The roots to Abiy’s success and failures are rooted in his framing of Ethiopia’s political conflicts as emanating from a particular political culture of intolerance. His solution to these conflicts is a philosophy he calls Medemer (“synergy” in Amharic), which centers on the need to change societal norms. Abiy’s olive branch diplomacy has to be understood in the context of this broader norm-changing project.
Medemer — although a highly vague concept — has involved inculcating values such as tolerance, forgiveness and civic duty into the population through practices such as public dialogues and nationwide street cleanup campaigns. Abiy has also tried to transform the public image of the leader in Ethiopia by projecting an image of a prime minister that is humble and not feared.
The model doesn’t see class, nationalist and other contradictions as inherent to politics. Instead Abiy’s approach seeks to depoliticize social cleavages and focus on norms that govern individual behavior, such as tolerance and civility.
This framing of politics led to an approach to peacemaking in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa that centered on the national leader making symbolic overtures to domestic and foreign rivals to establish trust.
He broke a 20-year stalemate with Eritrea
Abiy’s first overture was to his former mentors-cum-nemesis, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). In a radical departure from Ethiopian political tradition and practice, he initially reached out to his rivals in the security establishment, allowing those who were willing, such as military chief of staff Samora Yunis, to resign gracefully and with amnesty, while maintaining people like Arkebe Oqubay in advisory roles. Abiy allegedly offered the same amnesty to intelligence chief Getachew Assefa but was rejected. For more than two years Abiy’s Oromo Democratic Party and the security establishment had unofficially been at war with each other over the terms of the reform process.
Abiy attained international praise, however, through the olive branch he extended to Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Ethiopia and Eritrea ended their two-year border war — responsible for almost 100,000 casualties — with a cease-fire in 2000. The two neighbors could not agree on the terms to normalize their relations, however, and continued the war through proxies until 2018.
Abiy’s ability to break a 20-year stalemate between Ethiopia and Eritrea did lend credence to the idea that the source of conflict in the Horn of Africa had been the inability of leaders to show goodwill, a positive attitude and trust — rather than the view that attributes conflict to incompatible values and interests. The pace of the rapprochement and highly emotional scenes of families reuniting after decades of separation further consolidated Abiy’s success.
Abiy’s next move was a peace offering to exiled armed opposition groups. Notable among these were the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Ginbot 7 (G7) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), which had been conducting an insurgency from neighboring Eritrea. As a goodwill gesture Abiy’s government allowed these groups back into Ethiopia — with their arms intact and without any vetting process.
Many of these overtures fell short of expectations
TPLF veterans rejected Abiy’s offer and immediately began a propaganda war to undermine his reform plan. Then the OLF rebels refused to disarm and within a few months began an insurgency against Abiy’s government.
As these gestures backfired, Abiy increasingly resorted to the repressive measures that he had promised to abolish: arbitrary mass arrests and denying political opponents the rights to assembly, protest and fair trial. Notably, the day after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize his government reportedly rounded up and imprisoned several dozen people who were demanding the right to hold a protest in the capital Addis Ababa.
The rapprochement with Eritrea also quickly encountered obstacles. The rivalry between the TPLF and Eritrean President Afwerki in fact escalated, which exacerbated conflicts between groups in Ethiopia. The Eritrean government routinely closes the common border between the two countries, and the disputed territory — which was the flash point of the war in 1998 to 2000 — has not been demarcated.
Most importantly, these conflicts led to immense human suffering, most notable of which was the displacement of around 1 million ethnic Gedeos, leaving Ethiopia with 2.9 million internally displaced people.
Abiy’s reconciliatory tone and style of leadership were important and welcome pacifying additions into Ethiopian politics, given the great insecurity and toxic ethnic politics at the time. Had a leader with a belligerent, zero-sum approach to politics assumed power in 2018, the country would have probably descended into full-blown civil war.
The unresolved conflicts, however, demonstrate the limitations of Abiy’s olive branch diplomacy. Ethiopians thus far remain bitterly divided on history and questions of nationhood. The country’s numerous ethno-nationalist groups continue to see Ethiopia as a union of nations and denounce most of its history as oppressive.
There’s also a cost to the reliance on the charisma and agency of one individual leader. In Ethiopia’s case, Abiy’s government neglected the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) as an organization. The gap between the four parties that make up the front has increased under Abiy’s chairmanship. This is important, because each party controls its own regional state as well as militia. The inability of the ruling party to cooperate with each other is partly why the peace process with Eritrea remains incomplete, and why relations among Ethiopia’s regional states remain tense.
While a focus on changing norms at a societal level may bear fruit in the long term, in the immediate future Ethiopia is unlikely to stabilize without its political elites reaching an agreement on how to manage the parliamentary elections in May 2020 and the planned restructuring of the EPRDF. The Nobel Peace Prize has had a unifying effect on the Ethiopian population and can provide Abiy Ahmed’s reform process with much-needed momentum.
Goitom Gebreluel is a political analyst based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Follow him on Twitter @goitom_gebrelue.