Ethiopia has begun a new era of rule by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which unlike in previous governments has also chosen an individual from the country’s majority Oromo ethnic group to hold the position in Abiy Ahmed Ali, now the country’s leader.
The Ethiopian parliament voted Abiy Ahmed into office in a special session on 27 March with a 478 majority out of 546 votes, all from the ruling EPRDF, in what was a significant handover of power in the largest-growing economy on the African continent.
Abiy Ahmed was born in 1976 to a Muslim father and Christian mother and joined the struggle against the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam, the country’s former Marxist ruler, in 1991.
When the EPRDF came to power, he joined the army in 1993, reaching the rank of colonel and participating in UN peacekeeping missions in Rwanda where the latter country’s ethnic groups of Hutus and Tutsis were fighting each other, leading to the slaughter of some 800,000 people.
After his return from Rwanda in 1996, Abiy Ahmed participated in the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. In 2010, he took charge of Ethiopia’s cyber-intelligence agency, and from there moved into the political fray through the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), a component of the EPRDF coalition.
Ethiopia is a union of nine ethnicities, most notably the Oromo, Amhara, Tigray and Somalis. Abiy Ahmed was quickly promoted in the OPDO and was elected to represent it in parliament before being assigned the science and technology portfolio in 2016 in the government of prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
However, he soon returned to his native Oromia province and became the head of the OPDO Secretariat. He found himself in a serious dispute involving the Oromo after the central government decided to expand the country’s capital Addis Ababa according to a master plan that the Oromos believe is at the expense of their land.
Addis Ababa is located in Oromia, which gives this ethnic group more power as well as their majority in the country as a whole, estimated at one third of the population at around 34 per cent.
The Oromo protests over the Addis Ababa land grab left hundreds dead and thousands injured. Abiy Ahmed and the province’s governor, Lima Migraisa, became the symbols of the Oromo ethnicity by listening to local concerns.
Hani Raslan, an expert on African affairs at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said the EPRDF had originally wanted to pick a prime minister from a minority group in the south and repeat Desalegn’s “unsuccessful tenure.”
“There are those who are worried about an Oromo becoming prime minister,” Raslan said, because of the group’s majority population and extensive land that includes the capital Addis Ababa.
Farag Abdel-Fattah, a professor of African economics at Cairo University, said that at present there was only “embryonic” political participation in Ethiopia because all the country’s ethnic groups have merged into the EPRDF.
“Although the system in Ethiopia is not democratic, it has courageously faced up to its problems and chosen an Oromo to resolve the protests in the capital province,” Abdel-Fattah said.
“Addis Ababa does not want to see its economic successes fade away, as these were among the highest in the world between 2001 and 2006 and the strongest in Africa since then until today,” he added.
Ethiopia has attracted large Asian and European investment in the textiles and food industries, fuelling development rates that have reached more than 12 per cent in some years. It has also relied on Chinese and Italian expertise to build several dams to generate electricity for these industries.
Ethiopia’s official news agency reported that Abiy Ahmed had urged Eritrea to settle its regional and other disputes through diplomacy.
In his first statements as prime minister, he said that “regional complexities are a challenge because the region includes a variety of players with a variety of interests, but they are also a great opportunity to build cooperation among peoples connected through bloodlines, culture and languages.”
He urged Eritrean leaders to come to the negotiating table because Addis Ababa wanted to build peaceful diplomatic relations with Asmara, adding that there was now a new era of “peace and reconciliation,” in a reference to previous regional and domestic disputes with the neighbouring country.
The new prime minister was elected amid celebrations commemorating the defeat of Italian invaders 122 years ago when the Ethiopians led by the emperor Menelik II (ruled 1889-1913) fought the victorious Battle of Adwa.
Ethiopia is also celebrating the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the River Nile, which has given rise to controversy with Egypt and Sudan, especially because of the filling of its reservoir with a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres of water.
The dam is costing $4.8 billion, according to the Website of Salini Impregilo, the Italian company in charge of the project. According to its Website, the company has completed 20 major projects in Ethiopia since 1958, including the Gibe I (1999-2004), Gibe II (2004-2009) and Gibe III (2006-2016) dams, as well as roads and power stations. However, none of these compare in size to the GERD and none are on the River Nile.
While 64 per cent of the dam, the largest on the African continent with a capacity of 6,000 Megawatts (three times Egypt’s Aswan High Dam), is now complete, the Ethiopian government is also preparing for a conference of national investors to promote the dam.
Ethiopia’s official news agency reported that bonds issued by the government had collected some 12 billion Ethiopian birr ($982.26 million), while the cost of construction is 80 billion birr.
The government has also collected two billion birr in donations and is expected to collect another 1.4 billion during this year’s celebrations.
The news agency reported that 400 investors had visited the dam, as well as 250,000 Ethiopian citizens and thousands of journalists and foreign visitors, with the aim of promoting it as a successful investment project.
This will be an opportunity for more negotiations between Ethiopia and the other Nile Basin countries, Abdel-Fattah said. “It’s a chance for cooperation among the Nile Basin countries.
Ethiopia’s decision is not in its hands alone, because it wants development, and this will only succeed through cooperation.”
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly