Dr. Abiy Ahmed. Photo–Flickr.
I traveled recently in my homeland, Ethiopia, half the time with my three children in the North, the East –primarily to see the fabled ancient walled city of Harar– and the South to visit the Bale Mountain National Park, a rain forest with a diversity of animal and plant life, some of them like the red fox and nyala, found only in Ethiopia.
It is a hidden eco-treasure. Meantime the country is undergoing a radical political transformation under the new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed. Many are recommending him for the Nobel Peace Prize and rightly so.
My reasons will be clear in my commentary and observations below.
I was eager on my first morning in Addis Ababa on June 14 to get macchiato at my favorite neighborhood cafe. I was not prepared for what I saw. The street adjacent to my apartment facing the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) building was packed with a mass of humanity moving in one direction. I didn’t fare any better with the other parallel streets. Wave after wave of people, mostly young, were streaming down to the main highways such as Megenagna and Bole Road; they were moving like a mighty river converging from all directions at the huge Revolution Square, renamed Meskel Square.
An estimated four million people had come from the city and the surrounding towns and villages to show their support for the new Prime Minister. Needless to say, I didn’t get my coffee as I was swept by the moving crowd. The whole scene had a festive carnival like atmosphere, almost all had T-shirts with the PM’s photo, carrying signs like- “We have your back,” “You are the Messiah,” “You are our Supreme leader,” “The Messenger of Love,” and so forth.
Dr. Abiy addressed the crowd and he didn’t disappoint. He is a gifted orator; but it is his constant message of forgiveness, love, unity and Ethiopianness that has resonated with the people in all regions of Ethiopia. He has become the rock star of Ethiopian politics.
A brief background leading up to his emergence as a leader might be in order. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (The EPRDF) is a coalition party made of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), Oromo People Democratic Organization (OPDO), and the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Party (SNNPP).
The TPLF, which bore the brunt of the armed resistance to the previous repressive military regime under Mengistu Haille Mariam –sacrificing some 60,000 combatants– wielded a disproportionate share of the power within the coalition.
The EPRDF established an ethno-centric federal system of government by creating language-based autonomous regional administrative states with their own executive presidents and regional assemblies.The idea was to empower hitherto marginalized and aggrieved ethnic groups to govern themselves and have a say in how the federal government is run through their elected representative to the federal people’s assembly.
EPRDF promised democracy, poverty eradication and building infrastructure. The national economy took off under it’s administration registering a double digit growth rate for over a decade.
Democratization of the political process however did not keep pace with the economic development. Corruption in high places was becoming rampant and income disparity was widening. Addis Ababa was growing rapidly, gobbling up primarily Oromo farmlands and was to incorporate more land under a master plan made public three years ago, which led to widespread protests in Oromia region.
The government retreated and scrapped the plan altogether. Protests continued nevertheless, exposing deep seated problems and longstanding grievances which were simmering below the surface. Violent protests erupted in Oromia and Amhara regions, home to the two largest ethnic groups. Some of the anger was directed at Tigrayans who the protesters wrongly perceived as beneficiaries of TPLF power.
There was significant loss of life, property, and internal displacement. The most serious inter-ethnic clashes however were between the Oromos and Ethiopian Somalis along their long common border resulting in the death of hundreds, perhaps thousands, on both sides and over a million internally-displaced people, primarily Oromos. Rather than ethnic hostility, it was the lucrative chat –a plant, also spelled khat; a stimulant that has been chewed for centuries–business that resulted in the bitter clashes according to some observers.
Small scale clashes have occurred between Amharas and Tigrayans. Scores of foreign-owned manufacturing plants in Oromia were torched to the ground, among them a cement factory owned by the Nigerian billionaire Aliko Dangote.
The declaration of a State of Emergency, while calming the situation briefly, led to further resentment and alienation among the people in various regions partly due to the high-handed approach taken by the command post to enforce the restrictions imposed on civil rights.
Those opposed to the EPRDF sponsored system of ethnic federalism from were predicting doom and gloom from the get-go. They foresaw collapse of the government and descent of the country into a Yugoslavia-like carnage and disintegration. Some, especially Diaspora opposition media outlets, saw genocide, Rwanda-style, on a larger scale, as an inevitable outcome.
