Viewpoint

Ethiopia’s leader has some worrying traits

The Prime Minister’s narcissism could doom the country.

Most revolutions removed oppressive systems only for them to be replaced by similar, if not worse, regimes led by the same liberators.

But, who are these leaders of revolutions that fight to get rid of repressive systems and become oppressors themselves? How can we understand them and their decision-making?

Psychoanalysis is one way of understanding them. We can analyze their behavior as humans, understand their decision-making processes, and anticipate their next move.

Decades of research into human psychology has revealed multiple personality traits that are commonly found in leaders. However, I will focus on just one, the grandiose narcissistic leader, as it perfectly fits Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Background stories

According to Robert Greene, grandiose narcissists possess moderate capabilities, lots of assertive energy, and can rise to powerful positions. Their boldness and confidence draw enormous amounts of attention and gives them a larger-than-life presence. We often fail to see the underlying irrationalities in their decision-making process and so follow them into tragedies.

The grandiose are contingent on the attention we give them. Without public adoration, their inflated self-worth is not validated. They are overconfident, skeptical of experts, and, most importantly, impulsive decision-makers.

Greene stresses that grandiose narcissists can give the impression that they were divinely ordained for greatness. They retell stories of their youth that display their distinctiveness, as if their fate was predetermined.

Narcissism can also stem from parents overvaluing their children at a developmental stage. This is sometimes created by an unhealthy mother-son relationship. Some mothers idealize their male offspring as if they are chosen for greatness and put them on pedestals so high that the child is unable to remain balanced.

We can see this in Abiy. We have all heard the stories about how he was destined for greatness since he was seven and how the relationship with his mother was central to this.

Grandiose narcissists also have tales from earlier in their lives in which they overcame impossible odds. These may not necessarily be complete truths nor fabrications, but versions of actual incidents that they want us to know about.

Again, this is another distinctive side to Abiy, who has shared tales of how he was the only survivor from the Ethio-Eritrean war when his division was hit, and other stories where he narrowly avoided death.

Populist tendencies

Greene shows that for the grandiose narcissist to win over the public’s adoration, “It is absolutely essential to present themselves to the public as highly representative of the average man.”

Even though they live a privileged life, they try to look ordinary by engaging in the theatrics of mingling with ordinary people. This is typical of Abiy, whether he’s out driving at night, playing in the fields at parks, planting trees, or eating with and serving ordinary people, as he actually did recently during a Fasika celebration at Unity Park, a pet project of his.

The grandiose narcissist, according to Greene, “often rise to power in times of trouble and crisis”. They act as a savior and their confidence is reassuring.

In order to achieve that perception, they make big but vague promises. Their message is simple to digest, reducible to a slogan, and stirs public emotion. In our case, the message was unity and the slogan, ‘Medemer’.

Abiy, just like Greene’s prediction, rose to power in a time of crisis and his boldness made millions believe that he had the panacea for all the country’s problems.

He made bold promises when he came to power. He vowed to launch a digital platform where citizens could follow up on government work with transparency and accountability. Freedom of expression and media rights were to be guaranteed, constitutional rights of citizens respected, and arrests made only following obtaining concrete evidence.

Even if Abiy intended to implement all these, which I highly doubt, we didn’t question their practicality. In that phase of adoration, even the best of us abandoned our rationality and pretty much believed everything he said.

Delusions of grandeur

The grandiose often rely on intuition, disregarding the need for expert opinion or scientific feedback. As Maccoby succinctly puts it, they are not interested in analytically seeing the future, rather in creating it.

They create the myth that their hunches have led to fantastic success. Upon closer inspection, however, their hunches miss as often as they hit. “narcissistic leaders – even the most productive of them – can self-distract and lead their organizations terribly astray,” Maccoby says.

Related to this is the belief that they can easily transfer their skills; a car mechanic can be a print technician; a bus driver can become a machine operator, and so on.

Although not acting in his area of expertise, Abiy tried to show us that his touches are magical. He is not a medical doctor but criticizes medical professionals; he is not an architect but he leads documentaries on architectural aesthetics; he is the policeman, the army general, and everything in between.

Grandiose narcissists are also huge risk-takers. This is what attracts attention towards them initially. Combined with their occasional success, they seem larger than life.

Boldness and vision are essential to transform a country, but the boldness of the grandiose lacks control. They cannot stop or pause because that would cause a lapse in publicity as justified by Greene. The grandiose “must take actions that create a splash in order to keep the attention coming that feeds their high self-opinion.”

