PM Abiy Ahmed during a speech delivered at Millennium Hall in Addis Abeba celebrating his first year in office

Abel Abate Demissie & Ahmed Soliman

The prime minister has made great strides at reforming the authoritarian state in his first year. But how will he confront the hurdles ahead?

Addis Abeba, April 17/2019 – It has been a whirlwind year for Ethiopia since Abiy Ahmed became prime minister. He has initiated a raft of reforms to overhaul Ethiopia’s authoritarian government structure, significantly improved relations with neighbors and received widespread international acclaim, including a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize. But the same period has seen a sharp increase in lawlessness, intensified domestic conflict, heightened identity-based violence and huge internal displacement.

The fervor of ‘Abiymania’ has waned in recent months, as the reality of the monumental tests that lie ahead hit home. Having created massive expectations among competing constituencies, there are growing fears that Abiy’s reforms might end up achieving neither good governance nor stability. To date his accomplishments far outweigh his shortcomings. But significant tests lie ahead.

For his government’s undoubted successes to be built on, the prime minister needs to re-double focus on the domestic agenda. This includes dealing with the growing unrest, revitalizing the ruling party under a common vision and detailing a strategy for institutionalizing political, judicial, security, economic and social reforms. This restructure will require well targeted and sequenced plans, along with his unifying philosophy of Medemer, especially given continued institutional capacity constraints.

Domestic Challenges Abound

Ethiopia’s political landscape shifted on its axis when Abiy Ahmed came into power in April 2018 following large-scale anti-government demonstrations and the resultant crackdown that had brought the country to the verge of national collapse. Prior to Abiy’s election, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), nominally a coalition of four ethnically based parties, had been dominated by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for over 25 years. The prime minister is the country’s first leader from the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), representing around 35 per cent of Ethiopians. For many, being ruled by an Oromo redresses a historical imbalance in power dynamics that had favored the people of the northern highlands. His election to lead the EPRDF averted further national breakdown and the prime minister is now arguably as popular in some opposition camps as he is in his own party.

More immediately, there are questions about the future of the EPRDF under Abiy Ahmed’s stewardship. He has largely discarded the revolutionary ideology and developmental state economic model that glued the party together and favors Western educated technocrats over loyal cadres for senior positions. He has ensured that half the cabinet are womenand that there are prominent ministers from marginalized regions and different faiths. Many see the party as an empty shell and the prime minister has done little to dispel notions of the country being in a post-EPRDF era, recently saying “I have never paid attention… whether the EPRDF is together or not. But I don’t think we’ll split apart.” However, the party has a membership of nearly 8 million people – a vast network that cannot simply be abandoned – despite its numbers waning in the last year as uncertainty looming about the party’s future. The argument that it is essential to make EPRDF work is not based on the notion that the party has popular legitimacy, but because member parties have the capacity and willingness to inflict further damage to the dwindling power of the state.

Disputes have also intensified between member parties (as well as within the regions led by those parties), amid a widespread perception that ODP is replacing TPLF as a hegemon. The reasons indicated for this are the increasing dominance of ODP within the executive, at the federal government level, as well as within Addis Abeba city administration. Strains have begun to show in the alliance between ODP and the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), particularly over representational issues and the jurisdictional status of the capital city Addis Abeba, which is also the capital of the Oromia region, known as Finfinne in Oromo language.

Read Aloud:   Will Ethiopia withstand the setback or return to dictatorship?

In addition, ADP faces its own serious discontent in the Amhara region and a severe challenge in the next election from the ethno-nationalist National Movement for Amhara (NaMA), as well as to a lesser extent unitarian parties like Ginbot 7. The ODP itself faces a stern test and extremely divided loyalties in Oromia between prominent personalities, activists and opposition parties like OLF (Oromo Liberation Front) and the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) despite the popularity of Abiy Ahmed and his ally Lemma Megersa, President of Oromia.

The Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ (SNNP) region is in the process of balkanization. Dozens of zonal administrations have formally requested to hold referendum to split from the region and form their own regional states. The most notable demand is from Sidama region, with a population of more than four million people.

