The seemingly unorthodox friendship between Abiy and Isaias are expressions of long lasting regional and socio-political interests.

Tenbite Yonas 06-18-20

To most observers of east African politics, the unlikely friendship that has emerged 2 years ago between PM Abiy Ahmed and President Isaias Afeworki may have seemed like a conundrum. If Abiy and Isaias' reconciliation, as representatives of their respective countries, was motivated by a sober desire for compromise in the spirit of peace and mutual interest, it would indeed have been lauded by all. But, even the most unsuspecting of Abiy's followers, who have enthusiastically defended the rather ambiguous peace deal with Eritrea, would be left a bit uneasy at the sight of the little too intimate relationship between Abiy and Isaias. In line with that, the hero like welcome Abiy received in Asmara and the manner in which similar over-enthusiasm has been reciprocated to Isaias in AA and Bahr Dar, was incongruent, to say the least, with prior sentiments of both societies. The whole situation does not seem to add up. A little while ago The Eritrean struggle for independence has been portrayed as 'treasonous' among the die-hard advocates of "Ethiopiawinet"; And Isaias, as leader and physical embodiment of that struggle, was seen as 'the banda/traitor' par excellence. Similarly, EPLF and later the Eritrean government has always held Ethiopia as a colonizer and subsequently worked towards inculcating a feeling of hate and enmity among Eritreans especially towards 'one Ethiopia' advocates. So what prompted the people of these cities, who are known to be hotbeds of these mutually irreconcilable ideologies, to suddenly abandon their long held 'misconceptions' and glorify their villains? Some may say that the over-enthusiasm of the people of these cities was the outcome of the exhaustion they felt by the tediously protracted enmity with their fellow brethren and their subsequent yearning for peace. Accordingly, the intense adoration that Abiy and Isaias received is supposed to be perceived as a gesture of gratitude for making it happen. But loving peace and rushing for reconciliation is one thing; but turning a villain into a hero and worshipping him as such is another. As for the 'exhaustion' part, it may explain the reaction of the people on the immediate vicinity of the border conflict (and indeed, we have seen what true enthusiasm looked like in Zalambessa) but the argument would be overstretched to include the rapture in Addis and Bahr Dar. Watching Isaias accompanied by a citywide parade and making speeches at the inauguration of public service buildings he'd been working hard to demolish was bizarre to say the least. All in all, call it whatever you want, but seeing Abiy and Isaias going around in each other's arms like new lovers on a honeymoon and the mass euphoria that follows them seem a little too unrealistic and one is bound to take it with a pinch of salt. One cannot help but wonder if this show was also some sort of a gibe aimed at another party. But this bromance between the two ended up being more than just a fling. Detractors, who may've had played it down by suggesting that eventually, this unorthodox relationship is going to come down to earth and face political realities, seem to have got their calculations wrong. It has persisted for more than two years. Neither the sarcasm of skeptics nor the corona outbreak was able to keep them apart as is testified by Isaias' recent visit amidst the heat of the pandemic. So it would be timely to ask: "is the relationship serious?" Again, had their career and ideology not been so different, even this would not have provoked unusual attention. But here are two leaders who, on the surface, have absolutely nothing in common. At face value, their difference couldn't be more stark. One is depicted as an archaic despot who seems determined to hold power to his last breath. The other, in contrast, is often portrayed by certain medias as a young, progressive and charismatic leader, who quickly developed a reputation for opening 'the gates of democracy' hitherto unheard of in Sub-Saharan Africa. What has a Nobel peace prize winning, democracy preaching, locally 'supported', internationally courted, leader like Abiy in common with a tyrant of Isaias' proportions? But moving beyond stereotypical portrayals, and cursory level inspection of their political character as well as ideological convictions, soon reveals that they have much more in common than meets the eye.

Ideological similarities: Medemer – a leaf out of EPLF's manifesto?

