WRITTEN BY: Amy McKenna
LAST UPDATED: Oct 28, 2019
Early Life And Military Career
Abiy fought against the Derg (Dergue) regime, which ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991, and later served in the Ethiopian National Defense Forces, where he achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. While he was in the military, he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in 2001 from Microlink Information Technology College in Addis Ababa. In 2007 he was made head of the Information Network Security Agency, the Ethiopian government’s organization responsible for cybersecurity.
Entry Into Politics
After leaving the military, in 2010 Abiy was elected to the House of Peoples’ Representatives as a member of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), which was part of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) ruling coalition. In the following years he would go on to earn a master’s degree in transformational leadership (2011) from the International Leadership Institute in Addis Ababa, in partnership with Greenwich University in London; a master’s in business administration (2013) from Leadstar College of Management and Leadership, in partnership with Ashland University in Ohio; and a doctorate (2017) from the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University.
Abiy was appointed minister of science and technology in the federal government in 2016 but held the post for only a short while, leaving in October of that year to serve as the vice president of the Oromia regional government. Within the OPDO party, Abiy was elected head of the secretariat in 2017.
Meanwhile, a contentious plan proposed by the EPRDF-led federal government to enlarge Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, by linking the city to parts of the Oromia region was met with protest by the Oromo people in 2015. The next year saw more protests, now fueled by a broader array of grievances against the government, occurring in Oromia as well as in other regions.
In early 2018 the government began making overtures to ease tensions and promote dialogue between itself and opposition groups. This was followed by the unexpected resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in February, after which Abiy emerged as the leading candidate to replace him.
Abiy was elected chair of the OPDO party in February, positioning him to become the chair of the EPRDF ruling coalition; he was elected to that position on March 27. On April 2 the House of Peoples’ Representatives elected him prime minister; he was sworn in on the same day. Notably, Abiy was the first Oromo to serve in that position, and it was hoped that his election as prime minister would help quell the remaining tensions between the Oromo people and the government.
Almost immediately Abiy made efforts to bring about dramatic changes regarding strengthening the democratic process, improving the economy, and resolving the country’s long-standing border conflict with Eritrea. In his first year thousands of political prisoners were released, and some opposition groups were removed from the government’s list of organizations that it deemed to be terrorist groups. He later signed a peace agreement with one of the groups, which was designed to end more than 30 years of conflict in the Ogaden region. Measures to encourage investment and boost economic growth were also unveiled. Abiy formed a new cabinet, distinguished not only for its smaller size but also for the number of women that Abiy appointed, which meant that the country had its first gender-balanced cabinet.
The most significant achievement of Abiy and the EPRDF-led government was dramatic progress made in the attempts to find peace with Eritrea. Abiy announced on June 5, 2018, that Ethiopia would adhere to the terms of the 2000 peace agreement that had been intended to end the border war with Eritrea that had begun in 1998. This included accepting and implementing the 2002 ruling that demarcated the border between the two countries, which Ethiopia had previously rejected. The next month, Abiy went to Eritrea to meet with that country’s president, Isaias Afwerki. The two leaders agreed to reestablish ties between the two countries in the areas of diplomacy, trade, communications, and transportation as well as to reopen their borders. This was followed by a momentous joint statement from Abiy and Isaias on July 9 declaring that the state of war that had existed between their two countries for 20 years had come to an end. Abiy also engaged in resolving other regional conflicts, serving as a mediator in conflicts between Eritrea and Djibouti and between Kenya and Somalia and in Sudan’s civil conflict. In 2019 Abiy was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts to resolve Ethiopia’s border conflict with Eritrea.
Although Abiy’s overtures and reform efforts were welcomed and applauded by many, not everyone in Ethiopia was ready to accept such change, which allowed simmering ethnic tensions to be brought to the fore. At a rally in June 2018, a grenade was launched at the stage where Abiy was present; he escaped unscathed, but two people were killed and scores more injured. In June 2019, in what the government labeled a failed coup attempt centred in the Amhara region, several high-ranking officials were killed.