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Does Ethiopian Nobel laureate have new enemies?

December 10, 2019

Abiy Ahmed gained plenty of detractors and frenemies by enacting daring measures. The prime minister even won the Nobel after making peace with an old enemy. Yet multiethnic Ethiopia remains prone to sporadic violence.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10 2019
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/NTB scanpix/H. M. Larsen

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been the public face of Ethiopia's transition to a new democracy since April 2018, In October, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2019. As Ahmed turned his attention to restructuring Ethiopia's ruling party in the weeks that followed — and as violence flared — two other Oromo men were thrust into his limelight.

In October, the prominent activist Jawar Mohammed, who owns the Oromia Media Network (OMN), accused security forces of trying to orchestrate an attack on him. Much bloodshed ensued. In November, Defense Minister Lemma Megersa openly criticized Abiy's new Prosperity Party (PP). Others agreed. 

Abiy's widely publicized trip to Oslo to collect his Nobel has somewhat eased tensions in the country of 100 million, where the accolade has been well received. "The mood is OK," said Abebe Aynete, a political analyst based in Addis Ababa. "This is the first moment for Ethiopians — we never had the chance to win the Nobel Prize."

Read more: The controversial Nobel Peace Prize for Abiy Ahmed

That the prime minister said he would not talk to the media in Oslo provoked a flurry of discussion at home. Abiy's general reluctance to take questions from the media is becoming a bit of a sore point in Ethiopia. At the start of his tenure, he had pledged to brief the media at least once a month, DW's Merga Yonas Bula reported. That has not happened, and Ethiopia's media are still only slowly emerging from the tight grip of the previous regime. 

Word from the top hasn't been filtering out to all Ethiopians. "At least 80% of people live in rural areas," the blogger Befekadu Hailu said. "I don't know how many of them have information about PM Abiy's Nobel Prize."

Many Ethiopian's have come to rely on the internet to track political developments or have their say. "You can see the discussion on social media," Merga Yonas Bula said, "one side accusing, attacking the other side."

'A powerful force'

One platform has become increasingly influential: the OMN.

"Jawar Mohammed and his media network is a powerful force in this region," said Clionadh Raleigh, a professor of political geography and conflict at the University of Sussex. "I think that Jawar Mohammed has incredible power and that power is not something that Abiy yields. I'm struck by the confluence of factors here, which is that Abiy has opened up government and the country to political competition, but he may have wanted to think twice about opening it up to somebody who has their own media network."

Read more: Academics, Internet activists confident in power of social media 

Jawar Mohammed
Mohammed speaks to DW during a visit to Nuremberg, where he met with Oromo people Image: DW/Tamirat Dinssa

Jawar Mohammed was instrumental in the 2016 protests that ultimately brought Abiy to power. He has about 1.7 million followers on Facebook and, the blogger Hailu said, "the greatest influence is on the Oromo youth."

"His influence in the ruling coalition is also significant but on the lower level of leadership," Hailu said. "He can create resistance among the youth."

For several days in November, towns and universities in the Oromia Region, including Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, became the scenes of anti-Abiy rallies and clashes between ethnic groups. The violence came after a Facebook post in which Mohammed accused Abiy's security forces of trying to orchestrate an attack on him in the region.

Abiy's government dismissed Mohammed's claim, but tensions continued as the activist set off on tour of Europe. Commentators speculated over the media mogul's role as an Abiy ally-turned-adversary.

Enemies within

Then, Defense Minister Megersa, another erstwhile ally of Abiy's, spoke out in US media against the prime minister's plan to consolidate the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) into a single party: the EPP. The details that were filtered down to the public were sketchy, but some Ethiopians interpreted his statement as the ultimate betrayal.

"The details are not yet known by most Ethiopians," the analyst Aynete said. "It's pretty much too early to say there is disunity between allies. We are waiting to get detailed information after the prime minister gets back from Oslo."

Ethiopians are also waiting to hear more about the arms acquisition deal that Abiy has negotiated with France, Aynete said. "Frankly, it was in the media but the detail is not yet known by most of us. We don't have any detailed information." French media report that long-range missiles and fighter jets are on Abiy's shopping list.

Protests in Ethiopia in 2016
Protests in 2016, when Ethiopia was heavily militarized, set the stage for Abiy's riseImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/K. Prinsloo

Disliked and distrusted

Ethiopians harshly criticize their leader, but not always openly, and Abiy also has his share of supporters, both at home and abroad.

"The prime minister may be disliked and distrusted by many in Ethiopia, but he's also kind of adored by many within the state," Professor Raleigh said. "He's an incredibly able politician. "I think those enemies wouldn't be internal." 

"He's not made any friends with the Prosperity Party in his own region, and I would guess within some others," Raleigh said. "So he's made potential political competitors, maybe, over enemies — certainly in the Tigray community."

Read more: Deadly unrest reflects Ethiopia's discontent

Raleigh and Aynete both said Abiy had done well in establishing ties with other countries since brokering an end to war with neighboring Eritrea.

Aynete said Abiy might have an enemy abroad in Qatar in light of his efforts to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. "Other than that," he said, "maybe it is locally that he has created new enemies — especially the Tigrayan ruling elite."