Domestic despair shadows Abiy’s diplomatic waltz

As Abiy Ahmed embraces the region to Isaias Afewerki’s gain, Ethiopia’s internal strife continues. A domestic focus is urgently needed to reinforce a fragile federation, writes Alemayehu Weldemariam

In my previous piece, I attempted to offer, far from the madding crowd, a sober assessment of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s first 100 days in office, which rendered the public euphoric.

There had been the Eritrea detente, political amnesties, and the shuttering of a torture chamber. But also more mass displacement from conflict, and anarchy in parts of Oromia.

Since then, amid pledges to institute the rule of law, a man rumored to have been carrying explosives was hung from a lamppost at a rally for Jawar Mohammed’s return, Somali Liyu police massacred 41 Oromo in Eastern Hararghe, and a Tigrayan suspected of arson was stoned to death in Bure, Amhara. Tigrayans were also victims of mob killings elsewhere.

Also of concern, Semegnew Bekele, the revered project manager of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, died from a gunshot wound in his car at Meskel Square. That has been ruled suicide, but doubts persist.

To crown the horror, in the past few days, Ethiopians suffered the killings of non-Oromo residents on the periphery of Addis Ababa.

I previously highlighted the risk that despite his romantic rhetoric, the Prime Minister’s methods were undermining the political system that ties Ethiopia’s federation together, so risking spiraling ethnic violence, and, ultimately, disintegration. I suggested he would come face-to-face with this challenge when the euphoria subsides and his honeymoon ends. Well, it has now ended.

He is constrained, as he does not want to antagonize the Qeerroo

Speaking of the protests that swept the country in 2015, Getachew Reda, then government spokesman, observed, “he who summons demons cannot be sure if he has control over them. Likewise, the people they have unleashed now aren’t sure they have control over the demons they themselves have summoned.”

As lawlessness spreads, these often misleadingly paraphrased remarks are now looking prophetic.  Accordingly, some of the optimism surrounding Abiy has dissipated, as Ethiopians’ moral sensibilities are offended by the macabre chaos.

The premier had shown signs of getting to grips with the crisis by emphasizing that the government has a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence. He has also conducted an overdue press conference, although it left much to be desired, as he failed to offer fulsome answers to the questions that the public care about most. After the Addis carnage, he must go live on EBC to defuse tensions, and also try and redress the harm done by his urging for neighborhood watchfulness, which may have contributed to vigilante violence.

However, he is constrained, as he does not want to antagonize the Qeerroo, the Oromo youth network that helped catapult him to power. Such reticence may even have slowed the police response to this weekend’s murderous rampage around Burayu.

Abiy’s dilemma is illustrated best by the even starker predicament facing activists such as Jawar: he does not trust Team Lemma, so he cannot let Qeerroo go. While Jawar apparently wants a strong government that can administer fair elections, he also wants people power.  “We have two governments in Ethiopia: Abiy’s government and Qeerroo’s government,” he told Nahoo TV. Well, you had better choose one then, Jawar, unless, of course, your model is post-Gaddafi Libya.

Shuffle diplomacy

In the diplomatic arena, there are misplaced priorities amid headline-grabbing moves. Fittingly, as Addis burned this weekend, Abiy jetted off to Jeddah.

It was puzzling that Abiy was slow to encourage a people-to-people approach to the normalization of relations with Eritrea until the New Year. At last, Abiy and Isaias made good on New Year’s day by attending the openings in Bure and Zalambesa with mingling soldiers and jubilant communities.

These events helped build his rapport with Tigray. Soon after, Adigrat and Mekele were flooded by Eritreans who came to shop. However, since these transactions are taking place at a Birr-Nakfa parity, there is a pressing need for institutionalization. After all, it was trade disputes that led to the outbreak of war in the first place.

Abiy Ahmed and Isaias Afewerki toast their friendship in Asmara, photo from Eritrean Government

It is sometimes claimed: “good fences make good neighbours”. Citing poet Robert Frost, I think it would be wise to ask at this juncture:

Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That wants it down.”

