By: Biruk Haregu (PhD student in Public Policy and a Pre-Doctoral Fellow at James Madison University in the U.S.)
In the five years Abiy Ahmed has been in power in Ethiopia, much of the discussion has centered on his government’s wars on Tigray and Amhara regions, the deteriorating socioeconomic and humanitarian conditions, and the rising poverty and skyrocketing cost of living, among others. However, far too little has been written about his governing philosophy and leadership capacity. As such, it is imperative to question what has been Abiy’s approach to attaining and then wielding power, particularly from the perspective of political philosophy. Indeed, during such an incredibly tumultuous period, it’s critical to conduct a clear-eyed analysis of the tyrant sitting at the helm of power.
Political theorists widely recognize that conventions and norms are foundational to maintaining stability, security, and societal order. In a well-functioning society, the primary convention is justice. In his magnum opus, Justice as Fairness, John Rawls stipulates that “justice is the first of social institutions.” This observation isn’t unique to Rawls; but one widely acknowledged by political philosophers ranging from Aristotle to John Locke. Unfortunately, this time-tested virtue is nonexistent in contemporary Ethiopia.
Rather than the virtues of a well-functioning society such as justice, equality, and rule of law; in Abiy’s Ethiopia what reigns supreme is the unrelenting pursuit of power, ego, self-aggrandizement, and parochial interests— guided by a warped understanding of Machiavellian realpolitik and couched in the deceptive language of “medemer.” “Medemer” is an Amharic word that Abiy employs as a rhetorical concept to suggest creating synergy through addition. In practice, however, “medemer” has proven to be vacuous and confused.
Abiy’s approach to attaining and wielding power
In his book, The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli provides a blueprint for those seeking to attain and wield power. According to Machiavelli, the sole aim of a prince is to attain, consolidate, and retain power— a notion that, as outlined by an Ethiopian Professor of Philosophy Dr. Dagnachew Assefa, has great appeal to Abiy. Upon assuming power Abiy convened political philosophers to discuss Machiavelli with the aim of employing Machiavellian strategies and tactics to consolidate and retain his newfound power. Considering this, viewing Abiy’s approach to power and administration through a Machiavellian lens is both necessary and instructive. In so doing, it becomes apparent that he employs the Machiavellian dictum: “the ends justify the means.” Which begs the question: what are Abiy’s ends and means?
The first important question to unpack is: what are Abiy’s ends? As he’s constantly stated, Abiy’s ends are attaining and maintain power at all costs— specifically, to be “King of Ethiopia.” And to justify such delusion, Abiy incessantly speaks of how his mother prophesied that he was “destined to be the 7th King of Ethiopia.” He claims his mother made this Divine Right of Kings like prophesy when he was 7 years old. At 7 years old, Abiy was prophesied to be the 7th King of Ethiopia— how coincidental. Nevertheless, as Abiy has expounded, “the singular focus of his life has been becoming that prophesied king.”
How can an individual with such delusions spearhead the democratization process in Ethiopia? Unfortunately, as Ethiopians have quickly discovered, his only interest is in attaining absolute power and then to rule as a dictator.
The Mad King’s Warped Machiavellianism
Numerous examples illustrate that Abiy is now the sole judge, jury, and executioner in Ethiopia. And if anyone dare challenge him, including the citizens that put him in power, he is prepared, in his own words to: “massacre exponentially more citizens than the Derg regime during the Red Terror” to maintain his political power.
For instance, Abiy routinely dismisses and threatens members of Parliament, including having an opposition member of Parliament, the honorable Christian Tadele, beaten and jailed for speaking truth to power. Abiy has also brazenly declared that the Ethiopian Parliament does not have oversight authority over his actions. Members of Parliament have been warned to never question him about where he receives financing for the countless white elephant projects with which he is infatuated, including the exorbitant pharaonic palace estimated to cost $15 Billion, an amount that exceeds Ethiopia’s annual budget. Such delusions of grandeur and misaligned priorities at a time when: 1) $28 Billion is needed for post-war reconstruction in Northern Ethiopia; 2) 5.4 of 6 million citizens in Tigray need food aid; 3) 20 million citizens across Ethiopia need food aid; 4) 5.1 million IDPs need humanitarian assistance; and 5) poverty is rapidly rising across every region of Ethiopia. This is indeed astonishing.
