Ethiopia’s New Leader Abiy Ahmed Raises Hopes but there is a hard part coming
By Somini Sengupta
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — They call themselves a book club. Usually, they meet one Saturday a month, men and women mostly in their 20s and 30s, to discuss a literary classic.
Today is unusual. Today, they have decided to discuss the story of their country. Its protagonist: their prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, whose ascension to the top post in late March has pulled Ethiopia back from the brink of a political implosion.
At 41, Mr. Abiy is one of the youngest leaders in all of Africa, itself the continent with world’s youngest population. And he is shaking up some of the old ways of doing things.
Since taking office, Mr. Abiy has held town hall meetings around the country and listened to what people had to say. He has apologized for the killings of protesters by government forces and called for unity among the country’s many ethnic groups.
Perhaps most unusual of all, he has welcomed political differences of opinion — almost unheard of in a country where dissidents have often been imprisoned. On Friday, his office said on Twitter that it would no longer block 264 websites, blogs and television stations, many of them pro-opposition.
Freedom of expression is a foundational right that other rights depend on. #Ethiopia has opened access to 264 blocked websites/bloggers/ ESAT and OMN. A free flow of information is essential for engaged & responsible citizenry. Only a free market of ideas will lead to the truth.
— Fitsum Arega (@fitsumaregaa) June 22, 2018
“He feels our pain,” said one member of the book club, a university lecturer named Mekonnen Mengesha, 33. “Because he’s our contemporary. We have a generation gap with the old leaders.”
“It’s refreshing,” said Makda Getachew, 31, a public policy expert.
Not everyone is cheering the changes. On Saturday, someone tossed a grenade into a rally for Mr. Abiy in Addis Ababa, injuring several people, according to officials. A spokesman said the prime minister was “safe.”
Ethiopia is Africa’s second most populous country after Nigeria. And even for Africa, it is astonishingly young. The median age of its 100 million people is 18.
Satisfying their demands — both economic and political — will be Mr. Abiy’s biggest test. Already, he has made some uncommon, politically savvy moves.
He ordered the lifting of emergency rule earlier than planned. It was imposed for the second time in less than two years to control the widening, mostly youth-led anti-government demonstrations that had been roiling the country.
He also pardoned one of his country’s most high-profile political prisoners, a British citizen named Andargachew Tsige who had been sentenced to death in connection with his role in Ginbot 7, which the government regards as a terrorist group.
And after the pardon, Mr. Abiy posed for a picture with Mr. Tsige, both men smiling at the camera.
It was classic Abiy: a big symbolic gesture but without specific steps toward the things that critics have agitated for such as opening up space for civil society activities or a national dialogue with opposition groups.
“Prime Minister Abiy is the kind of guy who is good at saying the right things to a domestic audience and giving the right gestures to international development partners,” said Tamrat Giorgis, editor of Addis Fortune, an English language weekly paper.
What he has yet to see, Mr. Giorgis said, is whether those words and gestures add up to a strategy of liberalization.
Still, Mr. Abiy did make a number of bold moves this month.
His government said it would honor a peace deal to settle a bloody border dispute with Ethiopia’s neighbor and rival, Eritrea. This has the potential to end Mr. Abiy’s biggest national security headache.
The government also said it would sell stakes in two of the biggest state-owned enterprises, opening the doors for an infusion of cash to solve a foreign currency shortage. And Mr. Abiy went to Cairo, a rare trip for an Ethiopian leader, in a bid to ease tensions with Egypt over a hydropower dam his country is building on the Nile.
I went to Ethiopia in May for the first time in nearly 15 years. In some ways, it reminded me of India in the early 1990s, where I visited as a child, when the Indian government, also faced with a foreign currency crisis, cautiously began to open its economy to the world.
Inflation in Ethiopia is high, more than 11 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund. The country owes big debts to foreign creditors and the currency crunch is so severe that ordinary Ethiopians say they sometimes can’t find basic medicines on the pharmacy shelves.
