By Teshome M. Borago | PT Staff writer
Credited for beginning the reformation of an important African country of 100 million people; the new Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed has become an unlikely hero.
A son of Muslim family from the Jimma zone of Oromia state in Ethiopia; Dr. Abiy Ahmed is from the Oromo ethnic group. The last time a leader with Muslim background rose to power in Addis Ababa; the Ethiopian bureaucracy quickly overthrew him in months. It was Ethiopian Emperor Iyasu V who reigned in 1913 with the help of his father Imam Mohammed Ali, until the then powerful Ethiopian Orthodox Church and rivals inside the Imperial family revolted, because they feared his Muslim association.
But this time around, Ethiopia is a secular nation and Dr. Abiy Ahmed appears to have the overwhelming support of the Ethiopian people.
Last Saturday, millions of Ethiopians rallied in the capital Addis Ababa and several other cities to show support for Dr. Abiy. Ironically, the source of his growing popularity is his bold criticism of his own EPRDF ruling party, to which he belongs.
The EPRDF has ruled Ethiopia for 27 years with an iron fist: often jailing opponents, killing activists and siphoning resources to the elites of the Tigrayan ethnic group. The EPRDF party’s first major test was in a 2005 election, when millions rallied and voted for the opposition, but the regime massacred around 200 protesters and locked up the opposition. The EPRDF’s second major test came from Ethiopian Muslims who bravely protested in cities nationwide against religious persecution. Finally, the EPRDF’s Tigrayan rulers got a taste of their own medicine when ethnic enclaves rebelled one by one. When the two largest ethnic groups – the Oromo and Amhara– rose up in 2015 with coordinated nationwide protests, by choking commercial routes and over-stretching the military: the EPRDF government panicked. It initially tried to respond to peaceful protests by killing hundreds more Ethiopians, but that did not work.
Then EPRDF held emergency inner-party meetings to find a way out. Continuing the deadly military response to the emboldened protestors could have pushed the country toward collapse or civil war. So it had to make a compromise. As both a survival strategy for the ruling party and to bring peace to the nation, the ruling party forced its former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to resign. Under pressure from an Oromo faction inside the EPRDF party, the government selected Dr Abiy Ahmed Ali as a replacement PM.
And what a historic decision it has been. PM Dr Abiy Ahmed has become the Uniter-in-chief, healing old wounds not only between political and ethnic groups but also between neighboring countries like Eritrea. He released thousands of political prisoners and apologized for the sins of the ruling party. He released journalists and even allowed exiled top media groups, ESAT and OMN, to operate inside Ethiopia. He invited domestic opposition groups to his Palace and made peace. He convinced armed military opposition groups; like the Ginbot 7 and former OLF leaders, to drop their weapons and operate peacefully inside the country. During a recent mass demonstration in the capital, people chanted slogans to support their new Prime Minister while some waved the flag of the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) in the crowd, a symbolic image never witnessed before.
Abiy Ahmed has effectively reformed Ethiopian politics from the inside out. During one recent parliamentary session broadcasted live on TV, he blamed his own ruling party of torturing people and “terrorizing” the country. By becoming the voice of dissident in his own government, Abiy has stabilized the country and calmed the protestors.
His statesman rhetoric and progressive actions have set the foundation for real change. So far, He has walked the perfect balance between ethnic nationalism and Ethiopian nationalism. Thus, both tribal nationalists and multiethnic nationalists like pop icon Teddy Afro are singing his gospel.
Some critics still don’t trust the system is fair and regional tribal authorities are persecuting perceived minorities with impunity. The senseless killings of ethnic minorities last month prove that more must be done. Abiy can fix these urgent problems if he quickly uses his popular mandate to further reform key institutions like the military, judiciary and election board as well as rearrange the federal structure to empower regional autonomy while promoting multiethnic identities. After all, by ancestry, most Ethiopians are mixed, including Abiy himself.
To de-ethnicize federalism, Abiy must change the format of the next Ethiopian national Census, by redefining “ethnicity” away from its current narrow politico-linguistic feature toward a more comprehensive definition that includes ancestry. Such Census reform will reveal that most Ethiopians are mixed ethnic-Ethiopians by ancestry; not just a bunch of competing tribes destined to clash forever. Establishing a common denominator in identity development is the key to long-term mitigation of ethnic conflicts. Abiy is the perfect man to do this Census reform because he has credibility among the largest tribe – the Oromo – despite himself being a mixed-Ethiopian with multiethnic ancestry. Without Census reform, it is impossible to de-politicize ethnicity if ethnic affiliation continues to correlate with political affiliation.
With corrupt regional officials and the old guard in the ruling party working to sabotage him, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed must move fast to democratize and unify the country. Timing is everything.