They are always working, on Sundays or holidays, and members of their cult usually misconstrue this as act of selflessness and love for their country, when it is a pure lack of control.

As a huge risk-taker, Abiy associates himself with gigantic projects. We can see this through the Gebeta Lehager, Meskel Square, and Legehar Projects.

But Abiy only cares about the size and not the impact of these projects. How important is a park that less than one percent of the population will be able to access that he personally oversee its construction? It’s all about optics and attracting attention.

As a grandiose narcissist, Abiy’s lack of control can also be seen in his expeditions. He cannot stop, pause, or rest as the attention from constantly being seen becomes a drug.

Shifting blame

There is another critical trait of the grandiose narcissist, one that can give us insight into what is currently happening in Ethiopia. The grandiose narcissist always shifts blame. In Greene’s words, “these types require scapegoats to tighten the group identification.” It is essential that they find scapegoats, often elites or outsiders, regardless of guilt.

Adept at playing the public’s emotion, they construct a common enemy depicted as the source of pain and injustice each person in the crowd has ever experienced. A reform movement begins to develop around the detestation of these scapegoats.

The leader’s promise to bring these enemies down exponentially increases their power and popularity. They create a cult rather than a political movement. Names, slogans, and images are reproduced in large numbers and they assume a godlike omnipresence.

Abiy, imperative to his personality, needed a gigantic scapegoat. Luckily, he found the perfect one in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). There was no need to fabricate a story: the TPLF had been partly responsible for abuses and injustice for decades.

His first step was disassociation. He propagated the notion that TPLF, and not the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the ruling coalition, had single-handedly run the country for the past 27 years. Though true to some degree, the other three parties in the coalition had played a big role.

Abiy and his allies belittled themselves to mere puppets, who had their strings pulled by the TPLF all along. By doing so, they managed to appeal to the general public that they, too, were victims of this ‘malicious cancer’ that had plagued Ethiopia for 27 years, when, in reality, they were beneficiaries.

If indeed TPLF was a cancer, then why are former members of the party, such as Zadig Abraha, still in Prosperity Party’s inner circle? Their answer, shifting blame, yet again, is that it is not the party rather a few people at the top. But so long as you bow to the king, you are bound to live with impunity.

This is not about serving justice, but gaining popularity among victims of decades of oppression, and, as a result, consolidating power. We see banners and billboards with Abiy’s pictures and slogans, portraying him to be the champion of the common people.

Unsurprisingly, Abiy’s popularity has begun to decline. This is mostly because people have begun to see through his deceits. What is scary for Ethiopians, however, is not the decline of his popularity but his reaction to it. As for grandiose narcissists, perceived threats can trigger rage.

Inevitable consequences

The main problem with the grandiose narcissist is their reaction to losing popularity.

They feed on the attention we give them, and so act impulsively, irrationally, and without empathy for others upon losing it. Add firepower to that and you will witness disasters.

This is what should scare us more than the collective ignorance of facts, ethnocentrism, misinformation campaigns, or internal and external enemies (real or invented) that have accompanied it.

Perhaps, Abiy’s impulsiveness is what led him to associate himself with a world-renowned murderous dictator. How can anyone expect President Isaias Afwerki, who crippled Eritrea into an almost failed state, to fix Ethiopia’s complex problems?

Or can it be that Abiy didn’t have faith in the Ethiopian military? What possible other explanations can any of his goons give?

People that study behavioral science have been able to make accurate predictions about the decision-making processes of others. Accordingly, these are my predictions about Abiy and his next moves.

If things blow up with Isaias, expect a war with Eritrea. This is not because Eritrea encroached on our sovereignty but because Isaias will be the next scapegoat, as Abiy cannot be seen as having made a mistake.

If, by some miracle, he manages to steer clear of what is coming, we will have witnessed the rise of a dictator right before our eyes.

But win, lose, or draw, Ethiopia will never be the same again.

Our problems will not die with the TPLF, assuming that the TPLF is indeed dead. As disagreements between dominant groups in Prosperity Party intensify, as Tigray gets pushed to a pariah region, and as an already questionable election nears, Ethiopia’s troubles are far from over.

This is what is scary.

Abiy’s cult members, the herd infatuated with the good doctor, or the ones blinded by their hate for the TPLF (and fear in some case), will try to scorn me for saying anything negative about their messiah.

But if Abiy turns out to be worse than Stalin or Hitler, remember, there are people who still believe that both were great leaders.

