Ethiopia’s Charismatic Leader: Riding the Wave of Populism or Reforming Ethnic Federalism?

“But even regarding History as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of States, and the virtue of individuals have been victimised — the question involuntarily arises — to what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered.” GWF Hegel

“The boundary at which the past has to be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, one would have to know exactly how great the plastic power of a man, a people, a culture is: I mean by plastic power the capacity to develop out of oneself in one’s own way, to transform and incorporate into oneself what is past and foreign, to heal wounds, to replace what has been lost, to recreate broken moulds.” Friedrich Nietzsche

“Since it is one that can have no end till experience itself comes to an end, the task of democracy is forever that of creation of a freer and more humane experience in which all share and to which all contribute.” John Dewey

The rise of Abiy Ahmed Ali, the new chairperson of the Oromo wing of the EPRDF, to become the third Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia took many by surprise. His rapid ascendance can be attributed largely to accident, rather than design, as seen by a competitive party election and the unpredictable path to Abiy’s candidacy.

When it became probable, following three years of chaotic protests, that the next leader was going to come from the Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), it dawned on Lemma Megersa, then the popular chair of that party, the need to hand his position to Abiy. At that time the future PM was head of the OPDO secretariat and, crucially, a member of the House of People’s Representatives, which Lemma was not, ruling him ineligible for the premiership. Few had predicted Lemma’s selfless strategic move, but without it Abiy’s rise would not have occurred.

The rest, as they say, is history; albeit a history facilitated by Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen’s last-minute withdrawal from the EPRDF chairperson election.

At his inauguration, Abiy then delivered an electrifying speech at parliament that spoke to all sections of the Ethiopian polity. Although mere rhetoric, it went a long way in healing the body and soul of a fractured and feverish polity. On the hill of that historic address, Abiy set out on trips to Jigjiga, Ambo, Mekele, Gondar, Hawassa, and most recently Semera, giving motivational speeches on the theme of love and unity. These were laudable attempts to build bridges between Ethiopians and the national-regional divide, thereby easing tensions. With his trademark talk of love and integration, coupled with his charismatic persona, he has not only become the rock star of Ethiopian politics, but also a messianic figure.

The logic of the politics of hatred in Ethiopia is such that “ressentiment” and “historicism” feed each other, resulting in a vicious cycle of social conflict.

Abiy’s grand appearance on the Ethiopian political scene has to be seen against the backdrop of 27 years of ethnic politics that has seen the rise of autonomy but also enhanced competition. It’s no surprise he has found a receptive audience for his aspirations to transform communal relations and counter the prevailing problem of what Max Scheler calls “ressentiment,” Nietzsche’s “historicism”, or Hegel’s problem of “the slaughter-bench of history.”

We Ethiopians indulge excessively in “ressentiment”, “historicism”, and counting the number of people of one’s ethnic group killed on the “slaughter-bench of history”. As a result of which, we suffer a great deal. The logic of the politics of hatred in Ethiopia is such that “ressentiment” and “historicism” feed each other, resulting in a vicious cycle of social conflict. Abiy appeared at a time when Ethiopians were desperate enough for someone who would break this vicious cycle and imbue social hope.

Many analysts attempt to frame their questions regarding the circumstances that led to the rise of the new PM and his subsequent actions in terms of whether it is a rivalry between an emerging, young cadre of politicians of liberal democratic persuasion, and an old guard of elites towing the official revolutionary democratic line. However, arguably it is not so much a competition between revolutionary democracy and liberal democracy as it is the outcome of an opportunistic populist jockeying for power on a democratizing platform.

In what follows, I wish—albeit his instant popularity renders it difficult—to assess the scorecard of Abiy’s short tenure, to offer a sober analysis of his first 100 days in office, and the promises and perils of his reform agenda. By engaging in critical scrutiny, I hope to contribute to mitigating the risks of passing off showmanship as statesmanship.

Impressive scorecard

The scorecard of his first 100 days is indeed impressive. He has done a great job pardoning and releasing a multitude of domestic prisoners, securing the release of compatriots from foreign jails, setting in motion a wholesale amnesty law, closing the notorious torture chamber Maekelawi, lifting a state of emergency, exposing systematic human-rights abuses (particularly, the use of torture in federal detention facilities, as revealed on the state broadcaster), proactive regional diplomacy, opening peace talks with Eritrea, suggesting limiting his own tenure, and, above all, delivering compelling speeches, which were not only received warmly by the public, but have also rendered it literally euphoric.

First, it should be noted that not all of these initiatives are novel, as some are carried over from his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn. Going by his word and deed, Abiy seems to have high political ambitions. He appears to be hellbent on radically reforming the federal system, but that is a daunting task, which is impossible to achieve peacefully without the support of the ruling coalition and allied parties. This is because radically reforming the federation requires not just constitutional amendments, but a thorough constitutional review where the stances of all political and non-political participants are considered from the grassroots up.

Such reform is fraught with peril and Abiy needs to be cognizant of the risks. The reform conundrum facing federations is how to democratize without risking disintegration. If you set out on that treacherous course by attacking the EPRDF, the elephant that carries the federation on its back, you risk disintegration. The problem is particularly acute for ethnic systems, so, it would be wise to err on the side of caution.

Another test of Abiy’s statesmanship will come when dealing with the consequences of his liberalizing acts, which have included welcoming parties previously designated as terrorist organizations. Now, all factions of the OLF, Patriotic Ginbot-7, and the so-called loyal oppositionists, old and new, are invited to operate in the politics of the homeland.

Abiy’s Herculean task is managing these disparate interests and ideologies.

