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Time is running out for Abiy’s ‘new beginning’ in Ethiopia

By Cameron Hudson

Abiy 1After being sworn in this week in front of tens of thousands of jubilant supporters, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised “a new beginning” for Ethiopia as he begins a new five-year term. That’s precisely what Ethiopia needs after his first three years in office.

Inflation stands at a record-high 34 percent, the nation’s debt has reached a crippling $30 billion, and efforts to privatize some of the country’s corporate crown jewels, such as Ethio telecom, have floundered amid allegations of genocide and predictions of mass starvation as the conflict over the country’s Tigray region rages on. With the country’s trade benefits under the US African Growth and Opportunity Act likely to be suspended by the end of the month, what was once one of the world’s fastest growing economies suddenly finds itself on life support.

Cheering crowds and soaring rhetoric cannot hide the fact that Abiy’s troubles run deeper than just one restive region.

Since war broke out nearly a year ago in the northern region of Tigray, Ethiopia’s ethnic patchwork has only unraveled even further. Ethnic-based violence in the regions of Benishangul-Gumuz, Somali, Oromia, Afar, Amhara, and Southern Nations all suggest that Abiy’s original political ideology of “medemer”—an Amharic expression to convey a coming together beyond ethnic identity—has failed. Facts on the ground demonstrate that a military response alone will not suffice in addressing these mounting security threats and the level of displacement they’ve engendered.

As part of his “new beginning,” Abiy pushed through a new parliament—94 percent of which is controlled by his Prosperity Party—as well as the appointment of new cabinet ministers at the finance, defense, and peace ministries, nominally from opposition groups, in a move spun by his office as his “commitment to inclusivity.” But in tapping close allies and former subordinates, the move has prompted many to instead view the personnel change as style over substance—a deliberate attempt to re-assert control over key ministries involved in the war effort in advance of a new offensive intended to achieve a total victory.

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Abiy’s biggest promise this week to mollify domestic opponents and international critics has been to convene a national political dialogue, which he claims will address the shortcomings associated with his original vision of “medemer.”

But nothing suggests the dialogue will fundamentally alter the failed attempt to create a unitary Ethiopian state and dismantle the system of ethnic federalism that lies at the heart of Ethiopia’s current crisis. With his strongest opposition likely to be excluded from that dialogue—particularly armed groups from Tigray and Oromia, which have been labeled terrorist organizations—there is reason to question the sincerity of any reconciliation process that does not engage the specific grievances that caused Abiy’s foes to take up arms.

Lower on Abiy’s list of priorities, but no less important, should be an effort to re-establish some goodwill with the international community before actors such as the United States make good on the punitive measures they’ve long threatened. With the expulsion earlier this month of seven high-level United Nations (UN) officials from Ethiopia on grounds—labeled by the UN secretary-general himself as baseless—of meddling in the country’s internal affairs, Abiy has instead put himself on a collision course with countries that questioned the legality of that decision and have demanded the officials’ reinstatement.

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Will Abiy budge?

If he fails to abide calls to bring back UN officials, it’s difficult to imagine that the United States won’t designate top Abiy aides under the sanctions regime it introduced last month. But it’s even harder to imagine Abiy publicly relenting at this point in the face of international pressure after ignoring so many off-ramps to avoid punitive measures.

His government’s continuing humanitarian blockade of Tigray—beyond the widespread human-rights abuses that prompted the US government to open a genocide investigation—means that any national reconciliation must be preceded by mediation, peace-building, justice, and accountability for all the transgressions of the past year.

Judging by the triumphalism of Abiy’s remarks this week, that feels like an unlikely scenario. As the rainy season ends this month, fueling fears of a massive new government offensive, the situation on the ground in Tigray is likely to get far worse before it gets better. As the already dire humanitarian and human-rights situations worsen, so too will Ethiopia’s foreign relations.

But with an electoral victory, a vast parliamentary majority, and a seeming mandate to lead, Abiy now has some of the political capital he might need to begin to escape from the corner into which he’s painted himself.

As a first step—and on the advice of the three African members of the UN Security Council—he could compel his compliant parliament to rescind the terrorist designations against the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and Oromo Liberation Front, an essential first step toward ceasefire talks and eventual political dialogue. It is also entirely within his power to lift the blockade of Tigray and save as many as one million lives in the process.

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To help him on this path, the African Union recently deployed a lifeline in the form of its new Horn of Africa envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo. Privately, Ethiopian officials seem open to an African solution to their decidedly African problem: They appear to have faith in Obasanjo’s ability to keep Western powers at bay while offering Abiy a face-saving way to de-escalate, going so far as to invite him to establish a backchannel to the TPLF. As he builds out his team, Washington would do well to communicate its support for Obasanjo’s mission—but also stay at arm’s length, since any American fingerprints on this process could well undermine it.

Abiy’s call for “a new beginning” suggests at least an acknowledgement that Ethiopia is at a perilous point in its history. Although he continues to blame and punish those who oppose him, we must hope he realizes that more of the same war-making, ethnic division, and human-rights abuses will only produce more of the same poor results for the economy and his foreign relations. Abiy still has the possibility to live up to the spirit of the Nobel Peace Prize he received in 2019 for making peace with neighboring Eritrea. Let’s see whether he can do the same within his own country.

Cameron Hudson is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center and a former director for African affairs on the staff of the National Security Council.