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

The author requested anonymity as they feared they could face negative repercussions for expressing their views.

Main photo: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed watering plants with a water truck in Addis Ababa. 1 December 2020; Twitter page of PM Abiy Ahmed.

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About the author

Mistir Sew

This is a generic byline for all anonymous authors. The anonymity could be because they fear repercussions, as they are not authorized by their employers to express their views publicly, or for other reasons.

17 Comments

  • If both “Oromo Nationalism” and “Tigray Nationalism” are not the answers for our problem, then with what else do we left with? what could be our hope? wait, u can’t say “Ethio-Nationalism”? what do we mean by “Ethio-Nationalism” other than “Amhara Nationalism” in contemporary Ethiopia context?

  • It does seem that narcissism feeds on adoration, and that narcissism can lead to vindictiveness when there is animosity. The obsession against TPLF and the federal order brought together Abiy, Amhara ultra-nationalists, and Isaias as the oddity in the group (the secessionist with a craving for revenge). Abiy had described the past as 27 years of darkness, but now he and his group decided to show TPLF and Tigray what darkness really looks like: death and destruction, ethnic cleansing, and unspeakable atrocities. The harm being done to the people of Tigray is more than collateral damage – the damage is intentional because of the symbiotic relationship between TPLF and the people of Tigray. Once upon a time, there was a slogan of medemer, and a promise of peace in the north, but apparently none of that was meant for TPLF / Tigray. And so Tigray was put under siege, all around, and Abiy chose a military option to settle a political problem. Tigray is now like a captive region less than equal compared to the other regions. So much hope replaced by so much tragedy in Tigray in Ethiopia, and thus true to form in the Horn of Africa.

  • Not sure if psychoanalysis of an individual contributes to understanding Ethiopia. Abiy and the rest of the Ethiopian elite are products of Ethiopian history and society. Abiy cannot escape the Ethiopian matrix. Our key question is how to escape the autocratic and violent matrix. There is significant number of Ethiopian elite who is mad at Abiy for not being sufficiently violent. There are even some who demand that political prisoners should be treated more harshly. They are mad that Bekele Gerba is still alive in prison. Some of the elite are much crazier than Abiy. So how do we get out of the pond filled with sharks? I am not sure, but Ethiopians cannot stop trying.

    I am not saying individual psychoanalysis is completely useless, but it is no good to lose focus. And if analysis of individuals need to be done it is better to do so in some comparison. For example compare Abiy to Mengistu, or Isaias, or compare him to other leading Ethiopians who are celebrating the destruction of Tigray, and are demanding for more. There are also a few in the west and east who believe that dictators are good for Africa. This is not to say there is no hope. On the contrary even among the elite Ethiopians there are more good people than sharks. The general and historical movement of Ethiopia of the last forty years engender more optimism than despair. A democratized multinational federation is still within the grasp of Ethiopians.

  • Abiy Ahmed is forced to become a Prime Minister by his colleagues so he can beg for forgiveness to the people of Ethiopia on their behalf. Abiy Ahmed is acting as if he is an unwilling participant in what his creator and his colleagues conspired on him and forced him to be while his personal choice was to SPEND his time by watching nature (parks , trees , flower / pet dogs , pet peacocks…. ) , workout at the gym to control his high blood pressure , abuse all sorts of over the counter medications he could find to control his migraine headaches/PTSD , spy on other people’s so he can imitate others as if that is who he really is (causing his multiple personality disorder) then when his anti social behaviour kicks in from time to time he isolates for as long as he wants doing nothing even if the country is really falling apart or getting burnt down until he gets passed his antisocial episode through some means .

    In short Abiy Ahmed is a loose cannon who need to get professional institutionalized help.

    Abiy Ahmed shifts blames and avoids the reality on the ground by hallucinating. Journalists need to follow him where we he goes and interview him by shouting from a distance asking him questions because he is not willing to give press interviews/conferences. If Abiy Ahmed is really a people’s person or if he is really a down to earth person then he should answer any questions by allowing ordinary journalists be present at his stroll around the park or at his other outdoor activities he engages in. SHOW HIM WHAT A REAL “CHACHATA” SOUNDS LIKE.

    • From GETACHEW REDA (ETHIO SEMAY)— 3

      Questions to Ms. Observer and Darth

      Ms. Observer

      If you dismiss “TerTir Sew’s” analysis of Abiy was from afar, let me ask you back to your admission that you were judging “your darling Abiy” from afar as you already told us, your judgment is also from afar distance. Isn’t it? If that is true, then from which distance did you fetch your statistic that argue “Most Ethiopians (the majority) perceive him as hard worker, down to earth, selfless, God sent, and ready to sacrifice his life for his country”? did you get your judgment, because you live inside Ethiopia?

