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Is Abiy Ahmed leading Ethiopia to the Abyss

Abiy Ahmed - Ethiopia - Crisis

Abiy Ahmed

By Abayneh Woldemariam

A promising beginning  

A relatively young and previously obscure figure within the Oromo wing of the  TPLF/EPRDF regime, Abiy Ahmed burst into the Ethiopian political scene in 2018.  

He was catapulted to the position of Prime Minister on the coattails of the public revolt  against the TPLF-dominated authoritarian government that had led the country since 1991.  The popular revolt culminated with the ousting of the TPLF from federal power in a party line vote within the previously TPLF-controlled parliament. The Oromo and Amhara parties  within the EPRDF coalition who were hitherto subservient to the TPLF were emboldened by  the mass protest movement. They banded together and elected Abiy as the next Prime  Minister of the country in April 2018. The previously all-powerful leaders of the TPLF left  Addis Ababa and decamped to Tigray, their ethnic homeland.  

Upon becoming PM, Abiy enthralled the population with his rising rhetoric about national  reconciliation, unity, peace, and democracy. He repeatedly invoked the long history of  Ethiopia as a country where diverse population groups and religions have commingled and  lived in harmony, and collectively defended their country from foreign aggression. He freed  political prisoners, invited all foreign-based opposition groups back into the country,  liberalized the press and promised an era of transparent democracy, equality, civil liberties,  and development. 

He also garnered widespread acclaim from all the major political capitals of the world, and  even won the esteemed Nobel Peace Prize for his speedy and seemingly genuine peace making with Eritrea. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1991 and the two countries fought a bloody war  in 1998-2000 which ended in a stalemate that lasted for 20 years.  

Abiy regularly appeared on TV, meeting with the country’s parliament and all manners of  public groups, politicians, media, military leaders, artists, etc. and impressed all who met  with him. He also did a whirlwind visit to all parts of the country, making rousing speeches  about removing divisions, coming together as citizens (“መደመር”), and restoring Ethiopia’s  honor (“ወደ ጥንት ክብሯ እንመልሳታለን”). He travelled to the US and Europe and held stadium  rallies with the large Ethiopian diaspora where he received a rousing welcome.  

The rapid descent to chaos and extreme violence  

Abiy’s rosy promises began to crumble within the first two years of his meteoric rise, when  violent ethnic conflicts broke out in many parts of the country. His new administration  seemed completely unable to restore public safety.  

The bulk of the conflicts were perpetrated by resentful tribalist forces his blanket amnesty  unleashed on the population without any rules of engagement or security guardrails. They  began to target and massacre minority groups within their ethnic enclaves. 

The victims were mostly Amhara minorities in non-Amhara regions (per the 1995 constitution  that divided the country into ethnic enclaves). The same group that bore the brunt of targeted  ethnic cleansing in the prior 27 years. Other minority groups were also targeted in other  regions. The Burayu and Hawassa massacres were cases in point.  

Abiy’s government appeared powerless, and he resorted to ignoring or minimizing the  widespread massacre of innocents, and attributing the carnage to a short-lived transitional  dustup that will soon be over.  

Abiy remained somewhat popular during these first two years, but his support was waning  rapidly. There were also early signals that he is intolerant of dissent against his thinly veiled  authoritarian and messianic tendencies. He also practiced political brinkmanship and kept  everyone guessing whose side he was on.  

In December 2019 Abiy singlehandedly reconstituted the EPRDF coalition to the “Prosperity” party, which is one party in name, but maintained its underlying ethnic  divisions. He remained firmly in charge of the “new” party and rapidly consolidated all  political power into his own hands – by at times pitting the party members against each  other along ethnic lines (just like the TPLF did in the past). Abiy is an adherent of “Prosperity  Gospel” aka “the health and wealth gospel”, which preaches that faith, positive speech and donations to  preachers and their church will increase one’s material wealth.

Abiy loyalists lead each ethno-regional wing of the “Prosperity” party and tightly control  key government functions at the federal and regional levels. Other groups including non ethnic blocs and smaller Oromo parties who do not align with Abiy’s diktats or have their  own political ambitions, stood in soft opposition.  

The TPLF, who were at the helm of the country for the previous 27 years refused to join  Abiy’s party. Although ousted from federal power, the TPLF leaders retained tight control in  Tigray and enjoyed considerable support from the local population. They were also wary of  Abiy’s sudden friendship with their archfoe, Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki. The 1998- 2000 Ethio-Eritrea border war was caused by rifts between the former allies TPLF and EPLF. The war ended  after two years of bloody battles and a truce that did not remove the distrust between the two parties.  

After retrenching in their “native” Tigray, the TPLF leaders began a rapid buildup of their  own regional army in the name of “protecting Tigray” from potential aggression by Abiy  and Isaias. Abiy did make overtures to the TPLF leaders to negotiate on allowing his  Prosperity party to operate in Tigray and take part in local elections, in return for a loose  promise of immunity from prosecution for their corruption and political crimes of the past.  The TPLF rebuffed Abiy’s terms and began to gear up for a possible war.  

