Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed is facing the greatest test of his leadership

Ethnic and religious tensions that have spilled into violence and the deaths of dozens of protesters have their roots in the 1990s constitution

FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks during a session with the Members of the Parliament in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, October 22, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo
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Last month Jawar Mohammed, a prominent African activist and media mogul, accused his country’s prime minister of trying to have him assassinated and criticised the rising “authoritarianism” of the political class.

It is a fairly common story on a continent where too many leaders cling onto power, quashing dissent and mismanaging their resources.

But the target of Mr Jawar's attack will surprise many. It is Abiy Ahmed, the reformist Ethiopian prime minister who less than a month ago won the Nobel Peace Prize for transforming the east African country and ending a 20-year conflict with its northern neighbour, Eritrea.

The speed of change in Africa's second most populous country has been unprecedented – and largely positive. But just over a year since Mr Abiy took office, intercommunal violence and ethnonationalism remain a problem, leaving many dead and millions displaced. Mr Abiy's security forces are accused of using forceful tactics to suppress protests fuelled by ethnic and religious divides. The outbreaks of violence speak to the core challenge of governing Ethiopia, with its complex patchwork of ethnic groups, and the urgency of a new political settlement in Africa's original empire.

epa07971382 YEARENDER 2019 OCTOBER
A picture of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is displayed together with former Nobel Peace Prize winners at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, 11 October 2019. Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded with the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced 11 October 2019.  EPA/Stian Lysberg Solum NORWAY OUT
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize last month. Stian Lysberg Solum / EPA

To be clear, the continent’s youngest, most dynamic leader deserves much of the praise that has come his way. A former intelligence chief from Ethiopia’s largest but victimised Oromo ethnic group, often pictured sporting fatigues and doing press-ups with his soldiers, Mr Abiy has been a livewire.

When he came to office, protests that left 500 dead at the hands of security forces in 2016 had rumbled on for two more years. Mr Abiy responded to tensions by releasing thousands of political prisoners, reintegrating illegal armed groups and political parties, and liberating the press and the nation’s fast-growing economy. He set about remodelling authoritarian Ethiopia as a multiparty democracy.

The peace deal with Eritrea, which ended two decades of fighting over a sliver of borderland and required handing over small towns, showed real courage, not least because it angered Ethiopian military hawks. The significance of such a deal, which has implications for stability, growth and trade in east Africa, is clear in both Mr Abiy’s Nobel prize and the role that Gulf states, including the UAE, played in facilitating it.

The conflict was not merely a local problem but a regional one – and Mr Abiy seemed to many the answer.

However, by unmuzzling the press, civil society and myriad groups, Mr Abiy has created a space for the airing of grievances about resources, territory and power, which came to a head with a failed but deadly coup attempt in the northern state of Amhara in mid-June.

It is vital that the prime minister does not lose sight of the progress his administration has already made

Meanwhile, there are fears that Mr Abiy himself is deploying authoritarian tactics, despite the honour bestowed upon him last month by the Nobel committee. In October, the residence of Mr Jawar, founder of the Oromo Media Network, was suddenly surrounded by police in what he denounced as an assassination attempt. After Mr Jawar took to Facebook, his supporters clashed with security forces in Addis Ababa. During the violent exchanges, which evolved into ethnic clashes, at least 86 were killed in the capital – 10 of them by security forces, according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission. Earlier, the prime minister had told parliament that he would “take measures” against media owners who undermined the peace of Ethiopia.

In the eastern province of Dadar, protesters burned copies of a new book penned by Mr Abiy and distributed nationally, which sums up his vision for Ethiopia, while chants of “down, down Abiy” could be heard in the capital.

This is the greatest challenge Mr Abiy has faced since taking up office. The world is watching and hoping Ethiopia can move towards stability, to the extent that Pope Francis included the nation’s troubles in his Sunday address at the Vatican. “I ask you to pray for all the victims of violence in that land,” said the pontiff.

