By Faisal A. Roble
“We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia: Strongly committed, in full and free exercise of our right to self-determination, to building a political community founded on the rule of law and capable of ensuring a lasting peace, guaranteeing a democratic order, and advancing our economic and social development.”
With these powerful words, the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia duly establishes a Federal arrangement of power-sharing between the center and the periphery regions.
Notwithstanding these solemn words of high value, Dr. Abiy in his capacity as the Prime Minister does not hold this plain truth with esteem but disregards them as a foreign implant into the psyche of his countrymen. One, therefore, wonders whether he would ever be able to guarantee the peace and prosperity for which his new party called “Prosperity Party” promises.
Weakening federalism, Addis Ababa is increasingly holding federal member states on a chokehold, thereby migrating regional powers guaranteed under the constitution to Addis Ababa. If this trend is left unchecked, Dr. Abiy’s actions could drag this multinational country back to a centrist and unitary state with only one power seat effectively distancing decision-making from the majority of this humpty dumpty montage of ethnic groups called Ethiopia.
Dr. Abiy undeniably has introduced significant reforms to Ethiopia’s governance and leaped this ancient but static country forward more than any other administration that came before him. However, under scrutiny one would find Dr. Abiy to fit a personality portrait of a saint and a sinner painted in a different context by a melancholic Somali poet, called Ahmed Ismail Diriye (Kasim).
Waxan ahay macaan iyo qadhaadh meel ku wada yaalle
Marbaan ahay muftiga saahidnimo mawlacaw gala’e
Marna Mukhawi waashoo xumaha miista baan ahaye…
A loose translation of these verses is:
I am both sweet and sour rolled in one,
An ascetic celibate zeal confined to the monastery,
Yet tempted to scheme mercilessly
Not to spare anyone in my reach…
Replacing the enigmatic and camera-shy Desalegn Haile Mariam, whose abysmal human rights record in the Somali region is yet to be told, Dr. Abiy is both a saint and a sinner in his stewardship of the Ethiopian boat. As soon as he took office in April 2018, he wasted no time but to embark in a timely fashion on massive reforms. And that earned him many accolades from many corners of the world. The only question is whether he is sliding back, as did Meles, to a personal centrist rule in lieu of the federal system enshrined in the country’s constitution.
Following is the double persona exhibited by Dr. Abiyo in the political realm that which squares with poet Kasim’s portrait of the saint and the sinner in one.
Dr. Abiy the saint
The period of April 2018 through April 2019 could be categorized as the year of social reform and political reconfiguration of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region. In a short period after assuming the premiership, Dr. Abiy freed thousands of political prisoners, promoted women to positions never heard in the world, let alone in Africa (he picked a female president, a female chief justice, a cabinet with more than 50% female and the first Somali woman cabinet). He also remapped Ethio-Eritrea a relationship by his landmark visit to Asmara at the expense of the entranced TPLF political cabal. Included in his impressive record is his success in bringing President Farmajo of Somalia and the warm waters of the Indian Ocean under his armpit, thus officially making Somalia his sphere of influence.
Whereas Meles Zenawi wanted to touch the warm waters of the Indian Ocean by brute force, thus invading Somalia in cahoots with the US government in 2006, Dr. Abiy to his credit not only peacefully flew over the shorelines of the pearl of the Indian Ocean (Mogadishu), but he received a warm welcome at Villa Somalia on June 16, 2018.
Somalis and Ethiopians would remember and assess differently the symbolism of the scene of Dr. Abiy standing at the corridors of Villa Somalia in his matched two-piece Safari suit next to the formally dressed President Farmajo. Dr. Abiy’s zealous pursuit of the Horn of Africa Regional Integration, a noble but phantom goal at this juncture says a lot about his boldness as well as his lack of familiarity with the nagging nature of the region.
Dr. Abiy the sinner
His second year, however, is not a success story; rather, the period between April 2019 and April 2020 is marked by vanity and a visible tendency towards autocratic rule with a visible appetite for a lone “visionary” of the country. In the same tradition as former autocrats, like Siyad Barre’s “The Collected Speeches of Major General Mohamed Siad Barre,” or Meles’ pseudo-Marxist treatise that were distributed to the upper echelon of the country to memorize, Dr. Abiy broke the bounds of self-absorption with his “medemer,” or “synergy” philosophy. Not only did Dr. Abiy undervalue all previous collective knowledges of Western as well as Eastern philosophies, but he erroneously claimed to have finally unlocked the mystery of Ethiopian socio-political problems. The answer to all Ethiopia’s past political disarticulation is rooted in “western” philosophies, argues Dr. Abiy. Simply put, that is preposterous.
Such a quick dismissal of centuries-old sociological and historical analysis of the human conditions, irrespective of nationality, makes Dr. Abiy’s “medemer” join company with past nativist empty rhetoric. Arguing to solve Ethiopian century-old ethnic, class and gender inequality through “medemer” reminds students of African Studies Mobuto Sesesako’s short-lived but widely discredited “authenticite’ philosophy. Also known as the Zaireanization, Maputo likewise claimed to have found the medicine of all the ills of Zairian politics in the African tradition.
Mobuto even replaced expensive Western attires in favor of locally produced African Dashiki, only to have been discovered later that he had stashed away billions of dollars in Secret Swiss banks at a time when his countrymen starved gravely.
Alas, Ethiopian political problems basically emanate from lack of rule of law, lack of securing the consent of the majority, and lack of devolving real power to the regions. These are neither Ethiopian nor Western, but universal values which often prove to be source for much irritation to autocrats’ vanity.
Dr. Abiy, as a practicing born-again Christian, may not place much emphasis on wealth collection. At least that is what this writer likes to believe. However, his insatiable thirst for vanity, power and autocratic rule cannot be underestimated. Forgetting the enormous human and capital cost of the long struggle ethnic groups waged for equality and autonomy since the 1960s seems to be out of synergy with his tendency to create a centrist rule. To the contrary, federalism is the only tool available to stitch together this humpty dumpty ethnic montage called Ethiopia notwithstanding Dr. Abiy’s inclination to favor a unitary system of government.
In “medemer,” however, Dr. Abiy dismisses all the political struggles waged for equality, autonomy, and class struggle as irritants of Western concepts alien to Ethiopia. Just like Maputo claimed democracy to be a non-African value, Dr. Abiy unequivocally dismisses federalism as “un-Ethiopian” and seeks to bring power back to Menelik’s palace.
The Prime Minister’s proclivity to frequently assemble regional leaders to his palace is emblematic of the resumption to a centrist rule. If left unchecked, more power will be accumulated in Addis Ababa which in effect may reduce regional governments into what was in the past called “gizat,” or “ruled territories.” In “gizat” based system of government, the country’s residents were compartmentalized into citizens and subjects.
While it is not unique to Ethiopia to have a strong party, as the Prosperity Party of Dr. Abiy would like to evolve, it certainly is anti-federalist to amass power in Addis Ababa. The trajectory on which Dr. Abiy is travelling represents a betrayal of both the peace deal signed by all the armed groups at the beginning of Dr. Abiy’s well-received reforms, but it equally undermines his own allies in the nine autonomous region who would like to preach to their respective constituencies the solvency of Federalism.
In short, if Dr. Abiy continues this anti-federalist path, he would narrow his legitimacy among his peace partners (opposition groups) as well as his friends in the regional administrations. And that is death blow dealt on the peace development and the often-touted democratic trajectory Ethiopia has supposedly embarked on that eventful month of April 2018. I wish for Dr. Abiy to be a righteous man whose sins can be minimized.
Faisal A. Roble
Email: [email protected]
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division.
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