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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.
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.
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.
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 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.
- 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.