Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: The leader promising to heal a nation
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been widely praised for introducing sweeping reforms aimed at ending political repression, writes BBC Africa editor Fergal Keane after visiting the country.
The crowd at the airport in Jimma in Ethiopia’s Oromia region was handpicked and universally rapturous.
But these were not the praise-singing party hacks who so often grace the arrivals and departures of powerful men in Africa.
Men and women, old, young and very young – beaming babies were held above the crowd – had gathered to witness the arrival of a political sensation.
“We are so very happy,” an elderly man shouted to me above the sound of the military band, “it is like a renaissance. We have waited so long for this.”
Shift from autocracy
Then Abiy Ahmed was among us, descending the steps of his plane to delighted cheers, testing the nerves of his security detail as he reached into the crowd to kiss a baby here, embrace an old man there.
I was conscious of an extraordinary fusion between the driven energy of an individual and the hope of a nation. Africa has rarely seen anyone like him.
At 42 he is the youngest leader on the continent but his impact is far greater than his age suggests.
When the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition elected him prime minister nine months ago the country, Africa’s second largest in terms of population with more than 100 million people, shifted decisively from a long period of autocracy.
He ended a 20-year conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, freed thousands of political prisoners, unfettered the media and appointed women to half the cabinet posts.
Parliament also accepted his female nominees for president and head of the supreme court.
On top of that, he asked a dissident leader to return from exile in the United States to run the electoral commission.
The pace of change has delighted pro-democracy activists and thrown more reactionary elements off balance.
Fourteen years ago, Birtukan Mideksa spent 18 months in prison as leader of an opposition party before leaving for exile in the US.
She was as surprised as most observers when Mr Abiy invited her to return and chair the National Election Board.
“Thousands, if not millions, of people paid [a heavy price] to see this kind of change in this country… to see this opening,” Ms Birtukan told me.
“To have a former opposition leader, former dissident, to lead an institution with significant independence of action… means a lot.
“For those people who paid a price in the process, it’s really significant,” Ms Birtukan added.
‘Use ideas not weapons’
But change has inevitably emphasised the significant challenges still facing Mr Abiy.
When I caught up with him at a graduation ceremony for medical students in Jimma he appealed to them to “use ideas not weapons” and to follow the example of a nation like Japan, which recovered from World War Two to build a sophisticated economy.
Born to a Muslim father and a Christian mother on 15 August 1976
Speaks fluent Afan Oromo, Amharic, Tigrinya and English
Joined the armed struggle against the Marxist Derg regime in 1990
Served as a UN peacekeeper in Rwanda in 1995
Entered politics in 2010
Briefly served as minister of science and technology in 2016
Became prime minister in April 2018
Ethiopia has one of the fastest growing economies in the world but still has a vast number of unemployed young people.
This is both a reservoir of potential talent and potential dissent if Mr Abiy’s moves to liberalise the economy and tackle corruption do not succeed swiftly.
The prime minister was addressing the graduates in Jimma against a backdrop of deepening ethnic conflicts across the country.
Ethiopia has more than 80 different ethnic groups.
The divisions are old and deep rooted, but they flared up with a new intensity in the first half of last year when 1.4 million people were forced to flee ethnic conflict in the west of the country, according to the UN.
Source:. BBC News