By Eliza Mackintosh, CNN, Tue September 7, 2021
(CNN) — “Abiy, Abiy,” the crowd chanted, waving Ethiopia’s tricolor flag and cheering as the country’s new prime minister, dree University of Southern California in Los Angeles, part of a whirlwind three-city tour of the United States to woo the diaspora.
It was July 2018, just three months after Abiy Ahmed had been appointed leader of Africa’s second-most populous country, and his star was rising both at home and abroad. Excitement was surging into an almost religious fervor around the young politician, who promised to bring peace, prosperity and reconciliation to a troubled corner of Africa and a nation on the brink of crisis.
But even in those early, optimistic days of Abiy’s premiership, as he kickstarted a flurry of ambitious reforms — freeing thousands of political prisoners, lifting restrictions on the press, welcoming back exiles and banned opposition parties, appointing women to positions in his cabinet, opening up the country’s tightly-controlled economy to new investment and negotiating peace with neighboring Eritrea — Berhane Kidanemariam had his doubts.
The Ethiopian diplomat has known the prime minister for almost 20 years, forging a friendship when he worked for the governing coalition’s communications team and, later, as CEO of two state-run news organizations, while Abiy was in military intelligence and then heading Ethiopia’s cybersecurity agency, INSA. Before working for Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kidanemariam ran the country’s national broadcaster, the EBC, and he said Abiy sat on its board of directors.
In a recent phone interview, Kidanemariam said he, like many Ethiopians, had hoped Abiy could transform the nation’s fractious politics and usher in genuine democratic change. But he struggled to square his understanding of the man he’d first met in 2004 — who he described as power-hungry intelligence officer obsessed by fame and fortune — with the portrait emerging of a visionary peacemaker from humble beginnings.
In 2018, Kidanemariam was serving as Ethiopia’s consul general in Los Angeles and said he helped organize Abiy’s visit.
When Kidanemariam, who is from Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, approached the dais to introduce his longtime friend and colleague to the crowd, he said he was greeted with heckles from members of the audience: “Get out of the podium Tigrayan, get out of the podium Woyane,” and other ethnic slurs. He expected Abiy, who preached a political philosophy of inclusion, to chide the crowd, but he said nothing. Later, over lunch, when Kidanemariam asked why, he said Abiy told him: “There was nothing to correct.”
“One of the ironies of a prime minister who came to office promising unity is that he has deliberately exacerbated hatred between different groups,” Kidanemariam wrote in an open letter in March, announcing that he was quitting his post as the deputy chief of mission at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, DC, in protest over Abiy’s monthslong war in Tigray, which has spurred a refugee crisis, atrocities and famine.
Kidanemariam said to CNN he believed Abiy’s focus had never been about “reform or democracy or human rights or freedom of the press. It is simply consolidating power for himself, and getting money out of it … We may call it authoritarianism or dictatorship, but he is really getting to be a king.”
“By the way,” he added, “the problem is not only for Tigrayans. It’s for all Ethiopians. Everybody is suffering everywhere.”
In an email to CNN, Abiy’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, described Kidanemariam’s characterization of the prime minister as “baseless” and a “reflection.”
‘The epitome of hell’
Much has changed since Abiy accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in November 2019, telling an audience in Oslo, Norway, that “war is the epitome of hell.”
In less than two years, Abiy has gone from darling of the international community to pariah, condemned for his role in presiding over a protracted civil war that, by many accounts, bears the hallmarks of genocide and has the potential to destabilize the wider Horn of Africa region.
The 45-year-old’s fall from grace has confounded many observers, who wonder how they could have gotten him so wrong. But diplomats, analysts, independent Ethiopian journalists, acquaintances and others who have followed his career closely say that even at the height of “Abiymania,” there were warning signs.
Critics say that by blessing Abiy with an array of international endorsements, the West not only failed to see — or willfully ignored — those signals, but gave him a blank check and then turned a blind eye.
“Soon after Abiy was crowned with that Nobel Peace Prize, he lost an appetite in pursuing domestic reform,” Tsedale Lemma, founder and editor-in-chief of Addis Standard, an independent monthly news magazine based in Ethiopia, told CNN on a Skype call. “He considered it a blanket pass to do as he wishes.”
The war in Tigray is not the first time he’s used that pass, she said, adding that since Abiy came to power on the platform of unifying Ethiopia’s people and in its state, he has ruthlessly consolidated control and alienated critical regional players.
