Abiy Ahmed: Blazing Meteor or Rising Comet?

The resolution of the crisis the EPRDF finds itself in will depend on the outcome of the interactions of the old guard, the new leadership and the public at large, writes Tsedeke Yihunie, founder of Flintstone Engineering & Homes, a real-estate and construction firm.

The Economist used a glimpse of an outlandish restaurant perched on the cliffs of Lalibela as a lead for its story on Ethiopia published on January 2, 2016, headlined, “What if they were really set free.”

“If the government lets people breathe, they might fly”, the weekly magazine quipped.

On June 23, 2018, the citizens of Addis Abeba were poised to show support for their new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed (PhD, a man highly bent on setting many things free.

People were flocking into the iconic Meskel Square starting from the early hours of the morning; euphoric in Abiy-emblazoned-shirts and waving starless tri-colour flags. The Prime Minister appeared half an hour earlier for his usual rousing speech, at the end of which an explosion went off in the middle of the crowd leading to two fatalities.

He was quickly but quietly taken into safety. Considering the size of the rally, there was only a little stampede. Within minutes, people were telling each other to calm down and dispersed unhurriedly; their solidarity and spirits unshaken.

But there was an additional cause for sadness. Many believed this was the act of an enemy from inside the government. Social media were hyping the suspicion with claims it is a sign of a severe split in the EPRDF; surmises reinforced more when the media later in the day announced the arrest of several people, including the deputy commissioner of the city of Addis Abeba.

Some in the leadership may not have been supportive, or may even have been hostile to the new prime minister. But to imagine part of the EPRDF will be murderous to their own leader is an abhorrent thought. Terrorism seldom has a face – one reason why it terrifies us so much.

Notwithstanding who is responsible, the security of the person of Abiy has now become a matter of strategic significance to the country. This may be a matter of fact under any circumstance, but in the case of the present office holder, the ubiquity, conspicuity and mobility displayed by the Prime Minister have thus far been unprecedented in contemporary Ethiopian history.

Chauffeuring an emir around the city, jumping into a playing field full of spear-wielding equestrians and planning to take a leap of faith into Meskel Square right before an explosion goes off are dangerous cocktails for a leader that has arguably the highest ever rating in a country besieged by several neighbouring conflicts.

It begs the question: Is Abiy poised to be a blazing meteor or a guiding comet to the people of the Land of Origins?

The way our star goes may depend on the following three: the public; the new leaders of the EPRDF, called Team Lemma by many; and the EPRDF veterans, referred to us the old guard by some.

Abiy’s rhetoric may sound to some an atavism to the unitary nationalist state, and his meteoric rise may look like the revival, if not the ascent, of a persistent individualism unbridled by the common senses of ethnic federalism. However, a closer look does not reveal any difference in ideology or even of social objectives between the new and old leadership of the EPRDF.

I am comparing the moralistic points of departures for the virtues proclaimed not the follies practised by the old and new leaders. The difference seems more in the method than in the case argued.

True to the writings of Ulfred Paretto on the circulation of elites  – where elites are merely replaced by that of another – the new team seems to replace the forceful methods of convincing by cunning persuasion appropriate to modern occasions. A photogenic, multilingual leader that fits smartly into the varieties of attire and traditions he has thus far donned does better than guns and uniforms.

Charm notwithstanding, the EPRDF, old or new, knows that its political fate rests on farmers and pastoralists and that its geographic base has remained primarily rural. The revolutionary democrats will only become the social democrats if and only they manage to transform the landed rural class into a modern urban bourgeoisie, as a politically formidable middle class.

That is, the delivery of the Growth & Transformation Plan’s (GTPs) declared goals of good governance, including free and fair local or national elections, needs to be a common EPRDF priority.

From the remarks made by veteran leaders, one can summarise that the current leadership is unfairly being criticised for political expediency. This includes the heightened role of the executive, the relegation of ethnic federalism, a new sense of individualism forsaking utilitarianism for absolutism, economic liberalising and abandoning revolutionary democracy and Machiavellian manipulations instead of rude awakenings of the Marxian kind.

However, collective leadership in the EPRDF has long been weakened since the rift within the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in the early 2000s. If anything, the new leadership, if only as a matter of survival, has shown the presence of shared responsibility reminiscent of the 1990s.

That the elders are sidelined in this process is an affliction caused more by age and less from an ideological difference. As to unitarist versus federalist, the Prime Minister’s admonishment of various nationalist groups and business people suspected of ultra-nationalist sentiments including his reference to the Knesset, the legislative branch of the Israeli government, in parliament reflects the true spirit of the constitution.

It is that we should respect the right to separate with article 39 and celebrate the obligation to unify with article 88.

And when the EPRDF chairman suddenly talks revealingly about his regal ambition as motivation to his new cabinet, one cannot but question the ruling coalition’s prevailing ideology and somehow imagine the hair on the back of the old guard standing in response to such a recount. But a candid revelation of one’s ambition as a child does not necessarily prove one’s steadfast philosophy.

