Commentary: The long, daunting journey of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed


Alem Mamo

Addis Abeba, June 07/2018 – Barely two months into his new job as a Prime Minister, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has managed to simultaneously excite and alarm pretty much everybody. In Ethiopian political leadership this is no small feat, where offending the public has been the norm than the exception. During his judiciously sequenced marathon cross-country check-up, he delivered a cautious message in the west while hitting a conciliatory tone in the east. In the capital, Addis Abeba, he forcefully challenged the youth and business owners to “do their fair share.” Yes, his bid to steer away from the political landmines got him some troubles, generating an instant fury on the front lines of social media, but many seem to get over it quickly.

Perhaps the most drastic of all changes so far are the announcement on Tuesday of the two major policy shifts: Eritrea and the economy, which need separate reflections.  All of these happened in just two months. Of course, it is not yet the same as Lenin’s “there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” However, given the fact that a few months ago the country seemed on the verge of catastrophe, incremental as one might think of these changes, the steps the new prime minister endeavors are laudable and praiseworthy.

Substance aside, the dreary language of ‘revolutionary democracy’, ‘developmental state’, ‘enemies of peace’, among others, are are gradually retiring, and they may not be used in the Ethiopian political vocabulary again, with luck. The new prime minister infused a breath of fresh air into the often stale and mundane political oratory tone of the country. His grasp of the danger facing the country is well grounded, and his articulation of the difficulties is far from an academic exercise. The political and economic injustices within the compartmentalized booths of identity politics compelled the young leader to play the role of a parent for children who are vying for attention with competing needs and demands. On each visit, he faced a loud chorus and extensive list of demands. In return he cautioned and placated his audience to lower their godly expectations. “I am just a son of an ordinary farmer not a God,” he said once, cautioning his audience that he is an ordinary man with extraordinary responsibility.

No honeymoon

Incoming leaders often savoir a grace period while putting together their ‘team’ and feel the comfort or discomfort of the chair, at least for a few months. Obviously, this is not the case for the new prime minister. Literally, he has hit the ground running to calm the exasperated and frustrated citizenry. While the problems facing him are copious, his main shortage is time. “How much time does he have?” is the most frequently asked question in the circles of Ethiopian communities inside and outside the country. Certainly, forty-four years under two successive authoritarian rules is too hard to endure. The collective trauma of the people has depleted their patience, and this has been precisely demonstrated over the last four years. An exhausted citizenry cannot be impugned for being impatient. It appears, though, the prime minister is intimately aware of this extraordinary urgency.

Deconstructing the old and constructing anew  

The intricate challenges facing the new prime minister are overwhelming. Among the challenges that hold the PM’s immediate attention are the tasks of deconstructing the political, economic and social narratives, structures and institutions. The primary approaches employed by the TPLF dominated ruling party EPRDF over the last three decades have been divisive and polarizing. By inflating identity and manipulating real and imaginary historical events, the ruling cliques have created walls between the country’s diverse ethnic groups as a strategy to consolidate and monopolize power, both political and economic. Deconstructing institutions and replacing them with an inclusive structure could take some time. However, at least in his speeches Prime Minister Abiy has already given priority to deconstructing these divisive narratives.

As a peace and security expert himself, the PM seems to be keenly aware of the power of narratives and symbolism. Thus, he is gradually building positive, uplifting and uniting narratives.  Peace building in post-conflict and traumatized societies, such as Ethiopia, takes different forms and paths; deconstructing the narratives of violence and constructing the narratives of peace and togetherness is one key component of it.  It is against this backdrop that the prime minister is attempting to lay the groundwork for long-term peace building and national reconciliation task ahead.

The status quo is mortally wounded but not yet dead. For this reason, it is high time for all pro-democracy forces to come together and push in one direction instead of making a fragmented effort left and right. The task ahead could be more complex and more challenging than the past. Forces of darkness could attempt to hijack the new direction and pull it back where it was for the last twenty-seven years. Hence, pro-democracy forces should remain vigilant and highly disciplined. They must also concede the fact that the new political reality may require re-calibration and alteration to their tactics and strategies to be more suitable to the emerging dynamics.

