Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, has made sweeping changes in his first 100 days in office. In this he is not alone: all new leaders know that they need to put on a show in their first few months in office, and act accordingly. But the scale and depth of Abiy’s reforms suggest that his reforms might be more than mere window dressing.
Take John Magufuli, who took power in Tanzania in 2015. He had promised change to voters, and he needed to deliver — or at least pretend to.
He cancelled independence day celebrations in the name of fiscal prudence. He slashed the budget for a state dinner and used the savings to buy hospital beds. He dropped in unannounced to the finance ministry, berating officials who were not at their desks. He visited a hospital and, appalled by the poor conditions, sacked its director on the spot.
If nothing else, those early weeks of his administration were an unprecedented public relations coup. Tanzanians were quietly impressed, and so too were citizens of other African countries, who wished their own presidents would learn a few lessons. The hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo was born. Ordinary Africans across the continent used it — with great wit and humour — to express their hopes and dreams for their own leaders.
But it wasn’t just ordinary citizens paying close attention. So too were other would-be presidents, the ones waiting for their turn in the top job, who could not fail to observe the praise being lavished in Magufuli’s direction — and who understood better than anyone how little he had done to earn it.
At that point, Magufuli had yet to attempt any meaningful reform. He had not opened up his country’s political space; he had not meaningfully tackled state corruption, which would have implicated senior figures within his own party; he had not implemented the root-and-branch overhaul necessary to turn around struggling health and education systems.
He still hasn’t. The initial excitement that surrounded him has disappeared. If anything, Tanzania has regressed under his watch, with basic civil liberties under threat.
But Magufuli established a template that would be followed in subsequent years by a parade of new African leaders, who understood that the show was more important than the substance when it came to generating positive media headlines and laundering their own sometimes dubious reputations.
In South Africa, for example, Cyril Ramaphosa turned himself into a social media darling when he flew to a conference in Kigali using the national carrier, South African Airways, rather than renting out a private plane — even though SAA does not fly to Kigali, and the plane had been chartered for the occasion.
In Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa donned a stylish scarf and adopted a new mantra — ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’ — intended to demonstrate his reformist credentials, hoping that the bright colours would help us forget the decades he had spent as Robert Mugabe’s right hand man.
In Angola, Joao Lourenco made a big show of firing the family members of former President Jose Eduardo dos Santos from senior positions — but, say critics, all this achieves is to change who benefits from corruption, rather than tackling the corruption itself.
So when Abiy Ahmed took office in Ethiopia in April this year, following the surprise resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn, observers could be forgiven a degree of cynicism when he promised to initiate a wide range of much-needed reforms.
For once, that cynicism may have been misplaced.
In his first 100 days in office, Abiy has freed thousands of political prisoners; ended the state of emergency; announced plans to partially privatise key industries, including telecommunications and aviation; admitted and denounced the use of torture by state security services; and fired prison officials implicated in human rights abuses in the wake of a damning Human Rights Watch report.
He also ended a war. The hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea date back decades, but it took Abiy just a few weeks to conclude a peace deal with Isaias Afwerki, his counterpart in Asmara. Crucially, Abiy was prepared to make concessions, including withdrawing troops from disputed border regions. Now there are scheduled flights between the two countries and, for the first time, it is possible to make international phone calls between them, allowing some long-separated families to speak to each other for the first time this century.
Such has been the speed and scale of Abiy’s changes that Ethiopians are beginning to think that he might be the real thing. Hundreds are returning from exile abroad, eager to believe that this time, things really have changed.
“The things that are happening in this country are beyond our dreams and imagination,” said Hallelujah Lulie, program director at Amani Africa and a seasoned political analyst not prone to hyperbole. “We can’t say the changes are irreversible. But at this point it looks genuine.”
The biggest threat to Abiy’s reform program, argues Lulie, is unlikely to come from a lack of political will on the part of the prime minister, but from those set to lose out in the new dispensation. Change this dramatic never goes unchallenged, as evidenced by the grenade attack last month on the crowd at an Abiy speech in Addis Ababa, which killed two people and injured 150. There are powerful elements within the country’s ruling elite and its security sector with strong motivations to maintain the status quo.
“I believe the biggest challenges could be other structural challenges, like the economy, and cohesion among the ruling coalition. Ethiopia has had a very repressed authoritarian state. We are in a transition at the moment and transitional societies have specific challenges,” said Lulie.
There is still plenty of work for Abiy to do. To truly dismantle the authoritarian state, he needs to completely overhaul the security sector, and enshrine basic rights and freedoms into Ethiopian law.
But at this point, who would bet against him following through with this promises? In his first 100 days in office, Abiy has already achieved more than many leaders can ever dream of — fundamentally altering the political landscape of Ethiopia, and the broader Horn of Africa region, in the process.