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Charming Abiy Ahmed, a very modern dictator

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His contemporary authoritarianism puts a smiling face on repression through populism, institutional capture, and slick propaganda.

The world has witnessed the rise of authoritarian regimes many times. By now, we have a clear understanding of how dictators come to power, sustain it, and the damage they inflict.

Hannah Arendt explained that totalitarianism flourishes when societies are divided and fear is widespread. Exploiting these conditions, modern authoritarian regimes are sometimes led by autocrats who, at first glance, appear liberal, reformist, and visionary. At the outset, these charming dictators use performative kindness and eloquence to persuade.

Various terminologies describe this phenomenon, including illiberal democracy, new authoritarianism, and twenty-first-century-tyrant. A new type of dictator has been emerging before our eyes, and they appear charming to those who observe from afar.

A case in point is Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

Under his leadership, Ethiopia has transitioned from a repressive party-state system to big man rule. The country is experiencing a multifaceted crisis combining extreme polarization, spiralling violence, loosening social fabric, and a crumbling economy. If the trend continues, state collapse is possible.

Modern dictators like Abiy, what Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman call “spin dictators”, operate more subtly than their predecessors who simply applied old-fashioned fearmongering and state violence, imprisoned opponents on trumped up charges, infiltrated civil society and co-opted potential opponents.

Of course, modern dictators also deploy traditional methods. As journalist Adam Gopnik puts it, “When push comes to shove, it seems, the spin dictator starts shoving […] like a reformed drunk who isn’t all that reformed.”

For instance, Abiy has resorted to tried and trusted tactics when faced with formidable challenges such as the mass arrest of opposition leaders in July 2020, the declaration of war in Tigray in November 2020, and, most recently, when the split in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church resulted in a confrontation between the regime and the Holy Synod in January 2023.1In the case of the church, Abiy initially resorted to a show of force and arrested the key movement leaders. But then, he switched tactics, used mediation to buy time, before reverting back to the old trick of intimidating the religious leaders.

Messianic Cult

Abiy is a textbook example of a charming dictator.

He is a ruthless populist who portrays himself as the only person that can save Ethiopia. He has not only crippled fledging institutions, as his predecessors did, but also captured them, and he has deployed smart repression on a massive scale.

He came to power in 2018 on the back of a protest movement and the implosion of the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).

Abiy’s rise to power captivated the international community. He was showered with accolades, culminating in the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, mainly for making peace with Eritrea, a deal which, many believe, was more of a war pact to destroy the EPRDF’s dominant party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF).

While many believed he would deliver on his pledges, a prescient few doubted his slick operation.

Abiy’s principles and strategy amount to a hotchpotch of ideas collated in his book, Medemer (synergy). Take the economy. He started off with privatization labelled “homegrown economic reform,” which was in truth a prescription indistinguishable from those thrust on supplicant nations by the Bretton Woods institutions. His forays into economic policy are equally incoherent and frequently trivial, including urging his subjects to fight inflation by eating boiled cabbages with a bit of salt.

In retrospect, many observers would agree that Abiy’s only agenda has been presenting himself as the Messiah of the country, a reformist, and visionary leader to save Ethiopia.

When asked about the need for a transitional government, he simply responded, “I will lead you to the promised land.”

Abiy lectures everyone, everywhere. Professors are his pupils, army generals are his new converts, he preaches to religious leaders, and Ethiopian citizens are his congregation.

Or, more simply, Abiy appears in the rubberstamp parliament and blames the “enemies of the state,” namely TPLF, the Oromo Liberation Army, and Egypt, for supposedly sabotaging his otherwise extraordinary reforms.

Through all this, Abiy is portrayed as the sole person in charge of the entire government machinery. His cameraman is more important than all Ethiopia’s ministers combined because, as a charming dictator, no one else should be seen doing anything productive. Helped by his cult-like entourage, he dominates the digital world through a flurry of pictures and carefully orchestrated performative moments.

Authoritarian Playbook

Charming dictators, such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Victor Orbán in Hungary, and Abiy, share many things in common, particularly how they ascended to high office, the tactics used to consolidate power, and how they survive under pressure. Critically, they all started off appearing liberal and reformist.

Although context matters, charming dictators’ actions all display noticeable patterns. Three notable elements of this modern form of authoritarianism are performative populism, systematic institutional capture, and smart repression.

