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Abiy Ahmad: The Third Dictator

Leo Okere

For the first time in the history of Ethiopia, an Ethiopian ruler prevented Ethiopians to go to a Sunday service.

Sunday, the 11th of February 2023, will be remembered as the day that Abiy Ahmad did what even the Fascist government that occupied Ethiopia from 1936 to 1941 did not do: prohibit Ethiopians to attend church on Sunday. On this day of infamy was thus unveiled the face of third dictator of Ethiopia: Abiy Ahmad.

Colonel Mengestu Haile Mariam was Ethiopia’s first modern dictator. Since Everybody knows the suffering he inflicted on Ethiopians, no need to recount them here. Ethiopia’s second dictator was Meles Zenawi. It is not necessary to dwell on Meles and his TPLF’s crimes against Ethiopia and Ethiopians, for they are now well known. Though the TPLF ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist for 27 years, it was kicked out of power in 2018 by an ethnic cabal of Amhara and Oromo ethnic members of the ruling body.

The cabal named Abiy Ahmad, the leader of the Oromo ethnic party, Prime Minister. In his acceptance speech, Abiy conquered the hearts of Ethiopians by talking about unity and peace, brotherhood, democracy, and the primacy of citizenship over ethnic chauvinism. Listening to his speech, we believed that we had at last a politician who understood our yearnings for decency and democracy. We saw in his numerous talks and writings on “መደምር” the prospect of Ethiopians working together for a better future. Ethiopians saw him as a patriot and a wise person. And the world gave him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Well, Abiy fooled us all: Ethiopians and the Nobel Prize Committee. Writing on the duplicitous politician, Machiavelli stated, “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” We saw what Abiy appeared to be and accepted him as the “saviour” of an Ethiopia victimised by almost half a century of indiscriminate torturing and killing. But we did not know who he really was.

But we should have known better. Blinded by a desperate hope for better days, we consciously forgot that Abiy grew up under the wings of Meles, imbibing his ideology of ethnic hatred, particularly the hatred of Amharas. Meles was the political godfather of Abiy. Thanks to Meles, he rose up through the ranks of the EPRDF party and government. Indeed, Meles has such confidence in him that he appointed him to an important post in his dreaded security apparatus.

Because we were hungry for a decent leader after decades of blood-thirsty dictators, we closed our eyes to Abiy’s perfidious background. Sure, we saw him make some faux pas now and then, but we attributed it to the political instability created by those who were threatened by his promise to institute democracy. But we never suspected he was a duplicitous politician of such magnitude.

On the duplicitous politician who appears to be decent but is in fact the embodiment of political evil with no regards for his subjects, Machiavelli wrote, “Everyone sees what you appear to be, few experience what you really are.” Abiy appeared to be a democrat, but few knew, outside the circle of his separatists schemers, who he was. Yet the signs were there.

Surprisingly enough, among my colleagues, the only persons who saw the tale-tale signs of his camouflaged perfidy were two women. Call it “female intelligence or intuition” ! They told us, “restrain your enthusiasm for Abiy; he is not the person you think he is.” How right they were! Behind his photogenic smile, the suave appearance, and polite demeanour was a  resurrected Meles, more cunning and more determined to bring to fruition the goal of his godfather: the ethnic disintegration of Ethiopia. The only difference was whereas Meles wanted to engineer the disintegration of Ethiopia in a manner that favoured the independence of Tigray, Abiy is aiming to disintegrate Ethiopia in ways that favour the independence of the newly-minted state of Oromia.

But a powerful historical institution—the   Orthodox Tewahido Church—stood in his way. Historically rooted churches have been always anathema to dictators. Stalin decimated the Russian Orthodox Church. Communist China, Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba repressed the Catholic Church. Latin American dictators killed Catholic priests. Cardinal Romero of El Salvador was one among many priests assassinated by the dictators of Latin America.

