The evangelical, anti-intellectual politics behind Abiy Ahmed’s Prosperity Party is an under-examined force driving mass delusion, national decline, and war.
In the last three decades, Ethiopia saw stability and steady economic growth. It also established itself as a linchpin of peace in the Horn of Africa and a strategic ally for the West. However, human rights violations, corruption, and a tight grip on power brought about popular protests between 2015 and 2018, culminating in Abiy Ahmed Ali becoming the new Prime Minister.
Early on, Abiy was praised for his promises of democratic and liberal reforms. Indeed, he was so extolled internationally that he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his efforts in a ‘peace agreement’—what others call a ‘war-deal’—he made with Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki.
For as excellent a head-start as Abiy had, his rapid diplomatic decline has been a shocking disappointment to external observers and Ethiopians alike. In just three years, he has become a diplomatic pariah, and his reign has been a bloody one even by the standards of our modern history—marred by multifaceted political and economic challenges that now threaten the very integrity of the Ethiopian federation.
Since 2018, he has around five million internally displaced people (2.2 million in Tigray and 2.9 million elsewhere), multiple high-profile political assassinations, ethnic cleansing in Western Tigray, more than 75,000 displaced peoples (at least 63,000 Tigrayans and 7,000 other Ethiopians in Sudan), two foreign countries (Eritrea and Sudan) occupying Ethiopian land; and 23.5 million Ethiopians estimated to be in need of urgent humanitarian support.
There are various causes of Abiy’s failures. However, there is one unique underlying condition characterizing Abiy’s politics which few have processed fully: the politics of ‘Prosperity Party Gospel’ (PPG). As I shall argue, PPG, with its anti/pseudo-intellectual bent, is the most important driver behind Ethiopia’s inauspicious descent into war and chaos under Abiy.
The problem with Abiy’s obsession with the PPG is not only that it was made a doctrine of a constitutionally nonsectarian government—but is also increasingly influencing policy decisions and government action.
The prosperity gospel is a version of protestant Christianity that originated in the U.S., but is now very popular in Africa. In its simplest form, the doctrine of ‘prosperity’ prescribes that if followers strongly feel and visualize what they want, then they can get it. It demands from its followers unquestioning faith and submission—and usually tithings given to the church and its leaders in return for a promise of guaranteed personal wealth and success.
Abiy’s leadership style is embedded in the ethos of these prosperity gospel philosophies. The Prosperity Party leaders want to persuade Ethiopians that things are going to be great, regardless of the grim realities they experience every day. In practice, this has meant that instead of addressing real problems, members of the Prosperity Party and the public have been encouraged to window-dress symptoms of chronic problems.
Amidst the urgent political and humanitarian crises that have characterized his three years in power, Abiy has frequently been seen wasting time and political clout on extended visits and inaugurations of low-grade, low-impact projects such as parks, orchards, and palace renovations. He focuses on creating an artificial image of ‘prosperity’ through carefully staged photoshoots that depict him amidst beautiful landscapes, exaggerated industrial achievements, and other such scenes. These carefully crafted visuals are meant to help the population focus on what is good, regardless of the reality that is veiled behind them: a typical prosperity gospel technique of positive imaging.
Usually, what Abiy proudly advertises as his most important achievements have no bearing on real and urgent problems. As an example, many Ethiopians were dumbfounded when he went on national television to give viewers an hour-long personal tour into his palace renovation project, where he clearly insinuated that it was a great achievement that Ethiopians should be proud of.
Lacking any economic and policy justification for such projects, he tried to explain them as ways of creating a good first impression for visitors. He claimed that if others saw the impressive façade of the palace, then they would believe that Ethiopia is a competent country and would give us more aid. Trying to justify his logic, he proclaimed that “a beggar with a shiny suit will get more alms than one with shabby clothes.”
The only reason for Abiy to pursue such vanity projects with so much energy seems the prosperity gospel’s prescription of surrounding oneself with good things in order to attract more of them. Here, we see a clear expression of PPG philosophies: the idea that shallow shows of beauty and positivity will manifest good results, even in spite of the reality behind the show.
The danger of such vanity projects is not only their abject disregard for the situation on the ground, but that the mass delusion takes hold of the party cadres and followers. People start to believe blindly in ideas that are incongruous to reality; they swell with nationalist pride and fall for false promises of quick economic development. This is an effect of PPG that has been documented in other African countries as well.
