Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has vowed to continue opening up the economy and country, despite a recent coup attempt triggered by his ambitious reform agenda.
Since his inauguration, Ethiopia’s young, charismatic Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has blazed an extraordinary path. He has released political prisoners, made steps towards a more inclusive political system, and championed the freedom of the press.
Yet analysts say that by loosening the reins of power, the state is overseeing a pandora’s box of ethnic and political tension which spilled open on June 22nd.
The foiled coup saw a spate of assassinations in the capital Addis Ababa and Ethiopia’s second most populous Amhara region. The killings claimed the lives of the chief of staff of Ethiopia’s army, who was shot dead at home by his bodyguard, and a regional governor.
The architect of the coup, Amhara’s head of security General Asamnew Tsige, was killed in a gunfight two days after trying to take over the Amhara region. The government said that it had arrested 250 people from the National Movement of Amhara, a rival to the Amhara party in the ruling coalition, but few other details about the attempted coup were released.
The foiled putsch highlights how Ethiopia’s new dawn has unleashed political forces which are now asserting their self-determination, says Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow at Chatham House’s Africa Programme focused on the Horn of Africa.
“This is partly about Abiy Ahmed opening the country up. He’s created this political space and opened up the system and encouraged people to participate in that system and to pursue very varying agendas, and that has provided a lot of difficulties… The murders in the Amhara region bring these to light.”
The unrest is a symptom of Abiy’s reform agenda and the competing constituencies in Ethiopia’s diverse community of over 80 ethnicities, where tensions can be combustible, Soliman says.
“What we’ve seen is the rise of ethno-nationalism and serious discontent in certain regions, including in the Amhara region, and that’s what’s rearing its head here.”
Back from the brink
Abiy’s election brought an end to four years of protests led by members of the Oromo and Amhara communities, who have pushed for more power in a system dominated by the Tigrayan people since the 1990s.
The Oromo and Amhara people combined make up 61% of Ethiopia’s population in 2019, while the Tigrays account for around 6%.
While for many the election of Abiy, an Omoro prime minister, redressed the historical power imbalance, it also opened up old wounds, Soliman says.
“It hasn’t healed all the domestic internal rifts and issues, its created new ones because its spun Ethiopian politics on its axis, him being the first leader from the Oromo people, representing an ethnic group that accounts for 35% of Ethiopians.”
The violence sparked a 10-day internet blackout and the arrest of 250 people from the Amhara region. But following the attacks Ahmed vowed to press ahead with his reform agenda, saying he won’t be deterred by attacks on the country’s leadership.
“We will learn from the obstacles to prevent it from happening again,” Abiy said in a statement posted on his office’s Twitter account on June 26.
“We will not steer away from our reforms, not even for a moment. We will not be distracted from our goal.”
According to Soliman the attacks have strengthened Abiy’s resolve to pursue domestic security reforms, end inter-ethnic violence, and secure the integrity of the upcoming 2020 elections.
“This is an opportunity for the country to move forward and progress and try and unify and heal the wounds in society.”
Ethiopia’s prime minister inherited an economy that boasted the fastest growth rates in Africa and one of the fastest growing non-oil economies in the world.
Since assuming power in April 2018 he has sought to tackle the country’s growing debt burden and currency crisis, by renegotiating loans and seeking financial support from external partners in the Gulf and the west, including $3bn in loans and investment from the UAE.
There is likely to be a continuation of Abiy’s policies of private-sector led liberalisation and the courting of new investment, Soliman concludes.
“Private sector appetite remains strong and the government is trying to bring in more foreign currency and boost job creation, which is needed with a population of over 100 million people.”