Yonas Biru, PhD
Prime Minister Abiy is a study in contradiction. He saved Ethiopia from disintegration only to squander a once in a generation window of opportunity to create a lasting peace and prosperity. The problem partly resides in the evangelical seduction of the nation’s political governance that has begotten a bastardized system that is anchored partly in theological and partly in constitutional system of governance. As a result, we have two Prime Ministers residing in Prime Minister Abiy – one inspired by, and beholden to, a divine providence and the other streaming from a Machiavellian instinct laid out in the Prime Minister’s book titled እርካብና መንበር (springboard to power).
The two Prime Ministers cannot be reconciled within the tenets of democratic values and constitutional governance, much less coexist in harmony, and cross-fertilize each other. The unintended consequences of mixing the two include the adulteration of theology and the erosion of constitutional governance.
The corollary of the erosion of the constitutional governance is the invasion of the political power corridor by evangelist preachers and prophets. Policy debates seem to have surrendered their time and space to prayer sessions.
Let me preamble my exposé with three caveats. First, I have been a strong supporter of the Prime Minister. I still am in fundamental ways. I believe he is genuinely interested in, and committed to, reclaiming the glory and repute of our nation. Those who accuse him of being anti Ethiopia and paint him as an architect of an Oromo hegemony are driven either by hate or stupidity or possibly both. I believe he is a visionary and a bold thinker. These are very important because such leaders tend to be transformative. My exposé is premised on the belief that the Prime Minister has genuine intention to use political power for the public good.
Second, the fact that the PM is a devoted Christian is not a problem. If anything, it is important to have a God-fearing leader in charge of the leavers of political power, regardless of the denomination of his religion. The problem arises with the Prime Minister’s conscription of God as his political and policy advisor and his tendency to ignore advice from subject matter experts. God saves sinners, heals the blind and raises the dead. But he does not draft political policies and run bureaucracies. Delegating the mundane duty of administering the nation’s business to divine forces has led to deep-rooted bureaucratic dysfunctionality and glaring failure in the management of the Prime Minister’s transformational reforms.
Third, governing Ethiopia, whose political landscape is dominated by a morally malnourished and ethically devoid political elite, is no small task. If we must assess the Prime Minister’s performance, we cannot ignore Ethiopia’s tribalized intellectuals in the ranks of the Shene-Oromo, Shene-Amhara, and Shene-Tigray political classes. They manifest a herd instinct and cult-like loyalty to their tribal villages, mimicking the psychology and realism of medieval peasants.
The Problem with the Evangelical Seduction of Ethiopian Politics
Answering to the widely held rejection of the release of TPLF prisoners and the unmet demands of the Ethiopian public, the Prime Minister told the Diaspora community: “እኔ እንዴት [ጦርነቱን] እንዳሸነፍኩ አውቀዋለሁ ፈጣሪየ ከኔ ጋር ባይሆን ኖሮ አይሆንም… እኛ ብቻ ታግለን የምትሉ ሰዎች እውነት ነው ታግላችኋል ከናንተ በላይ ግን ከኔ ጋር የታገለውን ስለማውቀው እናንተን ብቻ አላደምጥም ለማለት ነው::”
This is worrisome on many levels. The first and most worrisome lore and thought is that Ethiopia’s constitutional governance is reduced to a private business between the Prime Minister and his spiritual deity. Let us pay particular attention to the statement: “ከናንተ በላይ ግን ከኔ ጋር የታገለውን ስለማውቀው እናንተን ብቻ አላደምጥም::”
This has both theological and practical implications. Theologically, God is a sovereign almighty and has the final word. This is a matter of first principle for the Prime Minister, who is a devoted evangelist. Every time there is a difference between what the people want and what the Prime Minister believes God wants, the Prime Minister’s policy choice weighs the scale in favor of God. It is worth noting that the Constitution neither acknowledges nor empowers God with sovereign authority. The Constitution does not even mention God in passing.
The constitution makes the Prime Minister accountable to the Council of Peoples’ House of Representatives, who are, in turn, accountable to the Ethiopian people – the Supreme Sovereign. In Ethiopia’s Constitution, the Supreme Sovereign is Man, not God. In Practice, Representatives of the Supreme Sovereign serve as a window dressing, while lamenting their fate stuck between God and the Prime Minister. The Sovereign Man has been reduced to a miscellaneous component of the Constitution. Like Hollywood extras he exists in the background.
The Prime Minister also shows little to no regard to the Council of Ministers. As a result, political and bureaucratic power is concentrated, if not monopolized, in his office. This issue was raised by some of the people’s representatives to no avail. The Council of Ministers is reduced to a cross between a council of dignified secretaries and operational analysts tasked to monitor the compliance of the bureaucracy with the Prime Minister’s God inspired directives.
