The Abiy Phenomenon
How volatile human affairs are! A couple of decades ago, who would have thought the wave of democratization that swept the globe after the collapse of the Soviet Union would suffer such a reversal in such a short time? The world had seemed to be moving inexorably towards freedom and democracy and many experts believed the democratic wave was unstoppable. But alas, within a decade, such predictions were proven wrong; the wave ebbed and a trend in the opposite direction begun mushrooming. From Africa to Europe to Asia and the Americas, democracy is being challenged (or even uprooted) by populists, authoritarians and would-be authoritarians. According to a recent report by Freedom House.
“Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world. Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”
Once again, humans are asserting their God-given right to be selfish, brutal, xenophobic, racist, violent, and bigoted. (Those who previously argued that the world is getting better should take note!). Amidst such disheartening trends in world affairs, it is exhilarating to behold the emergence of a leader in Ethiopia who seemingly appeared out of nowhere (though actually a veteran) to reassert the central principles of freedom, democracy, and equality. Charismatic, debonair, peace-loving, erudite, and courageous, Abiy Ahmed epitomizes the qualities of a leader that we have all been yearning for eons! His mixed heritage, his optimism, his geniality, and his commitment to peace and harmony all attest to his fitness for leadership. When one remembers that he holds an MA in “Transformational Leadership” and that he chose conflict resolution in Ethiopia as a thesis topic for his Ph.D., it becomes clear that we are dealing here with an earnest man who has been preparing himself methodically for the very tasks he is now executing.
In a hard to follow series of sprints and dashes, he is dismantling Ethiopia’s entire corrupt structure from top to bottom smoothly and skillfully. Within months of taking over, he freed innocent prisoners; lifted the state of emergency; convened several town hall meetings; lifted the ban on all political opponents including those in exile; pledged to amend the sham anti-terrorism laws; and agreed to implement the Ethio-Eritrea border resolution just to name a few. On the diplomatic front, he flew like a whirlwind to several countries in the region including Kenya, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Egypt, Uganda, and Eritrea. And it seems he is just getting started. Among other things, he plans to fully liberalize the economy; install a multi-party democracy; do away with monopolies, and reform the army. By all benchmarks, these are astounding and extraordinary achievements!
Predictably, his quick-fire stunning accomplishments have raised questions about whether his reforms were externally driven. In other words, some suspect that he was acting at the behest of foreign ultimatums. This is a valid concern, but I personally do not believe that international and economic pressures alone sufficiently account for all his positive and wide-ranging reforms, assertions and actions. Moreover, in quickly and competently acting to save his country (his first priority), he showed good stewardship.
There is one possible negative byproduct of his successes however that is worrisome; The Abiy phenomenon has so electrified Ethiopia and the region that a personality cult seems to be developing around him. Many Ethiopians are becoming dangerously infatuated with him. Due to his many attractive personal qualities and mass appeal, this is a lurking danger. Already, some are comparing him to Moses. Just as Moses delivered the Israelites from Pharaoh, Abiy presumably rescued Ethiopians from the clutches of the Weyanes. Such sentiments are the seeds that later metastasize into a full-blown cult of a leader. Ethiopians should learn from the bitter Eritrean experience with Isaias about the pitfalls of succumbing to a leader and his persona.
In contrast to the rapturous Ethiopians, the reaction of most Eritreans had been one of dismay and confusion. Why would an advocate of democracy like Abiy fraternize with a ruthless tyrant? Why did he say nothing about the human rights violations in Eritrea? This feeling of bewilderment was further exacerbated by Isaias’s excessive fawning over Abiy and his bizarre behavior and utterances in Asmara and Addis. Terrifyingly, Isaias has become even more eccentric and erratic as a septuagenarian.
