For all intents and purposes, Abiy Ahmed (PhD) behaves and acts presidential, as if he was elected by a popular mandate. His support base forcefully rallied behind him on June 23, 2018, and he has responded in a similar manner.
For many in the public, it matters very little that he was elected by 170 of the 180 Council members of the ruling EPRDF. Nor do they seem to mind that he is an elected chairman of a party whose policies and practices many of them detest. This is in large part due to his inspirational rhetoric and his courage in freeing many from incarceration and opening the stage for free expressions of thoughts. However some of these views may be deemed extreme by the status quo, although the public see him as their leader who has invoked hope and the promise of a better future.
It was regrettable that the rally was cut short by a grenade attack, an apparent attempt on Abiy`s life and to an attempt to incite deadly violence. By all means, employing violent methods to advance political ends should be denounced in no uncertain terms. It is appropriate to echo Prime Minister Abiy`s characterisation of the incident as an act of cowardice and defeatists’ reaction to the unprecedented evolution in Ethiopia`s political landscape. Condolences to the families of the victims are in order.
Abiy may not be a popularly elected president. Many of those who turned up at Mesqel Square may not even have voted for the ruling party which controls Parliament and confirmed him as a Prime Minister. However, their right to rally behind him should be respected. Abiy is a legitimate leader of this country, hence any use of force or palace intrigue to unseat him will be morally unacceptable, unconstitutional and illegal.
It is rare to find a cross-section of Ethiopians rallying behind a leader as it is the case with Abiy. Four-fifths of those sampled in a public opinion poll by a research firm, WAAS International, have a favourable view of the Prime Minister. Despite their varied opinions, they seem to be captivated by his message of unity, liberty, and justice. The survey is a mere formality, not a confirmation of his popularity since that Abiy is a popular leader is beyond any question.
Public acceptance of a leader or a party helps democracy mature, enhances civic participation and opens up deliberations on government policies and programs. It also compels policymakers and legislators to pay attention to issues that matter most to the public.
The social contract can be strengthened, with citizens becoming more engaged in public affairs. They would be less likely to lose faith in democratic institutions even in times of electoral or contractual disputes.
But widespread support is not benign, especially in a country where political settlements are not the tradition, and power remains un-institutionalised. Political capital may begin to dissipate as popular policies become less so, or if the administration fails to keep its promises.
It is necessary to measure democracy by how much autonomy is given to public institutions, the strength of opposition parties and how engaged the public is about the political processes. Even for a leader with the best of intentions, it may be difficult to resist the temptation to turn into an autocrat.
It is an era when strongmen are rising across the world, as is evident with Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Viktor Orban who are undermining the rule of law in the name of the common good and nationalism.
Given the fragility of the political and economic situation, Ethiopia is a fertile ground for popular politics that has currently taken hold. All the key historical ingredients that facilitate the state to fall prey to the concentrated political power of a single individual exists.
The most dangerous element is a frustrated public, particularly the youth, which has no trust in the democratic institutions. It is a portion of the citizenry that is convinced that laws and representatves are unable to address core socio-economic problems.
Amidst the current euphoria, three developments should cause for much concern and worry: the politics of taunting; the potential for the making of an autocrat; and the rise of tyranny of the majority.
This is compounded by the perceptible lack of checks and balances throughout the state’s institutions, where the use of force and abuse of the public resources have not been subject to any accountability. On top of these is a stressful macroeconomic situation that lately has come to be felt by consumers as the price of goods has escalated.
What is unique today is the emergence of a leader who has been able to channel the public’s frustration and draw from the broad support to set his agendas and affect changes.
To be fair, Abiy’s ability to connect with people, articulate his vision and lead by example is no an easy feat. He has called on zone administrators to turn in their resignation letters holding them responsible for the conflicts that took place under their watch. There are also promising dialogues going on with previously outlawed opposition parties. Both developments are significant steps toward democratic liberalization. He is on a speeding train to change Ethiopia`s political culture.
But a sober appraisal to his influence is overdue. As a man with enormous political capital and whose casual exercise of power has captivated the public, he has the momentum to transform his party and society. That this changes could lead to future regrettable circumstances, if left unchecked, should be acknowledged.
There are ways of counter this. Political influence, created by unprecedented public support, can be effectively checked and challenged by autonomous institutions, strong opposition parties, proactive civil society groups and a dynamic media landscape.
Sadly, Ethiopia`s opposition parties are in tatters, civil societies are ineffective and the media is devoid of progressive elements in its rank and file. The democratic institutions and the judiciary have yet to recover from two decades of relentless assault on their autonomy by the ruling party`s hegemonic desires.
There is much to celebrate in Abiy’s honesty, energy, sense of social justice, and his advocacy for economic parity and political liberalization.
Ethiopia has illiberal ways when dealing with political discourses and is in need of civility. In the absence of institutional limits to his power, Abiy appears to have little choice but to surround himself with the proverbial “yes men and women,” and serve a public disarmed by his charm and rhetoric. This is a cautionary tale in the annals of history that has led many to their demise.