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The Captivating, But Dubious Politics of Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed

Since Dr. Abiy Ahmed burst onto the Ethiopian political scene as the country’s new prime minister under five months ago, much has been said and written about his background, vision and reformist agenda as well as the support he has been gaining as a leader. The level of public support that met PM Abiy Ahmed’s new leadership has been unquestionably intense and widespread. The decisions he took, reforms he initiated and the ideas he promoted have earned him the support of almost all sectors of the population, domestically and the praise of governments and politicians, internationally.

Much of these changes and developments have, of course, been documented in media accounts and reports. This article utilizes some of this information to try and understand the nature of the observed public reaction, identify some of its underlying motives and analyze the shift it is likely to undergo with time. It also takes a brief look at the new leader’s political philosophy and some of its inherent weaknesses.

Public Reaction: Motives and Potential Shifts

Experts in Social and Behavioral Science, Social Psychology and related disciplines would use concepts and terminologies unique to their professions to expound why and how public sentiment shapes up in support of, or opposition to, major political incidents, events, and processes. But such highly technical analyses of the subject are bound to be too complex for public discourse where lay people, such as this writer, may find it difficult to understand the nuances of profound treatment of the subject. A public discussion that would be simple, but insightful for the “common person” is one which uses plain, everyday language as a medium, general information as input and down-to-earth common sense as an analytical tool.

Taking such a rational but non-technical approach, the reaction that the public displays vis-à-vis social and political events and processes can be classified into distinct types based on the motive that prompts the reaction. For the purpose of this article, the following general categories of public reaction can be identified:

  1. Herd (or mob) mentality/Attitude: a state in which people are influenced by their peers to adopt certain behaviors (or positions) on a largely emotional, rather than rational basis;
  2. Go-with-the-flow attitude: a kind of  “join others in the action” attitude – a conscious decision to go along with what people around you think, feel and do;
  3. Feel-good Attitude: the tendency to want to have happy feelings and to believe that one’s wishes are being fulfilled. This makes people focus selectively on those elements of an event/process that appeal to their emotions while ignoring related unfavorable ones;
  4. Skeptical/Questioning Attitude: Thinking ‘out of the box’ – the tendency to critically examine where things are heading before drawing conclusions and/or committing oneself to a specific outcome.

This writer believes that all these public-reaction categories have contributed – albeit to varying extents – to the support the new Ethiopian leader has been able to garner for his nationalist-reformist themes across sections of his population. The same holds true for the enthusiasm that people in the region have exhibited for the style and substance of his leadership.

1. Initial Public Reaction Public opinion regarding the PM was initially lopsided in its distribution across the public-reaction categories outlined above. The majority of opinions seemed to have motives that fall on the emotional rather than the rational domain of the public-reaction spectrum. At the extreme end of that emotional domain have been views which ascribe divine qualities to the premier’s powers and abilities. Indeed, a few of these fanatical supporters have gone to the extent of variously describing the prime minister as a saint, a prophet and an angel!

Nearly all the reforms the PM has introduced and the decisions he has taken are consistent with the demands and wishes that the public had on issues. As such, his reformist vision and inspiring rhetoric could not, but earn him overwhelming support and immense popularity among his population. In addition, like any other mania, the cult-like admiration of a political leader invariably entails extensive canonization and apologia that stifle legitimate criticism or dissension thereby giving a false impression of universal public support.

2-Shift in Public Opinion – As the initial public euphoria wears off and reality sets in, one would expect to see a change in the distribution of people’s views across the public-reaction categories with popular sentiment shifting towards the rational end of the spectrum. It is inevitable that the governance process will, in due course, transition from rhetoric to decision-making and execution some of which may adversely impact the public. Others may end up ruffling the political feathers of key constituents in the country and/or those of political forces abroad.

Soon, contentious issues and problems will come to the fore which, when tackled, will lead to divergence between government policy-choices on the one hand, and the expectations and preferences of the population on the other. One outcome of these dynamics will likely be a shift in public opinion in which more people abandon the emotion-based views and positions they adopted under the euphoric conditions that prevailed following the PM’s election, and replace them with rational ones that derive from facts and practical considerations.

