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From Nobel Peace Prize to Civil War: The Captivating Saga of Ethiopia’s Leader

June 20, 2024

When Abiy Ahmed took power in Ethiopia, he was feted at home and abroad as a great unifier and reformer. Two years later, terrible violence was raging. How did people get him so wrong?

By Tom Gardner
June 20, 2024

‘I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about Abiy Ahmed.” The message flashed up from someone I had been told to call Napoleon. It was the middle of 2023, six years after I had first arrived in Ethiopia, and one year after I had left, in the midst of a war which was tearing it apart. Ethiopia was lurching from crisis to crisis, and behind each of them loomed one figure larger than any other: the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Napoleon was in the US. He had known Abiy when the two of them had worked together as cyber-intelligence officers in the 2000s. A mutual contact had prepared him for my call, and assured me that he was ready and willing. Just one day earlier, Napoleon had told me himself, via text message, that he would share with me what he knew of the character of the man who, five years earlier, had won control of the Ethiopian state. Now, though, Napoleon was having second thoughts. When I tried to ring, he blocked my number.

The closer someone had been to Abiy, it seemed, the less likely they were to talk about him. Even those living far away in safe countries in the west were often too afraid to speak with me. Some would read my messages and then block my number. A few would reply, promising to schedule an interview, only to disappear. Many would not answer my calls at all.

Over the six years I had been living and working in Ethiopia, I had tried to speak with as many people as possible who had known and worked with Abiy. Despite the appearance of openness that characterised his early days in power, almost everyone agreed he was an enigma. Later, as their lives, and those of all Ethiopians, were profoundly altered by the political decisions he made, many sought further explanations: who is Abiy, really, and what does he want?

When he came to power in 2018, Abiy was feted in the west as a liberal reformer, one who would shepherd an Ethiopia bedevilled by factional politics and competing identities into a democratic future. As the first national leader in Ethiopia’s modern history to identify as Oromo, the largest but historically underrepresented of the country’s many ethnic groups, Abiy was thought to be a unifier after years of fracture.

He was also hailed as a visionary peacemaker. In July 2018, Abiy struck a historic peace accord with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s smaller neighbour which had seceded in 1993 and then – between 1998 and 2000 – fought a bloody border war that claimed as many as 100,000 lives. For his role in this, the new prime minister was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2019. The Nobel committee’s chair praised not only Abiy’s peace deal with Eritrea, but also his domestic reform efforts, including the release of tens of thousands of prisoners and the return of once-banned opposition groups. Accepting the prize at a ceremony in Oslo, Abiy declared war “the epitome of hell for all involved. I know because I was there.”

But the world got Abiy wrong.

Little more than a year later, one of the worst wars of the 21st century erupted in Tigray, Ethiopia’s northernmost region. For much of the preceding three decades, Tigray’s authoritarian ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), had held pre-eminent power in a national coalition government. Abiy, too, had been part of the coalition – but over time had grown resentful of his Tigrayan superiors (the Tigrayan ethnic group comprises just 6% of the population of Ethiopia). The war, which ended in late 2022, would be fought over conflicting ideas of Ethiopia but also over the raw matter of power. Abiy was not solely responsible for this catastrophic conflict – which some have described as a genocide – but he was arguably more to blame than anybody else. He may go down as the most controversial recipient of the Nobel peace prize since Henry Kissinger.

Yet Abiy is no conventional authoritarian demagogue either. He came to power with a certain vision of the country he wanted to see, though that isn’t to say he had a clear policy programme or a rigid ideological agenda for achieving it. He could be deceptive and dishonest, allowing different constituencies to believe whatever they wanted about him, however contradictory. He conflated his own fate with that of the nation, believing himself to be indispensable. He deployed rhetoric that was often hateful, xenophobic and violent. But his mission in government wasn’t only amassing power and enriching himself. It was also about remaking Ethiopia in his own image.

