How tragedy of Ethiopia comes down to leaders over institutions

In terms of political risk, the specific character of the American president matters far less than the elemental fact that the US has had one republic, while the French have had five. To put it another way, any reading of the American presidency makes it clear that the majority of this select club have been mediocre or poor leaders, with only a handful of exceptional leaders standing out. For every Abraham Lincoln, there has been a Millard Filmore, Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan. For every George Washington, a Martin Van Buren, John Tyler or Zachary Taylor.

Except on very rare occasions, it is not the specific qualities of the American presidents that have catapulted the country to great power status. Rather, the key ingredients explaining the country’s phenomenal political stability (with the grave exception of the 1861-1865 Civil War) are the durability of its institutions, the paradoxical strength and flexibility of its constitution, and the overwhelming general acceptance of the founding document by its people. America’s great advantage is its system, which can be adequately run by its often less-than-heroic leaders.

Sadly, the opposite is true for much of the rest of the world. Bereft of durable institutions, many (if not most) other countries rely on the genius of individual leaders to succeed a good deal more than the caliber of that country’s norms, rules and institutions. As the great realist thinker Hans Morgenthau made plain, the leaders of such countries must be studied in the most minute — even Freudian — detail, as their personal strengths and weaknesses, unbound by the guardrails of strong institutions, are the definitive factor explaining their country’s rise or fall.

Tragically, such has proven the case in Ethiopia, which has gone from a bright spot in the African story to possible sinkhole for the entire continent. Its meteoric rise and dramatic fall all hinge around the story of charismatic Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has gone from 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner to embattled authoritarian in a bewildering blink of an eye. The basic problem for the tragic country — bereft of enduring institutions — is not Abiy, per se. It is that the character of any one individual should matter so much.

In what seems just a flickering moment ago, the charismatic Abiy was the toast of not just Africa, but the international community as a whole. Given the Nobel Prize for his promises of political liberalization, his call for ethnic harmony and for ending the interminable war between Addis Ababa and Eritrea, Abiy was feted the world over. Ethiopia, with demographic catch-up growth on its side and a strong record of macroeconomic stability, looked set to take off, aspiring to be the guiding light of an East African renaissance over the next generation.

The country has gone from a bright spot in the African story to possible sinkhole for the entire continent.

Dr. John C. Hulsman

To put it mildly, all that hope now lies in ashes. In a desperate effort to save his government, this past week has seen the embattled prime minister dramatically announce he is traveling to the front line of the country’s vicious civil war to personally direct the campaign against victorious rebels pushing toward the capital from their northern Tigray stronghold. Rebels led by the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, the group that dominated the old government until Abiy burst onto the scene in April 2018, claimed in the past few days to have taken the strategic city of Shewa Robit, just 225 km from Addis Ababa.

This whole sorry mess began when Abiy disastrously ordered national troops into Tigray province in November 2020, in retaliation for the TPLF allegedly ordering an attack on a federal army base there.

Political tensions had been simmering between the TPLF and Abiy since his ascension to power, as he worked to marginalize the formerly dominant Tigrayans at the national level of government. However, in impetuously taking on the battle-hardened TPLF, Abiy lit the match that has set fire to both his country and his many dreams for it.

Fighting quickly spread to other parts of the country, already a tinderbox of long-standing ethnic and tribal tensions. The TPLF, after bloodily regaining control of Tigray from Abiy, has pushed deep into the restive Amhara Province, while getting perilously close to cutting the main road linking the capital to the Port of Djibouti, through which a perilous 90 percent of the country’s trade flows.

The human cost of this avoidable civil war has been immense. It is estimated that 400,000 people are experiencing famine in Tigray as a result of the fighting. War crimes on both sides have abounded, with horrifying mass rapes being used as a weapon of war. Tens of thousands have died.

Perhaps worst of all, Abiy’s bright luster has turned into something out of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” The former democratic darling declared a state of emergency, giving police unlimited powers to search houses and arrest anyone accused of supporting the rebels, a dragnet that has caught thousands in its clutches.

Much of this ghastly outcome can be laid at the feet of one man; that is Abiy’s personal tragedy. But more it is the tragedy of Ethiopia, which is dependent on the fallible whims of one leader, rather than enduring institutions.

  • John C. Hulsman

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