On April 2, 2018 Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister of Ethiopia promising a future of domestic unity, political reform, and meaningful engagement with the country’s opposition party. Some called it an “Ethiopian Spring,” a chance for the country to leave behind its checkered past and emerge as a full democracy. A little more than a year after Abiy’s ascension he seems well on his way to realizing that goal. Ethiopia has successfully brokered major agreements with East African partners, rivaling only Kenya in terms of regional dominance. However, Abiy has struggled to establish the promised unity among Ethiopians. This domestic failure may well undermine his foreign policy successes.
Less than six months after taking office, Abiy fulfilled a major promise of his campaign by re-opening the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea after twenty years of bitter relations. In an event that has been likened to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the peace deal reunited families separated by the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, opened up trade routes, and ended decades of military presence. Although tensions between the two countries have since resumed (largely perpetuated by Eritrea), Abiy’s efforts sent an important signal that Ethiopia was moving towards better regional cooperation.
The recent backslide in Ethiopian-Eritrean relations does not seem to have dampened Abiy’s enthusiasm. He has since thrown himself into complicated relationships throughout the region, brokering a peace deal to work towards ending South Sudan’s civil war, mediating negotiations for a power-sharing deal between civilian and military leaders in Sudan, and working with Kenya and Somalia to resolve a maritime border dispute. Even for a region with unusually strong personal relationships among leaders, Abiy’s flurry of diplomatic mediation is remarkable.
Historically viewed as the regional powerhouse in East Africa, Kenya’s governmental stability and economic power have made it a favored partner for the U.S. and others. UN actions during the recent presidential election in Somalia’s Jubbaland, however may indicate that Ethiopia is now the preferred partner of the international community. Seeing ongoing electoral challenges in Jubbaland, the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) issued a list of demands to the Somalia government, claiming to speak on behalf of entire mission. When Kenya protested that it had not been consulted on the demands before publication, UNSOM revealed that Ethiopia was the only embassy informed of the forthcoming demands. Both Kenya and Ethiopia are major contributors of troops to the international missions in Somalia. The Jubbaland elections may represent a major turning point in Ethiopia’s relations with the international community as institutions like the UN recognize Prime Minister Abiy, not President Kenyatta as the region’s most powerful peacemaker.
Immediately after his swearing in, Abiy undertook a number of ambitious re-configurations of Ethiopia’s political space. He made history by filling half his Cabinet posts with women, releasing thousands of political prisoners, and overhauling the state security apparatus to reduce corruption and end impunity for violence against citizens. Paradoxically, this opening of the political space actually escalated violence in Ethiopia. Abiy’s efforts to increase representation of minority ethnic groups in government has gone a long way to correct historic imbalances, but it has also empowered extremist factions such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to pursue greater political power through force.
A country with more than eighty ethnic groups, long-standing grievances and political differences has long been a source of conflict in Ethiopia. The most explosive of these tensions has been in the country’s south, involving a land dispute between the Oromo and ethnic Somalis. An Oromo himself, Abiy made resolving this conflict a priority of his administration. But less than six months after Abiy took power members of the OLF took to the streets, igniting a conflict with the youth of Addis Ababa that left dozens of people dead. The September 2018 incident sparked similar occurrences throughout the country, displacing an estimated 2.3 million Ethiopians from their homes.
The ethnic conflicts in Ethiopia long predate Prime Minister Abiy, and factors like poor economic conditions may have contributed to the recent escalation. But it is also certainly true that Abiy’s military reforms – particularly halting impunity – have played a role. Risking serious reprisals from Menelik Palace for using violence on protesters, members of Ethiopia’s security forces have instead chosen to abstain from action entirely, allowing the street conflicts to escalate unchecked.
Abiy’s lack of concrete action to address the displacement crisis and ongoing ethnic clashes is hurting him politically. Public opinion has turned so sharply against the Prime Minister that his close friend, the Governor of the Amhara was shot and killed last June in what Abiy called a coup attempt against the regional government. The fact that the perpetrators were state security forces rather than a disgruntled group of rebels directly implicates Abiy in the events, representing broader disenchantment with his reformist agenda.
Prime Minister Abiy is walking a delicate line in Ethiopia. On one hand his reforms have endeared him to the international community, raising the political and economic cache of Ethiopia and allowing him to have a voice in major regional decisions. On the other hand Ethiopia’s liberalization has come with serious growing pains. For a country that spent decades embroiled in war, some citizens would rather see a return to strongman authoritarianism than continue to deflect bloody conflicts. The 2020 elections may well decide which direction Ethiopia will pursue.