The EPRDF went into months of soul-searching and replaced veteran leaders of the coalition parties with younger leaders. Nowhere was this more evident than in Oromia where two young dynamic leaders were elected by OPDO as president and vice president respectively: these were Lemma Megersa and Abiy Ahmed. The Oromo people embraced them instantly. OPDO, hitherto seen as subservient to TPLF in the coalition, was beginning to assert itself.
Amidst all this, the prime minister at the time, Hailemariam Desalegn, tendered his resignation to make way for new leadership. The two Oromo leaders were now positioning themselves as national leaders, appealing to the greatness and glory of Ethiopia, which found a responsive cord particularly among the Amharas.
An informal Oromo-Amhara tactical alliance was in the making within EPRDF. The competition to name a new premier was on. Abiy Ahmed was an elected member of the House of the People’s Representatives, as the federal parliament is known, but not a party president. The OPDO president was not eligible to run for the premier’s post since he was not a member of the federal parliament. Both Lemma and Ahmed switched places –Ahmed became party president and Lemma party vice president– to enable Ahmed to run for PM. After an intense internal maneuvering within EPRDF, Abiy Ahmed emerged as the new premier.
His acceptance speech will go down as one of the best ever made by anyone in Ethiopia or anywhere else. It was inspirational and inspiring. With his soaring oratory he spoke of love, peace, togetherness, the unity and shared values of Ethiopians. The speech was an instant classic.
His words went straight to the heart of Ethiopians. He immediately traveled to the regions where recent hostilities had occurred. He spoke in their own language to the Somalis and Oromos. He traveled to Tigray, home of TPLF and addressed the leadership and the people in perfect Tigrigna, citing their glorious history of sacrifice. Here too his message reached the people.
He went to the Amhara regions delivering a message of peace and reconciliation. “We are strong as a people when we are added,” not marginalized, is his constant theme. He also promoted the idea of unity far from the borders of Ethiopia. He foresees the nations of the horn of Africa coming together in pursuit of peace and harmony, engaging in common development projects.
Within weeks of his assumption of leadership, PM Abiy Ahmed lifted the state of emergency, freed political prisoners and closed down the notorious Maakelawi –central– prison in Addis Ababa. Among those released was Andargachew Tsige, the Ethiopian-born British national and leader of Ginbot7, an armed opposition group based in Eritrea, sworn to the violent overthrow of the Ethiopian regime. The group is designated as a terrorist organization by the government. Andargachew was sentenced to death in absentia when he was captured by Yemeni authorities and handed over to Ehiopia three years ago.
Abiy Ahmed invited opposition leaders and organizations abroad — including the armed opposition– to come home and participate in the political dialogue. Opposition Diaspora media outlets were welcome to set up shop in Ethiopia. Many have heeded Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s call and returned home. The new premier went to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and brought back with him planeloads of Ethiopians who were languishing in prison in those countries.
The new premier has retired some of the most powerful party veterans and army generals including the previous powerful chief of saff of the armed forces, General Samora Yenus.
These are giddying and exciting times to be in Ethiopia. There is a palpable optimism and hope for a better future by the divergent political groups in Ethiopia, each one seeing his words and actions representing their agenda as they see it.
Dr. Abiy Ahmed is a young, dynamic and charismatic leader and above all a man of action, given to bold and unexpected moves to accomplish his mission. He is unencumbered by entrenched bureaucratic and institutional norms. He is now riding a wave of popularity the likes of which never seen in Ethiopia. Almost every speech he makes on any occasion is a masterpiece; but more importantly, it is his heartfelt appeal to the people that touches the very core of the the Ethiopian psyche. There are mass rallies in his support weekly in cities and towns across the land.
Perhaps his boldest move todate has been his unconditional acceptance of the Algiers Accord that officially ended the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea 20 years ago but was never implemented. It took two weeks for the Eritrea’s ruler Issayas Afeworki to respond although the Algiers Accord was what he had insisted on since the hostilities ended.
The ice was finally broken when Afeworki finally accepted the offer. A visit by an Eritrean delegation led by the foreign minister paved the way for the state visit to Eritrea by Abiy Ahmed on July 8. He was warmly and enthusiastically welcome by the Eritrean people.
Issayas who is rarely seen smiling was beaming uncontrollably as Abiy Ahmed praised the people of Eritrea, saying how happy he was to be in their midst in the beautiful city of Asmara Tsada. A veritable bromance between the two leaders that started in Asmara continued to flourish during President Issayas’ reciprocal visit to Ethiopia on July 14.