Abiy's administration has been striving for the past two years to popularize the 'Medemer' ideology. While many aspects of this ideology remain vague and baffling even to its very advocates, the actions and speeches of its prominent leaders provide acute observers with clues as to what lies beneath its bewitching cover. Among these (i) an emphasis on unity and (ii) a stern refusal to take sides in the left-right political spectrum stand out. Abiy's initial effort was focused on selling his new ideology as some sort of a bridge between the two extremes of 'Unitarianism' and the so-called 'ethnic sectarianism'. The very word Medemer, literally meaning 'to be added', and translated as 'synergy' was perhaps cautiously chosen to find a reconciling middle ground between the two extremes: i.e (a) those whose political ideologies were crafted to vigilantly resist what they perceived as assimilative uniformitarian tendencies aimed at 'robbing' them of their ethnic uniqueness and (b) those who strove to put an end to what they saw as divisive ethnic tendencies that caused discord and national instability. Putting a stress on the term 'addition', in place of 'unity' is, of course, meant to console supposedly 'paranoid' ethnicists by recognizing plurality in Abiy's endeavor towards unity. After all, 'to be added' inherently admits the presence of 'many' that are to be brought together into unity. But, over time, whether initially intended or otherwise, and perhaps out of a practical need to bolster support, Abiy seems to have chosen a side and 'Medemer' has since been correctly understood by many to have come to mean just a less traumatic label for the age old 'andinet/unity'. Leaving aside the exhausting debate of whether 'Medemer' is or is not a repackaging of the extremist Unitarian ideology of the Derg and the emperors, we can at least agree that Abiy's catch-word is aimed at reversing the gear of the previous 2 decades by 'de-emphasizing' ethnic uniqueness and autonomy and re-establishing a common 'Ethiopian' identity as the foundation for building a nation state. This, of course, harmonizes with EPLF's stance, which had long rejected the idea of giving recognition to the 'national question' and opted for implementing a strongly Unitarian model on pluralist Eritrea. On the other hand, regarding the Left-right spectrum, 'Medemer' has been lauded by Abiy's followers for its marked divergence from the customary tendency, commonly evident among most local parties, of choosing to embrace either Marxist or neoliberal categories and for preferring instead to remain eclectic, choosing whatever works without dogmatic attachment to either side. To drive this point home, Abiy's manifesto goes to great length to criticize and at times, even confer unrestrained contempt on political movements of the 60s for their archaic bigotry and superficial adoption of alien concepts. Moreover, 'Medemer' was also portrayed by its preachers as having been founded on indigenous political wisdom which is supposed to possess, through inward introspection of one's socio-political history, an arcane formula that enables it to resist categorization and exhibit self-reliance. At the same time, this mighty and exclusively local philosophy, is to occupy indisputable position on the political arena judging the validity of foreign ideologies while, itself, remaining inscrutable. Interestingly such alarmingly dogged resistance to scrutiny and adamant insistence to be considered as a unique and indigenous philosophy has been one of the most consistent traits of EPLF's and later PFDJ's political orientation of the past four decades. While for practical reasons, EPLF may have started out as an adherent of Marxism and Maoism, it had soon produced its own distinct course that was not confined to formal ideological categories: Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the EPLF was (at least in theory) a Marxist-Leninist organization of the kind common throughout the lands of the old colonial empires… Adopting a purely 'toolbox approach', the EPLF selected from an array of left-wing revolutionary ideologies to forge its own… Waging a lonely anti-colonial struggle where the colonial was not identified as such, transgressive to the logic of Cold War by its positioning against the Soviet-backed Ethiopian Derg regime, aligned with secular Arab nationalism and yet waging its own civil war against Islamic sectarianism, the Eritrean People's Liberation Front … resisted facile categorization. The EPLF itself fostered Eritrea and its own organization as both isolated and inscrutable, insisting on pragmatism as its main ideological thrust , and turning inward to foster a strategy for national liberation. (O'Kane & Hepneer, 2009)
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