Until his appointment as Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy was considered a loyal official of a repressive system. But then he turned out to be a radical reformer. A search for clues in his ambiguous CV.
Abiy Ahmed is currently the most dazzling personality on the African continent. The Ethiopian Prime Minister has only been in office since April, but in that short time he has not only turned the country around, but has set the whole region in motion. He made peace with Eritrea. The 1998-2000 war between the two countries had caused some 80,000 casualties. He released thousands of political prisoners and asked for forgiveness for the human rights violations committed by the state in the name of security. He is advocating the privatization of large state-owned enterprises, promises deep democratization, and has recently unveiled his new Cabinet, half of which is made up of women.
One of his favorite words in his speeches and interviews is “love.” A thaw pervades the country with its hundred million inhabitants. The “Abiymania,” an euphoric worship of the statesman, is almost religious in character. Recently, a biography about him with the title “Moses” appeared. The bestseller suggests that Abiy, like the Prophet, led his people into the Promised Land. But Abiy is only 42 years old, the youngest statesman in Africa.
Once internet supervisor
In fact, Abiy has long been a loyal official of the repressive system. He studied business administration and computer science, rose during his military service to lieutenant colonel, went as a UN soldier after the genocide in Rwanda, fought in the Ethiopian army against Eritrea and helped build the Information Network Security Agency (INSA) that spied on government critics. He then moved to the Ministry of Research and Technology. In February 2018, the hapless Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned after failing to suppress the Oromo protests. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, but the Tigrean-led ruling coalition (EPRDF) had the final say. Abiy himself, who was elected by parliament, belongs to the Oromo ethnic group.
Was Abiy always a secret revolutionary? Or did he radically change in a short time and change from a colorless technocrat to a radical reformer? If you take a closer look at his biography, there are signs behind the smooth surface that indicate his otherness.
Highly educated intermediary
Abiy was born in 1976, two years after the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie and the installation of the military-communist Derg regime. It is noteworthy that Abiy’s father is a Muslim Oromo, while the mother is a Christian Amhara. In his dissertation, Abiy later dealt with the resolution of denominational conflicts. Apparently he as a child and spent a lot of time reading. During the repressive Derg years, Abiy’s father was arrested and his brother killed by the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). At the age of 15, Abiy joined the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), one of the four organizations that make up the anti-Derg rebel group (EPRDF) that came to power in 1991. He received military training in radio and espionage. He also learned Tigrigna, probably for strategic reasons, because EPRDF army’s top leadership was mainly Tigray ethnic group. His wife played in the army orchestra and is a Christian.
In 2010, Abiy became Information Network Security Agency (INSA). When radical Muslims were massacring Christians in his hometown of Beshasha, Abiy was sent as an intermediary to the place where he succeeded in restoring peace. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on his political career and was elected as a parliamentarian. During this time, he earned an M.A. in Transformational Leadership and Change Management in London, and an MBA in Addis Ababa. He became director of the state-funded research institute, Science and Technology Information Center.
The trigger for the Oromo protests had been the government’s plan to expand the city of Addis Ababa. The master plan would have evicted many Oromo farmers from their land. The master plan fueled the growing dissatisfaction with the government. In a surprising move, the government gave in and reversed and abandoned the master plan. That did not calm the situation. On the contrary, the protests widened. The Oromo were joined by the Amhara, who also felt discriminated against. The government became paralyzed.
Fast successes needed
Despite his success, Abiy undoubtedly has powerful enemies. In June of this year, unknown people attempted to assassinate him. In October, he almost fell victim to a military plot. He forced the chief of staff of the armed forces and other exponents of the old guard to resign. The TPLF old guards have started to accuse him of discrimination against the Tigray ethnic group. What protects him at the moment is the broad popular support he enjoys. His disempowerment would trigger a massive rebellion. But it’s a race against time. He must make irreversible changes as he rides on a wave of popularity.
And he must produce concrete results that improve the standard of life for the citizens. Although Ethiopia has shown impressive growth rates for many years, most of the population continues to live in poverty. Paradoxically, Abiy benefits from the authoritarian system that he is dismantling. Only thanks to the power of his office, he can implement his reforms at such a pace and against the resistance of the old guards.
Writen by David Signer
Originally published on NZZ