The old saw is “a stitch in time saves nine”. On April 2, Ethiopia installed Abiy Ahmed as its new prime minister. The question is whether PM Abiy could save Ethiopia’s nine regions from being unstitched in civil strife.
Some watchers of the country have expected civil war in Ethiopia for the past two years. A well-known Ethiopian opinion leader two years ago warned, “A civil war, and possibly genocide, is in the making in the Horn of Africa, in Ethiopia.” The New York Times asked, “Is Ethiopia about to crack?” Recently, one commentator ominously predicted, “Facing the abyss of interethnic civil war, Ethiopia today is on the brink of state failure.” Others have affirmatively answered, “Ethiopia is falling apart.”
The dire predictions of Ethiopia’s implosion originate in the massive protests that began in Ethiopia’s largest region, Oromia, in 2015 over a proposed expansion of the capital’s municipal boundary through a Development Master Plan. The ruling regime cracked down heavily on protesters, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people and thousands of injuries and arrests, according to Human Rights Watch. In August 2016, the protests spread to the second largest Amhara region which the regime sought to brutally suppress.
The protests were symptomatic of a much larger political problem brewing in the country for over a quarter of a century. Stratfor, the global intelligence corporation, put it in a nutshell:
“The unrest in Ethiopia can be boiled down to three numbers: 35, 27 and six. The first two represent the percentage of ethnic Oromo and Amhara, respectively, that make up the country’s 100 million people. But neither of those groups controls the reins of government. The Tigrayans – 6 percent of the population – do, and for decades, the Oromo, the Amhara and others have been protesting and pushing for more power.”
Abiy Ahmed is the youngest African leader at age 41. He has nearly two decades of military service and is the first Oromo politician to become Ethiopia’s prime minister since 1991.
Abiy’s selection as PM is said to be highly contested. He was the dark horse in the race and other party stalwarts were touted to take over the PM’s job.
In his inaugural address, PM Abiy struck a message of accountability, unity, justice, peace and national reconciliation. He stressed good governance based on the rule of law. He promised to crackdown on corruption. He assured the youth that he understands their plight and will work to improve education and facilitate conditions for entrepreneurship and business ownership. He apologized for the deaths caused by security forces and assured opposition parties that they will be regarded as “competitors, not enemies.”
He reached out to Diaspora Ethiopians that his government will “welcome them with open arms” if they wish to return to help their country”. He added:
“Ethiopians living abroad and Ethiopians living here, we need to forgive each other from the bottom of our hearts.”
He extended an olive branch to the Eritrean government to resolve differences, to which the Eritrean government responded by demanding Ethiopia’s withdrawal “from the occupied territories”.
The speech was well received among the general population, opposition groups and the international community. The U.S. Embassy issued statement expressing support and urging the “lifting of the State of Emergency”. It is not clear if this month’s scheduled vote on H.R. 128, a resolution denouncing human rights abuses in Ethiopia, will take place given PM Abiy’s appointment. Expressions of support also came from the African Union and other African leaders.
Various Ethiopian opposition leaders also expressed support but cautioned “words need to change to deeds”.
I believe PM Abiy will be successful in pulling Ethiopia from the precipice because failure is not an option for him or the country. There are those who say he is set up to fail because of the rigid structure of the collective decision making process of the ruling coalition described as “inevitably lengthy, often messy or incomplete, roadmap designed by Meles, despite the generated need for movement brought about by fast-changing conditions.”
The agenda the PM articulated reflects the needs, demands and aspirations of Ethiopia’s youth, which represent 71 percent of the population. He has his finger on the youth pulse and feels the rising tide of anger and frustration spreading among the youth from repeatedly dashed hopes and expectations. He knows he became PM because of the sacrifices, mobilization, agitation and support of the youth. Surely, he is aware that the youth seek regime change and will not tolerate a game of regime musical chairs.
Failure of civil peace under PM Abiy’s leadership means an all-out civil war in Ethiopia. I believe the youth are PM Abiy’s insurance policy for success. They are increasingly becoming skilled and effective in the use of mass civil disobedience and peaceful resistance in demanding change. In March, the youth managed to implement a week-long fuel blockade across the country to pressure the regime.
The elephant in the room is the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one of the coalition partners in the ruling regime. The TPLF presently dominates the military, the security forces, the economy, and the bureaucracy.
According to Global Security, the TPLF has set up its own private mercenary paramilitary group whose “purpose of existence is to ensure the regimes hold on power remains unchallenged.” and “accountable only to a select few senior echelon members of the TPLF.” Others have testified before Congress on the role of the special paramilitary group in committing torture, abuse and extrajudicial killings.
Failure for PM Abiy is not an option because, as President John F. Kennedy said, “those who possess wealth and power in poor nations must accept their own responsibilities and lead the fight for those basic reforms.” The alternative is foretold. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
By Alemayehu (Al) Mariam is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, with research interests in African law and human rights. He is a constitutional lawyer and senior editor of the International Journal of Ethiopian Studies.