Charisma: Is it a Path for Ethiopia?

Messay Kebede

Messay Kebede is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton in in Ohio

Thanks to a friend, I recently read an article written by Andreas Eshete and Samuel Assefa for a conference held in Addis Ababa and titled “Reflections on Expanding Ethiopia’s Democratic Space” ( The article takes note of Ethiopia’s turn toward a more open and democratic path and applauds it as a timely and relevant correction to the glaring mistakes of the past. It also gives a cogent analysis of the challenges and dangers that the turn is already facing and is bound to face with increasing intensity as the date of the national elections approaches. My focus in this write-up is on the article’s conceptualization of the main danger threatening the country and the remedy that it proposes.

According to the article, among the challenges that Ethiopia is facing, the proliferation and exasperation of “nationalist populisms” hold by far the highest rank. Nationalist populism is the highest danger because it can break up and weaken the only nationally viable governing alliance, namely, the EPRDF, the obvious consequence of which would be the disintegration of Ethiopia. The article attributes, albeit in a veiled manner, this ominous possible outcome to the reckless breakup of the new leadership, both in the name of reform and for the purpose of gaining popular support, with the guiding ideology of the EPRDF. Otherwise known as the “developmental state,” this guiding principle had enabled the EPRDF to unite the various nationalisms around a shared common goal while countering by its very developmental project the proliferation of populisms.

In rejecting the developmental ideology, the new leadership underestimates its “great potential in restraining nationalist passions and in building national cohesion.” Instead, the new leadership wants to mitigate ethnonationalism by championing “a form of pan-Ethiopian nationalism.” In so doing, it forgets that the popular unrests that made possible a change in leadership were driven by nationalist and populist demands, be they in the Oromo or Amhara regions, to name the most important ones. The attempt to unite such nationalist movements by a pan-Ethiopian ideology and economic liberalism has little chance to succeed, as shown by the fact that even those who champion the ideology are increasingly forced to support ethnonationalist claims under pain of losing their constituents to rival ethnic parties. It stands to reason that the integration of nationalist and populist demands is the only way by which the various parties composing the EPRDF can compete against their rival regional parties and maintain their political relevance. With national elections fast approaching, the tendency to identify with the nationalist and populist base can only increase, thereby putting a severe strain on the ability of the new leadership to keep the EPRDF united.

Most striking about Andreas and Samuel’s article is the discrepancy between the lucidity of the analysis of the challenges facing the country and the solution it suggests to offset those challenges. Indeed, the plea for a resumption of the ideology of developmental state to counter nationalist populisms and consolidate the unity of the EPRDF seems hardly appropriate. Moreover, what else does the plea disclose but a long overdue refusal to engage in a serious critical analysis of the ideological orientation and practices of the previous TPLF-dominated EPRDF? After all, who can deny that the proliferation and intensification of nationalist populisms are the direct results of the TPLF’s rule, not to mention the fact that the TPLF is currently pouring fuel on these movements in an attempt to destabilize the new leadership? Not only does the proposed solution want to change the disease into a remedy, but it also refuses to admit that the theory of developmental state cannot work where national unity and cohesion are undermined by ethnonationalist movements, especially when one ethnic group has a hegemonic position, as was the case with the TPLF. In other words, a serious attempt to implement the theory of developmental state would require, from the start, a Pan-Ethiopian ideology, not the institution of ethnonationalist borders.

As stated above, the article questions the viability of a pan-Ethiopian ideology on the ground that identification with ethnic and populist demands determines, whether one likes it or not, political legitimacy in today’s Ethiopia. So that, the likelihood of preserving the unity of the EPRDF in the framework of a pan-Ethiopian ideology is little sustainable, especially in the context of free and fair national elections. But is it true that only a return to the ideology of developmental state can guarantee the unity of the country? As I have already suggested many times, the feasible way to harmonize the unity of the country with the ethnic units is to institute a nationally elected presidential figure with substantial executive power. However, I admit that this solution is hard to implement, since it demands nothing short of a change in the Constitution, a move that both ethnicized elites and nationalist populist movements would certainly oppose.

