THE ABIY PHENOMENON
I can imagine that many of us have talked about the Abiy phenomenon since he came to power a little over 100 days ago.
I have been mentally wrestling with myself what term to use to describe the Abiy phenomenon and finally convinced myself that “perfect timing” would be appropriate.
Had he come to the scene few years earlier or few years later I would argue that he wouldn’t have become the promising leader that we all are talking about but instead a regular nice technocrat of limited significance. I strongly think that things were ripe for him to shine at this point in time in Ethiopian politics.
He came at the right time in the history of Ethiopian political struggle for real democracy. I disagree with other people who give him too much credit for the changes and sometimes try to make him a messiah figure or a cult leader which seems to be a very wrong way to understand and describe the situation and could be dangerous and may encourage dictatorship.
His rise to power needs to be understood with the preceding political events and bigger context of political struggle in Ethiopia. No doubt that he is the best messenger for reconciliation, forgiveness, peace, change, democracy and rule of law. He is the right leader at this critical time which Ethiopia needs desperately.
Timing is everything, so this is his time and we should see his role as part of a bigger picture of ongoing political struggle but not as a one man show. I would say it is important to understand and acknowledge the significant historical events of our politics of the last half century to explain his ascendance to power.
He is the outcome of the multigenerational struggle for genuine participatory democracy and rule of law. He is the off spring of a very protracted conception, pregnancy, labor and delivery of a bitter political struggle and process which costed thousands of lives.
The struggle for democracy and rule of law has been fought by different groups in different forms and shapes starting from the Neway brothers, Mengistu and Girmame coup d’état. Countless Ethiopians sacrificed their lives under the umbrella of different organizations and popular movements including EPRP, MEISON, ELF,EPLF,TLF,TPLF,OLF,EPRDF etc and the original Yoyane movement, the Bale upraising and the Mecha tulema association etc…
The first real opportunity was created when Haile Selassie‘s monarchy collapsed which was exploited by some junior army officers who eventually hijacked the revolution and became dictators and killed, arrested or exiled their opponents.
A second opportunity was created when Derg fell and ERRDF took over. This was also wasted because EPRDF ended up being a dictator and oppressive regime primary serving the ruling class by marginalizing, alienating and excluding significant parts of the society.
The 2004 semi free election brought some hope but was quickly decimated when the fetus of democracy was aborted by primarily EPRDF antidemocratic actions and partly by failed leadership of incompetent, weak and divided opposition.
As the repression intensified the struggle travelled through different phases.
The current success has the following hallmarks
- Death of former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in 2012 decapitated EPRDF and caused significant leadership and succession crisis and snowballed the current political change
- Incorporation of information technology including internet, mobile devices and social media as a means of political discourse helped better communicate and organize citizens
- The critical role the diaspora played in helping lead and organize the public at home and abroad
- The relative success of the ethnic nationalist opposition movements and parties vis a vis the multinational/multiethnic parties in helping better organize and lead the struggle (the Wolkite identity issues and the Oromo protests were very good examples as the primary engines of change for the current events)
- Formal and informal leaders of the recent struggle were very sophisticated and employed very successful peaceful resistance guided by prior proven experiences elsewhere and scientific literatures on the subject which posed a huge challenge to the ERPDF government which is known for its heavy handedness and militarism and was poorly equipped to handle such struggle
- EPRDF’s own weaknesses including corruption, failed leadership especially after the death of Meles and division within and among member parties.
In early summer 2016, the popular protest and struggle seem to have peaked particularly in Oromia and Amhara regions where lawlessness, and socioeconomic unrest prevailed at which time ERPDF led government had to do something to avert the looming political and socioeconomic disaster threatening the integrity of the country.
EPRDF brought new faces to the OPDO leadership in the Summer 2016 in an attempt to ease the popular anger and protest. Shortly after that Irecha massacre happened in late September 2016 which exacerbated the ongoing strife and EPRDF had to declare a state of emergency which was extended and lasted for 10 months.
The new OPDO leadership was led by Lema Megersa who seems to be the main architect of the current political philosophy in the country. Lema was able to assemble and bring in young, educated group of people, aka TEAM LEMA, to the OPDO leadership and the region. Lema started by listening to the public’s grievances and spoke the language of the ordinary person and was able to convince many that he is on their side with his incredible oratory.
Most of his speeches were in Oromiffa and his power was limited to the Oromia region thus non Oromo speakers were unable to see his incredible political skills until recently. Lema introduced some reforms at the Oromia regional level including justice reform, land distribution, media reform, freedom of expression etc…which gave him popular support. He also did a lot to rein in corruption in OPDO and the region. Lema was able to recruit Dr Abiy Ahmed to the Oromia regional administration who was at the federal ministry of science and technology until summer of 2016. Abiy eventually became Lema’s deputy in the summer of 2017.
In early fall of 2017 Lema led a delegation to Bahirdar ( capital of the Amhara regional state) and broke the spell of artificially created and manufactured hate between Amhara and Oromo. He made a famous and impassionate speech at the event which gave him university admiration and put him on a national spot light and was also praised by the diaspora. He did the same with other regions including the South, Benishangul and Gambela. I belive this was a turning point in the country’s political dynamics proving that the different ethnic groups have nothing to fear of their differences and can live and coexist with tolerance no matter what.
