Viewpoint

Abiy’s homespun balancing act: Medemer reviewed

This impressive agenda-setting book builds on Ethiopia’s past but looks to its future 

I bought a copy of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Medemer because of the nagging feeling that I was not going to consider myself a concerned Ethiopian citizen if I did not read the first ever book by a sitting leader. It was a matter of a ‘have-to’, until I turned some pages and it became a strong ‘want-to’.

Medemer is about creating something greater than the sum of its parts. It is about taking a shortcut to positive change by merging our social and physical capital. You medemer as individuals, as businesses, governments, countries, regions of the world, and one with the other too. Poverty, the author writes, is what happens when there is a lack of this.

Medemer is Abiy Ahmed’s wake up call for the people of the poor nation of Ethiopia to medemer to have any chance of catching up with the world. It could mean Ethiopian coffee exporters competing for sales, while also cooperating to achieve common goals by taking measures like jointly supporting growers, or constructing common storage facilities. It could mean siblings cooperating at home, yet competing to realize their individual potential.

As a national doctrine, it is more favorable to economic activity than ubuntu, the southern African social value of communalism, which has been said is true for all of Africa.  Or ujamaa, the Swahili concept carrying the same meaning which Julius Nyerere based his socialist plan for Tanzania on, including a one-party system, nationalization of industry, and villagization of agricultural production.

Medemer has breadth, depth and novelty

Medemer is a state where our human nature to be competitive is in equilibrium with our nature to cooperate. Medemer argues that cooperation and competition are laws of nature that serve irreplaceable functions in the human need for completion, which is also what drives them to socialize. But, if someone’s relationship with others is overly competitive, they withdraw, because, contrary to the reason they reached out, their interaction breeds feelings of incompleteness. If, on the other hand, it is too cooperative, efficiency, innovation and capacity decline, and again people withdraw due to the lack of stimulation that comes from competition. When people withdraw, “loneliness” occurs.

Medemer has the breadth, depth and novelty to establish itself as not only the basis of political and economic policies of Ethiopia, but also as an Ethiopian philosophy for this generation and those of the future, drawing on all that should be inherited from our past. But for now, Medemer is just a theory and an assessment of its practice would be premature. Patience, open-mindedness, and active engagement through constructive dialogue and critique will be critically important to offer the great promise of Medemer the chance to bear fruit.

Inside Medemer

Now that there is more variety to people’s judgement of the Prime Minister, I was somewhat self-conscious about being seen with the book in public, easy to spot as it is. I could see women in the other hair dryers throwing me curious looks. Good thing it was possible to finish it as quickly as I did.

The book has three main parts. The first is a treatise about the Medemer ideology. In the prime minister’s usual forward-looking oratory, his occasional touch of humor (not flippancy, which he writes is different), and inspiring eloquence, it explains characteristics that are prerequisites for Medemer, mainly integrity. It also describes negative characteristics of Ethiopians today, including the desire to please those in authority (“people were so slavish that at one point we couldn’t tell whether they were supporting us or against us”). It explains, convincingly, the positive cumulative effect of citizens being honest and hard-working.

This part includes a detailed criticism, as well as praise, of Ethiopia’s revolutionary democratic state. But it is by no means a tell-all on the previous administrations. In fact, when it talks about the failures of past leaders, it does so with observable self-control, with a generality that demonstrates decency, but with specificity where it is needed, on the actions done rather than the doers. Rarely does the writer call out previous leaders or specific cases by name. However, in the first chapter, the Metals and Engineering Corporation (MeTEC) is implicated: “One of the failures of our developmental state was that, completely forgetting that the government was supposed to gradually decrease involvement in the market, we began to set up more enterprises than we were privatizing. We celebrated it when the grand enterprise we set up to work in industrial engineering began to assemble TV sets.”

The final two parts of the book read less like popular philosophy and more like policy documents, analysing the Ethiopian political and institutional reality. In summary, there are many problems caused by oppression, both structural and individual. The reason why our politics is dominated by issues related to ethnic identity is partly because of the past oppression. People’s consciousness of their ethnic identity (and not their other identities, such as class, generation, or gender) becomes pronounced when that identity has a history of being oppressed. But one should not forget, Abiy writes, ethnic identity becomes a point of mobilization and political struggle primarily when elites frame it that way.

Medemer argues that Ethiopian public institutions are filled by technically incompetent officials who have no desire to serve the public, put self-interest ahead of the good of the people, and who themselves are in office as a result of nepotism. Institutions are also chronically inflexible. But reforms are not easy, the author says, because the Ethiopian civil service has ‘reform-fatigue’ thanks to the several nation-wide initiatives including Business Process Re-engineering and Kaizen that have been tried. Instead, the author writes, what we need is sector-specific reforms led by change agents in each sector supported by strong leadership.

