In politics, one person can transform entire societies, inspire large regions, or take over into confusion and deceive huge masses. The historical situation makes great leaders out of some people, and some serve for comparisons of what they can become when weakness and opportunism prevail.
Theory says that with the very election for US President Donald Trump he became the “leader of the free world”. But this election does not mean that he is truly the leader of the free world. In America, he became the leader of a divided society, hated by the majority, and accepted by the others, who are more inclined to themselves. In the world (except in autocratic regimes), Trump is regarded as a danger to the global order and the emergence of general uncertainty in trade and international norms. However, he is still the leader. A leader whose one-nation-comes-first politics is followed by many populists, especially in Europe.
Whether this dividing leadership is the result of education, life experience or wealth, or is a product of the silent expectation of millions of Americans to whom he gives what they always wanted to hear. Basically, he is a populist of gigantic proportions, obsessed with himself, and because of his country’s global leadership, this protectionist populist demagogy affects as a planetary epidemic.
Of course, there are also different cases of politicians who have become leaders and who could say no rather than yes. Because when prejudices and stereotypes and false norms reign, it is always easier to say – yes. The world is full of people who want to start wars – trade, political, territorial, whatever – but the number of those who want to build bridges is much lower. Because of the obsession with the game of the great ones, the courage of the smaller ones goes unnoticed. Or is evaluated only in regional frameworks.
Over the weekend, the world, especially Africa, witnessed the incredible courage of a man who has been in power only since April 2018 to end a war and promote peace in one of the least neuralgic places. The Horn of Africa. After two decades of absolute misunderstanding and hostility, Ethiopia and Eritrea finally made peace in order to heal old wounds and open the lines of cooperation. Perhaps this case is far from the Balkans, but it is a remarkable example of how one leadership can change a hundred million nation like Ethiopia and offer a hand of reconciliation to the small 4.5 million Eritrea, one of the most closed and most authoritarian and poorest countries in the world. When the stronger is offers to become equal with the weaker and recognizes its mistakes it is a huge event, no matter where it happens.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (42) went to the capital of Eritrea, Asmara, with President Isaias Afewerki to sign the Joint Declaration on Peace and Friendship, promoting cooperation in political, economic, social, cultural and security. With this, the brutal war that lasted from 1998 to 2000 between the two countries, which took 80,000 lives, was put to an official end. The Algerian 2000 Peace Agreement was never implemented because Ethiopia refused to apply it. The two countries were formerly part of the same state, Ethiopia, but in 1993 Eritrea seceded with the consent of the authorities in Addis Ababa. The new state has left Ethiopia without an exit to the Red Sea and disputes over several territories.
For the last 7-8 years Ethiopia is the country with the fastest economic growth in Africa, but the system was deeply autocratic. Authorities banned political parties, put thousands of political activists in prisons, controlled the life of the Ethiopians in every segment. In April, huge demonstrations took place across Ethiopian cities and autocratic Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was unexpectedly forced to resign. His successor Abiy Ahmed, in his first address after swearing in, shocked his fellow countrymen by calling on Eritrea to resolve “the years of misunderstanding” and the two countries, sharing the same cultural heritage and are linguistically very close, become friends instead of enemies.
Isaias Afewerki has been in charge of Eritrea since its independence, and because of the war with Ethiopia he turned his country into a dictatorial state, lonely, bulletproof and abandoned by all. The military term for the recruits lasts without restriction, and the pressure on those who think differently turned into a brutal regime. Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans in recent years have set off in the desperate paths along refugee routes to avoid terror and poverty at home. Suddenly the offer of reconciliation by the arch-enemy and the High Eritrean delegation arrived in Adis Ababa to discuss the new start between the two countries.
In just a few months, Abiy Ahmed electrified the nation with its informal style, charisma and energy. His unexpected guidance raises the fundamental question – whether the leaders are born or made.
He has already earned comparisons with Nelson Mandela, Justin Trudeau, Barack Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev. When on Sunday at Asmara airport he embraced and laughed with Afewerki as if he were one of his closest friends, and then passed through the streets of the capital welcomed by exalted citizens fluttering flags of both countries, these were scenes that were unthinkable only a few months ago. Just as Ahmed’s moves were unimaginable as soon as he became prime minister – some notorious officials, like the prison director, dismissed bans on websites and other media, released thousands of political prisoners, ordered partial privatization of huge state-owned companies, admitted that the state abused human rights and apologized for the actions of the government and its party.
As his decisions were instant, so was the reaction of the opponents, so at a major political gathering of the ruling party of tens of thousands of people they orchestrated a bomb attack that killed two people and hundreds were injured in the stampede that followed. People wore t-shirts with his face and the slogan “One love, One Ethiopia”. Immediately after the attack, probably organized by even more powerful security services, affected by democratization, Ahmed said: “Love always wins. Killing others is a defeat.” Rastafarian in a way.
Born in Western Ethiopia, in a mixed Christian-Muslim family, Ahmed joined the resistance against the communist regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam as a teenager, then joined the army, became lieutenant colonel, entered politics eight years ago and progressed rapidly in the echelons of the ruling party. As a member of the largest ethnic group Oromo, who fluently speaks the three main languages in the country, he has the opportunity to be a bridge through which the various ethnicities would connect. So far, the peaks of power have always been reserved for the minority ethnic group Tigre. Although the country has evolved rapidly, it is actually pushed to the brink because of the huge inequality, unemployment, the critical shortage of foreign currency and the autocratic grip.
Peace with Eritrea should help the two leaders – first to reduce the huge costs for armies, then Ethiopian goods to access the Red Sea ports, establish a regular airline between the two capitals and restore broken telephone connections. Basically, from this treaty, greater benefits could derail Eritrea and revive its devastated economy, and force dictator Afewerki to loosen the regime constraints.
Henry Kissinger said that “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” Two or three generations of Ethiopians are waiting for someone to take them where they have not been – in democracy and peace. It’s not a small venture. Ethiopia and Eritrea stepped towards peace and friendship by themselves, with little help from outside.
This case, like the Macedonian-Greek name agreement, shows that nations can indeed be taken where they have not been – beyond prejudice, fear, and distrust. It is not a small task, and leadership seems to be made more of circumstances and a vision. These cases show how difficult it is to accomplish the unimaginable, and at the same time it’s easy if you have the courage to look into the future.