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The Populist Prime Minister of Ethiopia and His Development Priorities


The Populist Prime Minister of Ethiopia and His Development Priorities

Assefa A. Lemu 7-28-19

1.     Introduction

Understanding the personality/characteristics of the person who leads our country, his political tactics and strategies, his intentions, goals, and visions are very important. We can learn some of these from what he wrote, what he spoke, and what he did. To this end, I read Dr. Abiy’s book titled “Erkab Ena Menber” and shared my review of that book with the readers ( I tried to listen to almost all of his speeches. My assessment of his speeches and deeds leads me to conclude that Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed is a “populist” Prime Minister. His development priorities also geared towards leaving footprint and legacy and building popularity.  Below, I will explain what a populism mean, why I say he is a populist, and his actions that prove that he is a populist. Not to bore the readers, I will keep the theoretical and conceptual part short.

2.     What are Populism and Populist?

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, populism is a “political program or movement that champions the common person, usually by favorable contrast with an elite. Populism usually combines elements of the left and the right...”.  Populism usually characterized by emotionally-charged political appeals to address crises.  For example one of the known populist leaders President Trump said “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost”.  Jean-Paul Gagnon defines populism as follows: “As the name suggests … it may be the invocation of ‘the people’ who are betrayed, wronged, or otherwise left vulnerable to forces outside their control. In fact, we find in the corpus that populism is typically a reaction to a deep crisis, real or perceived in diverse and large democracies”  (Jean-Paul Gagnon, December 2018).

Populism does not neatly match the left-right divide and ideologically ambiguous or “thin-centered,” that is, it attaches itself to diverse (and sometimes even contradictory) ideological projects depending on the political moment (Jean-Paul Gagnon, December 2018). The right, the left, and, even the center, could adopt the style of populism to reap electoral rewards by appealing to common persons’ emotion.  Populism is animated based on crises and perceived victims. According to Benjamin Arditi, “ Populism resembles a drunken guest at a dinner party: he’s not respecting table manners, he is rude, he might even start flirting with the wives of other guests”(quoted in Müller, June 04, 2017:8).

Jean-Paul Gagnon and his colleagues disaggregated populism into the six cleavages: (1) authoritarian and democratic, (2) market fundamentalist (libertarian) and redistributive, (3) exclusionary and inclusionary (anti-pluralist and pluralist), (4) xenophobic and cosmopolitan, (5) electoral and participatory (thick) (6) nostalgic and aspirational.  In my opinion, the populism we are observing in Ethiopia is the last cleavage (nostalgic and aspirational) because it talks a lot how great Ethiopia was in the past even though that talk is questioned by some, how great her kings were and considering oneself as a new king, concerned about legacy and ambition to change the lives of ordinary people through voluntarism, pressurizing public officials to work beyond their regular work hours and on the weekends.

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An individual, a political party, or a social movement who promotes populism is called populist.  At the face value, if populism is considered working for the people, then the populists is someone who works for the people. Populist is usually seen as a synonym for “antiestablishment” and also primarily associated with particular moods and emotions: populists are “angry”; their voters are “frustrated” or suffer from “resentment” (Müller, June 04, 2017:1). Populists are critical of elites and the status quo, claim that they, and only they, represent the people, hijack the state apparatus and sometimes emasculate the constitution.

3.     Prime Minister Dr. Abiy’s Antiestablishment Position

Antiestablishment means an action or idea which is against something that already exists and commonly accepted. Not only when Dr. Abiy and his colleagues broke EPRDF from inside out, but also when he said EPRDF didn’t win Derg, EPRDF was a terrorist (, and took other actions against established EPRDF principles and values, he proved that he is antiestablishment. Step by step and in a smart way, he undermined EPRDF policies, the federal system, and the constitution. Even though Article 48 of the constitution says State members of FDRE have borders, he said they do not have borders but administrative boundaries which can be changed any time and established Administrative Boundaries and Identity Issues Commission that can undercut the authority given by the constitution to the House of the Federation.

