By Teshome M. Borago
A new Prime Minister is named in Ethiopia, as Dr. Abiy Ahmed became the first self-identifying Oromo leader in the history of the EPRDF ruling party. Many Oromo nationalists worldwide are celebrating, but strangely, so are many of their current and former foes.
It has been a bizarre period in modern Ethiopian politics as virtually all Ethiopian politicians have praised the same man, Abiy, and depicted his rise as a victory for their own political agenda. No matter how contradicting their reasoning appears, every Ethiopian seems to manufacture their own interpretation of who Abiy is and what Abiy represents.
So far, Abiy’s gentle and likable persona with his humble characteristics has temporarily won over even his critics. However, politically, the reaction to his reign is contradictory since people who have criticized EPRDF the last 27 years, are now praising its leader. This unusually irreconcilable and confusing portrayal of Abiy might be due to his diverse background; but it could also be because Abiy is actually an unknown figure in politics. In reality, not many people really know what he truly believes; as he appears to have no stable stance on any subject matter. Abiy often ignores and zigzags around important topics; like the deadly apartheid-federalism in the constitution, the dangerous tribalism & nativism phenomenon in the Amhara/Oromia/Somali regions, the controversial land disputes in Addis & Welkait as well as the coldblooded massacres by Abiy’s own TPLF colleagues.
For Abiy’s fans, It appears that him saying “I apologize” and “We are sorry” during his PM acceptance speech is enough to erase all the EPRDF crimes of the past and the present; including the current imprisonment of opposition leaders Andualem Aragie, Andargachew Tsige, Eskinder Nega and co.
The odd mixture of congratulations for the new Prime Minister have come from all corners of the political spectrum. Some of the positive reactions to this new EPRDF leader are given by personalities who were known to previously despise the ruling party. Even Ethiopian nationalists; who are allergic to the backward tribalism represented by the ethnic-based protests and politics, seem to warm up to Dr. Abiy recently.
For example, Abebe Gellaw, an Ethiopian nationalist and the director of the popular ESAT tv, focused on Abiy’s identity instead of Abiy’s controversial political party. Abebe refused to label the new Prime Minister as “Oromo” and instead used the word “Oromara,” which means an Ethiopian born from mixed Oromo and Amhara parents. Abebe said we must “appreciate the diversity within Dr. Abiy’s extended family that exemplifies the beauty and best of Ethiopia.”
Similarly, Gobena Merga, a NY/NJ area human rights activist, expressed his “high respect” for Dr. Abiy, asking that all Ethiopians continue to empower the new Prime Minister by putting pressure on TPLF. Also, Prof. Messay Kebede, another personality from the Ethiopian nationalist camp said there are “high expectations” for Dr. Abiy as “a candidate committed to a reformist agenda.” Similarly, Dr. Berhanu Nega said Abiy’s election is “a step in the right direction.”
Even the UDJ opposition party leader, Andualem Aragie, who previously labeled ethnic politics as “barbaric,” had positive things to say about Dr. Abiy Ahmed. Andualem told this writer that Abiy has “a unique opportunity to inspire change from the inside out,” during a phone conversation. Unfortunately, Andualem was sent back to prison the next day.
Unlike Ethiopian nationalists who are late to join this lovefest, most Amhara nationalists have already been fond of Dr. Abiy since early 2017 after his OPDO partner Lemma Megersa made speeches that promoted Oromo-Amhara unity. That solidarity between Oromo nationalists and Amhara nationalists was also manifested at the ballot box, when both OPDO and ANDM unanimously voted for Dr. Abiy last week. From the popular Oromo nationalist Jawar Mohammed, to Bekele Gerba and Lencho Leta, to the respected Oromo activist Dr. Awol Allo, virtually every notable Oromo personality has praised Dr. Abiy Ahmed.
However, the most unusual support came from pro-TPLF Tigrayans in Ethiopia and the Diaspora. The premier TPLF online mouthpiece, AIGAFORUM, was filled with congratulatory messages and letters to Dr. Abiy, including by their renowned UTNA organization. In fact, some Tigrayans were proud and suggested that an Oromo leader for EPRDF will cement Meles Zenawi’s ethnic-federalism (segregation) legacy; and depicted the “peaceful transition of power” as a historic event made possible by their sacrifices during TPLF’s armed struggle against the Derg regime. Another pro-TPLF media, Ethiopian Reporter, published an in-depth article on Dr. Abiy’s biography and mentioned how Abiy built the “Meles Zenawi Secondary School” in Oromia in honor of the former TPLF dictator. Even TPLF’s famous leader Debretsion gave a speech recently, claiming that he did not object to Dr. Abiy becoming the new prime minister.
Not only influential personalities but also average Ethiopians nationwide have been in celebration mode, including on social media. But after all this adoration for Dr. Abiy, when he starts to actually govern (and potentially disappoint his followers), how long this love affair with Abiy will survive, is the real question. There are many signs that the status quo will remain. For example, TPLF head Debretsion recently said that Dr. Abiy will not have full power like Meles Zenawi, adding that the EPRDF executive has established a post-Meles “collective leadership” decision making policy. Unfortunately, Debretsion’s statements might be the only ones that matter on the ground.
Abiy’s best chance to save his popularity might be to avoid doing too many video/audio interviews and remain rhetorically vague during crisis, or stay invisible from the public eye as long as he can. In this scenario, It is quite possible that no matter how bad and bloody things get in Ethiopia under Abiy’s tenure; people might not blame him and they will likely point fingers at the TPLF bosses. Since the militarily powerful TPLF already has a 27 years strong reputation for human rights abuses, random arrests, indiscriminate killings and massacres; Prime Minister Abiy may not face direct criticism unless things get completely out of control.
But the situation does not need to get to that level. According to the former United States Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Herman Cohen, Dr. Abiy must quickly and “boldly pursue democratic reforms and defy power brokers behind the scene.” He told the new Prime Minister that “the International community is with you.”
Will that be enough? Maybe, maybe not. After-all, if the TPLF deep state feels like it can simply ignore Dr. Abiy, with no consequences, then that is exactly what it will do. This is when the people must come into play once again. The Ethiopian American Civic Council and Diaspora activists have recently convinced several US congressman to use House Resolution 128 to put travel ban and sanctions on TPLF military leaders responsible for human rights abuses. Similarly, according to Prof. Messay Kebede, street protests must continue in Ethiopia after Dr. Abiy’s confirmation. Otherwise, TPLF might assume it can go back to business as usual: looting the country, criminalizing dissent and keeping Tigrayan supremacy in the security, judiciary and all vital institutions of the nation. Peaceful change is not easy and it will take more than Dr. Abiy for it to succeed. As long as Dr. Abiy does not become a TPLF apologist like Hailemariam Desalegn; and as long as Dr. Abiy continues to talk like an honorable African statesman and stand with the people, then the people should stand with him until the end. Then maybe, he might actually fulfill the hopes and dreams of a whole nation and live up to his billing.