Viewpoint

René Lefort has misread the prime minister, and the Ethiopian people

The veteran commentator’s latest critique of Abiy Ahmed was short on evidence and long on innuendo.

In his latest article for Ethiopia Insight, Mind over matter: Abiy Ahmed’s aim to ‘Pentecostalize’ Ethiopian politics, René Lefort accused Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of being a religious zealot with a shallow understanding of Ethiopia’s history.

Yet the claims made in his article are not well substantiated.

Lefort says that unnamed sources tell him that “Abiy lacks political and historical knowledge.” The reader expects the author to provide evidence for this claim, for example, by referring to statements made by the Prime Minister, or by identifying government policies that are not informed by history.

Lefort does nothing of the sort.

Instead, he merely states that Abiy’s “speeches and positioning suggest a stereotypical conception of history, rather than a sound and thorough knowledge.” Lefort should be able to more concretely and specifically substantiate the allegation against Abiy. Otherwise, it is innuendo.

Others have described the Prime Minister differently. For example, Professor Jon Abbink of Amsterdam University, a scholar of Ethiopian affairs, says he “is a thorough reformist and a type of leader that the country had never seen before. He initiated significant political and legal changes aimed to transform the authoritarian ‘political culture’ of Ethiopia.”

Lefort also writes that Abiy “sincerely believes he is a messiah.” This claim, like most of Lefort’s conclusions about Abiy, rests on testimony of unnamed sources who Lefort says have met, worked closely with, or spoken at length with Abiy.

Since they are anonymous, it is impossible for the reader to verify the claims. We are told that one individual was willing to go on-the-record—yet that individual was not identified in the commentary.

The only people who Lefort does identify are opposition politician Merera Gudina and Tufts University Professor Alex de Waal, neither of whom are neutral observers. De Waal was a close acquaintance of the late Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) leader and Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and has been an ardent supporter of the TPLF.

In discussing the alleged influence of Abiy’s religion on his policies, Lefort points out that “the credo of the Prosperity Gospel is that the stronger the belief, the more God will reward the believer with financial blessings.” It is easy to conflate any policy with a leader’s religion, but the exercise sheds no light on the policy, other than to drag religion into the discussion.

Indeed, Abiy’s economic reforms were approved by the EPRDF. If Abiy’s economic policy is based on the “Prosperity Gospel”, the EPRDF’s approval of the policy could be seen as divine intervention as well—if we apply Lefort’s logic.

Lefort claims that Abiy’s popularity is waning. Does he have polling results? What is clear is the barbaric attack of the TPLF on the Northern Command in the middle of the night has garnered the armed forces and the Prime Minister much support. For evidence, see the huge demonstrations shown on Ethiopian state television, as well as the material support that the Ethiopian people have given to the armed forces.

His analysis also claims that foreign investment has declined in Ethiopia. Well, it may be news to him, but investment has decreased globally, more so in Africa, because of COVID-19, according to the UN’s trade organisation.

Lefort alleges that Abiy would like to establish a unitarian state, which he says “is more often perceived as an attempt to return [Ethiopia’s periphery] to a former position of subordination.” Lefort ignores that during the TPLF’s time, certain ethnic groups were officially branded as “backward” and unworthy of being represented in the ruling front.

Further, Abiy has not taken any step towards establishing a unitarian state.

The conflict between the TPLF and the central government was not due to ideological differences, as Lefort argues. The TPLF wanted to regain power through rebellion. Even late TPLF co-founder Seyoum Mesfin, recently killed by Ethiopian forces in Tigray, said that the TPLF sought to topple Abiy’s government. It cannot be clearer than that, and the government responded appropriately.

Lefort closes his article by claiming that, “For onlookers on all sides, domestic and external, even among leaders in the Horn of Africa, the specter that now raises its head is of ethnic slaughter at a scale even more terrible than in former Yugoslavia.” He says that people are “pleading tirelessly” for an “inclusive national dialogue” to avert such disaster. But, he says, Abiy has “systematically refused, either because he sincerely believes he is a messiah…or simply out of a thirst for power.”