The question of border demarcation would be irrelevant if there was mutual trust, or, in the words of Abiy, “a bridge of love”. Yet, despite such tidings, the devil is still in the detail. And the detail is still vague. What exactly is the letter and spirit, the text and subtext, of the peace deal? How does it resolve differences that led to war in 1998, such as exchange rates and tariffs?

Despite the progress, there are still fears that Abiy and Isaias seek to exclude Tigray. Kjetil Tronvoll, a veteran observer, sees first the Oromo-Amhara alliance and now Isaias’ overtures to Bahir Dar as a classic case of regional realignment of allegiances; in this case, with the aim of encircling Tigray. And as documented by Alex de Waal, the late Meles Zenawi saw much of this coming: “Isaias … cannot forgive the Weyane for defeating his unconquerable army and so he is looking to punish them. One way he would like to do this is to dismantle Ethiopia, which is proving a lot more difficult than he thought. The other strategy is to hang on until he can find enough Ethiopians who can also demonize the Weyane.”

If Ethiopia’s long-term Eritrea game plan is murky, it has at least become clear that the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia brokered the peace. De Waal joins the chorus arguing that Abiy’s priorities are also those of the U.S. and its Gulf allies, who sweetened the Eritrea deal for Abiy with lashings of petrodollars. Abiy seems to have decided to side with the Sunni monarchs, despite Ethiopia having steered clear of the Middle East’s toxic intra-Islamic schism.

Furthermore, Abiy’s diplomacy’s primary effect so far has been emboldening regional enfant terrible, Isaias, now recast as statesman. Coming out of self-imposed isolationism, Eritrean diplomacy is on steroids, zipping across the Horn of Africa, the Gulf, and beyond, while hosting leaders at home, as it strives to get sanctions removed.

We should all be wondering what is really going on in the Horn

Foreign Minister Osman Saleh met with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, who pledged a logistics port, oil pipeline and a refinery, while thanking Eritrea “for the close coordination of our approaches at the UN and other international venues, where our positions are identical or very close.”

There has also been an end to enmity between Eritrea and Djibouti, so the next step in this dizzying waltz looks set to be the removal of sanction against Asmara. Isaias looks to have rendered Ethiopia, whose stellar diplomatic corps are caught up in a distracting transition, irrelevant.

Isaias and Abiy, who just met again in Jeddah, say rapprochement will be a catalyst for positive regional relations, but Isaias looks set to try and reshape IGAD, even as Eritrea is readmitted to it. And the role of Cairo and trends in hydro politics are worrisome, especially given Abiy’s undermining of the Renaissance dam.

We should all be wondering what is really going on in the Horn, as Cairo’s spy chief makes Addis a regular stop-off. Surely we are not being cynical to imagine that it involves more than peace, love, and open borders. To imagine that would be to buy into the beneficent motivations of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and President Isaias Afewerki. After all, Asmara’s autocrat is not John Lennon. Although perhaps Abiy thinks he is.

Domestic rift

In addition to the need for urgent domestic fire-fighting and savvier regional strategizing, there is also the never-ending never easy business of politics. Which just got trickier as Oromo nationalism slammed up against Ethiopianism in AddisFinnee.

Leaving the opposition to taunt each for a moment, Abiy needs to bring the EPRDF parties together, along with the affiliates, to forge a new arrangement. He can ill-afford for the ruling coalition to divide further into rival factions all because he is focused on making life comfortable for their opponents.

A key arena will obviously be the 2020 elections. Abiy’s OPDO faces a struggle for the Oromo vote, especially while he preaches a rehashed national unity. The run-up to the elections is likely to get uglier, unless Abiy empowers the security apparatus to enforce law and order. But coercing liberated people into competing peacefully for power without triggering a backlash is a conundrum that has flummoxed many aspiring statesmen. Managing the disparate ideologies and interests will require unusual foresight and wisdom.

