Abiy Ahmed and the Consolidation of Ethiopia’s Dictatorship
As Ethiopia heads toward the delayed elections tentatively now rescheduled for June 5, 2021, Ahmed’s fight not only undercuts his chief rival, who happens to be Tigrayan but enables him to use emergency powers to further erode democracy.
(Nationalinterest)—Africa has, for decades, been a democracy success story albeit one too often ignored in the West. When Ronald Reagan took office, U.S. exports to Africa accounted for only four percent of total U.S. exports and the share of American investment in Africa was even less. Strip away Morocco from the mix, and the proportion of U.S. trade with the continent’s then-fifty-two countries was even less. Freedom was a rare commodity. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World survey for 1983–84 ranked only Botswana, Mauritius, and Nigeria free among African countries. South Africa’s Apartheid regime and Ethiopia’s Derg were both stains on the continent.
It was perhaps for this reason that the 2018 rise of Abiy Ahmed to Ethiopia’s premiership captivated international diplomats. He succeeded Hailemariam Desalegn who was the first leader in Ethiopia’s history to step down voluntarily. At just forty-one-years-old, Ahmed represented generational change. He came from a security service background, but had a reputation as a reformer. Such optimism about Ahmed’s intentions grew when he sought to end the decades-long stand-off with Eritrea, an initiative which won him the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of “his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.”
There are no shortage of Nobel Peace Prize embarrassments but Ahmed is quickly positioning himself to be among the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s biggest regrets. In hindsight, what the Nobel Committee saw as a bold gamble for peace appears more a premeditated agreement to bury one hatchet to wield another. The Ethiopia-Eritrea border war was likened to a fight between two bald men fighting over a comb. With the border settled, Ahmed could then begin his own assault in conjunction with Eritrean forces on Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region as Ahmed seeks to recentralize Ethiopia and reverse the autonomy enjoyed by Ethiopia’s ethnically diverse regions and enshrined in the 1995 constitution.
It has been a brutal fight. Ethiopian forces cut off communications to the regional capital Mekelle as Ethiopian forces marched on the city and reportedly subjected it to an artillery barrage. Despite Ethiopia’s repeated denials, Ahmed appointed his own mayor who now admits that Eritrean forces also joined the fighting, a fact the U.S. intelligence community now acknowledges. Eyewitness accounts describe Ethiopian and Eritrean forces summarily executing civilians and looting property. For Ahmed, power motivates, and for Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki, cash does. Few having tasted liberty are willing to forfeit it easily, however, and so unrest continues. On Dec. 27, Ethiopia reportedly lost a general.
It is time for Western countries and African democracies to speak directly about the dangerous path down which Ahmed has sent Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a diverse country, so a centralized dictatorship simply will not work. As Ahmed seeks to substitute nationalist polemics for competence, he appears ready to pick fights not only with Egypt and Sudan, but with Kenya as well. Ahmed’s growing dependence on China increasingly appears less about development and more about finding a backer who will bankroll Ethiopia’s further slide into autocracy. Simply put, increasingly it appears that Ahmed is not the youthful, reformist alternative to Eritrea’s Isaias, but rather his pupil. Isaias brought tragedy to Eritrea. The international community should not be blind as a power-hungry Ahmed risks the same with Ethiopia.