2019 African Person of the year

Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed — in the spotlight and fighting fires

By Peter Fabricius 19 December 2019

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali with his Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 during the award ceremony in Oslo, Norway, 10 December 2019. (Photo: Hakon Mosvold Larsen / EPA)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has won the highest accolades for dramatically fostering peace and democracy at home and abroad. But Ethiopia could become another Yugoslavia if he does not manage the increasingly violent ethno-nationalism which his reforms have uncorked.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is once again Daily Maverick’s African Newsmaker of the Year in 2019 as he was in 2018, because he continued to be the dominant figure on the continent, through his dramatic efforts at forging peace, democracy and political freedom at home and abroad. His winning of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 both confirmed his predominance as the towering African personality of the year and of course added to the considerable news he had already generated over the past 12 months.

Not least because he declined to take any questions from the media at the award ceremony in Oslo last week, as peace prize winners are supposed to, prompting a rare rebuke from the Norwegian Nobel Committee. More news! But not a good sign.

Receiving the prize, Abiy said:

For me, nurturing peace is like planting and growing trees. Just like trees need water and good soil to grow, peace requires unwavering commitment, infinite patience, and goodwill to cultivate and harvest its dividends.”

Wise words because his peace reforms are proving very difficult, perhaps far more so than he expected, so success will indeed demand commitment, infinite patience and goodwill. And even then will remain far from certain.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee gave Abiy the prize “for his efforts to achieve peace and international co-operation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea” — which had been raging for two decades.

It praised him for his initiative to end the long “no peace, no war” stalemate between the two countries and in particular for his unconditional willingness to accept the arbitration ruling of an international boundary commission in 2002 which awarded to Eritrea the disputed Badme area over which the two countries had gone to war.

Meanwhile, at home Abiy had spent his first 100 days as Prime Minister lifting the country’s state of emergency, granting amnesty to thousands of political prisoners, discontinuing media censorship, legalising outlawed opposition groups, dismissing military and civilian leaders who were suspected of corruption, and significantly increasing the influence of women in Ethiopian political and community life. He has also pledged to strengthen democracy by holding free and fair elections.

Elsewhere in the region, he was cited for contributing actively to the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Eritrea and Djibouti after many years of political hostility, mediating between Kenya and Somalia in their protracted conflict over rights to a disputed marine area and also mediating between the military regime and the opposition in Sudan, playing a key role in persuading them to agree to a new constitution intended to secure a peaceful transition to civil rule in the country.

Beyond the Nobel citation, Abiy is also trying to resolve the potentially very dangerous disagreement between Ethiopia and Egypt and Sudan over Ethiopia’s construction of the huge Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, which Egypt particularly fears will dry up part of its only source of water.

The Nobel Committee noted that although Abiy has sought to promote reconciliation, solidarity and social justice, old ethnic rivalries had flared up and continued to escalate while as many as three million Ethiopians could have been internally displaced by these tensions.

Many challenges remain unresolved… No doubt some people will think this year’s prize is being awarded too early. The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement.”

The committee’s caveats are appropriate because Abiy’s reforms have not been prospering lately. The rapprochement with Eritrea which the citizens of both countries celebrated so euphorically in 2018 when the borders were thrown open, has stalled. Eritrea’s hardline, reclusive leader Isaias Afwerki later closed all the border posts again, apparently because of disagreements with Ethiopia on trade customs and the non-return of Eritrean exiles. Ethiopia has barely begun withdrawing as agreed from Badme, though this could be blamed on the need to negotiate with affected communities.

By lifting the lid which the authoritarian Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government which he inherited had clamped so firmly on the country’s politics, Abiy also released long-repressed toxic forces of ethnic regional nationalism and political rivalry. These centrifugal forces are threatening to tear Africa’s second-most populous nation apart, creating doubt that the 43-year-old Abiy has the political skill, experience and courage to hold the centre.

Abiy Ahmed Ali was born in the small village of Beshasha — meaning open-handed or kind — in Oromia regional state in 1976, to a Muslim father and an Orthodox Christian mother. He followed the Christian path and is now a devout member of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church. As a teenager, he joined the fight to topple the brutal Marxist dictatorship of Hailemariam Mengistu in 1991. He later joined the regular army, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and working mainly in intelligence and communications. He served in the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Rwanda immediately after the 1994 genocide.

During the 1998 to 2000 war with Eritrea, he led an intelligence team on the border, tasked with discovering Eritrean army positions. He received a bachelor’s degree in computer science while in the army and other qualifications, including a PhD from Addis Ababa’s Institute for Peace and Security Studies.

