Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel peace laureate at war
Ethiopia’s leader is tarnishing his reformist reputation as violence spreads in the Tigray region
By David Pilling, July 2, 2021
(FT) — Few leaders have seen their reputation fall so far and so fast as Abiy Ahmed. Two years ago, Ethiopia’s prime minister was being feted as a peacemaker and reformer. At the age of 43, he won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for emptying his country’s jails of political prisoners, making peace with opposition groups and ending a state of war with neighbouring Eritrea.
That was then. Now Abiy stands accused of pursuing a conflict in Ethiopia’s northern region of Tigray that has unleashed a horror of rape, massacres and ethnic cleansing. After months of fighting, the spectre of famine hangs over Tigray in a country where two decades of impressive economic development had appeared to banish the threat of starvation.
Washington, which until recently had embraced Abiy as a moderniser, has dropped him like a stone. It denounced the war in Tigray — which Abiy branded as a “law and order operation” against a “criminal clique” — and imposed sanctions. After eight months of fighting, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front this week marched back into Mekelle, the provincial capital, marking a devastating military reversal in a war that Abiy had vowed would be over in weeks.
It is a momentous journey for a man born in a small town in Oromia, a former independent state far from the centre of Ethiopian power. His father was an Oromo farmer and a Muslim. Abiy was his 13th child by his fourth wife. The Oromo, who make up roughly 35 per cent of Ethiopia’s 117m people, had long felt marginalised, having been colonised at the end of the 19th century by Emperor Menelik II. Yet as a child his mother had told him that, despite his humble beginnings, one day he would be “a king of Ethiopia”.
Gifted at school and speaking both Afaan Oromo and Amharic, Abiy fought as a child soldier in the last stages of the guerrilla uprising to overthrow Ethiopia’s Soviet-backed Derg regime. Tigrayan fighters led the rebellion and Abiy added Tigrinya to his linguistic armoury. He also spoke English and later earned a masters degree in “transformational leadership” from London’s Greenwich University.
After the Derg fell in 1991, Abiy worked in intelligence and communications, becoming a senior figure in the feared security apparatus.
The TPLF dominated power for the next 27 years as the leading member of the four-party Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front. Though it oversaw rapid development, it ran a police state. For many Ethiopians it was intolerable that Tigrayans, who make up about 6 per cent of the population, should wield so much power. Tensions boiled over in 2018 after years of protests in which thousands were killed.
The ruling EPRDF looked for a new leader. It alighted on Abiy, by now a parliamentarian, who as an Oromo could perhaps help cool ethnic tensions. Initially, Abiy did not disappoint. Speeches in which he admitted to the regime’s use of torture electrified the country. After meeting Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean dictator, he concluded a lightning peace that set off scenes of jubilation as long-separated families reunited.
Yet even at the height of “Abiymania”, some warned of character flaws. One acquaintance said that, ever since his mother’s prophecy, Abiy had possessed a messianic quality. A devout Pentecostalist, he consulted God but rarely heeded earthly counsel. He prized his physical strength, boasting of having seen off an attempted coup by impressing soldiers with his press-ups.
In an interview with the FT in 2019, there were hints he was intoxicated with power. Showing off his slick office refurbishment, he said he had transformed it from “hell to paradise”, promising to do the same for Ethiopia. If he achieved that, he said, “whether I like it or not, you will magnify my name”.
Things began to deteriorate when ethnic rivalries, long suppressed by the EPRDF, erupted, displacing 2m people. In Abiy’s home region of Oromia there was a backlash. “Many Oromo feel he has a nostalgia for the imperial days,” said Merera Gudina, chairman of an Oromo opposition party, citing Abiy’s praise of Menelik II and Emperor Haile Selassie.
Meanwhile, a battle was brewing with the TPLF. Abiy purged Tigrayans and targeted Tigrayan-dominated state enterprises accused of rank corruption. Last year, he postponed parliamentary elections, citing Covid, and branded the poll that went ahead in Tigray as illegal.
Abiy started calling the TPLF “hyenas”. Last November, he ordered troops into Tigray after the TPLF attacked a federal army base. Though he initially denied it, soldiers from Eritrea, Ethiopia’s old enemy, also crossed the border along with Amhara militia, committing some of the war’s worst atrocities. Abiy lashed out at foreigners who condemned the war, saying they failed to understand that the TPLF had fanned the flames of ethnic hatred and needed to be stopped.
As war dragged on, Abiy looked increasingly isolated, though his Prosperity party is likely to win parliamentary elections as results trickle in after voting last month. Abiy’s war in Tigray is popular among some Ethiopians, who blame the TPLF for years of repression. Many opposition leaders are back in jail.
“War makes for bitter men. Heartless and savage men,” Abiy said in his Nobel prize lecture. This week, as the TPLF moved on Mekelle and international alarm grew about the situation in Tigray, he declared a ceasefire. For the man who won the Nobel Prize only to go to war, it is far from clear what comes next.