In his inaugural speech of April 2, 2018, he said “In past years, because of lack of democratic culture, damages have been done to the lives and properties of our citizens. I request heart-felt forgiveness for the sacrifices paid by the advocates of human rights, politicians, youth who were killed for demanding change, individuals and families who are affected psychological and physically. At the same time, I would like to express my appreciation to the members of the security forces who lost their lives while discharging their peace and security maintaining responsibilities vested on them by the constitution and laws. I promise that we will compensate our people by giving solutions to the problems that lead to these damages (  

Even though showing sympathy to those who were killed and suffered from the brutality of security forces of the government and expressing appreciation who perpetrated the killing and the suffering are contradictory, his objective was to denounce what were done under EPRDF- led Ethiopian government before him and to announce a fresh start.  He told us the dark years were over, but the problems which led to the protests against EPRDF- led Government of Ethiopia including the Special interest of Oromia on Addis Ababa per Article 49 (5) of the constitution, lack of good governance, corruption and unemployment are not yet solved and another wave of protest might be seen. Let’s examine Prime Minister Dr. Abiy’s antiestablishment position further by taking additional examples.

3.1 He has an Intention to Change the Current Regionalization of Ethiopia

In his speech made at the Commerzbank-Arena stadium in Frankfurt, Germany, on October 31, 2018 he said “One thing that you must be assured is that Ethiopia is not a private land that anyone rise up and bake her like a bread in a size and shape he/she wants….As a saying goes when fire falls asleep the hay visited it”( We know no foreign power came to occupy Ethiopia and tried to change its shape and size and he didn’t liberate Ethiopia from any foreign force and he didn’t avert any foreign danger. Thus, the possible inference from that speech is that he is referring to the current regionalization of Ethiopia and it seems that he has an intention to change the current regionalization. His speech implies that the hay that visited the fire is EPRDF which brought the current regionalization. 

Four months earlier, in a discussion held with the residents of Guragie Zone in Welkite town in June 2018, Prime Minister Abiy said “a leader who doesn’t know the culture and religion of the people he is leading is not leading. It can’t work like that; he will float. Without knowing the people and their ways of life there is no leading, but driving ( If we assume this proposition is true, what is the reason to change the current regionalization which upholds the principle of self-administration and encourages the idea of the administration of the people by someone who is close to them, who knows their culture, religion, and ways of life?

3.2 Wish to Change the form of Ethiopian Government from Parliamentary System to Presidential


In the discussion made with the representatives of Sidama in Hawassa in June 2018, Prime Minister Dr. Abiy disclosed that he wants the system of government of Ethiopia to be changed from parliamentary to presidential and the term of office to be limited to two terms only ( ). David Pilling and Lionel Barber from the Financial Times who interviewed Prime Minister Dr. Abiy also reported that “He would also like to move to a presidential system in which leaders are directly elected, he says, rather than the current indirect process conducted through an EPRDF-dominated parliament”. Ethiopia is not the only country whose leader is elected through representative democratic procedures and there is no political theory which says the leader must be elected only through direct democracy or pure democracy. Please see the comparison of presidential and parliamentary systems in Ethiopian context here: .


3.3.         Encouraging the Idea of Amending the Constitution

On different occasions, Prime Minister Abiy mentioned the possibility of amending the constitution and encouraged individuals and parties to generate the idea for the amendment. For example, in his July 1, 2019 address to Ethiopian Peoples’ Representatives, he stressed that the current constitution has an article on procedures for amendment of the constitution and he said he cannot be a defender of the constitution more than the constitution itself and showed his openness to the amendment of the constitution ( To support his argument, he mentioned the experiences of the United States, India, and South Korea in amending their respective constitutions.

 It should be recalled that in April 2019 statement, Prime Minister’s National Security Advisor in the rank of Minister Mr. Temesgen Tiruneh said “the threat to Ethiopian security is ethnic politics” ( Therefore, it seems that Dr. Abiy and his advisors reached at the conclusion that the cause of conflicts in Ethiopia is the constitution and it must be changed or amended to ban ethnic based politics. The conclusion of the Prime Minister’s Office is similar with the conclusion of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party (ECSJP) ( . This confirms Andargachew Tsigie’s statement which says Prime Minister Dr. Abiy’s government is implementing the roadmap given to it by Ginbot 7 (

However, some opposition political party leaders such as Mr. Bekele Gerba don’t agree with the idea which says the constitution and the current federal system are the source of conflict (  It is interesting that the chairman of EPRDF wants to undo what EPRDF did in the past and some of the leaders of opposition parties defend what EPRDF did. The position of Dr. Abiy emboldened some individuals to blame the current federal system for being loose like a confederation and call for the tighter federalism that can slash some of the rights of the federal member States ( and ).

