Ethiopia: A New Prime Minister with a Weaponized Identity

Opinions News Politics
Despite Ethiopia's new Prime Minister’s good intentions, the jury is still out.
Despite the new Prime Minister’s good intentions, the jury is still out. Ethiopians as well as the people of neighboring states must assess the new premier’s promises with cautious optimism. (Photo: STR/EPA)


A relative, albeit confused, calm has set in Ethiopia after the election of the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD). Confused because no one seems to tell whether the calm is due to the state of emergency (SoE) that was declared just before his election or due to his hypnotic messages of hope of evangelical proportions.

Further confusion may have arisen from the uncertainty by many as to whether he is the real deal i.e. a real reformer; or just a magical saviour-in-chief of the TPLF.

Put bluntly, the million-dollar question would be: Is PM Abiy ‘the silver bullet’ and a custom-made-soother offered by the TPLF as a cynical response to the multitude of demands by Ethiopians? or is he really part and parcel of the transforming solution the people of Ethiopia have been vigorously and persistently demanding for throughout the last three to five years?

The one thing there is little confusion about though is over the fact that it is what had started out as a small scale popular protest against a government master plan, in an obscure tiny town of Ginchi in Oromia region nearly three years ago, that had led to the events of the last few months in Ethiopia culminating in the election of the new PM. The unrest that followed throughout Oromia region spearheaded by the Qeerroo (youth), although the most formidable, is by no means the only issue with which the TPLF in Ethiopia has been battling with lately.

Prior to that, there were proclamations of anti-terrorism, media and civil societies laws which many rightly believed were designed to smother free speech and political dissent by targeting journalists and political activists that were critical of the TPLF led government.

As was expected, many of the most critical and vocal of those journalists and activists had ended up in the many prisons of the country using those laws as instruments.

There was also another ongoing weekly protest (right after Friday afternoon prayers) by Muslims, mainly in the capital Addis Ababa, against state interference in their religious affairs and governance – with the most peaceful and humble plea: ‘let our voices be heard’.  The government, instead of listening and addressing their legitimate concerns, again ended up sending the leaders and organizers of those protests to jail.

Meanwhile, following the spread (covering the entire region) and seemingly unstoppable nature of the Oromo protests and their apparent success, the Amhara youth in the North (Gondar and Bahir Dar) joined their Oromo sisters and brothers in protests of their own. They were initially triggered by local grievances surrounding Wolkait identity and their territorial dispute with the TPLF’s homeland Tigray. They quickly grew in to becoming national in scope and demands of radical changes in the way the country is currently governed became their focus.

The regime’s response to every popular demand has so far been the use of brutal force to intimidate and to try and bring protesters into submission. More than a thousand people have so far been killed and tens of thousands of others have been jailed, made to disappear or have fled the country.

Furthermore, on another front and at around the same period, the different armed groups including those ethnically organized (most of them based in Eritrea) were also ramping up pressure by ambushing and attacking government troops in various parts of the country but mainly in the northern regions.

One of those armed groups, which is also suspected to have been having a role in the ongoing civil unrest in Ethiopia, is the Arbegnoch Ginbot 7 (AG7) front. It is one of the more popular organizations led by a Professor, Berhanu Nega (PhD). The source of its popularity lies mainly on its politics of national unity and Ethiopian patriotism visa vis the widely unpopular policies of the current TPLF regime of ethnic federalism to a level where it has inserted a provision in the national constitution to allow for the secession of ethnic regional states.

Around four years ago, Andargachew Tsige (who has just been released from prison), the secretary general of AG7, was kidnapped by the TPLF security forces from a Yemeni airport. He was en route to Eritrea where he was leading the resistance movement at the time. Following such a brazen attack, the leader of AG7 had to send a strong message of commitment to their followers by leaving behind a university appointment in the US and basing himself in Eritrea to lead the ‘all rounded’ struggle on the ground.

