Is Dr. Abiy Ahmed the “Liberator” of Eritreans? (By Worku Aberra)

Is Dr. Abiy Ahmed the “Liberator” of Eritreans?

By Worku Aberra

It is impossible to adequately describe in words the tumultuous welcome that the Eritrean people gave to Dr. Abiy Ahmed during his historic visit to Asmara on July 8. Equally difficult to express in writing is the reaction of Eritreans and Ethiopians who saw the reception on TV. Both the welcome and the response can only be felt emotionally. While watching the welcome on TV, many people were moved to tears.  The affection, respect, and admiration that the people of Asmara displayed towards the Prime Minister were sincere. The people of Ethiopia have reciprocated in kind towards the people of Eritrea by warmly welcoming President Isaias Afeworki to Addis Ababa and Hawassa on July 14.

While it may be impossible to describe in words the hospitality that Dr. Abiy received from Eritreans, we can speculate the reasons behind it. The favourable reception is due to his personality, the qualities of his leadership, the political and economic reality in Eritrea, the hardship created by the war, and the historical relationship between the people of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

The Appeal of Dr. Abiy to Eritreans

On a personal level, Dr. Abiy Ahmed manifests virtues that Eritreans and Ethiopians admire: honesty, politeness, humility, empathy, bravery. Being the ideal archetype, he is easy to emotionally connect with. As a politician, he is charismatic, articulate, decisive, cerebral, and reformist. He has integrity. Along with these qualities, he appeals to Eritreans because he was not responsible for the policies of the Ethiopian government that they perceive have unjustifiably harmed Eritreans. He was not in power during the 1998-2000 war. Neither did he deport tens of thousands of Eritreans from Ethiopia.  In short, he is not Meles Zenawi. As a reformist leader, he has captivated Eritreans. The measures he has introduced in Ethiopia over the last three months could also be implemented, at least partially, in Eritrea as well.

With his affable personality, superb leadership qualities, and being untainted with past government policies towards Eritrea, it is difficult not to like him. But the reaction to him in Asmara cannot be explained by personality type, leadership qualities, or past history alone. Had Dr. Abiy been from another country, for example the Sudan, Kenya, or Egypt, it is unlikely that he would have received the same kind of welcome.  The strong cultural, social, and religious ties that have existed between Eritreans and Ethiopians for centuries contribute to his attraction among Eritreans. He can easily be perceived as a neighbour, friend, son, or brother.

Further, Eritreans endorse his peace initiative. They have suffered enough under the so-called “no war, no peace” situation. Their perception of him as someone who can paly a positive role in ending the hostilities and in establishing some kind of union between the two countries, as yet to be defined, also explains his popularity among Eritreans, inside and outside Eritrea.

These variables explain why Eritreans have eagerly accepted the olive branch that he extended to them during his inaugural speech on April 2 and why they have enthusiastically embraced his politics of love, forgiveness, and inclusiveness (medemer).  

Dr. Abiy as a Catalyst for Reform in Eritrea

The people of Eritrea will not be disappointed. They will soon experience the positive social, political, and economic consequences of his initiative. Families separated from each other for more than 20 years will now be able to talk, visit, or unite with each other.

Dr. Abiy’s peace initiative and the subsequent normalization of relationship between the two countries have greatly improved the chances of reform being introduced in Eritrea, with or without the President.  Isaias Afeworki (who I have been critical of) has justified his autocratic rule in Eritrea because of the “no war, no peace” situation. Now that the war has officially ended and the two countries have agreed to normalize relations, he will have no excuse for maintaining a dictatorial regime. He will most likely repeal the mandatory military service, release political prisoners, and introduce reforms, limited as they may be.  

The normalization of the relationship between the two countries will spur the demand for democracy in Eritrea. Eritreans and Ethiopians are now free to travel to each other’s country. Eritreans will have the opportunity to witness, experience, and relish the freedoms that Ethiopians enjoy under Dr. Abiy’s government. They can justifiably demand similar freedoms. After all, wasn’t the fight for independence a fight for democratic freedoms?

Dr. Abiy’s peace gesture and the resulting agreements signed between the two countries will reduce the economic hardship that Eritreans have suffered over the last 20 years. Both governments can redirect their military spending towards badly needed economic and social services for their populations. They can use the peace dividends for economic development. The UN embargo imposed on Eritrea will be lifted. Trade between the two countries will resume and Eritreans will have the opportunity to buy Ethiopia’s agricultural products, including food. A common market that is mutually beneficial for Eritreans and Ethiopians could be signed. (The previous preferential trade agreements signed by Meles Zenawi and Isaias Afeworki were not in the best interests of Ethiopia). So, Dr. Abiy’s bold peace project will most likely improve the economic welfare of Eritreans.   

Personal Chemistry between Abiy and Isaias

When it comes to agreements between governments, it is often said that the personal is the political. Personal relationship between leaders are crucial in establishing trust, and trust matters in signing agreements and implementing them.  It seems that the two leaders get along very well. The usually stoic Isaias is often seen joking, smiling, and laughing with Abiy during their visits. The warm camaraderie between the two leaders augurs well for the relationship between the two countries.

President Isaias doesn’t have to worry about what he calls “duplicitous” Ethiopian leaders who promise one thing and deliver something else.  An Eritrean supporter of Isaias comments that the two previous Ethiopian prime ministers “begged” him to ratify the Algiers Agreement, but he rejected their pleas insisting that Ethiopia unconditionally withdraw its troops from the border areas and that it pay war reparation. The real reason behind his rejection, however, is that he did not trust the previous prime ministers. But, he trusts Dr. Abiy. Therefore, Isaias cannot use “untrustworthy” Ethiopian leaders, who may declare war on Eritrea any time, as a pretext for maintaining autocracy in Eritrea.

Isaias may also have personal reasons to introduce reforms. After being in power for 27 years and at a relatively advanced age of 72, he may be thinking about his legacy. He does not want to be remembered as a brutal dictator, but as someone who was forced to maintain autocracy by circumstances beyond his control, the war with Ethiopia. This has been the official storyline of the Eritrean government. Real or imagined, that threat no longer exists. And he considers Dr. Abiy trustworthy. The removal of the excuse, combined with pressure from the political reality in Ethiopia, the international community, and more importantly from Eritreans inside and outside Eritrea, will most probably motivate him to introduce reform. The reliability of Dr. Abiy in respecting the agreements signed so far or will be signed in the future will provide further impetus for introducing reform by Isaias.

Sooner or later, democratic changes will have taken place in Eritrea, with or without Isaias’s leadership, but Dr. Abiy’s decision to accept the Algiers Agreement unconditionally, his unexpected visit to Asmara, and the extraordinary welcome he received in Asmara have fuelled the aspiration for reform in Eritrea. He may not be the messiah that the Eritrean people have been waiting for, but he has certainly played a catalytic role in promoting reform in Eritrea.

The tumultuous welcome that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed received from Eritreans and the return visit of President Isaias to Ethiopia have also raised high expectations about the relationship between the two countries in the future. Some Ethiopians have prematurely concluded that the visits by the two leaders have reunited the two countries. We are not there yet. There are many complex outstanding issues, hurdles, differences, and challenges that must addressed before we get there, but the secession of hostilities, the agreements signed so far, and the two visits are the first steps in the right direction towards establishing some sort political arrangement that best serves the interests of both Eritreans and Ethiopians.

Worku Aberra (PhD), a professor of economics at Dawson College, Montreal, Canada, is currently visiting Ethiopia.

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