The Decision to Release TPLF was Ostensibly Demanded by God
In his speech to the Diaspora community, the Prime Minister revealed God asked him to release the prisoners. Two questions impose themselves on us.
First, where was the righteous God when the PM declared war against TPLF. Luke 6:29 teaches us: “If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.” Why didn’t God advice the Prime Minister to honor and observe this. If he did, why didn’t the Prime Minister pay heed?
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Prime Minister is using religion selectively. He uses the bible and the constitution alternatively. He rightly launched the war against TPLF because he was duty bound to protect the constitutional order. In a sardonic twist of irony, he released the people who violated the constitution because that is what God wanted him to do.
I am not against the release of the Prisoners. In fact, I support it. My concern is the evangelical seduction of the law. The Diaspora who bought the Prime Minister’s revelation that the prisoner’s release was God’s wish reacted with boundless enthusiasm, as demonstrated in their extended applause, whistles and cheers.
Days before the divine revelation, the Diaspora community was referring to the release TPLF prisoners as “travesty” and “treasonous.” Even Professor Al Mariam who has been writing a weekly column calling TPLF “Nazi” and “KKK”, cheered the Prime Minister’s decision with a blind loyalty of a fanatic activist and a fervent ferocity of a new convert. He proclaimed his “Dreams of Ethiopia at Peace”, which he had been championing “with eerie prophetic vision” has come to reality.
This takes us to the second question. How would the Diaspora have acted, had the Prime Minister been a Muslim and his policies were inspired and guided by the divinity of Islam, as revealed to, and professed by, Prophet Muhammed, the last and final prophet of God? The answer is obvious, but the question needs to be asked, nonetheless.
We should also not forget Ethiopians who do not believe in a higher power and want to be governed by the nation’s secular Constitution. They did not vote for the Prime Minister to transplant his religion into the organs of the nation’s body politics.
God Saves Sinners, Heals the Blind, Raises the Dead, But Does Not Run Bureaucracies
In October 2019, I published an article about the Prime Minister’s poor management of his reforms titled “The PM’s Vision is Like a Ferrari Driven by a Volkswagen Engine.” With the benefit of hindsight of two and half years, I can say with certainty that the problem is deeper than a bureaucratic engine with low horsepower. I summon three projects that I was closely involved in as alibi and exhibits. I could summon three more equally telling projects, particularly the High-Level Diaspora Covid Advisory Council, but space limitation stands in my way.
The War with TPLF and Ethiopia’s Failed Public Diplomacy
The utter and total failure of Ethiopia’s public diplomacy both at home and abroad was the key factor that allowed TPLF to wedge a war and sustain it beyond its natural life cycle. TPLF’s unanswered international propaganda campaign and the resultant support it garnered from the international community was the oxygen and energy that sustained the terrorist group. I have explained this in great details in an article titled: “Lesson for Ethiopia’s Engagement with Egypt: A Robust PR Could Have Avoided TPLF’s War.”
The Prime Minister failed to respond to TPLF’s propaganda onslaught, choosing instead to accuse the US that sources his reform agenda to the tune of billions. American policies are not always based on what is right. Had this been the case, the US Congress would have passed gun control laws. There were 693 mass shootings in 2021, owing to lack of gun control. Mass shooting is defined as “mass shootings, as multiple, firearm, homicide incidents, involving 4 or more victims at one or more locations close to one another.”
If “do the right thing” was what drives American laws and policies, the US Congress would have acted to address climate change. Between 2016 and 2020, the U.S. suffered more than $500 billion from weather disaster linked to climate change.
US policies are influenced by who hires the most powerful lobbyists and who controls the media through media influencers. As myopic and misguided as it has been, the US policy was not driven by regime change. Nor was it aimed to keep Ethiopia poor, The insinuation that the West does not want to see a prospering Ethiopia because if left alone, Ethiopia can inspire the entire African continent to become powerful is utter nonsense. It borders on high-octane stupidity. See my article titled “What Explains Biden’s Counterintuitive Policy on TPLF’s War on Ethiopia.”
In January 2021, a small group of diaspora experts of which I was a part met with high-level officials of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the need to help fill the gap in Ethiopia’s international public diplomacy work. The Minister did not attend the meeting because of urgent matters that competed for his time, but his delegates accepted the group’s offer to prepare a proposal.
