Heavy Is the Head: The Trials of Abiy Ahmed

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I.

Like the brutal war he now presides over, Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed‘s nature and character must be gleaned from two diametrically opposed viewpoints. To his supporters, he is a Nobel laureate and visionary reformist faced with the near-impossible task of uniting a deeply divided nation. For hardcore Abiyists, he is the chosen one, here to build a better Ethiopia, battling enemies foreign and domestic.

Historically, Ethiopia has proven difficult to govern. Few outside of the corridors of Ethiopian power know how complex and layered this recent conflict is. The Amharas ruled the land for centuries with a feudal system that produced transcendent culture, beautiful architecture but also violently suppressed groups like the Oromo. The time of Abyssinian emperors, empresses, and ras reaches back to biblical times and is rife with imperial conflict and conquest. Leaders needed to remain on a war footing. The regional borders were amorphous and seismic shifts in power and control were par for the course. Strength and ruthlessness went hand in hand.

This inconvenient truth about Ethiopia’s long running internal conflicts belies some of its mythology. Pan-Africans drew inspiration and strength from the story of the sole African state able to repel the colonial powers and maintain their sovereignty. The modern state of Ethiopia only emerged after the reign of the Amharas was disrupted by a communist uprising against Haile Selassie, followed by a subsequent uprising against the Communists. Millions of lives were lost. The current Federation Abiy governs sits atop regional volcanic fissures which are perpetually threatening to explode. Even before the Tigray region rebelled, Abiy faced a daunting task.


II.

The story of Abiy’s come up is remarkable. He was born under the sign of the Lion in the Oromia region to a Muslim farmer and his (Orthodox Christian) fourth wife. Abiy was his father’s thirteenth child and his mother’s sixth and last child. They called him Abiyot — Revolution, in Oromo language — a common name at the time, marking the 1974 overthrow of Haile Sellasie by the communist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam. In an early speech, Abiy recalled his mother telling him that he would be the “seventh king of Ethiopia” someday.

Abiy grew up in tumultuous times. Revolution followed revolution. At fourteen years old, Abiy fought as a child soldier to overthrow the Communist government of Mengistu. He described this experience to the assembled dignitaries in Oslo as he accepted his 2019 Nobel Prize. “You see, I was not only a combatant in war,” he said in lilted English. “I was also a witness to its cruelty and what it can do to people. War makes for bitter men. Heartless and savage men.”

The coalition of ethno-liberation forces who overthrew Mengistu chose to compromise rather than break Ethiopia up. They committed to turning Ethiopia from a centralized socialist state into a federation of regional governments. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front took the lead, ultimately writing the 1994 Constitution granting the regional states more independence and crucially, the right to secede. (One of the drivers of the current conflict is the clash around the remarkable ARTICLE 39. Abiyists push for a One Ethiopia body politic coined “Medemer” while regional activists fight for the multi-ethno-state federalism established by the TPLF.)

Abiymania: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed with President Sahle-Work Zewde EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

For almost 27 years, TPLF’s governance was marked by a long period of stable economic expansion, vivid corruption, and brutal civil and political repression. Abiy, an ambitious and versatile soldier, thrived under the regime. He learned several languages, including Tigrinya, and worked for TPLF’s military in various capacities. He led INSA, the nation’s cybersecurity agency, but gained a reputation as a uniter and peace broker.

In 2010, he was elected a Member of Parliament, partly due to his unique connections to nearly every faction of Ethiopian society. He was raised by Muslim and Christian parents. He was Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and married to an Amhara, the second largest. He spoke Tigrinya and worked for and alongside the TPLF. He embodied the unified Ethiopia he promoted. Like Barack Obama in the United States circa 2008, when it came to race, Abiy authentically existed on both sides of dueling political forces.

Several things had to happen for Abiy to find himself the leader of Africa’s oldest independent nation. In 2014, the TPLF government faced increasingly intense protests from a number of corners — particularly from the qeerroo, young Oromos who resisted the planned expansion of Addis Ababa into their traditional lands. Land is identity in Ethiopia and the Oromo were not having it. The pressure forced the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, the coalition of the ethnic groups to begin a process of “self-criticism,” leading to PM Hailemariam Desalegn’s resignation. A young, charismatic youth leader Lemma Megersa, the Oromo’s first choice to replace Desalegn could not become PM due to a constitutional technicality. Despite his popularity, he was not a Member of Parliament. Dr. Abiy was the Oromo’s natural next choice. Some called Abiy the accidental Prime Minister. Others read it as destiny manifest.

III.

At 43, Abiy became the youngest leader on the continent, with a diasporan style, a gorgeous, telegenic family, and a unifier’s posture. He freed thousands of political prisoners, appointed women throughout his cabinet and administration, lifted restrictions on the press, and allowed opposition parties back into the fold. Despite protests from Egypt and Sudan, he partially opened up the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, a major step to Ethiopia becoming energy independent. Teddy Afro, Ethiopia’s biggest star, released a rapturous song to celebrate. He also proposed wresting the Ethiopian economy from the grip of socialist era control by the government. The marquee shift came in the peace deal with Eritrea, ending a costly twenty-year conflict. Was he, like his supporters believed, the One? These were the halcyon days of Abiymania when even the most cynical observers felt a tinge of hope.

