Abiy Ahmed Ali’s political, economic reforms in first 100 days revive Ethiopia

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Tuesday July 10, 2018

It’s a first 100 days in office that might have made Franklin D. Roosevelt’s head spin.

Abiy Ahmed Ali, the 41-year-old former intelligence officer who was elected prime minister in early April, has hit the ground sprinting, African analysts say, bringing vitality and movement to one of the continent’s biggest countries.

A short list of his moves to date includes the release of thousands of political prisoners and the lifting of other political restrictions, ending a state of emergency imposed by his predecessor, initiating a historic diplomatic outreach to neighboring Eritrea, and announcing plans to privatize key state industries such as aviation and energy.

Since he was sworn in on April 2, Mr. Abiy’s 100th day in office technically isn’t until Wednesday.

“His impact has been tremendous in all respects. Psychologically, politically, and as to the future of Ethiopia in terms of its ethnic relations and political model, it has been nothing short of amazing,” said Jan Abbink, who chairs the Researchers’ Assembly of the African Studies Center in the Dutch city of Leiden.

The whirlwind start was not anticipated when Mr. Abiy emerged from a pack of candidates to succeed Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned in February in the wake of massive popular protests against the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). Hundreds of people were killed in a wave of violence that swept the country, ignited at first by a redevelopment plan for the capital, Addis Ababa, in 2015. As a member of parliament, Mr. Abiy opposed the plan.
“I see my resignation as vital in the bid to carry out reforms that would lead to sustainable peace and democracy,” Mr. Desalegn said at the time, though popular hopes for a quick turnaround were low.

Mr. Abbink said Mr. Abiy, the youngest national leader on the continent, “came to power because the EPRDF realized that this could not go on. They had to respond, and they did that by giving the floor to a reformist-oriented person.”

Amid widespread doubts that the ruling coalition could reform from within, analysts say, Mr. Abiy has moved quickly to deal with popular unrest and extend an olive branch to potential adversaries.

“We want to work hand in hand with you,” Dr. Ahmed told a crowd of protesters in Oromia, the largest and most populous of Ethiopia’s nine regional states and the epicenter of the resistance to the Desalegn government.

Mr. Desalegn declared a state of emergency in 2016 when members of the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups began large-scale protests against the government. The Oromo and the Amhara felt marginalized by the EPRDF, which is largely dominated by the Tigray ethnic group, and advocated for greater representation and equity.

Human Rights Watch said thousands were imprisoned and an estimated 500 killed in suppression of the protests.

Upon taking office, Mr. Abiy officially apologized for the government’s actions against the protesters and lifted the state of emergency two months before it was scheduled to expire.

Mr. Abbink said Mr. Abiy’s conciliatory efforts set him apart from previous prime ministers.

“His whole tone of approaching the people and tuning into the concerns they’ve had for the past 20-25 years has made him really stand out compared to any previous prime minister,” the analyst said.

Eritrean outreach

In another major departure from the previous government, Mr. Abiy made a series of bold moves to quell regional tensions by declaring that Ethiopia would fully comply with the Algiers Agreement, a peace accord with neighboring Eritrea.

The two nations warred with each other over territorial disputes from 1998 to 2000. Some describe it as one of Africa’s bloodiest and most futile conflicts, which left some 100,000 dead.

The Algiers agreement, signed in December 2000, was meant to end hostilities, but tensions remained high as thousands of troops from both sides dug in along disputed border regions.

More than 15 years of a cold peace gave way to unprecedentedly warm words as Mr. Abiy personally welcomed an Eritrean delegation that included Foreign Minister Osman Saleh to Addis Ababa late last month, the first such high-level visit in more than two decades. The new prime minister announced that Ethiopian Airlines would resume long-blocked flights to Asmara, the Eritrean capital.

Mr. Osman called the meeting “a day of joy” and said Mr. Abiy’s offer “opened the door to peace.”

Closer to home, a critical goal for Mr. Abiy and the EPRDF is to alleviate Ethiopia’s increasing economic insecurity.

Despite consistent economic growth of 10 percent each year over the past decade, Ethiopia faces a staggering debt crisis. Foreign investors including China have dialed back their investments because of foreign exchange shortages. The International Monetary Fund has warned that the country’s debt ratios — at 59 percent of gross domestic product — are approaching dangerous territory.

Mr. Abiy’s response is to inject a strong dose of free market capitalism into the heavily statist economy. He told lawmakers in a budget debate Friday that the country must do more to spur growth, improve infrastructure and attract outside capital.

“We need to work [so that] investors have full confidence in the country,” he said, according to the Reuters news agency.

The government, he said, must be more effective and targeted in its spending programs. The government said last month that it will end its long-held monopoly over key sectors such as telecommunications, energy and aviation.

“They’re trying to open up the market for foreign competitors as well as domestic competitors. This is, of course, a short-term measure to gain currency,” Dr. Abbink said. Both the government and private economists say one key factor hampering growth is the lack of foreign currency.

Among the state assets targeted for partial privatization is Ethiopian Airlines, the continent’s largest and one of its most successful carriers. The government also announced last month that it would allow local companies to provide internet access via the state telecommunications provider, Ethio Telecom.

Despite widespread praise, Mr. Abiy faces monumental problems at home and abroad, and analysts say his political base has not been fully secured. His political liberalization and outreach to Eritrea has unnerved many in the ruling EPRDF, which consists of factions representing the country’s four major ethnic groups. Mr. Abiy hails from the Oromo ethnic group, making up roughly a third of the population.

In a tangible sign of the tough road ahead, an attacker disguised in police uniform hurled a grenade onto the stage at a June 23 rally in Addis Ababa, where Mr. Abiy had spoken to a crowd of supporters.

Two people were killed and 156 were injured in the attack. The prime minister was the target, authorities said, but he managed to escape unscathed.

Though no faction has claimed responsibility, 30 people, including nine security officials, have been arrested in connection with the attack. The FBI has said it will send agents to assist Ethiopia in its investigation.

The bigger risk may be that Mr. Abiy’s fast start — which has earned positive reviews across Africa — may have set popular expectations too high.

“There is political expectation on the part of the public for very quick change,” Awol Allo, an Ethiopian commentator who teaches law in Britain, recently told Agence France-Presse. “My worry is that he’s moving too fast in a country without the institutional safeguards to implement these policies.”

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