An Emerging Political Philosophy

Having changed governments last April, Ethiopia is being initiated into a political philosophy that its new leader has been pushing with a moralistic fervor reminiscent of advancing religious agendas than of promoting political thoughts. It is as if the PM’s approach to (and philosophy about) the affairs of his country and the wider Horn of Africa region are inspired more by a spirituality that invokes the ‘basic goodness of man’ than by a worldly outlook that acknowledges the realities of the rough-and-tumble world of national/global politics.

His speeches, town-hall meetings, and parliamentary engagements have expounded a political philosophy that is rooted in the concept of Medemer or “Addition” – a notion of joining hands or ‘coalescence-in-spirit’ of social and political forces. The PM advocates this philosophy as the best hope for Ethiopia and the region arguing that it would lead to peace, democracy, justice and prosperity for all provided its implementation is joined in by political parties, social groups, economic entities (at national level) and populations, governments and countries (at regional level).

This characterization notwithstanding, the philosophy is too simplistic (and its symbolizing “mathematical formulation” of “Addition” too rudimentary!) to have practicality or realism in today’s complex world. The message of love, forgiveness, reconciliation, and unity on which it is based is undoubtedly pleasing to the ear and soothing to the spirit. But it does little to address the tragic and dangerous dichotomies – the mighty vs. the downtrodden, the privileged vs. the depraved, the affluent vs. the destitute, the corrupt vs. the righteous – as well as the deep-seated ethnic animosities that beset African societies today. There can be no denying that resolving these monumental problems is a seemingly unachievable task which requires a great deal more than pacifist calls for Medemer.

At the moment, it remains unclear if this is all there is to PM Abiy’s political philosophy; or whether this is just an enticement meant to win public trust as foundation for a more profound, enlightened political thought which he may unveil at a later date, or simply ease in as an outgrowth of the existing one.

Inconsistencies and Contradictions

Medemer is not only problematic as a concept, but the way it has been practiced thus far also raises serious integrity questions as demonstrated by the following examples.

1-Partnering with a Tyrant – There is no doubt that the Ethiopian leader has long been familiar with President Isaias Afewerki’s unique credentials of despotism. He sure knows that his Eritrean counterpart presides over a one-man system that has subjugated and impoverished his people; that the latter has ruled without a constitution and a legislature, but with a sham judiciary where rule of law and due process have long been forced out by the dictator’s decrees and whimsical decisions. The prime minister is also aware that Isaias’ policies have forced Eritrea to remain mired in stalemated wars with its neighbors for most of its 27-year independent existence – a situation that earned the country nothing but economic ruin and international isolation.

Despite these truths, however, the Ethiopian leader has shown, in words and deeds, his willingness and readiness to do business with Isaias Afewerki. Worse, he has unabashedly idolized the dictator by affectionately addressing him by his nickname, and by engaging in distressingly excessive hugging, hand-holding, back-patting, teasing and laughing with the man at official functions during their visits to each other’s capitals. It is, therefore, puzzling how the ideals and principles that the PM advocates, if indeed genuine, allowed him to accept the tyrant as “partner” in an effort to bring peace, democracy, and progress to the region!

2- Meaningless borders – Since his election to the premiership, the Ethiopian leader has persistently reasoned in his speeches and official pronouncements that national borders in Africa were drawn by colonial powers and are therefore meaningless. Assuming sincerity of this statement, one would expect the prime minister to offer an idea of how Africa could extricate itself from the political quandary of comprising states whose politico-geographic identities are defined by ‘meaningless’ borders. Instead, he appeared to contradict himself by concurrently advocating economic integration of the Horn countries – states that owe their political identities to the very colonial boundaries that he trivializes.

The writer sees this political doublespeak of the prime minister as being part of his grander political gamesmanship in which he has strategized to (i) raise claims of ‘meaningless borders’ in anything related to Eritrea thereby encouraging his people to cling to the pipe dream of eventual “unification” of Eritrea with Ethiopia, and (ii) pledge to respect colonial borders by conducting the rest of his foreign policy within the framework of existing political boundaries in the continent.

