A year on from his Nobel peace prize, critics accuse Abiy Ahmed’s government of an authoritarian shift.
Last fall, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia stood in Oslo’s City Hall to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and a shower of international praise. His efforts to restart peace talks with Eritrea and reform his country after decades of political and economic repression had brought him global recognition.
Fast forward a year, and the prime minister’s failure to foster peace at home threatens to tarnish his international posterchild image and raises questions about Ethiopia’s ability to transition its economy and democracy peacefully.
Since coming to power in 2018, Abiy has embarked on an ambitious reform drive aimed at implementing policies to open the country’s once padlocked economic and governing culture. Thousands of political prisoners have been released; once banned parties have been allowed to register; and legislation has been passed to liberalize the telecoms sector and boost digital investments.
The European Union, and others, have taken notice, jumping at the chance to find a partner in Africa they could work with. The day after her formal inauguration in December, Ursula von der Leyen chose Ethiopia’s capital for her first foreign visit as Commission president. The trip to Addis Ababa, which is also the home of the African Union, was a “political statement,” she declared.
Welcoming von der Leyen, Abiy thanked her for the gesture. “I would also like to express my appreciation for selecting Ethiopia,” he said.
[pullquote]”Very seldom has the legacy of a Nobel laureate been questioned so early, already during the first year incumbency.” — Kjetil Tronvoll, professor at Bjorknes University in Oslo.[/pullquote]
But in the year since he became a Nobel laureate, hundreds of Ethiopians have died either at the hands of security forces or in violence that has erupted between Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups.
Thousands of anti-government protesters, opposition activists and politicians have been arrested amid claims Abiy’s government is denying them their right for greater autonomy from the central government.
“Very seldom has the legacy of a Nobel laureate been questioned so early, already during the first year incumbency,” said Kjetil Tronvoll, professor of peace and conflict studies at Bjorknes University in Oslo.
“It seems clear that the political transition has stalled, and the government is relapsing to authoritarian practices,” he said, adding that necessary checks and balances were not in place.
“Domestically, the past one year has been fraught with violence, instability and repression of political opponents,” said Marishet Mohammed Hamza, a former lecturer at the Wolayta Sodo University School of Law, who is now studying at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
“Taking the recent instances alone, the incarceration of major political figures without viable charges hitherto casts doubt on his promise to ensure political reforms.”
The crackdown is partly the result of Abiy’s earlier moves to open up. His unbanning of Ethiopian opposition and rebel groups has stoked political fragmentation and long-suppressed rivalries among ethnic communities, leading regional groups to intensify calls for greater independence. Reforms have also faced mounting opposition from anti-government groups and within the ruling party.
In Oromia, the country’s largest region, many are furious at the arrest of Jawar Mohammed, a one-time ally of Abiy who has fast evolved into his greatest foe. Jawar was charged this week with inciting ethnic violence and terrorism following the deaths of more than 160 people in June and July after the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo singer and champion of the Oromo ethnic group.
Many members of the Oromo ethnic group accuse Abiy’s government of unfairly targeting its members merely because of their political beliefs. The arrest of Hussein Kedir, a member of Jawar’s party and an associate professor at the Addis Ababa University, on July 4 has added to that mistrust.
He remains in jail despite the court granting him bail, according to Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition Oromo Federalist Congress. One of Hussein’s closest friends, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, also confirmed he was still incarcerated. Unresolved killings of local administrators and high-profile officials have contributed to anti-government feeling.
Adding to Abiy’s woes is a recently-held local election in the northern Tigray region whose ruling Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was in power nationally for nearly three decades until 2018. The TPLF is staunchly opposed to Abiy’s decision to postpone national elections until next year due to the coronavirus and held its own vote despite the government deeming it illegal.
“I can tell you for certain that the international community has really understood the true nature of this government, that it’s not only a threat to peace and security of this country, even to the region,” said Wondimu Asamnew, director general of the Tigray Friendship Liaison Office, which lobbies the international community to withdraw support from Abiy.
The government this week offered its most robust response yet to the recent unrest. Speaking to reporters at the prime minister’s office, Ethiopia’s Attorney General Gedion Timothewos said more than 2,000 suspects have been charged with crimes in relation to the violence.
“There were hundreds of people that have been directly affected by the violence these individuals have instigated and incited,” he said, when asked to respond to accusations that the charges are politically motivated.
“We have to distinguish between peaceful, lawful political mobilization and the kind of ultra-nationalist, militant, violent political activism that results in deaths and injury of citizens,” he said.
Billene Seyoum, the prime minister’s spokesperson, insisted that the government is committed to reform. “There is speculation that has been spun around at various intervals that some of the incidents that have occurred over the past few months may have derailed the reforms process. That is absolutely not true,” she said.
The prime minister’s defenders note that Abiy and his officials admit that it will be hard to avoid bumps along the road of such an ambitious transition.
“We have no illusion that this would be a smooth ride and there have been stiff challenges along the way,” Abiy told world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly earlier this week. “Rest assured that we remain committed to the objective of democratization, and we will pursue our reform efforts with all the necessary political commitment.”
And he signaled he was still signed up to the U.N. script with a robust defense of multilateralism. “The world needs global leadership and collective action,” he declared.
But at home, tension between Abiy’s pan-Ethiopian ideology and divergent regional and ethnic political power bases was inevitable. The president has urged Ethiopians to move beyond their ethnic differences and engage in a bold nation-building project based on his self-styled philosophy known as “Medemer” — which loosely translates from Amharic as “synergy.”
The economic benefits from his government’s rule have been obvious — in the capital at least. Addis Ababa’s skyline is fast changing as new hotels, high-rise buildings and factories pop up. A skyscraper that will serve as the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia’s headquarters is nearing completion and Abiy cut the ribbon at a new artificial intelligence research and development facility on Sunday.
But Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people, a situation compounded by devastating floods, a locust invasion and massive economic fallout from the pandemic.
As next year’s election approaches, Ethiopia’s future, and the president’s Nobel legacy, hang finely in the balance.
In a tweet this week Abiy borrowed from a speech by civil rights activist Malcolm X. “You’re not to be so blind with patriotism that you can’t face reality,” he wrote. “Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it.”
But the title of that speech perhaps says more to Abiy’s critics about the way his government plans to achieve its aims: “By any means necessary.”