By Worku Aberra
January 21, 2021
Last December, in an article titled “Mind over matter: Abiy Ahmed’s aim to “Pentecostalize Ethiopian politics”, Rene Lefort engages in gratuitous ad hominem attacks against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. He throws the kitchen sink at the Prime Minister with the hope that some of his smears would stick. Based on reports from anonymous interviewees, he accuses the Prime Minister of being a delusional theocrat with a shallow understanding of Ethiopia’s history and politics. I will address his most egregious slights about the Prime Minister.
Since the individuals who expressed their views about the Prime Minister have not been identified in the article, it is impossible for the reader to verify the veracity of the claims. The individuals, we are told, did not want to be identified “for fear of reprisals except one”. And yet the author invites us to accept the tirades about the character, knowledge, and political views of the Prime Minister by anonymous sources. He provides no credible evidence to support any of his assertions, forcing us to question the validity his claims.
When Rene Lefort writes, “ First, they say, Abiy lacks political and historical knowledge”, the reader expects the author to provide evidence in support of the claim, for example, by referring to statements made by the Prime Minister or by identifying government polices that are not informed by history. He does nothing of the sort. Instead, using the unnamed individuals, he hurls insults at the Prime Minister.
We are told that one individual was willing to go on record, yet that individual has not been identified in the commentary. Merara Gudina and Alex De Waal were quoted in the article, but these individuals are hardly disinterested parties capable of making objective comments about the Prime Minister. Merara Gudina is a political opponent of the Prime Minister, and opposition politicians, whether in Ethiopia or in France, characteristically make unflattering comments about their opponents.
Merara asserts that appointments by the Prime Minister represent the “commercialization of politics”. If politics is a commercial transaction, he is deeply involved in it too. He has been appointed to the board of directors of the Ethiopian Broadcasting Authority. Merara who describes himself as a moderate politician has embraced the extremist Jawar Mohammed. Many would consider his alliance with Jawar the “commercialization of politics”.
Condemning appointments while accepting one and denouncing extremism while allying with an extremist is the height of hypocrisy. If Merara feels so strongly about appointments being transactional, then the honourable thing to do for him is to resign his appointment. If he sincerely believes that extremism is dangerous for Ethiopia, he should dissociate himself from extremists. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
Appointments of individuals, frequently supporters and occasionally opponents, by government leaders are not unique to this Prime Minister. Why this is considered a worthy topic is puzzling.
The TPLF’s Foreign Surrogates
Alex De Waal is unlikely to objectively assess the Prime Minister. A close acquaintance or friend of Meles Zenawi, he has been an ardent supporter of the TPLF. Writing about Meles, De Waal says, “Over nearly 25 years, I was fortunate to be able to discuss political economy with him regularly, including critiquing his incomplete and unpublished master’s dissertation.” His loyalty to the TPLF has influenced his assessment of the conflict and the achievements of the Prime Minister. He repeats the TPLF allegation that the UAE used its drones stationed in Assab to attack the TPLF forces, which has been debunked.
Rene Lefort writes, “he sincerely believes he is a messiah”. And further, “…the credo of the Prosperity Gospel is that the stronger the belief, the more God will reward the believer with financial blessings”. This is a silly thing to say. How Rene Lefort, unless he processes a special religious crystal ball that enables him to read someone’s mind, came to these observations is a mystery. The Prime Minister has never said that he is a messiah or that development funds fall from the sky like manna.
Abiy Ahmed’s economic reforms were approved by of the EPRDF in 2018. If the Prime Minister’s economic policy is based on the “Prosperity Gospel”, then the EPRDF’s approval of the policy could be seen as divine intervention, if we apply Lefort’s logic. The Prime Minister is far from being perfect, but delusional, he is not.
It is easy to conflate any policy with a leader’s religion, either to bless or to decry the policy, but the exercise sheds no light on the policy, other than dragging religion into the discussion. The conflation, when done to discredit someone’s policy based on their religion, smacks of religious bigotry.
In non-theocracies, although the religious convictions of leaders may inform their views on broad issues such as justice, equality, freedom, and human dignity, it is unlikely that their religion guides their policies. Joe Biden is a devout Catholic, but he supports the woman’s right to abortion. It would be absurd to say that President Emmanuel Macron’s recent controversial security law flows from his religious conviction and that he is catholicizing politics in France by introducing the new law. If we generally accept that leaders in the west, such as Biden and Macron, can separate their religious beliefs from the policies of their governments, why can’t we make the same assumption about an Ethiopian leader?
The TPLF’s Downfall and Regional Stability
Rene Lefort and other supporters of the TPLF have argued that the conflict with the TPLF would destabilize the Horn of Africa. I have argued elsewhere that it will not. The conflict has been largely over despite some skirmishes here and there, but the predicted instability has not yet materialized.
In fact, the leaders of Ethiopia’s neighbouring countries and the AU have expressed their support for the military action taken by the Ethiopian government against the TPLF at the IGAD meeting in Djibouti on December 20. The boarder conflict with the Sudan is unlikely to develop into a large-scale war between the two countries. The TPLF is geographically and diplomatically isolated to engage in a sustained armed conflict with the government that involves the neighbouring countries.
Further, the argument that a government should not put down a rebellion because its action may destabilize a region is problematic. It suggests that there is a trade off between domestic peace and regional instability, where there is none. It implies that the Ethiopian government should have tolerated the TPLF’s attack on the Northern Command and its looting of the weapons. No government would tolerate such an attack, irrespective of the impact of its reaction may have on regional instability.