Arguably one of the two most significant political events of the decade in Ethiopia – perhaps next only to the death of the former PM Meles Zenawi – the kidnapping provoked massive reactions especially from Diaspora Ethiopians; never seen since the 2005 botched elections. It triggered a new wave of activism by providing a long missing unifying hero in Andargachew Tsige.

Indeed, those diaspora activists and their followers have been actively involved in linking up with the local protests and resistance movements. They have also been able to open a new battle front of their own by organizing embargoes on remittances and boycotts of Ethiopian services and consumable exports targeting the diaspora. Such measures have caused significant additional damage to an economy already suffering from diminishing interest from foreign direct investment, affecting exports; and from reduced tourist inflow – both scared off by the ongoing insecurity due to protests and armed clashes.

Nature has not been so kind to the regime either, as millions of people have been requiring food assistance for the past consecutive few years. This year alone, more than eight million people are affected.

Not surprisingly therefore, the TPLF led government was not expected to survive such a manifold of challenges and most believed that it was just a matter of time before it collapsed. That was a near unanimous view as recently as three months ago.

And such was the backdrop against which the TPLF, its creations the EPRDF and its member organizations the OPDO, ANDM and SEPDM had started their marathon meetings back in November 2017. Ethiopians were once again promised that the EPRDF was set for a ‘renewal’ by cleaning its house and the houses of each of its member organizations, and for once made it appear like a reform was imminent.

Sure enough, the clean-up started off convincingly well with a seemingly bloody reshuffle in TPLF’s heartland Tigray region. At times, it looked like the bitterness and bickering amongst the bigwigs of that region was threatening TPLF implosion. A ‘faction’ led by the former president of Tigray region, which had the former first lady in its corner, apparently lost in the fight for dominance costing both their high-profile jobs. There was an expectation that it could spread to include the scalp of other prominent backers of the ousted group including the army chief. Well, that didn’t happen. But instead, it had taken the extraordinary turn in appointing the then federal deputy prime minister (considered to be the front man of the ‘winning faction’) as the new chairman of the TPLF and president of Tigray regional state. Again, such a move by the TPLF gave every indication of a junta in disarray—going back to base to regroup.

Not everyone was convinced with such an assessment though, as there were many who suspected that the whole show could have just been a highly planned and orchestrated crisis to give the impression of weakness and surrender.

According to those suspicions, such a move could have given the TPLF enough time and the breathing space it desperately needed to formulate its next move or to set in motion an already planned one. In boxing terminology, they call this feinting. And that feinting may have also slowed the momentum of the opposition and the protesters and may have taken their focus away from the real fight and in to premature and hypothetical deliberations about post-TPLF Ethiopia.

The drama unfolding ever since, especially up until the election of the new PM, seems to strongly support such suspicions. The sensational leaks and email scandals that were coming out of the TPLF camp, the drama surrounding the release of political prisoners, the PR campaigns promoting personalities within the OPDO/EPRDF including the eventual PM, the sudden resignation of the former PM, and subsequent speculations about who was going to replace him, the declaration of the state of emergency (SoE) following the resignation, the drama surrounding the voting in parliament on the SoE, and the rumours around the notion that the TPLF was strongly against the election of the new PM, etc. may have all been indicators of a well-managed PR, disinformation and diversionary campaign to try and effect an outcome whereby the TPLF could get to weather the storm and live another day.

One may call it ‘Enboch-politics’, after the sea-weed on Lake Tana. Politics in Ethiopia may have just entered a new sphere—a ‘politico stratosphere’—and it doesn’t smell indigenous (Abesha) at all. If anything, Abesha would most likely fake strength not a weakness.

Eventually, such a heightened and frenetic drive of the last several months had culminated in the election of the new PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) to be the chairman of the EPRDF and subsequently the Prime Minister of Ethiopia around two months ago. And considering the relative calm in the country following his election as compared to what it was like in the preceding months, it would be very hard to believe that this was an outcome the TPLF was forced to accept. Never mind members and supporters of the EPRDF, even some of the most critical in the opposition camp are expressing hope that this could be a ‘game changer PM with a potential to bring crucial reforms and to open up the political space’ in the country.

