PM Abiy Ahmed: The Icarus of Ethiopia (Tebeje Molla)

PM Abiy Ahmed: The Icarus of Ethiopia

Tebeje Molla



The Greek tale of Icarus [ኢከረስ], despite its ancient origins, continues to hold profound metaphorical value in understanding the perils of political demise today. 

In ancient Greece, there existed a skilled artisan named Daedalus, renowned for his innovative abilities. Icarus, the son of Daedalus, was his companion. At one point, King Minos of Crete approached Daedalus with a request to construct an inescapable Labyrinth. However, as their relationship soured, King Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus within the intricate maze. Seeking a means of escape, Daedalus ingeniously crafted two sets of wings adorned with feathers, attaching them to their shoulders using wax. While cautioning his son against flying too close to the sun, Icarus, filled with exhilaration and freedom, soared to ever-greater heights. Regrettably, the wax began to melt, leading to his tragic demise as he plummeted into the depths of the sea.

Image: The Fall of Icarus (1637) by Jacob Peeter Gowy (1615 – 1661) (Source: The Art Bard)

Icarus, driven by his audacious ambition and desire to fly, represents political leaders who rise to power with grand promises but become blinded by their hubris. As Icarus soared towards the sun, ignoring his father’s warnings, his wax wings melted, causing him to plummet into the sea. This cautionary tale warns against leaders who disregard wise counsel, forsake humility, and succumb to the allure of unchecked power. It serves as a timeless reminder that political downfall often results from the inability to recognize one’s limits and the consequences of disregarding the well-being of the people.

Ascending to Power 

Abiy Ahmed’s political ascent in Ethiopia was marked by optimism and hope as he emerged as a reformist leader amidst a backdrop of social and political unrest. Rising to power as the Prime Minister in 2018, Abiy Ahmed presented himself as a unifying figure, promising to heal Ethiopia’s wounds, foster inclusive governance, and pursue democratic reforms.

At the beginning of his political career, Abiy Ahmed stood as a beacon of hope, promising to lead his nation towards a brighter future. His initial steps (for example, releasing political prisoners, lifting media restrictions, and making peace with neighbouring Eritrea) were hailed as transformative and earned him international acclaim. He even won the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize!

With rhetoric steeped in unity and progress, he inspired the masses, igniting a sincere belief in the possibilities of change. Just like Icarus, he dreamt of soaring high above the rest, believing that his vision would revolutionize the political landscape and establish democracy.

Becoming an Ethiopian Icarus

Abiy Ahmed’s political promises began to waver as the Federal Government plunged into a conflict with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The war, characterized by allegations of human rights abuses and ethnic violence, exposed a darker side to Abiy’s leadership, as he increasingly resorted to authoritarian measures to suppress dissent and consolidate power. As the war with the TPLF intensified, Abiy Ahmed’s tendency toward authoritarianism became more pronounced, raising concerns about his commitment to transitioning the nation into a democratic order. 

In the realm of politics, there are instances where individuals rise to power with grand promises, pledging to bring positive change, unity, and progress. However, as history has shown us time and again, some leaders become consumed by their ambitions, ultimately transforming into dictators capable of destroying the very nations they sought to uplift. The parallel between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the Greek myth of Icarus is instructive. The tragic tale is used as a metaphor to shed light on the journey and destination of a leader who is destined to fall from grace.

Similar to Icarus donning his wax wings, Abiy ascended to power, driven by the wings of popular support. Initially, his intentions appeared noble, and his actions aligned with his promises. His charisma and persuasive skills allowed him to navigate the complex web of political dynamics, propelling him ever closer to the sun of absolute authority. Seizing upon deep-rooted societal divisions, he quickly manipulated these sentiments, promising to protect and elevate the interests of all Ethiopians but working for only a few (his political cliques).

Like Icarus, who sought to reach great heights, Abiy Ahmed soared on the wings of tribal allegiance, exploiting it to rally support and create an illusion of unity. 

Descending to Despotism

Just as Icarus lost sight of his father’s guidance, Abiy Ahmed severed ties with the democratic principles and institutions that had the potential to keep his ambitions in check. Blinded by his hubris, he ceases to listen to the concerns and needs of the people—he fails to see that the country is speeding toward a deadly political cliff. The promises of positive change and unity gave way to division, conspiracy, corruption, and assassination. The country that once hoped for a democratic future now faced the destruction of its institutions and the erosion of its societal fabric.