Since losing dominance with Abiy’s emergence to power, the TPLF has retreated to regroup in the regional capital Mekelle. Although the TPLF has maintained relative peace, its ongoing enmity with the Eritrean leadership, refusal to cooperate with the federal government on numerous issues and its border dispute with the Amhara region has isolated the region. But the party still presents itself as the custodian of the constitution and federal government.

2020 Election: The Litmus Test

The prime minister has talked about creating a national party that moves beyond ethnic lines and altering the constitution to institute a presidential system that he argues would be more egalitarian and inclusive, enabling ‘any Ethiopian living in any corner of the country’ to become president. His short-term calculation is more likely that universal suffrage, coupled with regional alliances increase the likelihood of a populist figure like himself being re-elected. Abiy has also suggested installing a two-term limit, although this is yet to be enacted.

While the 2020 national elections could provide the mandate that the prime minister needs to deliver such changes, the parameters and the date for this vote have yet to be decided and the current security environment makes it difficult to conceive of viable elections being held.

In several regions the government parties (assuming EPRDF will stick together until then) will face divided loyalties, serious discontent and challenges from ethno-nationalist movements, as well as to a lesser extent unitarian parties. For Abiy to consolidate his power at the federal level his party ODP will need to win convincingly in Oromia, and he has put a lot of energy into courting opposition parties. Formerly banned parties which have recently returned, like Patriotic Ginbot 7, may welcome an election postponement, to enable them to reengage and strengthen their support base, while some federalist forces like the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and NaMA are demanding that the vote be held on time. The TPLF, which does not have a significant challenger in Tigray, insists that delay would amount to a constitutional breach.

A national census that was supposed to be conducted ahead of the elections has been postponed indefinitely because of security concerns and massive displacement in the regions. This delay has been contentious and heavily politicized because it influences the amount resources and power the federal regions receive. Demographics are acutely sensitive at the current juncture given the shifting political sands and the long-term significance of the forthcoming election.

Read Aloud:   The TPLF on retreat. - By Yilma Bekele (Woyane - the cornered Beast.)

Ethiopia’s Security Crisis

Abiy Ahmed inherited a parlous security situation. Inter-communal violence has resulted in nearly 3 million internallydisplaced people (IDPs), with over 1.4 million in 2018 alone, the highest numbers globally. In addition, disputes between and within regional states have worsened, with varying levels of clashes between Oromia and Benishangul; Oromia and Somali; Somali and Afar; and Tigrai and Amhara. The worst has been the Guji and Gedeo crisis, resulting in the displacement of 1 million people, many whose farms and homes have been destroyed and for whom access to humanitarian assistance has been restricted.

The security situation has worsened partly because the government’s monopoly of the legitimate use of force has been diluted among several actors. The current escalation of violence is not only directed from the government to the people (as has been the case in Ethiopia for centuries) but is also among individuals and groups as well. The fact that Abiy has targeted Ethiopia’s authoritarian security agencies (from which he hails) has arguably exacerbated the problem. Senior officials have been relieved from their positions or arrested under corruption charges. This has resulted in the TPLF and Tigrayans feeling targeted by the government. Restructuring these institutions has caused a damaging power vacuum which needs to be replaced with an effective means of exercising force in the interests of national security and stability.

The prime minister has failed to respond adequately to these complex crises beyond establishing ad-hoc commissions, including one for Reconciliation and one for Administrative Boundary and Identity Issues. The government must move beyond symbolism and empower institutions – particularly the recently established Ministry of Peace – to deliver local reconciliation efforts that are linked to a genuinely inclusive nationwide peace process.

‘It’s The Economy, Stupid.’

While Ethiopia boasts the highest GDP growth in Africa, it slowed below 8 per cent in 2018. Abiy Ahmed has disrupted Ethiopia’s state-led developmental model, centered on domestically financed large-scale industrialization and infrastructure projects; and instead sought to tackle Ethiopia’s debt and currency crisis by renegotiating Chinese loans, seeking financial and technical support from the World Bank, and courting new investment from the Gulf and Western partners.

