Abiy Ahmed Is Not A Populist
By Tom Gardner, FP
December 6, 2018
Earlier this year, when Abiy Ahmed was seeking the leadership of Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), he encountered stiff resistance.
At the time, much of his home region of Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous regional state, was experiencing a wave of a protests and strikes that brought the economy to a near standstill. In February, then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, and a state of emergency was declared by the federal government. Abiy, as the recently appointed chairman of the Oromo wing of the EPRDF, a multiethnic coalition, put his name forward. He was young and popular with the demonstrators, and he echoed many of their demands, including for the release of political prisoners. But a section of the EPRDF establishment—centered in its ethnic Tigrayan wing, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—dismissed him and his Oromo colleague Lemma Megersa as reckless populists and fought tooth and nail to obstruct his candidacy. They failed.
Since then, Ethiopian politics has been turned on its head.
In late March, Abiy was elected chairman of the EPRDF, in spite of internal opposition, and became the country’s new prime minister. He is enormously popular today and has won acclaim internationally for his rapid liberalization of the country’s politics; for his promises to organize, in 2020, Ethiopia’s first free and fair election; and for his moves to open up the economy. But inside Ethiopia, away from the euphoria of what is known as “Abiymania,” criticisms abound. One of the most common — and at times most compelling — is that Abiy is a populist in the mold of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, India’s Narendra Modi, and U.S. President Donald Trump. It’s a critique worth contemplating; it also happens to be wrong.
The argument runs like this: Abiy, despite being a member of the ERPDF, has mostly sidelined the party and appealed directly to the public over the heads of his colleagues. They say that he has monopolized power and decision-making at the expense of deliberation and consultation, and that he has cultivated a messianic image through set-piece spectacles—such as a mass rally in the capital, Addis Ababa, in June—with the help of fawning state broadcasters.
In a series of conversations, public figures on opposite ends of Ethiopia’s political spectrum—such as the academic and journalist Abiye Teklemariam and the influential Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed — have described Abiy to me as a “liberal populist.” Journalist Michela Wrong, a longtime observer of Ethiopian politics, has written that the prime minister resembles the likes of Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, populists who “use jingoistic appeals to nationalism to truncate or, in some cases, supplant domestic political debate and institutional processes.” Alemayehu Weldemariam, a U.S.-based Ethiopian lawyer and public intellectual, has called Abiy “an opportunistic populist jockeying for power on a democratizing platform.”
But the definition of populism is notoriously vague. The English term is tossed around these days as an insult without much specificity. In Amharic, Ethiopia’s most widely spoken language, the word has no direct equivalent. Across the world, there are left-wing populists and right-wing populists, neoliberal populists and nationalist populists. There is Trump in the United States and there was Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In Africa, the most successful populist was arguably Zambia’s former President Michael Sata, who railed against Chinese immigrantsIn Africa, the most successful populist was arguably Zambia’s former President Michael Sata, who railed against Chinese immigrants and coupled ethnic mobilization in the countryside with posing as a champion of the poor in the cities. Even in this motley landscape, Abiy doesn’t fit in.
First and foremost, he does not talk like a populist. Abiy headlines rallies around the country, but he is by no means a tub-thumper. His addresses are not fiery blasts of political invective; they are more like sermons, befitting his background as a devout Pentecostal. He does not fulminate against “elites,” nor does he, despite his ongoing political confrontation with the TPLF, single out ordinary Tigrayans for criticism. Moreover, unlike many contemporary populists—most famously Trump and Modi—who harness new media technologies to communicate directly with the faithful, Abiy does not even have a personal Twitter account.
If Abiy has a buzzword, it is “medemer,” an Amharic term which more or less means “unity,” or “adding together.” It suggests reconciliation, not division. If Abiy has a buzzword, it is “medemer,” an Amharic term which more or less means “unity,” or “adding together.” It suggests reconciliation, not division.This has been matched by efforts to bring together various opposing camps, for instance by helping end a decades-long schism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and by welcoming home exiled dissidents from all ends of the political spectrum, including the pro-democracy group Ginbot 7—which was branded a terrorist group by the government until Abiy came to power—and the Oromo Liberation Front, both of which held large rallies in the capital in September. Abiy has also warned against seeing ideological opponents as traitors or mortal foes, a characteristic of Ethiopian political culture since at least the 1970s. “Widening the space of democracy means it is unnecessary to take up arms due to ideological differences,” he said at a press conference in August. “It is not right to harass people for harboring different ideas.”
In this respect, at least, “Abiy is the least populist leader we have had,” argued Mekonnen Ayano, an Ethiopian lawyer at Harvard University. And it contrasts starkly with his predecessors Meles Zenawi, who led the country from 1991 until his death in 2012, and Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ruled as a military dictator for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Meles headed an EPRDF that cast itself as the voice of the rural peasantry and regularly disparaged opponents as “narrow nationalists” (if they supported ethnic parties like the Oromo Liberation Front) or “chauvinists” (if they supported a return to the former unitary nation-state). Mengistu, for his part, railed against “landlordism” and “imperialism” in the name of socialist revolution.
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