Lemma has covered Abiy’s rise for the Addis Standard — which was briefly suspended by Ethiopia’s media regulator in July — and was an early critic of his government when few were sounding the alarm. Days after Abiy was awarded the Nobel Prize, she wrote an editorial warning that the initiatives he had been recognized for — the peace process with Eritrea and political reforms in Ethiopia — had sidelined a key stakeholder, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, and were in serious jeopardy.
The TPLF had governed Ethiopia with an iron grip for decades, overseeing a period of stability and economic growth at the cost of basic civil and political rights. The party’s authoritarian rule provoked a popular uprising that ultimately forced Abiy’s predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign. Abiy was appointed by the ruling class to bring change, without upending the old political order. But almost as soon as he came to power, Abiy announced the rearrangement of the ruling coalition that the TPLF had founded — the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front, or EPRDF, which was composed of four parties — into a single, new Prosperity Party, ostracizing the TPLF in the process.
Abiy’s appointment had been intended to quell tensions. Instead, his drive for a new pan-Ethiopian political party sparked fears in some regions that the country’s federal system, which guarantees significant autonomy to ethnically-defined states, such as Tigray, was under threat.
The Tigrayans weren’t the only ones who were worried. In Abiy’s home region, Oromia, and other administrative zones, people began to demand self-rule. Soon, the government began backsliding into the authoritarian practices Abiy had once renounced: Violent crackdowns on protesters, the jailing of journalists and opposition politicians, and twice postponing elections.
Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow at Chatham House and an expert on the Horn of Africa, said Abiy’s reform plan also increased expectations among constituencies with conflicting agendas, further heightening tensions.
“Abiy and his government have rightly been blamed for implementing uneven reforms and for insecurity increasing throughout the country, but to an extent, some of that was inherited. These simmering ethnic and political divisions that exist in the country have very deep roots,” he said.
Tensions reached a boiling point last September, when the Tigrayans defied Abiy by holding a vote which had been delayed due to the pandemic, setting off a tit-for-tat series of recriminations that spilled into open conflict in November 2020.
This July, in the midst of the war, Abiy and his party won a landslide victory in a general election that was boycotted by opposition parties, marred by logistical issues and excluded many voters, including all those in Tigray — a crushing disappointment to many who had high hopes that the democratic transition Abiy promised three years ago would be realized.
“He sees himself as a Messiah, as chosen, as someone who’s destined to ‘Make Ethiopia Great Again,’ but this country is collapsing,” Lemma said, adding that the international community’s folly was falling for the picture Abiy painted of himself — “a post-ethnic, contemporary capitalist” — in their desperation for a dazzling success story.
‘A monumental failure of analysis’
Still, many Ethiopians are reluctant to lay the blame for the country’s unravelling at Abiy’s feet. Ahead of the election in June, residents in Addis Ababa told CNN they felt Abiy had inherited a mess from the previous regime and had always faced an uphill battle pushing reforms forward — an assessment shared by some regional experts.
“Lots of people were hopeful that the liberalizing changes, after those years of anti-government protests and all of the state violence in response, […] marked a moment where Ethiopia would start to conduct its politics more peacefully. But that thinking glossed over some of the major problems and contradictions in Ethiopia,” said William Davidson, senior Ethiopia analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“There was always a massive challenge ahead for Abiy, and for everyone. Just the promise of a more pluralistic political system did nothing necessarily to resolve the clashing nationalisms, opposing visions, and bitter political rivalries.”
In recent months, Abiy has tried to dodge international condemnation by pledging to protect civilians, open up humanitarian access to stave off famine and kick out Eritrean troops, who have supported Ethiopian forces in the conflict and stand accused of some of the most horrifying of the many atrocities in Tigray — pledges that American officials say he has not delivered on. After the United States issued sanctions in May, Ethiopia’s foreign ministry accused it of meddling in the country’s internal affairs and misunderstanding the significant challenges on the ground.
As the tide of international opinion has turned against Abiy, the prime minister’s office has maintained he is not concerned about his deteriorating reputation; his supporters have increasingly blamed the West for the crisis unfolding in the country. “The prime minister need not be a darling of the west, east, south or north,” Abiy’s spokeswoman Billene Seyoum told reporters in June. “It is sufficient that he stands for the people of Ethiopia and the development of the nation.”
But it is difficult to reconcile the government’s narrative with reality. Setting to one side the staggering loss of life and destruction inside Tigray, the war has eroded Abiy’s aggressive development plans and derailed the country’s economic trajectory, experts say. Ethiopia’s economy had grown at nearly 10% for the last decade, before slowing in 2020, dragged down by a combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, debt and conflict. The war has also drained national coffers, decimated a large slice of the country’s industry and eroded its reputation among foreign investors and financial institutions.
