Abiy Ahmed has so far delivered neither democracy nor peace

The Economist

“Freedom is not a gift doled out to people by a government,” Abiy Ahmed said in his inaugural address as Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018. “Rather [it is] a gift of nature to everyone that emanates from our human dignity.” His words marked a remarkable turn for a country that over the past five decades had seen an absolute monarchy, revolutions, civil war and authoritarian rule, but not freedom or democracy. After coming to power on the back of anti-government protests, Abiy freed political prisoners and journalists, welcomed opposition parties back from exile and encouraged rebels to disarm. He made peace with Eritrea, for which he was awarded the Nobel prize last year, and pledged to hold the first free elections in Africa’s second-most-populous country.

Yet Abiy has been unable to patch the deep ethnic fissures that threaten to tear Ethiopia apart, and has not altered the state’s instinct for violence and repression. This year alone at least 147 fatal clashes have left several hundred dead, according to figures compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data project (see map). In July riots took place across Addis Ababa, the capital, and the Oromia region, after the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, a musician and activist from Abiy’s own Oromo ethnic group. By one count 239 people were killed, some by mobs, others by security forces. Thousands have since been arrested, including Jawar Mohammed, an Oromo opposition leader considered Abiy’s main rival, who is accused of inciting violence. In August protests calling for his release resulted in yet more deaths.

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Tensions had been building for months before the latest unrest. The government’s decision to postpone elections because of covid-19 spurred talk of a constitutional crisis. Opponents including the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (tplf), which runs the northern region of Tigray and dominated the federal government for nearly three decades, accused Abiy of trying to extend his time in office.

Abiy and his allies, in turn, blame the tplf and militant ethnic nationalists for inciting violence. In an opinion piece published online by The Economist this week (see article), the prime minister warns that Ethiopia’s journey to democracy risks being derailed by those “who are accustomed to undue past privileges” and those trying “to assume power through violence”, allusions to both the tplf and parts of the previously outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (olf).

Abiy’s comments are his most explicit admission yet of the difficulties of holding together a fractious federation in which ethnicity is arguably more powerful than national identity. Moreover, he is trying to do so with fast-dissipating legitimacy. Next month the constitutional term limit of this parliament and government will expire. This is adding to tension between the federal government and some of the nine ethnically constituted states, each of which has the right to secede. This month the tplf defied the centre and held regional elections, which some saw as a first step towards Tigray breaking away.

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Yet Abiy insists that his government’s actions do not mark a reversal of its democratic reforms. “What we learn from the fledgling democracies of Europe of the 1920s and 1930s is that democracy has to be defended from violent demagogues and mobs,” he told The Economist in a written response to questions. Tacitly acknowledging brutality, he says, “Given the institutions we have inherited, we realise that law-enforcement activities entail a risk of human-rights violations and abuse.”

Indeed many of those arrested or killed in clashes were perpetrators or instigators of violence. But Abiy himself is responsible for more of the current mess than he admits. Since taking office he has focused on amassing power by sidelining rivals, locking up opponents and monopolising decision-making instead of working with the opposition to lessen tension peacefully.

Although Abiy’s rhetoric differs from his predecessors’, his administration’s conduct looks increasingly familiar. For more than a year security forces have waged a harsh campaign against armed Oromo separatists. A report by Amnesty International alleged torture and summary executions. Instead of promising to investigate, Abiy dismissed the allegations as “fiction”. Responding to The Economist, he admits there may be “isolated incidents where law-enforcement agencies have used disproportionate force”. But he adds that allegations are “taken out of context”.

Meanwhile, opposition figures say political freedoms are being withdrawn. “Time and again they close our offices and detain our members,” says Merera Gudina, an Oromo leader. Even after judges have ordered certain prisoners’ release, the police have rearrested them. Eskinder Nega, an opposition leader blamed by the government for the rioting in the capital in July, was charged with terrorism on September 10th. Eskinder previously spent seven years in prison on trumped-up charges.

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The government has repeatedly cut off the internet. Journalists were barred from travelling to Tigray to cover its election. A new law criminalising “hate speech” includes provisions which can be used to lock up peaceful dissidents. At least three broadcasters linked to the opposition, only one of which had aired calls for violence, were closed in July.

A lasting solution to Ethiopia’s crisis is likely to require negotiations with opposition groups and a broader discussion of ethnic versus individual rights. And although Abiy says he is committed to talks, he is wary of the opposition’s calls for a comprehensive “national dialogue”.

Abiy’s vision of a multi-ethnic country whose “destiny lies in our togetherness” is more hopeful than the one offered by militant ethnic nationalists whose break-up of the country would lead to ethnic cleansing and fighting between the regions. But after more than a century of trying to use force to forge a united state, now may be the time to try doing so through consent. 


  1. Abiy Ahmed will delivered both democracy and peace. So far he his doing all the right things to achieve both objectives. Be patient. If Ethiopia’s experiment fails it is because of the immaturity of the opposition and their so called media (negative propagada cookie makers). It will not be Abiy’s fault. We love Abiy. Leave him alone.

  2. Abiy Ahmed was not anti TPLF . He is a volunteer slave of TPLF. Abiy was a loyal TPLF servant until he once accidentally perforned a clumsy spy work while he was in INSA , Abiy’s clumsy work in INSA got him into friction with Meles Zenawi and Getachew Assefa , that is when he changed his ‘maliya’ uniform and started being talking the talk as anti TPLF.