Notwithstanding the misaligned priorities and the economic theory that white elephant projects are not engines of broad-based growth and development, the fact that Abiy reprimands the People’s Representatives for doing their job and asking legitimate questions about funding mechanisms of national projects is jarring. Fundamentally, Parliament has a duty to ensure that corruption is under control; and more importantly, to ensure that Ethiopia’s national interests are not compromised as Abiy scavenges the Arab gulf states, particularly the United Arab Emirates, in search of finance. In essence, Abiy has declared that he is above Parliamentary oversight; and consequently, any constraints on his power whether through checks and balances or the rule of law are non-existent.
Furthermore, during his reckless intervention in religious affairs and attempt to divide the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC), Abiy went on state television to threaten Tewahedo followers that galvanized around the church through peaceful civil disobedience, including wearing black attire and attending church services in mass. Abiy was threatened by such organic mass mobilization of citizens in defense of the EOTC. How did he respond? He notoriously went on state television to declare that “the number of citizens that he was prepared to massacre will be exponentially more than the Derg regime during the Red Terror.” In the same vein, Abiy went on to declare that he had amassed so much power that “if he wants to destroy Ethiopia, there is no force that can stop him.” These statements aimed at terrorizing citizens are not characteristic of a prudent and stable leader and certainly not of a statesman. To the contrary, it’s the epitome of a tyrant.
Abiy’s means of attaining and wielding power
The second important question to unpack is: what are Abiy’s means of attaining and wielding the absolute power that he desperately covets? Abiy’s means are deception and cruelty— characteristics that Machiavelli suggests are virtues. According to Machiavelli, the prince should learn to “beguile men’s minds through shrewdness and cunning.” He should be, in all ways, a master of deception. For Ethiopians this has come to describe Abiy and his dealings with friends and foes alike. On the path to assuming power, Abiy’s deception and cruelty, indeed obvious tyranny, has become his modus operandi. For instance, he has jailed or exiled, and outright eliminated from the political landscape the key figures of the “Oromo-Amhara” alliance that initially brought him to power, including his mentor and senior partner in Oromo politics Lemma Megersa, Amhara politician Gedu Andargachew, and countless others. He has also jailed many high-profile opposition politicians, justice and democracy activists, and journalists.
A more striking example of Abiy’s capacity for deception and cruelty is the power struggle turned civil war with the TPLF, his former colleagues turned foe, in which an estimated 600,000 to 1,000,000 Ethiopians perished. While the two warring parties have seemingly reconciled, the Tigray region remains devastated with a battered economy, skyrocketing inflation, and widespread poverty. In the midst of such deprivation, rather than scale-up post-war reconstruction and humanitarian assistance in war ravaged Tigray, Amhara and Afar regions, Abiy’s unrelenting tyranny has turned its gaze on the Amhara people where he is currently orchestrating a brutal, senseless, and unjust war of aggression on a region and people that he considers a threat to his authoritarianism.
Abiy has launched his war on Amhara using the Machiavellian tactic of deception, specifically under the guise of “integrating regional special forces into federal forces.” In this context, an important question to consider becomes: rather than seeking a political solution and addressing the compounding humanitarian disasters, why has Abiy chosen violence and civil war, yet again? The answer lies in another Machiavellian tenant: “injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; and benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer.” In other words, hit you “enemies” fast and hard. In his futile attempt to consolidate power, Abiy is attempting to wipe out any semblance of a threat to his power.”
Rather than unity, political dialogue, and consensus-building, Abiy and his Oromo Prosperity Party have elected to take the ill-advised and destabilizing path of chaos and conflict in the Amhara region. At the same time, throughout Ethiopia, they are attempting to use violence to squash the legitimate demands of citizens for their fundamental rights and liberties, including freedom, justice, rule of law, equality, accountability, agency, dignity, and human rights. The path of conflict and destruction that Abiy and Oromo Prosperity Party have taken will prove a failure.
