Abiy Ahmed has won two important votes. In March 2018, Ethiopia’s now defunct ruling coalition made him prime minister. Last October, Norway’s Nobel committee, impressed by his subsequent actions on human rights and conclusion of a peace deal with Eritrea, picked him as winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.
Now Mr Abiy must win the election that really counts — in August, when he and his newly formed Prosperity party face the Ethiopian people in a general election. If the exercise is free and fair, as Mr Abiy has promised, there is no guarantee he or his party will win it.
What happens in Ethiopia matters. After 15 years of near double-digit growth, Africa’s second-most populous country, with nearly 114m people, has left behind its famine-stricken image and become a talisman for development.
Though still very poor, the country has made huge strides in health, education and poverty reduction. Life expectancy has gone from 52 at the turn of the century to 67. The economy has grown more than 10-fold in the same period. Despite complaints that the elite has enriched itself, Ethiopia has one of the most even distributions of income on the continent.
This happy narrative is undermined by one thing: the political reality. While Mr Abiy is still feted abroad, his image at home has taken a battering. The peace process with Eritrea has stalled. Opponents say Mr Abiy is egotistical, even power-hungry. “We fought against a one-party dominated system,” says Jawar Mohamed, a former ally turned political rival. “Now he’s trying to create a one man-dominated system.”
The Addis Standard, a monthly magazine, accuses Mr Abiy of filling up the jails again with political prisoners and carrying out military bombardment of armed opposition forces in Oromia, the most populous region. The government, reeling from ethnic vitriol on the airwaves, has passed a controversial law curbing hate speech.
Much of the backlash relates to a complex tussle between Mr Abiy, an “Ethiopianist” who stresses the unity of the state, and those who see the nation through an ethnic lens. Visitors referring to Ethiopia as a “nation” are often told that, under the constitution, it is a “nation of nations”.
The 1995 constitution, enacted after the 1991 overthrow of a ruinous Marxist regime, emphasised ethnicity by dividing the country into nine supposedly ethnically integral regions. This was partly designed to camouflage the fact that, in reality, the country was being run by Tigrayans, who make up only 6 per cent of the population, but who led the revolution and implemented the reforms that brought spectacular growth.
Mr Abiy, in a policy that looks laudable from afar, has sought to de-emphasise the importance of ethnicity. He has advanced a concept of medemer, an Amharic word meaning “synergy”, variously mocked as vacuous or criticised as a dangerous grab for power in the name of national unity.
Mr Abiy has also disbanded the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the former ruling coalition made up of ethnic parties from Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and the Southern Nations. He has replaced it with an economically centrist, non-ethnic Prosperity party.
His advisers insist this was the right thing to do, bringing previously excluded minorities into the political process. But the Tigrayan political establishment, largely purged by Mr Abiy, has refused to join.
In other regions too, Mr Abiy’s message of unity has backfired. Ironically, opposition is among the most severe in Oromia, his own region, which in 2018 wildly celebrated Mr Abiy’s ascent as a victory for a long marginalised people.
Now he stands accused of betraying those aspirations by stressing an Ethiopianist agenda. Lemma Megersa, former president of the Oromo region, has fallen out with him as a result. Now defence minister, Mr Lemma opposes Mr Abiy’s hurried formation of the Prosperity party. If Mr Lemma were to quit the government, it could seriously erode Mr Abiy’s electoral chances in Oromia, and nationally.
Tensions are inevitable. Mr Abiy has taken the lid off decades of repression. He invited back groups that once sought to overthrow the state by force. Still, critics may be right that the transition has been botched.
Mr Abiy does have incumbency on his side. His party controls the state machinery and finances. Assuming elections go ahead in August — and they could yet be derailed — his party might well scrape a victory. That would give Mr Abiy five more years. At the end of that period, it will be interesting to see if the Nobel committee has any regrets.