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The rise of Abiy “Abiyot” Ahmed

The rise of Abiy “Abiyot” Ahmed

The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has always been secretive about its party affairs. This is particularly true with regards to the internal party processes by which its chairman and deputy chairman are named. The vast majority of the public had no idea how these positions were filled in the party; whether it is through secret ballot, show of hands or just nomination. This year everything was different. Sizable social media users were seen investing time and resources this past two weeks to learn more about the nomination, voting and confirmation of the chairman of EPRDF and the eventual Prime Minister of the country. By conservative estimates, some 65 media institutions were present at the offices of the EPRDF late Tuesday (11:00 PM) awaiting the announcement of the new chairman. Bypassing members of the press at their doorsteps, the party broke the news that Abiy Ahmed (PhD), chairman of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), has landed the most important political job in Ethiopia at this time. In all fairness, Abiy has been at the forefront to clinch the chairmanship position for several weeks now. Nevertheless, Abiy is a relatively new face to topflight politics in Ethiopia. Indeed his rise to the top office, which started in Beshasha (pictured above), a small village near the town of Agaro, some 497kms south-west of Addis Ababa, is certainly fast tracked than many; and it is set to culminate on Monday at House of People’s Representatives.  

After weeks of closed-door meetings and negotiations, the ruling coalition has picked Abiy Ahmed Ali (PhD) to be the next Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. The young charismatic leader has already become something of a sensation in the country. He is the first Oromo chairman of the ruling four-party coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and those who crossed paths with Abiy believe that he is the right person for the top job, report Dawit Endeshaw and Dawit Tolesa.

The rise of Abiy “Abiyot” Ahmed

 

Like most hamlets in Ethiopia, life in Beshasha, a small town in Jimma Zone, Oromia Regional State with a population of not less than 6,000 people, looks very usual and calm. The area seems distant from the whole political convolution in the country.

The population residing there seems to be less affected by what is happening in the vast Oromia region, which has seen mass protests and public unrest for more than two years.

Businesses are going well; people are selling their major commodity, coffee, to the outside market and one cannot experience the hectic and very fragile situation that has grappled other parts of the region.

Located in southwestern Ethiopia, the small town, Beshasha, is gifted with natural resources; it is endowed with two major agricultural products of Ethiopia – coffee and khat.

In that regard, it would not be an understatement to say that the population in Beshasha is largely dependent on income earned from coffee.

Young children in Beshasha grow up to be the next rich man becoming a coffee trader. They buy their own cars; establish a business in nearby towns like Agaro, which is located 497 kilometers from Addis Ababa.

Beshasha's religious make up is largely dominated by Muslims and the area has largely been considered to be peaceful; however, there is one incident that can be taken as an unpleasant episode. The tragedy occurred in October 2006 where a handful of Christian followers, particularly Orthodox Christians, were slaughtered by religious fanatics.

At the time, the federal government was trying to control the situation and finally came up with a reconciliation plan between the Muslims and Christians who were residing in the small town.

It was eight years ago that the federal government sent a 34-year-old information technology enthusiast to resolve the tensions between the two communities and come up with a positive result.

The incident brought Abiy Ahmed, who at time was acting director general of Information Network Security Agency (INSA), to the limelight. The young technocrat, who was born and raised in Beshasha, was assigned to function as a peacemaker.

“Since the reconciliation, the sense of enmity between the two communities diminished,” Berhanu Habtemariam, a 76-year-old Orthodox Christian community representative, told The Reporter.

At the time of the incident, Berhanu was also a victim of the tragedy who fortunately survived.

“Abiy was the main architect behind the reconciliation process,” Abdulkerim Mohammed, an Imam in the area told The Reporter.

In fact, this turning point in Abiy's life was an inspiration to do his Doctor of Philosophy dissertation entitled “Social Capital and its Role in Traditional Conflict Resolution in Ethiopia: The Case of Inter-Religious Conflict in Jimma Zone”.

Abiy Ahmed was called Abiyot during his childhood; a common name given to children who were born in the aftermath of the 1974 Ethiopian revolution. In fact, his childhood name, Abiyot, means 'revolution'.

Coming from a very a well-known and extended family, Abiy is the 13th child for his father, who had four wives. He is the son of Ahmed Ali a.k.a Aba Dabes, Aba Fita. Ahmed, now a respected elder in his small town, has contributed to the community by giving his own plot of land so that services giving centers such as clinics and telecom offices would be built.