 Of course, in contemporary Ethiopia it is not just a nascent democratic system that has to be tenderly but forcefully nurtured, it is also its stunted federation. We have heard a lot about togetherness from Abiy, but is it unity in diversity, or the start of another suppressive homogenization?

In 1994, Albert O. Hirschman, asked “How much community spirit does a society require?” To put it crudely, too much gives us Mussolini’s Italy, or the Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia. So, how much andinet does Ethiopia’s political, religious, and ethnic diversity require? The Derg didn’t survive its radical mottos of “Ethiopia Tikdem”. The question now is whether Abiy Ahmed’s, medemer, will provide the foundation for a functioning political community that accommodates diversity.

Supporters welcome the OLF, Sep 15, Addis Ababa, Petterik Wiggers

As I have opined, Ethiopia will continue to struggle under its burdens from yesteryear. There are reasons of history as well as theory that prompted the emergence of ethnic federalism. The nationality question, and the ethno-national movements that oversaw the drafting and adoption of the constitution, are alive and well. Any thinking that ethnic federalism can be amended away is at best wishful. If Abiy makes imprudent attempts to reform the federation, it is a recipe for disintegration.

Thus far, his actions in this arena have been clumsy exercises of central power.

Hirschman, in his most famous work, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, develops a theory of loyalty as the key factor in the interaction between voice and exit. Loyalty can postpone exit, while voice is more effective with the possibility of exit. The theory is helpful in thinking about the relationship between the Ethiopian federation and its states.

When regions have a credible exit threat, and federations are dependent on their member states, federations are less likely to take action that member states object to. This, roughly, is the rationale behind the self-determination right enshrined in Article 39. This leaves three options for all major players: loyalty to the constitution, voice opposition, or exit via secession.

Yet the Abiy-led federal government does not seem to be paying heed to exit threats emanating from Somali and Tigray.

In the case of Somali, Abiy used federal troops, in blatant disregard of the constitution, to remove brutish Chief Administrator Abdi Mohammed Omer. The relationship between the federal government and Tigray is also tenuous, exemplified by the sidelining of the region during the Eritrea normalization, and in the detention of a group of Federal Police that tried to enter Tigray without consent.

The relationship between the federal government and Tigray is also tenuous

Although rightfully condemned by Abiy for their authoritarian methods, the EPRDF’s previous leaders have also, at times, used force judiciously, and, above all, for sound reasons: to maintain law and order, defend the nation, and disrupt anti-constitutional activity that threatened the federation.

Abiy and his activist vanguard have quickly discovered that they also have to ruthlessly apply the power of the federal government to manage Ethiopia. But up until the present moment, it is by no means clear what vision of the Ethiopian state it is that they are forcefully trying to secure.

The irony of Ethiopian politics today is that the Prime Minister is visiting Saudi, while Ethiopians are massacring each other on the outskirts of our capital. Our air force is bombing Al Shabaab in Somalia, while our security apparatus is in feckless turmoil at home.

Since our gravest national threats are domestic, if he hopes to become a great Ethiopian statesman, the Prime Minister is best-advised to look inwards at the horror, rather than reach outwards to acclaim.

Tip, query, or correction? Email us

Main photo: Ethiopians in Addis Ababa protests the killings on the edge of the capital city,  Sept 17, Petterik Wiggers

The opinions are the author’s and are no reflection of the views of the website. However, Ethiopia Insight is responsible for factual errors.

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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.


  • “……….while Ethiopians are massacring each other on the outskirts of our capital. “.

    What is wrong with you? No, “Ethiopians” were not massacring “each other”. It was Oromo youth gangs who massacred the minority communities such as Gamo, Dorze and Gurage. Interesting how you mention Tigray victims, but somehow the ethnic names of the “non-Oromos” somehow fails you, and the suddenly the Oromo gangs that did the massacring are now “Ethiopians”.

