When Abiy Ahmed took office, he was regarded as a game-changing force that would reform Ethiopia’s economy, societal fabric, international prowess, and overall development. Politically, he is said to stand for cooperation and unity on both the international and regional level, but his motives are often seen as controversial due to the ethno-federalist institutional atmosphere in the country. Although branded as a new democratic reformist, the government under Abiy still uses many harsh silencing tactics, especially against political opponents and civil protesters. This behavior may render Abiy somewhat undeserving of his ‘democratic’ and ‘progressive’ labels, a sentiment that is felt by many international observers. By taking a hard-line stance against international and domestic challenges, such as the Grand Renaissance Dam and the TPLF, Abiy is said to be drifting away from his original expectations of Ethiopian unity.
The Prosperity Party
After taking office and being branded a ‘reformist’, Abiy Ahmed pushed to move away from the former reigning Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The EPRDF was in power from 1991 to December 2019, when Abiy transformed the party coalition into the new Prosperity Party. The party now makes up 512 seats out of the total 547 in the Ethiopian Parliamentary body, holding a tight grip on the country’s legislative power. Although holding a large majority of seats within parliament, this majoritarian dynamic is not new within the Ethiopian political scene, given that the EPRDF held a majority since 1995.
Whilst creating the PP, Abiy was inspired by the idea of Pan-Ethiopianism and by moving away from the previous national dynamic of ethno-nationalism. To do this, it was necessary for the newly formed party to keep hold of the parliamentary majority and to minimize the overpowering influence of ethno-nationalist parties. For Abiy, this would eventually mean garnering support from the smaller political groups that held parliamentary seats but did not feel represented by the EPRDF. Abiy was successful in receiving the signatures of three out of the four larger groups: The Oromo Democratic Party (ODP); Amhara Democratic Party (ADP); and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM); all of which represented larger and more populous regions. Abiy was also able to get onboard smaller major parties like the Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP). Benishangul-Gumuz Democratic Party (BDP), Somali Democratic Party (SDP), Gambela People’s Democratic Movement (GPDM), and the Harari National League (HNL). Missing from both of these lists is the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the party that held much of the political control under Meles Zenawi from 1995-2010. Without the TPLF, the Prosperity Party is likely to face increased opposition, especially in regards to the delay of national and regional elections.
The fundamental tenets of the Prosperity Party run on a dynamic that had never been seen before in the modern Ethiopian political scene. The party is said to aspire for Ethiopian unity while rejecting the widespread dynamic of ethno-nationalism, all by promoting Abiy’s philosophy of Medemer. Ethnic conflicts have riddled Ethiopian stability in the past, and one of Abiy’s main goals was to find a way to mitigate them, given that they remain one of the most harmful threats to Ethiopian society. He thus concluded that increased Ethiopian pride would be the most efficient way to tackle the issue. The party states that its main objective is to “build a united political and economic community… When we say national, we mean a community that is ethnically, religiously or otherwise identifiable”. The PP and Abiy consider that unity is going to be imperative for the Ethiopian state to flourish.
Abiy’s educational and ethnic backgrounds were also relevant to his creation of the party. Coming from a biracial family and having studied ethnic conflict and their roots in the past, Abiy was inspired to mitigate social tensions to ensure the country’s economic and social stability. The creation of the Prosperity Party has received much backlash in the country as ethnic nationalists oppose the idea of Pan-Ethiopianism over ethnic identity. Many who find themselves within nationalist parties see the message spread by Abiy as dangerous to ethnic identity, fearing they will lose a sense of themselves. Consequently, a rise in nationalist opponents as a response to his cohesive rhetoric, should not be a surprise for Abiy.
