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Abiymania, Africa’s Triple Heritage and the Japanese Experience

On my way to a conference on Africa and Asia which was scheduled to take place in Tanzania last month I stopped in Addis Ababa. I wanted to try to make sense of the fast-paced change that has been taking place in Ethiopia after a young man, Abiy Ahmed, was appointed by the ruling party as a prime minister in April this year. Since then Ethiopians have been captivated almost romantically by PM Abiy. I spent many hours in Addis analyzing the Ethiopian political situation, including Abiymania. But Abiy also enjoys widespread admiration across Africa. A Tanzanian colleague told me in Dar es Salaam that he thought no African leader commanded greater affection inside and outside his own country than Abiy Ahmed. It is a plausible suggestion. Let me nevertheless focus first on Ethiopia before I assess the implications of Abiymania for Africa.

Two schools of thought purport to explain Abiymania. Abiy Ahmed did not emerge from the opposition. He emerged from the ruling party that was on the verge of losing control in the face of persistent and often violent protests, primarily from the Oromia region of Ethiopia. Months before Abiy Ahmed was appointed as a prime minister in April 2018, the country appeared to be quickly descending into anarchy and chaos. The uniqueness of his genesis therefore gave Abiy an aura of special legitimacy, according to the first school.

For the second school, the striking phenomenon of Abiymania has more to do with the convergence between Abiy’s stated aspirations and the protesters’ demands.

In contrast to the first school we could argue that Abiy’s popularity was not because he was from the ruling group but in spite of that very fact. The convergence of interest between Abiy and the protesters explains why Abiy is accepted by Ethiopians, as the second school suggests, but not why he captured their imagination. Was there not a convergence of interest, at least initially, between the military junta which overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie and the majority of Ethiopians in 1974-75? But that convergence never translated into the level of inspiration which Ethiopians are witnessing today.

The question, therefore, becomes: what is it about Abiy that is likely to appeal to Ethiopians so strongly? What is it that bestows on him such unbounded love although he was not even known widely before April 2018? What are the major factors in the mystique of Abiy Ahmed?

Abiy’s political honesty combined with altruism that arose out of idealism is one factor. Ethiopians see Abiy not as a stereotype politician who would do anything in order to remain in power. He has personal magnetism and is media savvy as well.

But the most important factor is perhaps what Ali Mazrui had called Africa’s triple heritage: Islam, Christianity and Africa’s indigenous values. Mazrui argued that it was the interactions of these cultural legacies which shaped Africa as we know it today.

With a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother, Abiy Ahmed embodies Africa’s triple heritage: Islam, Christianity and an indigenous value-systems (Oromo/Amhara). It is arguable that Ethiopia itself is a product of this heritage. Ethiopians fell in love with Abiy therefore because they saw a piece of themselves in him, an incarnation of their own cultural selves. They see in him a reflection of their better selves. Just as Ethiopians of virtually all backgrounds saw him as one of them, he also felt equally at home among Oromos and Amharas and Muslims and Christians.

Abiy preached to the divided Orthodox Tweahido Church of Ethiopia about the value of uniting the synod. He recited to Ethiopian Muslims verses from the Quran, also recounting how Ethiopia became the first asylum of Islam when it was being persecuted by pre-Islamic Arabs in Mecca. He reminded the Oromos about Gada, the indigenous political system. That he was knowledgeable about the socio-political and religious history of Ethiopia added authenticity and genuineness to his public utterances.

But ultra-nationalists and ultra-regionalists in Ethiopia are less sanguine about Abiy Ahmed’s approach. Both see him as too centrist. Ironically, the effect of ultra-nationalists and ultra-regionalists has been to enhance rather than reduce Abiy’s appeal to the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians. The critics unwittingly lent additional credibility to Abiy’s guiding philosophy, what he called medemer (in Amharic).

But what is medemer? Some say medemer means “convergence,” others say it is “unity.” The concept best-approximating medemer in the English language for me would be “synthesis,” implying, as Abiy often does, the pulling of the three systems of values into a new system of synthesis. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Abiy thus explained the concept with reference to H2O: hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) are two combustible gases; when they are appropriately combined, however, they create a compound (H2O) that can put out the fire.

In his New Year’s speech to Ethiopians on September 11th, 2018 Abiy mentioned in the same vein about two religious anniversaries which were being observed simultaneously. With his characteristic witticism, he then quipped that it was as though the gods were reaffirming his philosophy of medemer. So, here was an Oromo prime minister of Ethiopia, telling Ethiopians how in the New Year a major celebration of Orthodox Christianity and of Islam thus coincided. A quite meaningful and apt observation considering also that Ethiopia was the first point of arrival both for the Christian Gospel and Islam on the African continent.

Medemer is therefore also about seeking areas of compromise and consensus from among divergent points of view.

One of the major items on Abiy Ahmed’s domestic agenda is how to resolve the inherent anomalies of divided sovereignty in Ethiopia. The current system of ethnic federalism presumes that a shared central government and 9 unequal ethnic-regional governments are at once interdependent and autonomous. Incidentally, this system was created by the party in power when it broke, as Ali Mazrui once put it, the two taboos of postcolonial Africa: the taboo of retribalization and the taboo of officially-sanctioned secession from an existing African state.

A related item on Abiy’s agenda pertains to whether “instant” liberal democracy is a viable option for Ethiopia given its complex history and rich ethnic diversity. Personally, I am convinced that it is indeed a viable option, based on my understanding of the experience of Japan. The culture of Japan is quite different from Western culture that gave birth to the ideology of liberal democracy. Indeed, liberal democracy was brought to Japan by Americans after the Second World War; and Japan has enjoyed a vibrant democratic political system ever since. This means culture should not be used as a pretext for delaying the democratization process in Ethiopia. The Japanese experience suggests that non-Western cultures are more democracy-friendly than might at first appear. Democracy took root in Japan also because the Japanese saw its benefit, both tangible and intangible, and realized it was better than an alternative system of governance.

In any case, a part of the mystique that Abiy has for Ethiopians is rooted, as I indicated, in Africa’s triple heritage. It is also this heritage that shaped post-colonial Africa. It is in this sense that we may be able to say Africa is Ethiopia writ large. No wonder Abiy Ahmed is also looking beyond Ethiopia’s borders. He promises to become not only a great Ethiopian but also a great Pan-Africanist. He should start to work with like-minded African leaders, if he has not already done so, towards the realization of the deferred dream of the United States of Africa.

Abiy appropriately ended his speech on Ethiopia’s New Year day by conveying messages of best wishes to Ethiopians from the leaders of Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, and Egypt. It must be pointed out that this has never been done before. Two days later, he spoke at the gathering of East African leaders who were in Ethiopia’s capital for the meeting of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development: united, he said, we are strong; but divided, we will remain beggars. As a walking triple heritage with great oratorical skill, is Abiy Ahmed what Africa has been waiting for? Would Abiy Ahmed become in due course a passionate champion of a continent-wide federation of multi-ethnic African states? I would hope so, and I root for his success.