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Ethiopia: The kleptocratic rule of Abiy Ahmed

By Abebe Gellaw

In April 2018, the world bore witness to the rise of Africa’s own Barack Obama. This young African leader, preaching justice, freedom, and equality, and selling his idealistic dreams captivated people from coast to coast. His mesmerizing speeches and eloquence, reminiscent of Obama’s, created a palpable excitement, enabling him to win hearts and minds across the globe. 

It felt as though we were witnessing a transformative force of nature ready to revolutionize the world as we knew it. Media outlets, both local and international, were in a frenzy, painting a picture of him as a transformative figure. I must confess that I too found myself swept up in the collective bandwagon of Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia.

However, what we thought was a rising star, a beacon of hope, turned out to be nothing more than a political charlatan. Beneath the charming facade and the enticing promises lay a conman who was deftly playing his cards. The realization of this harsh truth has been deeply unsettling. It was a bitter pill for the world to swallow. A world that had initially been so enraptured by his promises had even awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. The transformation we eagerly anticipated turned out to be a mere illusion, masterfully crafted by a corrupt political trickster. 

Today, this man, who led a two-year-long devastating war in Northern Ethiopia, stands accused of leading a government that steals food aid from the hungry. Given the records, the revelation that the federal government, as well as regional officials, especially in Tigray region, were involved in diverting food aid and selling it not only in the open market but also to millers that resell the flour to neighboring countries is neither shocking nor surprising. This is because close observers have already concluded that Ethiopia under Abiy Ahmed is undergoing a transition from a wartime regime to a kleptocracy. 

Kleptocracy refers to a form of government or political system in which the ruling individuals or groups exploit their power and authority to systematically and illegally enrich themselves, often at the expense of the general population. In a kleptocratic regime, corruption, embezzlement, bribery, and other forms of illicit activities are rampant and pervasive. 

Under the rule of Abiy Ahmed, the ruling class is engaged in widespread corruption, using their positions of power to embezzle public funds, engage in fraudulent practices, and illicitly amass personal wealth. The regime lacks effective checks and balances, allowing those in power to operate with impunity. Transparency and accountability mechanisms, such as independent judiciary systems and anti-corruption agencies, are weak or non-existent.

The kleptocrats also embezzle and divert public resources for personal gains, and government contracts are awarded to their own their cronies while neglecting the needs and development of the country. They suppress dissent of political opposition, muzzle the media, and limit civil liberties to maintain their grip on power and prevent scrutiny of their corrupt practices. Kleptocracy can have international repercussions, as illicitly obtained wealth is often laundered through international financial systems or invested in foreign assets, perpetuating the cycle of corruption and undermining global efforts to combat illicit financial flows.

The current state of affairs in Ethiopia, under the leadership of Abiy Ahmed is distressing. After two long decades in exile, I heeded Abiy’s call to the Ethiopian diaspora to visit and return to our homeland. During my sojourn in 2019, I seized the opportunity to meet with him a couple of times. We exchanged thoughts on our shared vision for hours of a new Ethiopia under his leadership.

One critical issue I raised was the simmering tension with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). I cautioned him that the TPLF might start a war as they were already beating the war drum. However, his response was dismissive suggesting the TPLF leadership was frail and posed no threat to the robust military force he had built. Despite his reassurances, I remained skeptical. The TPLF’s long history of military misadventures and violence was not something to overlook lightly.

As it was feared, the situation took a grim turn. The TPLF launched a surprise attack on key military bases of the Northern Command, plunging the nation into conflict on the fateful night of November 3. The war has turned Ethiopia upside down. 

According to researchers at Ghent University in Belgium, the devastating conflict in Northern Ethiopia including Tigray, Amhara, and Afar regions,  has led to an estimated death toll of up to 600,000 people. This horrific figure includes between 50,000 to 100,000 lives lost directly due to the fighting, a staggering 150,000 to 200,000 succumbing to hunger and malnutrition, and a further 100,000 fatalities resulting from a lack of vital medical attention. The ripple effects of this brutal war have resonated far and wide, impacting over 20 million people, with women and children bearing the brunt of this crisis, accounting for nearly three-quarters of those affected. The crisis has also displaced over 5.5 million people. 

Following a recent revelation of food theft by the Washington Post, USAID, which has provided nearly $1.5 billion in food aid in 2022, announced that it has suspended food assistance to Ethiopia. UNFP followed suit and suspended its emergency food aid program in Ethiopia. This won’t harm the kleptocrats in power, but it will hurt those in desperate need. It’s a truly tragic situation, created by people thoughtlessly vying for power and wealth at the expense of millions on the brink of death.

The man once hailed as Africa’s answer to Barack Obama is now leading a country to the edge of catastrophe. Human rights violations are rampant. One of the controversies engulfing Abiy Ahmed back home involves his launch of extravagant projects. At a time when the nation is in desperate need of a recovery plan, Abiy is instead constructing an opulent palace for himself on the outskirts of Addis, a project costing billions of dollars. Last month saw the initiation of another grand palace.  This one was intended for his right-hand man, the President of the Oromia region, Shimelis Abdisa. This construction has already been started by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC).  This is on top of the so-called Sheger city project, which has already caused the massive displacement of hundreds of thousands of poor and vulnerable families. The demolition, which has been executed without due process, proved the unbridled cruelty of the regime. 

It appears that Abiy Ahmed drew inspiration not from Barack Obama, but from Africa’s kleptocrats, such as the late President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Mobutu Sese Seko. The “Nobel laureate” seems to have become another casualty of the curse plaguing Africa’s kleptocratic despots. 

In her book Karmic Harvest Trilogy, Swiss-Filipino writer Angelica Hopes wrote: “Kakistocracy protects kleptocrats. They all wear the evil, manipulative gloves of greed and power play.” That is what the situation looks like in Ethiopia under Abiy Ahmed. 

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of Ethiopian Tribune.

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