Lij “Abiyot”, and a new era of the princes?
Ethiopia’s new power brokers should put down their mask and strive for a political settlement that can end three years of transitional nightmare and the disastrous civil war it begotten. The alternative is a mutually assured destruction that may hasten state collapse and regional instability.
someone who showed that he was not the stuff from which great leaders are made from. He was bright, but also impulsive, cruel, lascivious, prone to ego-centricities, and politically inept. Despite his rosy vision of Ethiopia, he had no clear comprehension of the power realities in the empire, nor his position as its ruler.
Early in his rule, while faced with several serious challenges, activities he indulged in and his “showing of pronounced lack of interest in the day-to-day running of the government” led people to conclude that “he was purposely neglecting urgent business.”
His constant insults and disparagement of the ruling elite that preceded him and his intense interest to replace them with a new ruling class of his own choosing didn’t sit well with them. He also “seemed to have deliberately antagonized those that brought him to power.” He lacked the diplomatic skill and the refined sense of discretion that came naturally to “leaders with political longevity and consequence.”
“His many capricious acts served only to further alienate the elites.” His one-time ally and companion concludes that he is “completely unsuited for the role.” Keen observers have noted, “contradiction and inconsistency as the hallmark of his character and policies.” The kindest accounts are those that “credit him with good intentions but condemn him for intemperate, inept and in the end, disastrous performance.”
And we are not talking about the disastrous premiership of Abiy Ahmed Ali but another enigmatic historical figure a century earlier named Lij Iyasu. Born Kifle-Yaqob Mohammed Ali, Lij Iyasu was a young, promising leader of a unifying and transformative potential but he ended up being an abject failure. Abiy Ahmed may egoistically think he is the embodiment of Menelik’s dominance, Haile Sellasie’s long reign, Mengistu Hailemariam’s soldierism, and Meles Zenawi’s shrewd prowess—all in one, but he sounds more like the reincarnation of Kifle-Yaqob Mohammed Ali.
Lij Iyasu, 13, was appointed by his ailing grandfather, Menelik II, as his successor. The elder statesman Ras Tessema Nadew was named Balemulu Enderase or Regent during the minority reign of Menelik’s heir apparent. The prince was deposed a few years later and before he was formally crowned in favor of his aunt, Zewditu Menelik.
The resemblance between Lij Iyasu and “Lij Abiyot” in terms of personal, historical, and leadership style, as well as the tumult in their respective era could not be more striking. If Ras Tassema was the Endarase for the minor Lij Iyasu, the Amhara-branch of the Prosperity Party (PP) is the de facto Enderesewoch for Lij Abiyot—driving both the narrative and the day-to-day affairs of the Ethiopian state.
The rushed formation of PP as a political vehicle to monopolize political power and remake the fundamentals of the Ethiopian state famously ruptured the much-touted Team Lemma. It also disenfranchised the de facto Oromo base within the ruling coalition, rendering Abiy a political pariah. In a country where political power and allegiance are expressed through sovereign nation-nationality constructs, Abiy was labeled a traitor who betrayed his own people and the noble cause of the Oromo protests that propelled him to power.
Picking up the slack, the Amhara-wing of the ruling elite started to shore up Abiy’s insatiable drive to consolidate power under the PP banner. And ever since, the prime minister has been gravitating to the right, both in rhetoric and in substance, practically evolving into a Trojan horse for the unitary camp in one of the most tragic political co-opting in modern Ethiopian history since Lij Iyasu. One can, surely, protest the description of their alliance as ‘co-option’ but it is hard to deny the fact that it’s a transactional relationship borne out of convenience rather than based on a set of principles or values.
It is also undeniable that Abiy came to increasingly rely on the sustained support of these Amhara elites whether that’s within his party, the media establishment, in the diaspora or the pseudo-opposition outfits such as the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (Ezema) and up until recently, the National Movement of Amhara (NaMA). This is illustrated by their often unreserved and unqualified support for every questionable political misstep in the past two years and a half, including the unilateral postponement of elections, the legally dubious extension of government’s term in office, the crackdown on the opposition, or the disastrous war on Tigray that practically put Ethiopia on the cusp of a civil war. Their political expediency broke all boundaries between the incumbent and the opposition.
Divided and conquered
The Amhara faction’s out-sized power and influence was in the ascent since Lemma Megersa’s public break up with Abiy and his new political outfit, the PP. As a result, Lemma’s former hodge-podge protégés fizzled to the point they are either sequestered to a junior partner role or are fighting for their very survival.
For example, the President of Oromia state, Shimeles Abdissa, is allegedly in his last gasps and it is only a matter of time before he is discarded as a sacrificial lamb to the Enderasewoch for his transgressions. The Regents are particularly enraged by a recently leaked audio of Shimeles where he brags that PP is an Oromo economic and political domination tool, taunts and ridicules the Amhara, the Somalis, and others in their coalition.
