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Abiy's painful hangover after Nobel glory.

Lauded on the international stage, Ethiopia's young and dynamic Prime Minister has received one of the world's most prestigious honours for promoting peace--even while his country seethes with tensions and violence. Report by James Jeffrey.

Primg Minister Abiy Ahmed had every reason to feel good when he woke on 11 October in the Ethiopian capital. Addis Ababa basked in the unrelenting sunshine that follows the rainy season, while at the same time it was announced to the world that the Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to Abiy, the first Ethiopian to win. The prize committee praised Abiy's "efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea."

It also noted the whirlwind of domestic reforms in his first 100 days in power, including the lifting of the country's state of emergency, the release of thousands of political prisoners, the relaxing of media censorship, the legalisation of outlawed opposition groups, his tackling of corruption, and the promotion of women in politics.

But just days after the award, an anti-government protest rally that had been planned to take place in Addis Ababa was cancelled after the authorities declared it illegal. The government was accused of instigating a clampdown, with images of traffic held up at checkpoints around the city and along major roads to the capital flooding social media, along with reports of arbitrary arrests.

Then, within two weeks, on 26 October, Abiy was having to address the country after a wave of violence erupted across Oromia, and further afield, leaving about 80 dead and even religious buildings destroyed.

That swift escalation of unrest--after an altercation between the government and political activist Jawar Mohammed--highlighted the immense tensions prevalent in Ethiopia and the hugely complex challenges Abiy faces. A fact that even the Nobel committee didn't--or couldn't--shy away from.

"Many challenges remain unresolved," they noted. "Ethnic strife continues to escalate, and we have seen troubling examples of this in recent weeks and months. No doubt some will think this year's prize is being awarded too early."

False dawn

After the jubilation that greeted the resolution with Eritrea, with the border opening for the first time in 20 years, the current situation indicates Abiy has not delivered what was initially hoped for.

"The peace deal unfroze diplomatic relations, reopened telephone lines, and has allowed some travel between the two countries," says William Davison, International Crisis Group's senior analyst for Ethiopia. "But key border disputes are unresolved, and Eritrea remains without constitutional government, so there has been no peace dividend yet for its long-suffering citizens."

Similarly, recognition of Abiy as a peace maker in Ethiopia is looking increasingly tenuous to many Ethiopians. By the end of last year, the country's internally displaced persons--many forced to move by conflict--had reached nearly 2.4m, with estimates closer to 3m now.

Abiy and the government are also facing increasing criticism for repeating the authoritarian ways of previous Ethiopian governments of containing dissenting voices, including the ongoing implementation of a controversial Anti-Terrorism Proclamation to stifle dissent and gag the likes of journalists and opposition figures.

"There's been a massive crackdown on political opposition," says Dessalegn Channie, chairman of the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA) opposition party. "Thousands have been arrested and put in military camps. The world as no idea of recent developments."

The lid's off now

Concerns are mounting over the unintended consequences of Abiy opening the political space in Ethiopia so swiftly. It is argued his reforms have given breathing room to ethnic-based ambitions that his more repressive predecessors kept in check. Increasing numbers of ethnic parties have emerged, many with an openly bigoted message, playing on historic grievances between different ethnic groups and reigniting territorial border disputes that have fanned so much internecine tension and conflict.

Furthermore, Ethiopia's 1995 constitution ascribed broad rights of 'self-determination' to each of the country's nine regions, including being able to secede from the arrangement if they felt their rights were being curtailed. Hence the country's current ethnic tremors have observers noting the strong parallels with Yugoslavia in the 1990s, where a federal state organised along similar lines broke up over similar tensions.

Oromo protests by the country's largest ethnic group have emboldened calls by many for an independent Oromia to break away from Ethiopia. There has long been talk of Tigray independence, added to which the powerful Tigray old guard that once dominated the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) are seething, resentful of the way they are being displaced. The northern Amhara region is also witnessing growing nationalism.

At the same time, there are groups calling for intra--regional secession. This year has seen demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of ethnic Sidama demanding a referendum to determine regional status for their ethnic community, one of the largest language speaking groups in Ethiopia's Soutnern Nations, Nationalities and People's Region (SNNPR).

All the while, ethnic militias like the one that carried out the suspected regional coup in Amhara in June have sprung up, often with links to regime figures, influencing them from the shadows.

"Armed groups are resorting to violence to take over local governments or to intimidate [other ethnicities] from settling in the same area," Dessalegn says.

Economic Achilles heel

Since 2000, Ethiopia has undergone what many have called an economic miracle, with GDP increasing on average almost 10% per year.

But the ongoing conflict risks imperilling this, frightening off the likes of foreign investors as well as impeding domestic production and thereby reducing the capacity to generate crucial jobs for Ethiopia's enormous youth, potentially creating a vicious cycle linking unrest and unemployment.

"The country cannot afford a long economic slowdown due to its poverty, bulging population--around 40m people out of a total of 100m are under 15--and volatile political crisis," says Davison, noting that despite the economic gains, Ethiopia ranks 17th among the world's least-developed countries.

"His main failure has been not building institutional reform," Dessalegn says of Abiy. "He has changed the people at the top--putting in good people--but without the necessary political will, they are not able to do anything."

Dessalegn remembers the huge support Abiy received when he came to power from different ethnic groups--especially the Amhara--indicating that Ethiopians are "ready and fertile" for truly inclusive democracy and "willing to support the man who will deliver it."

But, as Dessalegn acknowledges, Abiy is just one man against myriad groups competing against him and in their own interests.

"In Ethiopia, everything is based on ethnicity; it's the first thing people think about--it is even on your ID card," said Obang Metho, founder and executive director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia, a local civic organisation that promotes dialogue to achieve change. "Changing a country planned on ethnicity will take a lot."

Hence, as for previous political winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy's greatest challenges are likely still ahead. "This award should push and motivate him to tackle the outstanding human rights challenges that threaten to reverse the gains made so far," says Amnesty International's Secretary General Kumi Naidoo.

Caption: Below: Oromos gather in Meskel Square, Addis Ababa on the eve of the Irreecha Festival in early October, celebrated to thank Waaqa (God) for blessings received throughout the previous year
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Title Annotation:Analysis
Author:Jeffrey, James
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6ETHI
Date:Dec 1, 2019
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