Both countries declared the end of the state of war between them and signed a treaty of peace and friendship. They agreed to resume telephone links between the two countries and Ethiopian Airlines started flights to Asmara leading to emotional reunion of husband’s and wives, parents and children and siblings trapped behind the frozen border for over 20 years.
More agreements are in the making such as Ethiopia’s use of the Eritrean ports of Assab and Massawa and withdrawal of troops from the border area.The rapprochement between the two countries, long overdue, is very popular on both sides of the border.
Dr. Abiy Ahmed also became involved in reviving the negotiations to restore peace in South Sudan. A series of meetings led to final rounds of negotiations in Sudan, chaired by that country’s ruler Omar Hassan al-Bashir. It concluded with the signing of an agreement between South Sudan President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar to end the war and restore power-sharing.
Dr. Abiy Ahmed visited the U.S. on July 28, where he was welcomed by huge gatherings of Diaspora Ethiopians who duplicated the enthusiasm for his message shown by the citizens back home. His mission was also to end the schism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church between the home church and those in the U.S.
The long-term impact of these series of rapid initiatives, with already far-reaching consequences for Ethiopia, the horn of Africa and countries on the Red Sea, is hard to assess at this point.
Is this pace of activism sustainable? The prime minister has the intellect, the energy and an out-of-the-box approach to solving problems; these attributes that will serve him well as he attempts to get the country out of it’s political crisis.
There are however, storm clouds in the horizon that need to be paid attention to. Some of his speeches, extolling the past glory of Ethiopia and Ethiopian exceptionalism, has brought out flag-waving national chauvinists, monarchists and political demagogues who may want to turn the clock back. The unleashing of these forces may come to haunt and even bite him later.
The prime minister’s hands-on and do-it-alone approach to governance is not only unsustainable but also not desirable. Some members in the cabinet have confided to me that there was no consultation or debate within the cabinet when some of the decisions were made. This does not bode well for the future of democracy and democratic process in governance.
I have no doubt in the premier’s sincerity and good intentions and I believe he is a democrat at heart. The current euphoria in the country and the mass adulation bordering on worship for him is not worrisome. It may lead to the emergence of a populist, albeit of the progressive type, a know-it-all one man rule, governing by mass rallies and spellbinding oratory.
Yet, after the euphoria subsides, reality will intrude. The people will find themselves still facing the issues that led to the unrest, namely corruption, income inequality and lack of opportunity, not ethnic tension as some would have us believe.
Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa with a population of a over 100 million and the proportion under the age of 30 is ballooning; standing at 70 percent. Many young men and women are coming to Addis Ababa and other large cities lured by the booming construction and othe manufacturing industries. Ethiopia’s economic growth so far has been nothing short of miraculous; but such performances have expiration dates. Unemployment of the youth, both skilled and unskilled, is a major challenge for the government.
As for the recent clashes in various parts of the country, the premier’s appeal seem to have had a calming effect for now. The core issues have yet to be studied and resolved. Some critics of the EPRDF blame the federal set up as the main cause of recent troubles. I tend to disagree. There is a need to re-examine some aspects of the federal arrangement and strengthen the central federal authority but to do away with the system will be disastrous as it would mean taking away a hard won right of marginalized people of Ethiopia to take their rightful place alongside their fellow citizens.
One only needs to travel in the country as I have done to appreciate how empowered people of diverse ethnicities feel running their own affairs. The Afars, Hararis, Southern Nations and Nationalities, Beni ShanguIis, and above all, the Oromos, all feel empowered, within the context of Federal Ethiopia. To eliminate the federal system would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I gree with the premier’s suggestion of setting up a commission to study the federal arrangement in all it’s complexities and come up with solutions to correct some of the flaws in the current system such as the hardening of borders between the states. The Commission should include academics, historians, anthropologists, constitutional scholars and policy makers, as well as civil society, including representatives of youth, women, labor and the faith communities.
The future is full of promise but is also fraught with danger unless treaded carefully. Dr. Abiye Ahmed will need all his youthful energy, oratorical and persuasive prowess to steer the country through it’s trying times for the next two years when the next General election is due. In the meantime addressing the plight of the unemployed youth who now seek opportunities abroad –facing danger and even perishing on the high seas– should be the top priority.
To paraphrase a wise man, in the final analysis, it is indeed the economy, stupid.
Mohammed A. Nurhussein MD.
Written during recent visit to Ethiopia