6 Comments

  1. The writer is bold enough to predict the demise of Ethiopia as it is known today. He paints the country as if it is on its last rite. Well many preceding writers like him used to predict the demise of Israel on the eve of the 6-day war in 1967. They were writing Israel was toast. But we know what happened just on the first day of the war. It made those writers eat their crows. Reckless writers like this guy will not further the accord for the possibility of a negotiated settlement for the current senseless fracas between the leaders of the TPLF and Abiy’s new administration. It only hardens the heads of Debre’s and his cabals. He talks about one ‘crime’ after another committed by Ethiopia but he does not cite any solutions. It makes me think like ‘Was this guy really one of the policy forgers of the greatest nation on this good earth?’ He paints Abiy and everyone in that country as people who can not think. He should know better to see them that way. He is pushing the Biden Administration to US African Growth and Opportunity Act. He should know better that such decision will deny innocent citizens to work at factories and feed their families and tells us exactly when that is going to happen, at the end of this month. This guy may not realize it but throwing hundreds of thousands of hardworking black folks out of factories is like writing their and their families’ death warrants. That is an outright racism of him. Good Ole USA will never do that.

    • Make that: He is pushing the Biden Administration to suspend US African Growth and Opportunity Act on Ethiopia. He should know better that such decision will deny innocent citizens the chance to work at factories and feed their families and he tells us with absolute confidence exactly when that is going to happen, at the end of this month.

  2. We don’t expect much from white supremacist who crown themselves as a political analyst. Hudson write this to earn his living and we know that TPLF rewards a guy like him from the stolen money- stolen from borrowed money as Hudson rightly stated “the nation’s debt has reached a crippling $30 billion” Hudson who borrowed this money and embezzled it? TPLF right? Try to get your share by posting articles that pleases TPLF

  3. Worthless opinions like this one belongs to the refuse pile. Does he think we do not know as to why Ethiopia is buried with unsurmountable debt? We do. It is done purposely by the World bank and IMF. Much of that loan or Aid money is transferred back to banks around the globe to be shared among the many actors and the brutal TPLF agents. The world is waking up to discern the tactics used by Western powers to divide others for their own benefits. We also understand much of print and broadcast western media is operating to satisfy the haves not the have nots. The haves are those who are directing and leading the government policy as they desire. The Corpocracies! Wake up and smell the Coffee!
    Ethiopia is not running out of time. You are. Look around you and you can see ample signs things are changing fast. We know how to survive with minimum resources and can face any circumstance to see a better future. Despite your gloomy assertion, Ethiopians are ready to assist the newly elected Prime Minster as one people. You may have drunk from the Kool Aid of TPLF to assert such an opinion. Keep guzzling. Woe to those who are fomenting division and unrest for their temporary gain. It is futile. Please know, Mr. Hudson, according to theoretical Physics “Time is an illusion” it does not correspond to physical reality. Your assertion that the Prime Minster is running out of time is a mirage of an opinion. He has got it. And Ethiopians expect him to do a good job regardless of Western governments and mass medias misinformation campaign against our beloved country and its leaders. I say to you and to your kinds, hands off from Ethiopia! Find another issue to munch. Leave us alone!

  4. This guy likes to talk about the burden of debt that is breaking the back of the old country which is about 30 billion US dollars but he does not say diddly squat about more than 30 billion in US dollars that was pilfered from that nation’s coffers under his watch by the TPLF leaders and their connected accomplices. I’m still befuddled to know this guy was, may be still is, one of the movers and drivers of my dearest adapted country USA’s foreign policy. I guess in this day and age of internet copy and paste can get you the honor of cum sum laude. You add a member of your church or temple as your professor/advisor it will be smooth sailing to such coveted honor.

    Meanwhile, I call upon President Biden not the suspend the favorable trade act on Ethiopia because it only punish the innocent bread winners sending their families to starvation. Those hard working black folks are innocent and the suspension denies them the only means to make a living and bring the dough home to their families. There haven’t been any trade crippling economic sanction on Angela Merkel and her administration for proceeding on the construction of the gas line by Russia. To sanction individuals one thing but to deny innocent hundreds of thousand of innocent black folks of their only means of making a living is like signing their death warrants. Just please don’t do it!

    On the other hand, I call upon the new PM Abiy administration to stop beating the drums of war and pursue in earnest the solution of the current conflict in Tigray thru peaceful means and open up the roads so badly needed food aid and other life saving supplies are delivered to those upright citizens of that region.

  5. Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Councils of Africa Center. He used to serve as U.S. special envoy chief of staff in Sudan and as director of African affairs at the National Security Council.
    He scribbled articles here and there mostly about Sudan and engaged to show a path and share his view to foreign secretary as an expert. The result of his recommendations are what we see in Sudan today. Such insensible diplomats are seeing Africa in their old colonial mentality that dictates Africa as it should be led, advised and helped only by white supremacists in order to reach African goals. It is bizarre to say the least that Cameron Hudson was quietly and happily watched when TPLF ruled Ethiopia with iron-fist, killing, arresting and expelling Ethiopians in thousands and when TPLF embezzled and squandered billions of dollars that Ethiopia is struggling to pay back with an exorbitant interest.
    It is sad to see such gross violation of international law and interference in domestic affairs of poor countries. Double standards and blatant arm twisting of the poorer countries are rampant by the west. If there is an economic interest, they will bend all the rules to grab whatever is there in Africa and they will go to the extreme to change the defiant leaders who stood by their people’s interest. These poor countries are pressured until they become submissive to the “whites” so they could control the minerals and raw materials of that rich continent. All these western orchestrated pushes against Ethiopia are to expel the Chinese influence where they see as one of the biggest threats to their interest and the evil thing about this big elephant’s struggle is that it will shatter the livelihood of millions of Ethiopians. So, we expect the Ethiopian government to end this war as soon as possible to at least stop the Hudson type enablers and Ethiopians should tighten their belts to the looming economic hardship by limiting and minimizing the imports of unnecessary comfort goods and till all bountiful lands to feed its population. Let me conclude by quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “We, too, born to freedom, and believing in freedom, are willing to fight to maintain freedom. We and all others who believe as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees.”

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