Ethiopia achieves ethnic milestone with selection of new PM Abiy Ahmed
Ethiopia’s ruling coalition on Tuesday elected as leader Abiy Ahmed, from the country’s largest ethnic group the Oromo, paving the way for him to become prime minister, state media reported.
As leader of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Abiy is set to take over from Hailemariam Desalegn, who announced his resignation last month in a surprise move after over two years of sporadic and often deadly protests against his government.
“The EPRDF council has elected Dr Abiy Ahmed as the leader of the party,” the government-run Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation said.
Abiy will be the first Oromo prime minister in the 27-year rule of the EPRDF, which has presided over years of rapid economic growth in Africa’s second most-populous country despite growing unease both at home and abroad with its authoritarian governing style.
Beyond just marking an ethnic milestone, many Ethiopians are hopeful Abiy will change the ways of the party, which assumed power in 1991 after routing the communist Derg junta.
In late 2015, anger at EPRDF policies prompted Oromo activists to start an unprecedented wave of anti-government protests that led to hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of arrests.
The country’s second-largest ethnic grouping the Amharas later joined the uprising, which only ebbed after the government imposed a 10-month state of emergency in October 2016.
But both ethnic groups remained unhappy, and continue to stage strikes and protests particularly in the Oromo federal region Oromia.
“Abiy’s election is significant for many reasons … It’s the only thing that could save EPRDF from dissolving,” Oromo activist Mohammed Ademo wrote on Twitter. “[And] he’s the only one remotely palatable in Oromia.”
Composed of four ethnically based parties, the EPRDF and its allies wield unchecked power in Ethiopia and control all seats in the parliament, which must confirm the new prime minister.
The decision to elect Abiy as party leader was made behind closed doors by 180 EPRDF elites at the end of a week-long meeting.
A former minister of science and technology, Abiy was elevated to chairperson of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation (OPDO), the ethnic group’s party in the ruling coalition, after Hailemariam’s resignation.
Abiy replaced Lemma Megersa, a close ally who is credited with turning around the party’s fortunes in Oromia by embracing the protesters’ grievances.
Analysts believe Abiy faced competition from deputy prime minister Demeke Mekonnen, an Amhara, and Shiferaw Shigute, a top party functionary who hails from the same ethnically diverse southern region as Hailemariam.
While the precise vote tally was not immediately released, state-affiliated Fana Broadcast Corporate said Demeke would remain deputy leader.
Analysts have pointed to Abiy’s background in the military and as director of the Information Network Security Agency, which has been accused of using spyware against Ethiopian dissidents abroad, as evidence that he isn’t a reformer.
Awol Allo, an Ethiopian political commentator who teaches law in Britain, said Abiy’s previous actions were guided by more powerful factions of the EPRDF.
“Even if he played an instrumental role, it can only be in furtherance of the objectives set out by the party,” Awol said.
The government raised fears of a crackdown by declaring another state of emergency the day after Hailemariam’s resignation in a move that was condemned by Ethiopia’s western allies such as the United States and European Union.
Earlier this week, police arrested a group of dissidents including several who had been freed from jail in February in a prisoner amnesty ordered by Hailemariam to “improve the national consensus and widen the democratic platform”.