Besides, it has been reported that the TPLF has been a major source of regional instability. The Prime Minister informed parliament on November 30 that he has been told by leaders of South Sudan and Somalia of how the TPLF had been sowing division in their countries and creating instability. A Kenyan politician and a former deputy speaker of the Kenyan Parliament, Farah Maalim, agrees with the Prime Minister’s report. He goes further and alleges that the TPLF was supplying arms to Al Shabaab to rationalize the EPRDF’s presence in Somalia. If these allegations are correct, then the elimination of the TPLF can only contribute towards peace and stability in the region.
Rene Lefort predicts that there will be “…ethnic slaughter at a scale even more terrible than in former Yugoslavia”. The TPLF has been fomenting ethnic conflict in Ethiopia for more than four decades, and yet thanks to the maturity, tolerance, and shared values of the Ethiopian people, there has not been widespread ethnic bloodbaths. For sure, minorities have been attacked in certain regions because of the TPLF institutionalized ethnic politics.
As a result of the TPLF’s policies, close to three million people were displaced in Ethiopia in 2019. The TPLF leaders had threatened that unless they continue ruling Ethiopia, the country would become another Rwanda. Their “predictions” have come true to some extent. They have instigated, financed, and organized ethnic conflicts. The Prime Minister sated in parliament on November 30 that there had been 113 conflicts in Ethiopia since 2016, and the TPLF was involved in all of them. The removal of the TPLF will only avert “ethnic slaughter” that Lefort fears.
The TPLF’s Removal and Peace in Ethiopia
Indeed, the downfall of the TPLF has already reduced instability and ethnic conflict in Ethiopia. In the Somali region, when Abdi Mohamoud Omar, a staunch TPLF ally, was in power from 2005 to 2018, thousands of Somalis were killed; Orthodox churches, burnt; Orthodox Christians, slain; and non-Somalis, attacked frequently. With the removal of the TPLF from power and Abdi in jail, the region has been peaceful.
During the TPLF era, in the region of Amhara, conflicts between the Kimant and Amharas were common. Now, they are non-existent. In Gambella, armed confrontation between the Nuer and the Annuak was ubiquitous; today, there is none. To be sure, in pockets of Oromia and Benishangul regions where armed gangs previously supported by the TPLF are still active, there is still ethnic cleansing, but in general the removal of the TPLF from power has pacified Ethiopia, contrary to what Lefort and others assert.
Rene Lefort says,” A cleansing of Tigrayans has begun in the administration…” If such a cleansing has started, we should all condemn it, but if the TPLF cadres are using their government positions to attack the government from inside, as some of them inside the ENDF and the National Intelligence and Security Service did during the aborted rebellion, yes, these people should be removed and charged with treason. That is the prudent thing to do for any government.
When not quoting unnamed sources, the writer makes unsubstantiated claims of his own. He says, “While his popularity has surged among the Amhara after the victory in the conventional war in Tigray, nationally his star is waning”. Does he have polling results? Where does this conclusion come from? What is clear is the barbaric attack of the TPLF on the Northern Command in the middle of the night, has raised popular support for the ENDF and the Prime Minister, as shown by huge demonstrations throughout Ethiopia and the material support that the Ethiopian people have given to the armed forces.
Lefort also claims that foreign investment has declined in Ethiopia because of the Prime Minister’s inability to attract foreign capital. Well, it may be news to him, but investment has decreased globally, more so in Africa because of COVID-19, according UNCTAD.
He repeats the false allegation that the Prime Minister is in the process of creating a unitarian state when he states, “… this vision is more often perceived as an attempt to return them [“the colonies”] to a former position of subordination.” The Prosperity Party can defend itself against the allegation of wanting to “subordinate the peripheral population”, but what is clear is that under the TPLF certain ethnic groups were officially branded as “backward”, unworthy of being represented in the EPRDF. Now, they are equal participants in the Prosperity Party. The Abiy government has not taken any step towards establishing a unitarian state. This is a strawman argument that people who would like to see a weak Ethiopia, divided into mini ethnic states, have advanced.
The conflict between the TPLF and the central government is not due to ideological differences, as Lefort argues. It was due to the TPLF’s unwillingness to accept the rejection of its authoritarian, divisive rule by the Ethiopian people. The TPLF sought to topple the Abiy government, according to the late Seyoum Mesfin, a co-founder of the TPLF. It cannot be clearer than that.
The TPLF wanted to regain power through armed rebellion and the government responded appropriately. The TPLF has been defeated, and it is most unlikely to rule Ethiopia again. The TPLF’s foreign surrogates, like all of its diehard supporters, find it difficult to accept this fact.
History will judge the Prime Minister’s role at this critical juncture. To many Ethiopians, his government’s defeat of the TPLF has already secured him the right place in history. Professor Jon Abbink of Amsterdam University, a scholar in Ethiopian history, says Abiy Ahmed “is a thorough reformist and a type of leader that the country had never seen before. He initiated significant political and legal changes aimed to transform the authoritarian ‘political culture’ of Ethiopia.” I am more inclined to accept the assessment of a sober scholar than the cacophony of an irate pundit.
Worku is a professor of economics at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada. He did his graduate studies in development economics at McGill University; currently he is doing research on child labour in Ethiopia