Et tu, Abiy?
By Femi Olugbile
The images come back vividly to mind. Government College Ibadan under DJ Bullock had a tradition of putting up a school play at least once a year. It was the major cultural event of the season. This season the school play was Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Jeki, a boy with a clipped accent and the bulging muscles of a weightlifter was cast in the starring role as Ceasar.
Julius Caesar has just been stabbed in the Senate of Rome. There is a sharp intake of breath in the audience, and the red colour of blood can be seen on the daggers of the murderous Senators. As a bloodied Jeki looks up, the thoughts of a dying Julius Caesar can be read from his face.
‘This cannot be happening. Someone will stand against this. Brutus, my friend – the noblest, most faithful Senator in Rome, will halt this nonsense.’
He looks up with hope as Brutus approaches.
Then, from within the folds of his toga, Brutus withdraws a dagger and plunges it straight into Caesar’s heart.
The Emperor’s dying statement is a question and also a statement on human perfidy.
‘Et tu, Brute?’
Jeki crumples in a heap on the stage. Julius Caesar is dead.
Two years ago, this column did a piece on Abiy Ahmed, Prime Minister of Ethiopia. He had been Prime Minister of his country for one year then. In that year, he had acquired rock star popularity among some of his countrymen, especially the young who were eager to live in a bright new world full of hope. Ethiopia, home of an ancient African civilization, was also a country whose people had suffered terrible hardships – man-made and natural. More than a million people had died over the years in famine, as in warfare and internal political strife. A land once ruled by Emperor Haile Selassie, ‘King of Kings, Lion of Judah’. A young revolutionary military officer – Mengistu Haile Mariam, decided o carry out a revolution to destroy the imperial lineage and turn the nation into a communist paradise, on the model of the Soviet Union. He went about this with ruthless determination, killing hundreds of thousands of his countrymen.
Instead of a socialist paradise, under Mengistu’s government – the Derg, Ethiopia became a vast concentration camp. Young and old Ethiopians, appalled, outraged, rose in arms from all across the land to rescue their country. Among them was a young man from the Oromo province named Abiy Ahmed.
The Derg was eventually routed. Mengistu fled into exile in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Young Abiy joined the Army and served as an Intelligence officer.
Ethiopia remained a country riven with internecine strife. Its various peoples chafed at the restrictions imposed by the central government. Divisive ‘Liberation Movements’ carried out low grade insurrections. Politics was unstable, violence was rife, and government changed hands with dysfunctional regularity. Poverty reigned in the land. To cap it all the nation got into a seemingly endless war with its neighbour – Eritrea.
This was the state of the nation in when Abiy Ahmed became Prime Minister. Quickly, he changed the mood of the nation. With a minimum of fuss, he brought the war with Eritrea to an end.
It was a bold move that caught the attention of the world. Abiy was forty two years old, a mere baby in terms of age for an African leader.
On the streets of Addis Ababa, young people wore t-shirts emblazoned with his name. He wrote inspiring books, which many of his countrymen were reading. Ethiopia’s economy was on the rise. Its national carrier was the largest and most financially healthy airways on the continent.
It was not only Human Angle that recognized Abiy as a new, inspiring face of leadership in Africa. Abiy was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.
Unfortunately, the latest news out of Ethiopia is not looking good for Abiy’s admirers. His government is locked in a battle of wills, and more lately a physical battle, with the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front, the party in government in Tigray, one of the country’s provinces. The central government ordered a postponement of national and provincial elections due to the COVID19 epidemic. Tigray defied the authority of the national government and went ahead to conduct elections and elect its leadership. The national government saw this as an act of rebellion. Despite the intervention of international figures, including Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa and head of the African Union, the government commenced a shooting and bombing war with its people. Air raids. Reports of massacre, with large numbers of civilians dead. The internet shut down. Access banned to foreign and local journalists.
Abiy is not sounding like the Abiy you thought you knew.
The latest news is that Abiy’s government has announced exultantly that the military operation in the northern city of Mekelle is now ‘complete’. The mailed fist has prevailed, and the war is won.
If all that is true, it could be a coded message not only to the ‘conquered’ people of Tigray province, but even to neighbours not to mess with Abiy’s Ethiopia. Unfortunately, it could also be the beginning of guerilla war, with the TPLF resorting to bombings, assassinations and economic destruction across the land. There could be increasingly brutal efforts by the ‘federal’ government to suppress the insurgents, leading to chaos and an undoing of the nation’s economic gains.
Some erstwhile admirers of Abiy Ahmed have expressed disappointment at his new turn. Some people have even asked that the Nobel Committee withdraw his Peace Prize.
Perhaps Abiy will still come right, and the strong-armed suppression of Tigray will prove to be an added feather to his cap, burnishing his goody-goody image with a tough-guy coat of realpolitik. Or perhaps the bright young star of Ethiopia is already going the way of the hard-fisted old African crocodiles that surround him, and those that have gone before him.
Time, as they say, will tell.