In 2018 the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, resigned as the country raged due to ethnic conflicts between the two major ethnic groups; the Amhara and the Oromo. Consequently, Abiy Ahmed was voted in by the country’s leading parliamentary coalition, the EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) to take the wheel as the Prime Minister. He was accepted with open arms and was seen as a breath of fresh air and as progressive and reformist hope for the developing country. With a doctorate from the Institute of Peace and Security Studies as well as a career in UN peacekeeping, Abiy has demonstrated his ability to act as a regional mediator in a large-scale conflict. Economically, Abiy’s history in fighting against the communist Derg Regime during his teenage years influences his preference for economic policies that promote a Neo-liberal outlook and privatization of some of the country’s state industries. Abiy is also heavily influenced by his Medemer ideology, as it can be observed in many of his domestic policies, which is a core tenant within his new administration and newly formed Prosperity Party. Abiy also won the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year and proved himself a force to be reckoned with in both African and international politics.
A Child of Mixed Races
Abiy Ahmed was born in Beshasha, the Omoria region in central Ethiopia, to a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara Mother. Growing up in a mixed family, Abiy Ahmed was taught the lessons of acceptance and diversity from a very young age. Growing up in a country where ethnicity-based politics can act as a catalyst for political and societal turmoil, Abiy has seen the relations sour between the two ethnic groups from which he comes from. Being from a mixed-race household, Abiy is heavily motivated to see his Ethiopian compatriots live together without being heavily divided into ethnic terms. His mixed-raced background is likely to also have heavily influenced Abiy’s Medemer ideology along with his willingness to accept an extremely diverse cabinet. The lessons Abiy learned during his upbringing would later influence much of the educational choices and professional roles Abiy would take in his future.
Abiy Ahmed developed his education as he studied at the Microlink Information Technology College in Addis Ababa where he received his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Engineering in 2001. He then moved towards a more politically based education, earning a Master’s degree in Transformational Leadership from the International Leadership Institute in Addis Ababa in 2011, and later went on to receive his second Master’s degree in the Leaderstar College of Management and Leadership in 2013 in Business Administration. Four years later, Abiy received his Doctorate at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa, and wrote his thesis on “Social Capital and its Role in Traditional Conflict Resolution in Ethiopia: The Case of Inter-Religious Conflict in Jimma Zone State”. Through this, Abiy had merged two of his degrees on politics and peaceful conflict resolution, which highly influenced Abiy’s ‘reformist’ ideology and reputation. Having written his thesis on ethnic conflict within the particular Jimma zone, Abiy was able to apply his fieldwork study to his career in the Oromia regional government and the Ethiopian Parliament. Overall, Abiy’s upbringing and education heavily tainted his efforts to consolidate the Ethiopian public, especially in terms of ethnic relations.
An example of his efforts was seen in 2019, when Abiy created the Reconciliation Commission, a committee that overlooks and promotes the harmonization of different ethnic groups and political factions to mitigate the potential dangers of historically driven violence. Abiy’s ethnic and religious background make him seem to Ethiopians as a catalyst to mitigate potential risks of violence in the country, and many expected him to be able to bridge the several divides between the number of ethnic groups in the country.
Abiy in the Military
Abiy joined the Ethiopian army in 1993, where he worked in an intelligence and communications position. He eventually rose to a Lieutenant Colonel, and later joined the United Nations Peacecorps in Rwanda following the Rwandan Genocide. During the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998-2000, Abiy worked as a communications officer in charge of pinpointing the locations of Eritrean Defense Forces. While serving in both the Army and the Peace Corps, Abiy was able to develop peacekeeping and leadership skills, which he also refined during his years at the Institute of Peace and Security Studies. It is these same skills that motivated him to become the leader he is today.
Another influencing event occured in 2006 in Abiy’s town of birth, Beshasha, as group of around 300 Muslims killed 6 Christians during a nighttime church service. This event sparked international reactions from Christian organizations, such as the International Christian Concern. Because of this, Abiy was sent back to his town of birth as an officer of the Ethiopian Defense Forces where he had to act as a crucial part of the healing of Beshasha. He was said to have taken a part in “[defusing] communal tensions following an incident between Muslims and Christians”. Two weeks after the massacre, the leader of the attack was arrested.
Abiy, having witnessed the aftermath of the Beshasha massacre and its effect on the religious divide in the country, was further motivated in his role as a Prime Minister to mitigate these problems and later coming to fruition in the creation of the Religious Forum of Peace. These achievements show the extent of his experience with religious reconciliation in a country with persistent ethnic and religious divides. Given that he was raised in the midst of the radical divisions in the country, Abiy Ahmed has emphasized throughout his rule a rhetoric of Ethiopian solidarity in the hopes to prevent situations like these from taking place again.
Abiy Ahmed was well known in the region of Oromia long before he took office in 2018. Before being elected by the EPRDF led Parliament, Abiy held several positions in the Oromia Regional State Government, home of the capital Addis Ababa. He held positions such as the Minister of Science and Technology, head of the Urban Development and Planning Office, and the Vice President of the region’s government. During his tenure as a member of the Oromo Democratic Party and serving under ex Oromia Region President Lemma Megersa in Team Lemma, Abiy was able to gain much political experience and accolades in the several other positions in which he served.
During his time in the Oromia Regional Government, he witnessed many economic problems that led to issues of youth unemployment, an obstacle he has had to deal with as unrest was stifling the region. Since coming into office, Abiy has repeatedly pledged to deal with this issue, as it stands as the untapped economic potential for the country’s next generation of workers. While working in the Urban Development and Planning Office, Abiy was said to be a force driving the Oromia Economic Revolution. This movement’s main goals were to transform the regional agrarian economy into a modern economy with more working and skill-building opportunities for the next generation of Oromo workers as well as emboldening the private sector. Many jobs for the region and private companies, such as Kegna Brewery, were born due to the Oromia Economic Revolution and the existence of the Private and Public Counsel. These improvements act as both inspiration and viable proof for the economic reforms under the Abiy government. Ultimately, Abiy has taken some of the issues he witnessed in the Oromia Regional Government and sought to address them on the national stage.
It is because of Abiy’s influence in the Oromia Regional Government that he was seen as the perfect fit to assume the role of PM in 2018. Abiy’s popularity among the Oromo population, mainly the supporters of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), was outstanding and necessary to win the election, since the Oromo are the most populous ethnic group in the country. However, he shared this popularity with Lemma Megersa, who was said to have been one of the most beloved politicians in the Oromia region. Due to their professional relationship, Abiy made Lemma his right-hand and selected him as the Minister of Defense once voted as PM. However, when Abiy introduced the Prosperity Party in 2019, Lemma became vocal against its creation, stating that “the merger of this party is wrong and even if it was right it’s not the time for it”. Lemma mostly disagreed with Abiy on the subject of Medemer and the shattering of ethnic divides, as he showed through his subscription to Oromo nationalistic rhetoric while being President of the Oromia region. Around a year after his nomination, in August 2020, Lemma was unexpectedly ousted from Abiy’s cabinet and the party along with 9 other members. This was seen by many to be a move that Abiy took to consolidate power within his cabinet and to minimize the potential threat of political dissent within the Prosperity Party. The strong popularity that Lemma Megersa has in the Oromia region would likely give Abiy a run for his money in the 2021 elections if the former regional president decides to continue being a loud voice in national or regional politics.