In all fairness though, the new PM is hardly a known quantity; at least not before the recent PR campaign catapulted him to prominence and to the public’s attention. Hence, the hopes and expectations of many including some in the opposition camp are mainly based on messages of his inaugural speech and his other orations previously delivered, and which were made widely available online and in the local media at the height of the PR frenzy. In many of those speeches, including his maiden one in parliament, he seems to have successfully managed to snatch the message of unity and Ethiopian patriotism from most opposition groups; depriving them of any traction to criticize his appointment.

Perhaps what is more ironic is that, the same message of Ethiopian unity and patriotism that had been used to save TPLF’s neck at the height of its 1998-2000 war with Eritrea seems to have been used once again for a similar purpose. On that very note, and notwithstanding the renewed call for peace by the new PM, alarm bells should start ringing in Eritrea. Who knows if a seemingly ‘patriotic’ and popular leader could be what the TPLF was waiting for to be used to mobilize the public for another shot at war with Eritrea.

Recent, positive moves by the new PM in releasing political prisoners and the open arm policy towards opposition groups could also have an impact and could be put to an evil use by the TPLF in this regard. Although fully and unconditionally accepting the Algiers agreement and the EEBC’s decisions is a slight improvement over previous false-starts, what the gallant Eritrean youth in the trenches facing off the occupying TPLF forces would like to experience is finding out one morning that they are all gone. Anything less would lack the sincerity the situation deserves.

Going back to the topic of the PM’s patriotic messages in his inaugural speech, they were so focused on trying to match opponent’s rhetoric almost word for word that he deliberately stayed away from the messages of the ruling party that made it possible for him to become a PM in the first place. Avoiding to mention any of the cardinal principles of the EPRDF, including legacies, indicate that the speech was massively sanitized to a point where he sounded like a PM from the opposition camp.

As anyone with a working knowledge of how the ruling party in Ethiopia operates could easily understand, such ‘sanitization’ could only be possible with the full endorsement of the TPLF/EPRDF party apparatus, implying premeditation and tactics.

The PM’s upbringing, which was mostly nurtured by the ruling party since his teenage years and his long and loyal service to the party (and to the intelligence services in the army) would automatically endear him to the supporters of the current regime and other affiliate ethnic organizations who look up to the TPLF as their guardian.

Hence, that obvious side of his story didn’t necessarily require a mention or elaboration in his speeches; perhaps with the view that he would have enough time to reveal that side of his commitment in action rather than words. A long and loyal service may also mean plenty of opportunity for the TPLF to have accumulated enough dirt on the new PM—which might come in handy in making sure that he stayed in line and on message at all times.

On the other hand, the lack of criticism bordering on good will, and the wait and see approach taken by the opposition camp may not necessarily reflect their true feelings. A seemingly popular newly elected PM, whose rhetoric comes straight out of their (oppositions’) text books, doesn’t make for a very good target. Openly criticizing him or opposing his appointment could prove to be politically costly or even suicidal to some. Such is the space which most in the opposition have been cornered to by the TPLF that although they may be very much aware of what is going on, they are unable to say anything much less do something about it.

Obviously, some may just be playing dumb and working behind the scenes to up the ante in continuing with the project of disqualifying the TPLF (the developing situation in the Ethiopian Somali region could be an early sign).

Overall, and whether people like it or not, the TPLF (or whoever may be running it from behind) may have just done something spectacular for the short term. It might have drawn an Ace in the person of the new PM that seems to have ticked all the boxes as a potential ‘neutralizer’ to most of the threats it has been facing for the last few years.

