Can Abiy Ahmed calm the Horn?

Can Abiy Ahmed calm the Horn?
  • PublishedMay 12, 2019

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s 42-year old Prime Minister is attempting to build on the peace agreement signed with Eritrea last year and position himself as a peacemaker in the Horn of Africa and potentially beyond. The benefits, if he succeeds, could be an economic resurgence in The Horn as well as a welcome lowering of the political temperature. But it will not be an easy task. Analysis by Joseph Hammon

Apart from the rapprochement with Eritrea, Abiy Ahmed hasn’t been afraid to tackle the region’s biggest challenges — with varying degrees of success – in South Sudan and Somalia as well as between Somalia and Kenya. Starting this year, he took on quite a large diplomatic portfolio in a short period of time.

On February 20, 2019, Ahmed hosted Muse Bihi Abdi, President of the breakaway northern Somalia territory of Somaliland. (However, Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as Farmajo, declined to attend the event).

Two weeks later on March 4, Abiy Ahmed joined President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea in Juba to revitalize the eight- country Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD led peace process in South Sudan which included a meeting with President Salva Kiir.

Three days later, Ahmed facilitated a meeting between Somali President Farmajo and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in Nairobi over the disputed maritime border. With potential oil and gas assets at stake – Somalia decided to have the issue ameliorated at the border.

“Abiy Ahmed wants to diversity Ethiopia’s trade routes by supporting greater economic integration and transport links in the Horn and wider East Africa,” says Jordan Anderson, an analyst at IHS Market a political risk consultancy, “Regional peace is necessary to fully realize this integration, so that is likely a key driver of Ahmed playing a regional peacemaking role.”

It is as much as anything the desire of the Ethiopian government to link the region together economically that is driving his diplomatic offensive.

He also has attempted to find an end to the South Sudanese Civil War engaging with Eritrea and Sudan in support of the IGAD peace initiative.

Sudanese-Ethiopian ties have also strengthened under Abi Ahmed for economic reasons. Data compiled by Asoko Insight, a consultancy, shows that China, India, the US, and Sudan are the top four source of FDI by number of projects in Ethiopia since 1993. For its part Sudan has supported the Ethiopian perspective on the Renaissance Dam much to the consternation of Egypt – though the Ethiopian government remain committed to a negotiated settlement of the issue.

This might explain why Abiy Ahmed has remained largely silent about the situation across the border in Sudan where street protests and riots have raged since December. Sudan’s ruler Omar Al-Bashir seized power in a bloodless coup in 1989 – the protest against his rule which began in December have claimed dozens of lives.

The surprise resignation of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika on April 2, 2019, sent shockwaves among Sudan’s ruling elite. Bouteflika’s regime fell after less than two weeks of protest. However, unlike his Algerian counterpart, Omar Bashir has much closer ties to the military and is in fact also not physically incapacitated. Bashir’s recent outreach to Vladimir Putin shows that even after roughly 30 years in power he still has cards left to play.

“Ahmed similarly views Sudan’s political situation through the lens of its significance for Ethiopia’s regional economic integration and trade route,” says Anderson.

Beyond African borders

Earlier this year Abiy Ahmed took a stab at one of the Middle East’s most intractable conflicts – the dispute between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours when he made parallel visits to both Doha and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

“Tantalizing prospect perhaps but is he mediating?” said Rashid Abidi, the Horn of Africa Project Director, International Crisis Group in a post on Twitter. “No harm in trying a bit of The Horn [trying] to reconcile two Arab states.”

Last year analysts observed that the UAE and Saudi Arabia strengthened the Eritrean-Ethiopian rapprochement through economic deals. Saudi Arabia announced key investments and the UAE a ‘peace pipeline’ to leverage both states reliance on foreign petroleum.

For its part Ethiopia last year announced it would buy a minority stake in the Port of Berbera (being developed by the UAE) in the breakaway region of Somalia that has been self-governing for over 20 years. However, direct access to ports in Eritrea will likely prove more economically important in the long-run then competing projects in other Red Sea littoral states.

Still, Abiy Ahmed has shown that the relationship between wealthy Gulf states and Ethiopia might not be as it at first appears and he refuses to allow Ethiopia to become a mere client state.

In January, Abiy Ahmed achieved a diplomatic victory as important as of his peace initiatives when he is believed to have successfully lobbied for the release of Saudi-Oromo business magnate Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi.