To understand how the country reached this point, we must step back to 1991, when the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the brutal Marxist-Leninist Derg dictatorship and seized power. A coalition of four parties, the EPRDF has ruled ever since and holds all 547 seats in Ethiopia’s parliament.

In 1995, the party introduced a new national constitution, which divided the country into nine ethnic regions. Rather than choosing to integrate Ethiopia's myriad ethnic groups – each with their own identities, languages, customs and cultures – the EPRDF opted for segregation, creating a zero-sum game for resources and paving the way for the crisis we see today.

Ethiopian men carry traditional hand-woven food baskets on their heads as they walk ceremoniusly to a reconciliation meeting in the Irob district in northern Ethiopia near the border with Eritrea, near Adigrat, on October 23, 2019. Residents of Ethiopia's northernmost villages complain that there has been no progress on demarcating the two countries' 1,000-kilometre shared border. 
These problems touch nearly everyone living in cities and towns nestled among the steep escarpments of Ethiopia's northern Tigray region -- the area most affected by the 1998-2000 border war and the long, bitter stalemate that followed.  / AFP / MICHAEL TEWELDE
Ethiopian men carrying traditional hand-woven food baskets as they walk to a reconciliation meeting in the Irob district in northern Ethiopia near the border with Eritrea, in the Tigray region, the area most affected by the 1998-2000 border war and the long, bitter stalemate that followed. Michael Tewelde / AFP

The Oromo, who make up a third of the population but were traditionally marginalised, joined the Amhara in the streets from 2016 onwards, braving police brutality to demand an end to the supremacy of the Tigrayans, a tiny group that dominated the EPRDF – and therefore the country at large.

Former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn stepped down in 2018, unable to quell the protests, before Mr Abiy, Ethiopia’s first Oromo leader, was appointed by the EPRDF.

Today, fighting plagues swathes of the country, particularly in the south, where scores of different ethnic groups are in fierce competition for land and resources. Hundreds have died since last year while more people were displaced in Ethiopia in 2018 than in war-torn Syria. Squalid and under-resourced refugee camps are near breaking point.

In the north, the Amhara and Tigrayans are engaged in a territorial dispute, while the latter resent Mr Abiy for pushing them from power.

Protests have been met at times with police violence. Meanwhile, intermittent internet shutdowns have spurred fears of a clampdown on communication.

At an international level, the prime minister is locked in a war of words with Egypt over a $5 billion (Dh18.4bn) Nile dam project – Africa's largest hydropower facility due to be built near the Ethiopian-Sudanese border – which has Cairo worried about its already scarce access to water. The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will be meeting in Washington tomorrow at the behest of US President Donald Trump to break the deadlock in negotiations.

FILE - In this April 9, 2019 file photo, President Donald Trump meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. El-Sissi thanked Trump late Monday, Nov. 4,  for his "generous concern" for helping revive Egypt's deadlocked dispute with Ethiopia over its construction of a massive upstream Nile dam. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
US President Donald Trump  with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi in the Oval Office in April. Mr Trump has offered to intervene to break the deadlock with Ethiopia over its construction of a massive upstream Nile dam. Evan Vucci / AP

It is vital that the prime minister does not lose sight of the progress his administration has already made. He must ensure that liberty and free speech do not breed paranoia, months before elections in May next year that he has promised will be free, fair and competitive. And he must root out rogue elements within his security forces responsible for the recent bloodshed.

Ethiopia stands at a crossroads. The 1995 constitution that divides people by ethnicity is out of date and needs a reboot. The country must engage in a national dialogue to reassure all groups that their voices will be heard in Mr Abiy’s Ethiopia. The prime minister has worked hard to improve his country and make peace with its neighbour Eritrea. He deserves praise and support but must be cautious in protecting what he has achieved.

If not, the progress Mr Abiy has made could come apart at the seams. And his new Ethiopia could collapse even more quickly than it was built.