Is Abiy Ahmed delivering the change Ethiopia needs?

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Abiy Ahmed was chosen to replace Hailemariam Desalegn as Ethiopia’s prime minister in April and he inherited a nation in crisis. Desalegn’s resignation followed years of attempting to quash anti-government protests across several parts of the country, largely driven by two of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups: the Oromos and Amharas.

Abiy stepped into office as the country’s first Oromo prime minister and his mission was clear to everyone – to bring an end to dissent and reestablish the leading party’s position in power.

An Oromo man assuming the premier political role in Ethiopia understandably raised hopes that genuine reforms could be on their way. Such hopes are reinforced by the fact Abiy’s rise to the top of the ruling party resulted from a decline in power for the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the party which has always been the majority seat holder in the ruling EPRDF coalition.

Abiy’s first months in charge have been eventful, too, filled with promises and strong dialogue pointing to a better future. But is Ethiopia’s new PM delivering the change his country really needs or simply doing what’s necessary to calm public dissent?

The release of political prisoners

The first move Abiy made after being sworn in was to release more than a thousand political prisoners who had been detained during unrest over the past few years. For the prisoners released, this was a big deal, of course, but it wasn’t going to do much for the wider political concerns in Ethiopia.

We’ve seen this before, where prisoners are turned into bargaining chips after months or years of detention, released to calm public dissent under the rule of Hailemariam Desalegn.

For Abiy, this was the obvious first step but it didn’t offer us any clues with regards to how drastic life will be under the new prime minister.

Reconciliation efforts with government critics

Perhaps more significant than the release of prisoners – at least, in terms of suggesting genuine change will happen under Abiy – are the reconciliation efforts already being made with those accused of criticising the government in the past.

Thousands of people in Oromo were forced out of work after being accused of criticising the government or attending anti-government meetings during the past few years. For many, this has now changed and the government’s previous tactic of forcing dissent out of society appears to have disappeared under Abiy – how long for, remains to be seen.

Reaching out to Eritrea

It’s not only the Ethiopian people Abiy want to heal relations with either. The new PM has taken landmark steps to ease tensions with neighbouring Eritrea, the country that was once part of Ethiopia and departed following of conflict that never really ended.

For the past 16 years, Ethiopia has refused to accept an UN-backed border ruling that states disputed territory – most notably the town of Badme – belongs to Eritrea. This has been the primary cause of ongoing tension between the two countries and the threat of conflict has been everpresent since.

However, Abiy has said his country will fully abide by the border ruling reached in 2002 and work to build relations with Eritrea.

Calling out the country’s security forces

If Abiy has any doubters about his desire to implement significant political change in Ethiopia, they’ll probably point to the fact that most of his actions so far has been dialogue. However, there’s something in the way he talks that constantly hints that changes are never far away.

One of his most significant speeches so far has been calling out the country’s security forces for their actions during violent protests over the past few years. Accusing them of “terrorist acts” during a public speech, Abiy openly admitted to some of the primary failings of the ruling party during this time.

He’s not passing the blame, though. His choice words specifically include himself and the current government in recent failings.

“Our constitution doesn’t allow it, but we have been torturing, causing bodily damages and even putting inmates in dark prison cells,” he said while addressing parliament earlier this month.

“These were terrorist acts committed by us, and using force just to stay in power is a terrorist act too.”

Once again, these are words as opposed to actions, but they certainly sound like the words of someone with intentions to change things up.

Firing prison bosses over human rights violations

If Abiy’s supporters and critics are waiting to see action under his rule, this could be the first example they were hoping for. Following the PM’s comments about security forces earlier this month, Ethiopia’s attorney general has fired the heads of prisons across the country, accusing them of human rights violations against prisoners.

Rights groups have been pointing to such violations for years but now Ethiopia’s government is acknowledging them and taking action. This combined with the release of political prisoners and open criticism of security forces makes for a promising start to Abiy’s early months as Ethiopia’s leader.

Amending Ethiopia’s anti-terror laws

For many, this will be the change that defines Abiy’s first term in charge. He’s already confirmed that parts Ethiopia’s controversial anti-terror laws will be reviewed but nobody has suggested which parts will be looked at or how drastic the changes will be.

Under the laws, freedom of speech in Ethiopia is non-existent and criticising the government still gives authorities the power to detain and charge critics. This is a major point of aggression for the government’s opponents and Abiy will have to make sure any changes to Ethiopia’s terror laws are significant to appease them.

Genuine change under Abiy?

In his first months as prime minister, Abiy Ahmed has said all the right things and there are already signs that change is coming. It’s too early to say whether he’ll come through with changes that are significant enough to appease the government’s opponents and transform the political landscape in Ethiopia but it’s equally premature to expect sweeping reforms in the space of a few months.

If Abiy is simply telling people what they want to hear, he’s going much further to do so than any of his predecessors and there’s only so much time he can buy with this tactic. Hailemariam Desalegn resigned because not addressing Ethiopia’s political crisis is no longer an option and Abiy’s only viable approach is to push for change, whether he wants it or not.

For Ethiopia, it seems progress is coming but whether it will be enough to mark a new political era for the country remains to be seen.

Featured image: Twitter

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.