The ‘Employee of the Month award’ is bestowed on the person who has done the most to harm the cause of world peace in the last month. Image: “A Conversation with Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia” by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed inherited a state. He sacrificed it to the dream of an empire. On his current trajectory, Abiy’s political obituary will be that he left Ethiopians with neither state nor empire.
Many autocrats kill people. It takes a particular kind of leader to kill a country. This is what the Ethiopian Prime Minister is doing.
There was a moment when Abiy was seen indispensable to solving Ethiopia’s problems. Today he is the problem.
At the United Nations Security Council meeting on July 2, western nations put their emphasis on human rights and humanitarian calamity, while Kenya (representing the African nations) and China focused their concern on preserving the Ethiopian state. None of them subscribed to the Ethiopian government’s official narrative.
As if to confirm their fears, three days later Abiy made a speech in parliamentand announced that he was closing thirty of Ethiopia’s sixty embassies. He said he didn’t think that his country’s diplomats were value for money, and suggested that the diaspora were doing a better job. Africa’s oldest and most esteemed diplomatic corps, which was built up by Emperor Haile Selassie after World War II and nurtured by successive regimes, is being willfully destroyed.
In the same speech, Abiy denied that his army had suffered a defeat in Tigray, and said that he could raise and train 100,000 special forces in a month, and a million soldiers if need be. The rout of the Ethiopian National Defense Force in Tigray was due in part to Abiy’s dismantling of the army as an institution, which he began almost as soon as he took office. Huge numbers of foot soldiers along with new tanks and drones cannot compensate for lack of generalship, doctrine and strategy. Abiy is simply arming Ethiopians to kill and die.
Abiy’s economic policy of liberalization and attracting foreign investment has been sacrificed to the war, which has consumed the government’s budget, destroyed a significant part of its industry and service sector, and shattered its reputation among international financial institutions and private sector investors.
Abiy Ahmed became prime minister in April 2018 at a time of crisis in Ethiopia. ‘Crisis’ is a relative term. The economy was growing fast, the country had functioning state institutions envied by its neighbors, the ruling party was finally moving towards being an arena for genuine political debate, and the country was at peace with all its neighbors save one—and was well positioned to impose peace terms that would compel Eritrea to demilitarize and democratize. The government faced no military threats at home or abroad; it was Africa’s largest contributor to United Nations and African Union peacekeeping operations; Ethiopia enjoyed strong relations with the U.S., Europe, and China. Middle Eastern that countries it had long regarded as strategic challengers—Egypt and the Gulf States—were at bay.
Abiy came to power because a largely non-violent democratic protest movement caused the head of government to step down and the core element in the ruling party and security sector—the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—to step aside.
After 27 years in power, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had dismally failed on democracy and human rights, but had won Ethiopia an enviable reputation for stability and growth. Ethiopia’s state capacity was not an automatic inheritance of its long history as an independent polity. Ethiopia’s state had been built by decades of statesmanship at the top, investment in institutions, and lifelong dedication by civil servants.
Many African leaders in ‘crisis’ countries envied Abiy the political capital he possessed and the opportunity to build on strengths and remedy weaknesses. Viewed by many as a reformer, he also enjoyed considerable popular support. His early steps seemed to manifest that promise—releasing political prisoners, inviting opposition parties back, lifting censorship, reaching out to Eritrea.
Abiy made grand promises to everyone, and everyone loved it. He basked in the glory. He took the accolades far more seriously than he should have done. Drawing on his Pentecostal faith and his personal sense of destiny, Abiy refashioned the myth of Ethiopia as a nation chosen by God. He dispensed with any humility and readiness to reflect upon and learn from error. In short, Abiy had a messianic vision but lacked the basics of statecraft.
Abiy did not bring Ethiopia to this precipice alone. His predecessor, Prime Minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn, failed to lead and allowed the country to drift into turmoil. Hailemariam compounded rather than remedied the problems he inherited from Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Getachew Asefa, former head of security, was responsible for many of the most egregious abuses of the EPRDF government—and when Abiy issued an arrest warrant for him, he fled to Tigray where the TPLF elevated him to their central committee. Before and during the current war, the TPLF spokesman, Getachew Reda, prefers posturing and point-scoring to problem solving. Berhanu Nega, leader of the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA) party, has cultivated a nostalgic imperial-nationalism that has been instrumental in driving the war fever in Addis Ababa and parts of Amhara region, and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen has connived with this effort. Legions of twitter warriors roar incendiary nonsense on social media. Foreign actors who indulged Abiy’s egomania share responsibility. Above all, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki seized his moment to become godfather to Ethiopia’s self-destruction, pursuing his long-held ambitions of seeking to crush Tigray and bring Ethiopia to its knees.
Helped by these men—whether adversaries or allies—Abiy has brought Ethiopia to the brink of political, economic, and reputational collapse. He has made Ethiopia the land of famine once again (though he denies that there is hunger in Tigray), and the land of gang rape for the first time (something he jokes about). He banned opposition parties, imprisoned dissenters, closed newspapers and detained journalists. He has destroyed the army while making needless enemies at home and abroad. His friends—notably Pres. Isaias—are more dangerous to Ethiopia than his enemies. Abiy rushed into a preventable war and bragged about it.
These are all sufficient reason for Abiy to warrant Abiy’s award as ‘employee of the month’—the individual who has done most to stand in the way of peace. But what singles out Abiy is the culmination of his folly, which is contemplating the breakup of Ethiopia—the secession of Tigray—as preferable to his accepting the reality that he has failed. The measure of a statesman is handling adversity. In the face of the calamities of the last months, Abiy has preferred to live in a bubble of illusion rather than take the necessary and painful steps to salvage his country. He is sustaining that bubble with incendiary mobilization of ethno-national passions that he cannot control. His most recent statement, speaking of Tigrayans as an incurable disease and an invasive weed is aptly described as ‘a textbook example of dehumanizing speech and incitement to genocide.’ The havoc Abiy is unleashing and the hatred he is fomenting will surely outlast his tenure in office.
Many autocrats cause appalling suffering to their people, but historians assess them as having built states. PM Abiy is responsible for immeasurable human distress—mass killings, rape, torture and starvation. But he is also leaving a legacy of deliberately turning Ethiopia into a fragile and quite possibly a failed state.