13.11.2020 Ethiopia

Ethiopia's PM Abiy: From peace prize to air strikes

Abiy Ahmed.  By Terje Pedersen (NTB Scanpix/AFP)
LISTEN NOV 13, 2020
Abiy Ahmed. By Terje Pedersen (NTB Scanpix/AFP)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power promising real democracy, promoting women and feverishly planting trees across his vast country, snapping up the Nobel Peace Prize along the way.

But Abiy's image of a modern, peacemaking reformer risks shattering entirely now that he has sent troops and warplanes into Ethipia's Tigray region, a move analysts fear could push Africa's second most populous country into a long, devastating civil war.

Abiy, 44, announced the campaign last week, saying it came in response to an attack by Tigray's ruling party, the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), on two federal military camps, an accusation the party denies.

A communications blackout in Tigray has made it difficult to verify competing claims on the ground.

Yet officials say hundreds of people have been killed, and the UN is warning of a rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation as thousands flee across the border into neighbouring Sudan.

With world leaders calling for an immediate halt to fighting and for dialogue, Abiy has held fast to his position that, as his office said Thursday, the "cruelty" of the TPLF "cannot be addressed or redressed by sitting at a table for a negotiation".

'Epitome of hell'

It is a remarkable turn of events for a leader who less than a year ago travelled to Oslo to accept the Nobel for ending a two-decade stalemate with neighbouring Eritrea after a brutal 1998-2000 conflict that left some 80,000 people dead and achieved little.

Abiy declared in his acceptance speech that "war is the epitome of hell for all involved".

Abiy's office insists that, when it comes to the man himself, little has changed.

A video clip posted on Twitter by his press secretary on Thursday went so far as to suggest he deserved "a second Nobel Prize".

"He won that prize because he fought for peace and brought a semblance of peace in Ethiopia," Redwan Hussein, a spokesman for a crisis committee on the Tigray conflict, says in the clip.

"He has to win it again because he's still salvaging his country."

Meteoric rise

Born in the western town of Beshasha to a Muslim father and Christian mother, Abiy "grew up sleeping on the floor" in a house with no electricity or running water.

"We used to fetch water from the river," he told Ethiopian radio station Sheger FM last year, adding that he was 12 or 13 before he first saw an asphalt road or electricity.

Abiy progressed quickly through the power structures created by the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), ever since it took power in 1991.

Fascinated with technology, he joined the military as a radio operator while still a teenager.

In his Nobel speech he described his experiences during the brutal border war with Eritrea, saying his entire unit had been wiped out in an Eritrean artillery attack but he had survived after briefly leaving a foxhole to get better antenna reception.

He rose to lieutenant-colonel before entering government, first as a securocrat -- he was the first head of Ethiopia's cyber-spying outfit, the Information Network Security Agency.

Seizing the moment

The circumstances that led to Abiy's ascent to high office can be traced to late 2015.

A government plan to expand the capital's administrative boundaries into the surrounding Oromia region was seen as a land grab, sparking protests led by the Oromo, Ethiopia's largest ethnic group, and the Amhara people.

States of emergency and mass arrests -- typical EPRDF tactics -- quelled the protests but failed to address the underlying grievances.

When then-prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly resigned, the coalition's member parties chose Abiy to become the first Oromo prime minister in 2018.

He quickly released dissidents from jail, apologised for state brutality and welcomed home exiled groups, while seeking to open up the economy and hold democratic elections.

But the shake-up came with a host of challenges, notably persistent ethnic violence including in his native Oromia region.

In one of the biggest recent flare-ups, more than 160 people were killed in Addis Ababa and across Oromia following the June shooting death of Hachalu Hundessa, an Oromo pop star.

And Tigray -- whose leaders had dominated politics until Abiy's ascent -- has not taken kindly to his reforms, or being sidelined, and tensions with the powerful region had been building for months.

Still 'confident'

Abiy is married to Zinash Tayachew, whom he met in the military. The couple have three daughters and adopted a baby boy in August 2018.

Deeply ambitious, Abiy has been accused of focusing his attention in the wrong places, such as beautifying the capital and mediating conflicts abroad, rather than the unravelling situation at home.

And as time goes on, he has been accused of embracing the same authoritarianism many hoped he would end, overseeing mass arrests and abuses by security forces.

The Tigray conflict could turn out to be Abiy's biggest challenge yet, with analysts and diplomats warning of its potential to destabilise the entire Horn of Africa region.

Abiy, however, has shown no sign of changing course, vowing to deliver a quick, decisive win and asking for the international community to understand his military operation.

"We are confident," he said, "that in a relatively short period of time we will accomplish our objectives and create a conducive environment for life to return to normalcy for our citizens in Tigray."

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