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Abiy Ahmed brings new hope, but faces some old family problems

Many African countries have suffered because of the gerontocratic nature of their politics, a question that I have often complained about. Some "elders", like Robert Mugabe, have lost touch with modern politics and the changing conditions of life – and have been overthrown. Others, like the Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, are reluctant to let go of power, and not only grow old, but also sick. Still others, like the long-standing Bongo dynasty of Gabon, are determined to be the tread that moves allies and political allies as pawns on a chessboard, but they do not do anything for the benefit of the countries they no longer understand.

It is no wonder, then, that the almost all African Prime Minister in 2018 was Abiy Ahmed, in Ethiopia. The 42-year-old survived a homicide attempt and faced a mutiny by his own soldiers challenging them to a push-up race – which he cleverly won. He appointed a woman president and half of the cabinet ministers are women. He has freed thousands of political prisoners and raised a huge amount of censorship measures.

Ahmed has also made peace with Eritrea – with the "simple" but extremely dangerous gesture of delivering the disputed territory to his neighbor. The two countries had fought a war on this territory since the '90s, with huge losses on both sides. But the gesture was dangerous because the governments of both countries came from liberation movements that had maintained coercion and violence as necessary measures of that state. Surrendering to this position risks alienating a huge section of Ahmed's security apparatus.

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But while Ahmed successfully unveiled the Gordian knot of Ethiopia's conflict with Eritrea, it can not easily resolve the long-suppressed and growing community and ethnic tensions in its own country.

Ahmed is of ethnic origin, and his rise to the first place broke the long dominance of the Tigray on power – no easy thing, since the liberating forces that overthrew the Stalinist regime of Derg in 1991 came largely from the Tigray region . But in Ethiopia there are more ethnic divisions than just these two, and many feel they have had their voices suppressed for too long. More and more often they are talking.


Ahmed has joined the liberation struggle against the Derg in his last year. Born in 1976, he was just 15 years old when the Liberation Army creeped into the capital, Addis Ababa, in 1991. He would have been too young to join the huge number of former freedom fighters who trained in become parliamentarians in an innovative educational program launched by the University of Rotterdam in 1992 and which lasted for most of the half of a decade. The members of the first cabinet, which later graduated from the University of Rotterdam, were the beneficiaries of this initiative.

I taught in this scheme and Meles Zenawi, who was Ethiopia's prime minister from 1995 to 2012, was one of my students – albeit under a false name, because he did not want special privileges. For a while, that spirit of self-denial and modesty, almost of humility, allowed Ethiopia. But the war with Eritrea that erupted so soon after liberation brought a securely, secret and repressive approach to the government to the surface.

Abiy Ahmed meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on October 30, 2018.
EPA images

Ahmed breaks all this. He is very well educated and holds a Ph.D. and other qualifications – including a postgraduate certificate in cryptography. As a result, he knows a few things about electronic processes and modern technology, unlike the Robert Mugabes of the continent who show little interest even in turning on a computer.

But can a technocratic and liberal approach to the government remedy the problems facing Ethiopia? The country is almost a victim of its successes. Some urban sectors are modernizing so quickly that peri-urban and rural life is marginalized and lands seized. Even the people of Oromo of Ahmed protested for this urban expansion.

But even within the cities there is still a huge poverty. Despite the slums being wiped out by bulldozers, commuting poverty remains a huge problem for people knocking at cities to seek, often without success, work. Indeed, while there is a sense of relief that Ethiopian politics has become, at least apparently, more liberal and modern, it is also the expectation that there should be more economic support for the strata more poor in society. The distribution of poverty through ethnic lines is also profoundly irregular. Some are clamoring for a faster pace of change and the old lines of fracture long suppressed by authoritarianism may emerge.

But – even if only for a dazzling year – Africa has a new model prime minister. Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Zuma in South Africa have left. The sickly Buhari and the Bongo dynasty resist. Ahmed will have to last a little longer if he really wants to become a beacon of lasting hope for a new generation. And his new women partners in the government will have to help him.

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