Benjamin Moffitt defines contemporary populism as “the repertoires of embodied, symbolically mediated performance made to audiences that are used to create and navigate the fields of power that comprise the political, stretching from the domain of government through to everyday life.”

Even though populism is as old as politics itself, common features of contemporary populism include charismatic leaders who present themselves as the authentic voice of the people. These leaders use nationalistic rhetoric, petty diversionary politics, and externalization of the country’s ills to attract support and consolidate power.

Institutions Captured

What makes the charming dictator different is the capture and manipulation of institutions rather than merely jettisoning and delegitimizing them. Modern dictators consolidate power also by creating new ones, when necessary, to dominate the political and administrative landscape.

As Freedom House points out, “The goal is to dominate not only the executive and legislative branches, but also the media, the judiciary, civil society, the commanding heights of the economy, and the security forces.”

Abiy has controlled existing institutions and created new chimera entities since 2018.

The beginning of his premiership saw a welcoming of vocal critics and relatively independent scholars to draft legislation and revamp decayed institutions, which included the amendment of laws pertaining to elections, civil society, and terrorism.

However, Abiy loyalists were quickly installed to secure these institutions. When the political crisis arrived in 2020, he used those loyalists to sideline the constitution and postpone the national election.

But manipulating existing institutions was not enough to fully entrench his rule. During his tenure, Abiy has created several ad hoc commissions and committees, including the National Reconciliation Commission, Border and Identity Affairs Commission, and the National Dialogue Commission.

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He has not used these newly minted institutions to try and diffuse Ethiopia’s deep tensions, but instead primarily to buy time as his government tries to control the endless waves of instability. None of them have brought about any meaningful changes because that was not their design. Their purpose was instead to cement his grip on power, as with the now defunct Reconciliation Commission.

Yes-men and -women have been appointed frequently to his cabinet and removed without reason. This way, the dictator shows he is in complete control, and others within the state apparatus can do nothing but profess their fealty. When the dictator accomplishes his mission and no longer needs them, he throws them under the bus without consequence. That is what he did to one of his much-heralded early appointments, President of the Supreme Court, Meaza Ashenafi, and most of the other women ministers.

The demise of the political opposition in Ethiopia is telling. Abiy co-opted leaders from strong parties, such as Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) and the National Movement of Amhara. When he no longer needs these co-opted allies, he cuts them loose.

In countries such as Ethiopia, known for a cycle of violence and accustomed to authoritarianism, charming dictators face little impediment compared to countries with a long democratic history.

Ethiopia’s weak institutional record, particularly the lack of an independent judiciary, means there have been few checks and balances holding Abiy back. Even worse, opposition forces have been smothered and scattered.

Smart Repression

Smart repression has been defined as “tactics by authorities that are deliberately crafted to demobilize movements while mitigating or eliminating a backfire effect.”

Arguably, no regime in a developing country has used digital media for repression as effectively as Abiy has. His cyber army or ‘digital cadres’ worship the regime’s key figures and attack those who dare to challenge the regime’s narratives. They oversee a vast disinformation campaign, inundating social media with trivial yet vitriolic material on a daily basis.

One variant is digital repression. It refers to “the use of information and communication technology to surveil, coerce, or manipulate individuals or groups to deter specific activities or beliefs that challenge the state.” The most commonly used tools of digital repression include disinformation campaigns designed to tarnish the reputation of political opponents, create dominant narratives, and build personality cults for strong leaders.

Smart repression is part of Abiy’s broader political philosophy of crisis fabrication and management. He creates a serious drama, including war, so he can subsequently cast himself as the saviour. In the process, he amasses short-lived legitimacy. That is what happened during the Tigray war and in the aftermath of the Pretoria Agreement, as well with the split in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Abiy has let civil society breathe in Ethiopia rather than extinguish the political space completely. Instead, he ensured that none of them could effectively threaten his grip on power.

On the rare occasions when they did dare oppose the war, his regime divided critics and pitted one against another. Abiy ensures that the leaders of vocal civil society organizations never cross the red line, much less directly challenge the supreme leader.

Even when the state-funded Ethiopian Human Rights Commission documents atrocities, the government simply ignores them and takes no remedial action. The strategy works because of Ethiopia’s unending crises, with past abuses soon covered up by a fresh outrage.

But more significant and wide-reaching is the ongoing extensive detention of journalists, activists, and political figures on dubious charges.