Chapters five to ten discuss the flaws and merits in Ethiopian state-building, break down the causes of ethnic tensions in Ethiopia, and offer policy recommendations for how to diffuse these tensions and bring about national peace and reconciliation. For Ethiopia’s most thorny political questions, Medemer seems to suggest that our elites fanning these conflicts need a reset to a medemer mindset. This would translate into them holding peaceful discussions; demonstrating good leadership by trying to appeal to constituents, not trying to ‘buy’ loyalty; letting bygones be bygones; and in case of grave injustices, doing in-depth studies and truth-finding analyses to correct wrongs; while always seeking to promote alternative identities other than ethnicity for political mobilisation.

Chapter six discusses probably the most interesting topic, “What kind of democracy does Ethiopia need?” The author explains how to set in motion the process of building an Ethiopian brand of democracy. Firstly, a democratic structure that promotes cooperation among the different parties that focus on diversity needs to be in place. There is a need for ongoing negotiations to, among other things, bring into the fold civic nationalists that were sidelined in the previous constitution building which was dominated by ethno-nationalists.

To do this in a manner that is free from bias and resentment, it needs to be preceded by a national peace and reconciliation, or, if needed, in-depth study and truth-finding missions to address historical injustices. National forums need to be organized where previously suppressed voices speak up, our scholars and elites increase their active participation by coming out of where they are dying of loneliness (from lack of cooperation and competition) and civil society and media need to be strengthened so that rational thinking is promoted. This process, when fully operational, he writes, will start to form the unique Ethiopian democracy that is the right fit for our context.

Chapter nine discusses leadership styles, offering a useful framework by which to assess the leader himself. Chapters eleven to sixteen are more technical. They give a run down on politics and economy in Ethiopia, touching on all topics imaginable, in dry, text-bookish writing, with brief, general-level statements on Medemer’s way of dealing with the issues. It touches on the causes and consequences of macroeconomic failures, unemployment, income inequality, failure of Ethiopian higher education, foreign aid, government’s role in the private sector and the commercial market before the final chapter on Medemer and foreign relations.

As he writes in his book, so is he

True to its uncommercial objectives, Medemer is not a book that tries to sell itself, and the proceeds are reportedly going towards rural education projects. The book evidently went through a higher quality process of publishing than is often the case in Ethiopia (the design, editing and printing are almost world-class) but, like Abiy Ahmed himself, his book also adopts a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ stance. The opening does not try to ‘hook’ you, there is not an undertone that begs the reader to stay, and it never succumbs to the temptation of being sensational, for which there probably was fertile ground. The writer presents his truth simply and calmly. Its rootedness, and the absence of doubt in the narrative voice is remarkable.

Balance, you soon find, is a quality the writer finds great value in. Balance between being conservative and progressive. Balance between ethno-nationalism and civic nationalism. Balance between insisting on indigenous knowledge and importing knowledge—he makes it clear that he does not intend to reinvent the ideological wheel. “Knowledge,” he says, “we shouldn’t forget is a shared asset of all human beings,” and Medemer itself draws on lessons from the experience of capitalism and socialism in the world and in Ethiopia in formulating the Medemer economic ideology. Medemer, it seems, is a theory born out of such a balanced outlook, from a life-long contemplation and reflection on binary points of view. But, though it may be pensive, Medemer is highly dynamic. It is more a timeless tool for thinking than a belief bound to one place or time.

Medemer is a philosophical text. It presents contemplative, beautifully written discourse on matters like truth, time, human satisfaction, the value of work in Ethiopia, democracy and oppression that are edifying to read. One example that has stayed with me is his thoughts that we should always calibrate our outlook on time by our past experience and our hopes for the future. Today is the balancer of yesterday and tomorrow. If it is made to stand alone, it is always off. When our mentalities are stuck in one time period (the past, present or the future) it is destructive, but the worst of time-bound mentalities is the mentality possessed by despair about tomorrow. It is when our yesterday and today are bound up and dipped in the wax of our hope that it can be the candle to walk us through the dark, he writes.

The audacity of hope

Medemer is simply told, but without oversimplification. The Amharic was impressive; I found what I think may be newly coined words. For this level of specialised writing, the Amharic is unusually smooth as it almost never relies on English. Still, Medemer is not a light read, especially the second half. The later chapters are a bit of a slog; they need readers who are determined to stick to the end, which means that the book’s likely audience is relatively well-educated Ethiopians.