For instance, the early months of 2021, when the world at large was shocked by the bloody war in Tigray, Abiy aired his prediction that Ethiopia will be one of two great superpowers in the world by 2050. Then, the Rising Ethiopia campaign was launched trying to deflect the world’s attention from the horrors of war to an allegedly glorious and prospering Ethiopia.
The collective delusion of Rising Ethiopia is so great that celebrities, religious leaders, and members of the public have joined the cult. And many are insisting that diplomatic pressures put on Ethiopia by the West, and the US in particular, are not a result of atrocity crimes being committed in Tigray, but, instead, the West trying to thwart Ethiopia’s imagined ascent towards superpower status.
Abiy’s speeches and projects are more often characterized by prophetic tones and an unreasonably excessive optimism that is devoid of understanding of real events on the ground. It is as if Abiy is talking about another country, not Ethiopia. Indeed, he once claimed that Ethiopians are better off than most Western people because, unlike Europeans who often obtain things through credit, Ethiopians mostly pay for what they want upfront.
Abiy’s affinity for prophecies and divine interventionism as inspiration for political decision-making is tolerated by more critical politicians and widely welcomed by many in the mass populace, whose political histories have been shaped through the influences of prophecies and prophets.
During introductory pleasantries at an IGAD meeting with East African heads of state, Abiy was heard professing that “rain follows me wherever I go.” Social media commentators have aptly interpreted this as Abiy trying to create parallelism with the prophetic arrival of Emperor Haile Selassie in Jamaica on 21 April 1996, which some Ethiopians wrongly understand to have caused rain to fall (actually rain stopped on the arrival of the monarch).
His efforts to associate himself with Ethiopia’s past emperors by glorifying those with notorious and controversial reputations—for example, by erecting life-size wax statuses—has been part of his way to create a kingly image of himself. Infamously, he revealed that his mother prophesied about him being the king of Ethiopia one day.
Nowadays, religious leaders from across the spectrum can be seen running rampant across social media and state television endorsing Abiy—and his war. Indeed, some have associated him with the Prophet Moses, suggesting that Abiy will lead Ethiopians on the path towards greatness.
Abiy presides over such approbations, grinning gleefully and nodding in agreement. He seems to truly believe in his own ‘God-sent’ status (or at least seems to want people to think he does) and acts as if he is working to implement God’s plan for Ethiopia. This belief, unfortunately, has been so inculcated that it was even publicly shared by his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn.
At times, Ethiopian elites went as far as suggesting, on national television that Abiy was a perfect leader—only that there are no people who deserve to be led by him. Abiy agrees: “My people don’t understand me,” he complained to diplomats.
In another instance, Ethiopian state television found it acceptable to broadcast an individual claiming that Abiy will win the war on Tigray because Sheik Jibril’s prophecies are on his side. This is what pastor Yonatan, a close friend of Abiy, said in one of his sermons.
“…I am saying this about the Prime Minister. The [Lord] says those who surround you, be them the Egyptians, the Sudanese, the Kenyans, Somalians, internal and external enemies, the diasporas, the Lord is saying I am the one who put you on the throne, and I will keep you there, have no fear.”
Like other populist leaders, Abiy has managed to catch hold of emotions and desires for greatness in order to convince others—especially those who are susceptible to propaganda—to stamp out opposition alongside him. Dangerously, he has also managed to tap into the extreme right Ethio-nationalist sentiment, offering visions of a return to a supposed more glorious past.
These visions have found a stronghold among Amhara nationalists in particular, and fueled an appetite for war in order to achieve their ends at any cost. It’s a vision of a strong and centralized Ethiopia, with a uniform culture and political system, rather than one which respects and protects the principles of cultural, linguistic, and political pluralism.
For instance, Deacon Daniel Kibret, a person who is believed to be the ideologue behind the quasi-political religious association of Mahibere Qidusan—or the ‘association of the saints’—has effectively utilized the PPG’s affinity for prophetic rhetoric as an opportunity to propagate right-wing, Ethiopian-nationalist narrations. He has used his personal talent in parabolic writing to influence Abiy’s speeches and writings.
It was, therefore, not altogether surprising that Deacon Daniel claimed Ethiopia was at its best when the war on Tigray was raging and thousands of civilians were being massacred by Eritrean mercenaries and Amhara militia during a total communication blackout.