How revolting the circus show honoring Isaias was! How totally out of character Isaias was throughout! Watching them embrace, I couldn’t help wondering whether Abiy – in a Putin-like fashion – was taking the Trumpian Isaias for a ride. It certainly reeks of hypocrisy when a “champion of democracy” befriends a butcher-in-chief like Isaias but as repugnant as it was for me to witness this surreal scene, I found it difficult to fault Abiy in the context of the harsh realities in Eritrea. What would we have him do? If this man of action was to get some immediate results (such as peace and stability in the region however temporary), what other options did he have except to begin by engaging the person in charge?
We will see how far it goes but Eritreans and Ethiopians are breathing a little freely now for the first time in decades! This relief should not be underestimated. For Eritreans still living under the harsh dictatorship, this is a huge deal and anything that ameliorates their suffering should be welcome by all Eritreans in my opinion. If it turns out that Isaias sold us down the river in a deal with Ethiopia, it certainly wouldn’t be Abiy’s fault. Moreover, we will be under no obligation to abide by anything the dictator agrees to once we take over. Until then, Isaias will continue to decide our fate single-handedly whether we like it or not. No surprise there.
Imagine how things would have fared if Abiy had instead spoken against Eritrea’s regime so early in his rule. The status quo would remain and people on both sides of the border would continue to suffer. It would be a different matter if we had an opposition that could pose a formidable challenge to the dictator, but we regrettably don’t and until we do, verbal or official support for us would unfortunately be wasted. Only a clandestine support should be expected.
The opposition should not be disheartened however. For all the theatrics, the Abiy-Isaias dalliance is at its core a weak one held by a thin thread of a common enemy. By ingratiating himself to Isaias, Abiy probably got some concessions that he wouldn’t have gotten had he instead prematurely supported the opposition. So, we must allow for the possibility that this may be a tactical move by Abiy to secure short-term economic benefit. At what price to Eritrea, nobody knows except Isaias.
All we know is Abiy, with a single stroke, has checkmated Isaias by depriving him of the one excuse (the border issue) he has been using for about two decades to avoid instituting reforms. Will Isaias relent? Will he at least follow Abiy’s example by freeing all innocent prisoners and lifting the ban on opposition groups? Very Unlikely but whether he does or not, he has long lost all credibility in the eyes of Eritreans. Following Abiy’s lead, if he decides to free prisoners or lift the ban on opponents, we will take it of course but as long as he remains in power, it will all be a sham and the struggle should continue.
It is also important to remember that Abiy is not a fool. I am sure he realizes that his long-term strategic vision of multi-nation alliance (if genuine) cannot endure for long with a dictatorial regime as a neighbor. Unless he has been a clever demagogue all along, he will therefore eventually support democratic forces in Eritrea. So, if I can give advice to the opposition, it is to be patient. The man has been in power for only a few months; let us give him the benefit of the doubt while reserving the right to reevaluate him periodically. Meanwhile, the opposition should enthusiastically support him while simultaneously impressing upon him the shared commitment to freedom, peace, democracy, and equality.
What impressed me most about Abiy is his frank discussion about borders. Well-read and forward-looking, he understood the artificiality of the borders drawn by colonialists and the ridiculousness of fighting over them. When he was asked why he agreed to implement the border ruling, he pointed to the obvious fact that this was already arbitrated and final. He then went on to declare that there are actually no real borders and that he ultimately plans to open Ethiopia’s borders to all Africans. By themselves, these are not revolutionary utterances. The general idea of fluid or open borders and the broader quest for African unity (Pan-Africanism) that Nkruhama made famous by warning “Africa must unite or perish!”, is not new but it takes courage for a newly elected prime minister to boldly declare such sentiments within a few months of taking over.
To test his mettle in solving national and regional problems particularly as it relates to border issues, it seems Abiy has chosen Eritrea as his first trial case. He correctly deduced that he would be unable to realize any of his important goals without solving the issue of Eritrea peacefully and quickly. Fortunately for him, in the newly minted Isaias, he found a willing partner/accomplice.
