By Paul Schemm
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia’s ruling coalition elected a new chairman and eventual prime minister from a vast protest-hit region, in a major shift in leadership that could also ease persistent unrest in one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.
Ethiopia has been racked by violence for the last three years amid protests by members of an ethnic group, known as the Oromo, maintaining they have been systematically excluded from power.
A decision late Tuesday to pick an Oromo lawmaker to lead Ethiopia’s governing coalition marked a potentially important step to ease political upheavals that have twice forced authorities to declare a state of emergency.
The tensions also reverberated well beyond Ethiopia’s borders, threatening its status as an anchor of stability and foreign investment in East Africa and its role as a key U.S. ally in the region.
The council of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four ethnically based parties, voted for Abiy Ahmed, 41, an outspoken Oromo member of parliament to be its new chairman. That sets the stage for Abiy to be named prime minister.
The move comes after days of closed-door meetings and six weeks after the previous prime minister, Hailmariam Desalegn, abruptly announced his resignation, saying it was to further democracy in the country.
His resignation prompted the declaration of a new state of emergency around the country — and especially in the Oromo region which surrounds the capital. Oromos make up a third of the population of 100 million but maintain they have been consistently excluded from having a voice in shaping the country.
Abiy would be the country’s first Oromo head of state in modern times and his accession to the premiership is expected to calm the persistent protests and violence in the countryside.
“There was dancing last night in the town, people were dancing in the streets and congratulating each other,” said Andu Selam, an engineering student in the town of Mettu in the Oromia region in southwestern Ethiopia. “People have hope now that things will be different — if someone else had been selected, [the demonstrations] would not have stopped.”
Abiy would only be the third prime minister since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, overthrew the communist regime in 1991 and his predecessor was seen largely as a placeholder dedicated to maintaining the policies of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s leader until his death in 2012.
Abiy, however, is expected to bring something very different.
“He was the candidate with the most radical reform agenda compared to the other three candidates,” said Hallelujah Lulie, a political analyst. “His biggest challenge will be the state of emergency, not from the perspective of the people, but he won’t be a fully mandated prime minister while the military and intelligence handle the major political and security situation.”
Abiy’s victory was clinched when his chief rival, Demeke Mekonnen of the Amhara party, withdrew his candidacy to become the deputy chairman. The move suggested the Oromos and the Amharas, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, have formed an alliance.
Abiy’s reform agenda, however, will likely face opposition from the establishment. Among the biggest challenges will be attempts to address complaints against security services, which are widely reviled by the Oromos for their role in suppressing dissent.
At the very least, his accession coming on the heels of the widespread protest and political crisis, means he won’t be seen as a puppet the way Hailemariam was.
“Abiy came to the chairmanship and the premiership rebelling against the status quo,” asserted Hallelujah. “He is the result of a popular uprising that rocked Ethiopia for the past two years, that is the major difference between the two.”
Under pressure from the protests that begin in earnest at the end of 2015, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization began taking a more opposition-like role in the ruling coalition — especially after Abiy and his colleague Lemma Megersa took on leadership positions.
The unrest, which also spread to the northern Amhara region, coupled with the growing splits in the ruling coalition, prompted a political crisis that first saw the massive release of political prisoners, then the resignation of the prime minister and finally a new state of emergency.
There were also strikes in the Oromo towns around the capital that disrupted transportation services and at one point choked off fuel supplies.
A mistaken operation against alleged rebels then resulted in the deaths of 10 civilians in the border town of Moyale sending a flood of refugees into Kenya. There has also been renewed detentions of activists and journalists, including some that had only just been released.
The expectation is that with Abiy’s selection, the unrest will die down as he is given a chance to prove himself.
Abiy is no stranger to the establishment, however.
He served as a lieutenant colonel in the armed forces and in 2007 created the Information Network Security Agency, which has been criticized by activists for its surveillance activities both inside and outside the country. He was also briefly the minister for science and technology in 2015.
Influential blogger Daniel Berhane, who has been described as close to the previous government, said Abiy’s election was a bit strange.
“He doesn’t have the experience or the temperament,” he said, noting Abiy’s limited time in top party circles. “Part of the thinking in many people’s minds is that if you elect an Oromo there will be a few months peace in Oromia but I doubt it.”
Ethiopa’s very active — and often anti-government — diaspora lit up Twitter following the announcement, with both congratulations and pessimism about Abiy’s ability to reform the country, with many commentators urging that the new leader be given a grace period.
In Mettu, deep in southwestern Ethiopia, however, the mood was euphoric and there seemed little doubt that something new was afoot for the country.
“I am feeling very excited and energetic to do something for my country,” said Andu by phone. “It has totally changed everything. We are alive now, before we were dead.”