There is a pattern over the last four years of accusing opponents unjustly, imprisoning them for a period before the court releases them on bail, before dropping charges due to a lack of evidence.

Some of the released claim the justice system has improved, and that social media pressure played a role. Thus, many fall into the trap of the charming dictator without noticing the purpose of this frivolous flooding of the courts.

By jailing political opponents and forcing them to post bail, the regime aims to financially paralyze and demoralize them. On top of this, Abiy’s officials have repeatedly detained its critics in unknown locations before releasing them, after advising them to stay away from trouble. Lastly, the subsequent looming fear of wanton imprisonment persuades others to desist from political activities.

In sum, though they occasionally fall back on traditional tactics, modern authoritarian regimes—charming dictators—are different from their predecessors in some noticeable ways. Knowing their playbook should help, at least, to avoid their worst excesses.

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Main Image: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 2019.

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

Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. You may not use the material for commercial purposes.

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Footnotes
  • 1
    In the case of the church, Abiy initially resorted to a show of force and arrested the key movement leaders. But then, he switched tactics, used mediation to buy time, before reverting back to the old trick of intimidating the religious leaders.

About the author

Moges Zewdu Teshome

Moges is a PhD student at the University of Vienna after receiving a Master of Advanced International Studies degree from the Vienna School of International Studies. He lectured law at Haramaya University and has law degrees from Addis Ababa University and the University of Dundee.

27 Comments

  • You wrote the article very systematic manner. Mr.Abiy Amede Ali has no personal integrity and moral at all, but he only calculated to enhance his cult at any cost the citizen and country paid. He does not care the sovereignty of a nation. He only follows the evil laws of Machiavellian and other devil authorial leaders. Now Ethiopia’s fate is going to hell that unable restore the fabric ethnic groups. only chance all the states should build their nation and then gradually can make economic integration. Unless as Somalia has many tynnay feudal lords, they do as they wish regardless life of people. Mr.Aby can live thirty to forty years changing his tactics and systematical apply Stalin’s ”The Great Purge or the Great Terror” principle what follow now, and no one stop him because all the elite leader circle him have any humanity at all, they are very selfish and have any political skill to stop him.

  • Mulugeta Tewolde,
    Only you, perhaps, who knew it all. Interestingly enough, majority of those who would have praised the author few months ago (when he was in their camp) without any criticism whatsoever. Most commentators here are by and large the same people who ABSOLUTELY cajoled the maniac Abiy Ahmed after grooming the seemingly a would have been a benevolent dictator with little knowledge of leadership qualities and understanding of political economy dynamics. Abiy completely encircled himself by the most untrustworthy elites whose souls are poisoned with hate on ethnic majority like the Oromo people and Tigray people who rescued Ethiopia from its own demise bringing it to regional prominence. For these people, “Ethiopia” is the land and the people in it all but them have no value or meaning whatsoever. Undoubtedly, Ethiopians and Ethiopia will witness its own peril sooner than later as we observe the downward spiraling of sense of humanity and respect basic human rights. The only two solutions I foresee to forsake the country are:
    1. Letting the great nation of The Sudan complete its concurs on Amhara Regional State and annex it as one of its sovereign provinces – which will give an everlasting sigh of relief for the remaining 82 nations and nationalities of Ethiopia potentially allowing them exercise their full rights that ranges up to changing the Greek name of their country to anything that’s local and start the healing process of the past wounds the egomaniacs left.
    2. Resolve the never ending political unrest and differences in understanding of the human value by way creating sovereign nations who would peacefully and respectfully live alongside another while having a strong border control along the borders of hate monger expansionists.

  • Well articulated Piece!! Abiy is indeed a rare breed of human being who keeps smiling amidst slaughtering innocent people

  • True, Abiy is full-fledged and polished dictator by using mass media, other propagandas and public relation agents or public image experts. After years of political failure, war
    inferno and destruction, people got enough time now to realize what he is.

    That said, I’m just wondering whatever happened to my previous two cents? Is the EI started censuring comments without informing the source, which it has every right to do so, or was it a technical problem of posting on my part?

  • Interesting but nothing new in it. As a PhD student you would have tell your readers “why is Abiy a tyrant? What are the political, economic, & social factors that makes him to be a tyrant? How do the political constellation in the country allow him to be a dictator? ….

