Mind over matter: Abiy Ahmed’s aim to “Pentecostalize Ethiopian politics”

Source: Ethiopia Insight

December 24, 2020

The premier believes the power of positive thinking can help him save Ethiopia.

Who is Abiy Ahmed, the man who has been Prime Minister of Ethiopia since 2018? In Addis Ababa, the question is often met with awkward silence. Yet the answer is vital to any deeper understanding of the present crisis in Ethiopia, and particularly of a war between the federal government and the Tigrayan authorities, which threatens to lay waste to the country and destabilize the Horn of Africa.

The mainstream interpretation is that the crisis is rooted in a struggle about whether power should lie at the center in Addis Ababa or be distributed among the capitals of the ten regional states.  In other words, should Ethiopia be a centralized federation of regions largely defined by geographical boundaries, or a looser confederation of national ethnic entities? Oligarchic interests are also at stake: in Ethiopia, positions in the party-state and personal enrichment—legal or illegal—are inseparable.

But the crisis is not purely of the here and now.

The Ethiopian empire was built in the second half of the 19th century. Its homeland was the northern highlands, its ‘colonies’ all around. Problems arising from this legacy have never been completely resolved, and it is still unclear what kind of state should be constructed on the remains of this empire that is capable of achieving legitimacy among its citizens.

These are issues that cut across the whole of Ethiopia. They have now escalated into a war between the champions of the two rival visions: Abiy for the ‘centrists’ and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) for the ethnic ‘confederalists’. However, from the two, Abiy’s personal stance has had a disproportionate impact.

None of the foreign officials who have met the premier, none of the Ethiopian academics, researchers, experts, or politicians who have worked closely with him or spoken with him at length, have agreed to speak on the record, for fear of reprisals except one. But, privately, these outsiders are almost unanimous. First, they say, Abiy lacks political and historical knowledge. But the remote origins of the crisis in Ethiopia stem from opposing narratives around the country’s imperial history.

More precisely, his speeches and positioning suggest a stereotypical conception of history, rather than a sound and thorough knowledge. Second, they note that his fundamentalist Pentecostalist faith is not a private matter. He belongs to the Mulu Wongel (Full Gospel) Believers Movement, which claims 4.5 million Ethiopian members. According to almost all the interviewees, his faith dictates his political vision and actions. A few among the Ethiopian interviewees believe that he brazenly exploits this faith to reinforce his legitimacy.  They agree with a diaspora analyst who argues that “Abiy has deliberately crafted a deceptive ethos as a persuasive tool”.

Whichever is true, the outcome is the same.

Abiy believes that after Ethiopia teetered on the edge of the abyss two or three years ago, when outbreaks of violent unrest threatened the country with disintegration, the only path to salvation is a kind of moral revolution. Medemer, the concept forged by Abiy, translates roughly as “combining and uniting”.

The country will transcend its divisions, mainly ethnic in nature, by gradually coming together around a common set of moral or ethical values: love, forgiveness, reconciliation, etc. Ethiopia first and foremost needs a spiritual revolution, a change of mindset. This, he argues to his entourage, will bring not just peace and harmony, but prosperity.

It is therefore no accident that he chose the name Prosperity Party for the non-ethnic structure he created on the ruins of the former ruling coalition—made up of representatives from the four most powerful regions—which held power for 27 years. The credo of the Prosperity Gospel is that the stronger the belief, the more God will reward the believer with financial blessings. Wealth is a gift from the Almighty to those who deserve it.

There is therefore no contradiction between the strict morality of believers and Abiy’s practice of attracting supporters with gifts and positions. Merera Gudina, chairman of the opposition party Oromo Federalist Congress describes this as the “commercialization of politics”. The researcher Alex de Waal calls this framework a “political marketplace…in the form of exchange of political loyalty or cooperation for payment”.

Individuals, therefore, are at the heart of his political vision. Realities are relative, or must be concealed, as with the total media blackout on the war. He even seems to embrace the concept of ‘alternative facts’, claiming for example, that not a single civilian was killed during the seizures of Tigray’s cities, or that the majority of the refugees in Sudan are young men, despite UN refugee agency reports that most are “women and children”.