“Aba Dabes, Aba Fita has done a lot for this town,” Berhanu, who said that he has known the octogenarian Ahmed for the past half century, told The Reporter.

Abiy's mother, Tezeta Wolde, a converted Christian from Burayu, Finfine Special Zone, Oromia Regional State, was the fourth wife for Ahmed. Together they have six children with Abiy being the youngest.

“I remember when he was a child; he was very good at studying the Quran,'' Ahmed Ali told The Reporter. “He has always been interested to learn, study, and spend most of his time with elders.”

Aside from his spiritual life, Abiy began his education at Beshasha Primary School. He studied there till sixth grade and continued the rest of his schooling in the nearby town of Agaro, 17 kilometers from Beshasha, till he joined politics in his early teenage years.

“I remember Abiy as a young boy who loves to be an example to his friends. He always encouraged his friends to study and learn,” Tiruye Ahmed, Abiy’s eldest sister, told The Reporter.

“Abiy was different from most of the children of his age. They wanted to become rich coffee traders, but Abiy was quite different,” she recalls.

As his childhood friends describe him, Abiy was an adherent believer of the power of education. He joined politics at a young age. At the time, the country was under the rule of the socialist regime soon to be unseated by the forces of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

At the time, political forces in Ethiopia sat together to decide on the fate of the country that was ravaged by a 17-year-old civil war.

During that crucial time the then political forces such as the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement, now called the Amhara National Democratic Movement, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), spearheaded by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) were the front runners.

For some time the EPRDF, was in talks with the OLF; in fact, the later was part of the then transitional government. OLF was, at the time, very popular in Oromia region. However, the peaceful talks failed to bear fruit as things turn to become violent. That was when alternative forces like the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) came to the fore.

According to people who witnessed that critical period, the OLF had strong support in Agaro like most parts of Oromia region.

It was at that time that Abiy’s family was directly affected by the political transition in the country. Abiy’s father and his eldest son, Kedir Ahmed, were arrested for some time.

Unfortunately, Kedir was killed during that time in what was believed to be a politically motivated assassination, according to people close to the family.

By the time, Agaro, which now has a population of, 41,085, was believed to be a stronghold of the OLF.

“I think losing his brother at that age was a turning point in Abiy’s life,” Miftah Hudin Aba Jebel, a childhood friend of Abiy, told The Reporter. “I mean we were young and I remember one night Abiy asking me to join the struggle,” he recalls. “To be honest, it was difficult for me to understand what he was saying.”

According to multiple sources, Abiy joined the struggle during early 1991, just a few months before the downfall of the military regime, almost at the age of 15.

“By the time we were teenagers; Abiy, another young man by the name Komitas, who was a driver for Abadula Gemeda at the time, and myself joined the OPDO,” Getish Mamo, the then member of OPDO’s music band called Bifttu Oromia, told The Reporter. “We were also close with Abadula Gemeda.” Abadula was one of the founders of the OPDO and current speaker of the House of People’s Representatives.

Abiy, at the time, was working as a radio operator, according to Getish.

Following his early exposure to politics and the military, Abiy was sent to Rwanda, as a member of the UN peacekeeping force. The UN mission lasted from 1993 to 1996.  Then Abiy returned from his mission in 1995 and after two years served his country during the Ethio-Eritrean war where he was involved in radio communications.

He is believed to have stayed as a member of the Ethiopian National Defense Forces till 2007. According to his profile, which was presented to the House of People’s Representatives in 2015, while he was being appointed by Hailemariam Dessalegn as minister of Science and Technology, Abiy’s military rank was Major. Though The Reporter was unable to confirm from the Ministry of Defense, according to various reports, Abiy has reached the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

In 2008, INSA, the country’s first institution with the mandate of safeguarding the country’s cyberspace was established. Given his experience in radio communications and IT, Abiy was among the founders of the Agency. He has worked in different positions within the Agency and was considered to be a force of change, according to those who worked with him at INSA.

For two years Abiy served as an acting director general of INSA after Teklebirhan Woldearegay (Brig. Gen.), the director general of INSA, traveled abroad to pursue his studies. He then left the Agency and shifted to active political life. In 2010, he won a parliamentary seat representing Agro wereda; in the same year he went to his home town to resolve the religious related conflict.

