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Ethiopia: Wax, Gold, and "Ethiopianness"
April 23, 2018 (180423)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
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 http://africanarguments.org/category/country/east/ethiopia/)
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Ethiopia, visit
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++
Wax & Gold: The tightrope challenges facing Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed
African Arguments, March 28, 2018
http://africanarguments.org - direct URL: http://tinyurl.com/y85b5moo
[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
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 (https://wosene.com/). 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” – 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
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
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
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
http://ethiopiaobserver.com – direct URL: http://tinyurl.com/ycbjux3o
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
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
- 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
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
April 18, 2018
http://africanarguments.org – direct URL: http://tinyurl.com/y8yxsc8a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
April 4, 2018
Very brief excerpts only. Full article available at http://africanarguments.org –
direct URL: http://tinyurl.com/ydg7gwtz
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
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," Opride.com, 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," Opride.com, 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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