Abiy kept his benevolent sounding rhetoric in the midst of the increasingly fraught political  picture in the country. He also played a Machiavellian political chicanery that kept  everyone guessing, until he felt he had gained full control of the security and armed forces.  

Although it quickly became clear that Abiy wanted to lord over the whole country, it was  increasingly apparent that he sought to build his primary political base in his “native” ethnic  group, the Oromo. Afterall, he identifies himself as Oromo and it was the large-scale  Oromo revolt against the TPLF (that was quickly joined by the Amhara) that brought him to  power and may in turn give him a buffer against others who might oppose him.  

Many Oromo politicians within and outside of Abiy’s party were also openly proclaiming  that it is “Oromos’ turn” to rule the country and determine its future direction in a way that  would be partial to their ethnic group. Although Abiy is assumed to be of a mixed heritage, he  identifies as Oromo and cut his political teeth in the Oromo wing of the EPRDF coalition. 

Meanwhile, the pogroms against the Amhara population in non-Amhara regions, especially  in the Oromo region worsened dramatically. Given his thinly veiled desire to keep the  Oromo population as his core political base, Abiy continued to turn a blind eye. Oromo  militias repeatedly rampaged across the “Oromia” region burning villages, massacring  residents and forcibly evicting thousands of poor Amhara rural dwellers who have lived  there for generations. These massacres continue unabated to this day.  

The ethnic cleansing and horrifying violence against the Amhara were egged-on by various  Oromo demagogues who called themselves “activists” and were given a free reign by Abiy. They whipped up grudges against the Amhara, whom the poisonous and often false narrative of the previous 30 years depicted as historical “oppressors”. 

This was in the face of the clearly obvious irony that the Amhara were actually the primary  targets of persecution during the twenty-seven-year reign of the TPLF-led regime from the  moment they came to power in 1991, all the way to their replacement by Abiy in 2018. The  relative predominance of Amharic speakers in government positions had ended with the  demise of the monarchy two generations ago in 1974. Even before that, the mainly Amhara  regions in Ethiopia were never beneficiaries of preferential treatment. Contrary to the  mindless demagoguery by tribalist agitators, Amharas in Ethiopia have always been as poor  as other ethnic groups and sometimes worse. Hundreds of thousands of them have  perished during major famines over the past few decades alone.  

Although Abiy desired to lock-in the large Oromo region as his core power base, he was  not and is still not fully successful. There are other groups there like the “OLA” (a faction of  the OLF) who oppose Abiy and compete with him for supremacy in the region. The OLA  and associated militias simultaneously desire to cleanse “Oromia” from other ethnic  groups, and they repeatedly carry out horrifying rounds of carnage against the Amhara  population. They also routinely make incursions into bordering areas within the Amhara  and southern regions, burn villages and slaughter large numbers of citizens.  

The mass displacements and targeted ethnic massacres continued in other regions too,  including Benishangul-Gumuz – a sparsely populated ethnic enclave in western Ethiopia. The local tribes in the region were for long fed the same manipulative hatred for other  ethnic groups, especially the Amhara who constitute more than a fifth of the region’s  population. Aside the from the Amhara, the victims included Oromos and other minority  tribes in the region. The Benishangul-Gumuz region was created after 1991 from what used to be  western Gojjam and northern Wollega. 

Conflicts also erupted in other tribal lands including between Afar and Somali, Sidama and  Wolayta and others, in which scores of people died in violent skirmishes of varying scales. This was on top of the 2016-2018 conflict between Oromo and Somali in eastern Ethiopia that had  displaced over a million Oromos.  

In October 2019, alleged threats by Abiy’s security agents against the popular firebrand  Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed led to riots by his fanatic followers across several  locations in the Oromo region and the death of many innocent citizens. Not long after that,  in June 2020, the popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa was mysteriously killed in the  outskirts of Addis Ababa. News of his death unleashed an even larger riot by Oromo mobs  who went on a wild rampage in many towns across the Oromo region, including in the  outskirts of Addis Ababa. Hundreds of innocent people were dragged out of their homes  and hacked and bludgeoned to death, their homes and businesses burned to the ground. The violent mob entered Addis Ababa too but were repulsed by self-organized residents. Jawar had a big hand in facilitating the Oromo uprising against the TPLF between 2015-2018 and  competed with Abiy for popularity among the Oromo. Hachalu was popular amongst urban Oromo youth  for his songs uplifting the Oromo people and culture. He was close to Abiy’s circle and was likely killed by  agents of rival Oromo factions.

