By Paul Ndiho
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed begins his second year in power with a new challenge, keeping his promise to make the 2020 elections free and fair, despite rising political violence.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s first year in office was marked by a series of popular reforms. He’s tapped women to head top leadership positions, signed peace deals, most notably with longtime foe Eritrea and he’s cracked down on corruption. Not surprising, Prime Minister Ahmed is generating worldwide headlines, Time Magazine recently named him as one of the 100 most influential people in 2019. In part, for his leadership style and for doing what a lot of people thought was impossible.
Ahmed called for an end to the repressive, exclusionary governance that had plunged the country into turmoil. Ethiopian journalist and activist Eskinder Nega, is among hundreds of prisoners released this year. He says Prime Minister Ahmed should continue to work towards promoting democracy and expanding political freedoms.
“Does the new Prime Minister want to bring genuine democracy to the country, he has said so, but in the final analysis, he will be measured not by what he says but he will be measured by what he does. So he has to walk the talk, and he hasn’t done that up now, at least he should have lifted the state of emergency.”
A surge in ethnic violence in Ethiopia, along the border areas of Gedeo and West Guji regions, has driven away nearly 1 million people from their homes.
“We have seen health centers in the area faced with an enormous problem. They were working ok, but suddenly, they’ve got more than double the population coming in, and many of those people who are coming in are sick already. We have been providing them with additional basic medicines to enable them to treat those who are sick.”
Violence is threatening to undermine Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s calls for unity in the country. It’s also overshadowing the popular liberal measures he has announced since coming to power.
“We came here because we were attacked. We left our village empty-handed to save our lives. We traveled and spent three days in the bushes to get here.”
The 42-year-old Ahmed was appointed by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front as it sought to ease ethnic tensions and appeal to disenfranchised youth.
Since becoming Prime Minister, he has met publicly with newly-freed political prisoners and held repeated meetings with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki to negotiate a July 2018 agreement re-establishing relations following a brutal 1998-2000 border war.
“He’s restoring the rule of law in the country so that the Ethiopian people will have confidence in the system, in the judicial system, in the security system, and the government as the whole.”
In a historic move, the prime minister appointed Sahle-Work Zewde as the country’s first female president. And several other women to senior government positions. These positions carry significant symbolic weight and social influence, especially for young women.
“Women’s political participation, to me as well, is beyond cabinet positions. It’s participation at all levels and the participation of women who’ve never been in politics before.”
New elections are slated for 2020, but some opposition parties are casting doubt on whether the government will be fully prepared to hold elections by that time. Some opposition groups say continuing instability may impair the government’s ability to safely conduct a free, fair and credible election next year. An election that Prime Minister Ahmed is hoping will be the crown jewel of the reforms he is promoting and defending.