Admittedly, then, no other alternative is left to preserve the unity of the country than a resurgence of some form of authoritarian government. It seems to me that this is exactly where Andreas and Samuel’s article is heading when it advises the resumption of the ideology of the developmental state minus the corruptions and human rights abuses of the previous government. To be sure, it would have been the only way out were it not for the availability of a form of authoritarianism that is transitory in addition to not being inimical to the progression of democracy and the free market economy. The truth is that the concept of developmental state is unworkable in an ethnically divided country. It is equally true that only democracy granting an extensive self-rule prerogative can satisfy ethnonationalist demands and that this requirement is incompatible with the interventionist and authoritarian methods of the developmental state.

We owe to Max Weber the conceptualization of a transitory type of authoritarianism with the potential to pave the way for democratic changes. I have in mind the phenomenon of charisma (the usual term being “great man”): unlike traditional authority, charismatic authority is transformative and, unlike revolutionary authority, it has a great potential to avoid dictatorship on condition that it is progressively institutionalized. Charisma provides a form of leadership whose legitimacy emanates neither from the sanctity of tradition nor from the fear that a dictatorial authority often inspires. Instead, its authority derives from the perceived uncommon qualities of the leader, whatever be the origin assigned to those qualities. The perception creates a special bond between the leader and the people as a result of which the latter readily respond to the directives of the leader, often outside or against their traditional or partisan references.

The main question should then be whether Prime Minister Abiye shows the signs of being a charismatic leader. Recall that it is right after his election to premiership that observers, seeing the electrifying impact that he has on people, started to speak of “Abiymania.” In an article I wrote in September, I myself cautioned against the rush to see Abiye as a God-sent messiah because such a qualification visibly carries the danger of deviation toward dictatorship. However, I saw, since then, some signs, which, although unable to dismiss my fear, are reassuring enough. Abiye seems to be using his charisma as much to galvanize people as to building institutions, as shown by his sustained dialogue with the opposition so as to ensure fair and free elections and his effort to protect the independence of the judiciary. If this trend continues, there is no doubt that Abiye’s lofty vision for Ethiopia, the concrete steps he is taking to materialize it, and his obvious humanitarian penchant tick all the boxes of a charismatic leader.

Assuming that this analysis is correct, the next question is to know in what way the emergence of a charismatic leader from the EPRDF can deflect the danger posed by nationalist populism. The answer is not hard to find: since charisma is a galvanizing power that overflows localities and regions, it is well suited to promote a Pan-Ethiopian vision. What the various parties composing the EPRDF must to do to prevail over the nationalist populist movements in a fair and free election is to add to their program the factor Abiye. They can do this in various ways, but the principal message must be that their victory means nothing less than the continuation of Abiye as Prime Minister. Notably, they must inculcate in the mind of their regional voters that their electoral loss entails the loss of Abiye’s leadership with all the uncertainties and dangers that such an outcome is bound to cause. In other words, to marginalize their opponents, they must compete with their own positive agenda but also as supporters and electors of Abiye.

This is to say that charisma provides a concrete link between pan-Ethiopianism and regional identities. If it achieves electoral success through the reelection of Abiye as Prime Minister and the sidelining of nationalist populist movements, the remaining urgent task would be to institutionalize it. It is urgent because if charisma continues to operate as a personal magnetism it will deteriorate, as sated earlier, into a personal dictatorship. Institutionalization makes it accountable to the people while also allowing a legal transfer of power to whomever wins in the next presidential elections. Be it noted that the electoral success of the EPRDF as a guarantor of Abiye’s premiership is a de facto approval of a presidential system by the majority of Ethiopians. This popular sanction nicely prepares the ground for the legalization and implementation of a presidential power by means of democratic universal suffrage occurring in conjunction with ethnic based regional elections. In this way, identity politics will have its representation in the parliament while it is at the same time transcended by a presidential power incarnating pan-Ethiopianism.


Messay Kebede

University of Dayton




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