Abiy Ahmed’s descent began when the allure of power proved too enticing to resist. Gradually, he started to prioritize personal gain and consolidation of power over the ideals he once championed. The promises of unity and progress slowly unravelled, revealing a leader driven solely by self-interest and a hunger for domination. 

Abiy Ahmed cunningly played upon the fears and aspirations of the Ethiopian mass. He presented himself as the sole saviour. But quickly, he turned himself into an egotistical tyrant. He put political, economic, and military power in the hands of a few (mainly from his Oromo ethnic group). In so doing, he resorted to a politics of conspiracy, perpetuating a climate of fear, deprivation, and oppression. Abiy Ahmed shamelessly exploited the historical grievances and prejudices that lay dormant within society, manipulating them to fuel hatred and violence. As a result, thousands of ethnic Amaras have been massacred by Oromo militias.

To overcome financial difficulties primarily stemming from global economic sanctions, Abiy Ahmed sold national assets (e.g. oil tanker carrier ships) without public consultation or knowledge (he might even sell part of the national flag carrier—Ethiopian Airlines—to foreigners). 

Under his regime, dissenting voices have been violently silenced, and media outlets are controlled. The political climate has become increasingly oppressive with every step, leaving the people disillusioned and afraid. As a result, the country has confronted a multitude of challenges. Politically, deep-seated ethnic tensions have impelled the nation to the verge of collapse. On the social front, religious conflicts have strained the fabric of the nation. Economically, war, tribal violence, inflation, sanction, and foreign exchange shortages have brought the country to its knees. Against this backdrop, many commentators worry if Ethiopia can survive the political curse that brought Abiy to power. 

As Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wings melted, causing his downfall. The same fate awaits Abiy Ahmed. Like Icarus, Abiy Ahmed is flying too close to the sun of absolute power. He has suffered from an excess of hubris, ignorance, and arrogance. As a result, the wax on his political wing is melting. 

What Can Be Done?

The tale of Icarus serves as an allegory for the tragic journey of political leaders who promise positive change but end up driving their nations towards destruction. In his earnest pursuit of greatness, Icarus represents leaders who start with noble intentions but become consumed by their own ambitions. The wax wings, fragile and vulnerable, symbolize the limits of power and the importance of humility. As Icarus flew too close to the sun, representing the realm of absolute authority, his wings melted, and he plummeted to his death. This cautionary tale reminds us that political leaders must heed the warnings of history and remain grounded in the principles that uphold a nation’s stability, unity, and progress.

In the case of Ethiopia today, the supposed transition lacked proper scenario planning. From the beginning, there was no room for genuine and inclusive dialogue. There was no interest in constructing a set of shared stories about how the political future of Ethiopia might unfold and what could be done in response. There were limited opportunities to explore different trajectories and possibilities, anticipate the consequences of current actions, and design strategies that mitigate crises. Excessive sense of entitlement and self-indulgent meant that 

 there was no genuine interest in others; key stakeholders were not invited to discuss the ‘inevitable surprises’ of tomorrow. The ruling party (dominated by one man’s voice and ambition) advocated singular and simple solutions for multifaceted and complex problems.

It is evidently clear that Abiy Ahmed will stop at nothing to gain a glimpse into the heavens of absolute power. But no doubt this fake messiah will, like all dictators before him, be burned for his hubris and cruel recklessness.

The danger is rescindable. It is not too late to reverse course. The Icarus tale highlights the threat of unchecked ambition and the importance of maintaining the principles and institutions that safeguard democracy. To this end, a national inclusive political dialogue is critically important. In multi-ethnic and multicultural societies such as Ethiopia, where different interest groups often hold divergent views and aspirations, inclusive dialogue provides a platform for constructive discussions and scenario planning. Scenario thinking enables the stakeholders to envision alternative futures, understand the risks and opportunities associated with different pathways, and collectively determine the most desirable course of action. Inclusive dialogue creates avenues for building trust, resolving disputes, and bridging divides.

Filed in: Articles & Opinions