For Ethiopia's Abiy, big reforms carry big risks

Chris Stein
1 / 2
Man in a hurry: Ethiopia's new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has unveiled a hectic programme of reforms -- but the risks are many, say analysts

Ethiopia's new prime minister Abiy Ahmed has announced a flurry of reforms to reshape the nation but implementing them will be harder, analysts say.

Last week alone, Abiy shook up the security services, ended a nationwide state of emergency and announced plans to liberalise the economy and resolve a two-decade-old conflict with Eritrea.

Yet those moves represent dramatic shifts in the power balance within Africa's second-most populous country.

It remains unclear how deep Abiy's support runs within the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) for carrying them out.

And if the reforms are bungled, he risks inflaming relations between the country's many ethnic groups.

"There is political expectation on the part of the public for very quick change," said Awol Allo, an Ethiopian commentator who teaches law in Britain.

"My worry is that he's moving too fast in a country without the institutional safeguards to implement these policies."

Observers say that the EPRDF, in unchecked control of Ethiopia since 1991, was forced to shift course by anti-government protests, led by the country's two largest ethnicities, that started in late 2015 and left hundreds dead.

The unrest prompted a 10-month state of emergency, declared in October 2016.

The upheaval was seen as one reason behind the February resignation of Abiy's predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, and the immediate imposition of a second emergency declaration that parliament repealed last week.

Elevated by the ruling party to the prime minister's office in April, Abiy is the first leader from the largest ethnicity, the Oromo.

Even though he has been cast as a reformer, few expected him to move so fast.

- 1991 redux -

Abiy last week reversed decades of policy, announcing key state-run industries -- among them Ethiopian Airlines and Ethio Telecom, the country's only internet and telephone provider -- would be opened up to foreign and private investors.

In a still more surprising move, Abiy declared Ethiopia would respect a 2002 United Nations commission ruling that demarcated the country's border with Eritrea, setting the stage to end years of hostility between the two countries.

The prime minister then removed Ethiopia's intelligence and military chiefs along with the national security advisor, the latest in a host of older government officials Abiy has shown the door to since taking over.

"These people have been in the system for far too long and are by and large blamed by the public for the problems," Awol said.

Longtime independent Ethiopia researcher Rene Lefort compared Abiy's reforms to 1991, when the EPRDF, then a rebel army, stormed the capital Addis Ababa and removed the Derg military junta from power.

"I expected some changes, but only step-by-step. But so fast, and so deep, that's astonishing," he said.

- The powers that be -

Yet analysts warn Abiy's pursuit of change may not prove smooth sailing.

A former province, Eritrea's 1993 vote to leave Ethiopia has always been controversial, particularly among Ethiopia's so-called "centrists" who believe in a strong, centralised state.

"Centrist" ideology is especially popular among the country's second-largest ethnicity, the Amhara.

They, along with the Oromos, spearheaded recent anti-government protests and have been seen as generally supportive of Abiy and his reform campaign.

Eritrea has not responded publicly to Ethiopia's overture and Abiy's government has not announced a pullout from the disputed border regions.

But giving up land to Eritrea could alienate those who see the territory as belonging to Ethiopia.

This week, a protest against Abiy?s announcement was held by residents of territory inhabited by the Tigrayan ethnic group that Ethiopia would cede under the border ruling.

"The key thing to watch out for is Abiy's ability to rise over the inevitable disappointment or sense of betrayal, to put it strongest, over the Eritrea decision," said Christopher Clapham of Britain's University of Cambridge.

- Liberalisation -

Abiy's plans for the economy may run into resistance, as ERPDF elites are believed to be entrenched in the state-run industries at the heart of the country's economy.

"How will the cake be redistributed among these different elites through this liberalisation?" Lefort asked. "Which kind of liberalisation, and for the advantage of whom, remains an open question."

The secretive EPRDF will hold a key meeting in August, and Lefort said Abiy needs to secure strong support from party kingmakers to make good on his proposals.

Though relations within the ruling party can at times be rancorous, Awol believes Abiy enjoys support both within the EPRDF and on the Ethiopian streets -- at least for now.

"The risks are increasingly declining," Awol said. "He's consolidating himself, with the support of the people."