As popular protest reached it’s peak causing subsequent strikes and siege of the capital, Prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn was forced to resign in an attempt by EPRDF to come up with some drastic measures/solution to solve the crisis. EPRDF also declared a second state of emergency. EPRDF government seems to have failed in bringing peace and stability despite using all tactics and putting all of its cards on the table so was forced to make some unconventional moves out of desperation.
The vacancy created by the resignation of the Prime Minister gave OPDO a chance to nominate the next EPRDF chairman and Prime Minister. Lema Megersa had the best chance to become EPRDF chairman and the next PM among the other leaders of EPRDF member parties but he was not a member of the federal parliament which essentially excluded him. He was a member of the regional parliament instead. OPDO as a party and Lema as its leader were very aggressive and publicly lobbied to get the position. OPDO made a very unusual move to give its candidate a better chance and remove even the perceived slightest hurdle it might face during the election process and to that effect OPDO decided to make Lema deputy and Dr Abiy chairman; essentially they swapped positions. Lema gets a huge credit for this maneuver which seems also selfless on his part to let his deputy take over his post and make himself a deputy.
This paved the way for Dr Abiy Ahmed to get a shot at the candidacy for the chairmanship of EPRDF and PM. OPDO arm wrestled with TPLF during EPRDF meeting to get its nominee elected as chairman and was only successful after it got significant and tactical support from most ANDM and some SNNRP members. Dr Abiy Ahmed became chairman of the EPRDF and elected by parliament to be the next PM in early April and after that the rest is history.
So far his performance is impressive and earned him majority support from all walks of lives even if he appears to have some opponents from the old guard and hardcore EPRDFites.
I don’t intent to mention laundry list of his achievements in the first 100 days because they are public record and easy for anyone to see. Rather I will dwell in explaining his personal attributes, political advantages and political philosophy as mentioned below.
- His overarching theme seems to be reconciliation, peace, forgiveness, inclusiveness and love in an attempt to bring the country together and move towards democracy, the rule of law and prosperity and move away from vindictive politics of zero sum game and as an avid reader he might have gotten some inspirations from MLK, Gandi and Mandela
- Has exceptional work ethic and obsessed with not wasting any time and can be described as a 24/7 leader
- Cognizant of the fact that as leader he can set the tone of dialogue and political discourse through powerful rhetoric
- He seems to be using his literature and writing skills to give some life to his political speeches and make it more palatable as opposed to a boring, dry cadre style political monologue.
- He is using his personal appeal and charisma to achieve his political objective and can be best described as the huger in chief
- Some of the overwhelming support he is getting from the public seems to make him more confident and bold by the day encouraging him to take more constructive steps
- Seems that he has some strong moral and faith background and very supportive of people of faith and religion behind and around him. Testament to that he was able to reconcile the divisions with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a remarkable fit in of itself.
- Seems to be using some evangelical skills in the content and delivery of his speech which MLK had used extensively
- Very savvy in using traditional media and information technology including social media
- Was able to connect to different sections of the community with his relative young age appeal and diverse back ground (his father is a Muslim from Agaro, his mother is a Christian from West shoa, married to a woman from Gonder)
- Has used his multilingual skills to the fullest (fluent in Tigrigna, Amharic, Oromoffa, English) to better communicate his political message, connect with people and achieve his political goals
- The fact that he came from the party operating in the region (OPDO)which was hit hard by the protest gives him some legitimacy, credibility and gets him the necessary constituency support
- Very ambitious man who is a thinker with big ideas which brings a good remedy for some of the small fights in our political discourse like tribalism
- Full of hope, aspirations with potential to influence not only socioeconomic and political landscape and dynamics of Ethiopia but also the horn and East Africa at large. Normalization of relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea is one such deed.
- Capable of writing new chapters in the political discourse and narratives and willing to take risks and to go to unchartered territory to explore new possibilities
- Seems committed to reading, willing to listen, learn and make corrections as needed
- His life journey seems to have made him ready for the job with the necessary academic and professional experiences required; he was a colonel in the military, director of INSA/cybersecurity agency, has a Ph. D. in peace and security, was head of OPDO secretariat, member of the federal parliament and had federal and regional ministerial posts.
- Seems to be willing to fight for his ideals and face the consequences of his actions and pay the necessary price to achieve his or his party’s goal.
- Seems to have the right temperament, personality and good will concerned for the wellbeing of his citizens
- Seem to create a good vibe and working environment for colleagues and create a positive atmosphere and encourage others change and improve for the better.
I believe we are just witnessing the beginning chapters of yet to be unraveled great life as a leader. Time will tell how far he can transform the struggle of the Ethiopian people in realizing real democracy, rule of law, peace, prosperity and stability.
We also shall see what kind of influence he will have on the horn and greater East Africa with regard to peace, stability and economic integration.
I also believe that the general public with well-informed active engagement and participation has significant leverage and can help him steer the wheel of change to bring the desired out comes benefiting all.
I have high hopes for him and believe that we will be talking and writing more about the remaining chapter of the Dr Abiy Ahmed’s phenomenon in the months and years to come. I can see more potential and greatness in his future.
I wish him, all Ethiopians, the citizens of the horn and east Africa good luck.
Dr Solomon Feyissa is a practicing physician based in the USA.