SEATTLE — Ethiopia’s new prime minister has been in power for less than five months, but he has already made history. Abiy Ahmed was sworn in by Parliament on April 2, 2018. He quickly got to work in order to deliver on one of his biggest promises: peace with neighboring Eritrea.
End of Ethiopia-Eritrea Hostilities a Promising Sign for the Region
The relationship between the two countries has been tense and often bloody. Three decades of guerrilla warfare ended with Eritrea’s independence in 1993, but war broke out again five years later over a border dispute. Over the next two years, more than 80,000 lives were lost. The Algiers peace agreement was signed by both countries in 2000 but was not implemented. With communications and transportation across the border severed, communities and families were torn apart.
In Eritrea’s single-party “democracy”, Isaias Afwerki has been president since its independence. In the name of national security, military service was compulsory and interminable, causing youths to flee to neighboring countries. Allegedly for the same reason, Afwerki detained political opponents, activists and journalists. Ethiopia had similar repressive and security-oriented policies, spending significant resources and money on the military and surveillance. This rapid militarization forced thousands into exile.
So when Ethiopia’s new prime minister agreed to implement the 2000 Algiers Agreement, leading to a “joint declaration of peace and friendship”, celebrations broke out across the region. Flights and phone lines were opened, long-lost families reconnected, diplomatic relations were restored and onlookers hailed the “end of the 20-year African Cold War,” as Al Jazeera described it.
Eritreans hope that this newfound relationship will open the door to demilitarization, protections for human rights and freedoms and a true democracy. For Ethiopia, this process has already begun, as peace with Eritrea was just the start of Prime Minister Abiy’s radical agenda.
Months of Protests and Turmoil Led to Election of Ethiopia’s New Prime Minister
As the first modern Oromo head of state, Ethiopia’s new prime minister was elected by Parliament to satisfy anti-government protesters and ease political turmoil. The Oromo is the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, comprising more than 30 percent of the population. Yet this marginalized community has been systematically excluded from positions of power and were the victims of repressive security measures.
Starting in late 2015, protesters decried a city expansion plan that would displace farmers. But they soon demanded more comprehensive political and social rights. The next largest ethnic group, the Amhara, followed suit.
The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization and the Amhara National Democratic Movement are two of four ethnicity-based parties in the leading coalition. After the protests started, the Oromo and Amhara joined forces. They took on an opposition role in the coalition to challenge the dominant party, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front. Despite making up only 6 percent of the population, Tigrayans have a stronghold on political and economic power. They are criticized for abusing their key positions in the government, finance and security to quell opposition.
The anti-government protesters had often been met with detainment and lethal force, but persisted in their protests. On February 15, the former Ethiopian prime minister abruptly resigned to bolster democracy. Soon afterwards, a state of emergency was declared, which served as justification for the government’s continued use of violence and brute force against protesters.
When this failed, the governing coalition decided to appease protesters. They chose an outspoken Oromo lawmaker to become the new coalition chairman and prime minister. On June 5, the same day he announced compliance with the Eritrean peace deal, Ahmed successfully lifted the six-month state of emergency. He also announced his plan to privatize Ethiopia’s economy.
Ahmed Looks to Expand Economic Growth and Rights for All Citizens
This proposed reform will privatize sectors now operated by the government, including aviation, energy, telecommunications and manufacturing. This shift in ideology will significantly increase foreign and domestic investment.
However, the government will preserve the interventionist model of development that has contributed to Ethiopia’s consistently strong economic growth over the last decade. As an economic participant, the government can ensure investment in socially beneficial industries, such as infrastructure.
Other successes in Ahmed’s five-month rule include releasing thousands of political detainees and initiating discussions with the public and the political opposition about their grievances. He also is beginning much-needed reforms in the security and justice institutions, both of which were largely responsible for human rights violations.
As such, Ahmed has already addressed several of the largest concerns for the marginalized Ethiopian protesters: the protection of human rights, the release of political prisoners and institutional reforms leading to increased political inclusion and freedoms.
In an impressively short timeframe, Ethiopia’s new prime minister has stopped the strikes and violent uprisings. He has brought home exiles and freed prisoners. And has put forward political and economic reforms to keep Ethiopia on the path of development.
Ahmed’s strategy emphasizes Ethiopian unity rather than ethnic divisions. The only option is “to trust one another, heal our wounds together and work together to develop our country,” Ahmed was quoted as saying by the BBC.
His leadership also helps bring stability to East Africa. Normalizing relations with Eritrea will reduce the amount of violence and fleeing refugees. The steps he is taking to strengthen Ethiopia’s democracy and civil societies provide an example for neighboring countries.
His work is far from over. Prime Minister Ahmed must balance the political power of the few with the demands of the many. But his first few months in office have already inspired hope throughout the country.
– Liesl Hostetter