Ethiopia’s prime minister has appointed women to half the posts in his cabinet and created a new ministry of peace in a sweeping reshuffle that will reinforce the momentum of his radical reform programme in the vast, strategically significant African country.
Abiy Ahmed has turned the region’s politics on its head with a string of reforms since being appointed in April, earning comparisons to Nelson Mandela, Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev.
On Tuesday, he named the former construction minister, Aisha Mohammed, as defence minister – the first woman to hold that position in the country – and announced the creation of a new peace ministry led by Muferiat Kamil, former parliament speaker.
Kamil’s office will oversee the intelligence and security agencies, a move that reinforces the downgrading of the traditionally powerful security establishment in the authoritarian state.
The reshuffle comes amid a wave of ethnic violence.
“The main problem in this country is the lack of peace. This [peace] ministry will be working hard to ensure it prevails,” Abiy told lawmakers.
Since his appointment, Abiy has made peace with neighbouring Eritrea and presided over the partial privatisation of key economic sectors such as telecommunications.
The 42-year-old has also extended an olive branch to several rebel groups and promised to follow a policy of reconciliation and rein in the powerful security agencies. Yet the changes have not stopped ethnically charged violence, some of which has escalated since he was named premier.
About 1.4 million people out of a population of 102 million have been displaced by violence since last year, much of it between rival ethnic groups.
Though the economy has grown by nearly 10% on average for the past decade, the recent unrest has led to concerns over its long-term stability.
Ethiopia faces deep challenges: a critical shortage of foreign currency, only temporarily solved by an infusion of cash from the United Arab Emirates. There is growing inequality, a shortage of jobs for a huge number of graduates, significant environmental damage, ethnic tensions and a hunger for change.
Different interest groups have come together in recent years to constitute a powerful groundswell of discontent, with widespread anti-government protests led by young people. At least 70% of the population is below the age of 30.
The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the rebel coalition that ousted the Derg military regime in 1991, has been split by factional battles between four ethnically based parties as well as fierce competition between institutions and individuals.
The Tigrayans, an ethnic community centred in the north of Ethiopia, make up about 6% of the population but are generally considered to dominate the political and business elite.
Abiy was seen as a relative political outsider before being picked for the top job by the EPRDF council. He is the first leader from Ethiopia’s largest ethnic community, the Oromo, who have complained for decades of economic, cultural and political marginalisation. Abiy has also appeared publicly with his wife and daughters, an unusual step for senior Ethiopian politicians.
Some worry that “Abiymania” is a personality cult; others liken it to the sort of adoration that has often followed Ethiopian leaders, including the former emperor, Haile Selassie.
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Image 1: Aisha Mohammed arrives to take her oath of office as Ethiopia’s new minister of defence. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
Image 2: The Ethiopian prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, is the first leader from the country’s Oromo ethnic group. Photograph: Reuters