This, perhaps, was a blessing and a curse. When the international media got a whiff of Abiymania, they naively attempted to create the narrative remotely. They rushed to paint Abiy as the model African leader. The Nobel Committee awarded Abiy the Peace Prize before the true story of his Premiership unfolded. Now a year into a terrible conflict, the Prize feels like an albatross around Abiy’s neck.

Some observers think all the accolades gave him imperial aspirations: Menelik redux. Menelik II, a predecessor to Haile Sellasie, both defeated the Italians at the battle of Adwa and suppressed the Oromo people. The comparison suggests Abiy is less interested in democracy and more interested in being the divine king his mother said he would be. “I think people failed to appreciate the complex side of Abiy,” “that he was not [just] this sunny, smiling guy. That beneath was a much more calculating, and even Machiavellian figure.”

There was a method to his rapid-fire reforms. Accustomed to the rush revolution provides when power is transferred (Ethiopia is still relatively new to electoral democracy), perhaps the nation needed a sense of pace to go with these policies giving the feel of revolution. Abiymania was methadone. But even at the height of Abiy’s popularity, many wondered how he planned to achieve such an aggressive agenda.

“There was always a massive challenge ahead for Abiy,” William Davidson, senior Ethiopia analyst with the International Crisis Group. “Just the promise of a more pluralistic political system did nothing necessarily to resolve the clashing nationalisms, opposing visions, and bitter political rivalries.”

If there was any question that the Abiy administration would receive blowback from the old guard and the die-hard extremists, the deadly bombs exploding at his rallies confirmed it. TPLF, still power brokers and a monied interest group, even after being forced out, thought Abiy would be a more compliant leader, but quickly realized Abiy was forging his own path forward.

The peace deal with Eritrea, with longtime TPLF enemy Isayas Afewerki, is revelatory. It was not just the bold kumbaya moment it was sold as. Yes, there were real tangible benefits that could result from the agreement such as a peace dividend or giving Ethiopia cheaper, more direct access to the sea. There was much more at play. Abiy seemed to be leaping over TPLF’s regional authority and ignoring them as stakeholders in the future of Ethiopia. Abiy was playing power games. With Eritrea on one side and the Ethiopian Army on the other, Tigray was cornered.

A significant factor in Abiy’s leadership is his faith. He and his cadre of advisers are fervent evangelical Pentecostals which lends itself to seeing things through a messianic lens. As in: “If God is with Abiy, who can be against him?”

The TPLF is who. The crisis has intensified the passion and purpose of their organization. Nationwide protests pushed them out, but they still have allies. They still have significant resources and competencies. Media savvy does not begin to describe their grip on the conflict narrative. They are still deeply embedded in the security and governing apparatus of the country. They still have teeth. Crocodile teeth.

Partners in War and Peace: President Isayas Afewerki of Eritrea and Abiy AhmedEDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images

Two years ago, Abiy was being celebrated by the international community in a glittering affair. Two years later, things have gotten out of hand. Peace is nowhere in sight. The war only expands and the reality on the ground is only getting worse. Millions are displaced, scores have been murdered and raped. The evidence of famine is mounting. Abiy and his partner in peace, Eritrea’s Isayas Afewerki, are now partners in war.

Perhaps just as consequential is the propaganda war. Manipulation and denial go hand in hand. The two clashing realities collect victims daily. Social media amplifies a growing madness tearing Ethiopian communities across the diaspora apart. Close friends no longer speak. One Amhara refuses to be near former friends from Tigray. “They are terrorists.” It has lit a fire in young Ethiopians from both sides.

Watching the spiritual and literal home of African union sink into internal strife is, to say the least, disquieting. The fissures and fault lines are widening. Can Abiy feel it? Or has he painted himself into a Messianic corner? His Prosperity Party’s landslide election victory gives cold comfort but is a clear reminder that the majority of Ethiopians still back him. He cleverly framed his election as the fight against foreign influence and TPLF as treasonous. He stands as the defender of Ethiopian sovereignty making his most salient point: who does it serve to see Ethiopia disintegrate?

TPLF talk about secession but is that the true aim? Is it a simple regime change i.e., a return to power? When asked about the rebel’s endgame some speculate that the rhetoric and expansion of the war into places like Lalibela are tactics to gain leverage in the inevitable talks. This new round of suffering for the burden bearers of this conflict may be nothing more than horse-trading by the power elite.

Tigray on Fire: In response to the conflict, young Tigarus have found passion and purpose. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Some of this is generational. The old dogs won’t lie down. And Abiy, for his part, is hostile to old protocols. He showed little interest to the African Union when the old men tried to step in as mediators. Some say that even Rwanda’s Big Man Kagame could not convince him to ease back. Biden’s executive order to sanction Ethiopia is sobering, but it only adds fuel to Ethiopians’ fiery patriotism. As evidenced in his open letter to Biden, Abiy is undeterred.

Still, Abiy’s legacy will be determined by his ability to discern the difference between strength and authoritarianism. No one in the country’s recent history — not Menelik, not Mengistu, not Meles, not Abiy — has proven capable of displaying the former without the latter.

No one knows where this will end up. What is for certain is that Abiy has unleashed latent political forces which may be beyond his — or anyone’s — control. Heavy is the head that wears the crown but in the end, who’s gonna take the weight?

This article appears as a part of OkayAfrica’s Crossroads, a special series examining Global Africa at critical moments. For our first package, we will dedicate 4 weeks of coverage to examining the lands of Ethiopia through a deep dive into music, politics, and culture.

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