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Ethiopia: Wax, Gold, and "Ethiopianness"

AfricaFocus Bulletin
April 23, 2018 (180423)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

The appointment of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister of Ethiopia on April 2 was met with relief and with high expectations by Ethiopians as well as internationally. Although he is a leader of one of the parties in the ruling coalition, he is young (he turns 42 today) and has a reputation as someone open to inclusion and diverse views. Yet the structural problems he and the country face are profound. Ethiopians as well as other informed observers are cautious about predicting to what extent promises will meet expectations, or, in a classic Ethiopian expression, how much gold there is beneath the wax.

Despite the high expectations, there is also much uncertainty about the prospects for change. When I talked this weekend by phone with Dr. Gebru Tareke in Addis Ababa, he stressed that events were unpredictable, and the situation could change from day to day. But Dr. Tareke and other informed analysts do seem to agree on many of the basic factors to pay attention to.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin highlights several short reflections by two respected Ethiopian scholars. These include two articles published in African Arguments by Dr. Mohammed Girma. as well as an English-language report on a widely acclaimed interview with Dr. Gebru Tareke on BBC's Amharic service in early March, followed by my summary of a phone conversation with Dr. Tareke on April 21.

Dr. Tareke, now living in Addis Ababa, is Emeritus Professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York, and author of "The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa" (Yale University Press, 2009). Dr. Girma is a lecturer of Intercultural Studies at the London School of Theology and author of "Understanding Religion and Social Change in Ethiopia" (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

The Bulletin also contains, at the end, links to other several articles with relevant background. Recently the site African Arguments has been regularly featuring useful background analyses (available at

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Wax & Gold: The tightrope challenges facing Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed

Mohammed Girma

African Arguments, March 28, 2018 - direct URL:

[Mohammed Girma is a lecturer of Intercultural Studies at the London School of Theology and author of 'Understanding Religion and Social Change in Ethiopia' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).]

In confronting various tricky dilemmas, Ethiopia’s next prime minister may want to turn to an old literary practice.

After an extended wait, Ethiopia’s ruling coalition has chosen a new leader. Elected with over 60% of the vote, Abiy Ahmed is now set to become the country’s next prime minister.

Ahmed will inherit a country full of contradictions. With a population of 100 million and one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world, Ethiopia has regularly been held up as a positive example by neighbours and partners around the world. Yet with widespread protests persisting for years, it has also been seen as a worrying site of multi-faceted discontent.

Ethiopia’s famous literary system known as “wax and gold” can sum this apparent incongruity neatly. This poetic practice plays with double meanings. Wax is what is observed on the surface; gold signifies what lies beneath.

Wax and Gold IX, 2002, Mixed Media, 18 x 18 in. The painting shown to the left and other works in his "Wax & Gold" series are available at the site of artist Wosene Worke Kosrof ( For more on the background of the phrase wax and gold, see

A quick example is instructive. A well-told story tells of how Aleqa Gebre-Hanna, a quick-witted 19th century priest, went to dinner at a friend’s modest hut. While the family was preparing, the priest saw a rat jumping out of the basket containing the injera. The guest did not want to embarrass anyone, so said nothing. After the meal, however, he chose a blessing that ended with a double-layered word: Belanew tetanew kenjeraw kewetu; Egziabeher yestelegne ke mesobu aytu. On the surface, this message simply prays to God that the family “may not lack”. But the gold beneath the wax comes from the fact that “aytu” is also the word for “rat”.

When Abiy Ahmed takes on the tough task of governing Ethiopia, he will have to operate with similar interpretive deftness. His popularity and legitimacy derive from his status as a relative outsider, yet he is now head of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the much-maligned ruling coalition that has ruled for 27 years. He will have to impose deep structural reforms to appease protesters, yet may have to rely on powerful colleagues – including would-be losers from such meaningful change – to do this. And he will have to present an image of a thriving Ethiopia to the world, while simultaneously being open and vocal in confronting the many rats in the Ethiopian injera.

Ethiopia’s wax

Ethiopia’s “wax” – the face it has projected globally – has been impressive in recent years. Over time, it has managed to shed its associations with drought, famine and poverty, and become synonymous instead with booming economic growth.

