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The New Yorker Piece on Prime Minister Abiy: How the PM’s Handlers Turned a Golden Opportunity into a Blunder

Yonas Biru, PhD

The article titled “Did a Nobel Peace Laureate Stoke a Civil War?” heralds everything that is wrong with the way the Prime Minister (PM) is running the country. What is sadder is that he is a visionary leader who could transform the nation, but his management is nothing short of dysfunctional. He is leading a profoundly visionary reform but the little things that are not managed right are undermining his reforms that were once seen by the international community as transformative not only for Ethiopia but also for continental Africa.

The Newspaper coverage has three problems. First it was a missed opportunity. The PM could have used the opportunity to articulate Ethiopia’s geopolitical narrative and refute false narratives that have become the staple of the international media.

The second problem involves statements that were shocking. Let me use two examples. The first was beneath the office of the Prime Minister. It read: “I was the one who would send intelligence from this part of the world to the N.S.A., on Sudan and Yemen and Somalia. The N.S.A. knows me. I would fight and die for America.”

The third problem is that it lacked diplomatic norms and etiquette befitting the PM’s position. The journalist wrote: “He told me that he had ‘taken a big intake of breath’ when he heard that Joe Biden had fallen off his bicycle. “I wish he acted his age,” he said. He went on, ‘Obama was good at making inspiring speeches, but he made more promises than he could fulfill.’ Abiy grimaced when I asked about Donald Trump. ‘He did a lot of damage to America’s image. Let’s not even talk about him in the same way as the others.’”

On April 6, 2019, I wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister with three specific recommendations. The first recommendation was “Fixing Management Issues: Empowering the Office of the Chief of Staff.” Two days later, I got an email from his office, noting “We highly value your suggestions, and they will be used as an input in our future plans.”

Had the Prime Minister adopted the recommendation, the newspaper crisis could have been avoided. Let me first share the relevant part of the recommendation at length. I will then show how it could have helped avert the crisis.

THE RECOMMENDATION

The success of every President or Prime Minister hinges on the Office of the Chief of Staff (COS). In a recent book titled The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency, Chris Whipple wrote: “When government works, it is usually because the COS understands the fabric of power, threading the needle where policy and politics converge.”

The COS’s primary duties fall into two broad areas: Strategic overview and program execution, including crisis management. Strategic overview comprises bridging the leader’s vision and goals and weaving together his strategy and priorities into a coherent policy.

Program execution involves translating the leader’s agenda into a reality. The COS prioritizes and delegates essential items that must get done and makes sure that different government agencies are well coordinated and in keeping with the leader’s agenda. And all the while, he must keep his radar up to detect crisis signals and avert them before they happen or deal with them as soon as they materialize.

On a day-to-day basis, the COS juggles many independent moving parts and creates order out of utter chaos. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld (US President Ford’s COS) the job “was like climbing into the cockpit of a crippled plane in flight and trying to land it safely.”

The position not only demands vast experiences in administration and management, but also requires enlightened intelligence and strong personal character and integrity with courage to remind the President when his actions undermine his agenda.

In the US, the COS often come from the ranks of generals with a knack for enforcing discipline, corporate CEOs with vast management and administrative experiences, and seasoned politicians with skills to navigate the political nexus between congress, the opposition party, and the White House.

Ethiopia’s challenges are daunting, considering the festering ethnic conflicts, the absence of democratic culture, and the lack of institutional capacity to translate the change agenda into a reality. Your Chief of Staff needs to be a discipline enforcer, a management guru and politically savvy all wrapped into one.

As you reflect on the year past and look ahead, there is no office that should command your attention more than the Office of the COS. Is it fully empowered, adequately funded, capably led, and up to par with its duties and responsibilities? The success of your reform hinges on your answer to these questions.

HOW COULD THIS HAVE AVOIDED THE NEWSPAPER BLUNDER

If there was a functioning COS, the first thing he would do would be to gather relevant officials from the offices of Public Relations, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Economic Commission and ask them to prepare briefing notes. The briefing notes determine the topic, scope and depth of the discussion or interview. Given the unfair international media coverage of Ethiopia, the briefing note will use the opportunity to reframe the narrative and put Ethiopia in a positive light.

