New Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has visited Somali and Oromiya regions, where clashes since 2016 have displaced nearly a million people.
The weekend trip to the volatile regions was his first since being sworn in as premier seven days ago.
Ahmed comes to power – after the sudden resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn in February – during a tumultuous time in the Horn of Africa country’s history.
Clashes along the border of the country’s Somali and Oromiya provinces in September last year left hundreds dead and both regions blaming the other for the unrest.
The protests had begun over land rights but later morphed into protests calling for greater political freedom and representation, and despite Desalegn releasing political prisoners at the beginning of the year the tense atmosphere remained.
Now high hopes rest on Ahmed’s shoulders to lead the country forward in a more progressive way.
But it’s not only Ethiopians who are depending on Ahmed for a better future – so is the African Union (AU).
Earlier in the year AU Commission chief Moussa Faki Mahamat offered his services to the government of Ethiopia as it sought to “address the challenges that necessarily arise in any endeavour to deepen democracy and advance development”.
“Ethiopia occupies a strategic position as host of the AU and is a strong power in an unstable part of Africa. The European Union also sees Ethiopia as a major ally in its attempt to keep African migrants from fleeing to Europe,” said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a consultant at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, in a recent report.
The AU has around 2 000 people working at its commission in the capital Addis Ababa, where its headquarters are and where it regularly hosts AU conferences.
Apart from the many offices of the United Nations (UN) – including the UN Economic Commission for Africa headquarters – there are more than 100 embassies in the city.
International leaders regularly visit the AU in Addis and there is also a large international presence there which creates thousands of jobs for locals.
“Ethiopia is also a major player in the Horn of Africa due to its strong military role in the region and as host to almost 850,000 refugees, mostly from South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan and Eritrea,” said Louw-Vaudran.
The country is also one of the largest contributors to UN and AU peacekeeping missions in the world, notably in Abyei (bordering Sudan and South Sudan), Darfur, South Sudan and Somalia.
Louw-Vaudran explained that Ethiopia’s status on the continent had increased in the past two decades, especially during the government of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, due to its strong economic growth rates and development-oriented policies.
“Yet with its massive population of 102 million, most of whom are young people, the threat of political instability has been on the cards for some time,” she added.
But the analyst said it appeared not much could be done by the AU to help mitigate the risks of instability for itself and for its host country.
Analysts agree that Ethiopia is traditionally far less susceptible to outside influence in its internal affairs than many other African countries.
“AU involvement in Ethiopia’s internal political situation doesn’t seem likely. A discussion of the situation in the 15-member AU Peace and Security Council that deals with conflicts on the continent has also never taken place,” said Louw-Vaudran.
However, the AU is also important for Ethiopia, given its contribution in terms of job creation and economic opportunities in Addis Ababa.
“In this sense, and as a bare minimum, the presence of the AU could serve as a stabilising factor in a very complex situation,” said Louw-Vaudran. (iol)