Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Wednesday appointed the former head of war-hit Tigray’s interim administration as defence minister, one of several shake-ups in his new government’s 22-member cabinet.
Abiy, who was sworn in for a second term on Monday, also tapped a new head of the peace ministry, which has often served as the public face of humanitarian operations in northern Ethiopia, where the UN estimates conflict has driven hundreds of thousands of people into famine-like conditions.
The cabinet was approved by a majority vote in the lower house of parliament, with two votes against and 12 abstentions.
Abiy came to power in 2018 on the back of several years of anti-government protests.
He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, but last year long-running tensions between Abiy and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which dominated national politics before Abiy took office, erupted into open conflict.
After driving the TPLF from Tigray’s towns last November, Abiy struggled to establish a federally-appointed interim administration in the northern region.
In a stunning about-turn, the TPLF recaptured most of Tigray including the regional capital Mekele by late June, and federal forces largely withdrew, but the conflict has spread to neighbouring regions.
Abraham Belay, a Tigray native who had led the interim administration since early May, was named defence minister.
He previously served with Abiy at the cyber-espionage Information Network Security Agency and as minister of innovation and technology, a cabinet position Abiy also once held.
Abiy’s office touted the fact that three of the new cabinet members announced Wednesday hail from opposition parties, saying on Twitter this reflected a “commitment to inclusivity”.
Addressing lawmakers, Abiy said these were not “token” appointments and that the opposition politicians were chosen because “they will help and serve their country.”
Other key portfolios including the finance and foreign ministries did not change hands — a sign Abiy is likely to continue with economic reforms such as revamping the telecoms industry and with a foreign policy that has coincided with worsening relations with Western powers.
The foreign ministry stoked global outrage last week by announcing the expulsion of seven senior UN officials — a decision that was set to be discussed by the UN Security Council later Wednesday.
Abiy told lawmakers Wednesday that the foreign ministry was in the middle of “a deep root-and-branch reform”, which would save the country more than $20 million this fiscal year.
In July Abiy raised eyebrows when he suggested closing around 30 embassies to cut costs.
He did not provide many details about the reforms Wednesday, but said the ministry was not the only entity involved in “foreign affairs work”, noting that his own office, parliament and the diaspora also had roles to play.
Abiy has also replaced water minister Seleshi Bekele, who had taken the lead on a contentious mega-dam on the Blue Nile River that has fuelled tensions with downstream neighbours Egypt and Sudan.
That ministry will now be headed by Habtamu Itefa, formerly head of the water bureau of Abiy’s native Oromia region.