Abiy Ahmed, the son of poor villagers who became a spy boss, and now the man behind dizzying attempts to reform Africa’s fastest-growing economy and heal wounds with Ethiopia’s neighbours, has seen an unpredictable and perilous rise to fame.
Another chapter will be added to his remarkable tale on Tuesday when he accepts the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since becoming Ethiopian prime minister in April 2018, the 43-year-old has aggressively pursued policies that have the potential to upend his country’s society and reshape dynamics beyond its borders.
Within just six months of his swearing-in, Abiy made peace with bitter foe Eritrea, released dissidents from jail, apologised for state brutality, and welcomed home exiled armed groups branded “terrorists” by his predecessors.
More recently he has turned to fleshing out his vision for the economy while laying the groundwork for elections currently scheduled for May 2020.
But analysts fret that his policies are both too much, too fast for the political old guard, and too little, too late for the country’s angry youth, whose protests swept him to power.
Despite the challenges, Abiy’s allies predict his deep well of personal ambition will drive him to keep swinging big.
His friend Tareq Sabt, a businessman, says one of the first things that struck him when they met was the prime minister’s vision: “I always said to friends, when this guy comes to power, you’ll see a lot of change in Ethiopia.”
– ‘Sleeping on the floor’ –
Born in the western town of Beshasha to a Muslim father and Christian mother, Abiy “grew up sleeping on the floor” in a house with no electricity or running water.
“We used to fetch water from the river,” he said in a wide-ranging radio interview with leading Ethiopian radio station Sheger FM in September, adding that he was 12 or 13 before he first saw an asphalt road or electricity.
Yet Abiy progressed quickly through the power structures created by the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), after it took power in 1991.
Fascinated with technology, he joined the military as a radio operator while still a teenager.
He rose to lieutenant-colonel before entering government, first as a securocrat — he was the first head of Ethiopia’s cyber-spying outfit, the Information Network Security Agency.
He then became a minister in the capital Addis Ababa, and a party official in his home region of Oromia.
– Seizing the moment –
The circumstances that led to Abiy’s ascent to high office can be traced to late 2015.
A government plan to expand the capital’s administrative boundaries into the surrounding Oromia region was seen as a land grab, sparking protests led by the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and the Amhara people.
States of emergency and mass arrests — typical EPRDF tactics — quelled the protests but failed to address the underlying grievances.
When then-prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly resigned, many feared a power struggle within the EPRDF.
Instead, the coalition’s member parties chose Abiy to become the first Oromo prime minister.
“He’s the only one that could have saved the EPRDF,” said Mohammed Ademo, a journalist who accompanied Abiy on his first visit to the large Ethiopian diaspora community in the United States last year.
“My feeling is that he’s prepared for this moment all his life.”
– Assassination attempts –
Though Abiy has pursued a vigorous foreign policy agenda, domestic politics may leave him with no choice but to shift his focus inward in 2020.
Holding credible elections by next May, the current timeline, will be a daunting task given Ethiopia’s formidable security challenges.
Ethnic violence has been on the rise in recent years, and in June Abiy faced the greatest threat yet to his hold on power when gunmen assassinated high-ranking officials including a prominent regional president and the army chief.
Abiy seems well aware of the danger he faces, and from time to time refers publicly to attempts on his own life, including a grenade attack at a rally just two months after he took up his post.
For now, as he noted in the Sheger FM interview, he remains in control.
“There were many attempts so far, but death didn’t want to come to me,” he said. “Death shied away from me.”
Abiy is married to Zinash Tayachew, whom he met in the military. The couple have three daughters and adopted a baby boy in August 2018.
A fitness buff, Abiy was a gym rat in Addis Ababa before his appointment.