Fortunately for Abiy, there were powerful states that were all too happy to enable him. One of the first was the US. Another was the United Arab Emirates, whose ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan wanted – and still wants – to expand the UAE’s regional influence throughout the Horn of Africa and the broader Red Sea region. So after he took power, Abiy was lavished with investment, diplomatic backing – and, most importantly, arms.

It can be easy to forget, looking back, the power of the spell Abiy briefly cast over Ethiopia and its western allies. For a few heady months in 2018, his ascendance seemed to many as though it were divinely ordained, the nation’s collective deliverance from years of sacrifice and suffering. Over the previous four years, the multiethnic Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition government, in which Abiy had been a senior official, had been waging a brutal crackdown on the young demonstrators defying its autocratic rule. Now, in his swearing-in speech in April 2018, Abiy asked, in a gesture without any precedent, for “forgiveness from the bottom of my heart”. He called for national unity and for talks with the opposition, urging for bridges to be built even with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s mortal foe since 1998. “For us, building democracy is today an existential matter,” he intoned, “more than it is to any other country.”

Ethiopians all over the country clapped and cheered before their television screens. In a juice bar in Adama, a city in Oromia, Abiy’s home region, a middle-aged woman and her family watched the event underneath the large poster of the new prime minister she had pinned to the wall. “There is nobody on Earth as happy as me,” she said. Far away in the distant south, people celebrated by slaughtering camels, cows and goats.

All around the world, Ethiopian diaspora sang and danced into the night. A blanket amnesty was issued for all the many dissidents and opposition members who had fled the country since the EPRDF took power in 1991. The names of rebel groups were struck off the terrorist list, while the steady release of political prisoners was accelerated. The co-founder of the Ginbot 7, an armed opposition group hosted and supported by Eritrea, had been sentenced to death; now the sentence was dropped. The once-banned colours, symbols and flags of opposition movements blossomed everywhere.

Rhetorically, at least, reconciliation and forgiveness were the order of the day. Ethiopia’s Orthodox church had been split between those loyal to a synod-in-exile – led by its former patriarch from Amhara, the second most populous and historically most powerful ethnic group – and those allied to the Tigrayan patriarch installed in the capital, Addis Ababa. Abiy swiftly set about bridging the divide, a feat of mediation which won him the Church’s special recognition. Likewise, he helped to reunite the country’s two main Muslim factions. A devout Pentecostal Christian, fired by a belief in his own providential mission, Abiy seemed to be promoting religious unity as a tool for consolidating his own authority. And it made sense. In a country as devout as Ethiopia, there were few more powerful resources than faith for an ambitious politician to draw on.

Former officials from the previous regime, a ferociously repressive Marxist junta called the Derg, which had ruled Ethiopia from the fall of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 until 1991, were welcomed back. To the dismay of many Ethiopians old enough to remember the days of the Red Terror, in which tens of thousands had been murdered, mutilated and tortured in the name of class revolution, some were granted an audience with the prime minister. Nonetheless, Pentecostal churches across the land declared that Abiy had been sent by God. So too did senior government officials: Gedion Timothewos, a widely respected constitutional lawyer who would later become Abiy’s justice minister, personally told me so.

Abiy and his wife, Zinash Tayachew, wave to the crowd in Oslo after he received the Nobel peace prize in 2019.
Abiy and his wife, Zinash Tayachew, wave to the crowd in Oslo after he received the Nobel peace prize in 2019. Photograph: Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix/AFP/Getty Images

The rest of the world was catching Abiymania too. In August 2018, the prime minister embarked on a tour of the Ethiopian diaspora in the US, visiting Washington, Los Angeles and Minneapolis in the hope of persuading some of them to return to Ethiopia and invest there. Wherever Abiy went he was welcomed with wild enthusiasm. A crowd of 20,000 people filled the Walter E Washington Convention Center, which was bedecked in red, yellow and green, the colours of the Ethiopian flag. “It was euphoric,” recalled Tewodros Tsegaye, a Tigrayan journalist in Washington. “The intellectuals who were meant to analyse and ask him questions there were not using their brains. They just were saying: ‘Hail Abiy.’”

