Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde saw that ‘Abiy was dragging his country into an infernal spiral’

François Soudan
By François Soudan
Editor-in-chief of Jeune Afrique

Posted on Tuesday, 23 November 2021 16:05, updated on Wednesday, 24 November 2021 12:53

Ethiopia’s President Sahle-Work Zewde in Paris on 18 May 2021. ELIOT BLONDET-POOL/SIPA

Ethiopia’s President Sahle Work-Zewde, who only has a ceremonial role, neither approves nor supports Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s warmongering policy.

She is one of only two female heads of state on the continent, along with Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan. However, she is a powerless president, as the constitution has reduced her role to a ceremonial one. One can only imagine how dismayed and helpless she feels.

Since 4 November 2020, and the start of the war in Tigray, President Work-Zewde has been going through an ordeal that many of her friends and most of the diplomats posted in Addis Ababa know about, but which she cannot talk about publicly.

This independent, sensitive and cultured woman graduated from the University of Montpellier in France and then served as ambassador in Dakar, Djibouti and Paris. She later held other high-level positions within the UN in Bangui, Nairobi and then Addis.

From the beginning, she believed that Abiy Ahmed, the man who will undoubtedly remain the most controversial Nobel Prize recipient in history, was dragging his country into a sort of infernal spiral, where the two sides now only speak in terms of a final victory. She told Ahmed this over and over again, but he did not listen to her, as he says he only listens to God.

One year, dozens of massacres and thousands of deaths later, Work-Zewde still remains hopeful that the actors of the civil war will finally talk to each other. Her values have withstood the shock of ethnic clashes and the only reason that she has not resigned from her symbolic position is to keep this flame of dialogue alive.

Her attitude is all the more commendable because she is an Amhara, one of Ethiopia’s two major communities along with the Oromos, to which Ahmed belongs. Furthermore, the Amharas have suffered at the hands of the police dictatorship put in place by the Tigrayan elite for the past 27 years.

Between a rebellion – whose return in full force could only end up triggering other rebellions – and a prime minister who has lost all credibility to embody national reconciliation, this woman represents a third option that no one is even considering. She is the only one who can provide an answer on how to reconcile the maintenance of a state with its autonomous nationalities. This dilemma has haunted and undermined Ethiopia ever since the Negus fell in 1974.

When she was elected by both houses of parliament in October 2018, six months after Ahmed’s accession to power, Work-Zewde thought that he was the right man to solve this problem.

Unfortunately, politics soon changed – for the worse – the man who claimed that he wanted to reform it.

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