He’s the worst head of state of the year

Morgenbladet, 7 January 2021: Han er årets verste statsleder [in Norwegian]: https://www.morgenbladet.no/aktuelt/2022/01/07/han-er-arets-verste-statsleder/


From peace prize to front line: He uses hunger as a weapon against his own population, and experts fear he’s pulling an entire country off the cliff. Meet the worst head of state of the year: Ethiopia’s Prime MinisterAbiy Ahmed.

Good atmosphere: The Nobel Committee’s Berit Reiss-Andersen (left) and Henrik Syse (right) applaud Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Abiy Ahmed in 2019. “War is the epitome of hell,” said Abiy in Oslo. A year later, he himself went to war with his own population.

With a broad smile, the 41-year-old had the aura of a new era when he took office as Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018. Pentecostal friend Abiy Ahmed is the ex-warrior who fought the oppressive Derg rule’s iron fist at the age of 14.

When the dictatorship was defeated, he continued his career in the military. His specialisation was intelligence, and in 2006 he helped establish the country’s Information Network Security Agency, which spied on dissidents, journalists and opposition parties.

When Abiy later became a politician, the career ladder was steep. He cleaned up conflicts, fought land grabbing and was appointed minister of science and technology. Before the 2018 elections, Abiy emerged as half a politician and half Messiah – both in his own country, among the Ethiopian diaspora and in the West. “Abiymania,” the media called it.

Through comprehensive political reforms, he would achieve his political goals: to be a unifying force for the country’s over 90 ethnicities, and to make diversity a force. Abiy was born to a Christian mother and Muslim father, he is Oromo (Ethiopia’s largest population) and married to an Amhara (the second largest group). Abiy Ahmed was the head of state who could seemingly do the impossible.

Immediately after the 2018 elections, Abiy freed thousands of political prisoners, freed independent media and melted away a twenty-year frozen conflict with neighboring Eritrea, through a historic peace deal.

For this he was crowned with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. Abiy deserved both recognition and encouragement, the Nobel Committee said at the time.

When Abiy received the prize in Oslo, Lise Rakner, professor of political science and part of Morgenbladet’s expert panel awarding the year’s worst head of state, sat in the hall. Even though she didn’t know him, she didn’t think he looked cheerfully happy.

“In a joking chat, I discussed with others who were at the Awards, whether he was a one-punch Obama II: someone who gets an award that comes at completely the wrong time.

– An announced war

Behind the Nobel veil, it turned out that economic and political progress in Ethiopia was skewed. Beneath the surface, ethnic conflicts continued to bubble. Ancient tug-of-wars over land, influence and autonomy became increasingly violent. Assassinations resurfaced as political weapons. The army chief of staff and the Governor of the Amhara region were both killed on the same night in the summer of 2019. The following year, renowned Oromo musician Hachalu Hundessa suffered the same fate. More than 200 people died in the demonstrations that followed, and Abiy responded with familiar methods: mass arrests and internet throttling.

At the same time, Ahmed had transformed his political coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), into the Prosperity Party. The coalition’s former dominant force, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), was pushed to the sidelines. TPLF is the liberation movement that became a political party and set the premises for Ethiopian politics for 27 years. Now they retreated to their region in the north of the country and refused to take part in Abiy’s vision.

In the autumn of 2020, Ahmed postponed the national elections due to the corona pandemic. In the Tigray region, the rationale was perceived as an excuse to allow Abiy to strengthen his power. The TPLF organised a regional election on 9 September [2020]. The result was not recognized nationally. As a punishment, the Tigray region lost money transfers from the state.

TPLF’s continued political and economic power was a thorn in the eye of Prime Minister Abiy. The sudden peace agreement with Eritrea, which has traditionally been TPLF’s arch enemy, made Tigrayans feel threatened from both the neighboring country in the north and the capital in the south. When Abiy deployed government forces along the border with the Tigray region in the summer of 2020, the TPLF itself reportedly attacked.

Abiy’s soldiers quickly regained control – to restore law and order, the prime minister said. Soldiers from Eritrea marched intoTigray to support Abiy, as did special forces from the neighboring region of Amhara. In early November 2020, the civil war in Ethiopia was a fact.

Kjetil Tronvoll, Ethiopia expert and professor of peace and conflict studies at Oslo New University College, has long believed that the Tigrayans had reason to fear Abiy’s original peace agreement.

Recently, The New York Times newspaper published strong indications of the same thing: The war in Tigray was not an “enforced war,” as Abiy Ahmed claimed, but an “elected war” – it was in the casting spoon even before Ethiopia’s prime minister “was turned into an icon of nonviolence” through the Nobel Peace Prize, the paper writes.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee declined to comment on the case to an American newspaper, which revealed that Abiy collaborated with Eritrean autocrat Isaias Afwerki to attack TPLF, their common enemy.

“The revelation here is that Abiy conspired with another country to attack his own population,” says Tronvoll, who has researched the relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea for three decades.