Finally, Abiy’s politics are rooted in neither established structures, historical precedent, nor institutions: “Because the truth is with us, no one will stop us… Because we work holding on to the truth, the God of Ethiopia will assist us”. According to the sources interviewed, he believes himself chosen by God as the only man who can save Ethiopia, and that provided that his will is divinely-guided, he will win.

Ethiopia’s recent history has been turbulent.

In 1974, Emperor Haile Selassie, the “conquering lion of the tribe of Judah” and “elect of God”, was deposed by a Soviet-oriented military junta. There followed a long insurgency, led by a mainly Tigrayan armed force, which overthrew the junta in 1991. Once in power, the new government—which had its ideological roots in the Albanian version of Marxism-Leninism—headed a system built around and “democratic centralism” and, latterly, the “developmental state”.

The end of this 44-year ‘materialist’ interregnum was in keeping with the fundamental religiosity of the Ethiopian people. Abiy has embraced it, either by conviction and/or to assert his popularity. He describes Ethiopia as “a nation of the Creator’s cardinal wisdom”. Ethiopians largely hold to an age-old millenarianism, the belief in a prophet who will come to save the country, and Abiy has duly acquired the title of “messiah”. In the words of one adherent, Abiy “wants the soul of our nation to rise and shine once again”, a soul which “has been buried for more than 44 years, damaged and darkened… with evil intent and design”.

For the subjugated peripheral populations, however, this vision is more often perceived as an attempt to return them to a former position of subordination, of assimilation into Abyssinian civilization, a prospect that they fiercely opposed and oppose. The clash between the TPLF and Abiy is therefore not only the expression of two opposing visions and objectives for Ethiopia. It is also a reflection of two approaches, one secular, the other religious, which are irreconcilable.

Abiy recently confessed privately to a foreign official: “My people don’t understand me”. While his popularity has surged among the Amhara after the victory in the conventional war in Tigray, nationally his star is waning. The so-called “law-enforcement operation” in Tigray has taken an ethnic turn, with Amhara police and militia engaging Tigrayan forces and claiming territory. These events conceal a second front, even more perilous in the longer term: the armed civil resistance in parts of Oromia, home to more than a third of the country’s population.

The economy, particularly foreign investment, is in decline rather than showing the promised improvement. A cleansing of Tigrayans has begun in the administration, and in public and even private companies, with the potential to trigger an infernal and self-sustaining cycle. Because his medemer ideology has not percolated downwards, Abiy has reverted to more or less the same heavy-handed methods and disastrous divisive tactics that he won power by opposing. The main opposition figures are in jail, journalists and even some academics are intimidated, sometimes imprisoned.

For onlookers on all sides, domestic and external, even among leaders in the Horn of Africa, the specter that now raises its head is of ethnic slaughter at a scale even more terrible than in former Yugoslavia. They are pleading tirelessly for an “inclusive national dialogue” as the only way to prevent such an outcome. Abiy has systematically refused, either because he sincerely believes he is a messiah, the only one who can “‘Pentecostalize’ Ethiopian politics”, as described by anthropologist Dereje Feyissa, or simply out of a thirst for power.

14 comments

  1. Mr. Plait,
    You are writing far from the reality.
    It was TPLF which established a centralized power using the pseudo “ethnic federalism”. In reality under the TPLF rule the political power and almost more than 80% of the nation’s economy was fully controlled by the Tigrean people who were members of the Stalinistic political organization – TPLF and those who are related to their party officials. Then what kind of ” centralization” you are talking now?
    Whether you like it or not, democratic Ethiopia will be established on the demise of TPLF.
    Ethiopia is the symbol of African Independence and the pride of the Black people in the world.

