The end of Abiy’s honeymoon
The sight of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed doing push-ups with soldiers who had burst into the executive palace demanding money in early October may have provoked smiles. The reality – it later turned out – was less comfortable, with Abiy admitting that they wanted to kill him. It is a sign of this difficult moment in Ethiopia: full of optimism and sweeping reform; fraught with peril and the sense that things could so easily flip into chaos (see TAR 104, Oct. 2018). Abiy took power in April and rapidly launched plans to liberalise the economy and Ethiopia’s politics. But changing the status quo has created both winners and losers. While Abiy has repealed terror legislation and freed prisoners, there are new factors coming into play that may yet trigger Ethiopia’s old authoritarian reflexes. One of these is Eritreans piling into Ethiopia to enjoy the freedom they lack at home. Beyond the sheer numbers, a point of friction in the past has been Eritrean traders circumventing customs controls. Another is the manner in which other ethnic groups now feel free to pursue their own political agendas having seen what benefits the Oromo now enjoy, having thrown off the yoke of the previously dominant Tigrayans. Before Abiy there had never been an Oromo premier. Conflict has bubbled over in recent months – between the Gedeo and the Oromo in August, and between the Oromo and the residents of Addis Ababa in September. The government also has troubles in the restive Somali Region. Former governor Abdi Mohamed Omer, whom the government forced to resign and then arrested for mismanagement, tried to break free from prison in mid-october. A peace deal with the Ogaden National Liberation Front in late October was a sign that stability there could be improving. The government estimates that the past year’s upheavals have displaced some 2.2 million people. Aware of these tensions and others, Abiy reshuffled his cabinet in October, creating a new peace ministry to promote reconciliation – though analysts say the early outlines of the ministry suggest it will have too narrow a focus on security. Abiy selected former construction minister Aisha Mohammed as his new defence minister, Ethiopia’s first woman defence minister and a member of a cabinet that is now 50% female. Ethiopia is a fragile patchwork, and Abiy will have to ensure it does not fray, or the securocrats will be offering their own solutions.
Tension-buster: Abiy’s push-up challenge on TV