Can Abiy Ahmed Bring Peace to Ethiopia?

Dnyanesh Kamat

AFP Photo: Michael Tewelde

He may have won the Nobel Peace Prize, but Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has been unable to implement the peace deal with neighboring Eritrea or to ensure peace at home.

Since coming to power last year, Abiy has released political prisoners, lifted censorship of the press and invited political exiles back to Ethiopia – all measures that have made him immensely popular and created “Abiymania.” But it has also unleashed venomous ethnic chauvinism that could lead to the Balkanization of Ethiopia, with the country fragmenting into ever smaller, mutually hostile statelets.

Rather than seeking to build consensus among political elites over important issues such as federalism, self-determination and the electoral system, Abiy’s reforms have unleashed new political forces on to a country that, after decades of dictatorship, weak governance and ethnic conflict, is still simply too fragile to handle them.

Today, Abiy is confronted with enemies among all ethnic groups in the country, including his own, the Oromo. Jawar Mohammed, a 31-year-old Oromo political activist and media industry entrepreneur, has emerged as a potent challenger to Abiy in the run-up to elections due next year. When Mohammed accused the government’s security forces of trying to attack him last month, it set off days of rioting by his supporters, which led to ethnic clashes and the death of 78 people.

Abiy and Mohammed were once allies. Indeed, it was Oromo protesters, urged on by Mohammed’s Oromia Media Network, who propelled Abiy into the prime minister’s office, and it was Abiy’s reforms that made it possible for Mohammed to return to Ethiopia from exile in the US.

Since then, he has built up a massive following among the Oromo, via a youth group called the “Qeeroo,” who were at the forefront of the recent protests. Paradoxically, Mohammed’s emergence as an Oromo leader with the ability to speak for his ethnic group is both a sign that Abiy’s reforms have worked and a dangerous consequence of those reforms. Mohammed has positioned himself as an Oromo ethno-nationalist and has tried consistently to expand autonomy and power for his fellow Oromos, often at the risk of stoking tension with other ethnic groups. Nonetheless, Mohammed is merely a symptom and not the cause of Ethiopia’s problems. Ultimately, the buck stops with Abiy.

The prime minister’s biggest mistake has been his failure to change Ethiopia’s system of ethnic federalism. This organizes the country into nine ostensibly self-governing states based on ethnicity and also gives ethnic groups the right to form new states and even to secede from Ethiopia. Abiy’s reforms may have succeeded in loosening the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s (EPRDF) grip on power and created fertile ground for the emergence of new political forces, but they have not dealt with the issue of ethnic favoritism in state and federal government.

As a result, the past year has seen Ethiopia beset by ethnic violence, to the extent that the country has more than two million internally displaced people – one of the highest numbers in the world.

Lately, Abiy has supposedly tried to move Ethiopia away from the politics of ethnicity toward a politics of ideas, by announcing the transformation of the ruling EPRDF from a coalition of ethnic parties into a single big-tent, multiethnic party founded on the principle of “medemer” (Amharic for “coming together”), a term used by Abiy to promote a culture of political pluralism. However, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – a constituent party in the EPRDF – rejected the move outright. Other critics have accused Abiy of using the new party to concentrate power in his hands. The fact that Abiy has previously spoken of his preference for a presidential form of government has only stoked suspicion about his true intentions.

Threats to the integrity of the Ethiopian state are unlikely to be resolved even if Abiy manages to replace the EPRDF with one multiethnic party. He cannot ignore the fundamental issues that stir up ethnic tensions and imperil the country’s stability and must use the new political capital the Nobel prize has given him. He should postpone the elections planned for next year and instead begin working in earnest on constitutional reform that will lead to the re-founding of the Ethiopian state.

There are several issues that need to be tackled urgently. Ethiopia’s first-past-the-post electoral system should be replaced with a proportional representation system that gives politicians the incentive to court all ethnic groups and not just their own.

There must be constitutional safeguards to guarantee the rights of minorities in Ethiopia’s ethnic regions and affirmative action policies must be introduced for ethnic groups that are under-represented at the federal government level. The extent of the powers devolved to the individual states and their rights to self-determination must be precisely set and balanced with the need to preserve Ethiopia’s unity and integrity. Regional languages should be given parity with Amharic – currently the sole official language – at the federal level.

Abiy’s Nobel prize is a double-edged sword for Ethiopians. If he uses it to bring about bold reforms, he can recast his country as a shining example of a pluralistic democracy for the region and beyond. But if it becomes a tool for him to further “Abiymania” and pursue projects of political self-aggrandizement, he will do his 110 million compatriots no favors at all – but a good deal of harm.

Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst on the Middle East and South Asia. He also advises governments on policies and strategic initiatives to foster growth in the creative industries such as media, entertainment and culture.