Not everyone was so happy. In fact, some of the first signs of real tension were evident in Abiy’s interactions with the diaspora he encountered in the US, and in particular among the Tigrayans – but also among Oromos, the prime minister’s own, now ascendant, ethnic group. “He was not interested in serious deliberation,” recalled Jawar Mohammed, the prime minister’s most prominent rival in Oromia, who met with him privately for the first time after a rally in Minneapolis. The influential Oromo activist had laid out a set of concerns with the trajectory of the transition to democracy which Abiy claimed to have launched, including its apparent lack of a clear road map for elections. Abiy had simply brushed them away. “He just wanted us to move on,” Jawar later wrote.

Nowhere was the collective entrancement more striking than in western embassies and capitals. Prime minister Abiy’s liberal democratic rhetoric; his admission that the EPRDF’s violence could be likened to terrorism; his appointment of a gender-equal cabinet and a respected elder stateswoman, Sahle-Work Zewde, as president; his apparent pragmatism – all played marvellously with western audiences. “It was like they were meeting a rockstar,” said a British aid official recalling the occasions when government ministers would visit Ethiopia. “The joke among the diplomats was: ‘I hope my minister doesn’t ask him for an autograph.’”

Michael Raynor, then the US’s wide-eyed ambassador, stood out as the most unabashed cheerleader among the western diplomatic corps. He told colleagues that Abiy was the “real deal” while pointedly refusing to engage with the prime minister’s political rivals. One of Raynor’s senior embassy colleagues told me at the time that the new Ethiopian leadership consisted of “individuals who have service as the driving force in their work and lives”. Raynor later told a European counterpart in Addis Ababa that Abiy was the “most pro-west leader we’re going to get”.

Quite what the breezy assessments were based on, given how little western diplomats actually knew about either Abiy or his colleagues, was never clear. But in the absence of firm direction from Washington during the Trump years – the then national security adviser, John Bolton, told me he doubted the president had even read his own administration’s Africa strategy – the embassy in Addis Ababa was given a free hand to cultivate Abiy as it saw fit. In its internal strategy document of 2018, the embassy cheered Abiy’s “strongly western orientation” and argued that his administration represented a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance US interests in the region”.

In practice, “US interests” amounted to little more than pulling Ethiopia out of China’s orbit. By assuring Washington that Abiy could be an essential African ally against Beijing, and with Abiy having signalled privately to the Americans that he regarded the Chinese Communist party as “godless”, Raynor was able to shepherd a flood of development funding in the prime minister’s direction. Between 2018 and 2023, America ploughed more than $4.1bn in aid into Ethiopia, including more than $600m to support democratic and economic reforms. The embassy drew up plans to embed advisers in Ethiopian government ministries.

Abiy in a shirt, tie and jacket stands in front of a microphone in front of the word “Freedom”
‘He painted himself as a westerner’ … Abiy speaking at a World Press Freedom Day in Addis Ababa in 2019. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

The international media was often just as uncritical. It didn’t seem to matter that the prime minister assiduously avoided media scrutiny, refusing – with just one exception – to give press conferences, and almost never granting interviews. After little more than a year in office, the prime minister was anointed one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People and Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers. In 2019, the Financial Times splashed Abiy on the cover under the headline “Africa’s new talisman”.

Abiy painted himself as a westerner at odds with the more China-friendly, market-sceptical TPLF, which had previously dominated the government. In a star turn at the World Economic Forum in Davos, he informed his audience that it was not possible to sustain economic growth without democracy. With a flash of his winning smile, Abiy boasted that Ethiopia was now one of the few countries in Africa not to imprison reporters. The audience broke into rapturous applause.

He could be extraordinarily charming. When high-profile foreign visitors arrived in Addis Ababa, the prime minister would often meet them at the airport in his own 4×4, taking the steering wheel himself and driving them through the city for a guided tour of the palace and its surroundings. Among those given the red-carpet treatment by Abiy in this way was David Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina, who was then chief of the UN’s World Food Programme. The two had known each other for about a decade through the National Prayer Breakfast, an influential networking event in Washington run by the Fellowship Foundation, a Christian outfit known for its promotion of anti-LGBTQ+ activism both in Congress and in Africa.

