Thursday will be exactly 100 days since the headline-grabbing and sensational Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s prime minister. Abiy was elected as PM by the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), following the unprecedented resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn.
At 41, Abiy is the youngest head of government in Africa. He was a child of nine with a running nose when our good President Yoweri Museveni came to power in 1986. Sharp-minded, and reformist in ways Africa probably hasn’t seen in two generations, he has done in his first 100 days more than several presidents-for-life in Africa have in over 30 years.
He freed political prisoners; mended fences and broke bread with once bitter rivals of the EPRDD; announced economic reforms that many thought would never happen in Ethiopia for decades to come; and most dramatically, made peace with bitter foe Eritrea just like that. He whizzed around the wider East Africa, cutting a very modern and charming image wherever he went – helped no less by youthfulness and good looks.
We have reason to be cautious, particularly given that three years ago, when John Magufuli was elected in Tanzania, he caused nearly the same excitement around Africa with his anti-corruption drive. But Magufuli quickly turned into the most repressive and intolerant leader Tanzania has seen. And, unlike Abiy, he is hidebound and parochial, rarely leaving Tanzania to engage even with Africa.
However, to his credit, Magufuli has given something back in return. His crackdown has sharply improved efficiency and cut down on waste, and Tanzania is delivering projects at impressive speed and very unUganda low costs.
Abiy was, however, tested with an extreme event in a way Magufuli hasn’t been. In late June, there was a bomb attack at a rally in Addis Ababa where Abiy was speaking. Several people were killed and hundreds injured.
Historically, assassination attempts in Africa have been the one event that have turned leaders into gangsters. It was, therefore, remarkable that Abiy, instead of falling into fiery rhetoric, instead projected hope, then went one better and made peace with Eritrea.
Kenyan financial and geopolitical analyst Aly-Khan Satchu, reflecting the views of many, this week tweeted of Abiy: “These 90 or so days represent the most consequential arrival of an African politician on the African stage since [Nelson] Mandela walked out of prison [in 1990] blinking in the sunlight and constructed his “Rainbow Nation’’.
We will see in the months ahead if Aly-Khan is right, and also look at how the “Abiy wave” will ultimately impact Uganda.
For now, we need to ask “where did Abiy” come from, and what about him can Uganda recognise in its history, and wider African politics?
One answer is in his age. Many times people use the word “generation” as a cliché. A generation is the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring, and is generally 30 to 35 years. So to talk of a “generation change”, it is to say, for the example, that the group of Ugandans who were born in the 1950s, and were in their 60s and in power in 2016, should have stepped aside and let those who were born in the 1980s take over.
If we kept the rhythm of passing things over to the “next generation”, the drop-dead point for Museveni’s presidency should have been the 2011 election.
Clearly, then Abiy represents a generational change, the same way Museveni and the youthful NRM cadres did in 1986 (irrespective of whether or not you liked what they then did).
Largely, in Africa and elsewhere in the world, the defining generations have been produced by crisis, disruption, or dramatic change.
More recently in Uganda, it was the arrival of the missionaries in the late 1800s, and the response (a mix of cooperation and resistance) by, especially Buganda and Bunyoro kingdoms. Then the entrenchment of colonialism in the early 1900s, and 30 years later World War II.
The experiences and involvement of Ugandans in World War II “opened” their eyes wider, and is one of globalisation experiences that spurred nationalism, and the context in which people like Museveni, who were to shape the anti-Amin resistance and, later, the NRM war, were born. Around Africa, it was to produce the crop of leaders who were in the 1990s described by then US president Bill Clinton famously as the “new breed of African leaders”.
It included Museveni, Ethiopia’s cerebral and mercurial Meles Zenawi, Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki, Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings, Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano and South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki. They were a combination of World War, tail-end of colonialism, independence, Cold War, and the disastrous “lost decades” of African independence children.
Abiy is a kind of post-Cold War, early Internet Age child. Next week, we will look at how these groups differ.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is the publisher of Africa datavisualiser Africapedia.com and explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]