By Matina Stevis-Gridneff in Nairobi and Yohannes Anberbir in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Ethiopia’s ruling party chose a new prime minister, selecting a young politician from one of the country’s most marginalized ethnic groups in a bid for national reconciliation, in the world’s fastest-growing economy that has been threatened by domestic unrest.
After weeks of negotiations, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front—the power behind the country’s one-party authoritarian rule—late Tuesday picked Abiy Ahmed, a 42-year-old engineer to lead the party and the country.
Mr. Ahmed is relatively untested, having served just one year as a minister of Science and Technology under the outgoing prime minister. But he has represented in regional parliament the Oromos, an ethnic group that is Ethiopia’s largest, but most marginalized.
His selection ends a process that unnerved Ethiopia’s neighbors and investors, coming nearly two months after the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Mr. Desalegn’s departure presented the world’s fastest-growing economy with its first-ever leadership change that wasn’t precipitated by conflict or the demise of a leader.
Soon after Mr. Desalegn’s resignation, the EPRDF imposed a draconian state of emergency in an effort to stifle dissent as it decided on its own, and the country’s, future. Government security forces cracked down on freedoms of movement and free speech and arrested opposition figures.
Now, the choice of Mr. Ahmed could reassure those worried that Ethiopia—a pivotal country that is a major Western ally in terrorism and migration and has been the target of large-scale investment from China—would succumb to ethnic conflict.
The Oromo group, which represents up to 40% of the population, and other smaller ones have protested, sometimes violently, their exclusion from Ethiopia’s growing prosperity, and have seen their leaders incarcerated. Many hope Mr. Ahmed can now heal those rifts.
This delicate transition will determine whether the country, which just 30 years ago was a byword for famine and poverty, can continue its economic miracle.
Today Ethiopia is a regional leader in East Africa and the host of the African Union headquarters. It is Africa’s second-most populous nation after Nigeria with 100 million people, and was the world’s fastest-growing economy last year, expanding by 9.5%.
A top destination for foreign direct investment in Africa, Ethiopia has attracted keen interest from international businesses. It has posted an average 9% annual growth rate in recent years despite tight government control over its economy, drought, and outbursts of violent protest.
The state controls key industries like finance and retail, but private investors have been piling in other areas including health care and construction.
The challenge facing Mr. Ahmed lies in keeping Ethiopia on its path of rapid economic growth to lift millions out of poverty and create jobs for a burgeoning young population. The country, whose state-reported unemployment rate is around 17% but has many more jobless who aren’t counted in official statistics, has a median age of just 18.
A Rocky Half Century
Ethiopia, an ancient civilization, has seen tumult and disaster in recent history, marked with often violent changes in leadership.
The new premier must also affect political participation reforms that will quell the social and ethnic unrest that over the past two years has left hundreds dead and led to the destruction of businesses, some owned by foreign investors.
If it fails to reform, Ethiopia risks succumbing to the kind of instability that plagues some of its neighbors, say business leaders and human rights groups.
“It has been clear for some time that unless grievances of citizens are addressed it is likely there will be more protests and unrest. Expectations will be high on the new prime minister to ensure that reforms happen quickly to stem the potential for further unrest,” said Felix Horne, an Ethiopia analyst for Human Rights Watch.
The new leader should prioritize the private sector, particularly with tax credits for industries that create jobs, said Zemedeneh Negatu, chairman of US-based investment firm Fairfax Africa Fund.
“The private sector will be the major job creator in the next 10 to 15 years,” Mr. Negatu said.
Elsewhere, Ethiopia’s one-party authoritarian government has forged strategic alliances with the U.S. in fighting al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia and one of the oldest and most resilient Islamic terrorist groups in the world.
The Ethiopian army is a vital part of United Nations and other peacekeeping missions in Africa, including in war-ravaged South Sudan, another protracted crisis spot high up on Washington’s Africa agenda.
Ethiopia is also a critical partner in Europe’s new strategy of stemming the flow of migrants by working with countries of origin or transit and receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.N. to fight drought, hunger and other recurring humanitarian disasters in the broader region.
Write to Matina Stevis-Gridneff at firstname.lastname@example.org