Needless to say, the PM is well aware that ‘sanctity of colonial boundaries’ is one of the fundamental tenets of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – later, the African Union (AU) – without which the continental organization could not have held itself together. So, for an AU’s basic principle to be persistently vilified as meaningless by the leader of the very country which hosts its headquarters would normally be considered an affront to the organization and the ideals it stands for. But the prime minister seems to have smartly figured that his remarks on borders will not evoke any protest from an organization that has neither the grit nor rectitude to stand up to manipulators and exploiters much less to challenge some rhetoric negating one of its organizational principles.

Conclusion

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s inspiring rhetoric and his reformist vision have raised his people’s expectations and hopes for the future. But, the fate of Ethiopia and the region will ultimately be determined by a complex interplay of decisions that will be made, actions taken and conditions created in the political, economic and military spheres by various actors at the national, regional and global levels. Hence, the long-term outcome of ongoing initiatives/reforms is open to conjecture. For now, all that can be stated with certainty is that bringing genuine change to the region would be a long, arduous journey fraught with serious risks that include setbacks, reversals and even failure.

Editor’s note: It’s unfortunate that posting this article was delayed for two weeks due to technical problems that forced us to close our email boxes. We apologize if you feel the timelessness of the article is compromised to a degree in relation to the recent themes of discussion at Awate forum.

About Yohannes Zerai

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  • Sisay Kebede

    I think you should have elaborated further,about what you claimed to be “Partnering with a tryant” so that we can have a clear idea of what an ideal relation should have been. Since the two countries have a very complex historical relation ,more importantly as Eritrea is an indepent country and given that the very same person that you call as “tryant” has championed this independence,i can hardly imagine how PM Abiy could have acted adversly. Regarding your view of “dream of unification “, it can only be, at best just your assumption,at worst a fancy of 60’s gerenation youth’s perception,that generated modernism from Asmara’s beauty.

  • FishMilk

    Hi All. The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa has suspended operations today as a “caution” in connection with a planned demonstration.

  • FishMilk

    Hi All. Addis Fortune is reporting that a daily 400-to-500 MT (20 trucks) of cement is being transported from Adigrat to Senafe, Adi Keyh and Decamare.

    • Abi

      Hi Fishmilk
      Now that is what I call Cementing the confederation!!!
      I was hoping to use the cement to build the 100 meter tall wall.
      Ok, I admit! I lost. Now the cement is being used for exactly opposite purposes.
      I respect the people’s choice.

  • FishMilk

    Hi All. Ethnic violence, mainly targeting people from Tigray, that is now taking place in and around Addis Ababa is getting really nasty. Acts include rape, looting and murder.

    • Nitricc

      Hi Fish-M: it is sad but this shows you that force the necessary evil. Some people are worried about Eritrea linked with Ethiopia through confederation but is there going to be Ethiopia as we know it is the question. PMAA must start acting force if not the country is in deep trouble. Jowar Mahamed will destroy Ethiopia unless he held in check.

      • FishMilk

        Hi Nitricc. I agree that they have to use a quick heavy hand! Regarding the confederation rumor-mongering, I do not believe it for a second.

    • Aligaz G

      fish,

      Where did you get information that Tigreans are being targeted?

      • FishMilk

        Hi Aligaz G. Most news clips they are carefully only indicating that ‘minority groups’ or ‘targeted civilians’ as the victims. Another said ‘that the massacre planned and targeted specific ethnic groups and had a political motive’ while another said that ‘Gamos and Guraghe’s are among ethnic groups that were targeted’. Ethiopian friends who have been on the phone today with their family in Addis who are telling me that TPLF business and Tigray people are being targeted. In any case, whoever is being targeted, it is simply wrong and they have to quickly take very hard action.

        • Aligaz G

          fish,

          No need to jump to conclusions. Tigreans are so far not the main target of the rioters.

  • Abraham H.

    Selam Abi, I knew a few Kerenites, and my impression of them was that they are funny with quite relaxed attitude, contrary to your perception of them.

  • Abraham H.

    Selam Abi, good that we are getting closer in our understanding of the new developments between Eritrea and Ethiopia. “She promised to bring the remaining Eritreans with her so that I don’t have to go.”, well and good, but I was encouraging you to meet with the ordinary Eritreans, not only your relatives; the Asmarinos, Massawans, Kerenites, etc., plus swin in the warm Eritrean Red Sea, enjoy freshly caught fish, learn scuba diving/if you can’t already, drive through the pictursque Semienawi Bahri, etc. Anyway, I wish your family a pleasant stay in Eritrea.

