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The importance of being Abiy Ahmed

  • Published at 12:01 am October 17th, 2019
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed-Sudan-opposition-leaders
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, right, meets members of Sudan's opposition alliance to mediate in its political crisis at the Ethiopian Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, June 7, 2019 Reuters

The Ethiopian prime minister and the Nobel are beautifully matched

Abiy Ahmed has revived our belief in the ability of politicians to do wonders. The Nobel Prize for Peace which has now come to him only reinforces our conviction that good, well-meaning politicians are yet around, that hope lives. 

In an era when mediocrity and authoritarian behaviour together with ineptitude and arrogance underlie the politics of so many leaders, enough for us to lose faith in democracy and in them, men like Abiy Ahmed arise to inform us that all is not lost.

The Ethiopian prime minister has been in office since only April of last year. In these months, in which he has been presiding over the fortunes of his country, he has demonstrated a degree of courage which used to be the preserve of politicians and statesmen in times now gone. We have had Charles de Gaulle taking the bold step of taking France out of Algeria despite all the murderous opposition arrayed against him. There is the boldness of Willy Brandt, the late West German chancellor, kneeling in Warsaw in contrition for the treatment meted out to Jews by the Nazis. 

In our times, we have been witness to the extraordinary courage demonstrated by Anwar Sadat when he decided on a November night long ago to travel to Jerusalem and shake hands with his enemies in his search for peace. We will remember Barack Obama with deep respect for the boldness he brought into his decision to travel to Havana, thereby rolling back the bitter legacy of decades-long Cuban-American relations.

Leadership must be decisive and defined by foresight, or it is no leadership at all. It is an absence of leadership we spot in Egypt, where Abdel Fattah al- Sisi makes sure he wins elections through fraudulent means, builds new palaces despite a surfeit of existing ones and unabashedly jails critics of his dictatorship. Men like al-Sisi do not make any mark in history, for power deludes them into imagining themselves as pharaohs who will live forever. 

And then there are the democratically elected dictators, men of the nature of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on whose watch citizens lose their self-esteem and states lose their meaning. A point in time comes when good men, scholars in every sense of the meaning and committed to revolution, turn their backs on themselves and begin inhabiting a new world that has little place for the people in whose name they presume to rule. Robert Mugabe could have found a niche as a statesman in history had he not chosen to hang on to power for decades altogether. But then, he was not Nelson Mandela.

A man of the people

It is a remembrance of what was and what might have been which informs our awareness of the meaning Abiy Ahmed holds for us today. He has not only extended his hand of friendship to Eritrea but has also been instrumental in brokering a peace deal in Sudan. Through neither of these preoccupations did he ignore the political needs of his country at home. 

His freeing of political prisoners in Ethiopia was a brave act that few politicians anywhere have followed or can follow. 

Ethiopia has been a difficult country to govern. First there was the absolute monarchy of Haile Selassie, followed by the murderous regime calling itself the Derg and led by the rapacious Mengistu Haile Mariam. And then came the cautious Meles Zenawi, to be followed by years of chaotic democratic government, interspersed by outbursts of an autocratic nature in those owing their power to the people and yet opting for a retreat into politics at variance with democracy. 

It is this legacy Abiy Ahmed has sought to overturn. And he has succeeded beyond measure. Journalists are no more in prison, people do not anymore speak in whispers in public, debate and discourse are as natural today as the rising and setting of the sun in his ancient country. The political opposition, long suppressed, is today free to take the government to task over its lapses without fear of going back to the dark dungeons of old. Half of Abiy Ahmed’s cabinet colleagues are women. Ethiopia’s president is a woman of considerable achievements. The judiciary operates as it should, a guarantor of the rule of law. 

All these are symbolic of the leadership Ethiopia’s young prime minister personifies in these present times. It was his poised response to an attempted coup, which claimed the life of the army chief, that effectively turned conditions around. A good politician in tune with his people, through reassuring them of determined liberal leadership, is the strongest guarantee of a continuity of political pluralism. 

It is a role Abiy Ahmed has played to the satisfaction of his people and of people around the world. The present belongs to him and, hopefully, the future. He can see the future slip from his grasp if he takes to the path of entrenched authoritarianism paved by a once idealistic Issaias Afewerki in Eritrea. 

All too often, leaders of promise have been consumed by a gradual growth of unbridled ambition and have taken their nations down with them. Democracy has ironically thrown up leaders not willing to see beyond the parochialism of religion; it has had nations weighed down by leaders unable to go beyond a partisan exercise of politics; societies have paid a heavy price when the ego in leaders has swept their abilities aside and replaced them with unaccountable hubris.

Abiy Ahmed will need to avoid those pitfalls. Democracy in the Third World has an uncanny ability to seduce politicians into the unlit passages of uncertainty. Many men and women of promise, unable to resist temptation, have fallen by the wayside and have vanished into the black holes of history.

In Abiy Ahmed, leaders who are the arbiters of their nations’ fate today have a role model of purposeful leadership. Politics rests on the principle of respect for the other side. It works on the idea of free speech and free elections. It draws men and women of knowledge and goodwill into the decision-making halls of power and eschews the company of the sycophantic and the incompetent and the corrupt. Politics is fundamentally an expression of democracy, a truth so well-articulated by the young leader of Ethiopia.

The Nobel Prize for Peace is surely a reward for all the good Abiy Ahmed has done for his country. On a higher scale, Abiy Ahmed has restored the idea of leadership, with all its depth and poignancy that the Nobel Prize for Peace has historically celebrated. 

The Ethiopian prime minister and the Nobel are beautifully matched. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.