    • Completely agree to Tsega. The article is lacking depth and written only from one side perspective. In addition to what Tsega mentioned, if you want to make a point you need sources on ground – survey Ethiopian people.

  • The article contains a few inaccuracies. Abiy Ahmed is no longer perceived as charming, populist, or charismatic by the Ethiopian people. While he may have embodied these qualities during the initial years of his rule, his current standing is drastically different. Terms like charming, populist, and charismatic are relational, requiring the support and admiration of the people. You can’t be charming, populist, and charismatic when everybody despises you. Abiy is now widely rejected, despised, detested, making him the most hated leader in Ethiopia’s history.

    The author refers to Abiy Ahmad’s dictatorship as ‘smart repression’, but, there is nothing smart about imprisoning, kidnapping, and torturing journalists, critics, and opponents. There is nothing smart about executing civilians. There is nothing smart in preventing an entire community from entering Addis Ababa. There is nothing smart in demolishing mosques, churches, and ordinary people’s homes. Abiy Ahmed is a brutal tin-pot dictator.

    Contrary to the author’s claim, the dictator is far from being smart, even for his own good. In his interview with the New Yorker magazine, he openly admitted to being a CIA operative, insulted the Chinese, and disparaged his predecessor. Despite his gift of gab, he lacks intelligence, even when it comes to his own self-interest. He can be characterized as a psychopathic, delusional, and garden-snake variety dictator.

  • His cameraman is more important than all Ethiopia’s ministers combined because, as a charming dictator, no one else should be seen doing anything productive.

    Abiy leadership forgot its responsibility of to be accountable for the safety of the ordinary citizen, let alone ensuring food security. His propaganda machines boost of the technology in the security force but the security of people, free movement of citizen is shrinking from time to time. His reactions to his opennets are becomming hate remarks which he assumed would garner support.

  • Ethiopians were aware of their leader’s cunning and wickedness from the beginning, but initially believed that his malevolence would only impact the people of Tigray. However, once they realized that he wouldn’t hesitate to harm them as well, they began to denounce him and use negative terms to describe him.
    Karma is A Boomerag!

  • dear moges i read abook called how to loose a county and very much worry about my country but the war with TPLF was not achoice of Abiy it was choice fo them and he can not do any thing rather than defending his country. For me Abiy is not a dictator if he was first he has to consolidated the country more over he did not shift what he said in the afternoon changed in the mornings . Anyway i like yr veiw

  • Good point. I recently took a PhD level course titled as Political Regimes: Developments, Typologies band Consequence at Peace Research Institute, Oslo. It was typically about dictatorial regimes and regime change through non violent and violent means.

  • Theorising wether Abiy Ahmed is a charming or ruthless dictator is of little importance to his past and current victims. In fact there is nothing new in this article that the likes of Getachew Reda, Professor Hizkiel and Tsegaye Ararsa haven’t said right from the start of Abiy Ahmed’s dictatorship. One important fact the article missed is the fact that no dictator can survive people’s opposition without the steadfast support of a powerful country or countries. To that effect, mentioning the role of the US State Department in promoting Abiy Ahmed as a reformer and the resolute and unwavering support they still provide would have enriched our understanding of dictatorship in Ethiopia or elsewhere. To be brutally honest, Abiy Ahmed’s dictatorship the crisis that Ethiopia is in are the results of US foreign policy to satisfy some obscure US interest.

  • He is not modern dictator, he is the most backward, uncivilised and ruthless dictator in Ethiopian history!

  • Yes all what you raise are true and fact and seen on the ground and also on going till end will come. But the article contents missed one the aim of starting war in Tigray which was in the mean time purpose or dual purpose, two the Amhara genocide at all corner of the country and mass sacrifices or atrocities on wollega and benishangul , the third is his leadership is totally to destroy the history of Ethiopia and its icon relating it to Amhara and Ethiopian Orthodox church which is the other face of Ethiopian history, the fourth is his regime seems him and fellow authorities works to bring back sixteen century moments , i.e destruction never happen in Ethiopia before and after then as depicted in literature wrote regarding it. The last is his in humanity and ignorance of whatsoever evil happing in front of his eyes on his nation rather than his vision. Thanks

  • Abiye Ahmed was supported, encouraged and abetted by the ethnocentric jingoistic elites who thought they could use his charisma, influence and ‘one Ethiopia’ slogan to centralise, consolidate their supremacy and hegemony. To them, Abiye Ahmed was a hero and a messiah when he committed genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleaning in Tigray. Their tactics eventually backfired; Abiye Ahmed realised albeit belatedly that he had been misled by those elites who had ulterior motive of crushing the other ethnic tribes and thus revive their ‘past glory’. Abiye Ahmed not only did he abandon those elites that had misled him but also embarked on giving them a taste of their medicine by killing, incarcerating and exiling them. Abiye Ahmed was turned from what could have been a benevolent dictator at most
    into a brutal tyrant.