He met his wife Zinash Tayachew, a fellow officer, in the army. They have three daughters and an adopted son.

He entered politics in 2010 when he was elected to the federal Parliament for the Oromo Democratic Party, Oromia’s ruling party and a member of the national EPRDF coalition government. Abiy became Prime Minister in 2018 amid a crisis in Ethiopia, which was arguably partly of his own making. Ethnic tensions are never far below the surface in his country but they erupted in deadly protests in 2014 by the Oromo people, the country’s largest ethnic group, against the national government’s plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa into surrounding Oromia territory.

Abiy directed some of those protests which later spread to other regions, including Amhara, homeland of the second-largest group.

On 15 February 2018, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn — who had taken over when the ruling EPRDF’s first leader Meles Zenawi died in 2012 — resigned, unable to handle the crisis. The EPRDF was also divided about whether to suppress the protests or reform. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation, a member of the EPRDF coalition, filled the leadership vacuum. With the powerful backing of the Amhara National Democratic Movement, it mustered enough support to get its candidate Abiy elected as premier.

Abiy moved swiftly and decisively to reform, making peace with Eritrea, improving relations with other neighbours and with influential Gulf states, such as  Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which had been fraught, as the International Crisis Group has noted.

At home, he retired or arrested politicians and security officers responsible for past repression and corruption, while also greatly opening Ethiopia’s political space, as the Nobel Peace Prize citation explained.  He also began to liberalise the state-dominated economy, mainly to reduce the massive national debt.  

The results of Abiy’s shock treatment have been mixed.

The political liberalisation which has been underway in Ethiopia since Abiy took over in April 2018 gave hope to many that the country was moving towards a significantly better future than its autocratic past,” Semir Yusuf, senior researcher for the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) wrote in a monograph, “Drivers of Ethnic Conflict in Contemporary Ethiopia”, published in November 2019.

The change came at a cost, however. As the EPRDF’s tight 27-year grip over the state slackened, the institutionally induced long-simmering conflicts re-surfaced, raging across the country, and with a magnitude rarely witnessed since the establishment of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia in 1995.”

The long-suppressed ethno-nationalism which Abiy also liberated, perhaps inevitably, has led to hundreds of deaths, countless injuries and displaced at least a million Ethiopians internally, analysts estimate. The ethnic fault lines which have widened over the past 20 months are too numerous to list here.

But probably the unhappiest ethnic group are the Tigray who feel especially marginalised because they enjoyed such dominance in the EPRDF government for 27 years until Abiy’s succession. To make matters worse, Abiy has sharply criticised, demoted and even arrested prominent officials of the old regime, most, inevitably, Tigrayans.

The next most resentful group are probably the Amhara, who historically ruled Ethiopia until the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 by Mengistu. He exacted revenge against the old order, mostly Amhara. Then when he was toppled by the EPRDF, the Amhara again felt sidelined, this time by the new dominant group, the Tigrayans.

Though originally allied with Abiy and the Omoro, to counter Tigrayan dominance, Amhara nationalism and resentment have steadily grown since then, fuelled by territorial disputes and fears of once again being underlings, this time to the Omoro.

Amhara anger erupted violently in June 2019 when the head of the Amhara regional state’s security branch Brigadier-General Asaminew Tsige, an increasingly powerful, fiery and militant nationalist, launched a coup attempt against the regional government, led by an Abiy ally and EPRDF member party, in which the regional President Ambachew Mekonnen was killed in the regional capital Bahir Dar. In an apparently related incident, the head of the national defence force General Se’are Mekonnen and an aide were assassinated in Addis Ababa. Tsige was shot a few days later while on the run.

Violent clashes have also erupted between Amhara and Omoro living in enclaves in each other’s regional states. Amhara have also clashed with the Qemant people living within Amhara state and their demand for official recognition as a distinct national group. The confrontation between Qemant activists and Amhara regional security forces left hundreds dead and the destruction of much property before Ethiopia’s national defence force intervened.

Yusuf notes that the historic rivalry between the Amhara and their Tigray neighbours has flared, fuelled by territorial disputes — especially over two territories that the Amhara claim Tigray annexed in the early 1990s — mutual militarisation and Amhara suspicions that the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (the Tigray representative party in the federal EPRDF government) is surreptitiously supporting Qemant militancy.

And to the west, both Oromo and Amhara have clashed with the Gumuz ethnic group in the Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State, mainly over disputed land and complaints by ethnic Oromo and Amhara that they are not adequately represented politically in the state.