Another admirer was former British prime minister Tony Blair, whose non-profit organisation, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, would be closely involved in steering some of the government’s liberalising reforms. “This is a remarkable leader,” Blair told an audience in Addis Ababa in 2018. “He has the energy. He has the commitment. He has a real sense of purpose. He’s got a good mind, but most important of all he’s got a good heart … If the future of Ethiopia is in your hands, sir, I’m confident about its future.”

Abiy himself appears to have been genuinely enamoured with the west, and in particular the US. Jon Lee Anderson, a reporter for the New Yorker who was one of only two foreign journalists to be granted a proper interview with the prime minister in these years, would later be struck by how Abiy became most animated when talking about the US and the time he had spent there, on and off, in the early 2010s, when his wife and children had moved to Denver. Abiy was, he told Anderson, a “Bay Area kind of guy”, and Americans, he insisted, “the most generous people in the world”.

The economic agenda that Abiy announced shortly after taking office proposed that the government would open state-owned telecoms, electricity and logistics, as well as the highly profitable national airline, to foreign investors for the first time. It would also allow for the full or partial privatisation of railways, ailing sugar factories, industrial parks, hotels and some manufacturing firms. Ethiopia’s application to the World Trade Organization, long stalled, was to be revived. Plans to establish Ethiopia’s first stock exchange were also to be sped up. The Ethiopian birr was to be aggressively devalued and, eventually, floated. Abiy now likened both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to a “mother” because of their generous lending terms, and called on them to guide his government’s Homegrown Economic Reform Agenda – so named to counter allegations that it had been written to appease international financial institutions and investors.

The TPLF, led by erstwhile revolutionary Marxists, criticised these plans as “temporary solutions” that would not solve Ethiopia’s problems. Western investors and many donors, by contrast, were thrilled. Abiy, it had become clear, viewed free-market capitalism as an aspirational endeavour, perhaps even a moral one. “My model is capitalism,” he proudly told the Financial Times in 2019. “We need the private sector.”

Perhaps more than any other single event, it was the peace deal Abiy struck with Eritrea’s tyrannical president, Isaias Afewerki, that set Ethiopia on the path to civil war. This deal was among the elements of Abiy’s early success most energetically promoted by the US.

In 2017, Donald Yamamoto, then America’s top diplomat on Africa and a former ambassador and chargé d’affaires in Ethiopia and Eritrea, had been given free rein by the Trump administration to explore a settlement that might bring both Ethiopia and Eritrea away from China and back inside the US orbit. Liberal squeamishness about engaging with a serial human-rights abuser like Afewerki – who runs Eritrea, according to the UN and human rights groups, like a slave state – became a matter of less and less concern.

Yamamoto visited Abiy in Addis Ababa shortly after the new prime minister was appointed in April 2018. “Abiy was looking for an angle to define who he was going to be as prime minister,” the diplomat recalled in an interview after he had left government. “So he said to me and Ambassador Raynor: ‘What do you want me to do? What does America want me to do?’ And I replied: ‘Well, what we want you to do is bring a conclusion to the Ethiopia-Eritrea dispute after 20 years.’ … So that was what we wanted to get out of it – and he did it. He took it. He took the ball.”

Yet given what transpired later, it now seems that what Abiy sought by making peace with Eritrea was not simply a peace agreement, or brotherly relations between two exceptionally interwoven societies, but rather – in Afewerki – a political ally: someone to support him in any future confrontation with the TPLF. After all, there was nobody more vehemently opposed to the Tigrayan old guard than the Eritrean president. The TPLF, Afewerki had declared in June 2018, were “vultures” whose final demise was imminent. Replying via a TV broadcast not long after this, Abiy had ignored the thinly veiled threat, gliding smoothly over the invective against his coalition colleagues as though nothing were awry. A political alliance, not just a diplomatic entente, had been formed. In Tigray, just across the border, alarm bells had begun to ring.

