From Nobel hero to driver of war, Ethiopia’s leader faces voters

Abiy Ahmed was a shining hope for country and continent – but his halo has been shattered

A woman bags coffee beans at a market in  Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed has plunged the country into a war in the Tigray region thathas  spawned atrocities and famine. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times

A woman bags coffee beans at a market in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed has plunged the country into a war in the Tigray region thathas spawned atrocities and famine. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times

 

As war raged in northern Ethiopia and the region barrelled toward its worst famine in decades, a senior US envoy flew to the Ethiopian capital last month in the hope of persuading prime minister Abiy Ahmed to pull his country out of a destructive spiral that many fear is tearing it apart.

Abiy, though, wanted to go for a drive. Taking the wheel, the Ethiopian leader took his American guest, the Biden administration’s Horn of Africa envoy, Jeffrey D Feltman, on an impromptu four-hour tour of Addis Ababa, US officials said. The prime minister drove him past smart new city parks and a refurbished central plaza and even crashed a wedding where the two men posed for photographs with the bride and groom.

Abiy’s attempt to change the channel, showcasing economic progress while parts of his country burned, was just the latest sign of a troubled trajectory that has baffled international observers who wonder how they got him so wrong.

Not long ago, Abiy, who faced Ethiopian voters on Monday in long-delayed parliamentary elections, was a shining hope for country and continent. After coming to power in 2018, he embarked on a whirlwind of ambitious reforms: freeing political prisoners, welcoming exiles home from abroad and, most impressively, striking a landmark peace deal with Eritrea, Ethiopia’s old foe, in a matter of months.

The West, eager for a glittering success story in Africa, was wowed, and within 18 months Abiy, a onetime intelligence officer, had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But in just nine months, Abiy’s halo has been shattered.

Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed at his office in Addis Ababa in November 2019. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed at his office in Addis Ababa in November 2019. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times

The civil war that erupted in the northern region of Tigray in November has become a byword for atrocities against Ethiopian citizens. Abiy’s forces have been accused of massacres, sexual assault and ethnic cleansing. This month, a senior United Nations official declared that Tigray was in the throes of a famine – the world’s worst since 250,000 people died in Somalia a decade ago, he said.

Elsewhere in Ethiopia, ethnic violence has killed hundreds and forced two million people to flee their homes. A smouldering border dispute with Sudan has flared into a major military standoff

Election

Even the election on Monday, once billed as the country’s first free vote and a chance to turn the page on decades of autocratic rule, has only highlighted its divisions and fuelled grim warnings that Ethiopia’s very future is in doubt.

“These elections are a distraction,” said Abadir M Ibrahim, an adjunct law professor at Addis Ababa University. “The state is on a cliff edge, and it’s not clear if it can pull back. We just need to get past this vote so we can focus on averting a calamity.”

The prime minister’s office did not respond to questions and an interview request. Abiy’s Prosperity Party, formed in 2019 from the rump of a former governing coalition, is widely expected to win the election easily. But there was no voting in 102 of Ethiopia’s 547 constituencies because of war, civil unrest and logistical failures. Counting of votes is continuing and a result is expected next week.

A man weights sheet metal at a recycling depot in Addis Ababa. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times
A man weights sheet metal at a recycling depot in Addis Ababa. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times

Senior opposition leaders are in jail, and their parties boycotted the vote in Oromia, a sprawling region of 40 million people. Abiy has put a brave face on his nation’s problems, repeatedly downplaying the Tigray conflict as a “law and order operation” and pushing his vision for a modernised, economically vibrant Ethiopia. The United States, which gave Ethiopia $1 billion in aid last year, is pressuring him to shift focus immediately.

After being chauffeured around Addis Ababa by Abiy in May, Feltman wrote a detailed analysis of his trip for US president Joe Biden and other leaders in Washington, even mentioning a sudden jolt by the vehicle that sent coffee spilling on the envoy’s shirt.

Weeks later, secretary of state Antony Blinken imposed visa bans on unnamed Ethiopian officials.

Other foreigners have left Ethiopia concerned that ethnic cleansing was underway. Pekka Haavisto, a European Union envoy who visited in February, told the European Parliament last week that Ethiopian leaders had told him “they are going to destroy the Tigrayans, that they are going to wipe out the Tigrayans for 100 years”.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry dismissed Haavisto’s comments as “ludicrous” and a “hallucination of sorts”.

New way

Global condemnation of Abiy (44), most recently at last week’s G7 summit, represents a dizzying fall for a young leader who until recently was globally celebrated. The whirl of reforms he instituted after being appointed prime minister in 2018 were a sharp rebuke to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, a party of rebels turned rulers who had dominated Ethiopia since 1991 in an authoritarian system that achieved impressive economic growth at the cost of basic civil rights.

