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Personalities remain a key factor in shaping a continent trying to emerge from lost decades of ‘big man’ politics. While the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) made much of efforts to create a post-conflict ‘developmental state’ in the last two decades (AE 311/20), modern Ethiopia was fashioned in the image of the late Meles Zenawi, who harnessed an intolerant, Tigrayan-dominated political system to a rigid but fast-growing (if unbalanced) economy. Increasing investment and foreign support was not enough to stem the popular pressures that in April brought Abiy Ahmed to the premiership.

Abiy has overcome early fears that he would be dominated by Oromo mentors, Tigrayan power-brokers and other powerful EPRDF politicians to take Ethiopia in a bold new direction. Leveraging his doctorate in conflict resolution, the 42-year-old former general has freed dissidents, sacked corrupt officials and accelerated economic reforms (AE 371/8), promoted regional co-operation (AE 369/17) and shown a willingness to listen to popular grievances, rather than sending in the troops.

An expatriate Ethiopian financier told African Energy that a prime minister who inspires spontaneous popular support and offers a genuine economic and political opening was unimaginable only months ago. “My mother in Addis Ababa has seen it all, and she’s experiencing a mood of elation,” he said.

Personalised politics was important even during the Cold War, when superpowers’ proxy conflicts devastated the Horn of Africa. The agreement to carve Eritrea out of the old Amharic empire owed much to Meles’ determination to fulfil his promise to close friend Isaias Afwerki that a state would be created even if it meant landlocking Ethiopia. Isaias in 1993 was a brilliant, charismatic leader whose subsequent descent into dictatorship has impoverished, marginalised and traumatised his country. It took a leader of a different generation and outlook to persuade 72-year-old Isaias to end the state of war that had persisted since the bloody 1998-2000 border conflict. Eritrea has much to gain from Abiy’s unilateral decision for Ethiopian forces to leave the border town of Badme. This generous gesture carries risks of opposition from within the Ethiopian military, but culminated in Abiy’s landing in Asmara on 8 July.

The following day, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres met Abiy in Addis, underlining the international ramifications of these events – not least for migration to Europe by young Eritreans fleeing Isaias’ regime. Guterres suggested that UN sanctions imposed on Eritrea in 2009 over its support for Islamist militants in Somalia might end. According to the Ethiopian version of the 9 July agreement, the two sides are committed to ending their state of war; to forging close political, economic, social, cultural and security cooperation; resuming trade, economic and diplomatic relations; implementing the 2002 Algiers border decision; and working towards regional peace. Ethiopian Airlines is resuming flights to Asmara and phone connections will be restored. If Isaias is willing – which has still to be proven – Eritrea could be wrapped into an international embrace led by Ethiopia.

Abiy faces opposition from Tigrayan hardliners and other dissident factions. New army chief of staff General Seare Mekonnen was appointed by Abiy in early June to manage a potentially restive officer corps. A huge pro-Abiy rally on 23 June was disrupted by a grenade attack that killed two people. At the moment of Abiy’s greatest triumph so far may come the greatest danger.