4.     The Development Priorities of Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed

Ethiopia has a five year development plan called the Second Growth and Transformation Plan (GTPII). As stated in preface of GTP II document “ The major objective of GTP II is to serve as a spring board towards realizing the national vision of becoming a low middle-income country by 2025, through sustaining the rapid, broad based and inclusive economic growth, which accelerates economic transformation and the journey towards the country’s Renascence”. It is not clear if the vision, priorities, resource mobilization and utilization of Prime Minister Abiy is aligning with the GTP II or not, but what is clear is  that he is coming up with new visions and new priorities and mobilizing and allocating resources to his priorities. Below, we will briefly discuss some of his development priorities.

4.1 The Addis Ababa Riverside Project

The Addis Ababa Riverside Project is a 29 billion birr (about $1.03 billion) and three-year (2019-2022) project initiated by Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed and launched on February 21, 2019. The main purpose of the project is to lift the image and investment potential of Addis Ababa (Shaban, Feb. 22, 2019).  It is hoped that the project will create jobs, increase urban tourism, and create recreational parks and green areas for the residents of the city.  The project is said will run along the two biggest rivers  in Addis Ababa – stretching all the way from Entoto Mountain to Akaki and covering a total of 51 kilometers (27.5 kms on one river and 23.8 kms on the other). The project will be implemented by Varnero PLC.

According to The Reporter, when Prime Minister Dr. Abiy disclose his idea of Addis Ababa Riverside Project to the representatives of Addis Ababa City Administration in December 2018, it was a surprise to them (The Reporter, December 8, 2018). This shows that City Administration was not consulted during the problem analysis, if there is one. If the City Administration was not consulted, we don’t reasonably expect the consultation had happened with those who are directly impacted by the project. As multiple sources show, the design of Addis Ababa Riverside Project followed top-down project design where the higher organ instructed the lower organ to implement the project selected by the higher official. This approach has advantage of getting the support of the higher decision maker and required budget and may be implemented quickly. The disadvantage is lack of buy-in as the beneficiaries might feel that their voices were not heard and sustainability.

In addition to raising external resources, the owner of the idea of Addis Ababa Riverside Project Dr, Abiy mobilized domestic resources by organizing the lavish fund raising dinner called “Sheger Dinner” on May 19, 2019. About 300 business persons and representatives of organizations paid 5 million Birr ($173,000) for a plate to dine at the renovated former Emperor Menelik II’s Palace,  Asnake dining hall. This means, Prime Minister was able to raise at least 1.5 billion Birr ($51.9 million) through Sheger Dinner.  Even though I am not clear how much it makes business sense, paying for the expensive dinner and contributing to the Addis Ababa Riverside Project has been considered as a good opportunity by some of the managers of state owned enterprises to support the priority of the Prime Minister. For example, the Government owned Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE) allocated half a billion Birr for the project (it bought ten plates of Sheger Dinner and contributed the remaining 450 million birr in direct support for the project) (Capital, May 13, 2019). It seems that the management of the CBE believed in the saying “the request of a king is tantamount to an order” and followed an order.

As I didn’t see the detailed analysis of the project, its theory of change, cost-benefit analysis and sustainability analysis, it is difficult to say much on this. However, I doubt the assumption of beautifying Addis Ababa with $1.03 billion is the best project for attracting more investment and tourism, job creation and income generation. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business index, Ethiopia is ranked 159 out of 190 countries. Even though Ethiopia is better than its neighbors except Kenya which is ranked 61, much have to be done in the area of regulatory environment, law and order, as well as capacity building of Government institutions in service delivery to attract foreign investors and encourage domestic investors.  

4.2 The Menelik II’s Palace Renovation Project

The Menelik II’s Palace Renovation project was designed by Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed and said that the project has been implemented “with zero government expenditure” (The Reporter, December 8, 2018). Unless it is proved that Dr. Abiy worked on this project outside of his regular government work hours, the time he spent designing the project and the time he spent supervising the implementation of the project are costs to the government  because government paid him salary for those times. At least the time of security guards who are paid by the government and providing security service to the project site is cost to the government. May be, other government resources such as water and electricity were used for this project and I doubt if the statement of “zero cost to the government” is true.  According to The Reporter, Ethiopians living abroad have contributed to the renovation by sending foreign contractors and there were also people supporting the renovation with their knowledge. The renovation includes Prime Minister’s Office and residence which are found on the palace compound and renovated palace is expected to be open to public in September 2019. The objective of this project is said to generate income from tourism and promote Ethiopia’s history.

