Wax & Gold: The tightrope challenges facing Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed
In confronting various tricky dilemmas, Ethiopia’s next prime minister may want to turn to an old literary practice.
Ahmed will inherit a country full of contradictions. With a population of 100 million and one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world, Ethiopia has regularly been held up as a positive example by neighbours and partners around the world. Yet with widespread protests persisting for years, it has also been seen as a worrying site of multi-faceted discontent.
Ethiopia’s famous literary system known as “wax and gold” can sum this apparent incongruity neatly. This poetic practice plays with double meanings. Wax is what is observed on the surface; gold signifies what lies beneath.
A quick example is instructive. A well-told story tells of how Aleqa Gebre-Hanna, a quick-witted 19th century priest, went to dinner at a friend’s modest hut. While the family was preparing, the priest saw a rat jumping out of the basket containing the injera. The guest did not want to embarrass anyone, so said nothing. After the meal, however, he chose a blessing that ended with a double-layered word: Belanew tetanew kenjeraw kewetu; Egziabeher yestelegne ke mesobu aytu. On the surface, this message simply prays to God that the family “may not lack”. But the gold beneath the wax comes from the fact that “aytu” is also the word for “rat”.
When Abiy Ahmed takes on the tough task of governing Ethiopia, he will have to operate with similar interpretive deftness. His popularity and legitimacy derive from his status as a relative outsider, yet is now head of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the much-maligned ruling coalition that has ruled for 27 years. He will have to impose deep structural reforms to appease protesters, yet may have to rely on powerful colleagues – including would-be losers from such meaningful change – to do this. And he will have to present an image of a thriving Ethiopia to the world, while simultaneously being open and vocal in confronting the many rats in the Ethiopian injera.
Ethiopia’s “wax” – the face it has projected globally – has been impressive in recent years. Over time, it has managed to shed its associations with drought, famine and poverty, and become synonymous instead with booming economic growth.
Bodies such as the World Bank, along with international media, have celebrated its successes in reducing poverty, increasing school enrolment, and improving access to clean water. Meanwhile, its approach to ambitious large-scale projects and commitment to industrialisation and infrastructure-building has been praised. For a country and population that cares deeply about its public image, its reputation as an “African tiger” leading the continent – and most of the world in terms of its growth rate – elicited a lot of pride.
Becoming Prime Minister of this country might be an enviable task, but as Ahmed well knows, this lauded story has always turned a blind eye to deep problems below the surface.
Economic and political marginalisation
The reality is that while Ethiopia’s economic growth has created opportunities, it has also led to contestation and marginalisation. This deep sense of economic discrimination has been a leading grievance in the enormous protest movements that have gripped Ethiopia in recent years and precipitated the change in PM.
In the face of these demonstrations, the government has admitted that the economy is infiltrated by “rent-seekers”. This diagnosis would suggest that the remedy is to purge rotten apples. But this misses the fact that the underlying system itself has been wired in such a way as to benefit ruling elites. These beneficiaries largely consist of those associated with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the senior party in the EPRDF.
This provides Ahmed with a unique challenge. On the one hand, no leader can survive without the TPLF’s blessing. This means Ahmed will have to work closely with their figures, who remain in charge of the country’s economic power base and control security and defence. The TPLF may be shaken by the ongoing turmoil, but its leaders are still the key powerbrokers.
On the other hand, however, the people are expecting and demanding radical reforms that will fundamentally change this fact. Ahmed ascended politically on a wave of protest movements, particularly amongst the Oromo and Amhara who together make up two-thirds of the population. He was widely seen as the only potential candidate for PM with the legitimacy to carry out genuine reforms, and his appointment is being popularly celebrated across much of Ethiopia. He cannot afford to disappoint.
Ahmed is thus faced with a classic wax and gold dilemma. Going after the TPLF in word and deed may lead to powerful resistance from the inside that he cannot contain. Equally, only tweaking around the edges and calling for incremental progress will only reignite protesters’ grievances and impatience. The new PM may find that whatever approach he takes, he may need to add some wax to shield the underlying gold.
Walking the tightrope
Ahmed will also face some difficult balancing acts in other areas of governance. One will be Ethiopia’s age-old ethnic challenges. The EPRDF’s attempted solution to this has been ethnic federalism. But applied incompletely and unevenly, this approach has led to notions of ethnic hierarchy and feelings of discrimination. Not all Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups were afforded the ability to self-govern, for example. Meanwhile, although the EPRDF was supposed to represent all ethnicities, it was clear that the TPLF was in charge.
Ahmed will be Ethiopia’s first Oromo prime minster under the EPRDF. This is a significant milestone for Oromiya, and it was predicted that if a non-Oromo had been appointed, protests in the region could have reignited spectacularly. For both the Oromo and Amhara, ethnicity has become a crucial identity around which mobilisation has occurred.
In speeches, Ahmed has largely utilised rhetoric that has attempted to be pan-Ethiopian rather than ethnic. His legitimacy in the eyes of Ethiopians across the country also derives from this inclusivity. The tricky challenge he now faces is in taking on systemic bias towards the Tigrayan ethnic group, retaining his standing as the first Oromo PM, but all the while maintaining his image of being the leader of all Ethiopians, recognising all their cultural and linguistic uniqueness.
Finally, the new PM faces another tightrope act over how to approach political freedoms. The EPRDF has typically been highly repressive towards dissenters and the opposition. Ahmed has a military background, but seems to be among the new breed of leaders who do not necessarily share the fears of TPLF elites who came to power through years of bloody war. Ahmed might be better placed to allow more space for the opposition and, as a reformer, may be expected to do so. However, as prime minister of a divided nation, he may become increasingly aware that allowing greater political freedoms could bring with it risks to his own position and ability to govern.
With the country at a historic crossroads, Abiy Ahmed faces some deep and often contradictory problems. How he approaches them will shape Ethiopia for years to come. However, in solving them, he may find some assistance in his country’s literary traditions from long past.