Two young men, one in a sarong and holding a stick and the other in tight trousers, walk past an abandoned tank behind which other young people are standing
An abandoned tank in Tigray in December 2020. Photograph: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

By 2019, even before Abiy won the Nobel prize, it had become clear to anyone paying attention that the peace deal Abiy had struck with Afewerki should be viewed with scepticism. What the deal really demonstrated were the limits of a peace-building process that prioritised speed over deliberation and the goodwill of individual leaders over public consultation. No written agreement ever appeared before Ethiopia’s parliament for ratification. For a while there was little sign that either side had thought about the trickier aspects of the rapprochement: trade and tariff regimes, currency conversion or even physical demarcation of the border. If there was ever a concrete agreement for Ethiopia to regain tax-free access to Eritrea’s ports, it was never shared with the public.

Yet few concerns were raised by the western governments that hailed the new deal as a breakthrough. The absence of anyone senior from the TPLF accompanying Abiy on his trips to the Eritrean capital Asmara – a telling oversight given Tigray’s centrality, both politically and geographically, to the original conflict – was never mentioned. The TPLF’s own objections to the peace deal were also brushed aside. Though the TPLF had formally welcomed Abiy’s announcement in June 2018, a trenchant statement later issued by the party alleged the process had “fundamental flaws”. But foreign diplomats, for their part, typically waved away Tigrayan worries as the work of recalcitrant “spoilers”.

For a short while, it seemed as though everyone outside the TPLF might be happy to overlook the flaws in Abiy’s approach to diplomacy – not least his faith in the power of his own charisma to heal rifts – and simply embrace the new order. After all, when it came to the peace agreement, many ordinary Tigrayans had initially sounded elated, too. “I never dreamed this would happen,” said a Tigrayan friend whose Eritrean father was deported during the border war, and who was later reunited with a long-lost sister. “It’s like divine intervention.”

That feeling would not last long.

For most Ethiopians, Abiymania came to seem like a holiday romance turned sour. For many others, though, it had always been a lie. In Ethiopia’s south, mass violence – much of it ethnic – had exploded within days of Abiy taking power. With the new prime minister quickly pursuing a unilateral political agenda of his own, the Ethiopian state quickly weakened.

Uncertainty at the centre encouraged local actors elsewhere to settle old territorial disputes. In the weeks that followed Abiy’s ascent, such disputes led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands in southern Oromia – comparable figures to those in Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis a year earlier, which had attracted a global outcry and an investigation by the international criminal court (ICC).

This was social upheaval on a momentous scale. But outsiders largely ignored it because it was inconvenient: a fly in the ointment of Abiymania and a wrinkle in the otherwise uplifting tale of democratic progress that the prime minister and his allies were anxious to promote.

By the end of 2018, nearly 3 million Ethiopians had been forced from their homes by conflict. Far too many officials, local and foreign, preferred the illusion that these were isolated incidents to be expected of any transition to democracy. In fact, they became normalised – and continue to this day.

It was in Abiy’s home region of Oromia that the threat of state collapse was most acute. Soon after he had returned to Ethiopia in August 2018, Jawar – one of Abiy’s most potent opponents – had told local media that the country now effectively had “two governments”: one led by Abiy, the other by the Oromo youth movement, known as the Qeerroo, for which Jawar was the figurehead.

In parts of western Oromia there were groups that now called themselves Qeerroo Police and had taken over responsibility for local security; in some places they manned roadblocks and exhorted “taxes” from local businesses and passersby. In the eastern city of Harar, residents went without drinking water for nearly a month after Qeerroos in the surrounding hinterland shut the supply down and demanded a ransom of 10m birr (about $350,000). “Anarchy and state collapse are within the realm of possibility,” fretted one federal official at the time. The US’s deputy ambassador later put it more bluntly: “It was chaos.”

But few outsiders paid heed to what that chaos portended. As security deteriorated, few journalists, local or foreign, ever made it to more remote areas. Western diplomats, anxious to save face, were reluctant to admit the dark side of the “democratic transition” they had so enthusiastically cheered.

