Ethiopia’s new leader urged to end conflict using ‘saviour’ power

Abiy, who spent a year as an exiled political prisoner, brings elections to the country next month with the hope of tackling decades of political turmoil

Abiy Ahmed, the new leader of Ethiopia, has been urged to use his “saviour complex” to end the country’s conflict.

Lucy May, a professor of African politics at City University, said that Abiy, a former political prisoner who served a year in exile in Germany as prime minister-designate, had the power to heal a divided nation.

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The political opposition has welcomed the adoption of the new constitution, which proposes allowing opposition parties to run in a September general election, but May said it would not bring an end to the country’s problems unless there was a change in attitude from Abiy.

“He has to really flex his ‘saviour complex’ here to end this as a real conflict, which it is, between two major ethnic groups, as well as a very violent state of emergency now in place,” she said.

“This is a solution that can really be created and this is all around the place in Ethiopia.”

While the long term healing of Ethiopia is difficult, May said there were changes to be positive about.

“Some of the vibrancy of Ethiopia was cruelly cut off in the ’90s, and we could see that return,” she said. “We are not there yet but we are going in the right direction.”

The new constitution allows for a multiparty system, where the recent elections left a weak opposition with few seats in parliament. Some of its leaders, including the main opposition leader, Ameda Bessahiwo, have spoken of their difficulties in making progress in those elections after years of political oppression.

Abiy, who served a year as an exiled political prisoner in Germany before moving to the US, is a rare outsider in a country ruled by a diapered party dynasty since 2005.

His victory to become prime minister was not unexpected, after he was identified as a likely leader by Ethiopian state media and developed an image as a dashing reformer.

The 32-year-old leader said in his inaugural speech last week that he wanted to take the country to “the top of the world” by reducing graft and promising to grant citizenship to ethnic minorities.

Ruth Marcus (@ruthmarcus) Ethiopia is a country whose leaders routinely treat their own people as a security threat. Can anyone say ‘cradle of civilization’? The place to restate that truth is Africa.

His word, too, is fast becoming the currency of a country whose proud past of scientific innovation and exemplary economic growth has been overshadowed by the oppression of most Ethiopians in the more than four decades since the regime of Meles Zenawi fell.

Meles, now 66, led the country from 1991 and died in 2012. His greatest achievement was facilitating the country’s transformation from a regionally ineffective backwater into a fast-growing economy. It is now almost double the size of neighbouring Kenya’s economy and is expected to grow by over 6% this year.

But Meles also waged an oppressive, long-running war against Eritrea in the 1990s that split the Horn of Africa. It ended in 2000 and the leaders of both countries reached a peace deal in 2015, which has given unprecedented stability to Ethiopia.

Meles was credited with increasing public spending by a factor of three by spending increasingly on infrastructure and social programmes, but his brutality also eroded much of the perception of his achievements.

Ethiopia remains largely undeveloped despite huge resources but has been expanding its industrial base by commissioning big-ticket industrial projects, including railways, roads and a huge complex in the port city of Djibouti that has spurred further economic growth.

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