From Nobel laureate to global pariah: How the world got Abiy Ahmed and Ethiopia so wrong

Updated 12:38 PM ET, Thu September 9, 2021

(CNN)​​"Abiy, Abiy," the crowd chanted, waving Ethiopia's tricolor flag and cheering as the country's new prime minister, dressed in a white blazer with gold trim and smiling broadly, waved to a packed basketball arena at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, part of a whirlwind three-city tour of the United States to woo the diaspora.

It was July 2018, just three months after Abiy Ahmed had been appointed leader of Africa's second-most populous country, and his star was rising both at home and abroad. Excitement was surging into an almost religious fervor around the young politician, who promised to bring peace, prosperity and reconciliation to a troubled corner of Africa and a nation on the brink of crisis.
But even in those early, optimistic days of Abiy's premiership, as he kickstarted a flurry of ambitious reforms -- freeing thousands of political prisoners, lifting restrictions on the press, welcoming back exiles and banned opposition parties, appointing women to positions in his cabinet, opening up the country's tightly-controlled economy to new investment and negotiating peace with neighboring Eritrea -- Berhane Kidanemariam had his doubts.
The Ethiopian diplomat has known the prime minister for almost 20 years, forging a friendship when he worked for the governing coalition's communications team and, later, as CEO of two state-run news organizations, while Abiy was in military intelligence and then heading Ethiopia's cybersecurity agency, INSA. Before working for Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kidanemariam ran the country's national broadcaster, the EBC, and he said Abiy sat on its board of directors.
In a recent phone interview, Kidanemariam said he, like many Ethiopians, had hoped Abiy could transform the nation's fractious politics and usher in genuine democratic change. But he struggled to square his understanding of the man he'd first met in 2004 -- who he described as power-hungry intelligence officer obsessed by fame and fortune -- with the portrait emerging of a visionary peacemaker from humble beginnings.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed waves to the Ethiopian diaspora assembled at an event in Washington, DC, in July 2018.
In 2018, Kidanemariam was serving as Ethiopia's consul general in Los Angeles and said he helped organize Abiy's visit.
When Kidanemariam, who is from Ethiopia's northern Tigray region, approached the dais to introduce his longtime friend and colleague to the crowd, he said he was greeted with heckles from members of the audience: "Get out of the podium Tigrayan, get out of the podium Woyane," and other ethnic slurs. He expected Abiy, who preached a political philosophy of inclusion, to chide the crowd, but he said nothing. Later, over lunch, when Kidanemariam asked why, he said Abiy told him: "There was nothing to correct."
"One of the ironies of a prime minister who came to office promising unity is that he has deliberately exacerbated hatred between different groups," Kidanemariam wrote in an open letter in March, announcing that he was quitting his post as the deputy chief of mission at the Ethiopian embassy in Washington, DC, in protest over Abiy's monthslong war in Tigray, which has spurred a refugee crisis, atrocities and famine.
Kidanemariam said to CNN he believed Abiy's focus had never been about "reform or democracy or human rights or freedom of the press. It is simply consolidating power for himself, and getting money out of it ... We may call it authoritarianism or dictatorship, but he is really getting to be a king."
"By the way," he added, "the problem is not only for Tigrayans. It's for all Ethiopians. Everybody is suffering everywhere."
In an email to CNN, Abiy's spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, described Kidanemariam's characterization of the prime minister as "baseless" and a "reflection."

'The epitome of hell'

Much has changed since Abiy accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in November 2019, telling an audience in Oslo, Norway, that "war is the epitome of hell."
In less than two years, Abiy has gone from darling of the international community to pariah, condemned for his role in presiding over a protracted civil war that, by many accounts, bears the hallmarks of genocide and has the potential to destabilize the wider Horn of Africa region.
Abiy receives the Nobel Peace Prize during a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, in December 2019.
The 45-year-old's fall from grace has confounded many observers, who wonder how they could have gotten him so wrong. But diplomats, analysts, independent Ethiopian journalists, acquaintances and others who have followed his career closely say that even at the height of "Abiymania," there were warning signs.
Critics say that by blessing Abiy with an array of international endorsements, the West not only failed to see -- or willfully ignored -- those signals, but gave him a blank check and then turned a blind eye.
"Soon after Abiy was crowned with that Nobel Peace Prize, he lost an appetite in pursuing domestic reform," Tsedale Lemma, founder and editor-in-chief of Addis Standard, an independent monthly news magazine based in Ethiopia, told CNN on a Skype call. "He considered it a blanket pass to do as he wishes."
The war in Tigray is not the first time he's used that pass, she said, adding that since Abiy came to power on the platform of unifying Ethiopia's people and in its state, he has ruthlessly consolidated control and alienated critical regional players.
Lemma has covered Abiy's rise for the Addis Standard -- which was briefly suspended by Ethiopia's media regulator in July -- and was an early critic of his government when few were sounding the alarm. Days after Abiy was awarded the Nobel Prize, she wrote an editorial warning that the initiatives he had been recognized for -- the peace process with Eritrea and political reforms in Ethiopia -- had sidelined a key stakeholder, the Tigray People's Liberation Front, and were in serious jeopardy.
The TPLF had governed Ethiopia with an iron grip for decades, overseeing a period of stability and economic growth at the cost of basic civil and political rights. The party's authoritarian rule provoked a popular uprising that ultimately forced Abiy's predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, to resign. Abiy was appointed by the ruling class to bring change, without upending the old political order. But almost as soon as he came to power, Abiy announced the rearrangement of the ruling coalition that the TPLF had founded -- the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Front, or EPRDF, which was composed of four parties -- into a single, new Prosperity Party, ostracizing the TPLF in the process.
Abiy's appointment had been intended to quell tensions. Instead, his drive for a new pan-Ethiopian political party sparked fears in some regions that the country's federal system, which guarantees significant autonomy to ethnically-defined states, such as Tigray, was under threat.
The Tigrayans weren't the only ones who were worried. In Abiy's home region, Oromia, and other administrative zones, people began to demand self-rule. Soon, the government began backsliding into the authoritarian practices Abiy had once renounced: Violent crackdowns on protesters, the jailing of journalists and opposition politicians, and twice postponing elections.
Ahmed Soliman, a research fellow at Chatham House and an expert on the Horn of Africa, said Abiy's reform plan also increased expectations among constituencies with conflicting agendas, further heightening tensions.
"Abiy and his government have rightly been blamed for implementing uneven reforms and for insecurity increasing throughout the country, but to an extent, some of that was inherited. These simmering ethnic and political divisions that exist in the country have very deep roots," he said.
Tensions reached a boiling point last September, when the Tigrayans defied Abiy by holding a vote which had been delayed due to the pandemic, setting off a tit-for-tat series of recriminations that spilled into open conflict in November 2020.
This July, in the midst of the war, Abiy and his party won a landslide victory in a general election that was boycotted by opposition parties, marred by logistical issues and excluded many voters, including all those in Tigray -- a crushing disappointment to many who had high hopes that the democratic transition Abiy promised three years ago would be realized.
Electoral officials count ballots at a polling station in the city of Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, in June.