According to architect Yohannes Mekonnen  who worked on the renovation project, the project is not only about the renovation of Menelik II’s palace complex, but also building new facilities such as shopping mall, cafeteria, visitors orientation hall, children’s playground, fountains, ticket office, tunnel, rest rooms, zoo, and parking lot ( The total area of Menelik II’s Palace (aka Arat Killo Palace) compound is 40 hectares.

Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed is the seventh occupant of Menelik II’s Palace. As he once called himself, he is “the seventh king”. The former six occupants (“kings”) were 1) Emperor Menelik Hailemelekot, 2) Empress Zewditu Menelik, 3) Emperor Hailesellasie Mekonnen, 4) President Mengistu  Hailemariam, 5) Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, and 6) Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn.  The uncrowned Emperor of Ethiopia from 1913–16, Lij Iyasu Michael also lived in that palace.  As David Pilling and Lionel Barber of the Financial Times who interviewed Dr. Abiy in February 2019 wrote, Dr.  Abiy with Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother claims he knew from the age of seven that he would one day lead the country (Financial Times, February 21, 2019). This means he “knew” that he will live in that palace one day.

In his first one-on-one interview with international media, Prime Minister Dr. Abiy said “I want to make this office [Prime Minister’s Office] futuristic. Many Ethiopians see yesterday. I see tomorrow. This place has gone from hell to paradise.” He also said the renovation of the palace is “a prototype of the new Ethiopia”.  “If you change this [Menelik’s Palace]….you can change Addis. And if you can change Addis, definitely you can change Ethiopia”. Dr. Abiy went on telling about himself to the journalists of the Financial Times “I have done so many great things compared to many leaders. But I didn’t do 1 per cent of what I am dreaming”.  According to the evaluation of the journalists who interviewed him, “His words may sound boastful, not to say arrogant, the sorts of qualities that have led many a leader in the past to cultivate a cult of personality” (Financial Times, February 21, 2019).

Even though the exact source of funding for the renovation of the Menelik II’s Palace, the amount, and the contractor is not public, some sources say that the total cost of the renovation is 4 billion Birr ($130 million) and obtained in the form of foreign aid or donation (  

4.3.         Establishment of Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund (EDTF)

In the statement made on July 6, 2018 before the House of Peoples’ Representatives, Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed said if Ethiopian diaspora estimated around 3 million each makes a contribution of a-dollar- a-day for the development of Ethiopia, millions of dollars could be raised. He said “if we could get $1 million dollars a day from the estimated 3 million diaspora Ethiopians, we could generate $30 million dollars a month”.   To this effect a bank account was opened on July 18, 2018 at Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy’s call for “a-dollar-a- day” was accepted with applause at the gathering of Ethiopian diaspora of July 28, 2018 held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in U.S.A.

In addition, on the Ethiopian diaspora gathering held at the Commerzbank-Arena stadium in Frankfurt, Germany, on October 31, 2018 where he made Dr. Luther King’s “I have a dream” style speech, Prime Minister Dr. Abiy asked Ethiopian diasporas in Europe, whom he previously said live on the handouts of the European governments ( ), to contribute one-dollar-a-day for the development of Ethiopia ( The requests for one-dollar-a-day contribution were followed by the appointment of 11 members Board of Directors and 18 members EDTF Advisory Council with the global mandate to facilitate the collection of the contributions.

However, in one year (from July 28, 2018 to July 28, 2019), only $4.6 million was raised by 24,149 Ethiopian diaspora residing in 77 countries. When the achievement is compared with the plan, the amount collected ($4,600,000) is only 1.28 percent of the planned amount of $360,000,000 for one year.  The participation rate is also very low which is 0.80 percent because out of the estimated 3 million Ethiopian diaspora, only 24,149 have been participated (EDTF website as of July 24, 2019) . As Robert Montgomery said, it is okay to enjoy applause, but never believe it. The number of attendants of the gathering of Ethiopian diaspora held on July 28, 2018 at Walter E. Washington is estimated to be 25,000 ( ) but the response is daunting. The result of the most talked-about EDTF initiative of the PM is not encouraging.  Both the Prime Minister Abiy and the Chairman of EDTF Advisory Council Prof. Alemayehu G/Mariam expressed their frustration on the participation of members of Ethiopian Diaspora in EDTF (

The problem with the EDTF is not only low participation, but also the politics attached to “a-dollar-a-day” donation. Members of Ethiopian diaspora who made the contribution want to control the action of the government from the remote place (