Sadly, once again, the largest group who paid the ultimate price in this round of extreme  random violence were Amhara residents, along with other non-Oromo town dwellers.  Oromos who follow the Ethiopian Orthodox faith were not spared in places like  Shashamane, which has a large Muslim population and where the hateful propaganda had  taken a hitherto unknown religious dimension.  

Nearly all of the victims were far removed from the events surrounding the murder of  Hachalu and many did not even know what had occurred. Owing to the freewheeling hate  propaganda by so called Oromo activists (including many within the Oromo wing of Abiy’s  “Prosperity” party), who doubled down on the hateful ethnic rhetoric, it had become  routine to use any excuse to randomly murder completely innocent Amhara civilians who  received zero protection from the authorities.  

Shortly after the massacre of these innocent citizens, it was publicly disclosed that local  Oromo police forces in many locations where the murders occurred were either turning a  blind eye or openly colluding with the murderers. It was also later revealed that while the  horrifying killing of innocent civilians was occurring, the “President” of the Oromo region  Shemeles Abdissa willfully rejected the plea for security support from the mayor of  Shashamane – a town in the Oromo region where some of the most brutal and widespread  massacres took place and many parts of the city were burned to the ground.  

On the other hand, the so called “OLA” had gathered enough armed followers. Beyond  marauding widely in the Wollega region within “Oromia” and bordering areas within the  Amhara and other regions, burning villages and massacring civilians, they also conducted  guerilla attacks against Abiy’s local forces. This resulted in bombings and killings of Oromo  civilians in areas where the OLA is thought to be operating.  

Across the country, vast numbers of citizens were paying a heavy price as a result of the  near complete breakdown of public safety, law, and order under Abiy’s neophyte regime.  Thousands of people were killed and some of them were buried in mass graves. Close to  two million people became IDPs (internally displaced persons) by 2020 and many of them  suffer immensely to this day.  

Abiy’s barely hidden shrugging-off of the widespread violence and his complete lack of  empathy for the victims was astounding. His seemingly incomprehensible stance (that  stood in stark contrast to his rhetoric) was associated with his undisclosed alliance with the  rapidly emerging and virulently tribalist forces within the Oromo wing of his party. This  group had begun to openly air their yearning for “Oromuma”, an Oromo hegemony  aspiration where; 

“A much-expanded ‘Oromia’ will be cleansed of all non-Oromo populations, and the  Oromo or “Oromuma” would become the unquestionable masters of the country.” A very dangerous fascistic agenda that can only lead to the catastrophic dissolution  of the country. 

The leader of the Oromo region was recorded in a closed session of the Oromo wing of the  “Prosperity party” extensively elaborating on how they will use a “confuse and convince”  deception to achieve this. He described an expansive plan for an ascendant Oromo  domination of the country that included ploys to take over key economic levers, alter the  demographics of Addis Ababa as well as systematically undermine the national lingua  franca, Amharic. Yet Abiy, said nothing about this fascistic plan that was clearly articulated  by the man who leads the largest region in the country and is regarded by many as the  second most powerful politician in the country.  

Abiy’s utter lack of empathy in the midst of the widespread carnage in the country reflected  an underlying narcissistic and possibly psychopathic mindset that has time and again  manifested itself in his insatiable ambition for personal power, at any cost to the country  and the people.  

It was also becoming apparent that despite his rising rhetoric, his overall caliber as a leader  is nowhere near the kind of knowledge, skill, experience, and wisdom that leading a  complex country like Ethiopia requires.  

This became evident as he continued to muddle through incoherently on key issues facing  the country, with no clear strategy or road map, except for a messianic confidence in his  personal “vision”. This report by a New Yorker Magazine journalist who was given a rare  and close access to Abiy was revealing in this regard.  

In the midst of the unspeakable violence in many parts of the country, Abiy continued to  engage in tiresome and often sophomoric pontifications to parliament and to the public  about the coming “prosperity” of the country under his tutelage. He repeatedly exhorted  the public to place their trust in him. (“በእርግጠኝነት ልንገራችሁ…በድጋሚ ላረጋግጥላችሁ”…) 

He was also engrossed with his pet vanity projects like building city parks, tourist resorts, and beautifying public squares in Addis. He also for a short time seemed to pay some  attention to the on-going construction of the GERD. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the  Abay (Blue Nile) River was started by the EPRDF government in 2011 under the direction of the then PM  Meles Zenawi. Meles was also the main architect of the ethnic-based federal system in the country that  has been the source of division and mayhem since 1991.  

The widespread instability of the country coupled with the COVID 19 pandemic was causing  a downward impact on the economy. Inflation continued to skyrocket, making daily life  unbearable for millions.  

The extreme and widespread violence during Abiy’s first two years in power were terrible enough in a country that has for long been unable to unshackle itself from vicious cycles of strife and suffering. Sadly, even worse was to come that would further debilitate the country and impose an even heavier and unbearable price for vastly more citizens.

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

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