Referring to opposition politicians as “brothers,” and apologising to people hurt in recent anti-government protests, Abiy struck an unexpected conciliatory tone after he was sworn in to office on Monday.
“I’m very cautiously optimistic,” said Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress, who was freed from prison in January after spending more than a year behind bars.
Abiy, 42, is the first person from the country’s largest ethnic group the Oromo to be chosen as prime minister by the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
In his speech, he also reached out to Ethiopia’s arch-rival Eritrea, saying the two countries “are tied by blood” and should resolve a bitter border dispute through negotiation.
In power since 1991, the EPRDF controls every seat in parliament.
It stands accused by rights groups of using its unchecked control of Ethiopia’s security services to target dissident politicians, journalists and bloggers.
While positive, government critics who spoke to AFP say that after 27 years of authoritarian rule, it’s too soon to say how much power Abiy will have to change the EPRDF.
“His speech is much more civilised than the speeches of the EPRDF leaders to date,” Merera said on Tuesday.
“Whether it’s once again a cosmetic public relations exercise or the EPRDF is really ready for change, I’m not sure,” he added.
– Back in jail –
Abiy’s path to the prime minister’s office began with the February resignation of Hailemariam Desalegn, whose administration faced widespread anti-government protests in its last years.
The Oromo people took to the streets in late 2015 over a government development plan community leaders said would deprive them of their land.
They were later joined by the country’s second-largest ethnic group, the Amhara, in a wave of unrest that killed hundreds and resulted in tens of thousands of arrests.
A 10-month state of emergency declared in October 2016 halted the worst of the demonstrations.
But anti-government sentiment remains strong among both groups.
“The previous Ethiopian leaders didn’t pay attention to (the) concerns of Oromo people,” said Waquma Bayisa, a resident of the capital Addis Ababa, who praised Abiy’s speech.
In what he said was a bid to improve relations, Hailemariam announced a prisoner amnesty in January that released many dissidents arrested during the protests.
But the government once again placed Ethiopia under a state of emergency after Hailemariam’s resignation, and last month 11 dissidents were arrested in the capital.
Among those arrested were jailed dissidents whose lengthy prison sentences had been pardoned in the amnesty, and members of the Zone 9 blogging collective, who had been subjected to a years-long prosecution that the government abandoned in February.
“I’m very optimistic about (Abiy), but still many are in prison, my friends are in prison,” said Atnafu Berhane, a member of Zone 9 who was not among those held.
“He is the commander in chief of the army. He should release my friends and all political prisoners,” he added.
– Inner workings –
While the opposition is hoping for reforms, the strength of Abiy’s mandate remains unclear.
The former minister of science and technology was elected by 180 top EPRDF delegates behind closed doors, but the party is thought to be divided over how to address the concerns of the protesters.
Yeshiwas Assefa, chairman of the opposition Blue Party, said it would be up to Abiy to reform the security forces and court system.
“These institutions are the servants of the regime, so we need to change these institutions,” Yeshiwas said.