Abiy Ahmed Is Not a Populist
The Ethiopian prime minister’s opponents fear that he’s an African Erdogan. His rhetoric and policies suggest he’s more of a liberal democrat.
Earlier this year, when Abiy Ahmed was seeking the leadership of Ethiopia’s ruling party, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), he encountered stiff resistance.
At the time, much of his home region of Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest and most populous regional state, was experiencing a wave of a protests and strikes that brought the economy to a near standstill. In February, then-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, and a state of emergency was declared by the federal government. Abiy, as the recently appointed chairman of the Oromo wing of the EPRDF, a multiethnic coalition, put his name forward. He was young and popular with the demonstrators, and he echoed many of their demands, including for the release of political prisoners. But a section of the EPRDF establishment—centered in its ethnic Tigrayan wing, the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—dismissed him and his Oromo colleague Lemma Megersa as reckless populists and fought tooth and nail to obstruct his candidacy. They failed.
Since then, Ethiopian politics has been turned on its head. In late March, Abiy was elected chairman of the EPRDF, in spite of internal opposition, and became the country’s new prime minister. He is enormously popular today and has won acclaim internationally for his rapid liberalization of the country’s politics; for his promises to organize, in 2020, Ethiopia’s first free and fair election; and for his moves to open up the economy. But inside Ethiopia, away from the euphoria of what is known as “Abiymania,” criticisms abound. One of the most common—and at times most compelling—is that Abiy is a populist in the mold of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, India’s Narendra Modi, and U.S. President Donald Trump. It’s a critique worth contemplating; it also happens to be wrong.
The argument runs like this: Abiy, despite being a member of the ERPDF, has mostly sidelined the party and appealed directly to the public over the heads of his colleagues. They say that he has monopolized power and decision-making at the expense of deliberation and consultation, and that he has cultivated a messianic image through set-piece spectacles—such as a mass rally in the capital, Addis Ababa, in June—with the help of fawning state broadcasters.
In a series of conversations, public figures on opposite ends of Ethiopia’s political spectrum—such as the academic and journalist Abiye Teklemariam and the influential Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed—have described Abiy to me as a “liberal populist.” Journalist Michela Wrong, a longtime observer of Ethiopian politics, has written that the prime minister resembles the likes of Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, populists who “use jingoistic appeals to nationalism to truncate or, in some cases, supplant domestic political debate and institutional processes.” Alemayehu Weldemariam, a U.S.-based Ethiopian lawyer and public intellectual, has called Abiy “an opportunistic populist jockeying for power on a democratizing platform.”
But the definition of populism is notoriously vague. The English term is tossed around these days as an insult without much specificity. In Amharic, Ethiopia’s most widely spoken language, the word has no direct equivalent. Across the world, there are left-wing populists and right-wing populists, neoliberal populists and nationalist populists. There is Trump in the United States and there was Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In Africa, the most successful populist was arguably Zambia’s former President Michael Sata, who railed against Chinese immigrants and coupled ethnic mobilization in the countryside with posing as a champion of the poor in the cities. Even in this motley landscape, Abiy doesn’t fit in.
Populism is fundamentally a style of politics, in which “the people”—an imaginary moral monolith—is pitted against an enemy, typically “the elite” or, in nationalist populism, immigrants. It is antagonistic, divisive, and hostile to pluralism. It is, according to Jan-Werner Mueller, a Princeton University professor and Foreign Policy contributor, a specific form of identity politics characterized by attacks on democratic institutions in the name of “the people.” It is, for this reason, explicitly majoritarian and disdainful of the rights of minorities. Abiy does not fit this mold, for three key reasons.
First and foremost, he does not talk like a populist. Abiy headlines rallies around the country, but he is by no means a tub-thumper. His addresses are not fiery blasts of political invective; they are more like sermons, befitting his background as a devout Pentecostal. He does not fulminate against “elites,” nor does he, despite his ongoing political confrontation with the TPLF, single out ordinary Tigrayans for criticism. Moreover, unlike many contemporary populists—most famously Trump and Modi—who harness new media technologies to communicate directly with the faithful, Abiy does not even have a personal Twitter account.
If Abiy has a buzzword, it is “medemer,” an Amharic term which more or less means “unity,” or “adding together.” It suggests reconciliation, not division. This has been matched by efforts to bring together various opposing camps, for instance by helping end a decades-long schism in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and by welcoming home exiled dissidents from all ends of the political spectrum, including the pro-democracy group Ginbot 7—which was branded a terrorist group by the government until Abiy came to power—and the Oromo Liberation Front, both of which held large rallies in the capital in September. Abiy has also warned against seeing ideological opponents as traitors or mortal foes, a characteristic of Ethiopian political culture since at least the 1970s. “Widening the space of democracy means it is unnecessary to take up arms due to ideological differences,” he said at a press conference in August. “It is not right to harass people for harboring different ideas.”