Again Yusuf notes Abiy’s liberal reforms have aggravated older tensions by increasing Gumuz ethnic mobilisation and the Oromo’s sense of empowerment. These two forces collided in 2018, massively displacing Amhara and Oromo farmers from their homes and leaving many dead. Amhara youth then retaliated against Gumuz people inside Amhara state. Further south in Oromia, the small Gedeo and Guji ethnic groups have also clashed, mainly over land.

Ethnic tensions have also flared within the Oromo, Abiy’s own group. In October 2019 major clashes erupted after Jawar Mohammed, a prominent Oromo activist and media owner, accused the government of planning to assassinate him. This sparked large street demonstrations by his supporters to defend him. Other groups rallied in response and violent clashes ensued. Security forces shot dead 10 protesters, while five of their ranks also died. This incident brought to a head the tensions arising from the belief of Jawar Mohammed and many other Oromo that Abiy is being too even-handed as prime minister and not doing enough to advance Oromo interests.

Ethnic nationalism has also been stirring, though less violently, in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples region which combines several ethnic groups. In November 2019 98.5% of ethnic Sidama voted in a referendum in favour of creating a new federal state of their own.

Yusuf, like other analysts, believes the state’s response to the intensifying ethnic violence has been inadequate. He praises Abiy and the regional states for pursuing softer measures such as frequent calls for reconciliation and national harmony and convening conferences to try to curb the ethnic violence.

But when it becomes necessary to deploy hard force to stop violence, the federal government has often been paralysed by the same ethnic tensions it is supposed to be arresting. Members of the federal coalition are often reluctant to endorse security force action against fellow members of their group in the regions. The security forces are also often afraid to act decisively for fear of being accused of reverting to the brutality of the past. The result, also reported by Addis Ababa-based diplomats, is often that the police have become mere bystanders to violence.

Yusuf says the TPLF especially “is frequently accused of waging proxy wars across the country” stoking conflicts by other groups or factions against the Omoro and Amhara and their leaders in the central government.

Yusuf also describes a breakdown of government in some of the regional states as a result of the protests, with state governance often being replaced by the protesters or just mob rule, and government officials frequently siding with the mobs.

He also observes that regional governments have increasingly flexed their muscles, flouting the authority of the federal government, including ignoring orders to apprehend suspects, especially in Tigray.

Both the Tigray and Amhara regional security forces have become dangerously autonomous. For example, the Amhara security chief Asaminew, killed after his coup attempt, had quite independently built up a formidable force of his own militias outside formal state control.

By contrast, the confusion at the top about how to respond to protests has led to some security officers being accused of taking excessive action, especially against Oromo protesters who have charged them with perpetrating atrocities in Wollega.

Yusuf concludes:

Ethnic mobilisation has reached unprecedented levels, with all sides mutually antagonistic and on a more or less open playing field. This is bound to lead to major violent conflicts. That is what is happening in Ethiopia.”

In an apparent attempt to transcend this ethno-nationalism, Abiy recently announced plans to restructure the EPRDF, dissolving its four discrete regional constituent parties and merging them and five other parties that rule Ethiopia’s other regions, into one homogenous party, the Prosperity Party.

Though the ruling Amhara, Oromo and Southern Nations parties agreed to join the new party, the ever-wary TPLF did not, fearing Abiy was manoeuvring to end Ethiopia’s longstanding ethnic federalism and diminish Tigray influence even more.

In its report this week, “Keeping Ethiopia’s Transition on the Rails”, the International Crisis Group (ICG) warns that the ethno-nationalism that has surfaced over the past 20 months could boil over during national elections expected in May 2020.

It has urged Abiy to mediate talks among Tigray, Amhara and Oromo leaders to mend their relations and ease ethnic tensions. He should also make conciliatory gestures towards the Tigray, even dropping prosecutions of former officials in favour of broader transitional justice. And the ICG proposes that Abiy should tread carefully with his EPRDF reform plans, consulting as widely as possible with other ethnic groups to mitigate fears that his plans herald the end of ethnic federalism.

Abiy should also consult widely with key ruling and opposition parties and influential civil society leaders to agree on measures to try to avoid bloodshed during the elections. If necessary, he should seek support for a postponement and a national dialogue aiming to resolve disputes over past abuses, power-sharing, regional autonomy and territorial claims before going to the polls.

Several other analysts and African diplomats have also advised that it is high time for Abiy to pause and consolidate his reforms, by consulting to win support much more widely across all sectors of Ethiopia’s polity and society before moving forward.

The danger he otherwise faces, as the ICG warns, is that the growing centrifugal ethno-nationalist forces could disintegrate the state entirely, like Yugoslavia in the 1990s. DM

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