The TPLF leaders had also threatened that unless they continued ruling Ethiopia, the country would become another Rwanda. But it was under TPLF rule that ethnic differences hardened into institutionalized hatred, so only the downfall of the TPLF will avert the “ethnic slaughter” that Lefort fears.

History will judge Abiy’s role at this critical juncture. To many Ethiopians, his government’s handling of the TPLF has already made him an Ethiopian hero.

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About the author

Worku Aberra

Worku is a professor of economics at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada. He did his graduate studies in development economics at McGill University; currently he is doing research on child labour in Ethiopia.

34 Comments

  • Worku’s article is one of THE best I have seen on the current situation.
    Rene Lefort writes from afar with little understanding of current affairs, a bit like Alex fe Waal another clueless westerner.
    Frank Rispin
    Addis resident 70/74 and 2001/2021

  • “to identifying government policies that are not informed by history”.

    Had #abiy known history he would never have dared to idolise the imperial autocratic rule all over Addis Ababa. That rule was a colonization period painful to majority of #ethiopians. Also he would never have chosen a unitary system ( all marginalized people abhor ) over federalism – a system majority of Ethiopian Nationalities embrace.

    “#abiy has not taken any step towards establishing a Unitarian State”

    Isn’t that clear from his talk all time?
    Isn’t it clear from the constant brain wash (ills of federalism) his crony the #amhara elites are engaged with day and night.

    “The conflict between the TPLF and the central government was not due to ideological differences, as Lefort argues. The TPLF wanted to regain power through rebellion”.

    That is far from truth. #tplf relinquished the power peacefully . Then the #amhara elite ( #abiy is mere puppet ) started hunting tigreans and came up with their false dream – the unitary thing; the prelude to return of their heister days superiority. That is when the war started. And oh! Isn’t Mr. Aberra ashamed of calling the dead to the stand!

    These are some of the authors false claims refuted by simple facts. The rest he wrote is bullshit not worth mentioning.

    Mr. Lefort is telling the truth and you are just blubbering trying to make an argument out of thin-air ! Arguments not based on facts and are just bullshit. Proficiency in language ( like you have for English ) is of no value when based on lie!

    • The tplf rule was almost the replica of the apartheid regime of South Africa with the worst evil flavor! Happy it went to its demise!

      • For me, from the plains of east ethiopia,durin the #tplf era I felt equal to #amhara and was proud of being ethiopian.
        What a wonderful diversity in ethiopia !

    • A “Unitarian [sic] State” is not Abiy’s making; he simply inherited it from his predecessors, the TPLF, the Derg, Haileselassies’s regime. What is he gonna do about it? We shall see.

    • A unitary state in Ethiopia is not unique to Abiy’s regime; it got passed all the way from Haileselassie’s regime down onto the Derg and then the TPLF. Abiy simply inherited it from his immediate and past predecessors. Should it be changed? No doubt, the answer is a resounding yes to that. Should it be changed by defunctionalizing Abiy’s regime at this juncture? A dysfunctional regime would soon turn nonfunctional, to the detriment of all of us. I am sure that is not your wish.

  • Dear work thank you for your article that clearly and hoping disprove baseless claims of lefort who has no deep insight about the idea he’s written.almost misleading and nothing existsed about his opinion concerning Dr Abiy he si doing good more than anyone else though sometimes wrong actions might happened it naturally,but not intentionally.there are many actors in and out side who strongly working against his will,internally those who lack brought better idea and play cheap politics and mostly conspirator but by any major far better than and would be hopeful to meet our needs and prospects…oustside obviously know as historically enemy bcz of our dam trying to desplized our country by supporting internal organs part and that’s also disappear soon or later…I’m sure he will be able to defit all of the mentioned threats

    • Mr. Worku is the one with the baseless claims , not Mr. Lefort.

      Isn’t it true that majority of ethiopians were marginalized for over two hundred years till #tplf led collution?

      Isn’t it true that majority of ethiopians support a federal ethiopia where all short comings of a true federalism is corrected?