Takele Uma is probably rejoicing he isn’t in jail. As a mayor of Addis Ababa, a city that is economically, culturally and demographically Amhara dominated, he came to office at the height of Oromo ascendancy with a mandate “to correct the economic and social injustices” perpetrated on the city’s Oromo natives.
In the name of “exposing corruption,” he became the target of a well-orchestrated media campaign accusing him of giving land, condominiums lots, and residence documents to displaced Oromo farmers at the detriment of Addis Ababans. This, his detractors, said was part of a broader scheme to alter the city’s demographic makeup. A few months before he was surgically removed from the City Hall, when there was some resemblance of balance between the Oromo v. Amhara wings of the party, Takele couldn’t be dismissed even after Abiy personally notified him of his imminent dismissal.
Similarly, the only Oromo figure within the security establishment and with a serious role is Demelash Gebremichael, the Director of National Information and Security Service (NISS). Demelash leads the same office once held by the eccentric and reclusive Getachew Assefa, but he has neither the politico-security influence nor the unconstrained sway over key decisions that his predecessor did. He is rumored to be on the chopping block for months now.
At a time when political stakes couldn’t be higher, divergent voices and perspectives needed more than ever to weather the breakout of a dreadful civil war, there are only a few non-Amhara figures in Abiy’s circle. The list includes Alemu Sime, his political advisor, and allegedly the front-runner to replace Shemalis, and Adanech Abiebie, the current Mayor of Addis, who earned notoriety as Attorney General following Haacaaluu Hundeessa’s assassination. Both are favorites of the new power-behind-the-throne.
Putting down the mask
The dangerous, hawkish posturing towards Tigray and the ongoing military assault it led to, the crackdown on prominent Oromo political figures, the disenfranchisement of the statehood demands in the South, and the systemic undermining of the sacred right for self-determination guaranteed by our multinational federal pact are the latest manifestation of Amhara PP’s disproportionate influence on military and security policy.
Abiy’s rude flexing—the ill-advised military adventure against Tigray and its people, the controversial military restructuring, the parades that are reminiscent of the Derg era, and the crackdown on opposition—may give the appearance of strength but they are nothing more than projection. Beneath the veneer of showmanship lies a man of entrenched political vulnerabilities whose fortunes have fallen so fast as a Nobel Peace Laureate presiding over a tragic and avoidable civil war.
That’s why it’s incumbent upon the new power brokers to put down the mask and consider embracing their newfound privilege to reach a political settlement that can end three years of ‘transitional nightmare’ and the disastrous civil war it begotten or risk a mutually assured destruction that not only hastens the collapse of the Ethiopian state but also would destabilize the entire Horn of Africa.
History repeating itself
Lij Iyasu’s failures led to a decades-long life-and-death power struggle where elites began to jockey for power and influence, coups and military confrontations by the vying factions, which eventually imperiled the Abyssinian empire and culminated with the second Italian invasion.
Similarly, in the first major post-EPRDF power struggle, about a year ago, TPLF got sidelined while Lemma and his Oromo faction lost ground to an Amhara-centric alliance of ever fractious factions of the former Oromo Democratic Party, Somali Democratic Party, and SPDM of the South Region.
The stopgap and poorly articulated Oromara alliance was the first balanced post-EPRDF elite bargain that could have charted a new path for the decades-long quest for a multinational democratic polity. But it came to a bitterly dangerous end after facilitating the demise of the TPLF, a political faction that dominated the political life of Ethiopia for almost 30 years, putting the country on the cusp of a very dangerous civil war.
All that’s now standing between Abiy and the fate of his predecessor a century earlier is his certain downfall and the eventual abandoning of his current political benefactors. Sadly, his strategic plunders also means that a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a peaceful democratic transition and three-decades-long economic advancement will be buried in the rubble of an ugly and dreadful civil war.
And, if history is to judge Lij Abiyot, it won’t be a stretch to argue that he will be remembered, just like Lij Iyasu, as the man who blew a historic opportunity to build a peaceful, multinational, federal, and democratic Ethiopia.
In spite of the advice of the country’s emerging modern elite, and say, compared to other countries in similar situations such as Sudan, the current Ethiopian ruler and his allies chose to devote their energy, wisdom, and the country’s resources to consolidating power, even if that meant starting a civil war while doing very little to advance democracy, openness and the stability that comes with them.
Needless to say, like many Ethiopian leaders before him, Abiy is opting for the tried and destructive path of dictatorship. The collective failure of the self-centered elite that surround him today to live up to the set of liberal and democratic ideals promised by years of peaceful popular uprisings has now put us on an irreversible course of mutual destruction. Unfortunately, it may end with the collapse of an imperfect but nonetheless proud and promising nation.