By the usual rules of Ethiopia’s rigid political hierarchy, the country’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is all wrong for the job.

He is a 41-year-old man in a game dominated by veterans. He is from the Oromo, an ethnic group long marginalised despite being Ethiopia’s largest.
He is from a mixed Muslim-Christian family.

But the usual rules don’t apply any more. Over the past year, Ethiopia’s political playbook has been ripped up and torn to shreds. This is, in its own understated fashion, a revolution. And Abiy, who was sworn in on Monday, is now its figurehead.

As Abiy himself acknowledged, in his inauguration speech: “In this peaceful transfer today, we are beginning a new chapter. This is a historic day.” The details of his swearing-in only underscored this novelty: his touching, personal tribute to his wife and his late mother; the ‘Qolo’ worn by his daughters, traditional Oromo outfits from the Arsi and Bale region.

Abiy’s unexpected path to the seat of power began in 2015, with mass protests against the Addis Ababa “master plan”, which would have expanded the capital city into the Oromo farmlands that surround it. The unrest soon spread into neighbouring Amhara region and then into the southern region, with demonstrators unhappy with slow economic growth and the perceived dominance of the Tigray — another ethnic group — over Ethiopia’s politics and economy.

Two states of emergency failed to calm the situation. A brutal crackdown from the security forces, which left hundreds dead and tens of thousands more behind bars, didn’t help either. Nor did the announcement this year of major political reforms and the release of some of those political prisoners — a desperate attempt to appease the growing anti-government sentiment.

And then in February, in a move that shocked not only the nation but also its ruling elite, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned. Desalegn was widely perceived as a placeholder prime minister. He was a figurehead who took office in 2012, after the death of Meles Zenawi, but was never really allowed to take charge by the power brokers that backed him — power brokers who were jostling among themselves to succeed him, with their eyes on the 2020 general election.

But Desalegn fired the starting gun on the succession race early, amid the national unrest. The timing forced the hand of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF): the appointment of an old Tigrayan leader risked inflaming the situation, bringing the whole house of cards tumbling to the ground.

Something had to give. Ethiopia needed new blood, it needed change, and if it didn’t come from within the ruling coalition then it was going to come from the increasingly angry streets.

Eventually, after weeks of torturous and ill-tempered behind-the-scenes negotiations, the ruling coalition agreed on a compromise candidate they hope will be able to keep the country together: Abiy, who shot to national prominence when he, along with Lemma Megersa, seized control of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organisation, one of the EPRDF’s constituent parties.

The symbolic significance of Abiy’s appointment cannot be understated. This is first time in Ethiopia’s modern history that power has been peacefully transferred from one living prime minister to another. This is the first time in living memory that Ethiopia’s head of state has come from its largest ethnic group. And elected with a mandate that was far from unanimous, this is the first major sign of an effective internal democracy occurring within the ruling coalition.

It is also significant that the new prime minister ultimately owes his position not to internal party politicking — although that doubtless played a role — but to the hundreds of thousands of citizens across the country who risked their lives and freedom to protest against the state. Ethiopians now have incontrovertible proof that people power works. That genie is not going back into the bottle.

But if this really is a revolution, it’s happening in slow motion. Because for all that Abiy is a departure from the status quo, he is still a stalwart of the ancien regime. His mandate is not to challenge the hegemony of the EPRDF but to reinforce it. And his track record suggests that he is more than capable of playing dirty: as former head of the Information Network Security Agency, he was an architect of Ethiopia’s pervasive electronic surveillance network.

Abiy now confronts the most complicated of balancing acts. On the one hand, he must reward the masses clamouring for substantive political reform and better economic prospects. On the other, he needs to convince the EPRDF to unite behind him, while placating the powerful factions in the coalition that are less than enthused by their new leader.

It’s a tough task for any leader and Abiy knows it. 

“If you take a step backward and look at the challenges that lie before us, they are forbidding,” he said in his speech. But he also knows that he is now in a unique position to overcome these challenges, no matter how slowly. “There are times we have missed occasions to embark on an inclusive political chapter. We should not squander this window of opportunity at this critical moment in time.”