Ethiopia’s Leader: Old Wine in New Bottle?

Politics News
Ethiopia's new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, will he just be like old wine in a new bottle?
Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has shown some signs of wanting to change the political landscape in the country. Can he resist pressure from “deep-state” forces and bring about needed change in the country? Or will he just be like old wine in a new bottle?


In what seems like a watershed moment, Ethiopia has a new head of state: Abiy Ahmed, who was sworn in amid much fanfare on 2 April 2018. Perhaps owing to his youth, oratory, and meteoric rise, Ahmed has been dubbed Ethiopia’s “Obama”.

Though the analogy may be truncated (as a prime minister, Ahmed was not elected in a presidential election; merely selected by party insiders) the promising new leader has stirred high expectations among Ethiopians for swift change. There is a narrow window in which the good doctor must act before the hopes of Ethiopians turn into a winter of discontent.

The task before Ahmed is indeed gargantuan: to salvage Ethiopia from an intricate web of social and economic catastrophe, if not an impending state collapse. There is little room for error.

A Historic Leader?

The inauguration of the 42-year-old “reformist”, from the largest but increasingly restive region of Oromia, marks the second peaceful handover of power since 1991 when the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) came to power having ousted the Derg, a military junta that ruled Ethiopia between 1974 – 1991.

For some observers, Ahmed, a self-identifying ethnic Oromo and the newly minted chairman of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation signify a new chapter in Ethiopian history. For the first time, power at the centre has shifted to the periphery. The Oromos, once treated as second-class citizens and domestically colonized subjects in feudal Ethiopia, have finally arrived.

Perhaps more important than the symbolism of an Oromo prime minister is the fact that Ahmed has risen to power on the tails of a vibrant youth movement in Oromia known as the Qeerroo. Ahmed is the culmination of “a grassroots protest movement [that] has managed to force one of the most powerful regimes in Africa to surrender to its demands,” and which threatens to “upend US policy in the Horn of Africa” (Bruton, 2018).

With this social movement behind him, Ahmed stands in contrast to his predecessor, who was a handpicked protégé of Ethiopia’s first post-socialist strongman, the late Meles Zenawi. Ahmed’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned on 15 February 2018, was so ineffective he was dubbed the “placeholder” prime minister (Ademo & Hussein, 2018).

The Qeerroo is an Arab-spring-like uprising that commenced in earnest more than two years ago, chiefly as a result of the expansion of the environs of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. The implementation of a new master plan for the capital encroached on the fertile agricultural and ancestral land of the Oromos. The movement is largely peaceable, relying mostly on apparently externally coordinated tactics bordering on civil disobedience. Its impact in the most populous region of Ethiopia has been an economic standstill and increased social disarray that forced the federal government to not only declare two states of emergencies in under two years but also brought about the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn.

The Qeerroo uprising is a microcosm of long-festering structural contradictions in state-society relations in Ethiopia. On the one hand, the Qero is a call for more proportional representation in a federal system of government that in theory works according to ethnic composition.

The Oromos, approximately a third of the Ethiopian population, are rightly demanding that they should govern Ethiopia, not the minority Tigrayans. The latter constitute only about six percent of the population but have a virtual monopoly over the military, the national economy, and the security network.

On the other hand, the discontent in Oromia and the rest of Ethiopia is a by-product of a rapidly modernizing country whose government is unable to keep up with and quench the multiplying demands and needs of the youth, the largest majority of the population. Ethiopia is considered one of Africa’s “lion economies” for having registered a gross domestic product growth of more than ten percent; yet economic growth has not stemmed unemployment, rural and urban poverty, and periodic food shortages. In fact, these social ills seem to have worsened as the economy expanded.

In addition to impoverishment, hyperinflation, and uncontrolled urbanization, economic modernization has also come about at a heavy price: a growing and unsustainable external debt estimated to have reached more than US $40 billion, a steep decline in export revenues, worrying levels of capital flight, and the accompanying shortages of hard currency. The hard currency crunch is reaching a critical phase and will probably be insurmountable for years to come.

