January 29, 2019

Abiy Ahmed: A Tribe’s Man Becomes a Davos Man

EconomyEventsPoliticsCurrent Affairs

On the last week of January, global elites gather annually for the World Economy Forum (WEF) in…

Avatar: Tezera Tazebew
By Tezera Tazebew

A former staff at the University of Gondar, he is currently pursuing graduate studies at the University of Cambridge.

Abiy Ahmed: A Tribe’s Man Becomes a Davos Man

On the last week of January, global elites gather annually for the World Economy Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. This year’s meeting was held from January 22-25, 2019. The overarching theme of the meeting was “Globalization 4.0: Shaping a New Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

An ever-controversial institution, the WEF brought together leaders from business, government, civil society and academia from countries worldwide. Simply put, it is a concert of elites - and this has been known to cause some criticism against the organization.

The 2019 version of Davos meeting was marred by significant absences including PM May of the United Kingdom (finalizing her Brexit homework) and Trump (going on and on about a wall). Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s flamboyant PM, was one of the high-profile participants of the conference. This was his first Davos meeting since taking office last April.

“Ethiopia has embraced a great vision and embarked on bold reforms”, Abiy addressed the attendees. In his remarks, he also eloquently spoke about his trademark notion of ‘medemer’. ‘Medemer’, he pointed out, has three pillars: a vibrant democracy, economic vitality and regional integration and openness to the world. Typical of the Davos elites, he puts forward a ‘trade promotes peace’ argument in defense of the third pillar.

It must be noted that this is not the first time that an Ethiopian ruler gains much attention on the WEF. The late premier, Meles Zenawi, participated in some meetings. The 22nd World Economic Forum on Africa was also held in May 2012 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia -  the first ever that was hosted in Ethiopia. His successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, was a loyal attendee of that meeting.

In any case, it was the first time that an Ethiopian ruler has been discussed and debated at the forum, which is understandable. The real audience of Abiy’s address were not the participants there. Abiy is in no need of a standing ovation. The domestic populace was the real audience so much so that the speech was live streamed on the official Facebook page of the state-broadcaster. The 18-minute or so speech was watched by thousands on YouTube and the official Facebook page of the Office of the Prime Minister.

Despite these good-to-hear words of the PM, there is a haunting unease. Abiy presents himself as yet the newest darling of international development-cum-democratization. And, in a sense, this is very true. Perhaps in recognition of his achievements, Ethiopia was elected to host the 2020 WEF on Africa meeting. Needless to say, Abiy comes to office after three years of political crisis and economic collapse, at a time when the country was on the verge of collapse. Since assuming power in April 2018, Abiy has ushered in new political and economic reforms. So much has changed that we even forget what is changed and what’s not in the country. At the Davos meeting, Børge Brende, the President of World Economic Forum, was speaking for many when he said  that “more have happened in the last month with this Prime Minister than has happened in decades”.

True enough, so much has changed under our eyes in the past nine months only. If there is one thing that has not changed however (as of yet), it must be Ethiopia’s ethno-nationalist arrangement. In a recent New York Times op-ed, the scholar Mahmood Mamdani lamented the ethno-federal system when he wrote that,  Ethiopians used to think of themselves as Africans of a special kind, who were not colonized, but the country today resembles a quintessential African system, marked by ethnic mobilization for ethnic gains”.

Abiy’s actions, however, created a paradoxical situation. The man at the highest echelon of power in the ethnic arrangement now wants to transcend it. Abiy is, well, the chairperson of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP), an ethno-regional party claiming to represent the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnolinguistic group. ODP, which until recently used to be known as the Oromo People's’ Democratic Organization, is a constituent member of the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front. “Someone whose loyalties, identities and involvements are purely national”, wrote the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, “is less likely to rise to the top in business, academia, the media and the professions, than someone who transcends these limits”. It seems that Abiy is cognizant of this truth. Now, a tribe’s man wants to become a Davos man. A Davos man (and yes, it is predominantly a man), as first articulated by Huntington, refers to a global elite characterized by cosmopolitanism, denationalized and deterritorial identity, and a belief in ‘capitalist peace’. They are the de facto vanguard of globalization. An Ethiopian wants to change his skin, and this makes him an ‘exceptional’ ruler.

In political theory, the fact that states or rulers might in some exceptional circumstances abandon the rules, that they might not follow the expected pattern is far from being contested. For instance, Niccolo Machiavelli has used the word ‘accidente’ to refer to anything unforeseen and unexpected that happened to a regime, endangering its supremacy, unity or very survival, in which case a mixed regime is required. In Marxian thought, the dictatorship of the proletariat is an exceptional state, a transition from the capitalist society to a stateless one.  

However, the study of such circumstances is now often associated with the works of Carl Schmitt, a German philosopher and political theorist. According to Schmitt, sovereign power in the state needs to be monopolized by a single actor. Schmitt’s state is detached from and supreme over the society, for it is sovereign. For Schmitt, the defining essence of sovereignty is the ability to make exceptions. He began his book Political Theology with the following words: “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”. A decision on the exception, however, presuppose a decision on what is normal, which the sovereign defined and decided. The exception, the suspension of the law, is required for the purpose of safeguarding of the normal, exemplified in the existing judicial order.

This notion of state of exception was much elaborated recently by the Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben. Agamben notes that sovereignty is paradoxical in the sense that “the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order.” Whether or not the law be applied in the first place is decided by the sovereign. True, this point has also been made by Schmitt, it was never explained. This paradox is also reflected in the state of exception. Unlike Schmitt’s orderism, Agamben notes that the state of exception is rested upon the blurring of legal and illegal, normal and abnormal, and order and disorder.  “In truth, the state of exception is neither external nor internal to the juridical order, and the problem of defining it concerns precisely a threshold, or a zone of indifference, where inside and outside [of the juridical order] do not exclude each other but rather blur with each other”.

Now, Abiy is part of the system: the status quo. We must not forget that he was a former soldier and intelligence officer himself. This rules out the consideration that he is a die-hard revolutionary. At the same time, however, he is outside of the system. In his speeches and actions, he has repeatedly shown his willingness to go beyond what the letter of the law dictates. The spirit of Abiy is on the reign than the letter of the law. Writing about King of Kings Tewodros II, the historian Bahru Zewde remarked that “Although [Tewodros’] career was initially formed within the politics of the Zamana Masafent, finally he proved to be its antithesis”. To echo these words, though the formative years of Abiy’s career were immersed within the politics of ethnicity, he may prove to be the antithesis. His is a defining moment in contemporary history. Almost nine months in power, and his administration marks an end of an era and a beginning of a new one. Abiy is a thinker-in-chief. Scattered around many speeches and some books, Abiy’s ideas might not be amenable to a systematic analysis. I feel however, that a recent online pamphlet distributed on social media by the Office of the Prime Minister, contained the core of Abiy’s praxis. Conspicuously absent in this 5-page document is any reference to ‘nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia’. Steadily but surely, the ‘Walelign Manifesto’ (as Bahru Zewde calls it) which dominates political narrative and practice since the 1960s is being dethroned. Walelign-cum-Meles are out. Abiy is in.