Bright promise of Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed era lies in tatters
Like Henry Kissinger, I came to Washington with an academic background, attempting to make the professional leap from merely analyzing foreign policy to participating in making it. And, like the venerable secretary of state, I came to the conclusion that, while an intellectual life has given me a huge advantage in successfully helping to craft policy, it also has its limitations.
While an understanding of world historical forces is absolutely necessary, of equal importance is the human, practical comprehension of specific leaders — their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears — if one is to get anywhere.
My practical Washington education has led me to embrace the deeply unfashionable “great man” theory of history, which says that specific people determine outcomes, as well as the larger world historical forces I had mastered in acquiring my doctorate. As such, every once in a while, a leader comes along who inspires actual hope that, through their unique biography, they can transcend the formidable obstacles in their path, leaving their country and world a changed and fundamentally better place through their mighty efforts. Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln were such men. For a brief but glorious moment, it seemed that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed might be destined to join the pantheon.
But, as ever, Shakespeare knew what he was talking about when he wisely noted: “Expectation is the root of all heartache.” Over these past weeks, as Ethiopia has slid closer and closer to the abyss, something more was dying than merely the hopes for a renaissance in Africa’s second-most populous country. It is the beguiling dream that one man could transcend the formidable historical difficulties strewn around him and remake East Africa for the better.
It is easy to see why Ahmed, 44, inspires such fervor. Young, learned (he earned a Ph.D. in conflict studies) and a former intelligence officer in the government, Ahmed came to power in April 2018 following a period of great turbulence. Mass protests forced the long-ruling junta — dominated by minority ethnic Tigrayans — to cede power to Ahmed, who, while he was part of the ruling party, comes from mixed Oromo and Amhara stock. The Oromo are the largest tribal grouping in the country, comprising 35 percent of Ethiopians, while the Amhara are the second largest at 27 percent, with the heretofore militarily dominant Tigrayans comprising only 6 percent.
In handing power over to him, the junta was acknowledging the practical reality that — as a state comprising a mosaic of tribes as the basic political unit — to survive into the future as a unitary state, the government in Ethiopia had to expand its political legitimacy to a far broader segment of the population. The fear of the unraveling of the country based on this basic tribal division has been the snake in the garden haunting Ethiopia’s rulers over the past generation.
So the Ahmed experiment began. Quickly sidelining the formerly dominant Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), he dramatically removed all TPLF ministers from his Cabinet. Stung, the TPLF withdrew to its regional stronghold in northern Tigray province. With the old junta ousted, Ahmed emptied the jails of political prisoners, allowed far more freedom of the press, promised national elections, allowed the formation of opposition parties, and promised to liberalize the Ethiopian economy. He even found time to formally end the country’s 1998-2000 war with neighboring Eritrea, fully 20 years after the conflict raged. For all this, Ahmed was rightly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize of 2019.
But Ahmed, and the expectations he had generated, were about to plummet back to earth. Increasingly suspicious that the formerly dominant TPLF was lurking to strike back at him, Ahmed postponed the all-important promised national election, set for August 2020, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse.
The fear of the unraveling of the country based on tribal division has been the snake in the garden haunting Ethiopia’s rulers.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
In defiance of the prime minister and the government’s orders, the Tigrayans went ahead with their own regional electoral contest, which the TPLF predictably won.
Fearing — ironically as had the TPLF — that the country was near to splitting apart along tribal lines, Ahmed fatefully decided to nip what he saw as the brewing Tigrayan rebellion in the bud. On Nov. 4, accusing the TPLF of attacking two federal army camps in the Tigray region and of seeking to destabilize the national government, he dramatically acted, launching a military offensive against the TPLF in its stronghold. With the federal army just 60 km from Mekelle, the Tigrayan capital, Ahmed is presently preparing a full tank-led assault on the city of half-a-million people.
While Ahmed is likely to emerge victorious in the short run, something profoundly important has died. The brewing civil war has already killed hundreds and made for tens of thousands of refugees. More importantly, the bright promise of the Ahmed era — that one great man could remake his region — lies in tatters as he grows ever more autocratic and ever more martial. Again, we must return to Shakespeare, as the problem with relying on people is that they can very often let you down. Or, as the bard put it in “Julius Caesar:” “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars, but in ourselves.”
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via chartwellspeakers.com.