Ethiopia’s Abiy: From Peace Prize Winner to Warlord

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Addis Ababa (AFP)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power with a promise of sweeping reforms that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize before becoming embroiled in a brutal internal conflict that threatens to destabilize the entire Horn of Africa region.

While the 45-year-old is preparing for a new term in office after the landslide election victory of his affluent party in June, his image as a modern peacemaker is in ruins and the glimmer of hope that accompanied his first appointment three years ago is at least for his critics.

When the highly ambitious Abiy received his Nobel Prize in 2019 for bringing Ethiopia closer to neighboring Eritrea, he declared: “For everyone involved, war is the epitome of hell”.

Despite growing international concerns over the conflict in Tigray, which killed tens of thousands and brought hundreds of thousands to the brink of starvation, he remains defiant.

“It’s hard to imagine a bigger disgrace than Abiy Ahmed’s. From the celebrated heights of a Nobel Peace Prize to a pariah in just two years, ”said Cameron Hudson, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

“This is certainly not the first time the West has been seduced by the promise of a next-generation leader. And it is not the first time we have been let down by this leader.”

Abiy blames Tigray’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), for starting the war.

When visiting soldiers on the front lines during the Ethiopian New Year celebrations last month, he said that the Tigrayan rebels were doomed to certain defeat.

“The current bandits are target practice for us … By practicing on them we will build a strong military,” he said.

Before the June polls, he told his supporters in his typical vernacular that, while Ethiopia seemed torn by crises, the real problem was perception.

He compared the experience of the country to that of a village child who was disoriented when he drove in a car for the first time.

“When the car goes forward, the buildings and trees move backwards and we get confused,” said Abiy, once a village boy himself.

– Seize the moment –

Born in the western city of Beshasha to a Muslim father and Christian mother, Abiy described sleeping on the floor of a house with no electricity or running water.

Fascinated by technology, he joined the military as a radio operator as a teenager.

In his noble speech, he recalled his time during the war with Eritrea from 1998 to 2000 and said his entire unit was wiped out in an artillery attack, which he only survived because he left a foxhole to get better antenna reception .

He rose to lieutenant colonel before becoming the first head of the Ethiopian cyber-espionage information network security agency.

This was followed by positions as legislator and minister for science and technology.

The circumstances that brought Abiy to high office can be traced back to the end of 2015.

A government plan to expand the administrative borders of Addis Ababa into the surrounding Oromia region was viewed as land grabbing and sparked protests led by the Oromos, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, and the Amharas, the second largest ethnic group.

The TPLF-dominated ruling coalition imposed states of emergency and carried out mass arrests, but the protests continued.

When then Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn abruptly resigned, the coalition members elected Abiy as the first Oromo Prime Minister in 2018.

He released dissidents from prison, apologized for the brutality of the state and welcomed exiled groups – part of a democratic rebirth that would culminate in the most competitive elections in Ethiopia’s history.

– way to war –

But Abiy encountered a number of obstacles, particularly ongoing ethnic violence, including in his native Oromia.

Tigray was cooking all the time. The TPLF did not take his supposed attempts to push them aside well.

When Abiy dissolved the ruling coalition and founded the Prosperity Party in 2019, the TPLF refused to participate and defied him by holding “illegal” regional elections last year.

In November, Abiy ordered troops to Tigray, a measure he said in response to the TPLF’s attacks on federal army camps.

He promised a quick victory, but the fighting has spread to neighboring regions and there have been many reports of atrocities such as massacres and mass rape.

– ‘Lost Child’ –

Abiy is accused of turning his attention to beautifying the capital and mediating conflicts abroad rather than the domestic situation.

Critics also say he has embraced the same authoritarianism that many had hoped it would end by overseeing mass arrests and assaults by security forces.

The intoxicating early days of “Abiymania” are over – now his opponents openly disregard him.

“He began to behave like a lost child at an intersection. Such a child cannot go back because it does not know where it came from and it cannot go on because it does not know where it is going,” said Merera Gudina, an opposition leader from Oromia, AFP said earlier this year.

But his followers remain true believers.

At the beginning of the Tigray War, one official even suggested that he might deserve “a second Nobel Prize” in light of Abiy’s efforts to resolve the conflict.

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