Jawar Mohammed: Abiy's Political Adversary
One of the many reforms Abiy made as he stepped into power was in regards to free speech. The new reforms allowed for exiled anti-governmental political figures to return to the country after having been expelled by the EPRDF. One of these expelled figures was Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo political figure who created the Oromia Media Network, and who had been in the US since 2008. In 2018, he returned to his native Ethiopia and was received as a hero by much of the Oromo people, who constitute 34.4% of the population (approx. 37 million). Mohammed is undoubtedly Abiy’s most popular opponent given that he attracts much of the regional youth, many of which identify themselves as members of the qeerroo group. The group sees Jawar Mohammed as their leader, who has had a history of mobilizing protests that have sometimes ended in severe violence.
Jawar Mohammed has remained an outspoken critic of Abiy since the creation of the Prosperity Party, although he was previously a friend of the PM. Nonetheless, given that he is an Oromo nationalist, he is completely against the central ideals of the Prosperity Party. He and many other Ethiopians see the Prosperity Party as a medium for Abiy to consolidate control of political power whilst portraying himself as a progressive and democratic leader. When Jawar himself became a member of the Oromo Federalist Congress Party, he revealed that he was attractedif because of its stand on “federalism”, which he sees as the best way to promote his ethno-nationalistic vision of ‘Oromo first’. Jawar also stepped down from his position as CEO of the Oromia Media Network to further progress the goals and future electoral success of the OFC. Another clear example of rivalry between the two leaders was seen as Jawar Mohammed became especially critical of Abiy Ahmed’s postponement of the 2020 August elections due to COVID-19 concerns.
Given his fierce popular support, Jawar Mohammed has the power to quickly cause an uproar in the Oromia region. His influence grew through his news network, the OMN, which allowed him to receive national recognition and Oromo fame during the time he started broadcasting while in exile. But this type of recognition, especially mixed with a violent qeerroo fanbase, does not go unnoticed, especially in the administration that looks to mitigate ethnic riots. In late 2019, Jawar Mohammed’s home was raided in a supposed arrest-attempt in the middle of the night. Following the ordeal, many Oromo youths protested and went to their leader’s home to show solidarity and support. This was a setback for Abiy since it was seen as an attempt to arbitrarily arrest his most well-known political opponent. The status Jawar Mohammed holds within Oromo politics is without a doubt a concern to Abiy and the rest of his administration.
Another example of this rivalry are the July 2020 protests that erupted due to the murder of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a famous Oromo singer and Oromo political advocate. The protests left 176 dead and 500+ injured and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission stated that “the crime by individuals and groups who directly took part in it, constitutes the elements of a crime against humanity.” The murder of the singer only added fuel to the flame of the series of occasional and smaller anti-government protests, and it led to the arrest of Jawar Mohammed and other prominent Oromo nationalist figures. In late September, the former media mogul and 22 of his compatriots were charged with, what seemed to many, politicized prosecution. Jawar was charged with telecommunications fraud, terrorism, and inciting ethnic-based violence. The manner in which Mohammed was charged is was said to be reminiscent of the use of the infamous anti-terrorism law created during the era of Meles Zenawi, particularly used to silence political opposition. This move by Abiy was meant to slow Jawar’s support and momentum during what was supposed to have been the election-season. The arrest of Jawar is an example of Abiy’s undemocratic behavior and the reversal of the expectations placed on him at the beginning of his administration.
Medemer: Abiy's Centralizing Ideology
Abiy, widely seen as a reformist leader, aims to set a new philosophy for the future of Ethiopian and African politics. Medemer, an Amharic word meaning ‘synergy’ and also defined as ‘unity’, is the ideal that Abiy lives by. In simple terms, Medemer is the idea of Ethiopian patriotism with influences of liberalism. During Abiy’s PM acceptance speech in 2018, he stressed the importance of national pride and solidarity saying “What we have is one Ethiopia. Above any political thought, national unity is supreme”, clearly pushing for the unification of the country. On the official Medemer website, the concept is broken down under four main principles: “building a vibrant democracy, economic vitality, encouraging public-private partnerships (PPPs), regional integration and openness to the world.” Abiy views these core values of Medemer as the way to move the country towards a more successful democracy and away from its authoritarian past. The ideology is further highlighted in the book, Medemer, which Abiy released in 2019, and where he reinforces his beliefs as to why the country must move towards a Pan-Ethiopian future.
