Ethiopia’s reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali continues to generate excitement among Africans seven months after his election in April.
The 42-year old former soldier rose to power following the surprise resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn in February.
At the time, Ethiopia was facing a political crisis, endless protests and a state of emergency; mass arrests of opposition figures and journalists; youth unemployment and clefts in the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.
Upon taking office, the youthful Premier set his country on a raft of reforms that have surprised and excited many.
The reforms include making peace with Eritrea and initiating talks with the Ogaden Liberation Front; easing state control of the economy by selling shares in government controlled companies; releasing political prisoners and welcoming political exiles as well as easing a grip on the media.
Abiy has also endeared himself to progressives by appointing a Cabinet with 50 per cent women; a female chief justice and female head of state as well as a woman head of the electoral board.
For me however, it was the appointment of Birtukan Mideksa, a member of the opposition fresh from exile to lead the National Election Board of Ethiopia that convinced me that the man is either “bewitched” or a nation-builder.
Normally, politicians do whatever will strengthen their grip on power and reproduce it; not what might take it away or reduce it. And now here is a man appointing a member of the opposition to an office that not only organises elections and confirm who can or can’t be on the ballot but also counts the votes and announce winners and losers.
“Normal” leaders on the continent don’t do that; they name someone who supports them. Abiy’s act is therefore the most “un-African” deed in the history of politics.
Yet it’s the most effective move to build trust and win the confidence of sceptical members of the opposition.
That said, the surprise surrounding the reforms speak more to the low expectations Africans have for their leaders and their hunger for democratic practices in their own countries.
Ordinarily, people don’t get surprised by things they are used to or expected but those they didn’t or are starved of; just as humans mostly relate to the pain they know.
That Africans are surprised by Abiy’s decision to talk peace to “enemies” without preconditions is because they are used to endless conflicts with neighbours due to too much “pride” to talk to them or because it offers a political incentive to maintain external “enemies.”
That Africans are excited by the release of opposition leader is because in their own countries, opposition leaders are treated almost as “enemies of the state,” often beaten up in-broad-daylight and jailed on trumped up charges.
That Africans are celebrating the release of journalists from prisons and freeing the media from the grip of the state is because jailing journalists and closing down media outlets is common in much of the continent.
That Africans are hailing the appointment of female leaders to prominent positions is because women are normally excluded from spaces of consequential power.
That Africans are surprised that members of the opposition are appointed to important positions is because they are used to politics of exclusion.
That Africans are hailing the appointment of capable individuals as judges is because in some countries only “cadre” judges and those known to support the ruling party are appointed.
In that sense, the excitement reflects the state of democracy on the continent and the hunger for leaders who treat fellow citizens, including members of the opposition, humanely and not with brutal hands.
But that a single individual can make such far reaching reforms in a very short time tells us not only how powerless institutions are but also how powerful the Prime Minister is in Ethiopia.
This seeming unlimited power that the Ethiopian Premier is using to reform his country isn’t unlike the power other presidents elsewhere on the continent have and use to undermine democracy.
The bigger lesson here then isn’t that Abiy’s achievement reconfirm that Africa’s problem is a deficit of patriotic leaders who unite rather than divide, but mostly that unless power is distributed away from one person or office to institutions and the ruling party divorced from the state, “democracy” will remain something one individual can “give” or deny