    1. This forum is a medium where literate people exchange ideas by putting forward their perpective of the current situation at the table. You don’t conform to that. Either you are illitrate – may be some one read this article for you and gave you a wrong translation or may be you are doing this intentionally to disrupt the forum. Either way let me do you the favour of pointing to you the right way you are missing by a zillions!

      1- this article is not by Martin Plaut. Could’nt you even master the basic cogoniation of checking the source ? You are eiher blinded totally by your obsession with Mr. Plaut or you are the illiterate i mentioned above.

      2 – Before talking about the economy of the country – read the facts of the world bank report. Under the #EPRDF rule our economy grew more than the east-asian one – which is considered phenominal.

      3 – where you blubber that #Ethiopia is the symbol of african independance; #Ethiopia is the only african country which participated the scramble of africa. Read the basic history books if you are literate enough, which i doubt.

      4- As to being the black man’s pride, there is a somali proverb which says ” nin daad qaaday xunbo cuskay” which roughly translates to “for a man taken by flood a bubble seems like a root he can save himself with”. Black man heard the name #Ethiopia from their media becouse it was the only african country that sat at the table where africa was divided by the european colonizers. Black man whom were in need of a saviour very badly thought this #Ethiopis is their God sent saviour. Haileselase was intelligent enough to use to this to his benifit ; hence the myth of the RASTA MAN ! Alas , African-American didn’t know this is another colonizer in black skin; unfortunatly they didn’t have a choice.

      As a summary i say to the likes of you LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP as there are many ethiopians more than willing to stand with the reallity.

      1. Ethiopia participated in the scramble for Africa 😂 i do agree on what you said we need to accept our differences and bring tolerance within our diversity rather than saying we are one nation living harmonious but we aren’t colonisers (I think😅)

        1. Then what the heck was Menilik doing at the table ? We were a colony under ethiopia befor TPLF and regardless of what ever atrocities they committed we thank them for that forever ! This so called PM should know that now on our free will we embrace to be ethiopians only on equal footings – nothing less !

  2. This is a TPLF propaganda masquerading as an “expert analysis.” Rene, a foreigner, has no qualms to consider himself an “expert” on Ethiopia and write this gibberish, but dismiss Abiy, an Ethiopian, the country’s current PM, longtime (EPRDF) politician and military officer, as someone lacking knowledge in Ethiopia’s history and politics. That’s not to mention Abiy’s education that includes a PhD in peace and security studies, for whatever its worth. This is a classic case of the colonial-relic sense of entitlement and know-it-all-better-than-thou attitude exhibited by white, mostly European, self-proclaimed Africa experts writing on African affairs at its breathtaking best.

    To begin with, the “Pentecostalization” of Ethiopian politics was designed and implemented by the TPLF goons, not by Abiy. From its inception, the TPLF gang worked tirelessly to demonize, corrupt, weaken and destroy the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (ETOC) in its quest to eliminate all Ethiopian social fabrics that transcend ethnicity in its quest to divide and destroy Ethiopia. During its 27+ years reign of terror, the TPLF portrayed the ETOC as an instrument of the historical Amhara oppression, ethnicized and politicized its leadership, clergy and places of worship, confiscated its sacred properties and banished its members from political power. TPLF, despite hailing from Tigray, the coveted land of saints, pioneers and holy places of the ETOC, preached and encouraged entire ethnic groups to convert to Protestantism and bash the ETOC. The TPLF also used being a Protestant or being a non-member or hostile towards the ETOC as the major criterion for assuming any meaningful political, economic or social power. The TPLF allotted large tracts of land, facilitated transfer of funds, gave extensive positive PR coverage for Protestant denominations and gave promotions to members of Protestant denominations in politics and all aspects of life.

    Moreover, the TPLF never espoused the idea of confederation, whatever that may mean. Abiy is presiding over the same system that the TPLF designed and built, save for the largely cosmetic change of forming a unified party in the form of Prosperity Party, the idea of which was also floated but never fully implemented by the TPLF itself. The TPLF designed the ethnic-apartheid system it built not to save Ethiopia, but to enable it to loot and dismantle Ethiopia from the position of power and eventually dismantle the country when it loses control.

