Savvy diplomacy should boost the economy but domestic tensions will persist.
Ethiopia’s surprise reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has been a decisive driver in setting up the country for a significant year for foreign policy, but domestic issues remain a considerable thorn. The signing of a peace pact earlier this year between Ethiopia and Eritrea was a tectonic shift in bilateral relations and regional politics. For a country where 90% of import-export business is directed through Djibouti — which charges usurious port usage rates — Ethiopia’s new tax-free access to Eritrea’s northern port of Assab and the southern port of Massawa is economically monumental.
2019 should see Ali reap the economic fruits of his statesmanship with Eritrea: Ethiopian industry will enjoy reduced transit time of goods, multiple available channels of import, and the prospect of reduced tariffs due to competition between ports in Eritrea and Djibouti. Internally, the trailblazing Ali has made some progressive steps in the shadow of previous regime’s authoritarianism, releasing thousands of political prisoners and exiles and promising free and open elections.
Nevertheless, internally displaced persons (IDPs) driven by ethnic tensions represent a significant hurdle for the administration to overcome. With 1.4m IDPs — topping the global list — residing in host communities or overcrowded shelters, government-supplied food, water, and health facilities are understandably strained. Tribal clashes in the Gedeo and West Guji region as well as sustained tribal violence at the Ormomia–Somali border also present considerable challenges to the administration.
Despite some successes in relocating refugees when security allows, problems arising from this displacement will persist in 2019 if the root of ethnic tensions remain unattended. Ali’s charisma has been a driving force for change, but that alone is unlikely to address the grievances between the four major ethnic groups that comprise his coalition party.