The Medemer ideology has been implemented in Ethiopian politics through several of Abiy’s most popular economic and free speech reforms. Even though one of the most criticized points of Medemer is its centralizing priorities, the country has an extreme history of ethnic conflict which Abiy hopes to mitigate by promoting such values of Ethiopian pride alongside traditional ethnic pride. In Abiy’s administration, he and his cabinet took the steps to create the Reconciliation Commission, a governmental body that keeps an eye on ethnic conflicts. The Medemer ideal of integration is also applied to his foreign policy as he has previously stated “if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together”, as a means to send unifying message between East-African states in order to promote regional peace and ultimately protect the region’s economic development.
This ideology is likely to be rooted in Abiy’s background; he has studied past conflicts during his time in university and comes from a multi-ethnic background. Having grown up with both Amhara and Oromo parents, Abiy has been raised by the merger of two dangerously clashing groups. Abiy has also worked within the Oromo region, where many protests have turned into riots, leading to high numbers of displacements and destruction. Since economic development is slowed during these times of extreme turmoil, the Abiy administration also figures that a possible strategy is to emphasize the economic chaos of ethnic-based policy-making. In doing so, Abiy sees that economic and social prosperity and security will be yielded.
Coming into power in 2018, Abiy Ahmed was elected by parliament in the hopes that he would bring quick and efficient changes to Ethiopia. In his acceptance speech as PM, Abiy seemed hopeful to secure the implementation of democratic values in Ethiopian society as well as peace with the long-term rival, Eritrea. He also discussed the positive economic growth that the country has enjoyed in its recent history, and particularly referenced the issue of youth unemployment, a problem he tackled as the head of Urban Development and Planning in the Oromia region. Towards the end of his speech, Abiy addressed the importance of women in the future of Ethiopia, foreseeing that the democratic opportunities of women would take a more pronounced role in the country’s politics. Acting towards this important step, Abiy selected women to be members of half of the seats within his cabinet, a huge step towards female representation in the country. In his speech, he also asked exiled figures to return to the country, forgive the government for their exile, and shed themselves of anti-government disdain. Overall, the speech was filled with hopeful language that suggested a true change would come to Ethiopia.
After a year, Abiy had allowed political exiles back into the country, made a peace deal with Eritrea, created reforms regarding free speech, and committed the country to truly democratic elections. The international community hailed Abiy as a ‘reformist’ and he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, particularly for his peace negotiations with Eritrea and his reforms towards a more free Ethiopia. Much of the political exiles he allowed to return to Ethiopia were nationalist groups from the Oromo region, such as the Oromo National Liberation Front or the Oromo Nationalist Congress. These parties were seen to be great threats by the previous governing party, EPRDF.
Abiy has been praised by many of his western allies, particularly the United States and the European Union, due to his promise of implementing robust democratic institutions in the country. The promise to secure the democratic elections, which would be a first for Ethiopia, secured the country funding from the two superpowers: the EU, sending €20 million; and the USA, sending $30.4 Million to Ethiopia’s National Election Board. Unfortunately, the delay of the August 2020 elections due to COVID-19 concerns, started to stain his reformist and progressive reputation within the country and on the international stage.
Since Abiy’s coming to power was a direct result of incessant ethnic violence and the resignation of the previous PM, it was a high-priority for him to make democratic reforms to help improve the Ethiopian political culture. Moreover, to secure the confidence and to continue his mandate, Abiy hopes to be reelected in the 2021 election and be the first democratically elected leader in Ethiopia. Additionally, as Abiy looks to make Ethiopia an economic powerhouse in the continent, he realizes the need of his allies such as the United States, European Union, or even China, to continue FDI inflows or assistance in fighting against COVID-19. Though as time goes on, Abiy is seen less and less as the hopeful reformist the world once praised him to be, which might make the possibility of reelection a lot tougher than previously forecasted.