Bodies such as the World Bank, along with international media, have celebrated its successes in reducing poverty, increasing school enrolment, and improving access to clean water. Meanwhile, its approach to ambitious large-scale projects and commitment to industrialisation and infrastructure-building has been praised. For a country and population that cares deeply about its public image, its reputation as an “African tiger” leading the continent – and most of the world in terms of its growth rate – elicited a lot of pride.

Becoming Prime Minister of this country might be an enviable task, but as Ahmed well knows, this lauded story has always turned a blind eye to deep problems below the surface.

Economic and political marginalisation

The reality is that while Ethiopia’s economic growth has created opportunities, it has also led to contestation and marginalisation. This deep sense of economic discrimination has been a leading grievance in the enormous protest movements that have gripped Ethiopia in recent years and precipitated the change in PM.

In the face of these demonstrations, the government has admitted that the economy is infiltrated by “rent-seekers”. This diagnosis would suggest that the remedy is to purge rotten apples. But this misses the fact that the underlying system itself has been wired in such a way as to benefit ruling elites. These beneficiaries largely consist of those associated with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the senior party in the EPRDF.

This provides Ahmed with a unique challenge. On the one hand, no leader can survive without the TPLF’s blessing. This means Ahmed will have to work closely with their figures, who remain in charge of the country’s economic power base and control security and defence. The TPLF may be shaken by the ongoing turmoil, but its leaders are still the key powerbrokers.

On the other hand, however, the people are expecting and demanding radical reforms that will fundamentally change this fact. Ahmed ascended politically on a wave of protest movements, particularly amongst the Oromo and Amhara who together make up two-thirds of the population. He was widely seen as the only potential candidate for PM with the legitimacy to carry out genuine reforms, and his appointment is being popularly celebrated across much of Ethiopia. He cannot afford to disappoint.

Ahmed is thus faced with a classic wax and gold dilemma. Going after the TPLF in word and deed may lead to powerful resistance from the inside that he cannot contain. Equally, only tweaking around the edges and calling for incremental progress will only reignite protesters’ grievances and impatience. The new PM may find that whatever approach he takes, he may need to add some wax to shield the underlying gold.

Walking the tightrope

Ahmed will also face some difficult balancing acts in other areas of governance. One will be Ethiopia’s age-old ethnic challenges. The EPRDF’s attempted solution to this has been ethnic federalism. But applied incompletely and unevenly, this approach has led to notions of ethnic hierarchy and feelings of discrimination. Not all Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups were afforded the ability to self-govern, for example. Meanwhile, although the EPRDF was supposed to represent all ethnicities, it was clear that the TPLF was in charge.

Ahmed will be Ethiopia’s first Oromo prime minster under the EPRDF. This is a significant milestone for Oromiya, and it was predicted that if a non-Oromo had been appointed, protests in the region could have reignited spectacularly. For both the Oromo and Amhara, ethnicity has become a crucial identity around which mobilisation has occurred.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

In speeches, Ahmed has largely utilised rhetoric that has attempted to be panEthiopian rather than ethnic. His legitimacy in the eyes of Ethiopians across the country also derives from this inclusivity. The tricky challenge he now faces is in taking on systemic bias towards the Tigrayan ethnic group, retaining his standing as the first Oromo PM, but all the while maintaining his image of being the leader of all Ethiopians, recognising all their cultural and linguistic uniqueness.

Finally, the new PM faces another tightrope act over how to approach political freedoms. The EPRDF has typically been highly repressive towards dissenters and the opposition. Ahmed has a military background, but seems to be among the new breed of leaders who do not necessarily share the fears of TPLF elites who came to power through years of bloody war. Ahmed might be better placed to allow more space for the opposition and, as a reformer, may be expected to do so. However, as prime minister of a divided nation, he may become increasingly aware that allowing greater political freedoms could bring with it risks to his own position and ability to govern.

With the country at a historic crossroads, Abiy Ahmed faces some deep and often contradictory problems. How he approaches them will shape Ethiopia for years to come. However, in solving them, he may find some assistance in his country’s literary traditions from long past.