      Isn’t it true #amhara are hidding behind the medemar nonsense in order to bring back their imprialist days and hence their superiority?

      And isn’t it true #abiy is #amhara puppet?

      Base your answers on historical facts not on hollow blurp!

  • Why is being unitary state a big deal when it comes to Ethiopia. Offcourse for those who wants to control all the narration of African countries anything that they dont dictate is a crime.

    • Because #ethiopia had a long history of colonization and the marginalized people – whom got their first glimpse of equality during the tenure of #tplf led collusion – are not yet ready for this higher concept. They embrace A FEDERAL ETHIOPIA and reason let the higher concepts wait for its day. Is some thing wrong with that ?

      • Did you read this my analist.
        ” Lefort ignores that during the TPLF’s time, certain ethnic groups were officially branded as “backward” and unworthy of being represented in the ruling front.”
        you too ignored it?

      • The big difference is what a strong state brings. In the history the central power distributed resources from the oppressed to the center. A strong Ethiopian state under Mr. Abiy could, contrary tho the known history, bring a brighter future for the former marginalised people. E.g. through reforms unchaining the economy, liberalisation of the civil society, reorganising the prosecution and securing the superiority of the low. A lot of this got initiated by him – evidence are omnipresent.

        • “distributed resources from the oppressed to the center.” Better say to the #amhara. Hey guys, you are hiding behind a plain sight. We see how you are using MEDEMAR as a guise to distribute our resources to your self once again. This is #amhara game – #abiy is your puppet – and we can never be fooled by it. Never never.

          An #ethiopian from the east plains of #ethiopia

          • Try to overcome tribalism, it is a deadlock. I’m not an Amhara at all! Look over to some modern countries and you will find working federalism (but you’ll never find fully convinced and satisfied people – what you have is never enough…). Fighting your neighbours for just being not your ethnic group ist reverse orientated. Look at the Silicone Valley – the most are foreigners but living well and prospering. Try to adopt respect to others security and property, and thus securing yours. Accept the superiority of the low, despite what passed 100 years ago and live you life today.

  • Mr. Worku should realize that it’s a fundamental responsibility of a journalist to protect confidentiality of sources if so asked. As an academe I wish Mr. Worku rather took time to research the issues and proved Leforte otherwise . Arguments like ‘does he have polling results?’ when abyi’s popularity is questioned and try to rebut it by summoning ETV is unbecoming. Other pertinent issues raised by Leforte pertaining to abyie’s religious, political, economic and other views and dispositions should also have given mr. Worku an opportunity to school us on their nuances (e.g read medemer) rather than conclude a promising title with a slogan declaring Abyie an ‘Ethiopian hero’ by fiat. Alas!

  • Clearly, the author doesn’t live in Ethiopia and his main source of information is the government media, of course the government media and their “mechanical reporters” will support whoever sits on the throne. Even though, I support the fact that TPLF needed to be removed, I, an Ethiopian living in Ethiopia, will have to disagree with the author’s assessment of the PM. A lot of people are blinded by the hate they have for TPLF that they are in oblivion of who Abiy is. “A hyena has never, in history given birth to a sheep, and we’re yet to see a vegetarian hyena.” As for his prosperity party/gospel BS, all you have to do is just understand what the later is and see if the same principles are being applied in the former. I don’t believe it’s rocket science (I’m using rocket science as a metaphor, because it sounds really difficult for people like me😞)

    At the same time, Abiy Ahmed is nothing but intelligent. I’m not sure if anyone remembers his supposed “research work” that he presented in a panel discussion a while back, about cultural dimensions of the works of the great Dr. Geert Hofstede, and how he tried to analyze Ethiopia with an unverified data, taken from the web, and quite honestly dimensions that , in raw form, can not even apply to the realities in Ethiopia. I was ashamed for what he was saying, but I was more ashamed that there wasn’t a single person in a hall full of academics to say that his assertions were wrong.

    In another note, on a purely psychoanalytic comparison, Abiy Ahmed for Ethiopia, in my view, is the carbon copy of what Stalin was for Russia. Narcissistic egocentrism is the word that describes their personality perfectly, as to how his end will be, we will have to wait and see (God willing), but when it’s all over, I wish someone would do a historical comparison of the two.