The government has also begun a cautious move to private sector-led liberalization, with initial privatizations planned in the telecom and logistics sectors, but have put the brakes on all-out reform after criticism of plans to sell-off profitable companies like Ethiopian Airlines. The leadership wants to avoid moving from a state monopoly to a business monopoly and this will be a staged process, starting with regulatory reform and a greater role for business in job creation.

Despite a complicated operating environment, private sector appetite to invest remains strong and the government is keen to bring in more foreign currency to help alleviate its debt stress, particularly as the country is not able to substantially increase earnings from exports in the short term. Regional and international banks are keen to enter the market and there are efforts towards banking sector reform under Yinager Dessie, the new Governor of the national bank. Parliament also ratified the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which is a useful step as the financial sector is one of the five areas required to be opened by the parties of under service sector liberalization. Ethiopia moved to facilitate greater inter-African mobility, adopting a visa on arrival policy for Africans in line with the African Union’s decision to improve regional integration on the continent.

Tackling youth unemployment is a critical challenge in a country of 100 million people, with two million young peopleentering the job market every year. Ethiopia plans to create a million jobs a year through the expansion of its industrial parks and rapid growth in the manufacturing and services sectors. But even this will not be enough given population growth pressures and the demands to reduce poverty. Cognizant of the role of youth in toppling the previous EPRDF leadership, Abiy has focused on transforming the capital city rather than rural areas, claiming that ‘if you can change Addis…you can change Ethiopia’. However, it is important to note that the protests were largely spearheaded by rural youth and in order to reduce Ethiopia’s inequalities, transformation needs to start in the rural areas, home to approximately 80 per cent of the population. It is another difficult balancing act.

Read Aloud:   Hagos: The first class and the first citizen in Ethiopia (part 2).

Fostering Regional Peace

Abiy Ahmed’s major foreign policy success has been the normalization of relations with Eritrea after twenty years of discord, bringing a massive peace dividend to a vast area of the Horn of Africa that had long been undermined by proxy conflicts between Addis Abeba and Asmara. Within weeks of a landmark July 2018 meeting between the prime minister and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki, essential services were restored. Nonetheless, fundamental challenges remain in the relationship, including the need to outline details of a lasting political and economic cooperation framework.

The establishment of a sub-regional trilateral committee comprised of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia is positive; however it should not be at the expense of maintaining good relations with traditional allies Djibouti, Sudan and Kenya; or impede reforms needed to make the Intergovernmental Authority on Development a truly functional regional organization. Abiy Ahmed’s role in improving prospects for lasting peace in the Horn has created a significant reservoir of regional and international goodwill. Yet if lasting solutions are to be found, he will need to engage with multilateral organizations rather than relying on one-to-one dialogues.

Ethiopia’s relationship with the Gulf states has also significantly improved over the past year, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE playing a role in brokering peace with Eritrea, Addis Abeba partnering with Abu Dhabi and Riyadh to improve economic integration in the Horn, and several new agreements on economic and military cooperation, including the UAE pledging $3 billion in aid and investment.

Abiy Ahmed has made great strides in his first year by challenging the status quo and disrupting the authoritarian state machinery. Yet, Ethiopia remains at a cross roads, and there remains significant uncertainty about the road ahead despite the prime minister’s intentions and the force of his personality. In his second year he must strive towards building a plural, democratic and stable political order, focusing on developing lasting institutions. For the prime minister’s reforms to stick he needs to revitalize the EPRDF under a new common vision and implement a sound economic strategy that consolidates hard-won recent gains. Most importantly, Abiy needs to address a deteriorating security situation that threatens the survival of the country. The burgeoning relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea and broader regional integration, including across the Red Sea, needs to be expanded, but not at the expense of traditional allies and regional multilateralism.