Gebru Tareke asks if the country’s foundation is crumbling

Ethiopia Observer, March 3, 2018 – direct URL:

Historian and a specialist in conflict resolution, Professor Gebru Tareke says he fears Ethiopia’s foundation that was laid 122 years ago in the aftermath of the Adwa victory against an invading Italian army could be crumbling, speaking in connection with the celebration of the battle.

In an interview with BBC Amharic on Friday, the author of Ethiopia: Power and Protest: Peasant Revolts in the Twentieth Century, said the fact that the unity of the country is in danger means that there is task that has not been done yet. “It is sad that we are still talking about being Ethiopian and multi-ethnic state. Since the ruling party holds an autocratic grip on democracy and freedom, giving way to radical elements, the country has found itself in a very precarious situation,” he said. There are some in the country and outside who are engaged in disruptive political activity, he said.

Professor Gebru, who has witnessed three governments and three constitutions, says the current constitution is better than those before. However, as former president Negasso Gidada, who participated in drafting the constitution in 1995, suggested, he said, there are rooms for improvements. “The constitution is a good one, there are questions in the sense of observing it. For example, the promise of power and wealth sharing arrangement to federal government and regions has been broken”, he argued.

After the split in the Tigray People’s Liberation Front in 2001, the former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has consolidated control over the country, the freedom and power the regions enjoyed have been diminished, Gebru argued.

He added: “The wave of protest that began in Oromia region two years ago did not come out of the blue, but was the accumulated effect of discontent related to the nonobservance of the constitution, dominance by one party, the restriction of political space and absence of appropriate forum in which to express discontent with the government.”

Despite raising concerns about the quality, Gebru appreciates the rapid growth of higher educational institutions system in the past 27 years. “Even though thousands graduate every year, not nearly enough jobs have been created to accommodate them. The unemployment rate grown equally,” he said. All those factors have made the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) to examine itself and has to come to produce populist leaders such as Lemma Megerssa, who tried to solve the problems of the region, he said. The coalition of four parties, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in recent months claimed to have undertaken ‘deep renewal process’, and promised to come up with immediate and long-term solution but the public are not satisfied, Gebru said.

Professor Gebru said the proclamation of a state of emergency for the second time in less than two years is a clear sign that the public is not happy with the coalition’s actions.“The state of emergency is astounding, I think it is driven by fear. It can never be a solution for the current problem,” he said.

The only way forward is continuing to seek a comprehensive solution to the crisis, according to Gebru, such as conducting vigorous and wide-ranging discussion with scholars, opposition members, and with political analysts. “The government has to engage people on important issues, because when the law is proclaimed, it is the public that puts it into practice. Tanks and military force are of little utility in changing the situation,” Gebru warned.

Finding the solution to the current political impasse in which the country’s unity is threatened cannot be the property of solely EPRDF, according to the scholar.

To supplement the article above from March, I was able to talk by phone on April 21 with Dr. Gebru Tareke. The following notes are not verbatim but summarize the main points, which he made very clearly and concisely.

  • The levels of expectations for the new prime minister are so high that they cannot be met, certainly not in the short or medium term. The question is whether the new administration can adopt measures that allow for progress and build public confidence in dealing with structural issues and divisions, drawn by class, ethnicity, religion, and the easing of the political monopoly of power by the ruling Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF).
  • Measures that could help to do this include
    1 - opening up space for opposition parties, which are currently weak despite high levels of public discontent with the status quo;
    2 – setting a course for free and fair elections within the next two years, including a new electoral board including diverse social sectors;
    3 – releasing all prisoners of conscience;
    4 – opening up the mass media and stopping repression of journalists and other opinion-makers;
    5 – making a real beginning to address the concerns of youth, particularly unemployment and economic opportunities more generally.
  • The prime minister's capacity to set a new agenda will be constrained by the lack of cohesion within the ruling Front/Party which he now heads and be determined by his capacity to build a new consensus on the pace of change.

Ethiopia: A nation in need of a new story

Mohammed Girma

April 18, 2018 – direct URL:

The kings told a story. Meles told a story. Abiy needs to tell one too.