      By the way, are not you communicating with us here, using your PC from afar distance? Do you have to be at the home/location of the Ethiopian insight editors to address your view? We can see Abiy’s bodily movements and narcists traits, we can hear all his arguments and skills of communication through his mic/media outlets/ facilitated for him so you and I can hear and judge him from afar. Right? How do you think the citizens inside Ethiopia listen to the parliamentarians’’ discussion and his messages? Do they have to sit next to him?

      To Darth;

      You referred Mr. Sew’s view as “weakest and most biased article you have ever read in your whole life.” You failed to show us where the article’s weakness and bias is located. You said you never read such article in your whole life; common, show us something that surprised you in such “your whole life”.

      All in all, the problem with us is lack of great leaders;

      As Ernest Agyemang said “When all good and great teachers die, ignorance will awake and teach so well, with an understandable vigor, and all students of ignorance will do all things because of ignorance, with an unthinkable joy and vigor!”

  • Mr. Sew when did you get the chance to closely study him and come to this conclusion? If you’re judging from afar as we all do, then it’s all about perception. Most Ethiopians (the majority ) perceive him as hard worker, down to earth, selfless, God sent, and ready to sacrifice his life for his country. Those who lost all the benefits from the previous regime , those few who took almost all the countries wealth, will of course have a different perception.

  • Sadly, Ethiopia will not get rid of the imbecile Colonel Abiy before he does more damage because there are many fools blinded by his idiotic promises and his pretentious love for Ethiopia. Our only hopes are the TPLF and the OLA.

    • From GETACHEW REDA (Ethio Semay)

      Hello Saba.

      Your hope is no hope. TPLF is a naked fascist organization no need to hope for such genocidal syndicate. No need craving for such Mafiosi and brutal organization who I already wrote several books on its crime and savagery acts in Tigray against Tigrayans.

      Coming to your other hope the OLA:-

      OLA is the Ethiopia’s “Ruanda Hutu”, a cannibalistic militia army accused by the very first Oromo elites themselves who claimed got the report from victims escaped from the crime scene. This genocidal militia is pack of criminals in most cases and no need to wish ruled by a genocidal syndicate. Do you have any clue who OLA is? Why do you want OLA to come and rule you? If you don’t know the crime it is carrying against God created babies, here is the evidence if you really have value for human life. Over the past three years, so-called Oromos have been massacring Amharas in the Oromia region; The unborn Amhara baby (fetus), which is being carried out every day in Welega, is being tossed out of the mother’s womb by bayonet Knife (Sanja) and thrown into the field. Just because they are Amhara, more than 200 poor people were praying on morning in in a church, all slaughtered by OLA militia army and their bodies are burnt to ashes for days. In some horrible seen, bodies are left in their homes for the public to see them prohibited from being buried.

      Speaking of Abiy Ahmed;_

      Abiy is Oromuma first ideologue. Himself is also OLF member. All these talk of nonsense “Oromo Nationalism” Or “Tigray Nationalism” is made up out of nothing. Look who is OLA? “አብዛኛው የኦነግ ሠራዊት የኦዴፓ ነው፡ ትጥቁም የኦዴፓ ነው። ኦዴፓ ወደ ደቡብ ሄዶ ወረራ እንዲያካሂድ በደብዳቤ ፈቅዷል። እኔ ይህንን በመተቸቴ ተባርሬአለሁ።(ጄ/ከማል ገልቹ ኦሮሞ ክልል የጸጥታ ዋና ሓለፊ) Here is the translation I did for you, in case you hate to read Amharic language;-

      “Most of the OLF’s army is OPDO. In a letter, OPDO allowed him to go south and invade. I was fired for criticizing this. (Brigadier General Kemal Gelchu Oromo Regional Security Chief).

      So, please, no need to hope and craving for these criminals to rule you, who spilled blood and caused many misery, and many innocents’ death. I have been confronting these two unholy syndicates almost since young and they need to be out of the life of the citizens and tried for committing economic crime, genocide and destroying a nation of decent people. These lunatic ‘Oromo NATIONALISM’ and Tigray NATIONLISM’ is made out of nothing and must stop. It is fascistic ideology fabricated by the leftists and encouraged by the west.

