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HomeOpinionHyper-hypno Affective Disorder: The Emotional Alchemy of a Totalitarian Leader

Hyper-hypno Affective Disorder: The Emotional Alchemy of a Totalitarian Leader

Abiy Ahmed (Photo : file/from the web)

By Tibebu Taye 

This analysis will examine in more detail the politicization of excessive affect that has made us susceptible to the worst political subjectivities marked by affective disorders, including cruel optimism, anticipatory obedience, and panopticism. To keep our conversation on solid ground, I offer a brief explanation on the meaning of affect, particularly focusing on its importance in politics. I then emphasise on how Dr Abiy Ahmed, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, has used affective energies to achieve his political aspirations as a charming dictator. While these trends have led Ethiopia further towards ethnonationalism or other extreme forms of tribalism, manipulating and exploiting emotions, in tandem with other controlling mechanisms, has assured Dr Abiy to maintain control over the people.

Affect, its essence!

Affect is the capacity to affect or be affected (Spinoza in Brian Massumi, 1988). In psychology and neuroscience, the term “affect” refers to the experience of feeling or emotion, including both positive and negative states such as happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and excitement. In the field of psychology, affect refers to the emotional experience or feeling associated with an idea, object, or event. Effects can be positive, negative, or neutral, and can range from mild to intense. It is a fundamental aspect of human experience and plays a critical role in shaping perception, cognition, behaviour, and social interactions.

As is mentioned earlier, it is the energy that binds us to something or somebody. It creates possibilities of attachments to something such as a place that we call it home (ለምሳሌ፣ እትብቴ የተቀበረበት አገሬ) or homophilic attachment to fellow tribesmen that we call them friends or relatives (መወለድ ቋንቋ ነው). Affect is just unanimous energy that resides inside of us, and it is nameless and tasteless but we can only feel its intensities and momentum as we swing between different pathos: events, fortunes, or accidents. It is this energy that leaves us in a psychological state, like optimism or despondent. Affect becomes an emotion when we assign it a referential name (such as optimism or despondent). Simply said, emotion is an identified/named affect.

As soon as Dr Abiy Ahmed came to power, he produced a lot of effects that have had significant impact on the emotional states of Ethiopian society. Check on most of his public speeches for your own references to see how frequently he uses and/or mentions names that are used to refer to collective identifications such as Ethiopia, Amhara, Oromia, or Tigray; words of hope like peace, brotherhood, and prosperity; and words of dread and panic like anti-Western sentiments, the threat of national disintegration, and poverty or a treat to become an agitated dictator. Likewise, he began his tenure with equal flair: he lifted the long-represented nation’s state of emergency, released thousands of political prisoners, halted media censorship, and appointed women on top. However, these reforms following his arrival earned him a flood of appreciation from the citizens of the country and from the whole world, notably for ending years of political and military disceptation between Ethiopia and Eritrea without any prerequisites or a memorandum of understanding. These actions have made him a hero to many Ethiopians, emotionally throwing them to what is described as “Abiy-mania“. His leadership style, charisma, and vision for the country have also earned him an international following, including the Nobel Peace Prize committee which awarded him the prize in 2019 for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperations.

To his domestic supporters, Dr Abiy’s tutelage and political and philosophical rhetoric created a political sentiment that can most appropriately be described as cruel optimism of nation-building, unity, and reconciliations. The cruel optimism of building national unity refers to the idea that people may hold onto a hope or belief that their nation can achieve unity despite underlying divisions or conflicts that make this goal difficult or impossible to achieve. This can be seen in situations where there are deep-seated differences in values, ideology, or identity that divide a population and prevent them from coming together in a unified manner. In such cases, the optimism that unity can be achieved is “cruel” because it can lead to disappointment, frustration, and even harm, as people continue to strive for a goal that may ultimately be unattainable.

Here, feel free to think of Ethiopianists or the nationalist faction (who were major sources of Abiy’s political supporters) who regarded him as a “gift from God,” and “a prophet” hailing his divinely inspired agenda and his rhetoric of unity and reconciliation. Their extreme sentiment was followed by their loyalty and submission to his oppressive rules while being held captive by their own irrational expectations for political reforms and initiatives as sworn by Dr Abiy. For instance, one of Abiy’s supporter who attended Abiy’s first ever American tour explains the level of hope by saying it “was something we had not seen since the election of Barack Obama.” In the view of this individual and others alike, Abiy’s promise to break down the long-standing ethnic divisions in the country and build bridges of friendship, unity, and brotherhood has united almost all Ethiopians and brought them together under his leadership.