The proposal outlined critical steps to: (1) defuse and refute the global false propaganda against Ethiopia; (2) build a positive image of Ethiopia’s political and economic interests as an integral part of its international public diplomacy; and (3) build strategies and action plans to develop and nurture relationships with African American Civil Rights leaders and organizations, think tanks, media outlets, and members of the US Congress, and key policy makers in the US executive branch. The cost estimate for the first year was $5 million to hire lobbying powerhouses and media influencers.
The proposal highlighted two critical points. First, “every million-dollar expenditure for lobbying brings much more in return.” Second, “the diaspora can only play a supporting role to the government. It cannot scale up its efforts and reach a critical mass necessary to diffuse and refute TPLF’s propaganda campaign.”
The Prime Minister rejected the proposal in a speech before the Council of House of Representatives, stating: “The diaspora wants me to spend $5 million for lobbying. If I had $5 million, I would feed the people in Tigray.” He stressed that the diaspora should raise the funds and hire lobbyists.
The Prime Minister saved $5 million but lost $300 million from AGOA alone. Ethiopia could have lost billions more but for its geopolitical strategic position. Despite Ethiopia’s international public diplomacy disaster, the West continued to finance its development to the tune of multi billions.
Two issues should be seen as red flags. First, why did the Minister of Foreign Affair need the permission or the approval of the Prime Minister to spend $5 million on lobbying? The Minister of Foreign Affair is also the Deputy Prime Minister. The fact that he could not expend a meager $5 million from his discretionary budget shows all decisions are made by the Prime Minister.
The second red flag is the delegation of Ethiopia’s international public diplomacy to the Diaspora. Ethiopia is the anchor nation for peace and security in the Horn of Africa – one of the most critical geopolitical lands in the world. Whether it likes it or not, global powers will intervene in its affairs because what happens in Ethiopia spills outside of its geographic proper. Ethiopia should see this as a blessing and leverage it to its advantage. This requires developing a multifaceted strategic policy along with a savvy public diplomacy ecosystem that is both robust and agile.
The so-called the Four Asian Tiger (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong) were all geostrategic lands who capitalized on their blessings to mobilize development funding from the West. Ethiopia could have done the same but squandered the opportunity.
The public diplomacy vacuum the Prime Minister created has been filled by the Diaspora’s #NoMore campaign. Diplomatic dialogue in high offices of foreign ministries gave way to noise making and traffic blocking street protesters. “Stay out of our internal business” became the rallying cry for the diaspora’s idiotic street diplomacy. Who do we blame for this? The Prime Minster or God to whom he is beholden to guide Ethiopia’s international public diplomacy?
The American University in Africa
After the onset of the COVID pandemic, the United States Congress introduced the Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act of 2020. The Act appropriates $3 billion to advance the Global Health Strategy of the United States overseas. The Primary objectives of the Act include to:
provide foreign assistance for global health security to strengthen and sustain resilient health systems and supply chains with the resources, capacity, and personnel required to prevent, detect, mitigate, and respond to infectious disease threats before they become pandemics; and
reduce long-term reliance upon US foreign assistance for global health security by promoting partner country ownership, improved domestic resource mobilization, co-financing, and appropriate national budget allocations or global health security and pandemic preparedness.
A team of seven Ethiopians and Ethiopian Americans that I had the privilege of chairing prepared a proposal to establish the American University of Africa in Ethiopia. The proposal leveraged on two pillars of the Global Health Security and Diplomacy Act: funding from the $3 billion appropriation and partnership with American Universities with global repute in public health.
The Proposal sought to establish a world-class public health University with the aim of increasing Africa’s pandemic preparedness; containing an emerging pandemic; and managing and thwarting pandemic outbreaks. The proposed university aimed to go beyond strengthening the early warning system of novel viruses and public health crisis prevention and management. It aspired to set a new standard for African universities, breaking through historical barriers and adopting innovative solutions.
The four core pillars of the university included: The School of Public Health; Leadership and Management Institute; Applied Science and Digital Technology Institute; and Institute for African Economic Transformation.
Ethiopia stood to gain a lot by hosting such a world class institution. The proposal highlighted the University “will bring the prestige associated with a regional flagship university and its spillover effect will uplift the nation’s universities and colleges and make Ethiopia the Mecca of Africa’s higher learning.”
The Association of Black American Ambassadors (ABAA) supported the proposal in a letter to Secretary Michael Pompeo, stating “The ABAA believes the US should seriously seize this opportunity to help finance, shape and participate in creating the American University of Africa.” Several prominent American universities expressed strong interest in joining the effort as partners.