Though it shocks many of us to hear that Ethiopia could be at its best while in the midst of a brutal civil war, Daniel was genuine in his claim. This is because, for him and the unitarist political camp, the best is when the political influence and presence of other nations and nationalities—especially the Tigrayan peoples—are minimized or removed completely.
War, with all of its destruction and suffering, becomes a necessary fate in order to accomplish such ruthless aims. (Of course, it also helps that Abiy has made the promise to Amhara right-wing elites to grant territorial claims—an irresistible reward for the price of violence.)
This idea that Ethiopia shall prevail no matter the cost, so far, has meant conflicts in Tigray, Oromia, Benishangul-Gumuz, the consequent civilian massacres, weaponized rape, intentional starvation, and ethnic cleansing.
Since PPG literally guarantees victory, it has made Prosperity Party officers frighteningly confident about anything they do and speak. Abiy felt so confident that he made his now-infamous claim of victory without any civilian causality in his “law and order operation” in Tigray.
Excessive confidence about such grave matters as civilian casualties can only mean that either Abiy thought he could successfully hide the killings in Tigray or that he genuinely believes that extra-earthly powers are manifesting what he wants to be true. Only Abiy knows which, but given his insistence in continuing with his campaign in Tigray, even at the risk of his own diplomatic decline, it seems that he is still confident of not only victory—which does not seem to be guaranteed anymore, even according to the assessment of his own generals—but also that everything will be okay afterward: typical PPG optimism, oblivious to the grim reality at hand.
Here, we see an unholy merger between religious delusion and nationalist populism, which engenders an endless appetite for violence. As is common with populist movements everywhere, Abiy has successfully appealed to the desires of the masses, and instead of doing the hard work of governance, he has inspired people towards continuous war with what seem to be ever-more distant promises of peace and prosperity.
PPG ideologies normalize pseudo-intellectualism and, in extreme cases, anti-intellectualism in Ethiopia. It is perhaps expected that when divine intervention and prophecies are the official explanations for political events and change scientific analysis would be sidelined and even shunned.
Abiy goes to great lengths to create an intellectual image of himself—for example, he stages photoshoots where he appears to be seriously immersed while reading a book.
There are records where he appeared in public clearly plagiarizing others. His two books published in a rush before he became prime minister were severely criticized for lacking content and being nothing more than sophistry—a hodgepodge of ideas constructed with rhetorical fallacies and delivered with pseudo-intellectual, evangelical self-help fervor.
Alex de Waal, comparing Abiy’s book Medemer with the approach followed by the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) leadership wrote:
“One of the attractions of Abiy’s philosophy of Medemer (‘synergy’ or ‘coming together’) is precisely that it lacks the intellectual rigor characteristic of the TPLF leadership and their fellow revolutionaries. Medemer…needs a skilled politician, able to conduct negotiations simultaneously on different levels and according to different political logics, to realize its potential. Unfortunately, Abiy hasn’t exhibited those skills: his trademark has been a combination of naivete, impatience, and over-confidence. Moreover, in the hands of some of Abiy’s disciples, Medemer has become a tool of excommunicating dissenters from the political community.”
Intellectual rigor aside, it should be remembered that Abiy also used questionable ways of promoting his book. Apparently, public funds were spent to prepare lavish book launch events throughout the country and abroad, and the events focused on encouraging a personality cult rather than creating an opportunity to discuss the book’s substance.
Abiy himself made lots of outrageous pseudoscientific claims such as the humorous one that blessing water turns it into healing water, that the human body is composed of water, air, and fire, and that cancer is caused by bad words one utters. He once claimed that Haramaya Lake in south-eastern Ethiopia, which dried more than a decade ago, returned because of the seedlings that he helped plant just a year before.
In probably one of the most daring displays of pseudo-intellectualism, Ethiopia’s Higher Education and Innovation Minister, Abraham Belay, announced, on national television, that the Ethiopian Ministry of Science and Technology has discovered a cure for COVID-19, before the first case was confirmed in Ethiopia. This announcement by a member of his cabinet, I think, would not have happened without Abiy’s request or, at least, approval.
Since Abiy seems to have faith that his ideas and whims are divinely guided, he seems to see those who oppose or criticize him as opposing not just him, but his ‘God’. In fact, symbolisms of likening critics and opposition with the biblical Satan have been normalized. The opposition is viewed as a hurdle to surmount or a form of ignorance that must be defeated in order for his visions to come to full fruition.
