Abiy’s Heat Level: The Ethiopian Prime Minister’s cold outlook towards a political transition

  • + Ethnic conflicts are hindering Abiy’s democratic reforms.  
  • + Tensions within his party and Ethiopia’s neighbours are obstacles.
  • + Abiy should resolve these breaches before the upcoming elections.

Why is Abiy’s heat level cold? 

Answer: After being received with enthusiasm by the Ethiopian population, Abiy Ahmed is facing a transition on many fronts.

Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia has won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his key role in ending a long war between Ethiopia and Eritrea that claimed more than 70,000 lives. Abiy has pushed for major reforms in Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous country, including the end of the state of emergency imposed by his predecessor, providing amnesty for thousands of political prisoners, the legalization of opposition parties, and a commitment to hold elections. Moreover, his policies towards gender equality have also been evident in his cabinet which comprises 50% women ministers. He has also gained support from the international community for his privatization policy.

At 43, he is probably the most educated political leader in the country, and on his resume, he has a doctorate, military experience, and the creation of the Information Network Security Agency (INSA), the Ethiopian spy service. The Ethiopian Prime Minister was born in Agaro, in the Oromia region (southwest), where the country’s largest ethnic group lives, the Oromos. He grew up in a multicultural family with an Amara mother of Orthodox Christian religion background – the country’s second-largest ethnic group – and a Muslim Oromo father.

It was due to these Mestizo roots, together with his youth and the charisma of a leader who has garnered international support, that the population put faith in him to lead the country towards the desired national unity after years of constant protests by Oromos and Amharas. Abiy’s rise to leadership ended decades of rule by multi-ethnic coalitions, dominated by leaders of the Tigray ethnic minority. Until then, the Oromo had traditionally complained of political and economic marginalization. 

However, the reason for his ‘cold’ temperature is that Abiy wants to carry out a series of reforms with ambitious openness in the country but is faced with many fronts of conflict.  The Prime Minister has also met with criticism. On one hand, he has been criticized for not solving some grassroots problems, such as the lack of federalism and ethnic tensions that have caused waves of violence, making Ethiopia the country with the highest number of new displacements globally. On the other hand, Abiy has had to face water conflicts over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam with Egypt. 

Who is changing Abiy’s temperature?

Answer: Ethnic conflicts together with disagreements within his own party and a dispute over the Nile river with his neighbours.

When his term began, Abiy opted for the creation of a unitary party that brings together the formations that make up the ruling coalition.  Founded on December 1st, 2019, the new Prosperity Party was presented as a fusion of the ethnic matrix parties that make up the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This was done to somehow create a transformation without a revolution, to open the country towards a transition, and to end the ethnic-based federalism, yet using the existing party. The council of the EPRDF, the coalition that has governed the country for more than three decades, approved the creation of the new Prosperity Party.

However, Abiy has run into some unforeseen obstacles. The decision to create the unifying party was endorsed by almost all representatives except representatives of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which led the coalition until the arrival of Abiy. The TPLF does not want to join this new coalition in fear of losing power; this would later create instability within the party. In addition to this, one of the main objectives of Abiy’s  Prosperity Party was to hold elections in 2020. 

Here, another reason for a conflict is the proposal to postpone the elections, first from May to August, alleging that there was no time to complete the electoral roll as the country is very widely dispersed and in need for efficiency.  Later on, the electoral commission postponed the elections due to the COVID-19 outbreak, which already left the country with more than 2,150 cases and 27 deaths in early July.

This was not received well by the representatives of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front; they opposed the postponement of the elections and criticised Abiy for using the outbreak as a tactic to buy time to reinforce public opinion. Members of parliament are now analyzing the legality of Abiy Ahmed’s mandate beyond October 10, the expiration date for his mandate. 

