Abiy Ahmed – A Philosopher King or a Sophist?

Abiy Ahmed – A Philosopher King or a Sophist?

By Getu Teressa, April 5, 2020

There are several lines of evidence from his speeches and books to suggest that Abiy has deliberated crafted a deceptive ethos as a persuasive tool

(Ethiopia Insight) — Ethiopia is undergoing a very frightening political transition. The country is highly polarized. To add to this anxiety, a very unconventional young leader, Abiy Ahmed, is aggressively and radically trying to shape the future of this multinational country in his and only his way. To push his vision for Ethiopia, he wrote a book he called Medemer. He presents medemer as a philosophical panacea that stands to challenge Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Mao Zedong’s as well as Western Liberal political thoughts. He asserts there are no challenges that the power of Medemer cannot triumph over. 

“The critical lesson I learned from the knowledge and skills I had acquired from school and life experience is that there is no life challenges that the philosophy of medemer does not solve, a barrier that it does not overcome, and a hilly terrain that it does not terrace (Medemer, Preface III)

ከትምህርት ቤትና ከሕይወት ውጣ ውረድ ያገኘኋቸው ዕውቀቶችና ክሂለቶች ጭምር ያስተማሩኝ ቁም ነገር የመደመር ሃይልና ጉልበት የማይፈታው የኑሮ ችግር ፣ የማያሻግረው የፈተና ድልድይ፣ የማያደላድለው የመከራ አቀበት አለመኖሩን ነው።’መቅድም III

While delivering his Nobel Peace Prize lecture, Abiy defined medemer as “…synergy, convergence, and teamwork for a common destiny”. This idea is not novel, of course, and it is, in fact, a familiar political catchphrase. President Donald J Trump, for instance, has used it in his State of the Union address and earned him that famous sarcastic handclap from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

How did Abiy then manage to persuade millions that his vision is something to be taken seriously, let alone considered as the panacea for all the ills of Ethiopia?

After listening to several of Abiy’s speeches in the last two years and obtaining further insights from his books (Medemer and Erkab Ena Menber), one can conclude that:

  1. Abiy Ahmed represents a modern-day sophist, not the philosopher-king that he wants us to believe.
  2. Medemer is nothing more than sophistry; a hodgepodge of ideas constructed with rhetorical fallacies and delivered with pseudo-intellectual evangelical self-help fervor.

Sophists were “wise men” in the 5th Century Athens who claimed to be bearers of excellence and virtue and contended that they could find the answers to any questions. However, Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates were appalled that the sophists were using rhetorical fallacies to manipulate the public by tapping into emotions. They were accused of having no concerns about the truth, justice, and morality; instead, they were seen as greedy and power mongers who used language and rhetoric for deception.

The dictionary defines sophistry as “a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning.”

In my view, no single word describes Abiy better than a modern-day sophist, and his rhetoric as sophistry. Abiy emerged to the political scene wearing the mask of a peace-maker, honest, intellectual, and transformative figure—this represented the ethos of his political imagery. The deceptive ethos he built around himself with his elaborate rhetorical flourish and short-lived aggressive reforms, including his swift adaptation of economic policies of neoliberal privatization, were powerful enough to get him global accolades. He became the rock-star every leader wants to hang out with!

There are several lines of evidence from his speeches and books to suggest that Abiy had deliberated crafted a deceptive ethos as a persuasive tool. He has made repeated references to the importance of appearance or perception as an instrument of persuasion.  For instance, he discussed the impact of renovating the palace and his office to persuade donors to provide loans in the amount more than he bargained for. Whether this was, in fact, the case or not is debatable, but it shows his deep conviction about the role of ethos as a persuasion tool. Providing another example, he said a well-dressed beggar can easily convince people to give him/her more money than one wearing ragged clothing.

In the book Abiy wrote in 2017 using a pen-name DRAZ (“Erkab Ena Menber” (እርካብ ና መንበር)), he discusses the importance of a leader possessing an alternate persona. According to him, the observable or visible persona of an angel is to be worn to win the support of the people and consolidate power in good times (when there are no signs of revolt or betrayal/treasons). One can conclude that Abiy is not just writing or talking about it, but practicing the art of persuasion by constructing a deceptive ethos.

He further bolstered his positive self-representation (ethos) with his stealthy appeal to people’s emotions (pathos). Abiy appealed to Ethiopians’ desperation for coming together as equal citizens and pull themselves out of a vicious cycle of poverty. Ethiopians were particularly vulnerable to Abiy’s emotional appeal. A deeply traditional society, 98 percent of whom consider religion to be very important in their lives, Ethiopians were easily swept off their feet by Abiy’s deceptive persona (ethos) and emotional appeal (pathos). Abiy’s success was not only that his message tapped broadly into religious sensitivities of the Ethiopian people but also exploited their “existential insecurity’ emanating from rampant poverty, polarization, conflict, and social inequality. There is a direct correlation between religiosity and a sense of existential insecurity. This correlation was a double win for Abiy! Although his messages are often broadly religiously-tinged for a broader appeal, he undoubtedly derives his inspirations from evangelical prosperity gospel culture.

