After a stunning election victory in 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed dazzled the world with an ambitious domestic reform plan. He released political prisoners, encouraged media liberalisation and legalised opposition groups. But it was his success in ending the border conflict with Eritrea in July 2018, which included restoring full diplomatic relations and agreeing to open shuttered borders, that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019.
Yet little more than a year after his triumph in Oslo, Ethiopia’s ‘man of peace’ has led a war in the northern region against the dissident Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) that is feeding a devastating humanitarian crisis.
While lauded for easing Ethiopia’s repressive political climate, his reforms have uncorked ethnic and regional strife that risk tearing apart Ethiopia’s delicate patchwork of regions and groups, say critics.
As those tensions risk fuelling a protracted guerrilla war in the north, Abiy could face significant challenges ahead of his June re-election bid.
“I don’t think he’s the person who can deliver that development. I don’t think the regions want him to deliver or have the faith in him to deliver it,” says Aly Khan Satchu, CEO of Investment Advisory firm Rich Management.
With ‘the genie out of the bottle’, Abiy is fast losing ground ahead of the poll, says Satchu.
“Everybody else is going to start wanting more freedom within the constitution. It’s impossible for the state to manage a guerrilla war up there and at the same time manage to control the rest of the country. If he put more resources into Tigray he’s going to lose more control of the other regions.
“There’s no hope for him. If he has a fair election he will lose full stop.
Fuelling concerns over the election is the government’s arrest of some of those tipped as possible successors to the premiership.
“Some of the major political actors have been eliminated from the political arena,” says Berihun Adugna Gebeye, a law researcher at Germany’s Heidelberg University.
“The TPLF is no more. Key Addis Ababa and Oromia based opposition leaders are in jail. All these political developments raise genuine concerns about whether the coming election will be free, fair, and credible even before the polls.”
While Abiy’s Prosperity Party commands a strong grip over the Oromia region, the largest of Ethiopia’s nine ethnically-based regions, nationalist parties such as the Oromo Federalist Congress are more popular in the restive region, says Will Davison, Crisis Group’s senior Ethiopia analyst.
The leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress, Jawar Mohammed, is the only serious electoral threat to Abiy Ahmed, according to Dr Awol Allo, lecturer at Keele University, but is detained on what Allo calls “trumped-up charges”
Mohammed was arrested in June, and was charged with terrorism, firearms and telecom fraud in September. Six of the ten charges against him and 22 others were subsequently dropped in a court hearing on January 22.
Another possible challenger is veteran politician Berhanu Nega, whose Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party is scheduled to compete in the upcoming race and could draw urban support.
“As Prosperity Party seems to be in control but unpopular in Oromia, while the opposition is weak but has decent amount of support, it is a bit hard to know what will happen on polling day. It raises the prospect that the election in that region could be quite repressive and violent,” Davison says.
Ethiopia’s Election Board reports that 40 political parties have met registration requirements, while 26 parties have failed and 12 are still being vetted. The government has barred the TPLF from future elections for participating in a rebellion against the government.
Abiy is banking on support from the country’s pan-Ethiopian camp and Amhara nationalists, who are pitted in a historic rivalry against Tigray leaders, says Ahmed Soliman, a Horn of Africa researcher at Chatham House.
“For some constituencies in Ethiopia the war in Tigray is quite popular, and the removal of the TPLF is seen as something that should have been done.”
On the other side of the coin, ethno-nationalists and Tigrayans see the war as an attack on ethnic federalism that could spread elsewhere, Soliman says.
Yet as the only party with genuine national reach, Abiy’s Prosperity Party is still the favourite to win, and will draw on all the benefits of being the ruling party, says Davison.
“That is particularly the case as it has all the advantages of incumbency – occupying all of the seats in the existing federal and regional parliaments and therefore having a huge hold over the government, which has benefits in terms of its existing networks, ability to organise and campaign, and also to raise funds.”
Set against the backdrop of a tough global economic climate brought on by the pandemic, and the worst locust invasion in 25 years in a country where 80% of the population’s livelihoods are tethered to agriculture, Abiy’s economic ambitions have suffered a blow. Government plans to open up the economy remain unfinished, says Soliman.
“Even though Ethiopia is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies they haven’t been able to do what they intended to yet, which is to begin to leapfrog and put in place a different type of economic model throughout the country.”
Abiy’s political problems are rattling investors who saw his dynamic leadership as a key driver of economic reforms.
Apart from the war in Tigray, the slow pace of privatisation, and a lack of industrial and financial development continue to drag on growth. Foreign investment in the country has slumped to $2.5bn in 2019, from $3.3bn in 2018, according to UNCTAD.