On the other hand, one of the major issues that the Ethiopian Prime Minister is facing is the Oromo uprising due to the death of a singer-activist. Hachalu Hundessa was shot dead on June 29th in Addis Ababa.  His death immediately unfolded demonstrations; since June 30th, at least 239 people, including nine soldiers, have died in violent protests that erupted in Ethiopia following the murder. The fact that Hundessa was an Oromo (the country’s major ethnic group) has further heightened the situation.

His supporters have accused the security forces of his death and stated that there is a political motive behind the crime. It has led to the arrest of more than 3,500 people and the suspension of internet service for nine days. Abiy has faced strong criticism for his way of handling the problem. Institutions such as the UN have called for an end to the ethnic violence and have asked the authorities to restore internet service and hence, freedom of speech.

In addition, Abiy is also involved in an international conflict with his neighbour, Egypt over the water of the Nile river. These two African powers have spent years fighting over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which the Ethiopian government began to construct in 2011 with the objective of providing water resources up to the Horn of Africa and export electricity to boost Ethiopia’s development. The last attempted dialogue to resolve the dispute was the negotiation carried out in January and February of this year in Washington, under the auspices of the United States and the World Bank.

US mediation has not yet served to resolve the conflict and may have even led to a widening of the gap. The management of the Nile River threatens to unleash a regional conflict. Abiy has tried to bend the Sudanese Abdel Fattah’s will, whose position is more volatile since the country could benefit not only from electricity supply but also through the regulation of river floods. However, the Egyptian Abdel Fattah’s position is much more intransigent as the country’s dependence on the Nile River is making it another challenge for Abiy.   

What is driving Abiy?

Which elements were driving Abiy ?

Answer: To advance and deepen the democratization of the country,  together with a consolidation of economic growth. 

These are very difficult times for Abiy Ahmed because he is leading a country that has been dragging very authoritarian regimes. It was in 1995 when the first legislative elections were held in Ethiopia to consolidate the democratic process, after 70 years of instability. However, the former Meles government appeared more democratic than it actually was, with supposedly free elections and seemingly liberal economic policies, but it was a regime with many flaws in civil rights and political freedom. When Meles died, the party chose Hailemariam Desalegn.

In his messages, Desalegn also spoke about the need for democratic opening but at the same time, he declared himself a continuator of Zenawi’s regime. Due to the previous lack of democracy, Abiy’s energetic program has been received well with the population and the international community as well. However, positivity is null within those sectors of the regime itself which are reluctant to loosen the authoritarian side of the regime.  

Moreover, in the economic field, the leader has launched his Economic Homegrowing Agenda and it mainly focuses on the opening of state companies to attract investments through foreign capital. The program along with the economic gains through the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could contribute to high economic growth that could turn Ethiopia into an average income country by 2024.

It is important to note that Abiy’s economy relays a lot on foreign investment and the state of the economy right now has changed towards a recession, like many countries in the world due to the pandemic. Yet, one thing is true: the elections are nearing and he would need public opinion in his favour. For this to happen, Abiy now needs to resolve all these issues before the elections.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: The existence of obstacles might delay the advancement towards a strong democracy.

The situation that Abiy is going through translates into an increase in instability for the population and, as was have seen recently, a restriction, even if temporary, of some of the rights such as free speech that had been achieved over the past few years. The measures that the government can take to curb the revolts may be within the framework of the anti-terrorism law approved in Meles’ time and which served, in practice, to keep the most active opposition under control.

On the other hand, the fact that Abiy might have to use extreme measures to stop such a crisis can translate into a new disappointment for the citizens who had received him with great hopes for change because of his openness towards democratization and economic improvement of the country. That frustration could leave Abiy without popular support, which could be used as an advantage by the most regressive and anti-reform segments and parties to curb Abiy.

In his short term, Abiy has excelled as a skilled diplomat. However, ethnic tensions in Ethiopia and the fragility of Abiy’s democratic transition are still his main obstacles. Moreover, with a pandemic that has exacerbated the economic recession, each country is focused on self-rescue; these are bad times for a democratic transition. For this reason, it is very important that the prime minister gets substantial international support from key institutions such as the European Union.