“Also in Tigray they knew the war was coming. Contrary to the common history of the sudden outbreak of war, I would argue that this was Africa’s best-prepared war.

According to the UN, Abiy’s government has effectively blocked Tigray so that humanitarian aid does not reach the region. But no side of the conflict can invoke innocence. When the TPLF hit back at the government army and advanced closer to the capital, hundreds of civilians among the Amhara people were massacred, looted and raped, an investigation by Reuters showed last August. Just before Christmas, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reported on the mass killings and displacement of Tigrayans by Amhara forces.

A year of war has so far cost at least 50,000 civilian lives in the Tigray region, cautious estimates show. In addition, there is an increased mortality rate as a result of diseases and a broken health care system. An estimated hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in the country as a direct or indirect consequence of the war.

According to the UN, nearly half a million people in Tigray live in famine, while 5.2 million are in “desperate need” of humanitarian aid. Some 1.2 million people have been forced to flee Western Tigray since the conflict began.

Since the summer, Abiy has refused to supply gasoline, food and medicines to Tigray. In one day, he expelled more U.N. staff than Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has done during 10 years of warfare, according to Jeffrey Feltmann, the U.S. special envoy in the Horn of Africa.

“No government can tolerate an armed insurgency. We understand that. But no government should introduce policies that result in the starvation of its own citizens,” Feltmann wrote in November.

This is why Kjetil Tronvoll believes that Abiy Ahmed has a special responsibility for the extreme situation.

“From a international legal perspective, it is the government that is responsible for ensuring that a country follows through on its international obligations,” he says.

“When we see what has happened since the war broke out, it is clear that Abiy deliberately creates and deepens enemy imagery towards Tigrayans.

Jokes about rape

By 2021, Abiy has referred to Tigray as the country’s “cancerous tumour,” Tigrayans as “weeds” and TPFL as “rats that have ended up far away from their hole.”

“Abiy dehumanizes Tigrayans, it is a classic tool in the field of genocide theory. It is a type of rhetoric that makes killing the enemy in large numbers a simple action, murder becomes almost a duty,” says Tronvoll.

In addition, Abiy has been criticized for apparently supporting sexual violence. Outwardly, he calls it unacceptable, but to his own parliament he endorsed it.

– The women of Tigray? These women have only been penetrated by men, while our soldiers have been penetrated by knives,” Abiy said in March.

It is one of several examples where Abiy has joked about sexual violence, to the laughter of the audience. The UN Crisis Preparedness in Ethiopia estimated that tens of thousands of women have been affected and that only a “small proportion of the total amount of stigma, shame and fear” has led to violence.

“This makes Abiy a worthy winner of the worst head of state of the year,” says Carl Henrik Knutsen, who has helped nominate and evaluate candidates for Morgenbladet’s award.

“What upsets me most personally is the way the war has been waged. For example, this means that aid organizations have been prevented from doing their jobs. The hunger disaster and other suffering could have been significantly reduced if Abiy had let them in.

Fears of Ethiopia collapsing

The United States, the largest single donor of humanitarian aid to Ethiopia, this week removed the country from a favorable trade program resulting from the government’s acts of violence. In the past, the United States had accused Abiy of conducting ethnic cleansing in Tigray. This is in stark contrast to the warm Nobel glow that surrounded Abiy on a visit to Oslo just over two years ago.

When the TPLF and its allies hit back last year and moved ever closer to the capital, Abiy ramped up the rhetoric. He called the war an “existential conflict,” declared a state of emergency, and urged all Ethiopians to help “bury the enemy.” Facebook removed the post because it encouraged violence. Many supported the prime minister, and Olympic athlete Haile Gebreselassie was among those who enlisted in the army. Abiy himself went to the front line to lead the counteroffensive.

But Abiy also got help from elsewhere, a high-ranking party colleague told The Economist magazine before Christmas. Newly acquired drones and other high-tech weapons from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, Israel, Turkey and China have been crucial.

If the war continues, several analysts fear that foreign interests will contribute to a “Syriafication” of the country. The UAE and Iran, which are bitter enemies, support Abiy. At the same time, the Prime Minister is in the midst of a bitter conflict of interest with Sudan and Egypt, two countries fearing the water supply from the River Nile when the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is soon completed. Sudan also fears conflict in its border areas, as does Kenya.

But the main risk is that Ethiopia will fragment further and the country to be torn apart, according to Dan Smith. He is director of the SIPRI research institute, and also a member of Morgenbladet’s expert panel.

Smith points out that the war between Abiy and the TPLF comes in addition to constant rivalry between other ethnic groups in the country.

“Abiy’s starting point was to break with the model that the TPLF ruled for 27 years. It was a system where ethnic groups competed, and the country was held together by the strongest group dominating everyone else,” Smith said.

“Instead, it seems that the country is imploding. It is impossible to predict the future, but I do not rule out such a development.”

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