But in reality, under his leadership foiled with ulterior motives, … the country is experiencing a multifaceted crisis combining extreme polarization, spiralling violence, loosening social fabric, and a crumbling economy. If the trend continues, state collapse is possible. Since 2020, there has been a growing perception that the “Abiy-mania” phenomenon has come to an end, with discussions arising about Abiy’s transition from a peace-maker to a war-monger, from a Nobel laureate to a global pariah, and from a reformist to a cunning dictator. Today, prominent Ethiopian scholars and political commentators, such as Dr Yonas Biru, argue that Ethiopian intellectuals, especially Amharas, have become a prisoner of their Axum and Lalibela civilization nostalgia. In this statement, and as he will show it in his forthcoming article, Dr Biru claims that certain intellectuals from these regions of the country are trapped in a particular view of Ethiopian identity, and that this is limiting their ability to effectively engage with and respond to contemporary political dynamics.

Whereas to his opposers, such as the likes of the Oromo nationalists, Tigrayan federalists, and other tribal based fractions, there has certainly been a great deal of anger and resentment surrounding Dr Abiy’s original initiatives and rhetoric of unification and nation-building in Ethiopia. Among these segments of the society, Dr Abiy’s aspirations for unification and nation-building is considered as a neo-neftegna, neo-Menelik, colonialist, or an expansionist movement. Such an anger and resentment has further amplified the extant intra-EPRDF political competitions and rivalry and has ignited intra-Oromo tensions, plus those between the Oromo and Amhara, the Amhara and Tigray, and the TPLF and Abiy’s government, threatening to derail Ethiopia’s transition. As these competition increases, ethno-nationalist forces within the four parties are ascendant, in some cases propelled by hardline opposition and protest movements, eventually to full-fledged civil war.

Here, bring on the ethno-nationalist, ethno-federalist, and other tribal factions who feel that Abiy’s efforts to promote unification and nation-building are being imposed on them, and that their individual and group rights are being marginalized or threatened. This anger and resentment is particularly acute among ethnonationalists, ethno-federalist, and other tribal groups who often feel that their cultural and ethnic identities are being subsumed or erased by the dominant culture. This has led to a deepening of ideological divides and a breakdown in social cohesion, which has caused serious consequences for sustaining peace and democratic governance. In a widening arc of flashpoints across Ethiopia, attackers, often propelled by ethno-nationalist forces, have killed hundreds over the past year and triggered the displacement of 3.5 million. For instance, the widespread killings of ethnic Amhara in different parts of the country are deeply concerning and represent a serious challenge to democratic governance and social progress. These killings are believed to have been politically motivated and are attributed to a range of factors to which the spread of negative affective energies decoded from Abiy’s rhetoric of unification and nation-building is the obvious.

Even though the types and levels of emotional energies expressed in Dr. Abiy’s public speeches and rhetoric vary, they have had a destabilizing impact on the emotional states of both supporting and opposing factions. I would like to state my own opinion that all Ethiopians are currently going through emotional disturbances, and Dr. Abiy’s role in generating, disturbing, and manipulating these emotional energies should not be underestimated, whether it was intentional or not. Take a moment and think of the evolution of the Tigray war, instances of political assassinations, the deep seated animosity between binary affective (ethnic) groups. Crowd psychologists generally argue that affectively disorganized people/bodies are vulnerable for any forms of political mobilizations, be it for destruction or construction.

Dr Abiy Ahmed has authored a series of books titled “Medemer”, “Medemer Journey” and “Generation Medemer” in Amharic, Afan Oromo, and English languages since he assumed power. “Medemer” is translated as ‘synergy’ or ‘addition’, and the books draw inspiration from his leadership philosophies, which are influenced by classic works on leadership, including Machiavellian principles. Medemer (synergy) is a just collection of principles and strategy amounts to a hotchpotch of ideas primed by the new age thoughts. Many people believe that a significant number of Ethiopian politicians appointed to the parliament lack in-depth knowledge of his principles and strategies. It is often witnessed that these appointees tend to take notes when Dr Abiy Ahmed speaks in the parliament. While their act is considered as a display of their loyalty and obedience in advance to his commands rather than challenging and engaging in constructive debates with him. This same trend of anticipatory obedience is also observed in other branches of the government, such as the judiciary and executive bodies in Ethiopia. As a result, there is a widespread perception that the country is being run as a one-man show

In relation to political representatives, anticipatory obedience towards an authoritative leader refers to the act of lawmakers or elected officials following the wishes or expectations of a powerful leader without being explicitly told to do so. This can occur when the leader has significant influence over the representative’s career or political future, or when the representative believes that following the leader’s wishes will benefit their own goals or agenda. It is important to note that anticipatory obedience in this context is problematic and potentially harmful. It may lead to elected officials prioritizing loyalty to the leader over their duty to represent their constituents and make decisions that benefit the public. It can also reinforce authoritarian tendencies and undermine democratic principles, as elected officials are expected to act independently and represent the interests of their constituents rather than blindly following the wishes of a single leader.