Once the briefing notes are prepared, the next decision will be the setting where and how the interview and meetings will be conducted. This will be specific, including how long each session will last and what topic will be covered. The COS will attend the meetings to enforce time and compliance with the agreed scope of topic. These decisions are made with two things in mind: Form and Substance. The journalist needs to know he is not meeting with a pal but a Prime Minister of a nation with 120 million people. It is a common practice for handlers of a national leader to negotiate the scope, length and venue of the meeting or interview.

If the government does not control the topic, depth and scope and protocol of the discussion, the journalist will. If the topics of discussion are not well specified, narrated and gridlined, the PM will have to improvise talking about random topics such as what age is appropriate to ride a bike. That is tantamount to throwing the PM into a den of wolves. This is exactly what happened. It was not only a lost opportunity but also a blunder.

THE PRIME MINISTER MUST STOP THE TOUR HE PERSONALLY GIVES TO FOREIGN VISITORS

The Journalist described the tour the PM gave him as follows: “At the wheel of an armored Toyota Land Cruiser, trailed by a car full of bodyguards, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed drove me around Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. With a politician’s pride, he pointed out some of his recent civic projects: a vast park and a national library; a handicrafts market; a planetarium, still under construction. But, as Abiy and I toured Ethiopia, he seemed to want to talk about everything but the conflict that had engulfed his country. From inside his motorcade, it was as if there were no war going on at all.”

The article mentions two foreigners who have spent time with the PM: Professor Stefan Dercon of Oxford University and Jeff Feltman. Though it is not mentioned in the article, I am told that the PM has driven the Professor around to show him his favorite projects and city parks. The Professor’s take away was “Abiy likes to present himself as this charismatic leader who puts himself above it all. I think he just likes shiny projects.”

The Journalist also quotes Jeff Feltman as having said: “I had the same tour as you. Abiy was saying what a man of vision he was, that the U.S. simply did not understand him, that he was trying to move Ethiopia into the future, and that Tigray was just a distraction. The charm offensive didn’t work.”

Whatever the PM’s motive to spend his precious time chauffeuring around foreign visitors maybe, their takeaway is not what one would want. It is long past time to stop it.

My takeaway from the article is that the Prime Minister needs competent enablers around him. The people around him lack competence, experience, and exposure to global dealings. Many of them have no business being in the highest office of the land.

If I were to add one paragraph to my April 2019 open letter noted above, it would be advising the PM to read Kissinger’s book, “Leadership.” The book provides brief stories of six consequential world leaders who inherited governments in crisis and transformed them, overcoming extraordinarily difficult situations.



8 thoughts on “The New Yorker Piece on Prime Minister Abiy: How the PM’s Handlers Turned a Golden Opportunity into a Blunder”

  1. You overlooked the fact that he’s an egomaniac, narcist and an imbecile that would not listen to anyone, except his master, Esaias.

  2. Does anyone here in our Diaspora have some one who can take the place of the current prime minister and has the magic wand to make everything go hunky-dory? Who is it? As far as the article in the New Yorker it does not come as anything surprising. My gut feeling is the prime minister knew how his conversation would reported. In fact it has all the indications that it was already written well before the reporter met PM Abiy. There have been an issue that has been nagging many in the Western Media since 2019. You can see it in almost every article that includes the PM. It is that Nobel Peace Prize. It was Mandela first and that was okay. His award was rarely used in talking about him and South Africa. They might have thought that would be the last time a black man will be awarded the prize. Then Abiy’s came along and the mocking and belittling followed unabated since then. Just read every article in the media reporting news about the old country. You will be treated with sarcasm loaded ‘Nobel Prize winner PM’ this and that ad nauseam. Again this article in the New Yorker was already written before the meeting. Parts of the conversation were used to add some biscuits to make it tasty. It is all that disease called sensationalization. Walter could have told you a thing or two about it going back to the 1930’s.

  3. “THE PRIME MINISTER MUST STOP THE TOUR HE PERSONALLY GIVES TO FOREIGN VISITORS”
    What a wonderful advice! Giving Abiy advice to hide his fangs, claws and horns will not bring peace to Ethiopia. The patriotic advice should have been to shear them.

    Ere Dr. Abiy yenihin sewyie yesria mamelkecha teqebelina gelaghilen.
    Abiy mikir aysemam yale sew yeteshale amakariwoch bisebesib yiTeqemal malet mogninet new machberer?