  • David Samson

    Selam Hope,
    FM loves Eritrean and Eritrean people, irrespective of his political views.

  • FishMilk

    Hi All. I hope that ex-Ethio President Girma Wolde Giorgis will be able to travel to Asmara and Massawa. Back during the great Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s, Metallica Girma, as Head of Transport for Northern Ethiopia, lived in a villa in Asmara (along his woshima from Dessie). He frequented Massawa on the weekends, usually with one or two teenage honies…..the guy had no shame in this regard. He became bloody rich from siphoned Geldof money. Later in 1990, after the fall of Massawa, though no longer based in Eritrea, he would from the Dergue side, be involved in discussions regarding humanitarian cargo movement from Massawa thru the buffer zone near Glinda. If he were to return to Asmara, he would surprisingly find it physically much the same as when he had last seen it more than 30 years ago.

    • Reclaim Abyssinia

      Dear FishMilk,
      No, they will not be able to make it.
      The ex-Ethio President Girma Dolde Giorgis passed away around 4 years ago, as well as his eldest son in the USA (Bless their soul). The children never liked Ethiopia, they were the “cool Kid” of Asmara. I somehow knew the family personaly ….

      • FishMilk

        Hi Reclaim Abyssinia. Are you sure ex-Pres Girma has passed? Wikipedia still shows him alive and I have seen new quotes of his from this year. I do remember that there was an erroneous claim made that he had passed away back in 2012. Yeah I too remember his kids back then…especially big Sammy.

        • Reclaim Abyssinia

          Dear @FishMilk
          My apology, I was wrong. I thought they already passedaway for a very longtime. So you know the big boys, Such a small world!
          Cheers,
          RA

  • dawit

    Good Day Awatewyan
    As usual this article is written to cast doubt on the positive news of the achievement of peace between Eritrea and Ethiopia under the leadership of PMAA and PIA. Of course the article has to be spiced with the usual insult of PIA and how this peace agreement is poised in contradiction of OAU and AU Charter about the colonial border.

    ” Needless to say, the PM is well aware that ‘sanctity of colonial boundaries’ is one of the fundamental tenets of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) – later, the African Union (AU) – without which the continental organization could not have held itself together. So, for an AU’s basic principle to be persistently vilified as meaningless by the leader of the very country which hosts its headquarters would normally be considered an affront to the organization and the ideals it stands for. ”

    The African organization adopted the above condition to minimize border conflicts among the newly independent countries until Africa achieve the ultimate goal of United States of Africa. Right after signing the Charter Tanganyika and Zanzibar abolished their colonial border and made the union of Tanzania. After 50+ years the Horn of Africa is moving in that direction to form a Union of Horn of Africa by eliminating the artificial colonial borders under the leadership of PIA and PMAA which will lead to the ultimate goal of The United States of Africa which was the dream of great leaders like Nkrumah of Ghana, Nassir of Egypt, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the other 30 African leaders who signed the OAU Charter in 1963 in Addis to create Africa without a colonial border so people to move freely just like it used to be before African colonization by European powers.

    What “Eritrean Opposition” groups need is to join the great majority of Eritrean people who identify themselves with PIA. Keeping insulting and demonizing PIA at the internet, radios and websites will not change the path he is following for Peace, Stability and Development for Eritrea. Learn from Ethiopians oppositions who are flooding home after accepting the leadership of PMAA and struggle peacefully at home than dreaming to overthrow the Ethiopian government. They have learned from three decades of conflicts and adopted a peaceful method to compete for leadership peacefully. Likewise the only forward path to Eritrean Opposition is to accept and recognize PIA as the only world wide recognized legitimate leader of Eritrea.

    Peace
    dawit

    • Amanuel

      Hi dawit
      This is noble idea. However one important piece is missing. No one has asked or explained this is happening to the Eritrean people. The question is does IA has the mandate? If that is the intention.

