NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for ending 20 years of hostility with neighbouring Eritrea, can arouse strong reactions at home.
During a meeting at Ethiopia’s foreign ministry in July, officials were shocked by social media reports that their prime minister was visiting Eritrea.
No one in the room had been informed of Abiy’s trip, his second since clinching his peace deal last year.
“The foreign office was not in the loop,” said a senior official who was present. “We learned of it from the Eritrean media, on Facebook and Twitter.”
The surprise visit is typical of Abiy, who both fans and critics say often relies on bold personal initiatives and charisma to drive change instead of working through government institutions.
Nebiat Getachew, the foreign ministry spokesman, said policy was well co-ordinated. He did not confirm if Abiy had made the July trip without informing the ministry.
But Abiy’s unpredictable style annoys some Ethiopians.
It is unclear how much of the fractious ruling coalition backs his reforms, or how durable they would be without him. He has already survived one assassination attempt: a grenade thrown at a rally last year.
Lasting change cannot be built through a “cult of personality”, said Comfort Ero, Africa programme director at the International Crisis Group think tank.
“None of Abiy’s promised transformational reforms are going to have any solid foundations unless he works through the institutions,” she said.
Ethiopia has been among Africa’s fastest growing economies. But uncertainty over Abiy’s ability to carry out all his reforms worries both Ethiopians and foreign investors.
PERSONAL STYLE OR CANNY STRATEGY?
Some observers say Abiy, a former military officer, will sometimes bypass ministries because his reforms will otherwise become mired in bureaucracy.
Those reforms – including unbanning political parties, releasing imprisoned journalists and prosecuting officials accused of torture – have drawn ecstatic crowds at rallies.
“Abiy seems to have relied on his charismatic rule,” said Dereje Feyissa, a professor at Addis Ababa University. “The question is whether this is sustainable. Euphoria is subsiding.”
Other observers say Abiy’s rapid changes are a deliberate attempt to wrong-foot opponents from the previous administration, which was dominated by Tigrayans.
Abiy, 43, is from the Oromo group, which spearheaded the protests that forced his predecessor to resign. Since taking office in April 2018, Abiy’s government has arrested or fired many senior officials – mainly Tigrayans – for corruption or rights abuses.
One of Abiy’s biggest victories was the peace deal, signed in July last year, which ended a nearly 20-year military stalemate with Eritrea following their 1998-2000 border war.
Asle Sveen, a historian who has written several books about the Nobel Peace Prize, told Reuters the deal made Abiy exactly the kind of candidate Alfred Nobel had envisaged for the prize.
“The peace deal has ended a long conflict with Eritrea, and he is very popular for having done this, and he is doing democratic reforms internally,” Sveen said.
But some benefits of the peace were short-lived. Land borders opened in July but closed in December with no official explanation.
Nebiat, the foreign ministry spokesman, said Eritrea and Ethiopia had restored diplomatic relations, air links and phone connections. “Other engagements are well underway to further institutionalize relations,” he said.
Abiy’s diplomatic forays tend to be bold personal initiatives, analysts and diplomats said.
The foreign ministry has been “completely sidelined,” said the senior ministry official, adding that “our interests abroad may be jeopardized”.
He said Abiy had engaged with Eritrea, Somalia and wealthy Gulf states on major policy issues without building consensus within his government.
Nebiat disputed that.
“There is always a well-coordinated foreign policy and diplomacy implementation within the Ethiopian government,” he said. “Any other claims are simply baseless.”
Some nations are pleased by Abiy’s personal touch.
After Sudanese police killed more than 100 protesters in June, Abiy flew to Khartoum to convince Sudan’s new military rulers and the opposition to restart talks, and persuaded Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to back his mediation. The talks led to a power-sharing accord in August.
At home, Abiy’s public renunciation of past abuses drew a line between his administration and that of his predecessor. He appointed former dissidents to senior roles.
But ethnically tinged violence flares frequently, and systemic attempts to address past injustices have been slow. A reconciliation commission set up in December has an unclear mandate, lacks expertise and has only met twice, said Laetitia Bader, an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The jury is still out on whether the move will be more than mere window dressing,” Bader said.
Reporting by Maggie Fick; Additional reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Katharine Houreld in Nairobi and Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; Editing by Giles Elgood