Ethiopia's PM Abiy Ahmed: From Nobel Peace Prize to wartime leader

ADDIS ABABA (AFP) – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office vowing sweeping reforms that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize, before becoming mired in a gruesome internal conflict that has drawn global outrage.

Now, as he prepares for a new term following a landslide win in a national election, he finds the surge of hope that accompanied his initial appointment three years ago significantly diminished.

Election officials announced on Saturday (July 10) that Abiy’s Prosperity Party had secured an overwhelming majority in last month’s poll, giving him the popular mandate he has long coveted.

Even as he confronts persistent insecurity that has delayed voting in some areas, Abiy appears unbowed.

In an April speech, he told supporters, in his trademark folksy language, that while Ethiopia might seem riven by crises, the real problem was one of perception.

He compared the country’s experience to that of a village child disoriented by riding in a car for the first time.

“When the car moves forward, the buildings and trees go backward and we become confused,” he said.

Meteoric rise

Abiy was once a village boy himself.

Born in the western town of Beshasha to a Muslim father and Christian mother, he has described sleeping on the floor in a house with no electricity or running water.

Fascinated with technology, he joined the military as a radio operator while still a teenager.

In his 2019 Nobel speech, he recalled his time during the brutal 1998-2000 border war with Eritrea, saying his entire unit was wiped out in an Eritrean artillery attack that he survived only because he’d left a foxhole to get better antenna reception.

He rose to lieutenant-colonel before entering government as the first head of Ethiopia’s cyber-spying outfit, the Information Network Security Agency.

Then came stints as a lawmaker and minister of science and technology.

Seizing the moment

The circumstances that lifted Abiy to high office can be traced to late 2015.

A government plan to expand the capital’s administrative boundaries into the surrounding Oromia region was seen as a land grab, sparking protests led by the Oromos, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and the Amharas, the second-largest.

The ruling coalition at the time, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), resorted to its customary tactics: states of emergency and mass arrests.

These proved insufficient.

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When then-prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly resigned, the coalition’s member parties chose Abiy to become the first Oromo prime minister in 2018.

He released dissidents from jail, apologised for state brutality and welcomed home exiled groups – part of a democratic rebirth meant to culminate in the most competitive elections in Ethiopia’s history.

But Abiy encountered a host of obstacles, notably persistent ethnic violence including in his native Oromia.

Road to war

All the while, the northern Tigray region was seething.

Its ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had dominated national politics before Abiy’s rise, and its leaders did not take kindly to his perceived attempts to sideline them.

When Abiy dissolved the EPRDF and formed the Prosperity Party in 2019, the TPLF refused to go along.

In September 2020 it brazenly defied the prime minister by holding “illegal” regional elections, ignoring a nationwide ban on polls imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Two months later, Abiy accused the TPLF of attacking federal army camps and ordered troops into Tigray.

Though he promised the conflict would be swift, fighting dragged on for nearly eight months, as did reports of brutal massacres and mass rape.

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In late June Ethiopia’s army largely withdrew from Tigray and pro-TPLF fighters returned to the regional capital Mekele.

Tigrayan leaders now want forces from neighbouring Eritrea and Ethiopia’s Amhara region – who teamed up with the army – to leave the region too, and the country is bracing for a new offensive.

Meanwhile world leaders warn a humanitarian catastrophe is already unfolding.

A new ‘crossroads’

Abiy is married to Zinash Tayachew, whom he met in the military.

The couple have three daughters and adopted a baby boy in August 2018.

Deeply ambitious, Abiy has been accused of focusing his attention on beautifying the capital and mediating conflicts abroad rather than the situation at home.

Critics also say he has embraced the same authoritarianism many hoped he would end, overseeing mass arrests and abuses by security forces.

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Gone are the heady days of “Abiymania” that followed his appointment in 2018.

Now his opponents openly disrespect him.

“I think he’s stuck somewhere,” Merera Gudina, an opposition leader from Oromia whose party boycotted the elections, told AFP.

“He started to behave as a lost child at a crossroads. Such a child cannot go back because he doesn’t know from where he came, and he cannot proceed because he does not know where he’s going.”

His supporters, though, remain true believers.

Early on in the Tigray war, some officials even suggested that, given Abiy’s efforts to resolve the conflict, their boss might be deserving of “a second Nobel Prize”.

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