A crowd of women and men, many in Ethiopian flag colours, stand under a cloudless sky holding a vertical banner of Abiy
Abiy’s backers at a pro-government rally to denounce the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in Addis Ababa in 2021. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Between 2018 and 2020, Abiy moved to limit the power of the TPLF – the best organised and most equipped obstacle to his political project – in the country’s federal government, economy and security apparatus. Tensions between his government and Tigrayans rapidly mounted. Thinly veiled hate speech, much of it targeting Tigrayans, spread. Again, though, warning signs were downplayed.

“It was obvious [that he was against] not only the TPLF but also the Tigrayan people,” said a former interim prime minister, Tamrat Layne, who met with Abiy shortly after he took office. “I was trying to advise him from the beginning to handle the TPLF situation in a wise way, not to use force of arms … but he was always telling me: ‘They are nothing’, ‘They don’t have a place in Ethiopia’, things like that … It was like a revenge thing.”

By 2020, even senior allies had urged him to reconcile with the TPLF in order to head off a violent conflict. But Abiy doubled down. The TPLF, and by extension Tigrayans, were increasingly singled out as the sole source of Ethiopia’s ills. Abiy’s government openly accused the Tigrayan ruling party of waging a campaign of violent national sabotage. Even power cuts or water shortages were now laid at the Tigrayans’ door.

Over the border in Eritrea, Afewerki was preparing for war: reorganising the Eritrean Defence Forces, stocking up on arms from Russia, digging trenches and stepping up conscription. Eritrean media ramped up anti-TPLF propaganda, accusing it of agitating against Abiy’s peace agreement. Authorities warned repeatedly that the TPLF planned to invade Eritrea and repeat the horrors of the 1998-2000 war.

Ethiopian soldiers started deploying on the Eritrean side of the border. Abiy ratcheted up the economic pressure on Tigray, turning what had for many months already been a loose blockade of the region into a fast-tightening chokehold. Ostensibly to fight corruption, but really to strangle the TPLF’s finances, the federal government had introduced new currency notes in September 2020, forcing everyone to hand their old money into the banks. Now it went even further, halting budget payments to Tigray entirely – a move decried by the TPLF as a “declaration of war” – and suspending welfare payments to farmers there. Support for the region’s efforts to fight the locusts then decimating Tigrayan agriculture was slashed.

Civil war erupted on 3 November 2020. Over the following days, the first glimpses of its horrors began to emerge: refugees streaming into Sudan, columns of militiamen brandishing rusty Kalashnikovs, wobbly videos of corpses under plastic shrouds. “This is about to get very fucked,” a shaken foreign researcher texted me as word of the first massacres reached us. Later, the fighting would spread to other regions, and almost reached the capital, Addis Ababa. By the time the rest of the world had awoken to the disaster unfolding, it was too late.

After two years and at least 600,000 deaths, mass rape and ethnic cleansing, Ethiopia’s Tigray war came to an end, but the peace is extremely fragile. Conflict has created widespread famine and catastrophic economic damage. In Amhara and Oromia, the two largest regions, rebellions against Abiy’s government are still raging – and the response of his security forces is often no less brutal. Yet the US and the EU are seeking to gradually bring him in from the cold. Last year, the Biden administration determined that the Ethiopian government is no longer engaging in a “pattern of gross violations of human rights”. Western and African officials alike act as if Ethiopia were a problem solved. But it is far from it.

Ethiopia’s messianic prime minister sought to transcend his country’s difficult history – to wipe away the complexities of identity, ideology and nation-building in a single stroke and build afresh. But instead he has been consumed by it. Under his highly idiosyncratic and personalised style of rule, Abiy has heightened what sociologists might call the Ethiopian state’s “structural contradictions” to the point of collapse. As the country’s disrupter-in-chief, who took a sledgehammer to an already delicate set of political arrangements, Abiy is the prime catalyst for the country’s spectacular unravelling.

This is an edited extract from The Abiy Project: God, Power and War in the New Ethiopia, published by Hurst and available at guardianbookshop.com

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