Abiy is a fierce advocate of Ethiopian patriotism as a means to mitigate the troubles Ethiopia faces in terms of inter-ethnic violence. In a country that is deeply rooted in ethnic divides, many find that embracing Ethiopia instead of their ethnic identity is dangerous to preserving their backgrounds. In the fight to unify the country, Abiy has used many different methods such as nation-wide tree planting and the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, to hopefully bring the country closer together. Moreover, Abiy uses the notion of Medemer to connect his people and to bridge the divided country on a path forward.
The GERD and its Cultural Significance
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa once it is complete. Starting construction in 2011, the dam was heavily funded by the Ethiopian public through the purchase of bonds, making it an important symbol of national pride. As the name ‘renaissance’ suggests, the dam is deeply seen as a potential ‘rebirth’ for the country, both internationally and domestically. The project will allow massive economic benefits that will hopefully lift millions of people out of poverty, due to its electricity-producing capabilities that will be both used internally and sold across the region. Given that the dam is publicly financed -and because of the likely economic benefits that will come out of this project- Ethiopians feel a deep sense of ownership and pride towards it. The GERD is seen by many to be a new hope for Ethiopia, as a path for the country with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies to experience social and economic enlightenment.
Looking to increase his popularity among the entire Ethiopian population, Abiy hopes that the outcome of the dam will likely serve as a stronghold for his party’s reputation. Although extremely important, the dam is also extremely controversial, especially regarding Ethio-Egyptian relations. The dam has been one of the main issues Ethiopia has experienced in terms of foreign policy. The topic has caused heavy dispute with Egypt, who relies on the Nile River’s water that passes through Ethiopia. Abiy, having gone on the offensive before in his own Tigray region, is likely to regard the possibility of war with Egypt as nothing out of the ordinary. This could mean a dangerous scenario for the East African region and could possibly reverse the diplomatic progress Abiy had previously made with his neighbors.
Ethnic-based Riots: An Ancient Problem Under a New Leader
Although Abiy was internationally branded as a ‘progressive’ African leader, there is another spot in which he fails to move away from the old ‘way of doing things’; reactionary brute force during protests and riots. The country has experienced years of raging protests, mainly between the Oromo and Amhara groups. These dynamics are nothing new to Abiy, as his government was born out of the ashes of the 2018 protests. Abiy is the first Oromo and non-Tigrayan PM of Ethiopia and was generally seen as a promoter of societal change, except for the Oromo population. This region is ideologically split, and he is not seen as a ‘savior’ by many in the country’s most populous region, especially not by the nationalists.
Although Abiy’s administration promised a new political atmosphere by allowing former exiles back into the country, the issue of silencing political opponents has been almost unresolved. In 2020, Abiy moved away from his reformist aspirations, especially in terms of free speech of political opponents, notably of ethnic nationalist groups. For example, Abiy’s government, like the last administration, still forces internet shutdowns, and has totaled “three major internet disruptions across the country” in 2019 alone. More recently, the country went through a serious internet shutdown during the July 2020 protests due to the assassination of Hacalu Hundeessaa (which Abiy blamed on Egypt by suggesting that Egypt was attempting to destabilize the country amidst the GERD conflict). This Oromo singer and political activist was killed during the beginning of the Tigray conflict, where internet and telephone services were cut off. These shutdowns are generally considered as a method to mitigate the protests and to slow the momentum of the anti-government demonstrations. Abiy’s Ethiopia has seen a wide range of human rights violations such as arbitrary arrests, ethnic-based murder, harsh prison conditions, and several other crimes identified by the US Department of State and Amnesty International.
Abiy, who previously vowed to open up the country’s political climate through democratic means, has been heavily criticized for what many see as political silencing and free speech violations. As a response to many of the protests, he takes measures that often anger the Oromo nationalists such as arresting 3,500 during the July 2020 protests, the storming of Jawar Mohammed’s home in October 2019, and internet shutdowns. He uses “securitization theory” arguments and designates these responses as necessities for Ethiopia’s national security. The methods being used by Abiy’s government have been described as absolutely oppressive by many international observers, leading to a widespread discussion of the validity of the motives of his democratic reforms. The silencing and detaining tactics seen within the Abiy government are likely to be the Achilles heel to his reelection efforts in June 2021.