During a high-level meeting at Ethiopia’s foreign ministry in July, officials were shocked by social media reports that their prime minister was visiting Eritrea.
No one in the room had been informed of Abiy Ahmed’s trip, his second since clinching a peace deal last year that ended two decades of hostility between the neighbors.
“The foreign office was not in the loop,” said a senior official who was present. “We learned of it from the Eritrean media, on Facebook and Twitter.”
The surprise visit is typical of Abiy, who both fans and critics say often relies on bold personal initiatives and charisma to drive change instead of working through government institutions.
Nebiat Getachew, the foreign ministry spokesman, said policy was well co-ordinated. He did not confirm if Abiy had made the July trip without informing the ministry.
The deal with Eritrea won Abiy international plaudits. He is the bookmakers’ second favorite to win a Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, after climate activist Greta Thunberg.
But Abiy’s unpredictable style annoys some Ethiopians.
It is unclear how much of the fractious ruling coalition – some form of which has been in power since 1991 – backs his reforms, or how durable those reforms would be without his leadership. He has already survived one assassination attempt: a grenade thrown at a rally last year.
Lasting change cannot be built through a “cult of personality”, said Comfort Ero, Africa program director at the International Crisis Group think tank.
“None of Abiy’s promised transformational reforms are going to have any solid foundations unless he works through the institutions,” she said.
Ethiopia has been among Africa’s fastest growing economies for more than a decade. But uncertainty over Abiy’s ability to carry out all his reforms worries both citizens and the foreign investors he has been courting to develop the country’s antiquated telecoms and banking sectors.
PERSONAL STYLE OR CANNY STRATEGY?
Some observers say Abiy, a former military officer specializing in cyber intelligence, will sometimes bypass ministries because his reforms must maintain their breakneck momentum or become mired in bureaucracy.
Those reforms – including unbanning political parties, releasing imprisoned journalists and prosecuting officials accused of torture – have drawn ecstatic crowds at rallies.
“Abiy seems to have relied on his charismatic rule,” said Dereje Feyissa, a professor at Addis Ababa University. “The question is whether this is sustainable. Euphoria is subsiding.”
Other observers say Abiy’s rapid changes are a deliberate attempt to wrong-foot opponents from the previous administration, which was dominated by Tigrayans, a small but powerful ethnic group.