One African leader’s 2018 story has gripped the continent’s imagination because of the heady pace of change his appointment has engineered.
Abiy Ahmed took over as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister in April 2018. At 42, he carved a path through Ethiopia’s tense, ethnically divided landscape by becoming the first Oromo to lead his country.
For years, Ethiopia had been engulfed in states of emergencies; protests were met with a government crackdown and thousands fled across the border into Kenya.
Abiy joined the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation as a teenager. He stayed close to his people, even as he claimed victory in an internal Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front vote on 27 March to become chairman of the ruling party.
That victory secured his place as Prime Minister of an East African powerhouse.
To understand just what kind of a place Ethiopia had been before his appointment, its recent history shows a nation riven by ethnic tensions among more than a dozen different ethnic groups. Serious conflicts had raged between the Oromo and the Somali region, for example.
Before the new Abiy era, rival politicians and unfavored journalists were either in exile or locked in Ethiopia’s jails, including Addis Ababa’s infamous Maekelawi prison, where many alleged abuses took place.
As Abiy was sworn in, it soon became clear his agenda to change all that had come before was genuine. He shut down Maekelawi prison, freed journalists and invited all political exiles to return and stake their claim to a free and fair 2020 election.
Under Abiy, Ethiopia has gone from being one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists to for the first time in more than a decade of having no journalists in prison.
By July, Abiy’s populist streak had turned to action on the international front when out of nowhere the long cold war with neighbor Eritrea was dismantled in a series of remarkable détente meetings and diplomacy.
Isaias Afwerki, the only leader Eritrea has ever known, rolled into the Ethiopian capital, and the two leaders declared 20 years of tension over.
It catapulted Abiy and Ethiopia into a different status — and redefined the Horn of Africa nation as a regional powerhouse.
Abiy has been in tune to the possibility of miraculous growth, and Ethiopia’s once state-controlled telecoms, electricity and even the national airline are all going to be opened up to foreign investors.
The tremors of these vast changes have been felt beyond Ethiopia. Eritrea and now Djibouti and Somalia are all feeling the Abiy effect.
Ethiopian airlines landed in Mogadishu, Somalia, for the first time in 41 years. Djibouti is in talks to share access to its port to service Ethiopian needs. The idea of peace coming to this region at last is an exciting prospect.
In 2019, Abiy has one real job: to cement his position as the front-runner in Ethiopia’s 2020 elections.