Unfortunately, Abiy is the only Nobel Prize for Peace laureate that is not a peace maker. Indeed, his intransigence and maniacal reliance on military force is leading to further gross human rights violations and impending humanitarian catastrophe once more. More broadly, while injuries in the form of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide mount in Ethiopia at the hands of Abiy; benefits for the lives, livelihoods and well-being of citizens are nowhere to be found. Consequently, citizens in the Amhara region and beyond, led by Fano and Amhara Popular Forces, are resisting and mounting a mass popular resistance movement and insurgency against Abiy’s tyranny.
The inevitable downfall of an incompetent Machiavellian
While Abiy may fancy himself an adept practitioner of Machiavellian realpolitik, he is failing miserably. According to Machiavelli, in the quest to attain power and rule, leaders must ensure that the people they lead don’t despise them. In the words of Machiavelli, “a king must guard against being despised and hated”, both by political elites and the public. Furthermore, Machiavelli continues: “a man who becomes king … must make it an absolute priority to win over the affection of the common people“, or that “sensible rulers and well-run states have done all they can … to keep the people happy and satisfied; indeed, this is one of a ruler’s most important tasks.” This “most important task” is largely why oil rich Arab gulf states, which are authoritarian and whom Abiy is attempting to emulate— though he doesn’t have the resources— provide generous social safety net programs to their oppressed masses. In this most fundamental Machiavellian tenet, Abiy is an abysmal failure.
The groundswell of mass discontent at home and abroad is indicative of how much Abiy is now despised. A confluence of factors has fueled this phenomenon, including the devastating civil war in Tigray, his latest and ongoing war on Amhara, ethnic polarization, ethnic violence and forced displacement, economic mismanagement, rising poverty, inflation, a chronic foreign exchange shortage, drought, public sector corruption, and an administrative system attempting to institute an Oromo ethnic hegemony.
More significantly, citizens have come to despise Abiy’s maniacal use of military force including: 1) targeting innocent civilians with drone strikes; 2) carrying out extrajudicial killings; and 3) arbitrarily detaining civilians without due process. The discontent has become so palpable that a member of parliament, the honorable Christian Tadele, asked Abiy if he would consider resigning for the sake of the Republic. Rather than answer the question sincerely, Abiy sent his hit squad to beat, arrest, and imprison a member of parliament that is afforded immunity against prosecution by the Constitution.
Furthermore, another illustration of why Abiy is so despised by the public is his harrowing and infamous comment about planting trees over dead bodies. In a televised address before parliament, when asked about the thousands of civilians being massacred due to their Amhara ethnicity, rather than show empathy, contrition and resolve to address the issue; Abiy callously replied: “even if they are dead, we will plant trees, so their corpse enjoy the shade.” This is the epitome of Abiy Ahmed: a power craven politician turned tyrant that doesn’t offer empathy, compassion, support, and solidarity to citizens stricken by disaster, let alone visit them— whether they be in IDP camps, drought affected areas, or his home region of Oromia where ethnic pogroms against Amharas have become commonplace. It is beyond comprehension that, in 5 years, Abiy has never visited citizens who have been struck by human-induced or natural disasters, including IDPs.
In sum, increasing socioeconomic deprivation, ceaseless conflict, and tyranny have led citizens to despise, reject, and resist Abiy’s regime. If Ethiopia were a democratic system and a vote of no confidence were to be held, Abiy would be unceremoniously removed from office. But of course, Ethiopia isn’t a democracy; thus, a popular armed resistance is currently underway to remove the widely reviled and despised tyrant.
Towards a just & fair future for all
Ethiopia must chart a new course towards a just and fair future for all citizens. In doing so, a credible and inclusive social contract rooted in equality, justice, and the rule of law is paramount. This will require the audacious and galvanizing project of moving away from ethnic federalism towards citizenship-based federalism. It’s time for Ethiopia to turn the page on ethnic federalism— the epitome of identity politics and the politics of division. A failed system is being exploited by the few ethnonationalist politicians at the expense of citizens and the social fabric of Ethiopian society. To this end, rather than the tyranny and Machiavellian zero-sum approach that permeates Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, a more promising political orientation— political liberalism— that draws on the wisdom of a Rawlsian conception of justice, a Lockian social contract, and credible democratization must be our new collective endeavor.