Parallel state   

Lately we have been hearing the term ‘deep state’ in political contexts globally. In Ethiopia, however, it is the ‘parallel state’[1] that best describes the reality of power centers. There are two forms of power in the country. One is the ‘official’ state with a known head and office; the second one is a parallel state that is comprised of individuals exclusively connected with party cliques. The leaders of the parallel state in Ethiopia may be determined to rescue the wounded status quo, despite the non-existent support from the public. It is in this context that all pro-democracy forces must come together with the sense of urgency. The engineers of the parallel state should not be given any opening to revive the status quo. Therefore, all pro-democracy groups inside and outside the country must find a way to support and strengthen the hands of the prime minister, as he must work with them toward the goal of establishing a true democracy.

Dialogue with the diaspora and opposition

For PM Abiy swaying and winning the hearts and minds of the Ethiopian diaspora could prove to be difficult but not impossible. The relationship between the Ethiopian diaspora and the present regime remains to be strained, to say the least. There are a considerable number within the diaspora who fled persecution and injustice under the current government. Moreover, the diaspora is traditionally the stronghold of the opposition. Its material, political and moral support plays crucial role for pro-democracy movements inside and outside the country.

It appears the opposition, both inside and outside the country, has been caught by surprise on the new prime minister’s willingness and bold steps towards change. Most the opposition is still processing and trying to figure out the new prime minister’s positive actions before offering an official response. This is not surprising for two reasons. First, the possibility of change from within is something unfamiliar in the Ethiopian political discourse. The familiar pattern of change is often designed and executed by external forces followed by overthrowing the incumbent and dismantling public institutions. Thus, oppositions’ way of thinking is cluttered with suspicion that there might be a high-stakes game at play. Second, the absence of trust between government and the opposition is a critical problem that needs to be addressed through various trust-building exercises. Since the prime minister has managed to deliver on his key promises, the opposition should reciprocate and extend its support without delay. The pace of change taking place by the new administration must be acknowledged. The usual deliberation process is not compatible with the prevailing reality of the country. Here, time is the essence.

Controlled revolution of reform?

Before using the word ‘revolution’ I must confess my uneasiness with the term itself and would like to offer a few words of dark historical milieu. I am acutely mindful of the fact that the word ‘revolution’ is linked with the recent traumatic history of this great country. The images engraved in our minds are poignant and nightmarish: A ruthless  tyrant proclaiming ‘Red Terror’ against citizens from a city square podium. It is a word utilized to rationalize extrajudicial killings. It is linked with decomposing bodies of young men and women on the streets with hand scribbled placards that read ‘Red Terror’. Parents and relatives expected to reimburse the price of a bullet(s) used to end their children’s lives. Fathers and sons shackled together and shot on the spot. Young men and women being tortured until they are unable to stand up or walk. 50-60 people stuffed in a small jail cell and alternating in a ‘shift’ to sleep or lie down. Parents wandering from one prison to the other searching for their children who were kidnapped in early morning hours. These and many other painful and grotesque acts of brutality are the defining characters of the recent ‘revolution’ or ‘Abiyot’ in the Amharic language.

In Ethiopia, the word ‘revolution’ is deplored for the brutality and savagery it brought. It is a word that transports us back to catastrophe, loss, pain and tragedy. But can we talk about it in past tense? As if it is something we left behind and passed on to historians to narrate and interpret? While the moaning sounds of tortured men and women still echo beyond the walls of the dark dungeons and on to our hills and mountains?  How could we refer to this as the ‘past’ while still young men are being castrated for reporting the truth? How could we see a better today while we still wait for our heroes and mentors to be released from jail for no crime other than preaching freedom and justice? In chronological terms, yes, we can feel relief from the ‘past’ atrocities simply because they are ‘past.’ But the brutality of the present is not much different. Perhaps history is destined to repeating itself at least in this country. As William Faulkner wrote, ‘the past is never dead. It is not even past”[i]

The convergence of our past and present haunts us daily. It is like being pursued from both ends of the street with no escape route. The nightmare of our recent past is at play with the horrors of our present. What is striking about the nightmare of yesterday and today is not the difference, but the similarity: the indistinguishable monotony and likeness of wholesale murder. Ostentatious ploys of cruelty packaged and delivered under the brand name of ‘revolutionary democracy.’ There is no distance or space between yesteryear and today because they are linked with the trail of the blood of our youth. This speaks true to our reality.  Little has changed since the demise of the military junta that ruled the country from 1974-1991. As we put our bodies on the line in the 21st century demanding fundamental change we are times lost for words. What do we call this epic struggle between good and evil, law and lawlessness, love and hate, retribution and justice?

