Ethiopia’s Tigray Test

Antony Sguazzin

Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has won plaudits abroad. He’s less popular at home.

This week he faces the biggest challenge yet to his authority. The northern Tigray region defied the central government on Wednesday and went ahead with a parliamentary vote that was expressly forbidden.

The 44-year-old now has a choice: He could crack down on the Tigrayans and risk a backlash from an ethnic group that used to dominate Ethiopian politics. Or he could sit back and potentially draw similar dissent from a host of other regions that are arguing for more autonomy.

The Tigray People’s Liberation Front has opposed Abiy, an ethnic Oromo, since he came to power in 2018 and is still entrenched in security and economic networks across the country. The premier is also faced with insecurity in the Oromia and Amhara regions and been criticized for delaying national elections because of the coronavirus. He now says they will take place within the next year.

A street vendor walks in front of an Addis Ababa billboard congratulating Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on his Nobel Peace Prize.
At stake is the success of ambitious economic plans that include the full or partial participation of foreign investors in industries ranging from sugar to telecommunications. An even bigger concern could be keeping the 80-odd ethnic groups that make up Africa’s second-most populous nation under one roof.

“If he mishandles it, it’s going to set a very dangerous precedent,” said Edward Hobey-Hamsher, a senior Africa analyst at U.K. risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “There is no middle ground in Ethiopia. There are these entirely polarized views about its future. Could it break up? Absolutely.”

— Antony Sguazzin

Source: Bloomberg