Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is set to travel to the rebel-held Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) region of western Ethiopia to drum up support for the government’s armed forces. The government claims the rebel group carried out the 2004 resort bombing that killed 80 people, and Abiy will “tear up ground” with the ONLF leadership.
Similar, though perhaps smaller, expeditions will be undertaken in the rebel-held regions of Wold War and Somali regions, but Abiy’s main concern will be the Ogaden, where a number of factions have clashed over mining and land rights and almost a dozen security forces have been killed. OPLF plans to attack a number of checkpoints set up by the government and Abiy has ordered his commanders to withdraw the remaining troops from the region. In other parts of the country, there is widespread opposition to Abiy’s government, and human rights groups have documented reports of extrajudicial executions and torture.
Abiy’s visits to the front lines might also be seen as an acknowledgement of his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn’s relatively lenient policies towards ethnic groups that opposed him in previous elections, including those from the Oromo and Amhara. His new government has approved a new constitution that has given greater recognition to the nation’s diverse regions, and appointed a mixed ethnic line-up to Cabinet positions. On a trip to the Arctic earlier this month, he showcased his willingness to embrace the region’s indigenous population. Abiy’s strategy is a departure from the use of intimidation and violence that characterized former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s government. Abiy’s visit to the ONLF will be his first to the area since his inauguration, and it comes just days after a group of Ethiopians competed in the 2019 Beijing Olympics. As he chatted with the officials on a wintry field at the training camp, he will be the first leader in decades to visit the war-torn area and it will be the first time Olympians train with the armed forces.
Abiy’s declaration of victory over the Ogaden rebellion and his encouraging message to his athletes indicate Ethiopia’s renewed embrace of tourism and sport, and Africa’s potential for sport-based development. The sport-based economy is an area that Ethiopia, more than any other country, can capitalize on if given the right support, and also provides a ready-made workforce for new industrialization projects. The country was founded on the backs of the hare, ox and donkey, and Abiy is keen to take advantage of these ancient traditions of subsistence farming.
These are compelling economic, and perhaps cultural, arguments in favour of developing sport in Africa and specifically sports that have broader appeal. At a time when money is shifting from traditional western sports like football to newer, smaller and potentially less lucrative ventures like esports, Africans are ahead of the curve. Creative minds have focused on developing successful technology firms and new luxury brands, many of which also expand across Africa, and games are the latest frontier. The latest FIFA 2.0 game was released for Android and iOS this year and features an array of Africans, from the Ivorian supermodel Damaris to the ex-president, Omar Bashir. Other countries have also embraced the concept, including South Africa, who has promised to become the sport’s “centre of excellence”, and Senegal, which boasts its own national soccer league and double-A football team. The challenge now is convincing other African countries to take the leap. Sport is about breaking boundaries, and given the right resources, it can have an impact beyond a simple industry.