Can Ethiopia’s Reforms Succeed?
What Abiy’s Plans Mean for the Country and the Region
(foreignaffairs)—Ethiopia is on the move. The resignation of beleaguered Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February ushered in the most significant reordering of political power in the country since 1991, when youthful guerrillas toppled the long-serving Marxist strongman Mengistu Haile Mariam.
The new administration, led by 42-year-old Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, has pursued an aggressive, reformist agenda. It wants to rewrite Ethiopia’s old, authoritarian social contract and unite the country’s fractured society. It isn’t yet clear whether Abiy will succeed, and progress so far has been mixed. But if he does, Ethiopia will have a chance not only to reinvent itself but also to bring a wave of reform and perhaps even democratization to the wider region.
THE NEW BROOM
At the heart of Abiy’s reforms is a drive for national reconciliation. The government has released political prisoners, allowed exiled dissidents to return home, decriminalized armed opposition groups, and lifted a contentious state of emergency. The speed of the changes has been dizzying. In April, Abiy suggested that Ethiopian prime ministers should adhere to strict term limits. In June, he admitted that the state had engaged in serious human rights abuses, going so far as to call the government’s past conduct a form of terrorism. And in July, he committed himself to holding free and fair elections in 2020.
Alongside his domestic reforms, Abiy has shaken up Ethiopia’s relations with its neighbors. In June, Abiy’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) announced that Ethiopia would at last implement a peace deal with Eritrea that the two countries signed in 2000, which requires Ethiopia to hand over occupied territories and paves the way for an end to the war that began in 1998. The next month, Abiy became the first Ethiopian leader to visit the Eritrean capital, Asmara, since before the war. While there, he and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a “Joint Declaration of Peace and Friendship” that ended their countries’ long antagonism and set the stage for renewed cooperation