This takes us to the topic of our reading culture. I wonder, how many of these ‘educated Ethiopians’ will read the book, and how many dismissed the idea of reading it because of political differences? How truly capable are we of the skill of taking the time to understand the ideas of others and to convey ours, which is critical for a democracy that is not ‘the rule of the ignorant masses’?

I am deeply impressed by this book

At the very end of the book, the author partly addresses the question I had whether it would not have been better received if it were packaged differently to reach a wider audience—other versions of the book are forthcoming; simpler ones with fewer pages, which may help for Medemer to catch on among the masses. As well as a forthcoming English version.

As I conclude, I feel an urge to moderate my praise of the book. To admire it only modestly so that extensive praise wouldn’t suggest a lack of criticality. As if sheer admiration is somehow not ‘sophisticated.’ But the reality is that I am deeply impressed by this book, by the very act of the writing of this book. I encourage you to read Medemer. Read it to restore the chips of hope you lost every time a negative breaking news appeared on your feed.

Read it to continue with your insistence on Ethiopia’s exceptionalism despite being told that is not so. Read it because that would be one practicable step you can take to make Ethiopia a nation of readers. Read it to honor a man’s attempt to make his case, and to send a message to others, that this is how you make your case—respectably.

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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.

Editor: William Davison

Main photo: A cake at the launch of Medemer in Addis Ababa; October 19, 2019; Prime Minister’s Office

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Linda Yohannes

Linda is an Ethiopian writer living in Addis Ababa.

35 Comments

  • Medemer is a great book and an inspiring philosophical and political roadmap – a pathway to a better Ethiopia that requires deep transformation on 3 levels: policy, institution and personal. The first two levels can be achieved through a series of proclamations and reforms. Personal transformation is the most critical challenge. Medemer should start with grassroots level organizing and local participation in community decisions. A simple example is the Ubuntu style cleaning of Addis. It failed because there is no structure at the lowest community level to mobilize residents, provide minimal tools and garbage disposals…and no responsible environmental task force or Kebele committee to bring Medemer to the practical level of organizing communities to work together and transform our common space. As a result, we admire the marvelous Unity Park but we fail to come together in our kebeles to clean our own streets, reclaim our pavements from invasive illegal traders and grow our own Unity garden. In short, we need strong advocates of Medemer, enabling and accountable Kebele administrators to build strong communities of committed citizens with a sense of common purpose. We need to become the agents of the change we want.

  • Dr keenya baay’ee baay’ee
    Sii jalaana kabajaa guddaa
    siif qabna onnee Uummata
    Oromoo gundaa keessaa
    Jirtaa maloo garuu sagaale
    Haadha koon yaade networkii
    Naaf banii maloo

  • I read and it is instersting plan but in order to exarticulate though our illiterate soceity need energy and time
    I thank you your innovation/ invention

  • Thanks for your review. I read the book. I loved the fist half too. Beautiful Amhsric too. I found your review overly praising though. There are a number of weaknesses of the book, especially in the second half that includes economic policy. Yet, you just failed to be critical. I wish you could balance your excellent summary by being critical too. That way our leaders could learn from their weaknesses. Because ths review is not critical, it may make them think they are absolutly right all the way.

  • Here is to see more genuine generation are continued. Really I’m impressed in your enaromous and rich est mind. Your articulation is quite impressive, and motivated me to dwell reading Medemer to the last page. You almost have abstracted that the voluminous book to a comprehensive and few pages of core messages. Thank you very much!

  • Thanks Linda ………….you tried to understand the writer intention and came up with your own balanced reflection……..I think the Medemer tries to strike the balance between polarized view and …may be it is better to call it ‘Mehal’ or Middle !

    • sorry Linda ..now after looking your review Title ‘balancing act’ ..I agree with you that it explain ‘medemer’ well than what I said before!

  • I bought the book as soon as I heard the news. I started reading, the beautifully described village called “Beshasha” where Dr Abiy Ahimed was born.I like the story of a countryside because I was a cowboy when I was a child, keeping and protecting my sheep from wolves.

    It is an incredibly fabulous book .It is comprehensive which moves Ethiopia forward towards prosperity.It is the result of research and experience.

    Thank you! Galatoomaa!

  • I have just read the Amharic version.I bought the book finished reading within a week.It is an incredibly fabulous book.It is comprehensive which moves Ethiopia forward towards prosperity.
    Thank you! Galatoomaa!
    Ayele Olika

  • I wish all Ethiopians read the book and provide reasonable judgement. Thank you for briefing the Idea of Ida’amuu for readers.

