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Abiy Ahmed: Ethiopia’s Prince of Peace Meets Reality


Like his predecessors, the newly minted Nobel laureate encounters complex crises arising from his country’s ethnocentric federalism.


 Former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh once compared running his country to “dancing on the heads of snakes.” He was referring to a panoply of tribal and Jihadist loyalties and alliances one must navigate to rule that country and the “snakes” in question therefore included warring tribes, opposition parties, militant jihadists and his insanely ambitious rivals who always wanted to take over from him.

The same can be said of Ethiopia, which is a stone-throw away across the Red Sea. There are few countries in Africa that are as complex as Ethiopia, and any quest to understand the country’s history (not to mention geography), ethnocentric-based federal governance system, it’s marriage of convenience EPRDF ruling coalition, its tribal mess, will leave any newbie student of the country dazed.

 The country of 110 million people and 80 ethnic groupings is the only one in Africa that never fell to European colonisation in the 1800s, so its uniqueness predates current Nobel laureate Premier, to the period of the Princes (Menelik I and II for history junkies), the Emperor God Haile Selassie, a communist-socialist Derg dictatorship, to the current complicated mess of governance statecraft that is emblematic of the delicate EPRDF ruling coalition. 

So here is a crash course: Even though Ethiopia escaped European colonisation in the 1800s, its governance character is remarkably similar to that of the countries that still suffer from vestiges of European divide and rule colonialism. The country is divided into 9 major provinces, each based on the ethnic composition of those areas. Each region is all but autonomous with its own government, security services, etc, a scenario that sometimes means the federal government has less direct grip over those territories. The problem is that all these regions will naturally have minorities (people from other ethnic groups) who reside or were born there hence you can’t really have a purely ethnically homogeneous area in the 21st century. This can be a recipe for disaster in wake of opportunistic and populist politics.

Ethiopia’s Powder keg Ethnic Federalism

The ruling  Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party is an ethnic federalist  political coalition that consists of four political parties, namely the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara Democratic Party (ADP), Oromo Democratic Party (ODP) and Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM). The parties represent the different ethnic regions of the country. This marriage of convenience was forged to remove the Post-Selassie military regime (The Mengistu Haile Mariem-led Derg that was in power from 1974 to 1987, a period in which a civil war left thousands dead). The regions of Ethiopia are governed by parties which are either a creation of, or heavily influenced by the EPRDF. In these regions therefore, the ruling parties also face fierce intra-regional and intra-regional party opposition.

For the 20 years he was at the helm of the country, Meles Zenawi (from the TPLF) carefully, if sometimes ruthlessly balanced Ethiopia’s  many complex  contradictions; ethnic, economic and socio-political, by tightening the noose on the media and civil society freedoms, allowing essentially no significant political opposition, while aggressively pursuing economic development projects, a legacy of which at one point a few years ago made Addis Ababa look like a humongous construction site due to massive infrastructure boom that resulted from this ambitious economic strategy.

 As a result of Meles Zenawi’s authoritarianism, many opposition groups faced stiff restrictions and couldn’t freely organise. The tipping point was in 2009 when a coup attempt to overthrow the EPRDF government resulted into an extensive purge by Zenawi. Many alleged ringleaders were jailed while others fled the country. Many in the West consider Zenawi to have been a ruthless dictator, but few who know Ethiopia’s complexities can claim anyone would have or will ever run a western style democracy in that country. When Zenawi died suddenly in 2012, his successor Hailemariam Desalegn more or less maintained the status quo until protests by the Oromo (the country’s largest ethnic group) over land rights and plans to extend the capital into their region (as well as a string of other internal crises) forced him out.

Enter Abiy Ahmed

Even though Mr. Abiy was a member of the EPRDF via his membership of the Oromo democratic party which is a constituent party of the ruling coalition, and had, by his ascension to the premiership been a member of the politburo, he was too young to have been part of the old guard, and many in the EPRDF establishment no doubt are opposed to him and his ambitious transformation ambitions which they consider to be too dangerously naïve in their haste. While many will not make their opposition public, in a country as ethnically diverse and complicated as Ethiopia, there are a million ways they can oppose the young leader, including through regional and federal proxies.

When Mr. Abiy took over the Prime Ministership, he immediately embarked on rapid reforms, some already discussed and planned under his predecessor but not yet implemented. Abiy threw caution to the wind and freed tens of thousands of political prisoners with thousands more returning from exile, ended the decades-long conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, declared press freedoms and granted diverse political groups the freedom to mobilize and organize and even ventured into mediating conflicts in neighbouring countries like Sudan and South Sudan.

