New Ethiopian leader Abiy Ahmed, youngest in Africa, sparks hope of reform

April 14, 2018

Ethiopia's newly elected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed arrives for a rally during his visit to Ambo, Ethiopia, on Wednesday. TIKSA NEGERI/REUTERS


For more than two years, as his health deteriorated, Ethiopian opposition leader Bekele Gerba was locked up in a notorious high-security prison on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, accused of “terrorism” for leading anti-government protests.

This week, the authorities needed him for a different reason. He and many other opposition activists were invited to a palace to dine with Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister. The country needs “strong competing parties, more than ever before,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told them.

It was the latest sign of a new era in Africa’s second-most populous country. While it remains dominated by an authoritarian government that has jailed hundreds in a state of emergency, there are hints of democratic reforms that could loosen the controls and allow greater political freedoms.

The new 41-year-old Prime Minister, Mr. Abiy, is the youngest head of government in Africa. In the two weeks since his inauguration, he has launched a charm offensive in an effort to defuse tensions: touring the country, freeing some prisoners, visiting the main regions where protests have erupted, restoring internet access in the restive Oromiya region and shutting down one of the most infamous prisons where dissidents were jailed and tortured.

Canada is among the countries that are watching closely. Canada gives more development aid to Ethiopia than any other country in the world, including an estimated $190-million in 2016.

The Canadian government has welcomed Mr. Abiy’s rise to the country’s highest office, but it has called on his government to end the state of emergency, release the remaining political prisoners, allow peaceful assembly and remove restrictions on the media. More than 1,100 people are still in detention under the emergency decree.

“Ethiopia is at a serious point in its evolution as a nation; this represents a historic opportunity to implement meaningful reforms in the interest of its people,” said a statement from the Canadian government.

Ethiopia has long been favoured by Western governments as a donor recipient and a strategic ally against Islamist militancy in East Africa. Critics say the West has turned a blind eye to autocratic rule and human-rights abuses in the country. Almost all of the 547 seats in Ethiopia’s parliament are controlled by the government and its allies.

Thousands of opposition supporters have been killed or arrested in the past two years as protests have spread, especially in the Oromiya region. Most recently, local elections were postponed for a year because of “security” concerns.

The protests began over the issue of land rights in Oromiya in 2015, but they have expanded into broader demands for political rights. Increasing tensions and violence have raised fears that a civil war or regional fragmentation could be looming. In parliament, some MPs have broken ranks to oppose the latest government decree that imposed a six-month state of emergency.


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