The rebirth of Ethiopia?

Author:Alemayehou, Mimi
Position:STRAIGHT FROM THE SHOULDER - Election of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister - Column

The election of Dr Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia's new Prime Minister could well prove to be a pivotal moment in the country's history. Suddenly, everything is possible.

Certain years in the life of a nation can be so pivotal that they represent a rebirth. Think of 1865, when the Civil War was settled for the United States; or 1990, when Mandela was released from prison in South Africa.

For Ethiopia, 2018 may be one of the most consequential years in generations, provided the bold political steps of its new leadership are followed quickly by economic reforms.

Since his inauguration, Ethiopia's young, charismatic PM, Dr Abiy Ahmed has blazed an extraordinary path. He has released political prisoners and restored full diplomatic relations with Eritrea. While internal conflict still occasionally flares, causing many deaths, and displacements of people, he seems to be winning over sceptics with his message of peace and inclusion.

Women, usually marginalised in Ethiopian politics, now hold key government positions. Rather than sitting atop low-influence posts, they command the Presidency of the Supreme Court and departments of defence and transportation. Most notably, Ahmed nominated Sahle-Work Zewde, a career diplomat and former UN official, to be the first female president of Ethiopia. She was confirmed expeditiously.

Exhilarating freedom

Even daily life has changed. People speak freely and critically of politics and their government rather than censor themselves. After decades of authoritarianism, it is exhilarating.

The nation's economic challenges, however, may prove more daunting than its diplomatic and democratic ones. Ahmed inherited one of the fastest growing non-oil economies globally. But that is a misleading fact if taken out of context.

Ethiopia has a population of more than 100m, the median age of which is 17.9 years old. About one third of Ethiopia's economy lies in the informal sector, where people are unemployed, underemployed or eke out a subsistence living.

Tensions among the nation's 80-plus ethnicities are pervasive and combustible, and factor into every investment decision, public or private. The pace of job creation in regions that were rocked by violence for the past three years is far from sufficient. Thus, creating jobs in the formal economy should keep Ahmed and his dynamic new economic team up at night.

There are several obvious possible reforms. Some of Ethiopia's laws and policies are left over from the communist era, when...

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