    • Reclaim Abyssinia

      Hello Dawit,
      I was gone go to Eritrea for this new year, and most friends said…

      መዐልታ ዝበጸኸ ሐመማ፥
      አብ ልዕሊ ፊሊት ትስዕስዕ።

      Is there any policy change or change of attitude on the safety of the people that want to go back to Eritrea?
      Cheers

  • Nitricc

    Hi All; the game is one between PIA, PMAA and TPLF of Mekele. I think the strategy of PMAA and PIA is to isolate TPLF completely from the game. They are bypassing TPLF on every activities. The Oromo people to people went to Asmara and spent sometime there. It followed by Amara people to people went to Asmara. in fact the first thing should have been Tigray people to people to Asmara but again PIA and PMAA are bypassing TPLF. Not so fast said TPLF today, Not to out done TPLF did this today in Mekelle. lol

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujKWteyw3cI

    • Mitiku Melesse

      Hei Nitricc.
      Aboyi Sibhat: You know Tigray people love you and support you all the way.
      OLF tghadali: Ya, off course. But oh those woyanes! The moment I reach home i will revenge them.
      Aboyi Sibhat: You see my son; dont dwell on the past. Just forgive and forget them.

      • Blink

        Dear Mitiku
        I hear the news that says this week Addis problem was incumbency was the TPLF womb and on the other hand Sibhat Nega tried to show brave face in giving Tea to OLF on their way to Addis , you know weyane has been always on the move with many hearts .

    • Blink

      Dear Nitricc
      In the year 2000 I used to read the now changed man articles like the Ethiopia: Living with the lowered expectations , at that time saay used to call Meles “ lord Meles” and other things , F** I am becoming less to remember the many saay you used to Quote and smash Alemseged Abay halewlow “

      What happened to the TPLF plan A,B C and other things in general.

      What a time to be alive

  • Abraham H.

    Hi Abi, no I was not mad to see Ethiopians in Asmara; but incidentally you replied it yourself why I was mad when you wrote “You were mad because the current changes don’t seem to bring positive changes in the life of the Eritreans, etc etc etc etc……..,etc”. That is exactly why I reacted the way I did. You don’t want me to look the other way while Eritreans are still kept in the sealed prison Eritrea, while Ethiopians flock towards Eritrea? What is then the peace dividend to Eritreans and the peace and friendship agreement that was signed with great fanfare, with the declared of end of state of war. Isn’t it fair to demand justice and fairness in the developing relationship between Eritreans and Ethiopians? I know that anything that makes Eritreans happy is painful to people like you who have deep seated hatred towards the Eritrean people. So I’m sure that when you saw the people at the border huggying and partying together, you are saddened by that. Please grow up from your narrow mindedness that allows you to see only negativity; try to think positively, and a win-win mentality. What is the problem, we sip your coffe, and hopefully soon, you enjoy our fish.

    • Abi

      Hi Abraham
      Nah, you keep changing your position .
      You are witnessing the change that is brought by the two leaders. The border issue is gone as people are freely moving around. And more chances of possible changes are before us. This is exactly what you wished not to happen just because you are against Isu and Abyachin.
      You are so weird and weak that whoever is against your zibazinke or your independence hoax is a hater. Trust me soon the idea of independence will be erased from the minds of Eritreans. I read a comment that says 75% of Eritreans want to live in Ethiopia. This shows me that they are running away from independence and independent Eritrea. You can always have your own interpretation or simply call me a hater.

      Now my First Lady, couple of her friends and the boys are going to be in Asmara/Masawa for a short spring break. I warned them to avoid any contact with you and your likes since there is always a possibility that you check their DNA for purity.

      • Abraham H.

        Hi Abi,
        1) I’m for a free movement of people and goods across the border, but should be with the right rules and regulations in place, and not spontaneous uncontrolled way that we are witnessing these days
        2) The eebc decision should be implemented. No matter how much friendship we have, we need to know what belongs to each of us to avoid future border conflict
        3) I believe in democracy and free will of the people, and if Eritreans decide to join Ethiopia in union through legal, free and fair referendum, then I will respect it. But remember such kind of union is not only going to be decided by Eritreans, but it should also be endorsed by the Ethiopian people.
        4) I wish you join your family to visit Eritrea and witness for yoursself how welcoming Eritrean are first hand

  • Peace!