The initiative’s Board consisted of 25 reputable experts, including two former US Ambassadors to Ethiopia, a former US Congressman, a Former Canadian Parliamentarian, several American University Presidents, Executive Vice Presidents, Deans and globally recognized Public Health Professors, CEOs of global health programs, and the Director of Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Having garnered broad support in the US, the Diaspora group presented the proposal to the Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Science and Higher Education, and the CEO of Land Bank and Development Corporation. The two Ministers unequivocally endorsed the proposal as a critical initiative for the country. The CEO of Land Bank and Development Corporation saw it as vital to Ethiopia’s interest and worthy of a land grant.
The next two critical steps were getting the support and approval of the Prime Minister, followed by preparing a joint proposal by the diaspora group and a partnering American university to seek financial support from the $3 billion US appropriation. The Prime Minister’s full support was required to receive substantial financial support from the US.
The proposal was submitted to the Prime Minister before the war broke out with the full and unequivocal support of all relevant institutions in Ethiopia. It has been a year and a half. No response. This is the problem when everything must be decided by the Prime Minister and not even the full endorsement of two prominent members of the Council of Ministers carries weight to get the project going. It seems that only his signature projects are supported. It is not farfetched to think if he does not get the directive direct from God he has no interest to support projects no matter how important they may be.
The Prime Minster has shown no interest in mobilizing intellectual opinion leaders. Intellectuals whom he has associated himself are activists who tailgate him and serve him as an echo chamber and cheerleader. We have seen many Councils formed to provide intellectual counsel and guidance, including the Privatization Council and the Economic Advisory Council of which I was a part. They all proved to be nothing more than window dressings.
I was involved with the Economic Advisory Council from its inception. I was the co-author of the proposal with Professor Lemma Weldesenbet, with input from Professors Alemayehu Geda and Professor Berhanu Abegaz. After two years, the Council was publicly announced by the Prime Minister’s Office in December 2020. Between February to May 2021, I served as an interim chair and soon after I resigned from the Council with regret.
The Council was supposed to: (1) serve “as a permanent, autonomous, statutory body with its own legal personality”; (2) produce Annual “Ethiopian Economic Outlook”; (3) provide “periodic analyses on economic issues initiated by the Government and/or on the Council’s initiative based on consultation with the Government”; and (4) “interact directly with the Prime Minister and every quarter, with the country’s Macro Economic Committee” housed in the Prime Minister’s office.
It has been 15 months since the Council was formed. Nine months have lapsed since its bylaws have been finalized and submitted to the government. None of the above-noted four items have happened. True, the country has been at war with TPLF, but that should not stop the Council of the Peoples’ House of Representatives from enacting a law to establish the Economic Council as a statutory body.
Throughout the war, the Prime Minister has been regularly meeting with activists. It is inconceivable that he could not find it possible to meet with his Economic Advisory Council. This is odd, given the state of the economy during and after the war. The fact that the Council has not even managed to meet with the Prime Minister’s Macro Economic Committee after 15 month of existence speaks volumes about the government’s disregard to the Council. I am making such a bold statement taking note of the fate of the Privatization Advisory Council that the Prime Minister established in 2018.
Evidently, part of the problem resides in the Economic Council that has failed to live up to its own expectations. It has nobody to blame but its incompetent and politicized leaders. Part of its duty was to “conduct analysis on economic policy issues of national significance on its own initiative and disseminate the result through channels of its own choice so as to inform the general public.” A year after it has been established, it has not convened one conference. Nor has it produced a single publication that it was supposed to “produce periodically.” This is not for lack of topics of urgent attention. Runaway inflation, cascading currency devaluation, the economic destruction of war, and the bureaucratic culture that suffocates entrepreneurial spirit come to mind.
The Council had serious political problem from the get-go that needed to be addressed. Having received my detailed account several members of the Council, the Prime Minister’s office had more than sufficient evidence to intervene but failed to do so, choosing to be a disinterested observer. The political nature of the problem revealed itself in a spectacular fashion leading to one of the members to resign under pressure.
The current vice chair of the Council is on the record sating that he is not sure “if the government is worth Advising.” He believes TPLF, OLF and PP are “nihilist political forces which share the same political ideology and animosity toward the historic Ethiopian state.” The last I checked PP is led by the Prime Minister that the vice chair of the Council willfully accepted to advise.
In short, the evangelization of our governance that relied more on God and less on subject matter experts is half the problem. The other half emanates from the political elite that has failed to produce opinion leaders and nation builders. One of the documents I produced to explain my resignation from the Economic Council was titled “The Unmaking of Ethiopia’s Thinking Class and the Dumbing Down of a Nation.” The other was headlined “ “An Intellectual Culture Unfit for Progress: Why I Resigned from the PM Economic Advisory Council.”