  • Aside his valid points about PM Abiy’s handling of the turmoil in Ethiopia, the author primarily whines how miserable life has been for the Tigrayans while excluding his own community – the Rayan people. Surprisingly, he didn’t say anything how the Amharas (and other ethnic groups) suffered at the hands of the TPLF and their vassals. The author’s cherry picking shows how biased his perception of contemporary Ethiopia is. At the very least, the author has a skewed view of what is happening in Ethiopia regarding the current political upheaval if not an ingrained hatred of the ongoing political change. In the following paragraphs I will point out how the author tried to change is readers’ view of the facts.

    The author states, “..a Tigrayan suspected of arson was stoned to death in Bure, Amhara. Tigrayans were also victims of mob killings elsewhere.” What a preposterous statement. The author cannot confirm the veracity of the stoning to death of the suspected arson nor was this evil act confirmed by any other legal body. Since he is referring to a single individual he could have given the name of the victim. He chose not to because it was false. And yet, the author had the temerity to declare it as an indisputable fact. He is a trained lawyer and he should know better. Furthermore, he failed to clearly provide details where and when the Tigrayans became victims of mob killings. His “Tigrayans were also victims of mob killings elsewhere.” is a deliberate deception and misinformation. The author is saying (without saying it explicitly) the Tigrayans are being victimized just for their race. I don’t know how his statement can be construed otherwise. He may clarify if he chooses to do so.

    The author further continues by saying, “To crown the horror, in the past few days, Ethiopians suffered the killings of non-Oromo residents on the periphery of Addis Ababa.” The preponderant majority of the victims have been identified as Gamos by the country’s security agency. In addition, the Oromia Regional Government confirmed that there were Oromos among the victims but has declared the event as ethnic based attack on Gamos and not any other ethnic groups. “Non-Oromo residents” includes other ethnic groups including the ones that never lost a single life in this specific killing such as the Tigrayans. So, the author deliberately equivocated and tried to misinform and confuse his readers .

    What I found puzzling was the author’s dead silence about the suffering of his own community due to his political affiliation to the TPLF. The author was born and raised in Raya Alamata. The people of Raya are suffering at the hands of the TPLF and the author knows the people’s suffering since he has been exchanging messages via his Facebook page. Only three days ago, 18 young people were imprisoned and 5 wounded and I know the author knows this. I also know he may deny it as he did while writing his article. But, his ignoring of the suffering of his own community for political reasons makes him unfit as a political analyst. This is not, however, to provoke the writer to participate in the Rayan politics. He has no role to play since he was (still may be) a member of the TPLF. But, he must stop his hypocritical criticism of others, especially the Prime Minister. He criticized the PM for not calming the domestic issues first. Well, the author failed to see what his happening to the Rayan people (his own community) and chose to talk about what others can deal with. Is this not a red flashing hypocrisy?

    Yes, the author benefitted from the TPLF governance. As a member of the TPLF, he was provided with all academic benefits via his connections and relations with Professor Andrias Eshete, the most hated individual among the Ethiopian intelligentsia. His admiration of the Getachew Reda is rediclous. Rest assured, if he continues twisting facts as his mentor did and continues equivocating, he may pay a hefty price in his academic career.

    • Dear Haileab

      Thank you for your comment. I am the Editor of Ethiopia Insight and this commentary.

      The phrase: “Tigrayans were also victims of mob killings elsewhere” refers to the murders in East Wollega Zone on August 11 ( ) and the killings near Tana Beles sugar factory

      Alemayehu did not have space in this commentary to elaborate on the details of those incidents, including contested elements. However, we are interested in those details, so please do let us know the information you have.

      The phrase “non-Oromo residents” was used to inform readers that individuals and groups from the Oromo ethnicity were reportedly primarily the perpetrators of the attacks in the Burayu area. Your interpretation that it was an implicit reference to anti-Tigrayan violence was not intended.

      The full details of the recent attacks just outside Addis Ababa are currently not clear to Ethiopia Insight, but we have received no reports of targeting of Tigrayans or their property.

      Thank you again for your comment.


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