Ultimately, Ethiopia’s many challenges are far more than one leader can tackle alone, and Abiy Ahmed must trust in the expertise around him to ensure the support and goodwill generated in his tumultuous first year is not squandered. AS


Editor’s Note: This is an expanded version of an Expert Comment produced by Chatham House

Abel Abate Demissie is Political Analyst; PhD Researcher in Global and Area Studies. He tweets at @Abele_a

Ahmed Soliman is Research Fellow, Horn of Africa, Africa Program at Chatham House. He tweets at @AhmedSolHoA



  1. In my opinion and from what I hear from relatives who live both in the capital and other small towns, yes he will continue to model the old country in possible good ways. It has been a year now and not reversed yet. There are no protesters being victimized by the state apparatus even though some among the former prisoners and refugees are daring his regime to do so. These few daytime dreamers who fantasize victimization are doing everything irresponsible and uncalled for, for Abiy to come in arrest them. They bark at the wrong tree and scratch themselves bloody where it does not itch. If he fails and the progress he helped implemented end up being reversed back to the ‘good ole days’, it will not be so because he has gone rogue. My worries are those bigots that took or trying to take foothold among their respective ethnic groups. They have a lot in their modern edition of ‘Mein Kempf’ to spit around blaming the ‘other’ ethnic group for the social and economic ills that have been bedeviling theirs. Shamefully some of these are college level ‘professors’ and at such height scholars. For me all ethnicity based liberation fronts have outlived their purpose and should never be relevant for what needs to be done at the moment. Yes they had their uses and legitimacy during their early years. They have awakened us whose culture and rights as an ethnic were trampled and imbued a great sense of pride in all of us. That was good and dandy. But at certain point during their history they should have come in complete union with others around them who were in the fight for the rights of the common man/woman. But they did not and that presented an inevitable problem. It is a given that when you narrow your objectives to one specific group the organization you founded for a noble cause will end up being a magnet for haters and sworn bigots. That is natural. It is a dead giveaway. Just look at every one of them. TPLF, OLF, ONLF and all other ethnic liberation fronts. Just ask them to dissolve and form a united multi ethnic opposition party now. Just ask them. Every one of them will call you name, a denigrating name. That is because they have continued to go on alone and have no taste for merging. They have turned into a den of thieves and bigots. They are now hell bent on lighting up an inferno and therefore mayhem so they can slice out a territory where they will enslave their own people. If you challenge me for this claim, all you have to do is provide me an ocular proof where such ‘liberation’ fronts ended up being founders of democracy their people have been denied for ages. Just give me one. I know you can’t find one in the hood over there but I will let you roam anywhere around the globe. You will find none. That is because ethnic ‘liberation’ fronts are by their nature vulnerable to unavoidable diseases if they continue to operate alone for a long time. One of such deadly afflictions is hatred for innocent others. All you have to do is look at how they behave toward and talk about others. This morbid disease is now spreading from Moyale to Gondar and from Dewele to the Western border of the old country. Bigots have been killing and driving their long time innocent neighbors from Somali and Oromia regions. Bigots are driving and killing their long time and inter-married neighbors from the Amhara regions. Bigots are in Tigray are hiding indicted torturers among them just because they are from Tigray. Bigots here and bigots everywhere!!! They are taking comfort and delight in seeing tens and thousands murdered and more than 3 million people displaced because they see the victims as enemies not former neighbors. The only means these bigots in the 21st century Ethiopia are in want of is the ability to create an industry intended for a ‘final solution’ for others they hate. But they have managed to see mothers cry their eyes out for their murdered children. Such cry is music to the ears of these bigots. The solution is not to give wars these demons have been itching for. The best way to render them irrelevant is relentless education of citizens in every region. A serious nationwide campaign of isolating them, that is.

    As usual this is my two cents worth of an opinion.

  2. There is a major cabinet shuffle I read today on another website. Lemma is suddenly moved from his current position as the leader of the Oromia region to a defense minister. The former leader of the Amhara region is now the foreign minister. It is an interesting development. Things are moving at a whirlwind speed but the opposition is still on its lazy nap time, still splintered seemingly beyond repair. Narrow minded bigots are still busy spitting poison with no regards to the well being of even the very people they are having fits to ‘liberate’.