Addis Ababa, the capital, is on the cusp of change. Where it’s headed, however, is hard to tell.
The population has galloped in recent years to more than three million inhabitants and the city resembles a construction site. Half-finished buildings are everywhere. The airport is being revamped with the help of Chinese investors. A new light rail network snakes across the city, though Addis is swathed in darkness for hours when the power goes out.
Old Volkswagen Beetles share the streets with late-model Toyota sport utility vehicles. At a karaoke bar, Coolio and Rihanna share time with Oromia-language pop.
Buying a new SIM card for a cellphone takes hours at the offices of the country’s one provider — Ethio Telecom. Credit cards are rarely accepted in shops. And illegal movie downloads are common and “guilt-free,” as one consumer of American movies put it, because there is no legal way to stream them.
The announced sale of stakes in the country’s two most valuable assets — Ethio Telecom and Ethiopian Airlines — could be a boon for foreign investors, not least the cash-flush Chinese who have nurtured close relations with the Ethiopian government.
But privatization does not mean opening the floodgates to private competition — at least not yet. Mr. Giorgis, the Addis Fortune editor, described it as “a desperate response made to the kind of macroeconomic challenge the country finds itself in today.”
If the economy is the prime minister’s most pressing challenge, the peace deal with Eritrea is the riskiest, said Rashid Abdi, the Horn of Africa director for the International Crisis Group. That is because it could invite blowback against Mr. Abiy from the old guard of his party, which he has unseated.
Beyond that, there is the broader risk of setting Ethiopians up for disappointment.
“He has raised huge expectations through his bold policy pronouncements and, inadvertently perhaps, by his rhetoric,” Mr. Abdi said. “Managing them could prove daunting.”
Mr. Abiy is also different from his predecessors by virtue of who he is. He is part Oromo, one of the country’s largest ethnic groups. Its members have long complained of being marginalized.
Mr. Abiy is no stranger to the Ethiopian establishment, though.
A former military officer, he came up through the ranks of the political coalition that calls itself the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front and has a virtual monopoly on power. The party controls Parliament entirely, along with the justice system. It enjoys the backing of a powerful military. Civil and political rights are extremely limited. The land is controlled by the government.
Mr. Abiy represents the younger, more reformist wing of the party, though it has yet to carry out systematic political or economic reforms. He has not said anything about negotiating with opposition groups inside the country and abroad, for instance. And he has done little to assure ordinary citizens that their institutions — the police, the judiciary, the press — can be independent.
“Is it possible for him to deliver under this system?” asked Mr. Mengesha, the university lecturer.
Another member of the book club, Friat Weldekian, 25, praised the prime minister for what she called his emotional intelligence. “He touched on all our issues, especially what the young think,” she said. She wasn’t sure, however, whether he was doing so simply to quiet them down, like giving a pacifier to a baby.
Ms. Weldekian used an old Amharic proverb that made the room burst into laughter.
“Is it like fooling chickens into thinking they’re bulls?” she asked.
As they sipped tea and water and reviewed printouts of one of Mr. Abiy’s speeches, several book club members observed that the new prime minister seems to steer clear of the stilted, anachronistic jargon of his predecessors.
“He doesn’t use those words,” Ms. Getachew said. “He acknowledges, I think in a very genuine way, what people feel — the failures of the party, the failure of government. He really is an Ethiopian, very unity focused. That’s also very new for us.”
I spoke to Ms. Getachew again after the book club meeting. She pointed out that the prime minister had yet to organize a national dialogue with the opposition. Nor had he proposed a roadmap for political reforms leading to the next elections.
“He is raising a lot of expectations,” she said. “At the end of the day, he is still leading the country with the old party structure, the old government structure, the old laws.”
Where their own story would go the members of the book club couldn’t say. The protagonist of this story was turning out to be as complicated as the central figure in the last book they read: “The Prince,” by Machiavelli.
Hadra Ahmed contributed reporting.