THE NEW MAN IN ADDIS >
Ethiopia’s first Oromo head of state could calm perennial protests
Abiy Ahmed will be premier in a country wracked by many problems, including ethnic divisions
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has elected a new chairman and likely prime minister from a vast protest-hit region, in a major shift in leadership that could calm unrest in one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
Ethiopia has been wracked by violence for the past three years, amid protests by members of the Oromo, claiming they have been systematically excluded from power.
The decision this past Tuesday to pick Oromo lawmaker Abiy Ahmed to lead the governing coalition marked a potentially important step to ease political upheavals that have twice forced authorities to declare a state of emergency.
The council of the EPRDF, a coalition of four ethnically based parties — Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) — voted for Dr Abiy, an outspoken Oromo member of parliament, to be its new chairman, setting the stage for him to be named prime minister. At 41, he will be East Africa’s youngest leader.
Dr Abiy got 108 votes from the 180-member council, followed by Shiferaw Shigute of SEPDM and Debretision Gebremichael of TPLF, who got 58 and two votes, respectively.
The decision came after days of closed-door meetings and six weeks after Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly announced his resignation as prime minister, “to further democracy in the country”.
Mr Hailemariam’s resignation prompted the declaration of a new state of emergency around the country and especially in the restive Oromo region, which surrounds the capital. Oromos make up one-third of the population of 100 million.
Dr Abiy will be the country’s first Oromo head of state in modern times. He will be the third prime minister since the EPRDF overthrew the Communist regime in 1991. His predecessor was seen largely as a placeholder dedicated to maintaining the policies of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s leader who died in 2012.
Dr Abiy, however, is expected to bring something different.
“He was the candidate with the most radical reform agenda, compared with the other candidates,” said Hallelujah Lulie, a political analyst. “His biggest challenge will be the state of emergency, not from the perspective of the people. He won’t be a fully mandated prime minister while the military and intelligence handle the major political and security situations.”
Dr Abiy’s victory was clinched when his chief rival, Demeke Mekonnen of the Amhara party, withdrew his candidacy to become the deputy chairman. The move suggested the Oromos and the Amharas, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, have formed an alliance.
However, Dr Abiy’s reform agenda will likely face opposition from the establishment. Among the biggest challenges will be attempts to address complaints against security services, which are widely reviled by the Oromos for their role in suppressing dissent.
Opposition leaders welcomed Dr Abiy’s appointment.
“Dr Abiy’s election is a result of the struggle between the hardliners and the pro-change youth leadership within the EPRDF,” said Prof Birhanu Nega, leader of the Patriotsg7, a group labelled as terrorists by the government and currently in an armed struggle from its base in Eritrea.
“We will see if the EPRDF, led by the new prime minister, is really committed to change and widening the political space if he releases the thousands of prisoners across the country, ends the state of emergency, reforms the intelligence and the security apparatus,” Prof Birhanu told Voice of America’s Amharic service on Thursday evening.
His accession, coming on the heels of the widespread protest and political crisis, means he likely won’t be seen as a puppet like Mr Hailemariam.
“Abiy came to the chairmanship and the premiership rebelling against the status quo,” said Mr Hallelujah. “He is the result of a popular uprising that has rocked Ethiopia for the past two years. That is the major difference between the two.”
Under pressure from the protests that began in earnest at the end of 2015, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation began taking a more opposition-like role in the ruling coalition — especially after Dr Abiy and his colleague Lemma Megersa took on leadership positions. The unrest, which also spread to the northern Amhara region, together with the growing splits in the ruling coalition, prompted a political crisis that first saw the release of several political prisoners, then the resignation of the prime minister and another state of emergency.
There were also strikes in the Oromo towns around the capital that disrupted transportation services and at one point cut off fuel supplies. An operation against alleged rebels then resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians at the border town of Moyale sending a flood of refugees into Kenya. There have also been renewed detentions of activists and journalists, including some that had only just been released.
Dr Abiy is no stranger to the establishment. He served as a lieutenant-colonel in the armed forces, and in 2007 created the Information Network Security Agency, which has been criticised by activists for its surveillance activities inside and outside the country. He was also briefly the minister for Science and Technology in 2015.
Ethiopia’s very active — and often anti-government — diaspora took to Twitter following the announcement, with both congratulations and pessimism. Many commentators urged that the new leader be given a grace period.
In Mettu, deep in southwestern Ethiopia, the mood was euphoric and there seemed little doubt that something was afoot.
“I am very excited and energetic to do something for my country,” said Andu Selam, an engineering student.
But the fact that 60 council members voted for Mr Shiferaw and Mr Debretision, who are considered pro status quo, is an indicator of the challenges the new prime minister is facing in uniting the EPRDF towards the reforms that the party has been promising.
Some expect him to start negotiations with all political parties in the country and in exile, while others say he should open up the political space ahead of the May 2020 national elections.
Others want him to repeal the anti-terrorism and charities laws to encourage more local involvement in politics. Reforming of the electoral board, the intelligence and the military are also in his in-tray.
Some observers say that since the EPRDF considers itself a democratically elected party, it is unlikely to involve the opposition, civic organisations and other stakeholders in solving the current turmoil. Party hardliners oppose the call for a national reconciliation conference.
Yet other observers say the only change expected is calming down the current Oromo protest. They argue that the new prime minister is elected to advance the programme of the EPRDF. Unless he wins over the TPLF hardliners, he will be as weak as Mr Hailemariam.
The EPRDF says the current anti-government protests are the result of the country’s growth, unemployment and the emergence of a demanding generation.
“We are seeing the tendency by the government to make the current crisis only an economic affair,” said Lidetu Ayalew, a member of the opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party, who was accused of conspiring with the EPRDF during the controversial 2005 general election in which the opposition coalition — Coalition for Unity and Democracy — said they had won the election.
He was the candidate with the most radical reform agenda.” Political analyst Hallelujah Lulie
Oromo lawmaker Abiy Aahmed was chosen last week to lead Ethiopia’s governing coalition.