Addis Ababa Despatch | International

The fractious rise of Abiy Ahmed

When Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister earlier this month, the central message of his inaugural address was ‘andinet’ — an Amharic word for unity. Mr. Abiy, who leads the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), representing the Oromia region, emphasised the need for unity in a country where ethnic and regional divisions run deep. Over 60% vote at the Council of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front brought Mr. Abiy in as its third chairman in its over quarter-century history — and by extension as Prime Minister of the country. But the election marked a break with the Front’s Leninist-inspired “revolutionary democratic” tradition, which seeks to avoid divided votes that could give rise to factionalism.

Mr. Abiy didn’t receive as large a mandate as his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn received in in 2012 after the death of the Front’s first leader Meles Zenawi. At that time it was certain that Meles’s deputy, Mr. Hailemariam, would assume power uncontested. Mr. Hailemariam resigned mid-February this year in the wake of severe clashes between militia under Ethiopia’s Somali region and Oromo and violent anti-government protests in Oromia and Amhara regions, which make up over half the country’s population. “Unity does not mean sameness,” Mr. Abiy said in his maiden speech as Prime Minister, which invoked even Mahatma Gandhi. “Unity has to enclose difference and diversity within itself.” The andinet Mr. Abiy was talking about may be different from the ‘old’ concept, but talking about “unity” is nothing without ensuring equality in practice, said Gutema Yadesa, a socio-linguist at Addis Ababa University.

The election

The top cadres of the ruling Front are obliged to keep the transactions of the EPDRF Council secret, but information is trickling out. At the Council, a 180-member body, it became clear that the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ‘vanguard’ party that has dominated the EPRDF since its inception, would not field its chairperson as its candidate and neither endorse Amhara National Democratic Movement’s Demeke Mekonnen nor Mr. Abiy.

When candidates came to be nominated, the names of Mr. Demeke, Mr. Abiy and Shiferaw Shigute of the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement were put forward. Mr. Demeke withdrew from the leadership contest at the eleventh hour. In the end, only two votes of the 169 cast went to TPLF’s chairman Debretsion Gebremichael (nominated by a member of the Council after Mr. Demeke withdrew), 59 to Mr. Shiferaw, and 108 to Mr. Abiy.

Ahead of the vote, Mr. Abiy switched roles as OPDO chairman with Lemma Megersa, Oromia’s charismatic and popular President. At the same time, OPDO’s central committee replaced 14 of its 45 Council voting members, a move to place loyalists of Mr. Abiy in the Council. “Amhara and Oromo knew Tigray would divide them and back the South and both suspected that their only option to defeat Tigray would be to drop one of their candidates, act in unity, and vote for the other,” says Musa Adem, an observer of Ethiopian politics. By a breakdown of the numbers who voted for him, Mr. Abiy could have received full united 45-member blocs from both OPDO and ANDM’s Council voting members, a portion from the south, and perhaps even TPLF. None of the four parties are homogeneous; and it appears individuals within the Oromo and Amhara blocs made political calculations without ‘the party line’.

Nizar Manek is a journalist based in Addis Ababa covering Africa

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2020 9:46:31 PM |

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