Ethiopia’s first Oromo head of state could calm peren­nial protests

The East African - - FRONT PAGE - By A SPE­CIAL COR­RE­SPON­DENT The Washington Post Ad­di­tional re­port­ing by An­d­ualem Sisay

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.

Ap­point­ment wel­comed

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

Pic­ture: AFP

Oromo law­maker Abiy Aahmed was cho­sen last week to lead Ethiopia’s gov­ern­ing coali­tion.

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