During a high-level meeting at Ethiopia’s foreign ministry in July, officials were shocked by social media reports that their prime minister was visiting Eritrea.
No one in the room had been informed of Abiy Ahmed’s trip, his second since clinching a peace deal last year that ended two decades of hostility between the two neighbors.
“The foreign office was not in the loop,” said a senior official who was present. “We learned of it from the Eritrean media, on Facebook and Twitter.”
The surprise visit is typical of Abiy, who both fans and critics say often relies on bold personal initiatives and charisma to drive change instead of working through government institutions.
Nebiat Getachew, the foreign ministry spokesman, said the policy was well co-ordinated but he did not confirm that Abiy had made the July trip without informing the ministry.
The deal with Eritrea won Abiy international plaudits. He is the bookmakers’ favorite to win a Nobel Peace Prize on Friday after climate activist Greta Thunberg.
But Abiy’s unpredictable style annoys some Ethiopians. It is unclear how much of the fractious ruling coalition — some form of which has been in power since 1991 — back his reforms, or how durable those reforms would be without his leadership. He has already survived one assassination attempt: a grenade thrown at a rally last year.
Lasting change cannot be built through a “cult of personality”, said Comfort Ero, Africa program director at the International Crisis Group think tank.
“None of Abiy’s promised transformational reforms are going to have any solid foundations unless he works through the institutions,” she said.
Ethiopia has been among Africa’s fastest-growing economies for more than a decade. But uncertainty over Abiy’s ability to carry out all his reforms worries both citizens and the foreign investors he has been courting to develop the country’s antiquated telecoms and banking sectors.