Introducing... Abiy Ahmed

Richard Swift on Ethiopia's new reforming PM

Young Ethiopians, long accustomed to talking politics in hushed tones in cafés in the capital Addis Ababa, received a windfall of hope in April with the emergence of 42-year-old Abiy Ahmed as their new Prime Minister. Ahmed is the first Oromo (Ethiopia’s largest ethnicity) to head the state, which some unkindly call Africa’s last empire. With a PhD in peace studies, he promises deep reform and has already overseen the release of most political prisoners and the closure of the infamous Maekelawi prison – a move announced by his predecessor.

It is often hard to discern what is going on within the inner sanctums of Ahmed’s Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). They have run Africa’s second most populous country for 27 years since the armed overthrow of the Derg military dictatorship, which was dominated by the Amhara ethnic group. The EPRDF gradually evolved its own form of despotism – this time with those from the Tigray region at its helm. Despite token efforts to include other ethnicities, many, including the Oromia majority in the south, felt excluded. Persistent protest led to brutal repression and thousands of deaths in recent years.

With the state teetering on the edge of collapse, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned peacefully on 15 February. Ahmed faces significant challenges: overcoming internal ethnic strife, making peace with hostile neighbours such as Eritrea and Sudan, and bending Ethiopia’s rapid economic growth to meet the needs of ordinary folk. But, as hopeful Ethiopians will tell you, ‘he is young and very smart’.