One of the most dramatic political pivots of 2018 occurred in Ethiopia, where the sudden rise of 42-year-old Abiy Ahmed as prime minister ushered in a series of head-spinning reforms in a country long ruled by a deeply repressive regime. There is now the very real possibility that Ethiopia could make a lasting shift to democracy.
There are so many positive signs so far that most Ethiopians at home and abroad seem gripped by a sense of euphoria. But not all is well in Ethiopia. Abiy faces a number of significant obstacles to his goal of bringing a free, peaceful and genuinely competitive contest when Ethiopia holds its next elections, scheduled for 2020. Among those challenges, the most difficult is transforming the current political landscape, dominated by ethnic and tribal allegiances, to one where citizenship—loyalty to the country as a whole—transcends narrower divisions.
Abiy is the first member of the Oromo ethnic group, which makes up about a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million-strong population, to lead the country. And he has launched a reform movement, remarkably, as the nominal leader of the ruling bloc, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, which has a long track record of authoritarian rule. The EPRDF has effectively criminalized the opposition, barred critical media, engaged in ever more brutal police practices, and filled the jails with journalists and political prisoners.