One of Africa’s most important countries is in the midst of seismic changes.
In his first four months in office, the new prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed (known simply as Abiy), has launched a series of long-overdue economic and political reforms, the pace and—so far—the success of which no one predicted. It is unclear whether he can shepherd such disruptive reforms to a successful conclusion, but his early progress is heartening.
Ethiopia’s ruling EPRDF coalition elevated the 41-year-old Abiy in March following the abrupt resignation of the former prime minister. Abiy took power after years of increasingly disruptive protests primarily by Ethiopia’s largest but marginalized tribe, the Oromo.
Abiy is a member of the Oromo party within the EPRDF, which likely chose him in hopes of placating the protesters.
Abiy immediately launched an aggressive reform agenda. He lifted the draconian state of emergency imposed following his predecessor’s resignation in February. He apologized for the state’s long-running practice of torturing prisoners, released thousands of political prisoners, and shut down one of Ethiopia’s most brutal prisons. He announced that the government would partially privatize some of its state-owned enterprises.
On Sunday, he said Ethiopia had to have multiparty democracy, a previously unthinkable admission from the head of a party that has dominated Ethiopian politics since 1991.
As shocking as the changes have been, perhaps the biggest has been the ending of Ethiopia’s 20-year state of war with its northern neighbor, Eritrea.
Eritrea achieved independence from Ethiopia in 1993, and the two countries fought a costly border war from 1998 to 2000. In June, Abiy announced that Ethiopia would finally end its occupation of a contested border area awarded in 2002 to Eritrea by a commission whose findings both sides had agreed to respect.
Two weeks later, Abiy and Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki signed a peace agreement ending the state of war.
There is no guarantee Abiy’s reform agenda will progress as smoothly moving forward. The elite of the Tigray tribe—only about 6 percent of the population but the politically and economically dominant tribe—are fast losing their grip on power. They could try to stymie Abiy, though the prime minister has built such popular support that his position may be unassailable for now.
Despite its recent gaudy economic growth, Ethiopia also has serious economic challenges. It has a foreign reserves shortage, piles of debt, and high rates of unemployment and poverty.
Privatizing the state-owned enterprises and peace with Eritrea will help—access to Eritrean ports will be a boon for land-locked Ethiopia—but it will take time and wise policy to rectify Ethiopia’s economic challenges. Given the sky-high expectations of Abiy, he will likely have to make quick progress on the economy to maintain the popularity that currently gives him such room for maneuver.
It is also unclear how his Eritrean counterpart is going to manage this opening up to Ethiopia.
Thus far, Afewerki has responded positively to Abiy’s overtures. The 72-year-old may be willing to relinquish his more than 30-year stranglehold on power now that he can claim that he finished the job of securing Eritrea’s full territorial integrity from Ethiopia.
Yet Afewerki is a committed autocrat, and the Ethiopian threat has for decades provided a pretext for his severe rule (though his repressive tendencies predate the 1998 conflict with Ethiopia). Ratcheting up tensions with Ethiopia could be an option to justify any further clinging to power. However, the current momentum toward peace would be difficult to slow.
Another Ethiopian neighbor, Djibouti, may also try to play spoiler, though it has little power to do so. An open Eritrea will compete with one of the pillars of the Djiboutian economy, its port, and possibly with another, the rents it receives from the foreign military bases festooning its land.
The United Arab Emirates already has a base in Eritrea, and other powers may consider diversifying away from, or avoiding altogether, Djibouti and its ever-growing rents and vulnerability to Chinese influence (Beijing opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti, and owns Djiboutian debt equivalent to about 75 percent of its gross domestic product).
Abiy has already accomplished much more than anyone could have expected during his short tenure. His most ambitious reforms still face significant hurdles, but his agenda has the opportunity to put Ethiopia and the region on the path to a level of stability and prosperity hard to imagine before.