Isaias’s dazed ramblings are of course not to be taken seriously but Abiy’s viewpoints should be taken seriously since he seems in earnest about the proposals he is putting forward (though one can never be totally sure). Let us now ponder: Putting aside the issue of greater African unity, how should Eritreans react to solicitations for unity or federation that keeps resurfacing every now and then? Should the Abiy phenomenon alter our opinions about this issue? Questions are often asked: Why would Eritrea that has been suffering for so long and that was unable to accomplish anything substantial since independence reject such “friendly” overtures? Why wouldn’t it be willing to draw strength by joining others?
Such questions should not be dismissed outright since there are undeniable benefits in forming larger coalitions or unions. That is why, in principle, we should all be for political and economic integration between countries particularly neighbors. In the case of Eritrea, however, there is one crucial factor we must not lose sight of: Eritrea must first establish itself as a bona fide nation that reflects the wishes of its people. It must first reach its age of consent so to speak as a dictator-free democratic nation before it can be given away in marriage.
If Eritrea were to unite with any country before recovering from its traumatic experience, it will be at the cost of its dignity and honor. Those with whom we unite will forever regard themselves as our benefactors and therefore at some level, their inferiors or subordinates. They can then slowly divest Eritrea of its privileges a piece at a time. Sounds familiar? For these reasons and many more, federation or union with Ethiopia or any other country cannot be entertained at this time. Neither Eritrea as a nation nor its people are ready for it. As a distant goal however, it is ok for Eritreans to welcome Abiy’s vision of regional unity and greater cooperation in my opinion because the future will undoubtedly belong to countries that endeavor collectively.
From the above discussion, one may surmise that I have been smitten by the Abiy craze or Abiymania as some have dubbed it. No. I remain ambivalent. I am just giving credit where I think credit is due. If I were to tersely describe my views on the issue, I would say I am also cautiously optimistic (as Awate editorial put it) about Abiy though leaning more towards optimism. To those who say, we have seen enough of Abiy; I am saying, no, a few months is too soon.
Will Abiy be able to bring about the change he envisions and succeed where many others have failed? I hope so (if he is sincere that is) but he is in a precarious situation. What we all like about him may ultimately be his undoing. He seems too conciliatory and too accommodating to survive plots against him. At least we can count on one enemy that will leave no stones unturned to get him and it may finally come down to a showdown where only the ruthless will prevail. If Abiy hesitates to strike at his enemies for noble sentiments, I am afraid his days are numbered. Like Gandhi, MLK, and many others, he will be abruptly terminated.
One compelling argument against Abiy is that he is trying to please everybody including mass murderers like Isaias and Mengistu with a motto that we should forget past grievances, forgive everyone, and start with a clean slate. Tomfoolery? Wisdom? Has Abiy concluded that this is the only stratagem that will end the cycle of violence and hate? I don’t know but I totally disagree with him in this.
In the end, whatever we think of him right now, it is too early – as I intimate in many ways above – to fully evaluate Abiy, and we should remain vigilant. Leaders can and do change over time. Often likened to an aphrodisiac, power is intoxicating and the longer one partakes of it, the more one hankers for it. That is the wisdom behind term limits. To his credit, Abiy has promised he will promptly end his rule at the completion of his term. Will he keep his promise, or will he come up with some novel way of putting it off as countless of leaders have done before him?
Other pending questions include: Will he continue the current silly charade with a sadistic dictator or will he change course once he fully consolidates power in Ethiopia? Or is Abiy just a pawn in the global intrigue in our region that includes US, UAE and others? If so, to what extent? Answers to such questions are bound to be revealed soon and, in my opinion, it is then and only then that we will be in a position to either categorically approve or condemn him. Until then, we will have to wait and see but for better or worse, he has become a sensational phenomenon that is bringing hope and excitement to Ethiopia, the region, and beyond. For now, I will therefore take off my Kufia to this gallant innovator!
 The accolades Isayas received in Addis were probably indirectly for Abiy. Ethiopians are so mesmerized by Abiy that they are ready to do his bidding including cheer and applaud an accursed dictator