Ethiopia’s reformer wins a prize

Ethiopia is one of many countries that gets a lot less media coverage in Australia than it deserves. I count myself as guilty as anyone in that, since I find this is the first time it’s featured in this blog. But there was a big good news story last week, with the award of this year’s Nobel peace prize to Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed.

Abiy is the first sitting prime minister to win the prize since Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 – not the most auspicious precedent. But his record since taking office 18 months ago fully warrants the honor.

Older readers may remember a time when Ethiopia was not so invisible in Australia. A series of famines in the 1970s and 1980s produced a horrific death toll and large-scale campaigns for western assistance, culminating in the famous “Live Aid” concert of 1985.

It’s a perennial truth about the media: humanitarian disasters get massive coverage, but the political malfeasance that is usually their root cause gets much less. And political good news often gets no coverage at all.

The deadly famine of 1983-85 was not a “natural” disaster; it was produced by the policies of the Derg, the communist dictatorship of the time headed by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam. A coalition of rebel groups known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front finally overthrew Mengistu in 1991, bringing hopes for democracy and economic revival.

Those hopes were only partly realised. The EPRDF transformed itself into a political party, and although other parties were permitted it maintained tight control of the country. Elections have been held, but of dubious fairness at best. Even peace was elusive, as war soon resumed with Eritrea along their disputed border.

Eritrea, once an Italian colony, had finally been liberated from Ethiopian control when the Derg was removed, but the alliance between it and the EPRDF did not last. After two years of fighting, a peace agreement was signed in 2000, but implementation soon stalled and the border remained closed, with periodic low-level violence.

As we know from other parts of the world, such conflicts can remain unsolved for decades, helping in turn to prop up authoritarian regimes (Eritrea’s was worse than Ethiopia’s, and still is). But things changed in April last year when public protests led to the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn as prime minister and EPRDF leader. Abiy, a relatively junior figure but a rising star in the party, was chosen to replace him.

As sometimes happens, Abiy turned out to be a bold reformer. Political prisoners were released, the state of emergency was lifted, travel and media restrictions were liberalised, former dissidents were promoted in place of party hardliners, and plans were announced for constitutional reform and privatisation of state enterprises.

Just three months after taking office he made an unprecedented visit to Eritrea, signing a treaty to end hostilities and promote co-operation. Cross-border trade has boomed, and hopes have risen for the resolution of numerous other conflicts in the region.

There’s no doubt that Ethiopia has enormous potential. It is the second most populous country in Africa (after Nigeria), and while its people are still very poor, economic growth in the last decade or so has been impressive. If Abiy can implement sensible reforms, preserve peace and provide effective and responsive government, it could transform the region and serve as an example for the whole continent.

Reform, however, is never easy. It’s impossible to avoid thinking of another Nobel laureate who tried to undo authoritarianism from within – namely Mikhail Gorbachev, who lasted only another year in office after the award of the prize in 1990.

Let’s hope Abiy does a better job of outlasting his country’s old guard.

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