  • Dear Linda,
    Excellent review, however the main problem in Ethiopia is not the lack of inclusiveness in any kind of activities, the problem is the ability and willingness to implement inclusive ideas and projects. For example, after reading his book, I developed a project based on Abiy’s theory of inclusion which can independently mobilize 5000 people and facilities various activities at once. I Practically proved that nobody wants to give attention including his office.

  • It is a very good book review. You are very good in experessing what you feel. I am very much imressed by your view. Keep it up. And I want to say thank you for sharing your feeling about the book.

  • A very enlightening review. Thank you so much.

    I believe the author of MEDEMER has a pragmatic stance about the Ethiopian socio-economic and politica realities.

    The author deserves to be read. We should not judge him before we understand his ideas.

    It is OK if we have a different political point of view, but remember, infornmed criticism is an input for democracy.

    Therefore, lets just read the book, and then criticize the author if we have to. That is the right thing to do.

    Thanks!

  • Medemir is really important particularly for the poor country like Ethiopia. The victory of Adwa is one of the value of Medemer. When come together there is nothing we can’t do. Thanks for the review.

  • With reference to the first paragraph of Linda Yohannes’ article, it is probably overlooked that the late Emperor of Ethiopia published 2 volumes of his autobiography , entitled “My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress” Volume I covers the period 1892-1937 and Volume II comprises the period 1936 to 1942.

    • Thank you for reading and your comment. This is true and important. Haileselassie’s ‘My Life and Ethiopia’s Progress’ (ህይወቴና የኢትዮጵያ እርምጃ”) was a book by an Ethiopian leader published during his reign. What I mean to say is Medemer is the first book by a sitting Ethiopian leader on the topic of how Ethiopia should develop.

  • I don’t expect much from the Medemer thing. It sounds some kind of fictional and not imprical based theorotical treatise at best and from expression borrowed from his overzealous gospel classes at worest ,which has no use in current Ethiopia or in African.

  • Your are in denial but the country is on the verge of Yugoslavia type disintegration. And all you do is recommending ”Medemer” ”written” by the very same person who has pushed the country to the edge of dissolution. I wonder what your fellow citizens in Qemant, Tigrai, Western Oromia to name but a few make people like you who are totally blinkered of what actually has been taking place in the name of ”Medemer.” By the time you wake up from your slumber, Ethiopia would be in the midst of a ragging civil war.

    • I remember Meles predicting “Yugoslavia type disintegration.” However hard he tried it never happened. Just because Tplf is pushed to the side and viewed in contempt by the public does not mean some calamity is about to happen.

      • Ayte Alem,

        Which ‘public’ are you referring to? If you mean the chauvinists, who are viewed with utter contempt and disdain by the vast majority of the Ethiopian people, you are absolutely correct. But be rest assured that the country is travelling on the wrong track and come next August, the Ethiopia you know would no longer exist in its present format. For us Tigraians, we can only feel sorry for our neighbouring country.

        • Berhane,
          You sound confused.
          You sound like Meles talking about the country on the wrong path without Tplf leading.
          You say “For us Tigraians, we can only feel sorry for our neighbouring country.”
          By neighboring country are you talking about Eritrea?
          Or are you telling us Tigrians are going to break away? If the latter, we have heard
          enough of that from Meles and Sebhat since their bush days.
          Don’t waste your time. And we are not born yesterday.

    • Why do you forget to mention the peoples of Wolqait, Raya, Wajerat, Irob, and Kunama who are still suffering from the tyranny of tplf. These peoples have never been allowed to self rule, to use their own language, and to exercise any of their democratic rights which tplf has been bragging about to have championed in the country in general. The peoples of Wolqait and Raya are suffering genocide to this day because of their identity. Why are you dumb about all this cruelty?

    • I don’t like the negative thoughts because it is an acid which kills you little by little.
      It is shameful to hear some people.They live in a civilized country,but their ideas are totally destructive and faraway from logic and science.

      I was crying when some people burned the book(Medemer).These people are losers.When you have no idea, you hate others.
      Let us discuss and share what we have.Don’t hate each other!

  • Linda, luckiest is being with you as a classmate, for you are opening a scholarly pathway for me to go through. Keep involving in doing such interesting work. And I hope, I will come up with my own suggestions and comments if any, immediately I am done my grade paper.

  • It is a perfect book review. Praise the Lord. I am very much impressed. Your command of English is amazing and admirable. Keep it up. Your father is my best friend. We know each other for over 40 years. By extension you are also my daughter. Proud of you. May the Lord Jesus Christ bless you and your family. Thanks for sharing your opinion about the book.

      • Dear Linda
        Your articulation is quite impressive, and motivated me to dwell reading Medemer to the last page. You almost have abstracted the the voluminous book to a comprehensive and few pages of core messages. Thank you very much!

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