Similarly, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has suffered a similar fate in her history. Under Fascist occupation (1936-41), she was a target of persecution and killings. Recall the massacre of Debre Libanos on May 20th, 1937. Over 500 monks and members of the Church were assassinated in cold blood. The same evil desire to subjugate the Orthodox Tewahido Church animated modern Ethiopian dictators. Mengestu killed the Ethiopian Patriarch Abuna Theophilos and persecuted priests and deacons as “anticommunists.” Meles forced Patriarch Abune Merkorios  into exile and arrested and tortured the officials and active members of the Church who refused to adopt his ethnic ideology. In his place, he imposed on the church, Abuna Paulos, ethnically related to Meles and reputed to be more devoted to promoting the ethnic politics of Meles than to bringing God’s word to the world.

Like Menegestu and Meles, Abiy knows that  one institution stands in his way to dismantle Ethiopia: the Orthodox Tewahido Church. One thousand and seven hundred years old,  the Orthodox Tewahido Church embodies the historically founded and long-lasting trans-ethnic unity and dignity of Ethiopians. As a historically rooted institution, it transcends ethnicity, gender, social status and professions and gives Ethiopians a space of peace, brotherhood, individual conscience and moral responsibility. Hence the fear of the Church that inhabits Abiy Ahmad, the new dictator, for the Church provides an intellectual and moral space for identifying and resisting the injustices humans inflict on humans.

No wonder, Abiy is engaged in a campaign to destroy the Orthodox Tewahido Church and replace it with one that serves his ethnic purposes. This seems the lesson Abiy has learned from his godfather Meles: put somebody at the head of the Church— Abune Sawiros, in the present case—to play the role of Meles’s Abune Paulos.

Abiy is more cunning than the two dictators that preceded him. He believes that Meles’s tactic of simply replacing the Patriarch by another of his choice was not sufficient in the long run. What would be more effective to implement his policy of disintegrating Ethiopia is to split the Church and establish a parallel Synod. Thus, as one could see from the public support he gave to Abune Sawiros and company on 31 January 2023, he has engineered a more effective means of destroying the  Orthodox Tewahido Church: infiltrate the Church using ethnic secessionists and impose an  ethnic-divide-and-rule that effectively undermines the integrity of the Church and the last remining bastion of Ethiopian unity.

Note that we are not dealing here with a doctrinal schism. The reason Abune Sawiros, the leader of the rebel group,  gave for splitting from the Church is administrative: language right. Abune Sawiros’s handler is evidently Abiy Ahmad, for the latter give the same administrative justification as the former for the split. That Abiy and Sawiros are raising the same issue to split the Church is of course not a coincidence. Both believe that it is easier to split the Church with an administrative reason than with a doctrinal one. The former reason opens the door for Abiy Ahmad’s government to intervene in the affairs of the church in the name of a non-existent issue: language rights in the Church.

In pursuit of undermining the last bastion of Ethiopian unity, the Abiy government has been encouraging the use of security forces to take over by force churches and church properties and hand them over to the rebel bishops. It  is openly resorting to intimidation, arbitrary arrests and murders of priests, deacons and lay officials of the Church. It has muzzled all state funded medias from transmitting the communiques of the Holy Synod while at the same time providing media platforms for the rebel group. It has closed social media to prevent the circulation of information that could allow Ethiopians to judge the situation by themselves. It is encouraging the security forces to engage in lawless acts, including shooting to kill, against those who are perceived to support the Orthodox Church.

Information is also coming out that the PM has been twisting the arms of rich Ethiopians who are members of religions other than Tewahedo to contribute money to the rebel group to facilitate the material organization and institutionalization of itself. His agents in the Diaspora are also apparently involved in organizing a go-fund-me campaign to the benefit of the rebel group.

What Abiy forgets is that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been around for more than 1700 years. It has survived multiple persecutions, the massacres of the Fascist regime, the repressions of the Mengestu and Meles regimes. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church will also survive Abiy’s repression. But Abiy will go down in Ethiopian history as a leader who worked hard to destroy the Church, fragment Ethiopians, and turn them against each other.

Applying the words of Albert Einstein to Abiy’s destructive acts, we could say, the survival of Ethiopia is not threatened by Abiy’s hatred of Ethiopia and the disruptive policies and actions he pursues against Ethiopians, but rather by Ethiopians who stand on the sidelines and allow his evil acts to continue with impunity.