What Abiy Ahmed’s Leadership Means For Ethiopia
Abiy Ahmed is the prime minister of Ethiopia, and his leadership of the country has already had a positive impact within the Horn of Africa region and beyond.
Ethiopia is changing. Is it changing for the good? Is it changing too fast? The fact that Ethiopia is changing may be one of only three certainties in this new Ethiopian climate.
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The second certainty is that Abiy, Africa’s youngest head of state at 42 years old, was unexpected in the normal routine and political processes of Ethiopia. The third certainty is that Ethiopia is in a time of opportunity that could easily turn further prosperous or slip into a period of perilous insecurity.
Abiy has been there from the beginning
Abiy began his political career as a member of the Oromo Democratic Party, which is one of the four coalition parties in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
Twice elected to the House of Peoples’ Representatives, which is the lower chamber of the Ethiopian Federal Parliamentary Assembly (first representing the woreda of Agaro and then the woreda of Gomma), Abiy has never walked quietly on the Ethiopian political scene.
He created the “Religious Forum for Peace” during the religious violence in 2010 and emerged as a central voice in the fight against the land-grabbing activities in the Oromia Region, especially the land encircling the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa.
With the halt of the Addis Ababa Master Plan in 2016, which was at the center of the land grabbing, Abiy’s star continued to rise with his roles as deputy president of Oromia Region (as part of Oromia Region President Lemma Megersa’s team) and his role as head of the Oromia urban development and planning office.
Abiy’s big break came in early 2018 when Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced his resignation on Feb. 15 following a series of protests in the country.
Lemma Megersa, who was ODP chairman and thought by many to be the frontrunner to replace the outgoing prime minister, was eliminated because a prerequisite, under the Ethiopian constitution, to becoming prime minister is being a member of the national parliament, and Lemma was not.
ODP called an emergency executive committee meeting to replace Lemma with Abiy as chairman of ODP, ensuring his candidacy to potentially replace Hailemariam Desalegn. Demeke Mekonnen, who had been seen as the primary opponent to Abiy, subsequently dropped out of the race for chairman of EPRDF, and consequently prime minister (as it is an unwritten rule that chairman of the ruling party becomes prime minister).
Ethiopia is synonymous with change
Upon taking office on April 2, Africa’s youngest head of state has pushed reform at lightning speed. Abiy has freed thousands of political prisoners—surprising Ethiopians inside and outside the country—and eased the tension with its political critics at home and abroad.
There are now reportedly no journalists in jail. Abiy also unblocked numerous censored websites, including those sites host to publications critical of the government, and ended the state of emergency in the country.
He also ended the 20-year state of war with Eritrea, with planes now taking off from Addis Ababa and landing in Asmara and vice versa (a scene many Eritreans and Ethiopians never imagined in their lifetime).
And, to excite the business and economic skeptics, talks of privatization are quietly gaining some steam as advisory committees talk through the various dynamics of such a potentially monumental change.
Discussions on the privatization of Ethiopian Airlines is intriguing to many governments and investors alike as the national airline is quintessentially becoming Africa’s airline through a massive expansion.
As some locals describe it, Ethiopia Airlines embodies Ethiopia’s new openness to the world. Ethiopian Airlines now has partnerships with Mozambique Airlines, Togo’s Asky Airlines and Malawian Airlines. Ethio Telecom is another golden opportunity in the mind of strategic and financial investors.
Abiy’s openness, on all economic and political levels, means that investors and lenders are quite keen to engage the country.
Abiy as the unexpected (but necessary) change
Abiy, for most observers, is a major step toward democracy. His promises for a free and fair election appear legitimate, as he has appointed Birtukan Mideksa, a known opposition figure, to head the electoral board and Meaza Ashenafi, a respected human rights leader, to be chief justice of the Supreme Court.
Abiy also appointed women to half of the ministerial posts in the government. Experts of all disciplines have been hired to the government and/or appointed to different committees to rewrite legal statutes to better facilitate Ethiopia’s leap into its economic and political future.
Abiy is also personable on the international stage. He actively engages international leaders on their turf, having already visited Djibouti, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the U.S.
As the country’s most prominent and active diplomat, he reveals a more publicly engaging Ethiopian style compared to previous leaders. He hugs many politicians in public, smiles for the cameras, and sneaks a selfie or two with fans at almost every event.
His ethnically and religiously mixed background surely adds more validity to his voice on the political stage. Abiy’s father was Oromo and Muslim while his mother was Amhara and Orthodox Christian (though she converted to Islam when she married).
Abiy is also unassumingly a political insider to the interworking of Ethiopia, having joined the army at age 13. As part of the army, he guided the creation of the government cybersecurity agency, Ethiopian Information Network Security Agency (INSA), and later joined the governing coalition that helped overthrow the military government in 1991.
Though his story sounds populist, Abiy speaks with a command of the challenges in the country—understood through his personal and professional experiences—very much acknowledging the uphill work to be done and the time it may take to achieve imagined successes. He has even floated the idea of term limits for prime minister.
So what is the concern?
Ethiopia remains polarized along ethnic lines with nine ethnically based, semi-autonomous regions in the country.
Abiy acknowledges he has opponents within his own government, sometimes insinuating that the dislike is based on ethnic lines. Ethnic violence can break out sporadically, easily fostered by the reality that ethnicity is recorded on identity cards.
Abiy, at times, must resort to calling upon some faction of the police and/or army to resolve the ethnic disputes and stop the violence.
It is becoming increasingly important, that during this rapid change, Ethiopia’s relatively weaker institutions gain strength and better functionality to match their charismatic leader’s ambitions and expectations.
It will be these institutions that may have to do the hard work of bridging ethnic groups on a local level and creating a more interactive and functioning civil society.
Another concern is that Abiy is still a very much unknown figure to Ethiopians and the world…he is known to disappear from the public for periods with news slowly (and strategically) flowing out in tweets by his chief of staff or through small private media statements.
The excitement about Abiy will slow like it does with any leader. His Obama-like rise cannot withstand the normal disappointment that comes from many voters who put most or all of their faith in him.
Abiy cannot end the local and regional disputes overnight, employ all adults in this approximate 100-million-person country, squash currency concerns, or address the rising debt concern (as highlighted by the International Monetary Fund) in a couple of months, let alone in a year…but his supporters somewhat expect he can.
Amid all the quick, unexpected change, unpredictability, and excitement, one story captures the upside and downside risk in the meteoric rise of Ethiopia’s passionate new leader.
When dozens of armed soldiers marched on the prime minister’s office, the government shut down the internet, with many Ethiopians worried that a coup was underway. Yet Abiy, in typical fashion, came outside, listened to their complaints and concerns and did some pushups with the soldiers.
Videos went viral the next day of his pushups with smiling soldiers standing around. ‘Abiy-mania’ survived a threat and, in Abiy style, turned something bad into PR gold. Abiy will need more help to sustain efforts to overcome bigger challenges in the Ethiopian system, especially after the hype dies down.
Kurt Davis Jr. is an investment banker with private equity experience focused on Africa and the Middle East. He earned an MBA in finance, entrepreneurship and operations from the University of Chicago and J.D. in tax and commercial law at the University of Virginia’s School of Law. He can be reached at email@example.com.