Editor’s note : views reflected in the essay represent the views of the author, not that of borkena.com
Yonas Biru, PhD
I. Executive Summary
In 2018, Ethiopia’s future was bright with both local and international stars aligned in her favor. Its citizens were beaming with hope and enthusiasm for peace, security, progress, and prosperity. The international community was opening its wallet wide to finance Prime Minister (PM) Abiy’s reforms with unprecedentedly generous loans and grants. Those days are gone, and the hope both Ethiopians and the international community had on the PM given way to despair and vexation.
Today, Ethiopia is at a crossroad. One road leads us to a stagnant economy with little hope to escape from poverty and the other points to a future of uncertainty with a conflict-triggered existential crisis looming heavy on the horizon. Ethiopia should take neither road. Instead, it must find it possible to forge a path back-to-the-future. This requires us to: (1) come to terms with what derailed us from the 2018 hope for change, and (2) identify and thwart the sources of the tribal inertia and momentum that are pushing the nation toward existential crisis.
The answer to the question “what derailed us from the path of a bright future” is unequivocal: It is PM Abiy. He pushed the nation into an inevitably predictable and totally avoidable crisis on many fronts. His four years in office should have given him ample humbling experience to reflect back and work on the areas where he needs improvement. Instead, with a sense of infallibility and certainly one of accountability to no one, he forges forward with his failed ways. Ironically, the speech he gave to high-brass military officers last week suggests he has given up on his democratic experiment. In his speech, he was flirting with the military for support.
Hope is the only hope Ethiopia has. The hope that, in 2018, made Ethiopians of all creed and greed forget past reproaches and hope for a bright future needs to be resuscitated. Courting the military establishment is a sign of regression not of progress.
The PM is a visionary leader. For the most part, his problems are management related and are fixable, but I have little confidence that he is amenable for change on his own volition. Ethiopians of all stripes must exert pressure to force a path correction. Time is running out.
Another troubling dynamic is a dangerous conflict brewing between Amhara and Oromo tribalists. Lurking beneath this conflict is a quantum energy gathering strength like the crackle of electricity before a lightning storm. Understanding this dynamic is critical to find an entry-point to defuse the two groups’ self-destructive energy.
Anyone who understands how tribal tensions can spiral down with an entropic inertia will understand the danger of an escalating conflict extremist forces. The question whether it is Amhara or Oromo extremists at fault is not as important as the dynamic that can spiral out of control as the two groups escalate their conflict, drawing energy from their hate to, and fear of, each other.
Politics that is based on hate and fear by nature leads to grievance and seeing every conflict large or small as an existential threat. Each group tries to portray itself as a victim of past and present atrocities and in danger of extinction. That is why tribal extremists portray their tribes as victims of genocide. Consequently, the national psychology is dominated by a deep sense of despair and addiction to anger, feeding the flames of discord, recrimination, and retribution.
This dynamic is best explained by the second law of thermodynamics (a natural tendency to degenerate into disorder) and entropy (the lack of predictability of the degenerative process). If we fail to short-circuit the transmission line that allows radical Amhara and Oromo forces to feed off of each other’s negative energy, Ethiopia will enter a zone of entropic disorder. Regardless of who is at fault, who did what to whom, when and why, the solution is not giving support to our tribe, but introducing new energy that will defuse the gathering entropic tornedo.
The two relevant parties in whose hands the future of Ethiopia primarily resides are the PM and the Amhara tribal land. It is only if the two fail to seize the moment that the crisis would be doomed to become an existential.
II. Back to the Future: Reflecting on Past Missed Opportunities
Someone, whose name I have long forgotten, said political assessments and clarion calls for action that do not conform to popular opinion go through three phases. First, they are ridiculed as crackpots, then they are opposed as misguided, and eventually they are accepted as being self evident truths. All too often, however, it would be too late to respond to political assessments and clarion calls for change by the time they become accepted as self-evident truths.
History teaches us that Galileo was summoned to “the Holy Office” and put on trial for opining that the Earth revolves around the sun. Rome was not prepared to unlearn its national identity anchored in its religion that the Earth is the uncontestable center of the universe. Galileo was forced to plead guilty and condemned to house arrest where he languished for nearly a decade before his death in 1642. Today, what Galileo said in 1663 is a self-evident truth.
A closer look at Ethiopia’s perpetual socio-economic and political problems shows a similar phenomenon in the 21st century. As I have noted in my article titled “Ethiopia’s Political Problems Reside in Its Mythological National Identity”, our general outlook that is simmered in our mythological and theological national identity is the story behind our misery.
