The Ethiopian prime minister’s opponents fear that he’s an African Erdogan.
The Ethiopian prime minister’s opponents fear that he’s an African Erdogan. His rhetoric and policies suggest he’s more of a liberal democrat.
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 todayIn 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.