The Nobel committee cited these accomplishments in awarding Mr Abiy the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, the first for an Ethiopian, and only the 3rd for an African political leader.

Mr Abiy’s reforms however have now opened a can of worms and may have unleashed a torrent of forces he cannot control. Among the released prisoners for example include many ethnonationalist militants including senior figures that attempted the 2009 coup. It is apparent that His amnesty may now be coming back to haunt him. Brig. Gen. Asaminew Tsige, who was shot dead on June 24 after a manhunt for masterminding the assassination of three senior officials of Ethiopia’s Amhara state, including its president and the Chief of Staff of the national arm—events branded “an orchestrated coup attempt” by the Ethiopian prime minister’s office, was an ex rebel officer who had been jailed by Meles Zenawi for over 10 years for being involved in the 2009 coup attempt against him. He was among the thousands freed under Mr Abiy last year and was a well-known ethno-nationalist hailing from the Amhara state, the second largest, who for years called for the region to break away from Ethiopia.

Jawar Mohammed, Abiy’s 33-year old ally-turned-nemesis is behind the recent bloody protests in which 67 people died, and only recently returned from the U.S where he had been in exile. Muhammed, an Oromo like Abiy, was a key figure in the oromo protests that one would say indirectly paved way for Abiy’s ascension to power. The Wildly popular firebrand however now threatens Mr Abiy’s powerbase in Oromia region, and, would he decide to run against him would cause him significant headache nationally. Mohamed, like most of his youthful compatriots as well as other tribal and regional powerful figures fear that Abiy’s nationalistic reforms will reduce their power and influence and therefore have reason to oppose him.

Many people of Oromia, as the biggest ethnic group, also fear Abiy’s reforms may come at their expense, and that many of their demands from the bloody 2016 protests have not been met with the urgency they deserve. Even though Abiy is their own, many think he is too compromising in his reforms. That’s why the Jawar Mohammed-incited protests took an ethnic tinge with his band of youthful supporters known as Queerroos beating up people they felt didn’t belong in ‘their’ region. Formerly a journalist exiled in America and now owner of the media empire Oromo Media Network, with an extensive social media reach including 1.75 million Facebook followers, Jawar and other oromo leaders worry that Abiy’s nationalism, aimed at reducing the power of ethnic regions and creating one Ethiopia, will reduce their power and influence in the regions, and by consequence, in the country.

Other ethnic regions also feel emboldened by Mr Abiy’s progressive reforms and are increasingly bolstering their demands for more regional autonomy and rights based on ethno-nationalism. Ethiopia’s deeply flawed ethnic federalism upon which the whole modern governance was conveniently but dangerously organised is not sustainable. Most of the current crises have their roots in this deeply rooted ethnic chauvinism. The Oromo are fighting for a ‘homeland’ so are other tribes.

 These fissures in the Ethiopian society risk sparking an interethnic rivalry which may subject Ethiopia to a Yugoslav-style breakup in which each region seeks independence from the mother country. This balkanization would be a terrible, ironic blow to Mr Abiy’s genuine efforts to unite and transform Ethiopia.

Meles Zenawi’s iron hand had suppressed all these forces, forces that Mr. Abiy’s liberal approach has now emboldened to re-emerge across the country.

A young leader is forced to answer a brutal wakeup call

Mr Abiy seems to have taken note of this apocalyptic scenario. Recent events have forced him to learn some harsh lessons, lessons that may soon or later turn him into just another African leader in a hybrid regime who must not only fight for his country’s survival, but his own as well. When he took over he must have known he would face significant opposition from the vestiges of the old guard within the military for his progressive leadership style, but did he know he could possibly be assassinated for it?

Unlike Thomas Sankara whose naïve idealism made him refuse to see the nakedly apparent efforts by his ‘comrade’ Blaise Campaore in planning his murder with the help of the French, Abiy isn’t taking any chances.

After the attempted coup in which his army chief of staff Gen. Seare Mekonnen  and others were murdered in June for example (he was seen openly weeping during the funeral  of a man he considered a friend), Mr Abiy, clad in military fatigues appeared on National Television to denounce the coup plot. He shut down the internet for weeks following the coup attempt, and arrested hundreds, some say thousands, in a purge that continues.

 Gone are the days when, before the latest coup attempt, Mr Abiy engaged mutinous soldiers who showed up at his official residence to demand for a pay increase in a press up contest, a situation his office later admitted was not as innocent as it appeared, and had in fact been a teaser by powerful military figures in a dress-rehearsal for a coup.

In another show of waking up to reality, the elections, which were planned for May 2020 are now doubtful and the national census, a logistically challenging event that would have banished his credentials as a leader and given legitimacy to the vote, was cancelled too. This means that Mr Abiy has been forced to postpone previously planned governance actions that would legitimise his democratic bonafides as a leader.

Mr Abiy has taken other measures that are not exactly Nobel peace prize-like in nature. Before the recent bloody protests, he issued a veiled threat to Jawar Muhammed by warning “Media owners who don’t have Ethiopian passports are playing both ways … If this is going to undermine the peace and existence of Ethiopia … we will take measures.” The comments were unmistakably directed at Jawar, who is Ethiopian born but has a US passport and only returned from exile last year. His government also is reportedly involved in clandestine mass arrests of people in Oromia perceived to be opposed to Mr Abiy’s government, according to Amnesty international.

On the foreign policy front, aside from his peace efforts in the The Sudans, he recently taunted Egypt over the two countries’ feud over Ethiopia’s construction of a dam on the Nile River, 70% of whose waters originate from Ethiopia’s mountains by saying he was ready to go to war with a country of unmatched military might. At the recent Africa Russia Summit, he coyly inspected lethal military hardware on display in Sochi.

It does appear that Abiy’s military background is certainly helping (He is a Lieutenant colonel and had a respectable career in the Ethiopian military including combat duties in Eritrea and as a member of a peace keeping Mission to Rwanda in 1995).

Mr. Abiy’s reality check may after all inadvertently force him into an astuteness that may help him survive the forces his changes have unleashed, even if he in the process behaves like leaders of  other hybrid regimes in Sub-Saharan Africa (and his own predecessors in his country) . He may not want to do it, but he must do it or else risk not just having his country descending in chaos, but his power, and even his life being in danger of being lost.

Abiy was almost killed when grenades were detonated at a rally in his honour in the capital; troops invaded his palace to demand a pay raise, and an attempted putsch left a couple of military officers allied to him murdered. A ruthless leader would have ordered a bloody purge. Mr Abiy has maintained a largely cool response in the face of these dangerous attacks on his leadership.

A Nobel peace prize he must earn

When Abiy goes to Norway in December to give his Nobel lecture and receive his prize, it is no doubt going to be a slightly awkward spectacle in the wake of these recent events in his country. But he can take comfort in the fact that some previous laureates have been in his contradictory position before. When Obama was awarded the prize in 2009, he was an untested new president, and was ordering drone strikes everyday around the middle east some of which killed hundreds of innocent civilians. Abiy’s handlers would be wise to study Obama’s Nobel speech, and how he eloquently navigated the contradictions his award presented, of the complicated relationship between war and peace (just don’t plagiarise him as other African leaders have foolishly done in the past ) and how sometimes tough measures (yes, including war) are a necessity for a lasting peace (Peace talks couldn’t have dislodged Hitler in World War II, Mr Obama rightly reasoned). The other example  of a Nobel peace prize that is now thought to have been wrongly awarded was the one given to Burmese democracy leader Aung Sung Suu Kyi who was awarded the prize in 1991 only to meet the harsh reality years later when he became a Prime Minister encircled by brutal military generals and other nuances that forced her into ugly pragmatism that makes her claim she is helpless to stop that country’s ethnic massacre of Rohingya Muslims.

In his Lecture Mr Abiy should unabashedly defend his bold reforms while defending his right to exercise his authority to keep law and order in the country as the two are not mutually exclusive. For his reforms to endure the test of time, law and order must be the reality in Ethiopia. Using a little bit of force to check opportunistic rivals whose ambitions put the country last should be a justifiable proposition. In his Nobel lecture he must eloquently describe his countries socio-political and ethnic complexities while outlining his future plans to ensure that these complexities do not upend his goal of transforming Ethiopia into a united, prosperous country.

Mr. Abiy needs all the luck in the world in his noble effort to transform his country as the rest of Africa has a lot to learn from it.

The Nobel is a fantastic encouragement to stay the course.

Bernard Sabiti is a Kampala based Researcher and Political analyst

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