    • I think it is better to say that Abiy used the Unionist forces to destroy Tigray and now he wants to use the Cessations forces to destroy Amhara. I don’t think he will succeed though.

    • Interesting! I believe that some elites enable Dr. Abiy to kill hundreds of thousands of people without consequence. Do you think, if it was not for them he would be a benevolent leader?
      I guess his psychopathic tendency is intrinsic. They were just naive and unable to detect it.
      You might say they have wilfully blinded themselves for (these) reasons. But it is not reasonable to state Dr. Abiy’s benevolence.

    • Only you, perhaps, who knew it all. Interestingly enough, majority of those who would have praised the author few months ago (when he was in their camp) without any criticism whatsoever. Most commentators here are by and large the same people who ABSOLUTELY cajoled the maniac Abiy Ahmed after grooming the seemingly a would have been a benevolent dictator with little knowledge of leadership qualities and understanding of political economy dynamics. Abiy completely encircled himself by the most untrustworthy elites whose souls are poisoned with hate on ethnic majority like the Oromo people and Tigray people who rescued Ethiopia from its own demise bringing it to regional prominence. For these people, “Ethiopia” is the land and the people in it all but them have no value or meaning whatsoever. Undoubtedly, Ethiopians and Ethiopia will witness its own peril sooner than later as we observe the downward spiraling of sense of humanity and respect basic human rights. The only two solutions I foresee to forsake the country are:
      1. Letting the great nation of The Sudan complete its concurs on Amhara Regional State and annex it as one of its sovereign provinces – which will give an everlasting sigh of relief for the remaining 82 nations and nationalities of Ethiopia potentially allowing them exercise their full rights that ranges up to changing the Greek name of their country to anything that’s local and start the healing process of the past wounds the egomaniacs left.
      2. Resolve the never ending political unrest and differences in understanding of the human value by way creating sovereign nations who would peacefully and respectfully live alongside another while having a strong border control along the borders of hate monger expansionists.

  • Does dictatorship demand modernism? Dictators are brute in their character and defiant in the face of democracy. What the man you said is doing is tantamount to Stone Age acts. The end would be like “The Sword” in the Bible! Thank you!

  • Abiy is not a smiling dictator. He is ruthless and as such a typical one. He is actually a backward looking and revengeful one. He lied to Ethiopians by acting as if he loved Ethiopia and would give his life to defend it. He bought time by acting like a popular leader. He is actually a narrow minded, typical backward looking Oromo ethnic politician. He is the leader of Oromo pogrom unleashed on Amharas and other Ethiopianists. He is so naked now most mother’s pray for his disgraceful exit from power. He leads a regime of thieves and murderers. He is known all over Africa for his lies. As for the church, there is no split. It was a government engineered attempt to control the church and I hope it would explode on his face. All reasons given were all lies to control this one historic institution; nothing more, nothing less.

    • Why you mention the name if Oromo here out of the context of this article. Isn’t elites like you who supported Abiy in crushing Oromo parties like OFC, OLF etc? Isn’t backward/ ignorant elites like you who supported war & destruction in Tigray (that also led to damages in Afar & Amhara) and war in Oromia instead of peaceful negotioation? Stop such kind of nonesense comments/opinion that further polarize the already polarized elites just to satisfy your narrow & short-term goal.

    • Ahmed Mohammed, you mention Oromo here and there out of the context of this article. Isn’t elites like you who encourahed/pushedAbiy in weakining Oromo parties like OFC, OLF etc ? Isn’t racist elites like you who supported war & destruction in Tigray (that also later led to damages in Afar & Amhara) and war in Oromia instead of peaceful negotioation? Stop such kind of nonesense comments/opinion that further polarize the already polarized elites just to satisfy your narrow & short-term goal.

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