Part of the financial debacle Ethiopia faces has to do with massive capital flight. In an exclusive meeting with wealthy Ethiopians soon after his inauguration, the new prime minister had to plead with them to return the money they had transferred to bank accounts in Dubai and China:

“Are your hard currency reserves only kept inside the country? Have you not stashed them in accounts in Dubai? If you would transfer them back to Ethiopia from your accounts in Dubai and China, it would be of immense benefit to a country that is struggling with shortages at the moment.” (Ahmed, 2018).

Ethiopia’s financial woes are instructive about the viability of pursuing an export-oriented strategy in an increasingly competitive, exploitative, and unequal global economy. The state-led development approach Ethiopia has followed in recent years may have worked for a while, but it has its own limits and Ethiopia’s experience has so painfully pointed out the dangers of such an outward-looking economic strategy.

Rising social pressure for justice and fair distribution of economic gains is a stress test to the state-led economic model. The model requires that the state becomes more centralized and more independent from social pressure in order to make the right economic decisions, not succumb to societal interests that seek more expenditure on social services.

A Puppet Prime Minister? No More!

Six years after his death, Meles Zenawi remains an influential figure in Ethiopian politics. The ideas he championed, the policies and the organs of state that he instituted, and the coterie of a new crop of leaders he recruited from non-Tigrayan ethnicities continue to hold sway over the levers of the state. A legacy of the late leader that has been controversial is ethnic federalism: the division of Ethiopia into ethnically organized provincial governments known as Regional States that are constitutionally entitled to the right to self-determination. For critics, this unconventional system is to blame for the real possibility of dismemberment that today Ethiopia faces.

Hailemariam Desalegn, Meles’s handpicked successor, could not escape the outsized shadow and influence of the “Great Leader”. Indeed, as one observer puts it, Meles continued “to rule from beyond the grave” (LeFort, 2012).

Therefore, the first real challenge for Ahmed is that he needs to demonstrate in swift tangible actions that he is no Hailemariam Desalegn. There seems to be no patience now in the Ethiopian body politic or the public at large for a “titular head”.

During Desalegn’s rule, effective state power was invested in unelected military and intelligence cabal who assembled and ruled collectively. The imposition of the two states of emergencies in the past two years has so diminished the office of the prime minister that the military and security bosses now exercise power down to the lowest level of government through a command and control structure. For all intents and purposes, Ethiopia now functions more like a centralised police state rather than a federation.

There are signs Ahmed will not be a puppet for the ruling group. However, many doubt that he will be able to successfully navigate the increasingly fragile Ethiopian state. Saving Ethiopia from an imminent danger of state collapse will require a herculean effort in initiating and executing deep and far-reaching reforms.

The hegemony of the TPLF in both economic and political spheres is perhaps the biggest threat to peace in Ethiopia as a conflict is most likely to erupt in societies where there are “simultaneously both economic and political inequalities” (Frances, 2016,). If Ethiopian history is any guide, the chances of such fundamental changes in state-society relations taking place peacefully are close to nil.


In the meteoric rise of Ahmed, Ethiopia faces both a historic opportunity and a breaking point. Ahmed’s tenure represents a historic opportunity because the young leader could enact and usher in a peaceful break with revolutionary democracy, paving the way for truly competitive multiparty politics in the near future.

These reforms point towards a greater political accountability, neutralization of ethnic politics, rule of law, and end of kleptocratic corruption that has stifled Africa’s fastest growing economy. Doing so might entail displeasing powerful interests within the Ethiopian state and in the private sector that stand to lose numerous financial and economic benefits.

If these interests block Ahmed from enacting much-needed reforms, social tension in Ethiopia may simmer in the foreseeable future with real dangers to peace and stability in the increasingly volatile and geo-politically important region of the Horn of Africa.