    For the love I have for my country, ETHIOPIA, I wish I’m wrong!

    • Dear random Ethiopian,
      I would bring a quick relief to you by saying (and insisting) – Yes, You Are Wrong! To compare Mr. Abiy Ahmed to dictator Stalin is ridiculous and does injustice to the over 20 million victims of his regime in UdSSR. Can it be that none of the above-mentioned scientists and intellectuals in the room disagreed with Mr. Abiy because only you were wrong?

      • Dear Zino,
        I’ve only spoken from a purely psychoanalytical point of view, you just have to go back in history and read what kind of person Stalin was at the beginning of his reign, before he turned out to be the Stalin we all know. Or better else, study about his upbringing and what psychologists over the years believe shaped Stalin’s personality. There are astounding similarities and I have only written that from my point of view. If I’m wrong, it’s great for my country and people!

        • Dear random Ethiopian,
          Thank you for your clarification. But even if we look closer into the upbringing of Stalin, there is a very big difference to Mr. Abiy Ahmed. The bolschevics totalitarian approach is a diametral to Mr. Abiy Medema. Stalin never startet with liberalisations (something unthinkable for his ideology (dictatorship of the proletariat). Mr. Abiy brought the “Medema” concept and startet much needed and anticipated liberations. Statin alway castigated the “enemy of the people”, Mr. Abiy let the courts speaking. For me, the both stay at the most different pols of the politics.

          • Dear Zino,
            Thank you for giving your time to argue your stance in a very mature way.

            My argument has nothing to do with their political views or ways of thinking but their psychological makeup. For example, both had strong mother figures with strong influences in their lives. Both, from a young age were told by someone prominent in their lives, and they believed, that they would grow up to be leaders of their consecutive countries. They both grew up and ascended to power in a political party that they would later fight. In a note written by Lenin that was found after Stalin’s death, Lenin wanted Stalin to be remove but stroke took him first, just like the dictator Meles wanted Abiy gone. Both joined the military at a very young age. Medemer is for Abiy as Stalinism is for Stalin. I can go on and on and on, and You, without any emotions attached, can look at the facts and check.

            The people that Stalin would later get rid of (kill in his case) were people that he knew, people that loved to just go to his office for casual conversations. During the initial years of his reign, all the Generals considered Stalin as the most straightforward and humble person ever. Unfortunately, most of them were later assassinated.

            These things shape who we are more than education or knowledge, whether it’s Dr. Abiy or any random person, all of us are shaped by these things.

            As much as we try to be rational, I believe that we are all biased, this is just my assessment and it is the reason why I said “I wish I’m wrong.”

    • A conspiracy theory.
      To tell about Abiy is not this much difficult because he is cristal clear.
      But it is us the difficult. Because it is depend on our stand that we express him.
      For example, if your inclination is heavier for the whole country than your tribe, you praise him. If your tribe prevails then you accuse him.
      This is one reason that we express him differently. Find the others.

      • No. If your ethnicity is #amhara you praise him else you see him for what he is – a power hungry autocrat poseced by an old women’s’ foretell and an #amhara puppet.
        His quest of the kingdom promised and #amhara’s quest for their ones upon time superiority are both incorporated in the nonsense madamar lie and unless one is an #amhara one sees that as clear as the sky!

      • Not at all Alem,
        He gives us just his (precious) view and we must be thankful for that. We can be different views on a topic, but the respectful dialog is what makes a discussion. And respectful discussions, even in controversy, are the basis for a peaceful social coexistence and democracy so badly needed in Ethiopia not only diese days.

  • The only point where it seems that you do not have any good answer to Lefort is where you say that “Lefort alleges that Abiy would like to establish a unitarian state, which he says “is more often perceived as an attempt to return [Ethiopia’s periphery] to a former position of subordination.” and you tried to counter argue with another issue saying that “Lefort ignores that during the TPLF’s time, certain ethnic groups were officially branded as “backward” and unworthy of being represented in the ruling front” but that is not an answer.