Our mythological identity leads us to see every local or geopolitical disagreement as a conspiracy to dismember our nation. Our nation, we are quick to note, is recognized in the Bible, the Quran, and Greek mythology. Our greatness, we believe, is affirmed by Adwa. Our past is supposed to be our history. But we insist on making our history and our mythology our present. Furthermore, our antiquated and backward-looking national identity explains our failure to resolve conflicts through a forward-looking dialogue. Oromo intellectuals are preoccupied with the obsession to resurrect Geda.
Tigrayan intellectuals go even further to the 4th century to exhume the Axumite empire from the grave to build their “Tigrayan exceptionalism” identity around it.
This explains how an Ethiopian can be a distinguished professor in matters of nuclear physics and geopolitics and turn into a cross between a 19th century tribal warrior and a reclusive monk at the drop of a hat when it comes to Ethiopian politics. He seamlessly aligns himself with his village’s Qerros and Fannos and effortlessly draws his energy from the orthodoxy of his anachronistic belief system.
I have written political commentaries since 1992. Quite often my commentaries and predictions go contrary to popular opinion. Though time has proven them right in almost all cases, they are often seen as detached from Ethiopia’s reality, an affront to the Ethiopian culture or even treasonous. Ethio 360 had a special program on me, labeling me as “the most dangerous Ethiopian” for venturing out of the gridlines of our antiquated collective outlook.
I will provide five examples from my commentaries (One from 1998 and the rest from 2018 to 2022) and discuss them at length. This is necessary for three reasons. First, it is critical to understand our current crisis was inevitably predictable and totally avoidable. Second, it will show the problem is not only the PM’s failed management, but also with the Ethiopian mindset that has chained the intellectual nomenklatura to anachronistic belief system from distant centuries. Third, it will help us to reflect on the past and chart our back-to-the-future endeavor.
II.1. Ethiopia’s Missed Opportunity to Side with EPLF and Defeat TPLF in 1998
Ethiopia is where it is today because of many missed opportunities. The most damning missed opportunity that allowed tribalism to take root in Ethiopia was our failure to side with Eritrea to defeat TPLF in the 1998 Ethio-Eritrean war. The popular opinion at the time was that Eritrea war working in cahoots with the US and TPLF to dismember Ethiopia.
I was the lone voice arguing against the paranoic outlook and advocating to side with Eritrea in an article titled “Sacred Sin: Beyond Political Razzle Dazzle.” The sin was siding with Eritrea to defeat our government. I saw it as a sacred sin because the ultimate objective was to save Ethiopia from the evils of TPLF. Just like today’s #NoMore diaspora, the diaspora forces of the time invaded the streets of Western nations wrapped up with green, yellow, and red, and jumping up and down, condemning the US and Eritrea. One can only imagine what the turn of events could have been had Ethiopians joined forces with Eritrea. Today, the wisdom to side with Eritrea is a self-evident truth.
II.2. A Nation Without a PR Complex
From the time the PM took office in 2018, the danger with his failure to build robust public relations (PR) and communication ecosystems was inevitably obvious. In the absence of a robust PR ecosystem, Tigray, Oromo, and Amhara tribal leaders monopolized the media with polarizing narratives and destabilized the nation. The Prime Minister held the view that all the lies and polarizing narratives will create አቧራ not አሻራ, following the time old Ethiopian idiom “እውነት እና ዉሃ እያደር ይጠራል.” TPLF turned the አቧራ into a tsunami that threw the PM around like a rag doll.
It is not farfetched to argue that a robust PR ecosystem could have changed the trajectory of the confrontation between the government and TPLF. For two years before the war, TPLF was preparing its region for war through a militaristic PR campaign, following Japan’s and Germany’s Pre-World War II psychological warfare. One can argue as I have that a robust PR could have altered TPLF’s war calculus. Short of that it could have mitigated the war’s damage.
In April 2019, I wrote an open letter to the PM, stating: “The highways of history are riddled with corpses of excellent government visions, reforms and policies that were killed by unanswered negative propaganda. The fate of your brilliant reform agenda depends on your success in having a robust communication ecosystem.”
TPLF with the help of hired lobbyists and media influencers knew it was hard to criticize the PM’s transformative reforms. Brilliantly, they went after him as a proxy to thwart his reforms. They rebranded him as anti-democratic and genocider. Their unanswered propaganda campaign took traction internationally. Their strategy was as obvious as a daylight. The PM was oblivious.