The competition between the utilitarian, as in Jeremy Bentham or Stuart Mill, and the absolute as in Emmanuel Kant or Karl Marx (yes, I consider Marx an absolutist), has always raged in the political undercurrents of the EPRDF. The use of torture and snipers has remained to be a very repulsive but utilitarian policy of the Front. The recent decision to release political leaders, activists and journalists, no matter the incriminating offence, was a daring yet absolutist decision, by which both old and new EPRDF should take pride.

And in that sense, the EPRDF will continue to fight among itself philosophically, as it remains a Front with a myriad collection of moralistic people, and every battle within will often be resolved reflecting the philosophy prevalent in the sentiments of the nation over which the Front is presiding. The present will be no different. The Prime Minister will prevail as long as his philosophy, or that of the Front’s follows its cue from the people albeit with a nudge in the direction he considers better for everyone.

Even his looming economic reforms will not be judged by elitist discourse containing terms such as “neoliberalism,” “rent-seeking” or “developmentalism”. They will more likely be condoned or condemned based on Deng Xiaoping’s “Cat Theory”: it shall not matter what colour the cat is, so long as it catches mice.

Despite the seeming indifference in ideology, one cannot deny that the EPRDF is in a crisis of considerable proportion. The resolution of this critical state will depend on the outcome from the interactions of the old guard, the new leadership and the public at large. These interactions will lead to several options out of the crisis.

There are but a few most optimistic scenarios.

The old guard may concede to complete domination of the Front by the new leadership, declaring in unambiguous terms that the old and new fight for common popular goals but not necessarily in the same ways.

And that both will continue to fight for their beliefs as in one veteran’s words, “out of payroll, not out of fight.”

Or there could be a lack of consensus that leads to a break-up of the EPRDF into its respective ethnic groups and the rearrangement of a new coalition by each faction’s ability to persuade. As the Prime Minister’s reference to the Knesset, the most fragmented democratic parliament in the world, suggests it is a fate that may likely end up to be ours too, given the diversity and the loose alignment of the five parties allied to the EPRDF.

Perhaps both scenarios will not come to fruition, and the stalemate may precipitate unification of the EPRDF, maybe even including as many of the five allied parties as possible. This may be followed by a constitutional rearrangement of the federal structure targeting a more powerful executive body at both the federal and regional levels.

Bar unification, the factions may instead engage in a protracted state of hostilities, waiting for one or the other to slip from public grace or slide into irrelevance. This will be playing with fire, leading to a country-wide turmoil, and the creation of an unfortunate fifth option that is not at all optimistic and from which only an external enemy can take advantage.

A few days before the fateful EPRDF council meeting was to take place, a council member asked me to guess the likely choice of the council.

“Judging from history, probably Sheferaw [Shigute], whom few people would like but given current politics, the odds favour Demeke [Mekonnen],” I replied. “However, if, in one in a million chance, Abiy is elected, then both you guys and Ethiopia will hit a political jackpot.”

When we met after the election, he gushed that I hit the million-dollar jackpot. Indeed, I did, as millions of others had but more so for the EPRDF. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organisation (OPDO), an EPRDF-savior, executed the ascent of their candidate from start to finish with a political masterstroke that was breathtaking as well as surreal.

Breathtaking because of its speed, spread and a mockingly deceptive disarray. Surreal, because these were actions orchestrated within a very undemocratic Front with no such experience in the past. Or so it seemed.

The election of the OPDO’s candidate as the chairman and subsequent Prime Minister of the EPRDF government has saved Ethiopia from the brink of state failure. We need not forget we ratified the second State of Emergency on the 122nd celebration of that pan-African pride – the Battle of Adwa.

Hence, that the old should graciously usher the era of the young is an inescapable imperative. But no parent has ever yielded control to a sibling without a grudge.

A much younger friend once said to me insightfully: “It is us, children, who ought to understand our parents. We are graced with two perspectives on life. One of our own and another of our parents’.”

Doubtlessly, the old will suffer from the tender rebound of letting go and the new from holding tight on a novel power. Yet, the sibling should rise to the degree of sensitivity required for the occasion and the old must show its support with sincere humility. Together they must set a unifying political agenda such as the upcoming local and general elections and do as such by showing rapport that will leave no room for doubt.

Recently, a friend and a member of the establishment resentful of the changes made by the new movement in the EPRDF accused the new leaders of practising the manipulative patterns depicted in the “Prince,” a 16th Century book by Nicollo Machiavelli.

Many have used these pieces of advice for centuries, but few may have followed the best of all.

It is on how to maintain “civil principalities”: “one cannot by fair dealing without injury to others satisfy the nobles, but you can satisfy the people, for their object is more righteous than that of the nobles; the latter wishing to oppress while the former only desire not to be oppressed.”

The advice does not stop with such benignity, continuing, “from those nobles who fail to follow you, you ought to make use of those who are of good counsel … But when for their own ambitious end they are giving more thoughts to themselves than to you … fear them as if they were open enemies.”

The elite have always passed on the means of their preservation to the next generation of elites when it comes of age. And I will not be surprised if, in the use of medieval pieces of advice, the apple falls not far from the EPRDF tree. As in the “Prince,” there is always the excuse of novelty for clemency as well as for cruelty.

By Tsedeke Yihunie
Tsedeke Yihunie, founder of Flintstone Engineering & Homes, a real-estate and construction firm.

Published on Jul 07,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 949]



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