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Abiy Ahmed: How soldierly grit, timely moves and sharp tongue have saved Ethiopia’s PM

By Malkhadir Muhumed | Nov 16th 2021 | 10 min read

The diplomat: Ethiopia Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta. [File, Standard]

NAIROBI – In 2018, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, confessed to an American journalist: His mother had told him, while only seven years old, that he was a “unique” son and he would one day “end up in the palace.”

The prophecy, reported by the New York Times, came true. Abiy was sworn in for a five-year term on October 4 after leading his country for an officially uncounted period of three years following the resignation of his predecessor.

Although Abiy is now engaged in a brutal war with a rebel group from the northern part of the country whose outcome is still undecided, there’s little doubt that the man is lucky, and, as his mother foretold, could well be a “unique” leader.

 Already, he’s the first Oromo – the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia – to become Prime Minister in his country and the first Ethiopian to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. 

How he manages the rebellion from the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front or TPLF, that is threatening his rule will surely determine his fate and place in Ethiopian history. 

The TPLF almost toppled him on November 3, after seizing the strategic city of Dessie, about 400 to the north of the capital, and after saying its fighters would march on Addis Ababa. 

Dessie's seizure brought back the chilling memory of a victory 30 years ago by an alliance of rebel groups, including the TPLF, that deposed President Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The “regime is teetering on the brink of collapse,” gleefully said Getachew K Reda, the brash TPLF spokesman and advisor to the Tigrayan president.

He added that Abiy and his lieutenants had started to unleash a “reign of terror with a vengeance”, possibly on pro-rebel individuals in Addis Ababa and in other regions still under the control of the government.

“It’s not going to change the fact that #Abiy’s ship is sinking and sinking fast,” said Getachew on November 3, a day before the first anniversary of the war in Tigray.

Cows walk past a tank damaged in fighting between the Ethiopian government and Tigray forces, near the town of Humera, Ethiopia, March 3, 2021. [Reuters]

Getachew’s statement, which has so far proved false, wasn’t an outlandish hunch.

 It was what many in Ethiopia and abroad surmised would be the likely upshot. 

Days earlier, the stars aligned for the TPLF’s bid to remove Abiy, whom it called a “fascist.” 

The TPLF and its allied rebel group, Oromo Liberation Army, closed ranks to strategise how to seize the main city in the Oromo region on their way to Addis Ababa.

Soldierly Grit 

To his enemies’ chagrin, Abiy didn't run scared. A real marplot, he didn’t either sit pretty and wait until the rebels stormed his fabled palace.

 He pulled a rabbit out of the hat, appealing to Ethiopians’ dislike for the TPLF.

He urged them to take up arms to “bury” the rebels, whom he said wanted to destroy Ethiopia, a country of about 117.9 million people, according to the United Nations Population Fund. 

That fiery rhetoric was enough to ratchet up anger against the already hated TPLF in the country.

A former soldier, Abiy was always biased towards forceful actions that could help him defeat his enemies’ madcap plots of chucking him out of office and keeping his tribe under their heel. 

Early in his rule, he set out on a drive to strengthen his fragile grip on -power, purging TPLF-affiliated officials and generals from the government and the army. 

He formed a new party and junked the ruling alliance that the TPLF dominated because he knew that as long as TPLF officials wielded some power in Addis Ababa he was toast.

Abiy didn’t build that grit overnight. Since the early 1990s, his life ran the gamut from child soldier to peacekeeper in Rwanda to lawmaker to government minister and now to prime minister. 

He so far survived several assassination attempts and what now appears to be coordinated international media attacks on his reputation. 

He also played a major role in the activism that torpedoed the TPLF-dominated government’s Addis Ababa Master Plan to grab land from his Oromo people.

The TPLF leadership, which knew the risk the Abiy administration posed to its legacy and to its people’s dream of seceding from Ethiopia, fought back. Drunk on its recent successes on the battlefronts, the TPLF indirectly aided Abiy’s messaging.