Dr Abiy also uses his principles and doctrines enshrined in his Medemer books as excuses to escape public accountability for all of his wrong deeds. In the parliament, he is a charming dictator who usually attempts to convince people with peaceful, joyous and kind words. In reality, he murdered lots of politicians and even civilians whom he believed were protesting against his power. This makes Dr Abiy the worst of all cruel leaders worldwide and the country as a text book of big man rule.

While we need more evidence to substantiate our arguments to suggest that Abiy Ahmed’s book “Medemer” might have created engineered silence among the political mass, it is palpable that the book has contributed to a culture of self-censorship or created a perception society amongst whom certain opinions or information should not be expressed publicly. It is important to note that engineered silence typically involves intentional efforts to suppress or withhold information, often through censorship, propaganda, or other means of control. If Dr Abiy’s book has no deliberate effort to engineer public silence, it has already had an impact on the daily political discourses in the country. That being said, the impact of “Medemer” on the political climate in Ethiopia is still a matter of ongoing debate and discussions, and it is possible that the book may have unintended consequences in terms of shaping public opinion or limiting the free flow of information and political thoughts. For example, Getu Teressa said that with his deceptive ethos and manipulations and tailored pathos, Dr Abiy has blinded the majority of his audience from fact-checking and critically examining his logos: the construction of his logical argument and, thus, the substance of the message itself. Indicating that Dr Abiy largely depends on models of persuasion as a sort of ‘soft power’, at least until he could fully consolidate ‘hard power’ (means of coercion). 

This assertion can also be viewed in light of other growing concerns in the country following Dr. Abiy’s rise to power, such as Christian nationalism and the New Age Movement injected with prosperity gospel. There has been a surge and increasing popularity of alternative spiritual and philosophical teachings rooted in the new age thoughts based western-centric pseudo-intellectual evangelical self-help fervour and spiritual practices focused on material wealth and living in the present moment. This movement emphasises individualism, self-expression, and self-improvement through practices such as meditation, yoga, and mindfulness. It is seen as a rejection of traditional religious institutions and a move towards a more personalized and holistic approach to spirituality and well-being. 

This movement has gained momentum in recent years, particularly among younger generations who are empowered by extreme positive thinking and seeking to connect with their hidden potentials and find new ways to cope with the challenges of life in Ethiopia. These teachings are often criticized for relying on “a time-worn trick of mixing banal truisms with magical thinking and presenting it as some sort of hidden knowledge.” There are also good reasons to argue that these spiritual traditions are being used as major mobilizing weapons in our politics too. For instance, just one year into Abiy’s premiership, one author came to recognise that preachers of prosperity became the new faces of Ethiopia. In 2020, René Lefort reported that “The premier believes the power of positive thinking can help him save Ethiopia.” Martin Plaut also claimed that Abiy Ahmed has the aim to “Pentecostalize Ethiopian politics” by deploying the gospel of prosperity as a tool to mobilize Ethiopians to join his new political party. Andrew DeCort suggests that Abiy Ahmed, in several aspects, embodies the qualities of a prosperity entrepreneur. Notably, Abiy went to the extent of replacing the previous EPRDF with his own “Prosperity Party,” which carries religious undertones that should not be overlooked. The credo of Prosperity Gospel in Abiy’s empire is very simple: just follow the following two golden rules;

For the church – you need to contribute money to the church to demonstrate your faith and God will reward you materially one hundredfold.

For the Prosperity Party – you need to pledge loyalty and make your vote count in the upcoming election and God will reward you one hundredfold.

In a parallel drift, self-proclaimed political and economic path-finders, they call themselves as motivational speaker but I prefer to call them as ‘affective levellers’, who preach mind numbing ‘pseudoscientific law of attraction’ as a playbook for entitlement and self-absorption are running the risk of undermining healthy political ideals. These agents who disguise themselves as motivational speakers, life skills couches, pastors, and others have a secret mission to multiply motivated but idiot political followers to the prime minister by levelling the affective states of their followers towards supporting Dr Abiy amid ongoing political turmoil. They do it by snatching the minds of the people from the reality through their extreme (also market oriented) positive thinking and by promoting political complacency based on a quotation from the Bible’s Matthew 21:22: “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.”