Abiy has also tailored his appealing messages to the diverse and polarized ethnonational groups. Many academics who read both the Amharic and Afaan Oromo versions of Medemer testify that Abiy even tailored the content or message of the book to the respective linguistic audience.  Besides, in several of his speeches, he appealed to the Oromo audience by invoking their longing to overcome marginalization. He has even gone as far as promising to bring Oromo virtues, inspired by the Gadaa system, to the center of Ethiopia’s social and political life and even beyond. This rather unscrupulous rhetorical appeal to pathos has backfired and triggered fear and suspicion towards the Oromo, described as “Oromophobia” by Oromo activists and intellectuals.

Amhara nationalism, meanwhile, was radicalized in response to a perceived siege by the historically aggrieved Oromos. This was vividly articulated by the late Brigadier Genernal Asaminew Tsige, the late Security Chief of the Amhara Region, who proclaimed that Amhara are facing a threat worse than the one they had faced 500 years ago—a clear allusion to the war between the Abyssinian kingdom with Oromos and Muslim Sultanate. Asaminew aggressively recruited and trained thousands of paramilitary forces with an explicit objective to ‘defend’ Amhara from what he described as a modern-day threat. Similarly, fueled by Abiy’s duplicitous rhetoric, groups, as exemplified by the Baldaras Council, have sprung up harboring open hostility towards Oromo and with the explicit objective of countering perceived Oromo influence.

While addressing the Amhara community (and Orthodox Christians), Abiy employs a stealth appeal to restore their historical place in Ethiopia. This has angered many non-Amhara and Muslims as it signals the return of the pre-1991 policy of homogenization of Ethiopia under Amhara and Ethiopian Orthodox Church dominance. Abiy expresses the view that grievances against Ethiopia’s emperors and former state religion, which controlled nearly a third of the land during the Imperial era, are exaggerated sentiments or false narratives—an appealing message for Amhara nationalists. Abiy’s decision to erect a life-size wax replica of Emperor Haile Selassie and Menelik II in the palace was considered an affront to Oromos’ collective memory of victimization (and many other non-Amhara Ethiopians for that matter) during the reign of these emperors. This undoubtedly energized the acrimonious debates between Oromo and Amhara communities during this turbulent transition.

Thus, Abiy’s approach of tailoring his appeal to different ethnonational groups, often by tapping into highly sensitive collective memories, is the single most dangerous factor contributing to the polarization of Ethiopians since he took office. The consequence of this reckless manipulation of collective memories is strongly evident in the current combustible tension and rivalry between the Oromo and Amhara communities, which is by far the primary force that has stalled Ethiopia’s political transition.

What is even more alarming is the reason for the increased polarization is often not fully diagnosed: it is largely attributed as resulting from a more open political space. This is not only a very simplistic analysis but recklessly correlates (multinational) democracy with ethnonational conflicts. This incomplete diagnosis, predicated on the prevailing notion that turbulence is germane to a democratic political transition, encourages authoritarianism and the closure of democratic space as well as takes the blame away from Abiy’s glaring mismanagement of diversity.

Unearthing contradictory and combustible historical memories of ethnonational groups represents a mismanaged political transition that lacks a roadmap. Abiy openly rebuffed the idea of a transitional roadmap: he proclaimed that he is the transition or the bridge that people should just rest their trust on, suggesting a premeditated plan for radical changes driven by one man. Reactivating conflicting historical memories for manipulation of ethnonational groups is perhaps the most reckless strategy that threatens not only the democratic transition but also the survival of Ethiopia as a country.

With a mostly successful deployment of deceptive ethos and manipulative and tailored pathos, Abiy blinded the majority of his audience from fact-checking and critically examining his logos: the construction of his logical argument and, thus, the substance of the message itself. Ethos, Pathos, and Logos are the three pillars of persuasion outlined by Aristotle that can be used for manipulation by sophists. Abiy has succeeded in the use of these models of persuasion as a sort of ‘soft power’, at least until he could fully consolidate ‘hard power’ (means of coercion).  Most likely influenced by Joseph S. Nye,  Abiy maybe deliberate in the use of “soft power” (rhetorical persuasion in his case), as he himself once said “[t]he effectiveness of any power sources depends primarily on a context, and we know that our current context requires soft power and not the hard power …. Soft power empowers people.” His statement implies that Abiy sees soft-power only as a means of self-empowerment (not altruism or virtue) to be used when the context permits.

