The Guardian Weekly
Abiy gives Ethiopia new hope
Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, has accelerated a radical reform programme in the vast, strategically significant country. The 42-year-old – who took power in April following the surprise resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn – has so far reshuffled his cabinet and fired a series of controversial and hitherto untouchable civil servants.
He has also reached out to hostile neighbours and rivals, lifted bans on websites and other media, freed thousands of political prisoners, ordered the partial privatisation of massive state-owned companies and ended a state of emergency.
In recent days, Abiy fired the head of the prison service after repeated allegations of torture, and removed three opposition groups from its lists of “terrorist” organisations.
Yesterday the former soldier met President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea in a bid to end one of Africa’s longest conflicts. The two men hugged in scenes unthinkable months ago.
“For Ethiopia, a country where everything has been done in a very prescriptive, slow and managed way, these changes are unprecedented,” said Ahmed Soliman, an expert in east African politics at London’s Chatham House. “His main task is to satisfy all expectations of all groups in a huge and diverse country. That’s impossible but he’s trying to.”
Despite a forecast by the International Monetary Fund predicting Ethiopia would be the fastest-growing economy in sub-Saharan Africa this year, even the officially sanctioned press has admitted the country’s serious difficulties. Ethiopia is facing a critical shortage of foreign currency, only temporarily solved by an infusion of cash from the United Arab Emirates. There is growing inequality, a shortage of jobs for a many graduates, significant environmental damage, ethnic tensions and a hunger for change.
Different interest groups have come together to constitute a powerful groundswell of discontent, with widespread ead anti-government protests led by y young people. At least 70% of people are under 30.
“The youth h [are] the active force behind ehind the country’s growth. wth. Now there must be a new w model to make Ethiopia progress gress economically y by creating more e job opportuniities for the youth while respecting po- litical and civil il rights,” said Befeqadu Hailu, a blogger who has been jailed repeatedly for pro-democracy writings.
Abiy has apologised for previous abuses and promised an end to the harassment. “I have always lived in fear but I feel less threatened when I write than I did before,” Hailu said. “It’s not only his word … the moment he spoke those words the security personnel down to the local levels have changed.”
But not all back Abiy’s efforts. Last month, a grenade was thrown at a rally organised to showcase support for the reforms in Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square. Two people died and more than 150 were injured.
“Love always wins. Killing others is a defeat. To those who tried to divide us, I want to tell you that you have not succeeded,” Abiy said in an address shortly after the attack.
Since Abiy took power, there have been “organised attempts to cause economic harm, create inflation[ary] flare-up and disrupt the s service delivery of public enterprises”, enterpr state media said. One cu culprit could be a hardline elem element within Ethiopia’s security services – Abiy has replace replaced military heads with civilian civilians and admitted past right rights abuses. Another could be a faction oppose opposed to the effort to t find peace with Eritrea.
‘He has to satisfy expectations of all groups in a huge, diverse country’