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The appointment of Dr Abiye Ahmed Ali to the chairmanship of Ethiopia’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front Party (EPRDF) – and to the country’s premiership – has sparked hope that some peace and stability might return to the country and the wider region.
The election of Dr Abiye, the chairman of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO), one of the four coalition parties of the ruling EPRDF, follows anti-government protests, acknowledged failures in political leadership, the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and violence in four of the country’s regional states.
Abiye is the first ethnic Oromo to hold the post in the EPRDF’s rule and was an early favourite for the top job, given that he had the support of social media and diaspora networks, as well as members of the international community.
In addition to hailing from the Jimma Zone of the Oromia Regional State, his multi-religious (a Christian mother and Oromo Muslim father) and multi-lingual (Afan Oromo, Tigrinya, Amharic and English-speaking) background appealed to a population increasingly dissatisfied with the current administration.
The perception was that Dr Abiye was not as closely rooted to the Addis Ababa system as the other candidates and came with relevant professional and policy-based experience, which many felt would address critical weaknesses. Aged 42, he is also relatively young, making him appealing to a large, educated, professional class.
Dr. Abiye enlisted in the military in 1993 following the Tigrayan-led liberation struggle and the fall of the Derg military dictatorship. He joined during post-conflict demilitarisation and the country’s initial efforts to transform a Tigrayan-dominated liberation movement into a more ethnically representative national armed forces.
As such, he did well as an Oromo to reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel by 2010. He was part of the UN peacekeeping mission to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and served in the 1998–2000 Ethiopian–Eritrean border war, both of which provided direct experience of some of the ongoing national and regional security tensions.
His experience in intelligence, communications and in pioneering the development of the Information Network Security Agency will help him to lead a comprehensive reform agenda to develop the country’s security architecture. These institutional links are also critical for the required cooperation with numerous influential voices within government.
His home region Oromo – Ethiopia’s largest and most populous – generated the majority of the protests and violence since December 2015. His roots, commitment to change and good working relationship with Lemma Mergessa (whom Dr Abiye replaced as chairman of OPDO in February and who is now president of the regional state) will go some way towards placating a concerned Oromo population, as well as other regions which seek better federal–regional working relationships.
However, Dr Abiye’s eight years working with the EPRDF will also facilitate continuity of the party’s significant gains to date, particularly concerning economic development.
Dr Abiye’s post-graduate degrees in information technology, peace and security studies, business administration and transformational change make him ideally suited to taking the EPRDF’s unique democratic developmental state–building model to the next level.
The Party’s democratic-developmental strategy has been until now to take a socialist revolutionary position in a drive towards capitalism, which has made the next steps of this unique approach very difficult to predict. Dr Abiye is likely to be able to ensure that the tired ideological construct of the 1990s is replaced with a system that ensures continued economic development that is supported by comparable levels of social capital.
However, the biggest challenge facing Dr Abiye is making the country more pluralistic, allowing inclusive political dialogue. Quick wins in this area will go some way to closing the gap between the ruling administration and opposition groups in and out of Ethiopia.
Some of these diaspora groups have been responsible for elements of the crisis based on the sensationalised media commentary and a general lack of meaningful and comprehensive policy frameworks put forward by internal opposition groups.
The so-called ‘gimgema’ aspects of the Ethiopian political culture, which encourage differences to be addressed and resolved collectively, no matter how long this takes and irrespective of what ‘home truths’ are aired, is a good mechanism for bridging these gaps and opening dialogue.
With a doctoral thesis that examined social capital and traditional approaches to inter-religious conflict, Dr Abiye may also bring some empirically based knowledge on the value of dialogue to resolving differences.
As commentators continue to question whether Africa’s development ‘jewel’ is heading towards peril, Dr Abiye’s appointment as Ethiopia’s new prime minister should be welcomed and supported. The challenge now will be for the new leader to select a bright, gender-balanced cabinet to bridge the gains of the past and the challenges of the future.
He should also aim to prioritise a more pluralistic political dialogue, youth employment opportunities and a resilient, yet measured and socially progressive, economic agenda.
Despite a rocky start to 2018, this year could prove to be the start of Ethiopia’s new dawn.
Ann M Fitz-Gerald is Director of the Security Sector Management programme at Cranfield University.
Banner image: Abiye Ahmed Ali, the Prime Minister designate of Ethiopia. Courtesy of Odaw/Wikipedia
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.