    By the way, what confederation are you really talking about, Rene? Whose aspiration is this? What model or precedent can you cite historically or currently in the entire world for Ethiopia to emulate? If the current ethnic-based system has led to an all-out war between the very elite that designed and implemented it, not to mention the catastrophic people-to-people conflagration, what makes you think the presumably even more divided and loose “confederation” would work?

    1. The premeditated war was started by abiy. Dozens of proofs for that – including the allience with eritera , jumping over tigrea, whose real agenda is known all over the world today. I wonder how long it goona take befor the wrongly given medal is resinded!
      One thing you should understand clearly. You are who you are and i am SOMALI . We are not the same ! We can share though a state based on true federalisim. The past lie is no more as the world is my witness!

  3. I am of the opinion that all the articles captured the essence of what could possibly be going on behind the scene and the prospects of lies ahead.

    Now, I understand what is meant by ‘pentecostalizing politics’ – a phrase I never imagined would make any sense 2 years ago. The word ‘prosperity’ compliments or wraps it all to a subliminal message of ‘pentecostalizing politics for prosperity’.

    1. The good thing is very body has the right to put down what is in his mind. One thing I want to say is let Foreigners teach us about our country. Those who are torchered by the defeat of TPLF are collaborators and enemies of Ethiopia. TPLF and the dreams of destabilizing Ethiopia is already blasted. Talking about religious denominations of leaders is non sense. All religions in Ethiopia co.exist in harmony, you people do you want to ignite religion’s war? Shame on you

    2. The good thing is e very body has the right to put down what is in his mind. One thing I want to say is let not Foreigners teach us about our country. Those who are torchered by the defeat of TPLF are collaborators and enemies of Ethiopia. TPLF and the dreams of destabilizing Ethiopia is already blasted. Talking about religious denominations of leaders is non sense. All religions in Ethiopia co.exist in harmony, you people do you want to ignite religion’s war? Shame on you

  4. I think Ethiopians should start shaking out their past. They faced a lot of tragedies and it seems they want to go back. Bring up your kids to be proud of being Ethiopians rather than been more tigrayan, promos etc,etc

    1. Shake the past – how simple ! Has it been forgotten that present is the by-product of the past ? I can’t let my child be the second class i been through out my life till TPLF. He should be a first class like you and that is only possible under true fedaralism ! Stop the unjust war and let us all sit at a ROUND table supervised by the international community.

  5. I read an article titled “René Lefort has misread the prime minister, and the Ethiopian people” at Ethiopia Insight – January 20, 2021. In it Mr. Aberra, the author, challenges one
    • to identifying government policies that are not informed by history.

    Had #abiy known history he would never have dared to idolise the imperial autocratic rule all over Addis Ababa. That rule was a colonization period painful to majority of #ethiopians. Also he would never have chosen a unitary system ( all marginalized people abhor ) over federalism – a system majority of Ethiopian Nationalities embrace.

    • Mr. Aberra also stated that #abiy has not taken any step towards establishing a Unitarian State.
    Isn’t that clear from his talk every time?
    Isn’t it clear from the constant brain wash (ills of federalism) his crony the #amhara elites are engaged with day and night.

    • The author also claims “The conflict between the TPLF and the central government was not due to ideological differences, as Lefort argues. The TPLF wanted to regain power through rebellion”.
    That is far from truth. #tplf relinquished the power peacefully . Then the #amhara elite ( #abiy is mere puppet ) started hunting tigreans and came up with their false dream – the unitary thing; the prelude to return of their heister days superiority. That is when the war started. And oh! Isn’t Mr. Aberra ashamed of calling the dead to the stand!

    These are some of the authors false claims refuted by simple facts. The rest he wrote is bullshit not worth mentioning.

    Mr. Lefort is telling the truth and you are just blubbering trying to make an argument out of thin-air ! Arguments not based on facts and are just bullshit. Proficiency in language ( like you have for English ) is of no value when based on lie!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *