Even back then when the war was still far away and Abiy Ahmed seemed like a beacon of hope, Berhane Kidanemariam feared that his country could be in danger.
It was July 2018 and Berhane was standing on a stage in the University of Southern California basketball arena in Los Angeles. The stands were full of men and women waving Ethiopian flags, eager to see the man who had promised to do everything better in Ethiopia, a man who sang the praises of peace and love. Abiy Ahmed had been Ethiopian prime minister for just a few months, and the darling of the West had come to speak to the Ethiopian diaspora.
Berhane, who was Ethiopian consul general in L.A. at the time, had known Abiy for years. He had helped organize the event in the stadium and stepped up to the lectern to introduce the prime minister. But the audience began berating him with racist slurs. "Tigrayan, get out!” some shouted. Berhane comes from Tigray, and the insults were clearly meant for him. He hoped his friend Abiy would reprimand the crowd. "But he did nothing of the sort.”
Berhane had been serving the Ethiopian state since 1992, including a stint as part of the government’s communication team, before becoming the head of two state news organizations and then moving on to the diplomatic corps. He was a familiar face in the circles of power. In the final years of the old regime, he says, he had a falling out with government leaders because of his demands for wide-ranging reforms, but he retained his job as a diplomat, nonetheless. Berhane has been friends with Abiy since 2004, and after the prime minister’s speech, he asked Abiy why had hadn’t reprimanded or rebuked the audience. According to Berhane, Abiy answered that there was nothing to find fault with.
The Nobel Prize as Carte Blanche
Berhane says that was the moment when he sensed that Ethiopia’s future might not be so bright. But he never imagined that Abiy would trigger a war in his country; that under his governance, hundreds of thousands of people would be intentionally threatened by starvation in the northern Tigray region and that millions would have to flee; that this man, whom he once called a friend, would lead Ethiopia to the edge of the abyss. But that’s exactly what has happened, and now Berhane Kidanemariam is wondering: How could it have come to this?
Many people around the world are wondering the same thing. Who is Abiy Ahmed really? The man who received the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize is now leading a campaign that observers say has genocidal elements against some of his people? On the search for answers, DER SPIEGEL spoke with associates, diplomats, former government members and long-time observers, and combed through Abiy’s talks and appearances since he took power. They paint the picture of a leader who has become increasingly resistant to advice, believes in mysticism, is obsessed with power and thinks he has been chosen by God. And who sees the Nobel Prize as a kind of carte blanche.
Abiy was appointed in 2018 by the ruling government coalition to bring peace to Ethiopia. An iron-fisted, Tigrayan-led coalition had run the country for the previous 27 years, but the number of anti-government protests was on the rise. Abiy, formerly a leading intelligence officer, was chosen to facilitate a period of democratic transition until the next election. Soon after he came to power, though, he unexpectedly announced that he was transforming the governing coalition into a single party. He called it the "Prosperity Party.”
The international community admired the putative reformer. Abiy spoke the language of the market. He called himself a capitalist and contended that he planned to loosen the state’s grip on the economy and open it up, in part by privatizing state-owned companies. And he said he intended to move beyond the politics of ethnicity. It was a message that many in the West wanted to hear. At the same time, he released political prisoners, spoke of democracy and lauded the free press.
Only very few people beyond Ethiopia’s borders, however, saw that just shortly after he took power, he began stirring up hate of the country’s former leaders from Tigray. Fears grew in many areas that Abiy wanted to abolish the finely balanced federal system that grants considerable autonomy to ethnically defined states like Tigray.
His foreign policy drew more attention: Just a few months after taking power, Abiy negotiated a peace agreement with Eritrean dictator Isaias Afwerki, previously an archenemy. In 2019, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his reforms and for his rapprochement with Eritrea, even though the details of the peace agreement are still not known and the border between the two countries was only opened for a few months. Critics claim that Abiy used the supposed reconciliation with Eritrea as a maneuver to allow the destruction of their joint enemy, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
Ethiopian historian Wolbert Smidt, who has been working for a decade at Ethiopian universities, bemoans the naivete of many Western politicians who, as he says, appreciate "African leaders with simple narratives.” He said that "Abiy elevated himself above laws and institutions that were able to secure a precarious balance between the many rival groups.”
On top of that is the fact that many the reforms weren’t the result of decisions made by Abiy, but were the product of resolutions made by the governing coalition of the time. The freeing of political prisoners – for which Abiy was often praised – was also introduced by his predecessor.
Just 11 months after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Abiy launched a military campaign in his own country. Tensions with the Tigrayans escalated after they held regional elections in defiance of a directive from Addis Ababa, and Abiy invited Eritrea’s dictator to send his troops into Tigray as well.
A brutal war against the Tigrayan followed, in which rape and starvation were widely used as a weapon of war – especially by the Eritrean soldiers, the allies with whom Abiy had just signed a peace treaty. Since July, Abiy’s government has been blocking most aid deliveries to Tigray, where an estimated 400,000 to 900,000 people are living under famine conditions and nearly the entire population is dependent on aid deliveries. Tigrayans are being attacked and persecuted across Ethiopia.
Violence is also increasing in other parts of the country and ethnic clashes are growing in frequency. Economic growth, which averaged close to 10 percent in the years before Abiy took office, has plunged.
War victims in Tigray: Almost the entire population of the region is dependent on humanitarian aid.Foto: Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP
In June of this year, Abiy and his party emerged victorious in the parliamentary election. Large parts of the opposition, though, stayed away in protest or because their leaders are in prison. Many citizens, including countless potential voters in Tigray were not even allowed to vote. In early October, Abiy was sworn in as prime minister for the next five years.
Even before being sworn in, during summer, he began recruiting volunteers to augment the army. And shortly after his inauguration, he launched another large offensive against the Tigrayans, who responded with a counteroffensive that has thus far been successful. Ethiopia observers believe that Abiy and his war in Tigray enjoy widespread support among citizens. One European diplomat says that many Ethiopians believe the Tigrayans deserve their fate after 27 years of dictatorial rule.
Abiy’s strategy is as perfidious as it is efficient: He and his inner circle are blaming the West for the crisis in the county. He portrays himself as a fighter against an imagined neo-colonialism under which Ethiopia is suffering. At the same time, his government has banned international aid organizations from doing their work, ejected high-ranking UN officials from the country and arrested journalists.
No Longer Accountable
And the honor bestowed upon him by the Nobel Committee has likely emboldened on his relentless course. "Abiy seemed to think,” says former diplomat Berhane Kidanemariam, "that he has now arrived all the way at the top, almost next to the Creator.” Tsedale Lemma, editor-in-chief of the Addis Standard newsmagazine, says that after receiving the prize, Abiy and his government had the feeling they were no longer accountable to anyone. "The Nobel Prize was like a coronation for life, that gave him the right to do whatever he wants.”
Mehari Taddele Maru, a professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, is even more sharply critical of the Nobel Committee: "I am of the strongest opinion that the Nobel Prize Committee is responsible for what is happening in Ethiopia, at least partially.” He says that many experts issued early warnings about Abiy. The Ethiopian prime minister, he says, was rewarded for an agreement that wasn’t about creating peace, but about preparing for war.
Prime Minister Abiy at his inauguration following his 2021 re-election.Foto: Eduardo Soteras / AFP
What, though, does Abiy really want? One of his primary motives is that of restoring Ethiopia to its former greatness. "It is a kind of 'Make Ethiopia Great Again,’” says Tsedale, the journalist. "As if there had ever been a great Ethiopia for the people.” She says that Abiy is pursuing a dangerous form of "blood and soil nationalism.”
A video from December of last year shows how far Abiy’s delusions has gone. In the clip, he perorates on the fact that in 2050, the world will be led by two world powers – one of which, he is convinced, will be Ethiopia. His delusions of grandeur are based on the belief of many Ethiopians that they are the nation that is closest to God. Abiy also believes in this dream of an "Ethiopian exceptionalism.”
At appearances, Abiy likes to say that his Christian-Orthodox mother already prophesied during his childhood that he would rise to become the seventh king of Ethiopia, a ruler in the line of succession of the Ethiopian emperors, the direct descendant of King Solomon.
Like many Ethiopians, Abiy is member of an evangelical church. Its core belief is that one can achieve wealth through godliness. "It quickly became clear that religion was shaping his worldview,” says Tsedale. Abiy seemingly views the campaign in Tigray partly through this religious lens, and observers agree that he sees the war as a test from God. Deacon Daniel Kibret, a radical Christian and close advisor to Abiy, recently compared the Tigrayans to Satan and called for their extermination.
"I hear from his inner circle that Abiy seems to believe that there will be some sort of heavenly intervention and that God will somehow act against the Tigray Defense Forces,” says Kjetil Tronvoll, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Oslo New University College and a well-informed observer of Ethiopian politics. He says that Abiy religious motifs have found their way into the focus of his thinking. "And the international community has never taken that seriously.”
The extent to which the prime minister is influenced by religious insinuations is reflected in an audio clip of a phone call between Abiy and a preacher that was leaked in early June and is considered by experts to be authentic. In the clip, the preacher says that God told her that the prime minister should not negotiate, but rather be cruel in the name of the Almighty. She said that he, Abiy, is like Moses and that nobody will stop him, that God will make him great.
Abiy Ahmed, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, answered: "Amen!”