What Ethiopia Can Learn From Japan
Abiy Ahmed must return to his concept of “medemer” and reject the notion of politics as a zero-sum game.
In 2018, Ethiopia seemed to be on the way to becoming a model of tolerance and political pluralism in Africa. Fellow Africans and the whole world seemed to be cheering for Ethiopia. Then came stories, in a seemingly endless and quick succession, about political harassment, political detention, political assassination—and now, a bloody civil war, with all the attendant miseries.
At the same time, ironically, the indigenous concept of medemer—the Amharic word for a philosophy of compromise and reconciliation—was being propagated by its young and articulate prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. It is a concept closely linked to Japanese political traditions and one that could benefit Ethiopia—and many other countries—in moments of crisis.
Japan’s experience offers at least three lessons in conflict resolution that can help to return Ethiopia to a reasonable state of normalcy. But for them to work, Abiy must draw on his own philosophy of medemer and put the brakes on immediately.
First, in Japan, politics is not seen as a zero-sum game within the country’s dominant Liberal Democratic Party. It is based on the belief that an effective politician is one who can successfully compromise in the face of conflicting positions. The best way to do so is to ensure that today’s loser can be tomorrow’s winner. There’s no need to try to usurp power by all means, or cling to it until removed by force.
In Ethiopia, the unwritten rule is different—if one loses a political contest, often a violent and sometimes bloody contest, then that marks the end of that person’s political career, if not his life. In a political contest in Ethiopia, one has two choices: Either to win and exterminate one’s opponent, or to lose and be exterminated.
The second divergence relates to what I call political recycling, which is pervasive among Japanese officials—the idea that senior politicians should be called back to service after their term of office ends. The premise is that the old order need not be wiped clean by a new order; if there is a change, it should be only incremental, often with some kind of linkage between the old and the new.
The net effect of political recycling in Japan has been to institutionalize a positive-sum game of politics, foster the desire among political contestants not only to be good losers but also gracious winners and, above all, to induce the desire to cooperate. In Ethiopia, political recycling is virtually unknown. Anyone who captures political power in Ethiopia realizes that that is their only chance, and they should cling to it by all means. The question which arises now is whether Abiy, after showing such promise, is turning into a stereotypical Ethiopian politician.
Third, there is the Japanese idea of victor without vanquished. In the 1990s, Japan changed its prime ministers nine times. Despite the frequency of change, the political transitions were peaceful. This was due in no small part to the understanding that both the winner and the loser can continue to coexist. It is not a coincidence that Japan today has 11 former prime ministers, who are aging gracefully, while waiting in the wings for another call to service.
The win-win approach to politics in Japan is rooted in the nation’s history. In 1877, a regional lord named Saigo Takamori rose up against the Meiji reformers in a rebellion that ultimately claimed thousands of Japanese lives. The rebellion itself grew out of the disaffection of those members of the elite samurai class whose influence was declining as the result of the reforms. After the conflict ended, Takamori came to be described by the victorious reformers as a “misguided patriot,” and years later became a popular hero.
The reformers did not doubt the genuineness of Takamori’s concerns for the welfare of his fellow samurai, even though his vision of how it was to be achieved differed from theirs. In fact, a statute was subsequently erected in 1898 depicting Takamori, which stands to this day in Tokyo’s Ueno Park. In a sense, Takamori may be more remembered in Japan today than the Meiji reformers themselves. He was also the inspiration behind the 2003 popular American film, The Last Samurai.
Serious political disagreements do arise in contemporary Japan, too, but they never lead to mutual annihilation. The Japanese have learned how to flexibly accommodate each other and change their positions when circumstances dictate.
In the Meiji period, the Japanese leaders first defined their goal as the building of a rich country and strong army and went on to pursue it, under a slogan that bears a striking resemblance to medemer, which likewise pulls divergent systems or values to create a synthesis, like what the Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui called Africa’s triple heritage: Islam, Christianity, and indigenous values. As a product of these three cultural legacies, Abiy himself is an embodiment of this triple heritage. So is Ethiopia.
Since he assumed power, Abiy preached this philosophy and seemingly practiced it. He asserted that medemer brings out the blessing of cultural diversity in Ethiopia rather than the curse of deep ethnic cleavages, that his goal was to institutionalize the view that politics is not a zero-sum game, that neither he nor his political opponents needed to be eliminated for one of them to lead the country. He also sent some of the senior officials, some of whom were earlier peacefully removed from power by him, to deliver messages to foreign leaders on his behalf or represent Ethiopia in international events. He warned his followers not to celebrate the defeat of his political rivals.
Obviously, a peaceful political culture cannot be built overnight. Even so, at a time when Ethiopia could tap into its philosophy of medemer and deal with problems of political change, as Japan has done, what is happening instead is truly disheartening. Is the author of medemer being counseled by mistaken advisors or has he changed his mind about it?
Medemer clearly overlaps with the Japanese approach to conflict resolution. And if Abiy were to genuinely adopt it, he could still end Ethiopia’s bloodshed and lead the multiethnic country in a federal and democratic direction.
Indeed, he could once again rescue the country as he did when it was on the verge of collapse in April 2018. But he would need to muster the courage to return to his philosophy of medemer, apologize to Ethiopians for the unintended consequences of his decisions and to friends of Ethiopia for squandering their goodwill, and change course rather than stubbornly cling to his current policy.
Even if the Tigray People’s Liberation Front is the precipitating cause of the current conflict in Tigray, that does not justify totally vanquishing its leaders, and in the process leaving even deeper scars. If Abiy returns to his notion of medemer, more in deeds than words, many will sympathize with him and understand his dilemmas and agonies over the complexity of the Ethiopian situation. More importantly, such a move will constitute a major step toward ending the civil war that is alienating allies and tearing the country apart.
Seifudein Adem is a professor of global studies at Doshisha University.