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Ethiopia: Abiy names Cabinet as pressure from US, EU mounts

October 6, 2021

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has replaced two key ministers days after being sworn in for a new term. The country's leadership faces growing pressure from the West to resolve the Tigray crisis.

Abiy Ahmed sits surrounded by parliamentarians wearing masks
Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed names his new cabinet in parliamentImage: Ethiopian Prime Minister Office

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has named a new defense minister and peace minister in a Cabinet shake-up that comes just days after he took the oath of office as prime minister for a new five-year term.

The Cabinet was approved on Wednesday by parliament, where Abiy's Prosperity Party has an overwhelming majority after winning June's elections.

The new defense minister, Abraham Belay, was previously the head of the federally appointed interim administration in the Tigray region, where fighting between government forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) has been raging for 11 months.

Abraham is said to be very close to Abiy, with both having done stints at Ethiopia's cyberespionage agency. In addition, Abraham was previously minister of innovation and technology, a position Abiy has also held.

Abraham Belay speaks into a row of microphones
Ethiopia's new defense minister, Abraham Belay, seen here in 2019, is close to AbiyImage: DW/G. Tedla Haile Giorgis

Abraham is Tigrayan, one of dozens of ethnic groups in Ethiopia.

It is "symbolically interesting" to see a Tigrayan appointed as defense minister, Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Norway's Bjorknes University College who closely follows Ethiopia's politics, told DW over the phone from Oslo.

"But I don't think it will be looked upon from the Tigrayan constituency as a kind of an olive branch," Tronvoll said.

Tronvoll said many Tigrayans saw Abraham as having "sold out" when he assumed the position as interim administrator of Tigray earlier this year after Ethiopia's Parliament declared the regional leadership illegal.

New peace minster

The Peace Ministry, which oversees civilian security agencies such as the police, also has a new chief. Benalf Andualem, the head of the Prosperity Party's secretariat, is viewed as one of Ethiopia's most powerful figures after Abiy.

In Benalf's appointment, Ethiopia analyst Tronvoll sees Abiy bringing in a "much stronger, possibly more hard-line, more loyalist figure close to his orbit."

"It might appear in the sense that Abiy is bunkering down and circling the wagons, putting even more loyalists into these very prominent ministries [Defense and Peace]," Tronvoll said.

Abiy Ahmed holds up his hand as he is sworn in
Abiy was sworn in Monday for a new term; he became Ethiopia's prime minister in 2018Image: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mokonnen, as expected, has held on to both his posts.

Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry stoked outrage last week after announcing the expulsion of seven UN officials — a decision set to be discussed by the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

Abiy's office touted the fact that three new Cabinet members hail from opposition parties, saying on Twitter that this reflected a "commitment to inclusivity".

Yonas Aday, who researches peace and security expert at Addis Ababa University, told DW that the new Cabinet is something to "congratulate" Ethiopia's government on.

"The way it's been established was very much inclusive," Yonas said. "It is a groundbreaking start to Ethiopian political culture."

Humanitarian crisis in Tigray

Abiy's new Cabinet will be closely watched for signs of a changing approach to the conflict in Tigray amid mounting pressure from the West to resolve the crisis and outrage over the expulsion of the UN officials.

The prime minister's office, which blames the TPLF for starting the war, has said certain conciliatory measures such as declassifying the TPLF as a terrorist group can only happen after the new government has formed.

But analysts don't believe that the new ministers will initially do much to soften Abiy's hard-line approach.

A sick and skinny child sits on a hospital bed in Tigray while receiving medicine
The UN is reporting "alarming" levels of malnutrition among children in TigrayImage: Million Haileselassie/DW

"It is commendable that some opposition party members are included in his Cabinet selection. However, in my opinion, it is very unlikely that someone from his own Cabinet  will come up and challenge Abiy," said Mohammed Girma, an Ethiopian academic who researches social harmony as a visiting lecturer at the University of Roehampton in London.

"The possibilities are that he would select Cabinet members who would defend his position rather than those who would confront him when they think he is wrong," Girma said.

Horn of Africa analyst Cameron Hudson offered similar sentiments.

"If anything, Abiy was at his most vulnerable leading up to the elections and leading up to his inauguration," Hudson, a former diplomat in the Horn of Africa region and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a US think tank, told DW.

"With that behind him, I think he's going to be even more empowered and emboldened to continue to pursue this course of action [in Tigray]," Hudson said.

International pressure

Ethiopia faces growing international condemnation over its handling of the conflict in Tigray, home to 6 million people.

The United States and several European countries, including Britain and France, were behind calls for Wednesday's scheduled UN Security Council meeting about Ethiopia's expulsion of the UN officials for "meddling."

The expulsion came after the officials raised concerns about the government's stopping medicine, food and fuel from entering Tigray, where hundreds of thousands of people face faminelike conditions.

Only about 11% of the trucks needed to transport life-saving food have entered the region since mid-July, the UN said last week.

The United States has also threatened sanctions if humanitarian access to Tigray isn't granted soon.

Resolute in the face of criticism

Hudson believes that Abiy will remain defiant even in the face of further international pressure.

Ethiopia enjoys the support of permanent UN Security Council members China and Russia, who have both made clear that they see the Tigray conflict as an internal affair for Ethiopia, Hudson said.

On top of this, Hudson said, despite "the threat of really comprehensive and biting US sanctions hanging over him," Abiy expelled the UN officials in what "many Security Council members are calling the most brazen act of defiance against the UN in decades."

"If that's how he responds in the face of all of this pressure, all of this criticism, the threat of sanctions ... then it's hard to imagine that further threats are going to do much," Hudson said.

Kate Hairsine Australian-born journalist and senior editor who mainly focuses on Africa.