    Hi Alex,

    I thought I already told you: because politics is about interest, not credibility. Plus you, as Eritrean, are not in a good position to ask such question while fill in the blank——

    Peace!

  • Yohannes Zerai

    Dear @george,

    Have you cared to find out how much funding or financial rewards President Isaias Afewerki has been receiving for his subservient compliance with anything that the Saudis and Emiratis have been imposing on him to further their interests in the Horn of Africa region, and where all that money is going?

    Thank you

  • Yohannes Zerai

    Dear Hope, Alex and FishMilk:

    I apologize to all three of you for the travel-induced delay in responding to your respective comments. The sets of statements and/or questions that each of you specifically addressed to me are, in essence, similar to each other. Therefore, in the interest of saving time, I will try to respond to them jointly and hope you will not mind it.

    In the current thread of discussion, many forum participants including myself have stated that, as a national leader, PM Abiy Ahmed invoked his legal and constitutional executive powers to (i) seek peace with a neighboring state for the benefit of his country and (ii) engage in rapprochement and attendant peace negotiations with the intent of drawing maximum benefits and advantages for his nation — a job that he has been carrying out with extreme political dexterity and extraordinary ability to rally his people. No one – not me, not my like-minded colleagues at this forum – tried to fault the PM for any of these. If anything, we have applauded his efforts and what he has achieved for his people WHILE we agonisingly regretted the fact that Eritrea does not have a leader able and willing to do the same for his/her people!

    So, we have had no problem with PM Abiy or what he is trying to do. What we do have problems with is a cruel tyrant (who has earned a worldwide condemnation for perpetrating crimes against humanity in his country) single-handedly making “peace” decisions in Eritrea’s name while contemptuously refusing to consult with (and report to) the people on ANYTHING he has been secretly doing in their name. In light of these undeniable facts, and as Eritrean citizens, we will neither betray our collective conscience nor neglect our sacred responsibility to speak out (i) exposing/opposing the lawless acts of the dictator, (ii) advocating the inalienable rights of the people to play their legitimate role in determining their own future and the fate of their country and (iii) entreating PM Abiy and his government to be mindful that agreements concluded with the Eritrean tyrant (while sidelining the people and ignoring their wishes) will not be acceptable, will not be to the best interest of the Ethiopian people and certainly will not be sustainable!

    Finally, the question of when a genuine peace will materialize between the two countries is not an issue that is subject to the whims and guessing-game of individuals or interest groups as you all seem to think. In reality, genuine peace between nations (or peoples) becomes possible ONLY when the requisite reconciliation/negotiation process is based on free will and full engagement of the peoples concerned. It is our effort to explain these positions and ideas that have unfortunately become the target of your relentless assaults in which you have variously called their proponents derogatory names that are nothing less than repugnant. That approach is not getting you anywhere — should you care to do a little rational thinking on the subject! You, us and everyone else concerned would benefit immensely if, instead, you were to opt for presenting your counter-arguments and advancing your own ideas with a measure of civility, respect of others and tolerance of alternative ideas.

    Thank you

    • FishMilk

      Hi Yohannes Zerai. In the interests of saving time, I will respond to you, and the 30 or so commenters here, who have in the past shamelessly sided with a brutal TPLF regime in their ‘at all costs’ efforts to overthrow the PIA/PFDJ regime. You wish to insult but not be insulted, to judgementally define lines of rationality, and to convince evryone that western style -academic warrior- ‘democracy’ and peace & reconciliation processes, as the only lasting and durable means to genuine peace. You assert that ‘genuine peace between nations (or peoples) becomes possible ONLY when the requisite reconciliation/negotiation process is based on free will and full engagement of the peoples concerned‘. Well, we know how many African stellar examples of such process there are. Whatever form of peace we now have on our doorsteps, should be actively embraced and nurtured. Hope that I am not being too repugnant.

      • Ayneta

        FishMilk::
        Stop acting as if you know what you are talking about when it comes to Eritrea. You just happened to read a couple of comments here and you think that qualifies you to make such overriding and insulting comment? Eritrean politics is more complex than that and you cant understand it with your narrow, alien binocular. You have never lived in it and there us no way you can make a qualified comment. Just watch and learn!