By Paul Schemm
ADDIS ABABA, Ethi¬o¬pia — Ethiopia’s ruling coalition has elected a new chairman and eventually prime minister from a vast protest-hit region, in a major shift in leadership that could also ease persistent unrest in one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
Ethiopia has been racked by violence for three years amid protests by members of the Oromo ethnic group, who maintain that they have been systematically excluded from power.
A decision late Tuesday to pick an Oromo lawmaker to lead Ethiopia’s governing coalition marked a potentially important step to ease the turmoil, which has twice forced authorities to declare a state of emergency and sparked a political crisis.
The tensions also have reverberated well beyond Ethiopia’s borders, threatening its status as an anchor of stability and foreign investment in East Africa and its role as a key U.S. ally in the region.
The council of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four ethnically based parties, voted for Abiy Ahmed, an outspoken Oromo member of parliament, to be its new chairman. That sets the stage for Abiy, who is in his early 40s, to be named a prime minister. A parliament vote confirming his installation is expected within days.
Abiy’s elevation comes after days of closed-door meetings and six weeks after Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly announced his resignation, saying it was to further democracy in the country. The resignation prompted the declaration of a nationwide state of emergency throughout the country.
Abiy, who has a Muslim father and a Christian mother, would be the country’s first Oromo head of state in modern times. Oromos make up a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million people, but they say they have been consistently excluded from having a voice in shaping the country
Abiy’s accession to the premiership is expected to calm the persistent protests and violence in the countryside.
“There was dancing last night in the town. People were dancing in the streets and congratulating each other,” said Andu Selam, an engineering student in the town of Mettu in the Oromia region. “People have hope now that things will be different — if someone else had been selected, [the demonstrations] would not have stopped.”
Abiy would be only the third prime minister since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, overthrew the communist regime in 1991, and his predecessor was seen largely as a placeholder dedicated to maintaining the policies of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s leader until his death in 2012.
Abiy, however, is expected to bring something very different.
“He was the candidate with the most radical reform agenda compared to the other three candidates,” said Hallelujah Lulie, a political analyst. “His biggest challenge will be the state of emergency, not from the perspective of the people, but he won’t be a fully mandated prime minister while the military and intelligence handle the major political and security situation.”
Abiy’s victory was clinched when his chief rival, Demeke Mekonnen of the Amhara National Democratic Movement, withdrew his candidacy and became the coalition’s, deputy chairman. The move suggested that the Oromos and the Amharas, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, have formed an alliance.
Abiy’s reform agenda, however, is likely to face opposition from the establishment. Among the biggest challenges will be addressing complaints against the security services, widely reviled by the Oromos for their role in suppressing dissent.
At the very least, his accession on the heels of the widespread turmoil means he will not be seen as a puppet the way Hailemariam was.
“Abiy came to the chairmanship and the premiership rebelling against the status quo,” Hallelujah said. “He is the result of a popular uprising that rocked Ethiopia for the past two years, that is the major difference between the two.”
Under pressure from the protests, which began in earnest at the end of 2015, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization began taking a more opposition-like role in the ruling coalition — especially after Abiy and colleague Lemma Megersa assumed leadership positions.
The unrest, which also spread to the northern Amhara region, and the growing divisions in the ruling coalition sparked a political crisis that first spurred the release of political prisoners, then the resignation of the prime minister and, finally, a new state of emergency.
There were also strikes in the Oromo towns around the capital that disrupted transportation services and, at one point, choked off fuel supplies.
A mistaken operation against alleged rebels then resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians in the border town of Moyale, sending a flood of refugees into Kenya. There have also been renewed detentions of activists and journalists, including some who had only just been released.
The expectation is that the unrest will die down with Abiy’s selection. He is no stranger to the establishment, however.
Abiy served as a lieutenant colonel in the armed forces and, in 2007, created the Information Network Security Agency, which has been criticized by activists for its surveillance activities both inside and outside the country. He was also briefly the minister for science and technology in 2015.
Influential blogger Daniel Berhane, who has been described as close to the previous government, said Abiy’s election was a bit strange.
“He doesn’t have the experience or the temperament,” the blogger said, noting Abiy’s limited time in top party circles. “Part of the thinking in many people’s minds is that if you elect an Oromo, there will be a few months’ peace in Oromia. But I doubt it.”
Ethiopia’s active — and often anti-government — diaspora lit up Twitter after the announcement, with both congratulations and pessimism about Abiy’s ability to reform the country. Many urged that the new leader is given a grace period.
In Mettu, deep in southwestern Ethiopia, however, the mood was euphoric, and there seemed little doubt that something new was afoot for the country.
“I am feeling very excited and energetic to do something for my country,” Andu said by phone. “It has totally changed everything. We are alive now. Before, we were dead.”
By Paul Schemm