During a high-level meeting at Ethiopia’s foreign ministry in July, officials were shocked by social media reports their prime minister was in Eritrea.
No one in the room was informed of Abiy Ahmed’s trip, his second since clinching a peace deal ending two decades of hostility between the neighbours.
“The foreign office was not in the loop,” said a senior official. “We learned of it from Eritrean media, on Facebook and Twitter.”
The surprise visit is typical of Abiy, who fans and critics say often relies on bold personal initiatives and charisma to drive change instead of working through government institutions.
Nebiat Getachew, foreign ministry spokesman, said policy was well co-ordinated but did not confirm Abiy made the July trip without informing the ministry.
The deal with Eritrea won Abiy international plaudits. He is bookmakers’ favourite to win a Nobel Peace Prize on Friday after climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Abiy’s unpredictable style annoys some Ethiopians.
It is unclear how much of the fractious ruling coalition — some form of which has been in power since 1991 — backs his reforms, or how durable those reforms would be without his leadership. He survived an assassination attempt: a grenade thrown at a rally last year.
Lasting change cannot be built through a “cult of personality”, said Comfort Ero, Africa programme director at the International Crisis Group think tank.
“None of Abiy’s promised transformational reforms are going to have solid foundations unless he works through institutions,” she said.
Ethiopia is among Africa’s fastest growing economies for more over a decade. Uncertainty over Abiy’s ability to carry out reforms worries citizens and foreign investors he courts to develop the country’s antiquated telecoms and banking sectors.
PERSONAL STYLE OR CANNY STRATEGY?
Some observers say Abiy, a former military officer specialising in cyber intelligence, will bypass ministries because reforms must maintain breakneck momentum or be mired in bureaucracy.
Reforms – including unbanning political parties, releasing imprisoned journalists and prosecuting officials accused of torture – have drawn ecstatic crowds at rallies.
“Abiy seems to relie on his charismatic rule,” said Dereje Feyissa, a professor at Addis Ababa University. “Is this is sustainable? Euphoria is subsiding.”
Other observers say Abiy’s rapid changes are a deliberate attempt to wrong-foot opponents from the previous administration, dominated by Tigrayans, a small but powerful ethnic group.
Abiy (43) is from the Oromo group, the nation’s largest, which spearheaded the protests that forced his predecessor to resign. Since taking office, Abiy’s government arrested or fired senior officials – mainly Tigrayans – for corruption or rights abuses.
“In the first six or seven months, he undercut institutions. They were either not working or working against his agenda,” said Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo activist and informal adviser to the prime minister.
“I don’t think he could have travelled this far without doing that.”
One of Abiy’s biggest victories was the peace deal, signed in July last year, which ended a 20-year military stalemate with Eritrea following the 1998-2000 border war.
Asle Sveen, a historian who has written about the Nobel Peace Prize, told Reuters the deal made Abiy the kind of candidate Alfred Nobel envisaged for the prize.
“The peace deal ended a long conflict with Eritrea, he is popular for this and he is doing democratic reforms internally,” Sveen said.
Some benefits of the peace were short-lived. Land borders opened in July but closed in December with no official explanation.
Will Davison, an Ethiopia analyst at Crisis Group, said that might be because Eritrea’s president hoped Abiy would crack down harder on the old Tigray-dominated administration, which fought the war and refused to accept international arbitration.
Nebiat said Eritrea and Ethiopia restored diplomatic relations, air links and phone connections. “Other engagements are underway to further institutionalise relations,” he said.
Abiy’s diplomatic forays – like his surprise trip – tend to be bold personal initiatives, analysts and diplomats said.
The foreign ministry was “completely sidelined,” said a ministry official, adding “our interests abroad may be jeopardised”.
He said Abiy engaged with Eritrea, Somalia and wealthy Gulf states on major policy issues without building consensus in his government.
Nebiat disputed that.
“There is always a co-ordinated foreign policy and diplomacy implementation in the Ethiopian government,” he said. “Other claims are baseless.”
Some nations are pleased by Abiy’s personal touch.
After Sudanese police killed more than 100 protesters in June, Abiy flew to Khartoum to convince Sudan’s new military rulers and the opposition to restart talks and persuaded Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to back his mediation. Talks led to a power-sharing accord in August.
“Abiy played a key role,” said Amjad Farid, a senior representative of the civilian group that led talks with the military.
REFORMS AT HOME
Abiy pushed through reforms at home and abroad. His public renunciation of past abuses drew a line between his administration and that of his predecessor.
He appointed former dissidents to senior roles. Daniel Bekele, a former political prisoner and Africa director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, now heads government’s human rights commission. Birtukan Mideksa, who founded an opposition party and was jailed after a disputed 2005 election, now heads the electoral commission.
Ethnically tinged violence flares and systemic attempts to address past injustices are slow. A reconciliation commission has an unclear mandate, lacks expertise and has only met twice, said Laetitia Bader, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The jury is still out on whether the move will be more than window dressing,” Bader said.