Today, the PM’s image is tarnished both at home and internationally, and his reform agenda is crippled and gasping for air. Even worse, Ethiopia is increasingly exposed to existential crisis. In 2022, the PM established a PR office with a head who holds a cabinet position. The PM’s recent ሙዝ በዳቦ ግመጡ statement and his Power Point assisted lecture to high-brass military officers show he remains oblivious to the concept of PR. Even worse, judging by the overheated international PR campaign against Ethiopia and the deafening silence from Ethiopia shows the new PR is stillborn. The electronic life support control and biometric monitoring for PR shows no sign of life.
II.3. A Geopolitically Blessed Nation Without a Geopolitical Strategy
For at least two years, I wrote about the damage Ethiopia will suffer because of the PM’s inexplicable refusal to hire lobbyists in the US. In March 2021, I reiterated my worries in a petition titled “It is a Matter of National Emergency.” The overwhelming majority of Ethiopian diaspora organizations and political leaders refused to sign the petition. Some did not want to criticize the PM in public. Others were not interested in having the PM change course. They wanted him out.
TPLF lobbyists mopped the proverbial floor with our green, yellow, and red flag that the #NoShow PM and the #NoMore diaspora handed them. A manageable geopolitical issue that could have been addressed with geopolitical tools was turned into a “David v. Goliad” street theatre with #NoMore ሆያ ሆየ. The US was branded as an enemy bent on dismembering Ethiopia. It was Déjà vu — a rerun of the 1998 street melodrama.
I also warned about the danger of flirting with Pan Africanism that ill-informed Ethiopian intellectuals both on the home front and the diaspora peddled as a panacea for our geopolitical problem. At one point the PM seemed all but the 21st Century version of Thomas Sankara – a Marxist military junta who at age 33 took power in Burkina Fasso by way of a coup d’état and tried to set up a revolutionary government inspired by Cuba’s Castro.
The lack of a national strategy and the utter incompetence in our foreign affairs team led Ethiopia to random walk down the geopolitical landscape guided by confusion and sense of betrayal. Professor Al Mariam, a barometer for Ethiopians’ sentiment towards outsiders, wrote series of articles with such titles as “Susan Rice’s Revenge and Last Hurrah: Jeffrey TPLFeltman (Hitman) Is Itching for a Fight in Ethiopia/Horn of Africa!”; and “Clashes of Civilizations: Ethiopia and the U.S.” Ethiopia, the colorful Professor said, is the “cradle of humankind” and “the tip of the spear and steel shield in confronting white supremacy.”
Crowded out in the Professor’s “ዱብ ዱብ ይላል እንደ በረዶ በልጅነቱ በርሃ ለምዶ” narrative is a hard reality that Ethiopia depends on food aid, budget aid, development aid and God-knows-what aid from the very nations that he calls the cabals of white supremacy bent on destroying Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s extraordinary geopolitical spectacle is epitomized with a thick stick in one hand for the “ዱብ ዱብ ይላል” defiant dance and a hat in the other hand for panhandling.
It did not take long before the PM realized emotional reactions and saber-rattling for a duel with the US produce cacophony and heat not light. The deterioration of the nation’s economy and the crippling shortage of foreign exchange (both of which were totally predictable) left the PM no option but to change path. Late in the game, he agreed to hire a lobbyist. Even then he provided limited resources in a stop and go fashion – way too little, way too late, and too haphazard. The firm, Squire Patton Boggs, LLC, the PM hired for 6 months at $60,000 a month is second tier.
Powerhouse lobbying firms go for $200,000 a month. They are the ones with access to the movers and shakers of the US policy. In 2021, the PM hired a second-tier firm for three months at $50,000. It did not do well. So, why go to another second-tier firm? The PM simply does not get it. You don’t hire a second-tier lobbyist when Egypt, TPLF and Sudan are represented with multiple powerhouse lobbying firms commanding $200,000 a month each.
On the positive side, the PM has toned down and even distanced himself from the Pan Africanism craze. With no other viable option, he submitted to the US and European demands for a peaceful resolution with an unequivocal phrase: “Effective Immediately!” The diaspora community who pushed the PM to confront the West, promising to help mitigate Ethiopia’s foreign exchange shortage, went into hibernation, hanging “#NoHear, #NoSee” sign on the door of their hibernating cave.
The PM threw a wet blanket on #NoMore. In this speech before high-brass military officers, he compared the #NoMore movement with the student movement’s “Self-determination” and “land for the tiller” slogans. He said: movement’s like #NoMore have neither concept nor sober analysis behind them.
The lesson to be learned from this is that the PM could have been the driver of the peace agenda, rather than being a reluctant partner who is dragged to the negotiation table under international pressure, as I advised in 2021. He had all the opportunity to leverage Ethiopia’s geopolitical location as an asset. He turned it into a liability, with the Ethiopian elite class cheering him on, only to go into hibernation when to rubber hit the road and push came to shove.
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