  • Very interesting argument .Mr Lefort article is harsh on the PM Abiye .He had taken many bold measures beyond the expectation of many senior politicians. I admire most the changes he make on the the Laws of Election , Terror, Civil associations etc ; and inviting the armed opposition parties. This shows his confidence and trust in peaceful transition. There are also doubt about the tribal conflicts and his response and also we have some unanswered questions.

  • Dear Prof. Worku,
    thank you very much for your viewpoint. Your article is pretty sound and brings objections to the article of Mr. Lefort to the point. I totally agree with you and would address some more (
    misguided?) allegations of Mr. Lefort in the same article.
    He wrights “The clash between the TPLF and Abiy is therefore not only the expression of two opposing visions and objectives for Ethiopia. It is also a reflection of two approaches, one secular, the other religious, which are irreconcilable.” Especially the latter should Mr. Lefort, as a veteran journalist, know better. The attack of the Northern Command required swift and decisive action from the federal Government and the Commander in Chief. To allege here “an religious approach” is, to put it mildly, a bold statement. Not that mildly-manned observers may even doubt the author’s integrity. Refusing to see the obvious and instead putting forward far-fetched theories, at the very least leaves a stale taste of incredibility.
    Mr. Lefort argues further that “Because his medemer ideology has not percolated downwards, Abiy has reverted to more or less the same heavy-handed methods and disastrous divisive tactics that he won power by opposing. The main opposition figures are in jail, journalists and even some academics are intimidated, sometimes imprisoned.” The judgments about the first 180 days of PM Abiy are too positive and too widespread to be overlooked. (Prof. Almariam http://almariam.com/2018/10/02/ethiopia-and-abiy-ahmed-what-a-difference-180-days-make/). The 180 days in his tenure alone demonstrate there is someone totally new on the top – a leader with a deep respect to the rule of low. He freed unlawfully imprisoned, broke away with the censorship, made peace with Erytrea, started long due reforms, helped Sudan to finde a peaceful solution between civil society and military. So that very person should have changed in the short time and that totally? Why? Just “Because his medemer ideology has not percolated downwards” as the author alleged? PM Abiy Ahmed knows for sure, that such a vision needs more time to reach to every part of the country. Does Mr. Lefort really think and insist, that the PM Abiy hoped that after long years of authoritarian regime and stoking of ethnic tensions, the people will embrace his vision and change overnight? For any observer with common sense, this question can only be rhetorical.
    Yes, some politicians are indicted. But is that a surprise? There have been serious ethnic-based incidents in Ethiopia where many people have lost their lives. It should not be a surprise, that the state is taking action and bringing those behind it to justice. Especially after all sides, and I mean all sides, including the spiritual leaders of the major faiths, have pleaded with the government to take action. The liberation of the media also had its negative sides. Hatred and division were propagated for too long. The real-life consequences of this are now obvious. Therefore, it was only logical to bring those behind it to justice. Instigation of ethnic-based violence is a crime, and one should be brought to justice, regardless if politician, journalist etc. I never heard that PM Abiy interfered with their presumption of innocence. He didn’t do it in regard of the arrested TPLF leaders either. He respects the rule of low, it’s as simple as that.

  • Intellectuals like Lefort get stuck in history books and the past cloud their perception of current events. It is Abiye who brought “the periphery” to the center, so much so that Somali region president Mustafa Omar is one of the most popular and influential politicians in Ethiopia. I would not be surprised if he is elected Prime Minister in the future.

  • Dear Working Aberra ,thank you very much for describing our prime Minister,Dr.Abiy Ahmed, correctly and honestly.God bless Abiy Ahmed.

  • This author just sided the current illegal regime and its war of ethnic cleansing in Tigray, Oromia and beyond. Then who are those ‘Ethiopians’ the author claimed are supporting this regime? I must concluded this post is nothing rather than a lie short of rational thinking or argument. Your reject of Lefort’s article is absolute an oblique allusion. Go figure! Use your head correctly and balanced!!

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