In this respect, at least, “Abiy is the least populist leader we have had,” argued Mekonnen Firew Ayano, an Ethiopian lawyer at Harvard University. And it contrasts starkly with his predecessors Meles Zenawi, who led the country from 1991 until his death in 2012, and Mengistu Haile Mariam, who ruled as a military dictator for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Meles headed an EPRDF that cast itself as the voice of the rural peasantry and regularly disparaged opponents as “narrow nationalists” (if they supported ethnic parties like the Oromo Liberation Front) or “chauvinists” (if they supported a return to the former unitary nation-state). Mengistu, for his part, railed against “landlordism” and “imperialism” in the name of socialist revolution.
Abiy also eschews identity politics. As the first leader in modern Ethiopian history to openly identify as Oromo, Abiy, alongside Lemma, became figureheads of a political movement underwritten by the politics of ethnicity. Oromos felt marginalized in national politics, and Abiy promised to end this. He has delivered: Oromos now dominate the federal government.
But Abiy has not exploited popular resentment of ethnic Tigrayans, a small minority group whose leaders had outsized influence in the EPRDF (and the Ethiopian security establishment) since the party came to power in 1991. In April, during one of Abiy’s first trips outside of the capital as prime minister, he visited the city of Mekelle and, speaking Tigrinya, declared Tigrayans to be the “motor” of Ethiopia. He has also parted ways with the most identitarian members of his base by openly displaying pride in Ethiopian national history, something to which many Oromo activists, who see their ancestors as victims of Ethiopian colonialism, object. He has not adopted the more radical demands of Oromo nationalists regarding, for example, Oromia’s supposed “ownership” of the capital city.
Finally, his policies don’t pander to voters by offering quick fixes to complex problems. Populists, whether on the left or the right, typically offer fanciful and simple solutions such as “build a wall,” land expropriation, and drowning the rich in taxes. Abiy has not done this. In fact, he has repeatedly stressed the scale of the challenges facing Ethiopia. In a speech in Addis Ababa on Nov. 24, he said: “Rome was not built overnight; we cannot finish everything at one time.”
Most notably, he has avoided selling himself as the only answer to Ethiopia’s challenges. In October, he told the EPRDF congress that the true measure of leadership was not indispensability but being able to deliver “qualified successors and make herself or himself redundant.” He has promised to introduce term limits for his position.
There are some reasons for concern. Ethiopia, which is deeply polarized and fragmented along ethnic lines, is a country especially vulnerable to populist politics. Abiy has very occasionally used language that can be read as euphemistic when talking about his internal party opponents, most notably those in the TPLF. Whether intended or not, the phrase “daytime hyenas,” used once to describe opponents of his reform agenda, was interpreted by many as an ethnic dog whistle. For some, it has become a rallying cry—a slogan used in protests and rallies to stir up anger against Tigrayans and the TPLF—which is worrying. Dangerous, too, is his language of “saboteurs” and “forces” against the reform process, which recalls some of the worst rhetorical devices of his predecessors. Such conspiracy-minded language is commonplace in Ethiopia, in particular within the EPRDF; Abiy’s decision to resort to it serves as a reminder that he is still in some ways the product of this culture.
In a country with weak institutions and an authoritarian political culture, there is also the ever-present risk that Abiy might exploit the system’s vulnerabilities, such as a pliable media and politicized judiciary, for his own ends. Some argue that he has already done so, by using the power of the state to orchestrate a political campaign against opponents in the TPLF. Scores of Tigrayan military and intelligence top brass were arrested in November on suspicion of corruption and human rights abuses. Few doubt that many of the accused are guilty. But the trial-by-media that accompanied the arrests, including a documentary broadcast by various state and state-affiliated broadcasters, gave the affair the whiff of a witch hunt. Similar tactics had also been used by Abiy’s predecessors.
Still, if Abiy must have a label imported from the West, he is a liberal democrat—or the closest approximation of one in contemporary Ethiopian politics—not a populist. His critics would therefore do well to focus their attention on the risks associated with rapid political and economic liberalization, the very real dangers that will surely accompany a genuinely competitive election in 2020, and the chances of authoritarian relapse should Abiy’s personal popularity fade. But calling him a populist is intellectually sloppy; it fails to stand up to scrutiny and simply echoes the words of his internal party foes.