  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to JUSTICE everywhere – Rev. Martin Luther

    We have developed a selective sensibility of empathy and justice. This will only accelerate our descent.

    The whole country must find its commonality in JUSTICE for all

  • If what you say is true, I wish to have Abiy’s psychological disorder. I have never seen such a go-getter, optimistic,ambitious and diligent public figure. Abiy is truly an inspiration.

  • Abiy turned his narcissism into extreme vindictiveness against TPLF, a condition he shares with Amhara region and Isaias, leading to all the cruelties committed against the people of Tigray. Abiy knowingly allowed Amhara militia to carry out ethnic cleansing of Tigray people out of western Tigray, forcing them to flee to the Sudan. As witnesses to all the atrocities, the EU has decided not to send observers mission to the questionable elections. Obviously it would be obscene for the EU to be there as observers in the midst of unspeakable atrocities, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity – Abiy and the abyss that Ethiopia has descended into.

  • GETACHEW REDA (Ethiopian Semay)

    Bravo! Mistir Sew. Interesting article.

    Your explanation of Abiy’s narcissistic character is precise and detailed. As you correctly point out, whether he’s out driving at night, playing in the fields at parks, planting trees, or eating with and serving ordinary people, as he actually did recently during a Fasika celebration at Unity Park, is one of his method of seeking public attention.

    After reading your article, it clicked my mind what the famous PLO Lumumba of Kenya did intereresting lecture on African narcissist leaders like Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia which I like to quote him from his audio lecture aired from University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania).

    Quote: –

    “…I am not myself a Marxist, and I have never been one. But the Marxist had beautiful slogan, one of which was ‘The safety of the bourgeoisie demands the proletariat be kept in the most profound ignorance’.” This simply means that the safety of the leader demands the people kept in poverty. That is what happen in Arica. PLO elaborated further “In Europe and America during election they go round kissing babies and appearing to be nice. In Africa, they go round distributing rise and maize appearing to be nice. In other words, the typical African politicians impoverished the people, so they may become attractive to them. This is exactly what Abiy Ahmed was doing “eating with and serving ordinary people, as he actually did recently during a Fasika celebration at Unity Park.” This is the rule of narcissist way of seeking attention from the poor appearing nice during election time. This guy, certainly is suffering not only one disorder, but clusters of disorders. Though seemed polite from outside, he is also a cold-blooded killer from inside.

  • So the main thesis here is that we should be scared because a grandiose narcissist PM is losing popularity which will make him do terrible things, perhaps even worse than Stalin or Hitler.
    In other words, we could be expecting something along the proportions of the Nazi holocaust and forced labor camps.

    Doesn’t sound like serious analysis to me.

    • it isn’t…it just some hate spewing article written by “mister sew” deluded by his hate towards the PM doing his best to sound serious and scientific, but he was funny “the TPLF had been partly responsible for abuses and injustice for decades.” This line had me ROFL

  • Good job eventhough I have little knowledge about behavioral psychology in relation to the politics and power momgering personas. Either way Ethiopia, and africa loonations or Arab states to some extent, are destined to be dictatorship paradise. Perhaps one more and fundamental inherent traits overlooked factors are the intrinsic cultural trappings and values such as patriarchal society, scarcity or poverty, mass ignorance, etc. Such shortcomings lead to mass delusions and societal self-awarness of citizens, in one hand, and oppornusm, unaccountably or complacency among elites , on the other.
    Anyway, the peceived transferable skills of narcissistic despots reminds me to that famous or rather infamous titles that former President Idim Amin of Uganda bestowed to hmself: ” the President, Al-hagi,Field Martial, Doctor….”
    Allegedly, Abiy berated while ago in public event about the doctors who know nothing about their field and teachers who can’t teach anything and economists who know nothing about economy, let alone manage it. Similarly, Melez allegedly once commented an electrical engineers who can’t fix even a simple electric wiring system.
    Anyway, I like the story and culture of mothers who often overvalue and exaggerate their sons’ abilties and success that we’re all familiar with it. It reminds me a story about a classmate in college years called Fuad. He came from well off family and was funny guy with little academic success or seriousness and the father new well from early age. A conversation about father vs mother relationship with boys came up in one night. Fuad said in Somali be aware that you are always above the father’s expectations and lower your mother’s expectations. Asked how? He said that when I got admission to the university, my father was sutprised but less enthused by my achievement as usual, but my mother was excited. He flunked in the second year and suspended from the class accordingly. I never forgot that story.

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