 For instance, when they beat back the federal army and retook most of their region, they didn't stay there, but – claiming that they wanted to break the siege on their people – invaded neighbouring Amhara and Afar regions, leaving a trail of abuses, including killings and rape and destruction of property, in their wake.

 Their expansionism unwisely provided Abiy with much-needed propaganda, and Amnesty International accused TPLF forces of gang rape.

“The testimonies we heard from survivors describe despicable acts by TPLF fighters that amount to war crimes, and potentially crimes against humanity,” said the agency’s secretary-general, Agnes Callamard.

 “They defy morality or any iota of humanity.”

The TPLF’s claim that the Abiy administration uses starvation as a weapon of war was refuted by a joint report on November 3 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission.

They said they “could not confirm deliberate or wilful denial of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population in Tigray or the use of starvation as a weapon of war.” 

Selome Girma chants as she marches with others in protest of the civilian casualties and abuses caused as a result of a war that has so far lasted a year in Ethiopia's northern region of Tigray, near the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, U.S., November 4, 2021. [Reuters]

Abiy sees the array of challenges plaguing his country as the after-effects of his reforms that have broken the mould of its ossified institutions.

The EU’s and the US’s overly sympathetic statements toward the TPLF, in particular, and Tigrayans in general that seemed to equate the government with a rebel group that took up arms against a legitimate government haven't gone down well with ordinary Ethiopians, who construed them as a subtle attempt to bring their former tormentors back into power. 

In August, the Abiy administration disclosed that it would create its own social media platform to counter the anti-Addis Ababa disinformation in the Western social media companies, such as Facebook. 

“As proud Africans, it has never been more imperative we take back the narrative about our continent,” he wrote on his Twitter account after TPLF’s imminent pressure on the capital eased a little bit on Nov. 10.

 “As Ethiopians, the challenges we face are further compounded by bias. In unity, we need to and we can overturn this!”

Timely move

   Abiy knows what to do in Ethiopia and what to say where and when In a 2018 press conference in Egypt, Abiy had sworn by Allah — even though he is not a Muslim — to protect the Egyptians' share of the Nile water, repeating words after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. 

"My government and my people, we don't have an intention to harm the people of Egypt and the government of Egypt. We want to cooperate…,” he said, ending his briefing in Arabic language wishes — Jazaakumulaahu Kheiran, or “May God reward you for the good.” 

Last July, Ethiopia started to fill the reservoir of the dam, irking Egypt.

Charming Ethiopians and the world was Abiy’s strong suit. 

In the earlier phase of the war, he even addressed the Tigrayans in their language.

 Soon after taking power, he hit all the right buttons: He released political prisoners, allowed political parties that were officially designated as terrorist organizations to return to the country, lifted media censorship, gave half of the Cabinet positions to women and, surprisingly, made peace with Ethiopia’s arch-foe, Eritrea, among other reforms.

The world was so dazzled by his rapid-fire reforms that the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee crowned him as the winner of its coveted award in 2019 “for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea.”

The TPLF read a sinister motive into Abiy’s new agenda. Fearful that the now empowered Abiy could order the federal army into their region, TPLF fighters preemptively struck an army base on November 3.

Abiy and his newfound ally, Eritrea, hit back hard.

In just 25 days, Abiy’s army -- whose ranks were swollen by Eritreans and militias from the Amhara region -- seized control of the TPLF’s main base, Mekelle, dealing a heavy blow to a group that once ran a quasi-independent country within Ethiopia’s federal system. 

A month before the war, the Abiy administration announced a directive to replace the country's currency with a new generation of banknotes, a policy primarily aimed at bankrupting TPLF leaders who allegedly hailed tens of billions of US dollars from the Ethiopian national coffers to their region.

Abiy’s moves were strategic, some of them vindictive.

The ongoing war in Ethiopia is an extension of the years-old rivalry between Abiy and Debretsion Gebremichael, the president of the Tigrayan region, over who between them has the right experience to rule Ethiopia. 

The two led the same ministry before, albeit in each one’s time the office had a different name — Ministry of Telecommunications and Information Technology for Debretsion and Ministry of Innovation and Technology for Abiy. 

