Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been widely praised outside the country for his reformist zeal, but that image shattered in the months leading up to his first electoral test.
His journey from darling of the international community to condemnation was swift.
Being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2019 to end the 20-year stalemate with Eritrea has cemented his international standing. But the war in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia led to a rapid reversal.
He became prime minister in 2018 at the age of 41, and took office against the backdrop of anti-government protests. His youthful energy and bright smile gave hope.
Abiy’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition was in its third decade in power and faced accusations of repression and human rights abuses. This included imprisoning opponents and silencing journalists.
The EPRDF oversaw rapid economic growth but many felt excluded from its benefits.
This feeling of marginalization, particularly among the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, sparked a wave of demonstrations. Abi, an Oromo himself, was promoted to the highest position and immediately began to address concerns in an astonishing period of reforms.
He released thousands of political prisoners, lifted restrictions on independent media and called on opposition groups that had been banned in the country to return to the country from exile.
He supported a woman to become president, established gender parity in the Cabinet and created a Ministry of Peace.
The crowning achievement was the peace agreement with Eritrea and the reopening of the common border.
Mr. Abi toured the country and talked about bringing the multi-ethnic country together. Create a new political philosophy – Medimir – It aims to promote a sense of national unity in the face of ethnic divisions. He also wanted to celebrate this diversity.
He was widely popular, in part due to the dramatic changes in the country, but part of his appeal was also his personal story.
Born in Bisha, a coffee-growing region in southwestern Ethiopia, to Christian and Muslim parents, he was soon seen as someone capable of uniting an increasingly divided country.
As the country’s first Oromo ethnic leader in recent years, he has attracted the attention of young protesters who have demanded more political inclusion.
Travel across the country to show youthful exuberance. His reachability contrasted with the distance causing fear from his ancestors, and to the many ordinary citizens he met on his frequent travels, he was not like any modern leader they knew.
However, it was on the inside.
He was in the army where he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. He was then the founder and director of the country’s Information Network and Security Agency, which was responsible for cyber security in a country where the government exercised strict censorship on the Internet.
After that he became Minister of Science and Technology.
Key dates: Abi Ahmed
1976: Born to an Oromo Muslim father and an Amhara Christian mother
1990: Participated in the armed struggle against the Marxist Durr regime
2016: Briefly served as Minister of Science and Technology
2017: He received his PhD in peace and security issues from Addis Ababa University
2018: Became Prime Minister
2019: won the Nobel Peace Prize
2020: The start of the conflict in Tigray
But once the euphoria of Abu Ahmed’s early days as prime minister was over, the tensions that had simmered for so long and kept secret during the authoritarian days began to boil over.
His push for unity while also celebrating diversity led to problems.
Ethnic clashes and attacks on individuals because of their ethnicity occurred throughout the country, resulting in thousands of deaths. In 2019, nearly two million people fled their homes and are living elsewhere in the country.
The assassinations of prominent figures, which were rare in the past, began to recur at an alarming rate.
The chief of the army staff and the leader of the second largest region in the country was killed in one night hundreds of miles away. Many other low and middle level officials had met the same fate.
To quell the growing violence, Abiy reverted to the tactics of previous governments.
Internet and telephone lines were closed several times. The suspects were arrested en masse. Some were later released after spending weeks or months behind bars without trial.
The famous Oromo musician Hachalo Hundesa was killed a year ago In the capital, Addis Ababa, it exacerbated ethnic tensions and led to increased security measures.
The violence that followed his killing in Oromia, the country’s largest region, and Addis Ababa, left more than 200 civilians dead.
Prominent opposition figures were arrested on suspicion of inciting or escalating violence. This prompted accusations against the prime minister by several Oromo activists that he was trying to stamp out meaningful opposition in Oromia.
But it was relations with another of the country’s ethnically based nations that tarnished his reputation.
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His move in November 2019 to dissolve the EPRDF and form a new unified political organization, the Prosperity Party, intensified his struggle with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front was the ruling party in Tigray and was the dominant force within the EPRDF government.
Sensing the decline of its power, the TPLF refused to join the new organization headed by Abiy. It basically withdrew to its core and tensions finally erupted into a conflict between the federal government and the TPLF.
Abiy described the war, now in its eighth month, as a “law enforcement operation.” But as it continues, there are growing accusations of human rights abuses, mass rape, extrajudicial killings, and the use of starvation as a tactic.
The tone of international expressions of concern has become increasingly harsh.
Last month, the United States, once a staunch ally in the war against terrorism, announced visa restrictions on people found to be “responsible or complicit in undermining the solution to the crisis in Tigray.”
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The United States also imposed restrictions on economic and security assistance.
This is a marked shift in the way Mr. Abiy and his government were viewed three years ago.
But when it comes to elections, his reputation at home is what matters – and that has been damaged, too.
Criticism is inevitable
Some saw the postponement of elections last year when the coronavirus hit the country as a power grab.
Some of the Oromos’ who supported him or were neutral [towards him] I’ve turned against him now,” argues Adem K Abebe, a Netherlands-based Ethiopian analyst.
He adds that while in Tigray where there were suspicions of him even from the start, “the mistrust towards him turned into hatred.”
Although it enjoys a lot of support among the Amhara ethnicities, it has recently been affected by frequent ethnic attacks against Amharas living in the Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz regions.
Despite this, Mr Abe’s party is the favorite to win, with key opponents being jailed or boycotted on the ballot.
Adam told the BBC that shifts in attitudes towards the prime minister were “partly a result of the unrealistic expectations and cult of personality that Mr Abiy sought to build”.
He promised “peace, democracy, and prosperity while facing mistrust among large parts of the population and now among key Western allies”.
But it is not clear to what extent this bothers Mr. Abi.
While he avoids interviews with reporters, he enjoys the spotlight.
A common theme in his numerous speeches and social media posts is how Ethiopia will prevail despite great challenges.
He seems to see criticism of his own government as an inevitable byproduct of trying to bring about change.