In addition to his political life, Abiy has worked in organizing investors, both from Agaro and outside to contribute for the betterment of the wereda. He organized a fundraising program in 2013 at Sheraton Addis.

Due to his active involvement, Beshasha got a high school and a hospital was built in Agaro.

“He manages to fulfill most of his promises,” Tewodros Debella, an investor and owner of a hotel from Agrao, told The Reporter. “However, the road that linked Jimma and Agro has not been built yet; this was among his many promises.”

The Reporter observed that despite the high agricultural resources and commercial activities, the roads are poorly constructed and those who have the ambition to invest there are finding it very difficult to do so.

“We are still facing problems because of poor infrastructures like road and electricity,” Raies Ali, the administrator of Gomma wereda, told The Reporter. “Even though the community paid millions of birr in order to have electric power, it has been almost seven years and nothing has been done so far.”

During those years, till 2013, Abiy was just serving as an MP, far from his interest of being a technocrat who is more interested in science and technology. However, during his MP days, Abiy was far from being a rubberstamp parliamentarian – a common criticism forwarded towards Ethiopian MPs. Abiy was known to be a critical MP who frequently challenged ministers who presented vague and unsatisfactory reports.

For a brief period of two years, Abiy worked as a director general of the Ethiopian Science and Technology Information Center until he became the minister of Science and Technology.

He served the Ministry for one year. During his brief stay at the Ministry, Abiy oversaw the restructuring the Ethiopian Space Science Society which was renamed to the Aero Space Institute with the Ministry getting a supervisory role, for better efficiency of the Institute. In addition to that, as some claim, Abiy refocused the Ministry to be more of a research center than a politically oriented institution.

Wasihun Alemayehu worked as a communication director at the Ethiopian Science and Technology Information Center while Abiy was director there. 

“What I remember about him [Abiy] is that he is devoted and committed to education,” Wasihun told The Reporter.

“He always encourages us to learn and improve ourselves,” he said.

According to Wasihun, Abiy was behind the launch of a scholarship program which supports public servants in federal offices to get backing from the program.

There are now around 1,500 public servants studying in different countries in the field of science and technology. Wasihun in his part graduated with a master’s degree in foreign languages and literature.

“When I began the MA program, he told me that if I score below 3.5 GPA, he will not be happy,” Wasihun recalls.

Meles Zenawi Secondary School. Initiated by Abiy and the Community, the School was built with the support of private investors including the owner of Afro Tsion Construction
Meles Zenawi Secondary School. Initiated by Abiy and the Community, the School was built with the support of private investors including the owner of Afro Tsion Construction

 

This was during the time when Abiy became minister of Science and Technology. Wasihun followed his mentor to the Ministry becoming the communication director.

“His words were motivational for me so I finished the MA program with good grades scoring 3.7 GPA,” he said.

His stay at the Ministry, however, was cut short following the growing discontent in the Oromia Regional State where the region was rocked by instability.  By the time, Abiy including other new generation OPDO leaders chose to give up their position at the federal level to go focus on their region.

Abiy, as one of the forces of change within the rank and file of OPDO, has managed to shift the discontent and unpopularity of OPDO, and reversed it to their favor. Now observers argue that OPDO has gained the support of the population more than ever before. In fact, the party has become highly popular and has public support than any other parties within EPRDF.

Beshasha Primary School where Abiy attended
Beshasha Primary School where Abiy attended

 

It was after serving as minister that Abiy became the vice president of Oromia Regional State for Urban Housing and Development. The following year he became the head of OPDO secretariat, replacing Abdulaziz Mohammed.

Despite his success, he was also criticized by some for being overly ambitious and wanting to grab political power. Apart from that, social media activists fiercely attacked him during his controversial absence from parliament during the approval of the second state of emergency decree.

The 42-year-old Abiy is married to Zinash Tayachew. He met his wife while he was serving in the army where she was a member of the military band. They have three daughters together. Those who know Abiy say he is a health and fitness enthusiast who frequents gyms in Addis Ababa initially working out at Body Wise Wellness and Fitness Center then moving to Tila Health Club.

Now, Abiy is tasked with guiding Ethiopia through the political storm that has gripped the country since the last quarter of 2015. This might be a year of success for Abiy at least when it comes to his own region but many believe that there will be a though road ahead in ruling and fixing this very divided and polarized country.