No good person can change the world.
Abiy Ahmed Ali is a good person. Barack Obama reversed years of foreign policy to support Abiy in his bid to head Ethiopia, flew to Addis, delivered a rousing speech and increased American aid to a billion dollars annually. When Abiy became head of state in 2018 congratulations flew around the democratic world. When Abiy made peace with long-time enemy and neighbor, Eritrea, the Nobel committee awarded him the Peace Prize. How fooled the world was.
Abiy’s country today is immersed in still another very bloody civil war. Nearly two percent of its population is displaced and nearly a quarter are starving.
The EU and America have stopped aid after reports of genocide by Abiy’s troops. Counting continues today in a rigged national election certain to increase the smoke and tears because all the areas of conflict are excluded from participating.
Three years ago, shortly before Abiy was presented the Nobel Prize, I wrote, “The BBC disagrees with me, calling Abiy “one of the most dynamic and charismatic politicians to emerge in modern Africa”… I so wish, but I see it differently: As it has always been this remains an ethnic game of chess. Not until Ethiopians are able to see themselves differently than a part of their ethnic group will change occur.”
Abiy made peace with Eritrea so he could wreck genocide on the province of Tigray, which borders Eritrea. And that’s exactly what happened. The first actual soldiers to restart the civil war in Tigray came across the border from Eritrea.
The immediate explanation for the war was that the Tigrayans who had controlled the committee which had ruled Ethiopia for several decades were forced to resign in large part because of popular street protests in Addis. The committee sans Tigrayans installed Abiy as head of state.
Abiy is from Oromo, about as far geographically, socially and culturally from Tigray as you can get. The retribution by Tigrayans was inevitable.
But in a period of more than two thousand years of Ethiopian independence, one event can’t really explain very much. The hundreds of thousands of ethnic racist events simmering in Ethiopia for all this time can’t end with the good will of one good man.
Abiy may be a good man; he seemed to be when at an unusually young age the committee ruling the country called on him to become Head of State. He immediately relaxed draconian press laws, encouraged peaceful protests and embraced student dissent.
But a good man won’t change Ethiopia. All Abiy did, really, was loosen the cap on a nuclear reaction.
Ethiopia was the world’s longest lasting monarchy precisely because nothing else could quell the deep ethnic hate among its different peoples. Like the current Watutsi regime in Rwanda — a small minority of the country’s population — Ethiopian emperors forced peace by terror and oppression.
That strategy for stability always ends badly. But it often lasts for a very long time. The Ethiopian emperors ruled nearly continuously from 3 BC to the middle of the 20th century, 2300 years.
When the empire fell the “Red Terror” that I experienced traveling there in the 1970s and 1980s might indeed be finally judged by history as the most gruesome and cruel government ever known on earth.
That was replaced by a slightly less horrible cominturn. And that was replaced by a less evil yet still authoritarian ruling committee which ultimately Abiy theoretically replaced with true democracy in 2018.
Or so Obama and the Nobel Committee and the EU thought.
I never did. Having opened the blinds on my 7th floor window of the Addis Hilton only to see human heads spiked on flag posts, I never will.