The rise of Abiy Ahmed in Ethiopia and the revival of Africa’s short memory of hate are inseparably linked.
Africans have been at least as violent as anything ever perpetrated by other peoples; what is distinctive about Africans is their short memory of hate—so said Kenyan scholar Ali Mazrui. By way of illustration Mazrui thus described four examples.
Jomo Kenyatta was unjustly imprisoned by the British colonial authorities in 1952 over charges of founding the Mau Mau movement in Kenya. And yet, when Jomo Kenyatta was released, he not only forgave the white settlers, but also turned the whole country towards a basic pro-Western orientation to which it has remained committed ever since.
Ian Smith, the white settler leader of Rhodesia, unilaterally declared independence in 1965 and unleashed a civil war on Rhodesia. Thousands of people, mainly Back, died in the country as a result of policies pursued by Ian Smith. Yet, when the war ended in 1980, he was not subjected to a Nuremberg-style trial; on the contrary, Ian Smith was himself a member of parliament in Black-ruled Zimbabwe, busy criticising the post-Smith Black leaders of Zimbabwe as incompetent and dishonest.
The Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) was the most highly publicised civil conflict in postcolonial African history. When the war was coming to an end, many people feared that there would be a bloodbath in the defeated eastern region. But nothing like this occurred. Nigerians discovered in 1970 some remarkable resources of self-restraint. There were no triumphant reprisals against the vanquished Biafrans; there were no vengeful trials of “traitors.”
We have also witnessed the phenomenon of Nelson Mandela. He lost 27 of the best years of his life in prison under the laws of the apartheid regime. Yet, when he was released, he not only emphasised the policy of reconciliation—he often went beyond the call of duty. When he became President in 1994, Mandela went out of his way to pay a social call and have tea with the unrepentant widow of Hendrick F. Verwoerd, the supreme architect of the worst forms of apartheid, who shaped the whole racist order from 1958 to 1966. Mandela was having tea with the family of Verwoerd.
Mazrui could have easily added more examples. But the recent chain of events in Ethiopia is quite remarkable. Africa’s short memory of hate is at work again under the leadership of Abiy Ahmed, who, at 41, also became the youngest leader in Africa, after assuming premiership in April 2018.
Abiy Ahmed has eloquently preached peace, love and forgiveness in Ethiopia. He has also practiced what he has preached. For instance, he freed Andargachew Tsige, a man on death row for presumably seeking to overthrow Ethiopia’s government, and invited him to the Grand Palace. The two also posed for a photo together. He dined with Merera Gudina, Bekele Gerba and other opposition figures some of whom were languishing in Ethiopia’s notorious jail only months earlier. Abiy’s call for compromise and reconciliation has so far been widely embraced, not least because he is tapping into the culture of tolerance and forgiveness, effectively reactivating the short memory of hate that is deeply rooted in African cultures.
Abiy is precisely the kind of imaginatively versatile and mobilisational leader Ethiopia needed at this crucial time in its history. His personal magnetism has been a bonus. It is therefore abundantly clear now that his rise and the dramatic revival of Ethiopia’s short memory of hate are inter-related. In effect, what Abiy Ahmed and his comrades are seeking to do is transform Ethiopia without bloodshed just like Japan’s Meiji leaders had successfully done in 1868.
Although Prime Minister Abiy’s policy output is still modest, his promise has attracted international interest, too. He has already been compared to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama. To be placed alongside these global icons is indeed the highest praise for any African leader, or for any leader for that matter, and, by extension, for his/her country.
The fact that Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa lends extra significance to the recent chain of events in Ethiopia. The trend is extremely encouraging.
It can be hoped that others, too, would take a leaf out of Africa’s cultural experience and learn from its short memory of hate. Historically, the Nobel Committee in Oslo, Norway, seemed in any case to have shared such optimism, judging by the impressive number of Africans and peoples of African descent who were winners of the Nobel Prize for Peace since the second half of the 20th century. They include Ralph Bunche (1950), Albert Luthuli (1960), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964), Anwar Sadat (1978), Desmond Tutu (1984), Nelson Mandela (1993), Kofi Annan (2001), Wangari Mathai (2004), and Barack Obama (2009).
* Seifudein Adem teaches at Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan, and can be reached at <[email protected]>.