To promote political complacency means aligning the people to follow the second golden rule of the prosperity party by encouraging people to remain passive and disengaged with respect to critical political issues. This can be done in various ways, such as by discouraging political participation, creating a sense of apathy towards pressing political issues, or by promoting a belief that political action is not necessary for success. When people become politically complacent, they are less likely to engage in civic activities such as voting, protesting, or participating in public debates.This can lead to a lack of accountability among political leaders and a weakening of democratic institutions.

Abiy’s strategies of appropriating and affecting energies also work in tandem with other political tactics waged to create a panopticon society. These tactics, among many others, involve implementing a combination of surveillance and control mechanisms, media manipulation and  disinformation campaigns, and it also involves a range of other tactics, including:

Mass surveillance: Dr Abiy’s governments and security apparatuses engage in mass surveillance through the use of his lavish investment in high-tech surveillance technologies, such as CCTV cameras and other tools. This can enable authorities to monitor the behavior and activities of individuals on a massive scale, creating a sense of constant surveillance and control. Recent developments and special attention being given to Dr Abiy’s national security apparatuses such as Information Network Security Administration (INSA), Ethiopian Artificial Intelligence Institute (EAII), and discourses over the use of drones, alliances with China, Russia, and U.A.E all tell stories of Dr Abiy’s ambition in creating a panopticon Ethiopia. As Feltman, the former U.S. special envoy, told Jon Lee Anderson, an investigative reporter, war correspondent, and staff writer for The New Yorker, Dr Abiy was success in terms of having “Everyone know that in Ethiopia the walls have ears.” (see report here:- https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/10/03/did-a-nobel-peace-laureate-stoke-a-civil-war). 

Social media monitoring: Social media platforms can be used to monitor and modulate the behavior and activities of individuals, including their online conversations and interaction with others. This can be used to identify potential threats or to track individuals who are considered to be of interest to authorities. A researcher and a prominent commentator on Ethiopian politics, Moges Zewdu argues that “no regime in a developing country has used digital media for repression as effectively as Abiy has. His cyber armies or ‘digital cadres’ worship the regime’s key figures and attack those who dare to challenge the regime’s narratives (read article here:- https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2023/06/15/charming-abiy-ahmed-a-very-modern-dictator/). 

Data collection and analysis: Governments and corporations can collect vast amounts of data about individuals and groups, including information about their behavior, interests, and social connections. This data can be used to create detailed profiles of individuals and to predict their behavior in the future. While there are no reports whatsoever that indicate that Dr Abiy uses this techniques as part of his smart/digital repression, what is evident from the “ongoing extensive detention of journalists, activists, and political figures on dubious charges” is that such forms of tracking down political dissents is already at hand. Furthermore, the sophistication of social media analyses has advanced significantly in recent years, due in large part to the increasing availability of big data and machine learning algorithms. This data can be analyzed using a variety of easy for use tools and techniques to gain insights into user political activities, positions, and attitudes.

Behavioral conditioning: Dr Abiy Ahmed is introducing various tactics to condition individuals to behave in certain ways, including the use of rewards and punishments. For example, similar to that of the social credit systems in China, introduces national military services and encourages citizens to engage in it by scaring them off his own versions of rewards and penalties, i.e., youngsters who serve in national military, the ministry will ensure that their related benefits and rights are guaranteed; those who do not offer national military services, they will not be hired in government institutions.

Manipulation of information: Dr Abiy manipulates information in order to shape public opinion and control the narrative around certain issues. This can involve the spread of propaganda and the suppression of information that is deemed to be unfavorable or inconvenient to his repute. Dr Abiy’s online swarms oversee a vast disinformation campaign, inundating social media with trivial yet vitriolic material on a daily basis.”

State Violence: State violence refers to any actions taken by a government or authority that violate the human rights and freedoms of its citizens. This can include the use of physical force, torture, imprisonment, or other forms of coercion, intimidation, or oppression. There is a wide complain in most parts of Ethiopia today that the government has been using state violence to impose fear on the public as a ploy to change their political behavior and make them support the current administration. The hijacking of journalists, political pundits, artists, and scholars has become a common violation of human rights and freedom of speech, and it can have a chilling effect on public discourse and democratic value. While the main purpose is to silence dissenting voices, it undermines the democratic process and can lead to further abuses of power.

In conclusion, it is important for citizens to critically evaluate the affective strategies employed by politicians and consider the underlying motivations behind their emotional appeals. By being aware of these tactics, individuals can make informed decisions and engage in a more nuanced understanding of political discourses. 

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com  

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