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Ethiopia chooses new leader

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Ethiopia’s ruling coalition has elected a new chairman and eventual prime minister from a region racked by protests, in a major shift in leadership that could also ease persistent unrest in one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies.

Ethiopia has experienced violence for the last three years amid protests by members of an ethnic minority known as the Oromo, who say they have been systematically excluded from power.

A decision late Tuesday to pick an Oromo lawmaker to lead Ethiopia’s governing coalition marked a potentially important step to ease political upheavals that have twice forced authorities to declare a state of emergency.


The tensions also reverberated well beyond Ethiopia’s borders, threatening its status as an anchor of stability and foreign investment in East Africa and its role as a key US ally in the region.

The council of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, a coalition of four ethnically based parties, voted for Abiy Ahmed, 41, an outspoken Oromo member of parliament, to be its new chairman. That sets the stage for Abiy to be named prime minister.

The move comes after days of closed-door meetings and six weeks after the previous prime minister, Hailmariam Desalegn, abruptly announced his resignation, saying it was to further democracy in the country.

His resignation prompted the declaration of a new state of emergency around the country — and especially in the Oromo region that surrounds the capital. Oromos make up a third of the population of 100 million but maintain they have been consistently excluded from having a voice in shaping the country.

Abiy would be the country’s first Oromo head of state in modern times, and his accession to the premiership is expected to calm the persistent protests and violence in the countryside.

‘‘There was dancing last night in the town; people were dancing in the streets and congratulating each other,’’ said Andu Selam, an engineering student in the town of Mettu in the Oromia region in southwestern Ethiopia. ‘‘People have hope now that things will be different — if someone else had been selected, [the demonstrations] would not have stopped.’’


Abiy would only be the third prime minister since the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, or EPRDF, overthrew the communist regime in 1991. His predecessor was seen largely as a placeholder dedicated to maintaining the policies of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s leader until his death in 2012.

Abiy, however, is expected to bring something very different.

‘‘He was the candidate with the most radical reform agenda compared to the other three candidates,’’ said Hallelujah Lulie, a political analyst. ‘‘His biggest challenge will be the state of emergency, not from the perspective of the people, but he won’t be a fully mandated prime minister while the military and intelligence handle the major political and security situation.’’

Abiy’s victory was clinched when his chief rival, Demeke Mekonnen of the Amhara party, withdrew his candidacy to become the deputy chairman. The move suggested the Oromos and the Amharas, the country’s two largest ethnic groups, have formed an alliance.

Abiy’s reform agenda, however, will likely face opposition from the establishment. Among the biggest challenges will be attempts to address complaints against security services, which are widely reviled by the Oromos for their role in suppressing dissent.