The Oromo people have been the prime victims so far because Abiy’s ultimate vision, as he gradually unveiled it, can only be accomplished by undoing what Oromos rightly consider are incremental gains registered in the last 50 years. It is to be noted that it was primarily the organizational efficiency and non-violent struggle of the Oromo youth (qeerroo and qarree) that catapulted Abiy into the palace. Thus, until he consolidated his power, he not only tailored his deceptive messages to the Oromo audience but also exploited the ‘kinship’ or ethnic trust and appeal of the wider Oromo populace.

Now that he has consolidated power, it appears that Abiy no longer sees the need to wear the mask of a peace-maker and transformative figure. Perhaps, the growing discontent is compelling him to follow his principle that a leader should activate the concealed persona when faced with signs of revolt and betrayal/treason (የአመጽና የመክዳት ምልክት). Currently, he has put Western and Southern parts of the county under military “command post” – administration by the federal military force without parliamentary approval nor oversight.

Political space has been closed-off, supporters and members of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) are taken to military concentration camp and prisons, and a third of Oromia Regional State is cut-off from internet and phone communications that continues in the face of coronavirus pandemic. Ethiopian authorities failed to heed the advice of Human Rights Watch to lift the blanket shutdown of communications since it is preventing information reaching millions about the coronavirus pandemic and affecting the provision of essential health services.

All these developments have damaged Abiy’s ethos as a peace-maker and a transformational leader, although the pandemic is giving him the chance to build on his position as Nobel laureate and act the Africa statesman. But domestically Abiy no longer can mount a persuasive emotional appeal since many Ethiopians, especially the Oromo and southern Ethiopians, who have suffered the most under heavy-handed military rule, now believe he breached his promise of democratization and equality of citizens. With the loss of his most powerful tools of persuasion—his positive ethos and pathos—one does not have to be a student of critical thinking to realize that his elaborate rhetoric and linguistic skills (especially in Amharic) have been manipulative tools to buttress his sophistry; constructed with logical fallacies, that often employ utterly incoherent and inaccurate analogy with nature/biology in a faulty syllogism:

Abiy is now left with a resentful attitude towards critics of his leadership and medemer, notably intellectuals, since they are depriving him of the ‘context’ to deploy the ‘soft power’ of persuasion. His anti-intellectual attitude was abundantly manifested at a fundraising event for the ruling Prosperity Party, where Abiy delivered a speech questioning the value of advanced degrees, specifically in Political Science and Economics. He reasoned that almost all political scientists do not administer even a small village (kebele), and most economists do not own cars or houses.

To further discredit scholars, he alleged that political scientists get their Ph.D. by merely writing about the works of poorly read Prime Ministers like himself, and economists obtain their Ph.D. writing about wealthy people like those members of the business community in attendance of the fundraiser. He told these Ethiopian business people they are the real partners of his Prosperity Party and not the professors or doctors of economics whom he dismissed their contribution to get Ethiopia out of poverty. He may have subsequently apologised, such was the outcry, but his attitude is clear.

Besides this being blatant anti-intellectualism, one should also wonder if the wisdom Abiy needs to deliver prosperity is beyond the reach of economics. I will risk digressing a little bit and provide a plausible explanation for the origin of Abiy’s economic vision. Reiterating what he had said in the past, Abiy spoke about the importance of naming institutions using the positive outcomes one seeks to achieve rather than the negative states one wants to overcome. It was in this spirit that he chose “prosperity” rather than “overcoming poverty” as the overarching goal of the Prosperity Party. Abiy’s senior advisor, Lencho Bati, also made a similar remark while explaining Abiy’s medemer and approach to economic prosperity at a panel organized by the United States Institute of Peace.

On the surface, this appears a matter of word choice, but the idea is the foundational tenet of prosperity gospel theology (‘name it and claim it’ theology) that purports that the problem of poverty, ill-health, and illiteracy can be overcome by harnessing the power of man to create his own reality through the power of positive affirmation (confession) or by imploring God to shower us with the blessings. The religious overtone in Abiy’s policy may have passed below the radar for now, but he risks fracturing the country further and eroding the boundary between religion and the state. Abiy’s anti-intellectual rhetoric is concerning, but the reason he singled out and discredited political scientists and economists is likely because these scholars most authoritatively challenge his faith-tinged unconventional political and economic vision.

Abiy is now facing growing criticism that is beyond his rhetorical ability to suppress. ‘Hard power’ is the primary tool of ‘persuasion’ he has in his armament, which he is already deploying to quell his political opponents. With his increasing anti-intellectual rhetoric, Ethiopians have every reason to be alarmed that Abiy may flex his ‘hard power’ to intimidate and persecute Ethiopia’s intelligentsia. Does this ring a bell?

Abiy is not the philosopher-king; he is an authoritarian who is failing to govern by sophistry.

Ethiopia is indeed at a time of frightening political transition.

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