After three years of political unrest, instability and continuing anti-government demonstrations, led by the biggest ethnic groups, the Oromo and Amhara, and motivated by political dissatisfaction, corruption and government oppression, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was forced to step down in a surprising move on Feb. 15 after the government failed to rule anymore.
In a speech aired live on a national TV, Prime Minister Desalegn said that his resignation was a bid that would bring political rest, sustainable peace and democracy. His resignation paved the way for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo leader with mixed ethnic and religious background, to ascend to power.
Despite resistance and dissatisfaction from some political elites in the country, the election of Abiy has opened a new political chapter in Ethiopia's political history and offers possible far-reaching ramifications for its future. Abiy has immediately introduced several reforms that have raised huge expectations among Ethiopians that the new government is keen on introducing significant political, economic and social reforms in the near future. Abiy's reforms are generally on domestic and regional politics as well as the governance and security sector.
Regardless of the country's internal political struggle and challenges, the new prime minister's policy with neighboring countries, particularly with Somalia and Eritrea, has been seen as another main challenge for the new government's foreign policy since the two countries have years-long border conflict with Ethiopia.
Abiy already paid a visit to Somalia, where he gave a joint statement with his counterpart Mohamed Farmajo, the president of the Federal Republic of Somalia, on economic and social integration. The visit was commented upon as a new initiative from Ethiopia's new administration showing enthusiasm to stabilize the region and most importantly to strengthen the relationship with the landlocked Ethiopia. The possible start of an unprecedented economic integration between the two countries would for sure contribute to the whole continent.
Unfortunately, the Somali public perceived the visit in a different way. According to them, the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) pledge of $3 million investment to Ethiopia a day before Abiy's visit to Somalia distorted the visit's ultimate objective. That's why many Somalis opposed the new economic initiatives, agreed by their leader and Abiy in order to boost the region's economic growth and scrap the trade barriers, which is likely to reduce the severe unemployment. It is worth mentioning that Somalia and the UAE have been at odds for months over the Barbera port agreement, called null and void by the Somali government.
On the other hand, another historic political shift was the Ethiopian leader's visit to Eritrea, which possesses the country's only access to the sea. Of course, Eritrea broke off from its larger neighbor in 1993 leaving Addis Ababa landlocked.
For the sake of stabilizing relations and establishing a new peaceful partnership, Abiy visited Eritrea and met with his counterpart for the first in more than 20 years. The two leaders reached a mutual agreement that peaceful economic, political and social collaborations would begin between the two brotherly countries. They also signed a declaration that the war between the two countries is over, marking the end of one of Africa's longest-running conflicts. This seemed to be the beginning of new political upheaval in the Horn of Africa region full of expectations.
However, after the peace agreement signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the Somali president flew to Asmara for a three-day visit. Somalia accuses Eritrea's administration of aiding terrorists with weapons in order to destabilize local politics and the security of the country. Indeed, this was a significant move to put an end to these accusations and establish a new relationship with peace and integration – an expected requirement for the region.
Nevertheless, all these political transformations and particularly Somalia's new partnership with Eritrea did not go well with neighboring Djibouti, which is already in a border conflict with Eritrea. It is the only regional country not engaging with Eritrea right now. Therefore, all these political and diplomatic movements toward establishing better integration between neighboring nations is underlined as the result of Ethiopia trying to improve its regional ties.
It seems that Ethiopia is positioning itself as an important actor in the Horn of Africa and Prime Minister Abiy is willing to lead these expected political changes. The success of these newly born political upheavals would be partially dependent on how Abiy's administration will be able to handle the local ethnic conflicts and particularly the Somali region, which at the same time can cause extensive harm to Abiy's political rapprochement with regional powers. Therefore, solving the new political tensions between the Somali regional administration and federal government in a peaceful manner is also key to accomplishing the new political hope that most of the regional communities are expecting. Another important factor for the success of this new political shift is its independence from external hands – specifically, the Gulf countries competing to control the region for economic, trade and market purposes.
Avoiding such intervention from any external party to boost the beginning political uprising is significant if we are willing to finally reach our ultimate goal. This is what we need our leaders to deliver to us, this is what we are demanding our leader to accomplish and most importantly, that will be our significant key to break absolute poverty in the region, overcome terrorists, grow our economy and coexist peacefully.
* Master's degree in political science at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University
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