security forces, Abiy is starting to push the kind of healing seen in South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And second, in restructuring the economy. It can be hard to fathom how the country has become a juggernaut. In 2017, Ethiopia overtook Kenya as East Africa’s largest economy. Ethiopia’s trajectory takes the breath away. It grew tenfold in less than 15 years, from a gross domestic product of $8bn in 2003 to $80bn in 2015. By 2020, it should be a $100bn economy, with more than 100 million people.

But Ethiopia’s old model is running out of steam. The opening up of its relatively protected economy could provide the investment needed to reboot it. In so doing, this could reshape the business dynamics of the region for the next decade.

There are potholes to be negotiated: disgruntled elements from the old order, Emirati impetuousness and the rekindling of ethno-nationalist differences, for example. But there is also a chance for real change in Addis Ababa, in the country’s restive Somali region, and beyond Ethiopia’s borders.

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