4.4.         Tree Plantation Project

Prime Minister launched a National Green Development Action Program of planting 200 million trees a day on July 29, 2019 and to break tree plantation record held by India. There were series of tree planation campaigns in Ethiopia and tree planation campaign is not a new idea in Ethiopia. Millions of trees were planted and dried because of lack of care. What makes Prime Minister Dr. Abiy’s tree planation campaign different from the previous campaigns is that it has the objectives of breaking world record in the number of trees planted in one day and leaving the legacy of the campaign. None of the previous planation campaigns had such record breaking and legacy objectives; there objective were simply reforestation, not gaining popularity neither in the country nor in the world. 

5.     Conclusion

As David Pilling and Lionel Barber of the Financial Times wrote Dr. Abiy would like to amend the 1995 constitution after he receives a hoped-for popular mandate in elections scheduled for next year and would also like to move from parliamentary system to a presidential system. When we evaluate these plans together with the accusation of the current constitution as a cause of conflict in the country, blaming the current federal arrangement as weakening the power of the central government, it leads us to the conclusion that the election of Dr. Abiy in 2020 means the changing of the constitution and regionalization. Especially for the Oromo, it poses a great danger on the unity of Oromia and Oromo. I don’t think any reasonable Oromo think that those who died, those who lost their limbs and other parts of their organs, those who were tortured and suffered to bring this change were went through these sacrifices to get less rights for Oromo and others and bring the division of Oromia by rivers and mountains to keep Oromo apart from each other.

The current Prime Minister and the “future President” Dr. Abiy is  busy with mobilization of foreign aid for the renovation of Menelik II’s Palace, collecting trashes and cleaning streets of Addis Ababa, planting trees, etc to increase his popularity and print his legacy. However, no one told us the opportunity costs of the time he spend on all these which could be done by any ordinary persons.   We know these are part of the politics and election campaign, but the question is should we rate him based on these trivial actions where his bigger plan is taking away from us the rights for which our fathers and fore fathers fought for more than a century and half? Should we help him to take away our gains from us? What were the demands of the Oromo protests and what is the position of Dr. Abiy on these demands? What are the demands of Oromo struggle and what is his position on these demands? We shouldn’t be blinded by the mere fact that he is from Oromia and speaks Afan Oromo. The center of Oromo politics is the rights of Oromo not to enable an individual to take the top position in the Government.

Currently, there are many anomalies in the Prime Minister Abiy’s Ethiopia. Ethiopia is one of the countries in the world that has high number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) but who gives more attention to foreigners who came to the country as refugees than to the IDPs. Ethiopia is one of the countries who doesn’t allow dual citizenship but allows individuals who are not citizens of Ethiopia to meddle in the politics of Ethiopia and take high ranking government positions. Ethiopia is one of the countries that have written constitutions but whose government that came to the power through the constitutional process trashes the constitution. Ethiopia is one of the landlocked countries but claims it owns the ports of the neighboring sovereign countries and established marine force to protect these ports ( ). Ethiopia is a country whose head of government is busy with mobilizing foreign aid and publicly bragging about his expertise in begging and using that resource to finance projects which are not in the national development plan as if this foreign aid which was mobilized in the name of Ethiopia is not part of the national and public resource. We are not sure if the resources he mobilized in the name of Ethiopia pass through the national budget process; follow the national guideline for procurement of goods and services, and its utilization is reported to the Ministry of Finance and audited.


1.       Gagnon, Jean-Paul, Emily Beausoleil, Kyong-Min Son, Cleve Arguelles, Pierrick Chalaye, Callum N Johnston. December 2018.  What is populism? Who is the populist?

2.       Jan-Werner Müller. June 04, 2017. What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press.

3.       Shaban, Abdur Rahman Alfa. February 22, 2019.  Addis Ababa Riverside Project: Ethiopia PM's futuristic plans for capital.

4.       The Reporter. December 8, 2018. Addis Ababa Set to Get Major Face Lift.

5.       Capital. May 13, 2019. Grand Dinner for Addis to be Held on May 19

6.       The World Bank. 2019. Rankings & Ease of Doing Business Score

7.       Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. Growth and Transformation Plan II (GTP II) (2015/16-2019/20)

8.       David Pilling and Lionel Barber.  February 21, 2019. Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed: Africa’s New Talisman. Financial Times.

9.       Ethiopian Diaspora Trust Fund (EDTF)


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