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Ethiopia’s Abiy Lost His War, And Now He’s Out for Revenge

Ethiopian soldier aiming with an AK-47.
Ethiopian soldier aiming with an AK-47.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was once the toast of the international stage. On December 10, 2019, he delivered his Nobel Lecture at the Oslo City Hall after winning the Nobel Peace Prize. “I…accept this award on behalf of Africans and citizens of the world for whom the dream of peace has often turned into a nightmare of war,” Abiy said.

In less than a year, however, Abiy would unleash the nightmare of war. Those who know him—not only Ethiopians but also fellow African leaders—describe in Abiy a noxious combination of naiveté, ego, and ambition. When Abiy, like other reformers-turned-dictators before him, unilaterally postponed elections, officials in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region defied his prohibition and held the vote as originally scheduled. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), one-time partners of Abiy who had fallen into opposition—triumphed in polls that were largely free and fair.

There is nothing more dangerous than a Nobel Peace Laureate scorned. In the wake of election, Abiy sent his forces into Tigray where, alongside Eritrean troops, they perpetrated massacres, ethnic cleansing, collective punishment, and mass rape. Ethiopian diplomats and their state-controlled media repeatedly either denied atrocities or blamed them on the TPLF. Abiy’s government, meanwhile, continued to target older, more established Tigrayan leaders in a short-term strategy that prioritized vengeance over unity as the old guard TPLF leaders such as former foreign minister Seyoum Mesfin were the primary voices among the Tigrayan movement to value Ethiopian nationalism; the younger generation sees little to any benefit in remaining part of Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic mosaic.

Few outside Addis Ababa, however, believed Ethiopian denials: Countries innocent of such charges do not prevent access to the territories alleged to be site of humanitarian crimes. Nor is it possible to coordinate the narratives of refugees and eyewitnesses fleeing war.

Nevertheless, in recent months, Abiy’s government has repeatedly said that they had defeated the TPLF, and dismissed anyone raising questions about the situation in Tigray as engaging in propaganda, even as videos emerged of Ethiopian troops captured en masse by the TPLF. Then, the TPLF re-took the regional capital Mekelle. That action was a shock to Ethiopians whom Abiy and state-controlled television daily assured that Ethiopia had roundly defeated the Tigrayans.

Taking his cue from dictators like Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abiy has now decided to seek revenge on journalists who dared to speak the truth. Consider the case of Tsedale Lemma, chief editor of the English-language Addis Standard, an independent outlet which has sought to cover events in Tigray fairly.  On July 3, Seyoum Tehome, a pro-government blogger, suggested summarily executing an imprisoned journalist and advised arresting Lemma. In effect, those surrounding Abiy and amplifying his bubble now seek to ensure that failure to uphold Abiy’s delusions is a capital crime. In Minsk, Moscow, and Ankara, such castigations are often lethal.

The United States is at its best and most effective when it stands up for freedom in a bipartisan way. It is time for Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the Congressional Black Caucus (full disclosure: I was in the past a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation fellow) and the Republican leadership as well to tell Abiy that the world is watching, and that retribution against Ethiopian journalists for telling the truth will have real and biting consequence.

Abiy and his associates may believe they can pivot to China or whether any sanctions, but they would be foolish to believe that they will personally escape unscathed.

Michael Rubin is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he specializes in Iran, Turkey, and the broader Middle East. He also regularly teaches classes at sea about Middle East conflicts, culture, terrorism, and the Horn of Africa to deployed US Navy and Marine units.

7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Amanuel Tesfay

    July 5, 2021 at 6:07 am

    “Abiy and his associates may believe they can pivot to China or whether any sanctions, but they would be foolish to believe that they will personally escape unscathed.” well put.

    If there is any justice in the world, Abiy Ahmed and his allies should be brought to ICC! I don’t think lying is just his modus operandi, but his personal character too. He’s an untrustworthy and pathological liar.

  2. Ronald Honduras

    July 5, 2021 at 12:37 pm

    I noticed you left treatment of journalist Jillian Assange off your list of dangerous power elites who jail voices who dare expose their criminality.

  3. Di

    July 6, 2021 at 1:45 am

    One day, you will write a story called the failed PM of Ethiopia Abby Ahmed and I sure will read it. Praying the Tigray people get some type of justice. He has lots of blood on his hand. He will pay for it.

  4. Bisrat Negash

    July 6, 2021 at 4:49 pm

    I am not Abiy’s fan but your story about the election in Tigray and describing Siyum Mesfin as the voice of the Ethiopian Natioinlism is laughable. It is also interesting how passionate you falsify the whole story and the title itself. How an army of 100 million people lose a war? I don’t know how much the TPLF criminals pay you to write such a rubbish article here. it is embarrassing.

  5. Lie detector

    July 8, 2021 at 8:34 pm

    Michael Rubin: Lying at its best and a cardinal on performing it.
    Your argument is tantamount to telling kids: 2+2 = 22, only will verify it is not, when they want to use it that they have no 22 of the things they say is added to. The world is in perpetual troubles of the same kinds because of the presence of such persons of no conscience and absolute devoid of intellectual morality.

  6. Azieb Habtemariam

    July 8, 2021 at 8:51 pm

    Ms. Bisrat Negash asked Mr. Rubin as to how Abiy, with a 100 million population be defeated by TDF. Well, you need to ask that question to Abiy not Mr. Michael Rubin point of wisdom though, the truth always win. It is not the number of people you have but the purpose of fighting the people of Tigray.

  7. Elias Defalgn

    July 18, 2021 at 12:06 pm

    Mr. Robin ,This article is a good example on how false information can be manufactured and disseminated easily for the global world .
    It is difficult to comment on particular issues raised in this article , it is full of lairs.

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