Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed received the 100th Noble Peace Price for his efforts to achieve peace with Eritrea. Indeed, he should be recognized for this achievement. This peace deal opens doors to sustain peace in a region which is pinpointed as one of the most conflict-prone regions of the world. He stepped into re-building strained relationships between Eritrea and Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia, as well as Eritrea and Sudan. Without diminishing these regional achievements, this post aims to highlight his work towards establishing peace in Ethiopia by introducing the “Medemer” concept – at a time when Ethiopia was on the verge of a civil war. This EDP Wire contribution was first published on the PRIF BLOG.
Since 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), an alliance of four political parties, has ruled the country: (1) the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which is organized in the Tigri Region; (2) the Oromo People Democratic Organisation (OPDO), which is based in the Oromia Region; (3) the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), based in the Amhara Region; (4) and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM), based in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region. But in reality TPLF, which represents an ethnic group that comprises 6% of the country’s ethnic composition, dominated the government. The regional governments did not have autonomy as the constitution intended. They were governed by TPLF either directly or indirectly. The government has been recognized as authoritarian. Especially after the 2005 general election, the Ethiopian government issued several laws, like the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 and the Charities and Societies Proclamation No. 621/2009, which were viewed as restrictive by many stakeholders.
Besides the administrative and legal crackdown, there was a structural violence. Ordinary citizens and elites who were not connected with EPRDF were discriminated from political participation, economic development and lacked equal levels of participation in gaining wealth. This created a “us against them” mentality and historical antagonism between different ethnic groups. Hence, tension between ethnic groups was increasing. This tension exploded when the “Addis Ababa Master Plan” was announced in May 2014. The government claimed that the plan intended to facilitate the development of infrastructure such as transportation, utilities and recreation centers between Addis Ababa and the Oromia Region which surrounds Addis Ababa. However, the Oromo people claimed that the Master Plan aimed to expand the capital city into surrounding farmlands of the region, which comprises the country’s largest ethnic group.
2015: The Beginning of Civil Unrest
In November 2015, unrest started in a small town of the Oromia Region when government officials were earmarking an area for investment. This unrest spread to the rest of the region. The people demonstrated and demanded democratic change. In July 2015, civil unrest started in the Amhara Region which contains the second largest ethnic group. The unrest continued to spread to other regions of the country as well. By the beginning of 2018, more than 1,000 people died, and the government put in place two states of emergencies. During the states of emergencies, more than 11,000 people were arrested without access to a lawyer, justice, or their families. Most of these prisoners were tortured or faced other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment. Furthermore, violent attacks based on ethnic background were spreading. By the end of 2017, there were 731,001 internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to the internal conflict, in addition to the 528,939 IDPs of natural disasters and 900,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers from neighboring countries.
Appointment of Dr. Abiy and His “Medemer” Concept
On the verge of civil war, in April 2018, Dr. Abiy was appointed as prime minister by the EPRDF internal committee after winning an internal struggle among the four parties. Starting from the first day in office, he pleaded for hope, love and forgiveness. He asked forgiveness from the Ethiopian people for the previous ill treatment by the government. He reminded the people of Ethiopia that only with forgiveness, love and the “Medemer” concept the country could go forward. The “Medemer” concept – which literally means “addition” – can be translated as “synergy”. It stresses on building on Ethiopias rich heritage while working together for the future of the country. In 2018, Dr. Abiy stated that (based on the author’s translation):
“our ‘Medemer’ concept is greater than the basic principle of ‘BODMAS’ rule of mathematics. The first rule of mathematics is to bring down the bracket. For us, according to the ‘Medemer’ calculation, the first action is to destroy the hate wall. What makes the ‘Medemer’ concept greater than the basic mathematics concept is when you and I are added we are not going to be two people as the basic mathematics rule predicts. We will be ‘we’… This ‘we’ can represent two or five or ten or ten thousand or ten million people. Our ‘Medemer’ concept also has a concept of subtraction. We subtract trespassing, resentment, evil act, hate, laziness, dishonesty and hate towards the nation and the people. The weapons of subtraction are forgiveness, mercy, compassion and love. Our ‘Medemer’ concept also has division. We divide (share) love, kindness, wisdom and money…. When we share the good and subtract hatred we will be under the concept of ‘Medemer’. By subtracting wicked action, by multiplying and dividing the good we will be ‘we’ which is better than ‘I’. Dear beloved and heroic people of Ethiopia… through ‘Medemer’ concept we can build our future but without it we will loss much more….’’ (Source)
Moreover, he lifted restrictions on the access to the internet, committed to legal reforms of repressive laws like the Anti-Terrorism and the Charities and Societies laws and introduced numerous other reforms, paving the way for improved respect for human rights. He released all political prisoners and invited opposition political parties which were listed as a terrorist group under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation No. 652/2009 to participate in the democratization process of the country. After forming his government, which contains 50 % female ministers, he travelled to the USA and Europe under the slogan of “Let’s demolish the wall and build a bridge” to reconnect to the diaspora, which has an influence in the country’s political arena. There he pleaded the same concept of hope, forgiveness, love and “Medemer”.
He also resolved disputes which fragmented both the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Muslims. 43.5 % of the population are followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church while 33.9 % are Muslim. Since Dr. Abiy’s father is a Muslim and he is a Christian, he knows both religions deeply. As a result, he was able to build on the principles of these religions when mediating the disputing parties. This created a ground for both religions followers to feel connected to him. Hence, the people of Ethiopia started calling him the Moses of Ethiopia – he who is leading Ethiopians to their promised land.
Looking Forward: The Democratization Process
Dr. Abiy’s government has started a democratization process and promised to hold a democratic election in May 2020. Accordingly, he has initiated the process by appointing a previous member of the major opposition party – the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, who were listed as a terrorist group by the government, as the Chairwoman of the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia. He has opened space for the core elements of democratization: participation and competition. Hence, anyone can talk about politics in public places without fear of detention. Furthermore, the federal state has given full autonomy to the regional governments. Dr. Abiy has appointed different elites who are not member of EPRDF.
This is not to say that this development is perfect, or even finished, as there is only a weak framework of institutions (or no framework at all) to monitor these elements. If the framework of electoral institutions is weak or unable to regulate the competitions and participation of democracy, there is a higher risk of “war-provoking nationalism”. Political entrepreneurs can manipulate the democratization process to gain support, by playing to the fear of domination by the other group of the society. Therefore, the country is still witnessing violent conflicts among ethnic groups and the number of IDPs are increasing. For instance, the inter-communal conflict along the Benishangul Gumuz – Oromia border in September 2018 displaced people inside the Benishangul Gumuz Region and across the border into Western Oromia. Similarly, in November 2018, inter-communal related conflict in the Amhara Region between the Amhara and the Qemant communities led to displacements in the western part of the region.
There is no question that much work is needed to change a country which has never experienced democracy. Abiy Ahmed’s government needs to invest in establishing and strengthening a framework of institutions which can monitor the democratization process and effectively resolve any dispute which arises because of participation and completion. “The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes it is now that Abiy Ahmed’s efforts deserve recognition and need encouragement”. Indeed, this prize will encourage Abiy to move forward in implementing democratic reforms in the country. The Prime Minster Office Secretariat stated that this prize is not only the recognition of past deeds but also a sign to work hard for the future of Ethiopia.