The ‘Third revolution’

There is another movement in Ethiopia, with its own distinguishing ebb and flows. Over the last three years the ‘third revolution’ succeeded in shaking the status quo. Different from the contemporary characters of a revolution its primary base is rural. With no roaring crowd massed in a single city square. Instead, the third revolution has numerous centers. It is in the towns and villages where the resistance is organized and led. It is on the streets, market places, football stadiums, religious gatherings and all unexpected place where it is shaped and nurtured. In fact, it is in this scattered anonymity where it draws its resilience and unrelenting spirit.

The revolution may not have names such as ‘orange revolution’ or ‘Arab spring,’ but it is not faceless. It is the face of an uncompromising leaders such as Andargachew Tsige, Dr. Merera Gudina, renowned journalist Eskendir Nega, political activists Andualm Arage and Temsegen Zewdie, and many more. It is the face of young men and women marching fearlessly amid snipers taking aim at them. It is the sorrow of a mother wiping her tears after her daughter’s murder by the security forces. It is in the eyes of a mother holding a lifeless body of her young boy who was shot by security forces. It is the face of the children who grew up without one or both of their parents because they were locked up in the dark dungeons for their pro-democracy activism.

Since 1974 Ethiopia has gone through two revolutions. The first one was in 1974 which overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie. The popular uprising of the 1974 revolution was anchored on land reform and other political issues, such as democracy and economic justice and it a broad spectrum of the society. However, the revolution was hijacked by the military which monopolized power from 1974- 1991, turning the country into a one-party state.  After a long and bloody civil war, the TPLF/EPRDF overthrew the military regime in 1991 and established an authoritarian one-party state under the guise of phony coalition, effectively hijacking a broad and popular anti-junta struggle. The popular uprising that gained momentum over the last three years is an evolving revolution to make the current authoritarian regime the last dictatorship and establish an inclusive and institutional democracy. It is in this context that the new and young prime minister is attempting to lead the country towards a democratic path. Could the ‘third revolution’ be hijacked and the Ethiopian people face another trauma under a dictatorship? While there is no an easy answer to the question, it is important to recognize the fact that the country is not out of the woods yet.

Forces of change from within have managed to accomplish the impossible. So far, their report card shows a very good score. However, there is no guarantee the revolution will reach its desired destination and satisfy the demands of the people. The most recent Ethiopian history is a proof of this fact. Egypt, Libya, Syria and number of recent events could attest to this, as well. While full-fledged revolution is desirable to bring about fundamental change, it is also equally important to have an alternative track that could lead to a gradual transformation. In this regard, perhaps what we are observing is a controlled revolution led by forces of change from within, particularly by prime minister Abiy Ahmed and his close advisors.

Those who want to maintain the status quo are questioning his loyalty to the ‘revolutionary democracy’ which is EPRDF’s religion. On the other hand, those who are demanding fundamental change bemoan the ‘slow pace’ of change for re-configuring key institutions such as military, security and judiciary built by and to benefit especially the TPLF monopoly of power. The suffocating political environment of the last twenty-seven years has caused serious emotional and psychological injury to the public. The urgency of change and the restlessness of citizens is understandable because change is long overdue.

Certainly, incremental changes ultimately lead to fundamental change. The deeply polarized political landscape, mistrust and compulsive corruption at the highest levels, all these need to be tackled to build national consensus for the public to have faith in the government. If the goal and destination of the new government is to achieve structural change through gradual reform, then it deserves broad support. But if the objective is to refurbish the status quo, then revolution becomes inevitable. Let’s hope it is the former not the latter.

ED’s Note: The writer could be reached at 

[1] Paxton, Robert. The Anatomy of Fascism:

[i] Faulkner, William. Requiem for a Nun

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