Abiy Ahmed Is Not a Populist

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomes Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali before the "Compact with Africa" conference on trade, aid and diplomacy on October 30, 2018 at the Chancellery in Berlin. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP) (Photo credit should read TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Ethiopian prime minister’s opponents fear that he’s an African Erdogan. His rhetoric and policies suggest he’s more of a liberal democrat.

Earlier this year, when Abiy Ahmed was seeking the leadership of Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), he encountered stiff resistance.

At the time, much of his home region of Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous regional state, was experiencing a wave of a protests and strikes that brought the economy to a near standstill. In February, then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, and a state of emergency was declared by the federal government. Abiy, as the recently appointed chairman of the Oromo wing of the EPRDF, a multiethnic coalition, put his name forward. He was young and popular with the demonstrators, and he echoed many of their demands, including for the release of political prisoners. But a section of the EPRDF establishment—centered in its ethnic Tigrayan wing, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—dismissed him and his Oromo colleague Lemma Megersa as reckless populists and fought tooth and nail to obstruct his candidacy. They failed.

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