    Then after Memes Zenawi died Hailemariam Desalegn became a PM but not long after that Hailemariam Desalegn resigned in the middle of his term because he felt the people of Ethiopia are not happy with his administration. Since Hailemariam Desalegn’s term as a Prime Minister was not over the EPRDF parliament had to vote for a replacement Prime Minister , so The EPRDF parliament voted for Demeke Mekonnen to become the replacement , but Demeke Mekonnen turned down the offer by saying “I do not want to be a Prime Minister”. That is when the EPRDF parliament considered Abiy Ahmed the person who used to talk about his mother having a vision of him becoming a leader of Ethiopia since he was nine years old. Abiy Ahmed became the Prime Minister and will do anything to remain as the Prime Minister for longer than two years, even killing and imprisoning those competitors of his so he tighten his chokehold . Demeke Mekonnen gave AmaraDP chance to OromoPDO.

  3. Economist: Yep preaching to the choir in Ethiopia. Most Ethiopians realized about 8 months after Abiy came to power he had neither the aptitude nor the ability nor the intelligence or morale to lead Ethiopia. He is part of a dangerous extremist Oromo ideology called Oromuma who are responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Non-Oromo and Orthodox Christians in the region of Oromia, Benishangul, and the Southern regions. Abiy is the co-called friendly face of the ones commiting genocide like Shimelis Abdisa and the Oromo Interhamwe. Time is coming for him to answer for his crimes

  4. Belay,

    ዝም ብለህ የማታውቀውን አትቀባጥር። You are parroting a conspiracy theory speared by the anti-Ethiopia tribalistic forces. Abiy is a good man and great leader for Ethiopia and a proud oromo. There is nothing wrong with that. The real danger for Ethiopia are clueless individual like you. Leave Abiy alone. Thank you.

  5. I read this article more than once just to figure out if it is an opinion or news article. Is the author really serious? Did the writer forget what this young and visionary PM did just in scant months after he assumed office? He released tens of thousands of political prisoners even many who did not deserve it. He opened the door wide open all those countrymen/women who were forcibly exiles and many took the offer in their majority even though many of did not deserve it. He opened the field to the private media wide open even though some of them should never be bestowed such blessing just because such overture was like dressing a pig with a silk. He admitted that the government he worked for before he took office had tortured prisoners, forced citizens into exiles and apologized for such excesses. No leader of that country had done so in the modern history of that country. So what these bigots and republic day dreamers did with the once-in-ages opportunity? These miscreants did what they do best with it. We niggers, you know! They used the free media to pitch one neighbor on another next door. He did not overreact hoping these hate factory foremen would mend their ways. Others cried bloody murder that he did not use his security and military forces to come down on these criminals with all his might. Those hate mongers and former coffer robbers took that as weakness. They dared him with ‘Come on and try me! Step right down and let’s go at it. I will kick your tail so bad that you think you robbed a bank!’ We saw the interviews these reckless and mindless terror incubators gave on several occasions. They were telling us that if not for Lemma and his team begging them for a chance they were at the front door of the palace. I still vividly recall how they demonstrated for us how they were inches away from grabbing the governance in April 2018 by making a small circle using their thumb and index finger. Now the endless patience is over. The silk is schlepped away from the pigs. You now hear a pin drop in most of Oromia. The pigs have finally met their master in the field. That country was extremely lucky enough to have a third chance. There ain’t gonna be a fourth one and this is it!!! I know what these ‘have been’ media outlets like the BBC, AFP, Reuters, The Economist and other look alikes want to see in the old country. They salivate at seeing bloody conflicts erupt throughout the old country so they can send their ‘war’ correspondents to report from the ‘war front’. They are dying to clone Peter Arnett, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite and all other Murrow Boys. Then they will be deafening us with video clips of the bloodbath with ‘War is good’ soundtrack ‘for nothing’ redacted!!! Who cares? Those niggers love killing each other anyway!!!

  6. Ittu Aba Farda,

    u shoo u did not right this ur self since u like dinging Abiy behind his back when it fits ur mood?

  7. This is for dear editors of this esteemed website. I and I believe the majority of us the most respect for your website. That is the main reason many of us would love to make our honest opinions posted here in the hope that our comment will lead into constructive and civil discourse. But there are some that choose to use pejorative and profane instead of civil exchanges of ideas. By all indications these potty mouths don’t seem to be from the old country. They want to see constructive dialogue break down and our old country render itself a failed state just like theirs. I am sure you care about the old country and will do everything in your capacity to safeguard her continuity as a united and just nation to all. What is the benefit of letting your esteemed website to be a playground for shrills and profanity? That gem of the colored and all humanity needs to be given every chance to live. I hope you will look into this issue and weed out these foul mouthed eyal-al-souqs from your adored website. Thank you very much.

  8. Mintesinot,

    ለሰው ብሎ ሲያማ ለኔ ብለህ ስማ ይላል አበሻ። Are you talking about yourself?

    ለሰው ቢናገሩ መልሶ ለሰው ጫር ጫር አድርጌ አፈር ላልብሰው ። Freedom of speech belongs to all not only you. Thank you.

    Have a good one.

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