But as a leader trying to reform his country’s political, economic and security systems all at the same time, Abiy is not alone.
His fellow fast-track reformers – Cyril Ramaphosa in South Africa and João Lourenço in Angola – have another 20 years apiece of experience in frontline politics. But they too are dealing with the type of threats confronting Abiy as they try to crack down on vested interests, retrieve stolen funds and find ways to boost investment in education and health.
All three – Abiy, Ramaphosa and Lourenço – say that without determined reforms, their countries face a destabilising decline. But they are all making powerful enemies. When disgruntled soldiers marched into Abiy’s office in Addis Ababa on 11 October, their ostensible mission was to negotiate better pay.
A week later, Abiy told parliament that the soldiers had wanted to derail his reforms. And some had wanted to kill him. Abiy, a former lieutenant-colonel, had defused things by calling in television cameras and organising a strenuous session of push-ups. In the following days, Abiy announced a new cabinet, half of whom were women and many young technocrats. He then appointed the country’s first woman president, Sahle-Work Zewde, a renowned diplomat.
The next act of the saga – the arrest of Brigadier General Kinfe Dagnew near the Sudan border – was also relayed on Ethiopia’s state television. The arrest in November of Kinfe, ex-managing director of the military’s METEC company, along with several other senior officers and intelligence officials was a decisive consolidation of Abiy’s power.
Both Ramaphosa and Lourenço had to push through changes in police and security organisations before they could tackle the vested interests siphoning off state funds. Both had allies in the security system. By the time Lourenço won the presidential election in August 2017, some generals had accused outgoing leader José dos Santos of grand corruption. One suggested that his daughter Isabel should face trial. Lourenço’s record as defence minister came in useful.
Since January, Lourenço has appointed 62 admirals and generals and retired 58 of the old guard. Now he wants to halve the country’s military juggernaut, the 100,000-strong Forças Armadas Angolanas. Defence eats up gargantuan amount of money – 21% of state spending – dominated by a clique of securocrats and business oligarchs. That largesse compares poorly with 11.3% of state spending for education and 7.4% for health.
Ramaphosa faced a more diffuse security threat although he won the presidency of the African National Congress (ANC) at the party’s elective conference in December 2017. Jacob Zuma had planned to stay as state president until elections due in 2019. As a former chief of the ANC’s intelligence organisation, Zuma had seeded all the key state institutions – police, judiciary, revenue collection and parastatals – with security operatives as well as his political allies.
Ramaphosa, who helped negotiate the country’s liberal-democratic constitution, is struggling to purge those institutions. His first success came as pressure was mounting on Zuma to quit the presidency in February. A special investigations unit raided a sprawling Johannesburg mansion belonging to the Gupta family, Zuma’s favoured business associates, on St Valentine’s Day. It was a sign that Ramaphosa had amassed enough allies in the police and security services, as well as the national prosecution agency. Six hours later, Zuma resigned after a rambling interview with the state broadcaster.
Seizing control of the security services is necessary but not sufficient to launch fast-track reforms. Unlike Lourenço and Rampahosa, who succeeded unpopular leaders accused of corruption, Abiy took over from a leader, Hailemariam Desalegn, who had resigned having failed to persuade the securocrats of the necessity of radical reform.
Although Lourenço and Ramaphosa can claim to have popular mandates of a sort, Abiy’s power derives from winning 108 votes from the ruling party’s 170-member council. Days after he took over the premiership, Abiy went on the road addressing crowds and speaking to officials in the Somali, Oromo and Tigray regions. It took months of coalition-building in Ethiopia’s nine regions before Abiy made his most audacious move. That was his peace ouverture to Eritrea – in the face of opposition from the Tigrayan-dominated high command.
Following that up with a flight to Asmara to open direct negotiations with President Issayas Afewerki upped the risks but got results. Families were reunited, and communications and flights between the two states restarted, resulting in an economic uplift for both sides. Abiy has several more challenges – such as reforming the federal system and opening up the economy to private capital – before he organises elections in 2020, which he promises to be the country’s freest ever.
Lourenço’s strike rate is lower but significant. In both Angola and Ethiopia, the lack of institutions holding government to account means that progressive changes depend on centralised power, above all of the committed leader. If the chief rows back, the process stutters.
Lourenço prepared well for the ruling party’s congress, winkling out functionaries still loyal to the former president and his family. The party congress in September pushed out Dos Santos, who had wanted to stay as party leader for another year, and overhauled the political bureau. That has freed Lourenço to focus on the economic agenda: navigating out of the financial crisis with debt levels at over 70% of gross domestic product and inflation nudging 25% before long-delayed reforms of the oil, gas and agriculture sectors. Finding a way to retrieve an estimated $30bn held outside the country would help.
As South Africa has much stronger institutions and a more modern economy, Ramaphosa’s strategy is less centralised than Abiy’s or Lourenço’s. But it has been slower and more problematic. Popular sentiment hit peak-Ramaphoria in March. Then it undulated as Zuma allies showed their grip on the ANC machine. They reminded Ramaphosa that he may control the party at the centre but not in the provinces.
Ramaphosa’s friends now say they underestimated the extent to which corrupt business interests penetrated state institutions under Zuma. Ramaphosa’s response, reminiscent of the Rainbow Nation era under Nelson Mandela, is to set up commissions investigating state capture, tax collection and the Public Investment Corporation.
Before elections due next year Ramaphosa must deliver on demands for land reform, but perhaps trickiest of all, he has to reform the structure of the ANC, where his own support base is open to challenges.
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