Riot police officers march in a Sunday parade in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on June 19th. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times
Riot police officers march in a Sunday parade in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on June 19th. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times

Abiy promised a new way. He allowed once-banned opposition parties, appointed women to half the positions in his cabinet and struck the peace with Eritrea that earned him a Nobel Prize. But in moving swiftly, Abiy also unleashed pent-up frustrations among ethnic groups that had been marginalised from power for decades – most notably his own group, the Oromo, who account for one-third of Ethiopia’s 110 million people. When mass protests erupted, he reverted to the old playbook: arrests, repression and police brutality.

At the same time, tensions escalated with the TPLF, which resented Abiy’s reforms. The party leadership retreated to Tigray where, last September, it defied Abiy by proceeding with regional elections that had been postponed across the country because of the pandemic.

By early last November, word reached Washington that war was looming in Tigray. Democratic senator Chris Coons, who has a long-standing interest in Africa, phoned Abiy to warn about the perils of resorting to military force. Coons said he reminded the Ethiopian leader that the American civil war and the first World War had started with promises of swift military victory, only to drag on for years and cost millions of lives.

Abiy was undeterred. “He was confident it would be over in six weeks,” Coons said. Days later, on the evening of the US presidential election, fighting erupted in Tigray.

People watch a newscast of Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, at a restaurant in the Afar region of Ethiopia on November 8th, 2019. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times
People watch a newscast of Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, at a restaurant in the Afar region of Ethiopia on November 8th, 2019. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times

Abiy has given few interviews. People who have dealt with him describe a man brimming with confidence, even “messianic”, a description encouraged by Abiy’s own accounts that his ascent was preordained. When he was seven, Abiy told rhe New York Times in 2018, his mother whispered into his ear that he was “unique” and predicted that he would “end up in the palace”.

A former adviser said that a strong Christian faith also guides Abiy. He is a Pentecostal Christian, a faith that has soared in popularity in Ethiopia, and is a staunch believer in the “prosperity gospel” – a theology that regards material success as God’s reward – said the former adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals. It is not a coincidence, the adviser added, that the party Abiy founded in 2019 is called the Prosperity Party.

Atrocities

Abiy’s evangelical faith has attracted supporters in Washington, including Republican senator James Inhofe, who told the Senate in 2018 how he first met Abiy at a prayer meeting where “he told the story of his journey and faith in Jesus”.

An Afar militiaman on the salt flats of Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression on November 9th, 2019. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times
An Afar militiaman on the salt flats of Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression on November 9th, 2019. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times

Last month, Inhofe travelled to Ethiopia to show his support for Abiy against US sanctions. Another crucial relationship for Abiy is with the dictatorial leader of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki. Eritrean troops who flooded into Tigray to support Abiy’s campaign have been accused by the UN and rights groups of the worst atrocities of the conflict. Now they are a major factor in the region’s famine.

Eritrean soldiers “using starvation as a weapon of war” are blocking aid shipments headed for the most vulnerable parts of Tigray, Mark Lowcock, the top UN humanitarian official, told the Security Council last week.

The Eritrean issue is Abiy’s largest international liability, and some analysts describe him as being manipulated by Isaias, a veteran fighter with a reputation for ruthless strategic manoeuvring. By other accounts, Abiy has little choice: Were the Eritreans to leave suddenly, he could lose control of Tigray entirely.

The election is likely to highlight the mounting challenges in the rest of Ethiopia. In the past month alone, 400,000 people have been forced from their homes in the Amhara and Afar regions, Lowcock said. The military has taken control in several parts of Oromia, where an armed rebellion has erupted.

Coons, sent by Biden to reason with Abiy in February, warned the Ethiopian leader that the explosion of ethnic hatred could shatter the country, much as it did the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Abiy responded that Ethiopia is “a great nation with a great history,” Coons said.

People drink coffee at a market in Addis Ababa. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times
People drink coffee at a market in Addis Ababa. Photograph: Finbarr O’Reilly/New York Times

Abiy’s transformation from Nobel Peace laureate to wartime leader has spurred quiet soul-searching among some of his allies. The Nobel’s glitter, and a desire for a success story in Africa, blinded many Western countries to his evident faults, said Judd Devermont, a former US national intelligence officer for Africa, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

With limited interest in Africa, the West too readily categorises the continent’s leaders as “good” or “bad” with little room for nuance, he added. “We have to acknowledge that we helped to contribute to Abiy’s view of himself,” he said. “We papered over these challenges very early. We gave him a blank cheque. When it went wrong, we initially turned a blind eye. And now it may be too late. – New York Times

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