  3. Ittu,

    I have been reading the articles you send to The Habesha for a long time. In most cases, your ideas are balanced and fair. However, not this time. Why are you mad at the people who oppose Abiy Ahmed? Many reasonable Ethiopians, including this writer, have so many concerns regarding Abiy`s administration, including the massive displacement of poor Ethiopians, lack of security in the country, unfair power distribution at the federal level as well as Addis Ababa, the ruthless mob driven by “Kegna” that hangs people upside down and terrorizes the residents of Addis, the parallel government run by Jowar, etc. I am wondering why you ignored all these issues and rather started blaming and cursing people who have grievances about Abiy`s government.

    One more point: What every oromo should understand is that, a year ago, Ethiopians, irrespective of ethnic groups or political spectrum, accepted Abiy and Lemma with so much joy. So, why are people now given names when they say there are problems?

    • Dear Fellow Countryman/women Meseret:

      Thank you for taking the time to read this and my previous comments. I am sorry if I sound to you that I have admonished all those who oppose the current PM and his administration. But actually I was selective. In any given society both with a matured political discourse or all such culture is at its novice, there is always a way how citizens manage their conduct and behavior. In our case political discourse in a free environment is in its infantile stage. As you and I know, there are other factors that are compounding the burden to such young ‘democratic’ environment. Please note that when I say ‘democratic’ the fact that the officials in charge over there either in the parliament or in executive branch were not chosen for the job through open and fair ballot is not lost on me. But it is a glaring fact that the mayhem we read almost every day, be it the displacements of millions or killings of thousands was not perpetuated by the administration of this visionary PM but rather by those who harbor uncontrollable hatred for others.

      I have said this on so many occasions: The question related to nations and nationalities has been amicably answered after 1995. That child from my Itu clan does not have to have the shock of his young life on his first day at school like I was more than 68 years because the medium has changed on him so suddenly. No member my Itu clan does not have to scramble for a translator for his case to be heard in court. He/she can write and read in his language and he/she does not have to scream ‘Praise The Lord’ whenever that absentee landlord sneezes in the hood. So the national question is in the bag, done and finished. The problem my Itu farmer faces is not that different from what a farmer in the Amhara region faces. To me the grinding economic situation was not handed over to a specific ethnic group saving another one from the want of basics. It is a common problem bedeviling every one. In light of such reality, those who are still pushing the nationality question are still at it spewing hatred toward others. In the absence of these bigots Somalis and Oromos have lived in harmony for ages. I have lived in such environment during my formative years and I still have friends from several ethnic groups.

      Those who still push the nationality question do not and are not willing to entertain the fact that my Oromos will never, ever be able to liberate themselves from the economic backwardness by fighting it all alone. Never!!! My noble neighbors in Amhara region will never, ever be able to get rid of the economic hurdle that has been dragging them and holding in the insurmountable muck by fighting it alone. This applies to every ethnic group of the old country. This is a dead giveaway. Ethnic bigots know this for fact and due to their evil agenda of carving out a territory they are doing all the evil act to control and guide how the people in their hoods conduct their behavior. They are using the current free speech environment to their advantage by spewing hatred and poison. Just look at comments and articles they post on the social media and public forums. That was where my ire was directed but not on those who critique the regimes for its wrong moves. I have profusely criticized the PM for calling a dinner party at a $5 million(180,000 US dollars) a plate to beautify the capital when millions are displaced and tens of thousands of children malnourished. I wrote the following:
      ‘8.3 million starving people? Come on man!!! How about this $180,000 US dollar per plate gala which is said to be receiving plausible response domestically? That is ok. It is for a proposed park in the capital. With $180,000 per plate gala, khamr of all kinds is gonna flow rivers!!! Cakes as high as the mountain nearby are going to be devoured by half seas over party goers in a flash!!! Choice fillet mignons, imported blue-fin salmons you name it will be right there on the 10 course menu. 8.3 million starving citizens? Who gives a hoot!!! ?’