“From where I sit, I think there was a monumental failure of analysis, internationally,” Rashid Abdi, a Kenya-based analyst and researcher who specializes in the Horn of Africa, said, including himself in that group. “I think people failed to apprehend the complex nature of Ethiopia’s transition, especially they failed to appreciate also the complex side of Abiy, that he was not all this sunny, smiling guy. That beneath was a much more calculating, and even Machiavellian figure, who eventually will I think push the country towards a much more dangerous path.”
“We should have begun to take notice of some of the red flags quite quickly. A lot of complacency is what got us here,” he added.
The seventh king of Ethiopia
During his inaugural address to parliament in 2018, Abiy made a point of thanking his mother, a Christian from the Amhara region, who he said had told him at the age of seven that, despite his modest background, he would one day be the seventh king of Ethiopia. The remark was met with a round of laughter from his cabinet members, but Abiy’s belief in his mother’s prophecy was no joke.
“In the initial stages of the war, actually, he spoke openly about how this was God’s plan, and that this was a kind of divine mission for him. This is a man who early in the morning, instead of meeting his top advisors, would meet with some of his spiritual advisers, these are pastors who are very powerful now in a sort of ‘kitchen cabinet,'” Abdi said.
But the most glaring of warning signs, by many accounts, was Abiy’s surprise allegiance with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, for which he ultimately won the Nobel Prize.
Abiy’s critics say that what cemented his status as a peacemaker on the world stage was based on a farce, and that the alignment with Eritrea was yet another effort to consolidate his power, paving the way for the two sides to wage war against their mutual enemy, the TPLF. Soon after the Eritrea-Ethiopia border reopened in 2018, reuniting families after 20 years, it closed again. Three years on, Eritrean troops are operating with impunity in Tigray, and there is little sign of a durable peace.
In response, Abiy’s spokeswoman rejected this assertion, calling it a “toxic narrative.”
Mehari Taddele Maru, a professor of governance and migration at the European University Institute, who was skeptical of the peace deal early on — a deeply unpopular view at the time — believes the Nobel Committee’s endorsement of Abiy has contributed to the current conflict.
“I am of the strongest opinion that the Nobel Prize Committee is responsible for what is happening in Ethiopia, at least partially. They had reliable information; many experts sounded their early warning,” Mehari, who is from Tigray, told CNN.
“The Committee was basing its decision on a peace deal that we flagged for a false start, a peace that is not only achieved but perhaps unachievable and an agreement that was not meant for peace but actually for war. What he [Abiy] did with Isaias was not meant to bring peace. He knew that, Isaias knew that. They were working, basically, to execute a war, to sandwich Tigray from South and North carefully by ostracizing one political party first.”
The most palpable and lasting impact of the award, according to several analysts and observers, was a chilling effect on any criticism of Abiy.
The persona he cultivated, cemented in part through his many early accolades — being named African of the Year in 2018, one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, and one of Foreign Policy’s 100 Global Thinkers in 2019 — captivated the imagination of Ethiopians, the country’s large diaspora and the world. Many now feel betrayed, having lost any optimism about the future of the country, but others are still intent on retaining that glittering image of Abiy, reluctant to see the writing on the wall.
“By the time the war started in November, the international community was extremely committed to the idea of Abiy Ahmed as a reformer still, and they didn’t want to give up on that,” said Goitom Gebreluel, a Horn of Africa researcher from Tigray, who was in Addis Ababa at the start of the conflict.
“I had meetings with various diplomats before the war and it was obvious that the war was coming, and what they were saying was, ‘you know, he still has this project, we have to let him realize his political vision,'” he said. “To this day, I think not everyone is convinced that this is an autocrat.”
Now, with Ethiopia facing a “man-made” famine and a war apparently without end, Abiy stands alone, largely isolated from the international community and with a shrinking cadre of allies.
Abiy’s early advocates and supporters say he not only misled the world, but his own people — and they are now paying a steep price.
In his open letter announcing he was leaving his post, Kidanemariam wrote of Abiy: “Instead of fulfilling his initial promise, he has led Ethiopia down a dark path toward destruction and disintegration.”
“Like so many others who thought the prime minister had the potential to lead Ethiopia to a bright future, I am filled with despair and anguish at the direction he is taking our country.”