Abiy is, therefore, disposed to remove such hurdles. Many of the high-profile assassinations, extrajudicial killings, and mass detentions have not been properly investigated, and commentators rightly suspect that the government may have a hand in these.
When Abiy asked the TPLF to join his Prosperity Party and they rejected the offer, citing ideological differences and the need for discussion and clarity before any kind of merger, he did not try to convince them using any justifications as to why the party would be beneficial to them. Instead, according to Getachew Reda, he said: “just join me and everything shall be great.” It was as if he was saying, “I have a vision and I don’t know how it will materialize, just go along with me and trust that it will somehow be okay in the end.”
Abiy’s pseudo-intellectual tendencies have predictably put him at odds with seasoned and experienced experts on various critical matters concerning Ethiopia’s politics and its future. Often, experts are left with no option but to call him out for his silly mistakes as well as his more serious transgressions. Therefore, through time, he and his party colleagues have developed a profound distaste for experts.
Some who have tried to criticize his ways and policies based on sound evidence and reasoning have been personally attacked and threatened by Abiy’s supporters and social media propagandists. Professors and political analysts have reported being condemned and even blackmailed on television for their opinions, for instance on the war in Tigray. Many experts and analysts who have been voicing their concerns about the war in Tigray and its possible grave consequences to Ethiopia have been accused of being TPLF paid lobbyists.
It strikes me that almost all of the people accused of being TPLF’s paid agents by Abiy’s government and supporters are those who have built their careers and professional reputations through years of actual work, research, and engagement in Ethiopia.
Abiy’s government goes so far as to expel experts for reporting undesirable information that does not confirm the reality he wants to present to the world. For others, government-affiliated online social media accounts have led smear campaigns to tarnish their reputation with ugly, false accusations. Personal communication with a few others revealed that they have been declared persona non grata, just because of their critical views against Abiy’s government and its policies.
Worse, when such experts and activists are Ethiopians, arrest warrants on accusations of national treason are issued against them, including, ironically, an academic, Awol Kassim Allo, who nominated Abiy for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On the other hand, Abiy’s Prosperity Party gives disproportionate privilege and airtime to ‘experts’ of dubious and questionable expertise. A gay-erotica-writer-turned-historian Jeff Pearce is one of such ‘experts’ whose writings, that at times clearly run against factual evidence, are covered by government websites.
Another is Professor Fikre Tolossa, who has been severely criticized for cooking up evidence in his writings. He has repeatedly been portrayed on state television as the ideologue behind the short-lived “Oro-Mara’ Oromo and Amhara exclusionist union courted by the Prosperity Party.
In his book, The True Origins of Oromo and Amhara, Professor Fikre makes extremely suspicious and pseudoscientific claims such as, for example, that the biblical Adam and Eve are Ethiopians. It should be noted that, curiously, the professor does not have any online professional or academic profile on places such as ResearchGate or Google Scholar, as is common among academics.
Apart from members of the government, who are duty-bound to support Abiy’s claims and policies regardless of how outrageous they appear to be, it is very difficult to find a serious academic or expert who provides reasoned support to many of Abiy’s policies, let alone his war on Tigray.
Some like Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam, a long-time ardent opponent of the TPLF, seem to support Abiy not for his policies, but for his ‘hate’ for the TPLF. The professor’s flip-flopping stance on important national issues such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam are strong evidence of this.
Anti-intellectualism and war-mongering
The link between anti-intellectualism and war-mongering is that, for obvious reasons, most intellectuals do not support war as a way of solving political differences, and almost always provide deep analysis on how differences could be resolved without the use of force. Such analysis and resulting recommendations have been made repeatedly, though, unfortunately, they have been ignored.
In fact, more than 3,000 experts and academics have, so far, signed a petition opposing the war on Tigray.
Sadly, since the Prosperity Party has already labeled expert opinions and advice as anti-Ethiopian propaganda, such efforts have not borne fruit, and calls for a ceasefire and National Dialogue towards reconciliation have fallen on deaf ears. Ethiopia not only continues with its military operations in Tigray, Benishangul-Gumuz, and Oromia, but also seems to reinforce these efforts.
It seems that like for the Prosperity Party leaders and followers only the ‘God’ that they purport to be following can put an end to their warmongering. It is unfortunate that not many people know how to make ‘God’ act in Abiy.
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at the launching event of his new book, YeMedemer Menged; Office of the Prime Minister; 6 March, 2021
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