At 41 years of age, Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed Ali is the youngest head of government in Africa. Since coming to power two months ago, Abiy has made headlines globally as a reform-minded, polyglot politician, an establishment insider with a mixed religious background who could introduce change and push the country towards a path of unity and democratization.
Abiy replaced Hailemariam Desalegn, who resigned in February following over two years of protests that led to the death of hundreds and the detention of tens of thousands others. In his maiden speech to parliament, he spoke of dignity, free expression, and national unity, and noted that “Democracy is unthinkable without freedom.” Since then, Abiy has taken a series of bold steps that showcased the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) meant business.
In April, Abiy ended an internet blackout, reinstituting both mobile and broadband internet services across the country. Addis Ababa also dismissed charges against diaspora-based media outlets, who commanded huge viewership and produced original reporting during the anti-government protests. Thousands of prisoners were also freed and charges against them dropped including prominent opposition leaders and journalists such as Bekele Gerba, Eskinder Nega, Berhanu Nega, and Andargachew Tsege, a British citizen who was seized during a stopover in Yemen in 2014.
However, the biggest political move to come out of Abiy’s election is his engaging of the exiled Ethiopian opposition party, the Oromo Democratic Front. A delegation of the leaders was even allowed to return to widen the space for peaceful negotiation. This followed a series of important political gestures including discussions to introduce a two-term limit for prime ministers instead of the current unlimited terms. Abiy has also promised to help reform the judiciary, reshuffled the cabinet, and appointed civilians to key positions including at the Information Network Security Agency that oversees cybersecurity.
Abiy also made several trips abroad, helping free Ethiopian detainees in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Kenya. He also recently hinted at introducing visa-free travel for all Africans to Ethiopia.
For now, the new premier is sounding all the positive notes. Yet Ethiopia observers have remained cautious in their analysis, saying the flickers of hope don’t necessarily constitute effective and long-lasting change. After all, Ethiopia remains under a state of emergency, is still largely a one-party state, whose operatives are yet to loosen their grip on the economy or security apparatus, while the anti-terror laws that were used to stifle dissent are still in place.
Roland Ebole, a senior Horn of Africa officer with advocacy group Freedom House argues that it’s too early to “start deciding on Ethiopia’s trajectory” or know if Abiy is truly walking the talk. “Let the man finish talking and doing the work because he’s not yet done,” he said.