Abiy Ahmed: Can a revolutionary African leader live long without becoming a despot?

At first Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, was just a man who said all the right things. Starting with his inauguration, where the first Oromo native to lead the nation made declarations about freedom, democratic systems, and embracing neighbours and oppositions alike, his first days in office established the narrative for a man who had all the makings of a revolutionary. Three months after that inauguration, Abiy is backing up his grand talk with even grander actions. The wave of reforms, which include firing non-performing civil servants and releasing long held prisoners, was capped off by, perhaps, the most significant development of them all: the restoration of peace between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

It all started with Abiy’s announcement on June 5 that he was willing to finally give up Badme, the village at the centre of the 20-year conflict between the two countries. After the signing of a peace agreement on Monday between Abiy, and perennial Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki, a five-point declaration ended the state of war with promise to restore trade, transport and telecommunication links and reopen embassies. Ethiopian Airlines resumption of flights to Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, on July 18. And citizens of both countries could obtain visas on arrival, in stark contrast with what before had been a very difficult process.

Beyond the eternal significance of peace between two countries that had left families and businesses caught in the geographical and diplomatic crossfires, the move towards peace also shows an understanding of the economic conditions his government have to contend with immediately. In spite of being one of the fastest growing economies on the continent, Ethiopia has struggled with foreign reserves and the availability of dollars for trade. Making peace with the neighbours was the least the country could do, both to continue to burnish its image before the rest of the world, and also to increase the opportunities for development.

The reactions to these developments have  been overwhelmingly positive, save for the bomb blast at Addis Ababa’s Meskel Square that killed two people, and was described by Abiy as a loss for its perpetrators. “Killing others is a defeat,” he said. Foreign media has found a new darling, one that will bear their fantasies of the African continent, replacement for Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. And Ethiopians in diaspora are even returning home, safe in the knowledge that their country was at last in the hands of a leader who was interested in ideas and in righting wrongs.

One of the more powerful things Abiy has done is admit that his country has been using state-sanctioned terrorism during an appearance before the parliament. In 2016, the protest of exiled Ethiopian athletes at the Olympics brought the attention of the world to the killings in Oromia. And there’s a thread that connects the actions of those athletes and other Ethiopians in diaspora to the selection of Abiy by the ruling party. Yet, the choice of the man himself to go against established behaviour by the ruling party EPRDF and issue that admittance of the country’s crimes against its own people is symbolic for many Ethiopians, even over his other reformist activities.

The continent has never lacked in revolutionaries with grand dreams. What has often been missing is an awareness of the human dimensions of these revolutions. Robert Mugabe, Samuel Doe and Muammar Gaddafi are all revolutionaries who rose to power and started a path to making their countries great, yet resorted to methods that sacrificed the lives and livelihood of their people in service of their ego and quest of power.

Perhaps revolutionary leaders are only those who didn’t live long enough to become despots. The African continent has long needed a leader who can prove the utopian ideal of a revolution with an opportunity cost that isn’t the human rights of the people. A leader who isn’t just loved because he was a humanitarian darling like Nelson Mandela, but one who is also pragmatic like Rwanda’s Kagame. One who escapes the bug of sitting perpetually in office like Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and wins that oft-elusive Mo Ibrahim prize. A unicorn.

Abiy has shown that he wants things to change in Ethiopia for good. Now Ethiopians and the rest of the world watch as he goes about his reforms with cautious hope that democratic institutions will be developed, and this unicorn of a prime minister will grow his horn just right without despotic deformations.