Illustration of Abiy Ahmed for OkayAfrica by Bright Ackwerh

Heavy Is the Head: The Trials of Abiy Ahmed

Who is Abiy Ahmed? Two years ago, the Ethiopian Prime Minister accepted the Nobel Peace Prize during a glittery ceremony. Today, he presides over a bloody war and a growing humanitarian crisis. Can Abiy end the conflict before it upends Ethiopia?


Like the brutal war he now presides over, Ethiopian Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed's nature and character must be gleaned from two diametrically opposed viewpoints. To his supporters, he is a Nobel laureate and visionary reformist faced with the near-impossible task of uniting a deeply divided nation. For hardcore Abiyists, he is the chosen one, here to build a better Ethiopia, battling enemies foreign and domestic.

Historically, Ethiopia has proven difficult to govern. Few outside of the corridors of Ethiopian power know how complex and layered this recent conflict is. The Amharas ruled the land for centuries with a feudal system that produced transcendent culture, beautiful architecture but also violently suppressed groups like the Oromo. The time of Abyssinian emperors, empresses, and ras reaches back to biblical times and is rife with imperial conflict and conquest. Leaders needed to remain on a war footing. The regional borders were amorphous and seismic shifts in power and control were par for the course. Strength and ruthlessness went hand in hand.

This inconvenient truth about Ethiopia's long running internal conflicts belies some of its mythology. Pan-Africans drew inspiration and strength from the story of the sole African state able to repel the colonial powers and maintain their sovereignty. The modern state of Ethiopia only emerged after the reign of the Amharas was disrupted by a communist uprising against Haile Selassie, followed by a subsequent uprising against the Communists. Millions of lives were lost. The current Federation Abiy governs sits atop regional volcanic fissures which are perpetually threatening to explode. Even before the Tigray region rebelled, Abiy faced a daunting task.

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