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Opinion: Ethiopia's reformer has to slow down

Ludger Schadomsky
June 23, 2018

An attack apparently targeting Ethiopian Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed has overshadowed the radical reform process he has initiated. It also signals the start of a new power struggle in the country, says Ludger Schadomsky.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa
Image: Reuters

Just a few days ago, people polled at the spot of Saturday morning's attack warned that Ethiopia's new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, could be overdoing things with the pace of his reform policies. Of late, people have not even been able to keep up with the changes: Ending a state of emergency, the release of thousands of political prisoners, cleaning house within the army and intelligence services, liberalizing the economy and then – making peace with Ethiopia's archenemy Eritrea. All of this is unheard of for a society as conservative and inexperienced with democracy as Ethiopia's.

And now, that which many observers feared, has come to pass. The evidence being gathered suggests Abiy himself was the target of the attack.

Millions of Ethiopians saw Saturday's mass demonstration as a chance to cheer their jovial 41-year-old prime minister for undertaking long-overdue reforms. It was a chance to say, "beka!" — "enough!" — to political harassment, censorship and corruption. The T-shirts being sold on the streets of Addis Ababa Friday, for the astronomical sum of 300 birr (€10 / $12), showed Abiy as a superstar.

Yet, whereas the majority of those present were in the mood to celebrate, others saw the solidarity march as an affront. Namely, those whom the new leader has been unceremoniously throwing out over the last few weeks: military and intelligence service members, bank bosses and provincial lords. And they are united by one desire – to see Abiy fail.

DW's Ludger Schadomsky
DW's Ludger Schadomsky Image: DW/P. Böll

Tedious cooperation

Immediately following the grenade blast, the uninjured prime minister said the "well-orchestrated attack" was "an unsuccessful attempt by forces who do not want to see Ethiopia united." With that statement the new leader got to the crux of the problem: A multi-ethnic state, Ethiopia has been extremely fragile for decades, tenuously held together by a shared repudiation of the ruling political class. There can be no talk of any form of national unity among the 100 million people in the country which stretches from Afar in the north to Borena in the south.

In fact, the opposite is true: The beginning of the "Ethiopian spring" has led to an open power struggle between the dominant ethnic groups and regions that banded together to form the authoritarian Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition that has ruled the country for the last 25 years. Now the pendulum is swinging between those who hope to collect democratic dividends and those who stand to be the losers in this new chapter of Ethiopian history — the outcome remains uncertain.

One will have to see what the coming days bring. Should facts confirm suspicions that security forces were behind the attack it could enrage many reform-minded Ethiopians, who will no doubt direct their anger at them. And should the attackers be allied with a particular ethnic group that is well represented within the security apparatus, revenge attacks and an escalation of ethnic conflict could result.

The message for the "Messiah," as Abiy's supporters call him, is that he would be well-advised to take opponents with him on the coming legs of his reform journey. "A powerful friend can become a powerful enemy," as a popular Ethiopian saying goes. Abiy, the first prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group, the largest in Ethiopia, has made a number of powerful enemies over the last few months. For his experiment to work, he will have to prove that his reforms are not ethnically motivated. Or, as he said after the attack: "To those who tried to divide us, I want to tell you that you have not succeeded." 

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