      Again, my beef is not with those who are telling the PM off when he erred. But I will remain relentless in going after those who are hell bent to pitch one proud and peace-mongering group of people against another. In the meantime, I have a question for you? Who is displacing who in their millions over there? I don’t expect you to tell me that it is those Kenyans, Sudanese, Eritreans and Djiboutians or soldiers of Salva Kiir. It is those narrow minded bigots who are guiding in the most destructive ways the conduct and behavior of the instigating people. And don’t call these ‘liberation fronts’. Please!!!

      • Thanks much for your civilized response. I and many other Ethiopians are happy that millions are now getting educated in their mother tongue unlike the time you started schooling. The paradox, however, is that currently more than 11 million non-oromo Ethiopians living in oromia are forced to learn kube and are unable to get service in their mother tongue at kebeles, court and other government institutions. Worse than this is being denied the basic right of electing and being elected at a place they call homeland.In the present day Ethiopia, the only political parties legally allowed to organize in oromia are oromo parties. As a result, the more than 11 million Ethiopians are unable to be elected because they are not oromos. At the same time, these people will be indifferent to participate in the election process as the party of their choice is not represented. In fact, this is happening not only in oromia, but in other states too.
        We do not know when our “beloved” prime minister is going to aware of this.

        • Meseret,

          When it is said that majority rules that should not mean minorities should be devoid of their rights. To be honest with you, in my book I will be totally amiss on what minority means in any region over there. In the eyes of the law everyone should be equal. That is if we are talking about life in a democratic environment. For me I can’t comprehend how anyone born and raised in that small town I was born does not speak Oromifaa. Everyone I know from that small district speaks fluent Oromifaa and the extent they are skilled in it puts me to shame. Not only from that small strict but everyone have I known from the Chercher highlands is fluent Oromifaa speaker. I brought up the possibility of Oromifaa as a national medium along with the existing Amharic language with several of them, their answer to me was unanimous like ‘bring it on’. That does not mean that their children should go thru the same shock as I did either. Being in charge of governance comes with heavy responsibilities. Respecting and protecting the rights of minorities is one of them. You cannot force people to learn and become successful at it. It requires being methodical and peaceful persuasive. We know firsthand that imposition does not cut the mustard, don’t we? This issue is something that must be handled sans raw emotions and those who are in the business of stirring the simmering pot toward violence. If some officials and community leaders are having fit to ‘settle scores’ for improprieties committed in the past, then you and I should forget about the old country. We will then say ‘Here she goes, down the drain!’ That shows things are not always being done not by those tolerant but rather those intolerant bigots. This applies to other ‘minorities’ in every region.

          You see, all it needs is talk about it in such civilized manner just as how you and I are doing it here on this esteemed website without raw emotions getting the best of us.

  4. These people that disturb.peace are khat and heroin addicts that are willing to do anything to satisfy their addictions of heroin and khat. Addiction makes people think of themselves only. These people that go disturbing are heroin addicts willing to sell their beliefs just so they do not to suffer pain from heroin lacking sickness / dope sick. Heroin addicts suffer from major physical pain/ dope sickness if they don’t get their heroin when they need it. Afghanistan with a population of about 36 million people is not a failed state.Taliban controlled areas are doing great while even other areas of Afghnistan are doing ok. Drug addiction and homelessness is their problem , not poverty. Afghanistan for a short period of time in early 2000’s when Taliban banned opium production was in economic crisis. In late 2000’s Opium got replaced by Heroin and Afghanistan is doing great now. Heroin proved to be more reliable and in demand compared to opium, now the worldwide narcotics trade helped Afghanistan be powerful. Afghanistan supplies opioid to the whole world with Heroin puppy seed. Taliban Afghanistan is expected to make more than 10 billion USD net profit from puppy seed export only just in 2019. Ethiopia is expected to make only 200 million USD in net profit from the export sector in 2019.Ethiopia expects to make 2.5 billion USD gross profit from the export sector in 2019 , out of the 2.5 billion USD gross profit after deducting all expenses the net profit is expected to be just only 200 million USD.

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