At the end of Zagwe dynasty around the 14th century, medieval Ethiopia was in disarray. Provincial warlords were battling for supremacy and the nation was on the brink of disintegrating. Ethiopia was at threat of breaking itself apart through internal fighting as its standing in the world diminished.

It was at this fraught moment in time that the Kibre Negest emerged. Meaning “The Glory of the Kings” and written by an anonymous author or authors, this huge text reconstructed the biblical tale of how Queen Sheba visited King Solomon in ancient Israel. The book claimed that the two conceived a child, Menelik, who went on to bring the Ark of the Covenant to Ethiopia and became the nation’s first Solomonic king.

By establishing the divine origins of Ethiopia’s royal line, the Kibre Negest sought to disarm the warlords at home, while portraying the empire as unified and proud to the outside world. However, ordinary citizens soon found surplus meaning in it. Over the years, ideas of Ethiopia’s unifying and mythic origins contained in the ancient text evolved into a popular notion of Ethiopiawinet or “Ethiopianness”.

Still to this day, intellectuals debate whether or not Ethiopianness exists. Some claim that ethnicity is the overriding identity that cuts through and across the national. Others argue that the concept is the outdated invention of a Christian empire that has little relevance today.

However, for many ordinary citizens, the idea of Ethiopiawinet transcends historical debates. It not only exists, but is a matter of survival, common belonging and celebration. Religiously, it emphasises the unity of humanity by weaving together Islamic and Christian teachings. Ethically, it offers moral guidance by critiquing the imperfections of earthly life. Politically, it urges negotiation and the striking of a balance between what is good to me and what is good to my ethnic and religious neighbour.

For many Ethiopians, Ethiopiawinet also manifests as that electrifying and inescapable feeling when watching Abebe Bikila, Haile Gebrselassie, Deratu Tulu, Mesert Defar or Tirunesh Dibaba glide past their international competitors to win gold.

Meles’ painful story

For centuries then, the kind of myth-making found in the Kibre Negest has been central to the formation and fate of Ethiopia. This is as true now as it has ever been. When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power in 1991, for example, its leader Meles Zenawi drew on his deep talents as a storyteller.

His story came from a dark place, coloured by the painful past of the Tigrayan people and of himself. Its genesis went all the way back to the 18th and 19th centuries when Tigrayan and Amhara rulers tussled for power. This struggle continued up to 1889, when last Tigrayan king, Yohannes IV, died in battle. With his dying breath, he declared his natural son to be his heir, but Menelik II proclaimed himself the rightful Emperor. Once on the throne, the Amhara leader used a combination of force, religion and the Amharic language to expand his kingdom. While there may have been well-intentioned reasons behind his campaign, it involved various atrocities and undermined the culture and identity of less powerful ethnic groups.

This Ethiopian Empire continued until 1974 when the communist Derg took power. This new regime maintained a unifying narrative, but its rule was largely experienced as the repression of anyone who questioned it. The people of Tigray, fighting for selfdetermination, were among its many victims.

The EPRDF thus came to power after centuries of what Meles saw as the subjugation of minorities. He believed the singular narrative of Ethiopia was inherently oppressive and established a federalised system based on the diversity of the country’s ethnicities. The ruling coalition, made up of representatives from different groups, told a new story. This hopeful tale emphasised the discreteness and uniqueness of Ethiopia’s many peoples, but had at its core an implicit sense of mutual fear and suspicion.

Over the years, these anxieties grew. Notions of ethnic nationalism hardened along with feelings of systemic discrimination. Meles’ story might have aimed to restore “the dignity of difference”, but it weakened the unifying legend that had helped Ethiopians transcend their ethnic and religious divides.

Things worsened under Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne, who came to power in 2012. He had no story of his own and simply tried to re-tell that of his more eloquent predecessor. He resigned earlier this month after years of sustained and widespread protests, particularly amongst the Oromo and Amhara frustrated by feelings of marginalisation.

Abiy’s soaring eagle

Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Dr Abiy Ahmed, has thus inherited a country in crisis. He faces a wide range of complex challenges in trying to reform the political system, economy, military and much more. He will have to lead tough negotiations and come with myriad smart and sensitive policies to steer this country of 100 million people back on track. However, in all this, he should not forget the importance of storytelling.