A young (Qeerroo) practicing Protestant from an Oromo-Muslim background with a PhD must be such a once in a life time bargain. It may appear a little myopic but from a purely contemporary political context in Ethiopia it is a staggering package one can only dream of. It is also interesting to note that, for the second time in a row and in a country dominated by majority Orthodox Christians and Muslims, the PM of Ethiopia is a practising evangelical Christian, and it should be obvious who this move is intended to please. The BBC’S latest Hard Talk interview with AG7’s spokesperson could shade some light as to whether that move has paid off.

Although most may consider such a move by the TPLF as very superficial and cosmetic, without necessarily wanting to genuinely tackle the real issues or relinquish power, one thing the TPLF has worked so hard in the more than 25 years it has been in power is to make sure that the identity (ethnic or religious) of an office holder carries considerable weight. And based on such reckoning, which seems to have worked so far, Abiy Ahmed (PhD) would be considered to be the soother to almost all of the protesting segments of society in Ethiopia; and an antidote to some of the most potent opposition figures and personalities. Every aspect of the PM’s identity and his virtues seem to have been weaponized.

Consequently, despite the attempt to make people believe otherwise, it would appear that the TPLF may have gotten what it desperately wanted. Based on such logic, it may also be safe to assume that the newly elected PM may not necessarily be substantially different from his predecessor. They both are TPLF’s creations (‘wall-papers?’) and its answers to pressing challenges at various points in its life time. It is to be remembered that there was a similar drama of rumoured ‘unwillingness’ by the TPLF of initially accepting the appointment of the previous PM as well.

Choosing to completely and temporarily fade in to the background this time around, the TPLF had nevertheless been keen to show who really was in charge by some of its presumed actions taken shortly after the election of the new PM. One case in point is when it apparently sent the newly elected PM, as his inaugural assignment, to the Ethiopian Somali region.

The leadership in the Ethiopian Somali region has long been courted by the TPLF as a ‘special ally’ and a potential spoiler to the restive Oromia region. Returning the favour, the region’s security apparatus and its president have been showing unflinching support for the TPLF by way of doing TPLF’s dirty work in their own region, across the border in Somalia, as well as the neighboring Oromia region.

Just recently for example, the security forces in the Somali region had unleashed mayhem resulting in the displacement of close to a million Oromos who were residents there. It was a massive headline grabbing tragedy which may have also helped divert attention and political debate (some of the most prominent protest organizers were busy fundraising for the displaced) while the TPLF was busy orchestrating its spectacular comeback. A similar tactic had been successfully used in Darfur by some ‘actors’ while processing South Sudan’s independence.

The eventual coming to power of an Oromo as the new PM of Ethiopia would have then worried the president of the Somali region the most. There could be some substance, therefore, to the assumption that the new PM would’ve been following orders from the TPLF when he kickstarted his career by visiting that same region. The official reasons given to the PM could well be different from those given to the president of the Somali region. Nevertheless, it very much comes across as a reward to the president of the Somali region for a job well done and may have also been a tacit assurance to him that nothing had changed and his future would be safe.

Another most symbolic act of what may become of the newly elected PM came during his visit to Mekelle, the capital of the Tigray regional state. During that visit, in front of stadium full of TPLF supporters, the PM was given a speech written in Tigrinya (vs his strength of Amharic eloquence) and was made to read it like a toddler while the president of the region and chairman of the TPLF was standing right behind him, watching. The expression on the latter’s face was priceless.

One particular statement in that speech literally reads: “Tigray without Ethiopia and Ethiopia without Tigray are like a car without engine”. Now, an engine that is bigger than the thing it is running is an oxymoron. Whoever wrote that speech therefore knew exactly what they were talking about and the message was loud and clear: Despite the deliberate confusion and disinformation that was designed to make it look like the TPLF had just lost to a young and reformist clique within the EPRDF, the TPLF still remains firmly in control as the engine of the government in Ethiopia.

And so far, none of the decisions made or actions taken by the new PM could be said antagonistic to the TPLF or even remotely undesirable. In fact, they may actually be helping the TPLF get off scot-free—to then start afresh on a clean slate.