Just months after mass ethnic and political protests sent shockwaves through Ethiopia, threatening the ruling party's decades-long grip on power and provoking the resignation of the prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, his newly appointed replacement Abiy Ahmed took the rare step of meeting with his political opponents. Face to face with civil society activists and opposition politicians, Abiy pledged to consider opening the political system, strengthening civil rights and boosting freedom of assembly.
For the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), which has dominated Ethiopia via a dual strategy of political repression and economic growth, the appointment of the reform-minded Abiy represents the dawn of a new era and a sea-change in its calculations. As the country's first prime minister from the Oromo--Ethiopia's largest ethnic group and one of the driving forces behind anti-regime protests dating back to 2015--early moves by Abiy suggest that conciliation could replace confrontation as he tackles the vast challenges of administering East Africa's largest economy
Yet while the 42-year-old will draw on his mixed heritage and status as a trusted military and regime insider in a bid to defuse ethnic, regional and political tensions, he will have to tread carefully among more rigid colleagues for whom the new era represents an unwelcome disruption of the status quo.
"This is extremely significant for Ethiopia in having their first Oromo PM. It's a complete shift and I think Abiy represents more than that, in that he seems to be someone who's able to bring a true sense of the nation together," says Ahmed Soliman, researcher on the Horn of Africa at Chatham House.
"He shows he's capable of building bridges and keeping closer relations within the EPRDF, and he will have to do that because this is a consensus-driven government and one that is very rigid, process driven and hierarchical. He's extremely young, technocratic, and has shown himself to be ambitious."
The vital testing ground for this new approach will be Abiy's home region of Oromiya, where socioeconomic and political marginalisation under the EPRDF exploded into a vast protest movement following the unpopular expansion of the Addis Ababa Master Plan, an urban expansion scheme. The move stoked widespread anti-government demonstrations that led to thousands of arrests and hundreds of deaths.
As an ethnic Oromo with an Amhara mother, and command of the...