  4. On the recommendation to read Kissinger:
    Looking at his actions, I think the PM has read the unpublished works of Kissinger including the voluminous one advising on population control (reduction). Kissinger also has a nice piece where he gives advice that Ethiopia should be ruled via Teregna (Amhara/Tigre/Oromo) . Abiy may be benefiting from this recommendation by Kissinger to the US government.

  5. “Does anyone here in our Diaspora have some one who can take the place of the current prime minister and has the magic wand to make everything go hunky-dory” by Itu.
    You may not be better than your cousin, abiy amed. However, I assure you, Ethiopia has thousands of sons and daughters who proved to be best leaders in businesses, government offices, international organizations etc who do not lead by “convince and confuse” but through democratic leadership. However, ethnic fascism supported by the apartheid “constitution” of the country does not give a chance to these fair-minded noble sons and daughters of Ethiopia.

  6. Below is what someone commented on this piece on another forum. I guess they were confused by the way you, Dr, Yonas, put your round-about application for the position.

    “I agree this was a blunder. All the more damaging because this journalist was more subtle in his disdain; the factual content is more balanced than what has been presented by many others, but the contempt is there.

    No doubt your recommendation could have been useful, had it been implemented. Many of us (diaspora) have had the experience of good advice being ignored. In this case I think the job description “vast experiences in admin, crisis management, able to navigate political interests, enlightened intelligence etc..” means the recommendation gets politely shelved, partly because it didn’t propose a short-list of candidates with impeccable loyalty and credentials.
    Maybe the bigger lesson here is that our (diaspora’s) tendency to provide high-level recommendations without specific implementation plans, and without being directly or indirectly accountable for the advice, needs to evolve. It’s almost too easy to get ambassadors and Ministers to come to zoom meetings or to write open letters.

    We should consider developing a proper framework to provide recommendations; one that includes all core elements (including conflicts of interest) that are essential for the receiving party in Ethiopia to a) trust the intentions; b) have confidence in the abilities of the person or the group submitting the recommendations; c) have a clear plan for how to implement –
    This could make the decision process (of adopting or not adopting a particular recommendation) more professional and would help us become more accountable.”

    See, Dr. Yonas, instead of beating about the bush, you should have said what you intended to say, “I recommended myself for the job”. That would have solved the confusion.

  7. Great Job Great Alemayhu for switching from democratic to republican party and 100% of ethiopians and eritreans should do the same. I am not sure when zehabesha took away the comment section under Dr. A’s article. I encourage the habesha to publish lots of article regard nov 8 election and have every day ethiopians and Eritreans have their say. Thanks.

    The most important thing in the world at the present time is the Nov 8, 2022 US election. It is a fight between the Devil Worshipping, deceptive, criminal, slave masters/mistresses, mafia Democratic party and the Righteous, God worshipping, honest, law abiding, antislavery and hardworking Republican party. I am not saying that republican party does not have deficiencies. It does have lots of deficiencies but is the lesser of two evils by 1000 or more times. 100% of ethiopians, eritreans, africans should vote for republican candidates all over USA. If republicans did not win the presidential election in 2016 and had Hilary wife of Meles won, TPLF would still be ruling Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. President Trump and his administration played a key role in the overthrow of TPLF. Over 95% of ethiopian and eritrean americans voted to destroy Trump biting the finger that fed them which is an insanity of infinite magnitude. My brothers and sisters stop biting the finger that feed you again and again and again and again since the end result is death from starvation.
    Biden administration has shown to the whole world that he is the friend of TPLF and other african criminals and the enemy of hard working law abiding ethiopians, eritreans and africans everyday people. TPLF has killed directly and indirectly over 1 million ethiopian, eritrean and africans. Why would anyone in their right mind vote for group that supports the mother of all criminals unless one is insane. If republicans win the election their will not be any interference in ethiopian and eritrean and other neighboring countries affair. Barbarian biden a criminal slave owning mafia wants to be a master of all leaders in the world especially african leaders.
    Since democrats took power in 2020:
    1. Crime rate all over usa especially in democrats run cities has gone up by leaps and bounds
    2. Inflation has gone up by over 400%
    3. Stock market is crushing. Since the beginning of the year every day americans lost over 9 trillion dollar in the stock market
    4. All out war against religious people, which compromises about 95% of ethiopians and eritreans, has been declared and is being executed.
    Due to lack of time I will stop her but can list over 1000 democratic party faults.

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