The only “success” that Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, may have achieved since assuming office a couple of years ago is that the very foundations on which modern Ethiopia, at least since 1991, has been resting have been shaken.
Before Ahmed took over after a stormy convention within the now-defunct Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the various ethnicities in Ethiopia hardly tried to coexist in peace and harmony.
The ethno-federal system introduced by Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s former long-serving prime minister and godfather of the modern nation, seemed doable, at least on the surface. While it is true that federalism in Ethiopia can be observed only in the “official” name of the republic and some other appearances like the celebration by the country’s various ethnicities of their respective cultural events and traditions, it is also true that the nation was glued together in one piece by the Zenawi system no matter how fragmented it was deep down inside.
But with Ahmed in office, Ethiopia’s ethno-federalism has shown its ugliest face ever, with mounting attacks targeting people based on their ethnicities.
Reflecting on the days prior to his appointment as Ethiopia’s prime minister and early days in office, Ahmed aped his predecessor in a “lengthy talk” to the country’s parliament. The incumbent premier addressed the Ethiopian House of Representatives and said that when his predecessor Hailemariam Desalegn had resigned, he had not done so because of what he had hoped at the time “would be part of the political solution” in the country, but rather because he had wanted to avoid what Ahmed called a “coup”. He said plainly that the Tigrayan-controlled security services had wanted to stage a coup against the feckless government of Desalegn in order to bring in a man more tailored to maintain their “interests”.
This was the first time that Ahmed had spoken in public of the “essence” of the problems between him and the Tigrayans, claiming that they had wanted to kill him before he became prime minister. He also recalled how he had been under active surveillance wherever he went and how “snipers” had been placed on every corner in Oromia where Ahmed had been leading the Oromo Democratic Party (OPD) less than two months ahead of his election as prime minister. He said he had released a video in collaboration with his comrades, as he put it, to urge the people of Oromia to stay alert and keep up the momentum in case he and other “strugglers” were murdered.
One needs to pause here to reflect on the “video” part. Though the Oromo people’s demands were “legitimate,” since Addis Ababa’s urban development plans aimed in effect to end their decades-long dream of having their own independent state with Finfinne, as they refer to the capital city of Ethiopia, as their capital, other questions look inevitable. What had turned the “protests” at the confiscation of the land of impoverished Oromo farmers into a “rebellion” demanding the removal of the Desalegn-led government? Who was in league with Oromo nationals in exile like Jawar Mohamed, now detained under terrorism charges? Above all, who had solicited and received money from the Oromo expatriates to keep up the momentum against the Desalegn government? In plain words, who in fact had staged a “coup”?
The ensuing events show that Ahmed’s “coup” stories are not only unsubstantiated, but are also misleading, and that they have only one aim: to justify the terrible acts of killing, the demolition of infrastructure, and the shelling of historical religious sites in Tigray. In other words, Ahmed’s war on Tigray is more than an attempt to “enforce the law,” as his entourage and the Ethiopian state-run media are arguing, because it is effectively a military expedition to “subdue” the Tigrayans into accepting the legitimacy of his rule in the same way that the expansionist emperor Menelik II, who hailed from the Amhara, had done in Ethiopia’s older history.
As a means of paying back favours, Ahmed allowed the return of all Oromo armed groups into Ethiopia and removed the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) from the Ethiopian list of terrorist organisations under the bright banner of giving space to “different” political groups. In truth, the step was intended to secure the balance of military power that would be needed in the fight against the Tigrayan-led security apparatus.
Ahmed said that he was “forgiving” the “devilish” fellow Ethiopians in the TPLF who had insisted on inflicting “damage” to the country at a time when he was working for its “prosperity”. He said he did not want to go to war in Tigray, but that the TPLF was at war with him, forcing him to trigger it. He elaborated in front of the Ethiopian parliament the ways in which the TPLF-dominated security agencies had prevented him from entering the palace of the prime minister with his security detail; how they had wrongly passed intelligence from him to “foreign” intelligence services in order to mislead him; and how he had not even been able to talk on the telephone with his deputy Demeke Mekonen to get into the swing of things.
But Ahmed’s narrative does not correspond to the facts on the ground because when he assumed office he started a “cleansing” campaign against the Tigrayans and removed almost all of them from senior military and intelligence posts, pushing them to amass in Mekele, their region’s capital.
Apparently, Ahmed wants to “wash his hands” of the bloody acts committed not only in Tigray, but also in the Southern Nations, the Nationalities People’s Region (now divided into two regions), Beni Shengul Gumuz, the Somali Region and even in his own region of Oromia. The common denominator of all the tragic incidents that have happened in all these regions is that Ethiopia lacks a politically seasoned prime minister familiar with the complicated nature of this multi-ethnic nation.
Ahmed believes he is the “legitimate” leader of the country, though his legitimacy is being questioned over government-sponsored acts of killing, peaking in the campaign against Tigray.
When he assumed office in 2018, it was hoped that Ethiopia would emerge as a centre of democracy and freedoms in East Africa and as a model that could be an inspiration elsewhere. Unfortunately, Ahmed has proved wrong those who thought of him as a reformist. Instead of getting down to brass tacks in addressing the chronic problems of his country, Ahmed has led Ethiopia further into chaos.
The writer is a former press and information officer in Ethiopia and an expert on African affairs.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.