In my previous piece here on African Arguments, I pointed out that Abiy has gained popularity across ethnic groups because of his inclusive rhetoric. His many allusions to Ethiopiawinet in his inaugural speech hit a chord with many. But in fact, it goes beyond that.

Due to his own background, Abiy personifies both the existential dangers and reasons for hope in the country’s future. His biography encompasses the marvellous messiness of Ethiopian society. He hails from an Oromo father and Amhara mother. He shares Islamic and Christian upbringings. He is fluent in several languages. His personal story is Ethiopia’s story.

Moreover, Abiy has the ability to spin this rich heritage into a tale that oozes positivity. His story-telling style eschews the usual aloofness of politicians and speaks directly to the people’s aspirations. The new PM has already been utilising these skills in his tour of the country, focusing on regions that may be apprehensive about his rapid rise. In Ethiopia’s Somali State, he proclaimed: “There is neither centre nor periphery to the Ethiopian identity. Together we form the nucleus of our national story”. In Oromiya, from which he hails, he took pains to tie the protests and his own identity to the broader nation, emphasising: “The Oromo struggle is the Ethiopian struggle”. Meanwhile, in Tigray, the home of Meles, he contended: “Ethnic differences should be recognised and respected. However, we should not allow them to be hardened to the extent of destroying our common national story”.

At other times, Dr Abiy’s speeches have been full of forward-looking imagery. He uses the concept of medemer, a word that means “being added to” but stresses the beauty of blending, to talk about Ethiopia. He describes the eagle that soars above the stormy clouds to encourage audiences to look beyond today’s messiness to a brighter future. And he explains that the Ethiopian people have not inherited the nation from their parents but are borrowing it from their children. “When you inherit something, you can change or sell it. When you borrow something, you have to handle it with care because you have to return it”.

At this difficult moment in its history, Ethiopia desperately needs some wide-ranging and concrete reforms. But as relations fray and tensions simmer, the country also needs a soothing story.

Ethiopia: Why PM Abiy Ahmed’s first priority should be free expression

William Davison

April 4, 2018

Very brief excerpts only. Full article available at – direct URL:

Though it may come with risks, it would be in the government’s own interests to encourage open dialogue and constructive criticism.

The swearing-in this week of Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed and his promising inaugural speech suggests Ethiopia has its best chance yet to address a political crisis that has been building for decades.


The key initial ingredient will be encouraging greater freedom of expression within government and throughout society. While many point to the inflammatory dangers of social media in a polarised environment, the need for greater openness trumps such concerns.

This is because more information, reporting, and dialogue are crucial to confronting Ethiopia’s many challenges. Increased scrutiny of the government, for example, would help the EPRDF in its mission of fighting corruption. Tolerance of dissent would act as a pressure valve for opposition sentiments. More openness would encourage expert discussion of Ethiopia’s complex federation and better reporting will illuminate localised grievances. Constructive inquiry could also help detoxify sensitive issues such as the perception of Tigrayan privilege at the expense of more populous nationalities like the Amhara and Oromo.

If the EPRDF wants to signal its seriousness in pursuing change, it could reassure dissidents that they can publicise competing viewpoints without punishment. A line must be drawn under draconian actions that inculcate fear, such as the recent rearrests of critical journalists or the prosecution of the Zone 9 bloggers.

Additional articles of interest

"The edifice cracks," Africa Confidential, Feb. 23, 2018

"Oromia on a knife edge," Africa Confidential, March 12, 2018

Hassan Hussein, "Full English Transcript of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Inaugural Address,", April 3, 2018

René Lefort, "Twofold crisis in Ethiopia: the elites and the street," Open Democracy, 12 April 2018

"PM Abiy Ahmed: Ethiopia needs strong ‘competing’ political parties more than ever before,", 13 April 2018

Yohannes Gedamu, "A blessing in disguise for Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed Ethiopia's new PM is already facing major obstacles, but a US resolution can help him push his reform agenda forward," Al Jazeera, 15 Apr 2018

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