Abiy’s Herculean task is managing these disparate interests and ideologies. In the absence of any guiding principles, I am not surprised that the ONLF has, days after its commander Abdikarim Muse Qalbi Dhagah was freed, renewed its promise to disrupt oil and gas extraction in Ethiopia’s Somali region.

So far, the PM has not detailed in concrete terms his vision of the country’s political future. We do not know whether his aspirations are for Ethiopia to become a liberal democracy or to stay the course with his party’s revolutionary democracy. This will be important when he comes face-to-face with real challenges after the euphoria subsides. When there are no more prisoners to release, the people will want to see how the promises of radical democratic change—namely, political pluralism, an independent judiciary, and de-securitization of ethnic relations—are to be translated into reality.

The problem with his talk of love and unity—which I’d rather render into familiar political vocabulary as “fraternity and solidarity”—is the lack of clarity on how to translate it into reality. How does he want to operationalize such ideals within the constitutional framework? Or how does he want such ideals to guide his agenda?

Although there is still time, he has not yet laid out a roadmap for the steps that will lead to free and fair elections, which creates a vacuum. For instance, at the pro-Abiy rally in Bahir Dar, Ms. Emawayish Alemu, a recently freed activist, asked whether the plan is to set up an inclusive transitional government, or for the opposition to use this opening to participate in the democratic process.

Speaking of the dangers, in an appearance on VOA Amharic, Professor Messay Kebede aptly observed that Abiy’s rise from within the ruling coalition was unexpected and drew a reasonable parallel with USSR’s Mikhail Gorbachev. He also claimed that the problem with Gorbachev’s reforms were that they paved the way for Putin’s dictatorship.

He did, however, miss one important historical fact that took place between the Perestroika and the Glasnost and Putin’s autocracy: the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He fast-forwarded from the USSR to the Russian Federation. Disintegration, rather than dictatorship, is the greater peril of Abiy’s agenda. To reiterate the key point, the democratic reform problem facing multination federations is how to democratize them without triggering disintegration. Can Abiy do that?

Love starts at home

Never before has Ethiopia gotten anywhere near disintegration as quietly as it is now during this spell dominated by the PM’s mesmerizing rhetoric of unity. Arguably, he is consolidating his power by marginalizing member parties of the ruling coalition, thereby endangering the unity that he preaches. It is outside of my remit to speculate on responsibility for the grenade attack at the pro-Abiy rally at Mesqel Square. But I can say with some certainty that had the attack killed the new prime minister, it would have put Ethiopia in the fast lane to 1991 Rwanda.

In a training session held for the top brass of the National Defense Forces, Abiy said that the military must be able to absorb regime change. While he was right in pointing out the threat from the military becoming involved in politics, he was wrong to say that its commanding officers must be able to absorb regime change. I think he mistakenly used the term “regime change” to mean a change in government. It was strange indeed for a head of government to talk in this manner.

Abiy also held a “training” meeting with artists and with members of his cabinet where he delivered a Powerpoint presentation on self-help advice from Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I hope against hope that Abiy would quickly deliver presentations where he analyzes Ethiopia’s macroeconomy and the international political economy, followed by Ethiopia’s foreign affairs priorities. Alas, he does not seem as prepared for those critical tasks as was his political hero, Meles Zenawi.

Abiy has to take care that the hopes he has raised are not replaced by despair. He should take his lessons from the recent flare-ups of ethnic strife, which took a heavy toll in Hawassa, Sodo, Assosa, Kemissie, Bati, and have led to a very large displacement of people in Gedeo and Guji zones. While admirable, rather than personally addressing each crisis by holding meetings with those affected, he needs to get to grips with the levers of the federal system designed to help solve such disputes. Unless he gets on top of this remit, more chaos will unfold. Entropy increases with time.

If Abiy can avoid riding the populist wave, he can make a fine Ethiopian leader.

If Abiy can avoid riding the populist wave, he can make a fine Ethiopian leader. But he had better realize soon that sidelining member parties of the ruling coalition is detrimental to his agenda. His rhetoric of love and unity should start at home with his own political base. TPLF, for example, seems to be still wondering whether Abiy is doing EPRDF’s bidding, or his ego’s.

It will also be wise to include the TPLF leadership in the dialogue with Eritrea. It doesn’t help to operate on the assumption that talks with Eritrea are a matter of foreign policy, and that the TPLF, or Tigray state government, have no business in the matter. After all, the border is shared between Eritrea and Tigray region, a member of a multinational federation with constitutional rights to self-determination.

Snubbing key regional actors will only lend credence to perceptions that this is a one-man show and that Abiy has unseated the EPRDF, making not just the TPLF, but all member parties, irrelevant. This would leave Abiy in a strange place where he is a prime minister who is distant from nine regional governments that enjoy a de jure right to secession and a de facto right of nullification of federal legislations.

If Abiy, as chairman of OPDO and EPRDF, is unable to work with the other member parties of the coalition, then the responsibility for quelling riots and ensuring peace and order falls solely with him and his party. He therefore has to move beyond the rhetoric of love and unity, rise to the occasion, and show his mettle.

Ultimately, Abiy needs to prove that he is the reformist, not the populist, that Ethiopians have long been waiting for.




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About the author

Alemayehu Weldemariam

Alemayehu has taught constitutional law and political theory at U.S. and Ethiopian universities. He served as a National Peace Advisor to the Ministry of Federal Affairs from 2010-11 and currently holds a lectureship at Mekele University School of Law.

  • I have read your article time and again. It is an intersting insight and deep analysis. I can see from this article Alemayehu’critical mind as usual. Keep it up my deer.

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