The pair fiercely fought over the position of Prime Minister in 2018, with Abiy beating Debretsion hands down and garnering 108 votes from the then ruling alliance’s executive committee members. 

Debretsion just managed to get two votes. Shiferaw Shigute, a politician from the multinational southwestern region, came second with 58 votes.

Sharp tongue 

  While grit and the TPLF’s miscalculations did wonders for Abiy, he also employed time-tested tactics of nationalism and demagoguery: 

He deployed messages -- some of them probably inflammatory – at the right time and appealed to the public’s fear and needs, depending on the circumstances. 

Seeing the TPLF as his mortal enemy, he left nothing to chance, denigrating its leaders as “terrorists” and “criminal elements”. 

He and his administration officials variously called the TPLF rats, a weed, a cancer and hyenas.

Abiy used these slurs deliberately because they would resonate with many Ethiopians, who suffered under the TPLF’s dictatorial rule of 27 years. 

Many Ethiopians would even have welcomed the crushing of TPLF once and for all. 

Last week, the Amhara regional state suspended regular services to focus on its “survival” campaign against the minority group.

Some critics likened Abiy's demagoguery to the former US President Donald Trump's, with Facebook, now called Meta, taking down one of Abiy's posts for "inciting and supporting violence.” 

Since the start of the war, Abiy has endured stinging headlines in the Western media: “The Nobel Prize winner who went to war” (BBC). 

 “War in Tigray threatens to end Abiy's dream of unity” (Financial Times). “Peace was swift in Ethiopia under Abiy. War was, too" (AP news agency). 

Others re: "From Nobel Prize to fighting former comrades" (Reuters). “Ethiopia's prime minister may be starting a civil war” (Economist). "Ethiopia Is Spiraling, and There’s One Man’s Mistake Behind It.” (New York Times).

Image-conscious, Abiy justified his actions. He branded the war against the TPLF as a “law enforcement” operation. When his forces pulled out of the region, he quickly declared a “unilateral ceasefire” in Tigray to "enable farmers to undertake the seasonal farming activities and facilitate the humanitarian assistance”. 

To give the Abiy administration a legal leeway to recruit more fighters and go after pro-TPLF elements, the country’s pliant parliament imposed a six-month state of emergency on November 9. 

The government has even attributed the cascade of battlefield losses to unnamed foreign countries – understood by most Ethiopians as being big Western powers.

 Abiy has tried to tout himself as an African leader who is at the forefront of the anti-imperialist war to save black Africans.

“Time for #Africa is now! Together we can climb faster out of the pit of poverty, insecurity & begging for dignity,” Abiy tweeted on September 2.

Thrilled man

Abiy, to be sure, is a wounded man today. His country’s economy took a battering as a result of the war and the COVID-19 pandemic, among other ills. 

Divisions and distrust among Ethiopians reached an all-time high. Several million Ethiopians need humanitarian assistance. All parties to the conflict have committed egregious human rights abuses.

Yet, his tactics have shot down what many Ethiopians viewed as a Western-backed coup to return the TPLF to power. 

Prime Minister Abiy may not be on a tear right now, but appears to be quite thrilled that his arch-foe, the TPLF, is on the back foot. 

The US threat to sanction Ethiopian officials or to suspend Addis Ababa's free access to the American market or to ask its citizens to immediately leave Ethiopia haven't had their desired effects of forcing Prime Minister Abiy to quit office and go into exile or, at least, to sit down with the TPLF.

The pain of war: A young woman at mass graves in the Abune Aregawi Ethiopian Orthodox Church cemetery, in the town of Mai Kadra, Ethiopia, March 5, 2021. Picture taken March 5, 2021. [Reuters]

"While we are being tested on many fronts, our collective will to realize the path we have embarked upon has strengthened us," he said on November 8.

"Despite all attempting to hold us back, let’s continue moving forward in unity." 

On the same day, Russia's Deputy UN Ambassador Anna Evstigneeva told the UN Security Council that her country was committed to "preserving the unity and territorial integrity of friendly Ethiopia.”

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