Are Ethiopians blinded by Abiymania?

African nations have heard talk of democracy before from the likes of Museveni and Afwerki. Will Abiy be different?

Abiy Ahmed Reuters
Since taking office in April, Abiy Ahmed has announced a series of moves to liberalise the economy, released thousands of jailed dissidents and listed a state of emergency [Reuters]

Since Abiy Ahmed was appointed Ethiopia’s prime minister in April, he has been rolling out one reform after the other with breathtaking speed. This unexpected turn of events made him so popular so quickly in his country and beyond that, some sort of an “Abiymania” seems to be sweeping through the continent.

From Kenya to South Africa, Africans are hailing Abiy’s premiership and celebrating his achievements. After only three months in office, the young prime minister managed to give millions of Ethiopians – and many other Africans – a reason to feel optimistic about the future of their country and the region.

On April 2, Abiy, 41, the youngest African leader currently in office, took over the premiership of a country on the brink of a major catastrophe. Three years of incessant protests, violence and deteriorating economy had brought Ethiopia on the verge of collapse.

Abiy acted quickly. He freed thousands of political prisoners, lifted the state of emergency, admitted the regime used torture against political opponents in the past and took steps to make peace with his nation’s “archenemy”, Eritrea. He also liberalised flagship state-controlled outfits, namely Ethiopia Airlines and the telecommunication sector and took important steps to move the country away from a state-controlled economy. 

The speed and scale of Abiy’s reforms have uplifted Ethiopians at home and encouraged many who had been in exile for years to make their way home. In the wider Horn of Africa, there is talk of an “Ethiopia dividend”, with many expecting Abiy’s democratic reforms to have a spillover effect on neighbouring countries.

But African nations have succumbed to this type of hasty optimism before only to be bitterly disappointed. In the 1980s and 1990s, a number of revolutionary African leaders came to power talking of reform and democracy, too.

It was a time when the Cold War, the proxy wars of the US and the Soviet Union, and the apartheid in South Africa were all ending and a new era in African politics was on the horizon.

In 1986, Yoweri Museveni came to power in Uganda after helping overthrow two dictators.

In 1991, Meles Zenawi became Ethiopia’s president after toppling Mengistu Hailemariam’s military junta.

In 1993, Isaias Afwerki became the first president of Eritrea after fighting for its independence in a decades-long war.

In 1994, Paul Kagame became the vice president and de-facto ruler of Rwanda after helping end the genocide.

In the same year, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela – who was released from the Robben Island prison in 1990 – was elected the country’s first black president.

When Mandela took office, many believed that Africa’s liberation struggle had been completed. The last African country under colonial rule was freed and revolutionary leaders who appeared to believe in democracy were in power across the continent. 

But all, except Mandela, turned towards repression and authoritarianism.

In Uganda, Museveni is now on his fifth term as president after changing the Constitution in 2005 to remove term limits and signing into law this year a controversial bill that removes presidential age limits and allows him to rule indefinitely. He has clamped down on the opposition, throwing opposition leader Kizza Besigye in jail on treason charges, and allowed corruption and nepotism to rule over his government.

In Eritrea, Afwerki forgot his talk of democracy and built a carefully controlled dictatorship, isolated from the rest of the world.

In Ethiopia, Zenawi also pursued repressive politics, jailing thousands of activists, opposition members and journalists, cracking down on freedom of expression and engaging in electoral fraud and violence.

And in Rwanda, Kagame has been running a police state.

So is Abiy bound to have the same fate as his predecessors?

There is no indication yet that he is going to follow Museveni, Zenawi, Afewerki and Kagame’s path and disappoint his people by clinging to power and becoming yet another African strongman.

But to avoid such risks, the Ethiopian society has to watch carefully his steps and not let its guard down. And Abiy himself should avoid the temptation of cracking down on any opposition he faces and instead opt for reconciliation.

There is still a strong deep state network in Ethiopia that is unhappy with the new prime minister’s reform agenda. On June 23, an explosion struck a pro-Abiy rally in Addis Ababa, killing at least one person and wounding scores more. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, it showed that there still is a hardline minority that is not pleased with the country’s new leader.

Moreover, there are groups in Ethiopia that already feel betrayed by the new leadership. Irob people, a minority group living in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, expressed their dismay at Abiy’s decision to normalise relations with Eritrea, which could see part of their territory ceded to their neighbour. Abiy should show a willingness to listen to such grievances and address them.

Also, despite his efforts to revitalise the economy, Ethiopia is still in the midst of a severe foreign currency shortage. Last month, the United Arab Emirates pledged to deposit $1bn in Ethiopia’s Central Bank as part of a three billion dollar aid package. But it would be naive to assume the UAE is offering a helping hand for free.

By accepting this large aid package, Abiy is effectively siding with Saudi Arabia and its allies in the ongoing Gulf crisis. Participating in this regional powerplay may eventually harm Ethiopia’s democratic prospects and damage Abiy’s credibility as an independent African leader.

If he wants to succeed in bringing change to not only Ethiopia but also to the wider region, he needs to tread carefully and maintain an independent agenda at home and abroad.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on July 4, 2018. On July 7, an unedited version of the piece appeared temporarily on our website due to a system error. We apologise for any confusion this might have caused.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.