Nobody outside the ruling party really knows much about Abiy Ahmed beyond his official party biography, but Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister looks a lot like Magic Man at the moment. Three years of mounting protests have suddenly stopped, the state of emergency has been lifted, and with a single dramatic announcement he has ended 20 years of hot and cold war with neighbouring Eritrea.
He did that on Tuesday by declaring (as only the leader of a tough authoritarian regime can) that Ethiopia now accepts the 2002 ruling of an international border commission and will pull its troops out of Badme, the market town at the centre of the quarrel with Eritrea.
At least 80,000 soldiers and civilians were killed in the hot war with Eritrea (1998-2000), and several million soldiers wasted years of their lives on the border during the long cold war that followed (which briefly went hot again as recently as 2016). But Abiy Ahmed has ended all that with a wave of his hand.
That should have been done long ago, but Ethiopia found it hard to accept the border commission’s ruling for two reasons. One was that Eritrea started the war by seizing Badme. That was incredibly stupid, since Ethiopia has 20 times as many people, but stupid things happen. The Georgians faced even longer odds in 2008, but they attacked Russia anyway. (Both the Eritreans and the Georgians lost.)
The other reason for the long cold war was that the territory around Badme used to be in Ethiopia’s Tigre state, the home of the Tigrinya-speaking ethnic group who then dominated the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They only make up five per cent of Ethiopia’s population, but they simply refused to hand Badme over – for 16 years.
So something has clearly changed in Ethiopia, and Abiy Ahmed himself is a new phenomenon. He belongs to the Oromo ethnic group, the biggest in the country, but he is the first Oromo in all of Ethiopia’s history to lead the government.
The growing protests of the past three years were strongest in Oromia, because the people there felt marginalised politically, culturally and economically. Hundreds of people have been killed in the demonstrations and the situation was getting out of hand, so the ruling party’s solution was to put an Oromo in charge – but one who has spent his whole adult life serving the EPRDF.
Abiy is such a man. He joined the army straight out of school, worked his way up to colonel’s rank, then shifted to a senior position in the intelligence and security apparatus of what is, after all, a police state, and finally moved into politics.
He has been given power to deal with some of the biggest grievances of the population precisely because he is trusted not to let power slip away from the EPRDF. Maybe his appointment as prime minister will calm things down, but don’t mistake it for the start of a ‘democratic transition’.
Ethiopia is the only one of sub-Saharan Africa’s three economic giants that is not democratic. Unlike South Africa and Nigeria, it has a single ruling party that dominates everything.
The EPRDF is a permanent coalition of four parties representing the four biggest ethnic groups (Oromo, Amhara, Tigrinya and Somali), but all are part of a highly disciplined whole that has an almost Soviet ruling style. It is not encumbered by specifically Communist or even socialist ideological obsessions, but elections are no more meaningful than the old Soviet ones were.
Over the past decade, this hard-line approach has delivered an annual average of 10 per cent economic growth in Ethiopia, far higher than in South Africa or Nigeria. And while there is clearly serious friction between the various Ethiopian ethnic groups that make up the EPRDF, it is not significantly worse than the ethnic rivalries that plague the politics of the two big democracies.
It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that some people have been wondering aloud whether Ethiopia’s model is better for African countries. People do end up in jail or in exile for opposing the regime, or simply disappear, but not all that many, and the system is delivering the goods economically. Maybe it’s worth a try.
Maybe, but don’t count on it. In the short run, authoritarian politics often produces better results than democracy. Orders are given and obeyed, and things get done. But over the long run the opposition builds up, and there is no democratic safety valve to let off the steam.
When the dam finally bursts, you can lose a lot.
Consider the quarter-century of lost growth in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The EPRDF will not last forever, because no system of that sort ever does, and when it goes it could be with an almighty crash. That may not happen for quite a long time, but Abiy Ahmed is probably not Magic Man.