Love, for­give­ness and ad­dic­tion

Had he been born a Zim­bab­wean, the 12th Prime Min­is­ter of Africa’s fastest-grow­ing econ­omy could eas­ily have been named “Up­ris­ing”. But Ahmed Ali and his wife, Tezeta Wolde, named their son Abiy – Amharic for “rev­o­lu­tion”


Abiyot Ahmed was born on 15 Au­gust 1976, four weeks shy of the sec­ond an­niver­sary of the end of the reign of Em­peror Haile Se­lassie and the ad­vent of the era of the Derg. This was the mil­i­tary junta that ran Ethiopia un­til June 1991.

True to his name, since com­ing to power on 2 April this year, he’s wasted no time ring­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary changes. How­ever, they won’t cul­mi­nate in blood­shed like the Red Ter­ror of 1977, dur­ing which Mengistu Haile Mariam’s gov­ern­ment is be­lieved to have butchered up to two mil­lion peo­ple.

On the con­trary. Ahmed’s do­ing every­thing by the book, lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively. With a PhD which he ac­quired last year, he’s ended Haile Mariam’s re­pres­sive mea­sures, lifted the emer­gency law, stopped the tor­ture of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers and loos­ened the noose on the me­dia – es­pe­cially so­cial me­dia and the In­ter­net. State TV chan­nel ETV is now pop­u­lar, as my con­tact in Ethiopia – a young busi­ness­woman – told me.

“Peo­ple used to watch pretty inane con­tent on Kana TV,” she said, “rang­ing from Turk­ish love sto­ries with Amharic sub­ti­tles to ac­tion movies. It drove me nuts!”

The coun­try’s new Prime Min­is­ter main­tains charisma and dig­nity in all cir­cum­stances, even

keep­ing his cool when some­one hurled a grenade at him while ad­dress­ing a rally in Ad­dis Ababa. “He con­tin­u­ally preaches the mes­sage of love and peace, urg­ing all of us to mede­mer [unite],” says my con­tact.

Ethiopia has never been fully colonised, even though – like ev­ery African coun­try that dared to re­sist dom­i­na­tion – it paid a heavy price. The af­ter­math of Se­lassie’s re­pul­sion of colo­nial­ism left the coun­try in tat­ters. Italy had frivolously con­jured up a colony out of what was an in­te­gral part of Ethiopia back in the

19th cen­tury.

The ul­ti­mate in­de­pen­dence of Eritrea in May

1990 left the two coun­tries in on­go­ing con­flict over the bor­der town of Badme, among oth­ers. This cut Ethiopia’s trade ac­cess to the Gulf of Aden.

Ahmed, how­ever, sud­denly agreed to hand Badme back to Eritrea, in com­pli­ance with the in­ter­na­tion­ally bro­kered Al­giers Peace Ac­cord of 2000, pri­ori­tis­ing re­gional sta­bil­ity over mi­nor and costly vic­to­ries.

Ahmed and his Eritrean coun­ter­part, Pres­i­dent Isa­ias Afw­erki, agreed to open em­bassies in each other’s cap­i­tals, re­sume flight ser­vices to these cities and, most im­por­tantly al­low Ethiopia to use Eritrea’s port fa­cil­i­ties.

“The peo­ple of our re­gion are joined in com­mon pur­pose,” de­clared Ahmed. He was re­fer­ring not only to Ethiopian-Eritrean re­la­tions, but to those be­tween Ethiopia and So­ma­lia as well. In June, Ahmed be­came the first Ethiopian leader to visit that coun­try in over four decades – and he suc­ceeded in bro­ker­ing a com­mit­ment to dis­solve bi­lat­eral trade bar­ri­ers to­wards a sin­gle mar­ket in the Horn of Africa.

He and So­ma­lian Pres­i­dent Mo­hammed Ab­dul­lahi Far­majo con­se­quently in­vested in four So­ma­lian ports to fur­ther open trade chan­nels to sea for Ethiopia. These ports, along with oth­ers in Eritrea and Dji­bouti, could yield manifold im­prove­ments in Ethiopia’s cost of im­ports and ex­ports over the next decade.

These mea­sures have re­sulted in the lat­est World Eco­nomic Out­look of the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary

The ar­rival of a young, UK- and USAe­d­u­cated for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer like Abiy Ahmed as Prime Min­is­ter of Ethiopia is bring­ing wel­come re­forms to his coun­try.

Fund record­ing Ethiopian growth of 8,5% in 2018.

To his credit, Ahmed has sus­tained the ini­tia­tives of his pre­de­ces­sors, Haile Mariam and Me­les Ze­nawi, but em­ployed greater fi­nesse in in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and hu­mil­ity on the home front. For ex­am­ple, Ze­nawi’s $4 bil­lion Grand Ethiopian Re­nais­sance Dam is near­ing com­ple­tion, which will make the coun­try a ma­jor ex­porter of hy­dro-elec­tric power. How­ever, Ah­met’s man­ag­ing re­la­tions with Su­dan and Egypt far bet­ter than Ze­nawi did.

He’s also talk­ing about pri­vati­sa­tion of, among oth­ers, Africa’s most suc­cess­ful state-owned air­line, Ethiopian Air­lines. And he’s urg­ing his peo­ple to work seven days a week, “in­stead of spend­ing so much time drink­ing cof­fee and chat­ting”.

Ahmed’s work has al­ready pro­duced in­creased for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment inflows, even be­fore com­plet­ing his first 100 days in of­fice. No­tably, the United Arab Emi­rates pumped in $3 bil­lion in aid and in­vest­ment, which is likely to trig­ger a del­uge of fur­ther com­mit­ments.

Teams, not in­di­vid­u­als, win cham­pi­onships. How­ever, Africa’s suf­fered gravely at the hands of poor, mainly older and cor­rupt lead­ers. The ar­rival of a younger, UK- and USA-ed­u­cated for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer in the per­son of Abiy Ahmed can’t be down­played.

And while he turns Ethiopia into a source of envy for the rest of the de­vel­op­ing world, at the age of just 41, the ul­ti­mate Derg dic­ta­tor – 81-year-old Haile Mariam – re­mains in ex­ile in Harare, Zim­babwe, amid con­tin­u­ing calls for his ex­tra­di­tion.

May the winds of change Ahmed’s brought to the coun­try con­tinue blow­ing strongly.

Vic­tor Kgo­moeswana is the au­thor of the book Africa is Open for Busi­ness (Pan Macmillan).

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