Billionaire Mohammed Hussein Ali Al is a Saudi national but was born in Ethiopia to a Yemeni father and an Ethiopian mother. Forbes estimated his net worth in 2016, at approximately $10.9bn. He was also listed as Ethiopia’s richest man, the second richest Saudi Arabian citizen in the world and the second richest Black person in the world.

Al Amoudi began in construction and real estate before moving into oil refineries in Sweden and Morocco. He is the largest individual foreign investor in Ethiopia.

On November, 2017, Al Amoudi was arrested in Saudi Arabia on the orders of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman during what was described as a “corruption crackdown”. He was held captive until his release in January this year.

Recent trips to Ethiopia during Al-Amoudi detention, the author frequently found ‘Free Mohammed’ signs plastered on buildings and the back of cars – attesting to the large number of supporters Al-Amoudi has amongst the Oromo of Ethiopia in particular.

Ahmed’s efforts as a peacemaker are crucial as The Horn has been one of the most war-torn regions of Africa and is currently the continent’s most militarized zone. (See The Horn, Deadly game of Chess, New African..). There are more than 50,000 UN and AU peacekeepers in the Horn of Africa in Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia.

From what he has already accomplished it is not surprising Abiy Ahmed has been the target of several Nobel Peace Prize nomination efforts.  Were he to win he would be the first sitting Head of State to receive the honour since Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos in 2016 and only the third sitting Head of State in Africa (After Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia.

Domestic Challenges

However, several severe challenges for Ahmed are mounting at home. The Oromo insurgency remains a lingering threat even though Aby Ahmed signed an agreement with 100 other political parties in Ethiopia to maintain a peaceful 2020 election.  In October, Ahmed calmed a group of mutinous soldiers who stormed his office when he joined the soldiers in some push-ups and later a meal.

Ahmed, a former Army intelligence officer who sereved as a peacekeeper in Rwanda in 1995, is keen above all to see Ethiopia avoid disintegrating into further ethnic conflict. Ethiopia is one of only two countries in the world (the other being St. Kitts and Nevis) where the right to secession is guaranteed by the constitution.  Many ethnic Tigrayans, in particular, feel increasingly marginalized in the Abiy Ahmed era.

“Localised mob violence directed along political and ethnic lines is likely to intensify across Ethiopia as we get closer to elections (and the national census), including the targeting of ethnic Tigrayans,” says Anderson, “part of the violence that has already displaced over two million people in Ethiopia.”

This seems an overly pessimistic projection. There are clear signs that the majority of Ethiopia’s people are tired of the economic paralysis that ethnic conflict brings in its wake and as long as the election process, still some way into the future, is perceived as fair, the projected violence may not happen at all or if it does, will be in fairly isolated and contained situations.

Ahmed’s The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has governed Africa’s second most populous country since 1991. For most that period the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, one of four parties of the EPRDF has dominated the political structure even though the they are an ethnic minority in Ethiopia.

Months of street protest by largely ethnic Oromos (who make up a plurality in Ethiopia) culminated in the election of Abiy Ahmed as the chairman of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) and his subsequent appointment as Prime Minster just a month later in April 2018.

At just 42 years old is youngest leader on continent and his youthful energy has been a key part to his success as a peacemaker but, the challenge to now grow those efforts beyond a singular charismatic individual and to embed them further still in regional initiatives and local institutions.

His bigger problem is on the economic front. Although the country is one of the fastest growing on average in the continent, it has still not managed to generate sufficient employment for large sections of its population.

Ethiopia is still largely agrarian, with most of the rural population depending on subsistence farming and animal husbandry. Coffee, its traditional export crop is now supplemented with flowers and an increasingly important horticultural sector.

Manufacturing for export, especially under the US AGOA terms has become central to the country’s planners and is seen as the main avenue to absorb the large urban populations which include a good proportion of its youth.

Abiy Ahmed’s energetic and decisive forays into the Machiavellian politics of The Horn are largely driven by his desire to expand and deepen the domestic economy. He needs a great deal of investment, including from the Gulf and if his efforts bring calm to the region, Ethiopia will not be the only country to benefit from it. He is seeking a win-win solution. Will he be able to pull it off?

“I am not optimistic about his ability to balance competing concerns indefinitely,” says Mekki Elmograbia a former Sudanese diplomat in Khartoum,” however I can see that he has the right approach in his efforts toward the region’s conflicts.” NA

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New African

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