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The Proverbial Ethiopian Donkey and Similarities and Contrasts between Donald Trump and Abiy Ahmed

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                      January 14, 2021


In this essay I intend to provide comparative perspectives of the politics of Donald Trump of the United States and Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, in the context of the proverbial Ethiopian donkey and the current confrontational politics promoted by the two leaders. First and foremost, however, for the sake of clarity and relevance to the central thesis of this essay, and the message I wanted to convey to readers, I like to introduce the ‘Ethiopian donkey’ especially to non-Ethiopian subscribers. There are several donkeys in relation to Ethiopian ancestral maxims; some of them are iconic and some brute, and one known for being greedy, self-centered and extremely selfish. The good and iconic donkeys are best exemplified by the common ass that is hard working and that is a true beast of burden, one that was in company of baby Jesus when he was born at Bethlehem, and it is this same donkey that Jesus Christ rode for a triumphal entry into Jerusalem, otherwise known as Palm Sunday.  The brute donkey is the infamous ass that kicks and hurt people, bites other animals, and that is reckless and disobedient for the most part when it comes to burden; it is the greedy and selfish donkey, well known in Ethiopian oral tradition, including proverbs that I am interested in this article. According to Ethiopian ethos, or more specifically proverbs, the greedy and selfish donkey is believed to have said, “Let there be no grass after I am gone!”  

I now attribute the behavior and psychology of the proverbial Ethiopian donkey to both Trump and Abiy Ahmed, because in many ways the two political personas are very much like the donkey in thought and in behavior; they are egocentric, pompous, self-centered, and without doubt selfish because both of them are interested and obsessed in power politics and they are determined to maintain it at the cost of people’s lives; they have no regard for citizens insofar they are in power, but if their power status is challenged or shaken, they will do anything at their disposal to eliminate, or wipe out and destroy their challengers and perceived enemies; they jealously guard their authority (legitimate or not) against potential impediments and barricades in order to further exercise their power status and thereby promote their selfish interests.

However, regarding the idiosyncratic or distinctive management of political affairs surrounding their individual interests, there is an essential difference between Trump and Abiy. While Trump is president of a country that can legitimately boast as the citadel of democracy, Abiy, by contrast, is the prime minister of a country that is rich in civilizations of late antiquity and the medieval period, but a very poor country with no democratic tradition and institutions at all.

It is also important to delineate the donkey scenario in relation to the political cultures of the United States and Ethiopia so that we can meaningfully explore the psychology of the two leaders under discussion. The US is well-known for its political culture with attendant separation of powers, a checks and balances system, a robust constitution, a vibrant and open political debate, and most importantly a powerful Supreme Court with independent federal courts across the board in the country. By contrast, Ethiopia has none of the above-mentioned elements of political culture; the country, in fact, egregiously suffers from the absence of democratic culture.

Therefore, no matter how Trump resembles the Ethiopian donkey he could not be defiant through and through or get away with crime without being scrutinized and without being impeached for major offences; in fact, Trump has now become the first and only American president to be impeached twice. This could not be the case with Abiy Ahmed; Abiy could perfectly fit into the proverbial donkey because there are no democratic institutions in Ethiopia, let alone American type of checks and balances that are the envy of the world; and to be sure, there is no independent court of justice in Ethiopia that could either restrain Abiy from doing his self-centered ambitions or charge him for transgressing the written Ethiopian constitution.

Abiy, thus, could easily eliminate or systematically downgrade, put down, or even imprison his opponents; by contrast, Trump could only fire his subordinates and he has fired many of them or forced them to resign. The proverbial donkey could comfortably adapt in the Ethiopian habitat, but America could not easily serve as a playground for such disgruntled and nefarious donkeys; interestingly but quite surprisingly, however, Donald Trump came very close to Abiy’s conduct when he instigated the insurrection on Capitol Hill in Washington DC on January 6, 2021, and afterwards, he said the insurrection “was totally appropriate”; he has no remorse whatsoever and in the lexicon of political donkeys, there is no such thing as ‘regret’.

In order to further explore the behavior and conduct of the proverbial Ethiopian donkey, it is very important to thematically list what the donkey humans (I am not implying here that Trump and Abiy are donkeys; I am just using the metaphor attribute) have something in common; hence some brief repertoire of the psychological makeup of the two dictators:

·         Egocentric behavior

·         Dismissing alternative ideas or counsel

·         Contempt to ordinary citizens

·         Monopoly of power

·         Disillusioned

·         Treasonous                    

On top of the above definitional attributes to the political personalities who defied rule of law and the parameters of their respective constitutions, it is also crucial to underscore the nature and characteristics of dictators. Our colleagues in the academia, namely Seth Davis Norrholm and Samuel Hunley, authors of The Psychology of Dictators: Power, Fear, and Anxiety tell us that dictators “see themselves as ‘very special people, deserving of admiration and, consequently, have difficulty emphasizing with the feelings and needs of others…Not only do dictators commonly show a ‘pervasive pattern of grandiosity,’ they also tend to behave with a vindictiveness often observed in narcissistic personality disorder’”1

Furthermore, Norrholm and Hunley argue, “Dictatorial leaders such as these represent the extreme potential of the human capacity for evil, and yet, despite their apparent omnipotence within their individual spheres of power these individuals also tended to suffer from excessive anxiety – mostly regarding paranoid fears of citizen uprising and/or assassination.”2    

Trump and Abiy are highly narcissistic and vindictive; Trump has punished his erstwhile opponents by either firing them from their duties or by verbal attack in his speeches or in writing via his twitter that is now banned; by the same token, Abiy has taken vindictive measures against his own former party (the EPRDF) officials by firing them or forcing them out from office, and in some cases by conducting continuous wars against the Oromo Liberation Front fighters in Western Ethiopia, or in its extreme version declaring an all-out war on Tigray and attacking not only the TPLF but also civilian areas, although it is a crime to bombard civilian areas according to Geneva Convention Protocol of 1977.  

In political science, we understand dictatorship as a form of government in which one single person or a small group (oligarchy) controls the reins of power and dictate the affairs of the entire state by their whims without any constitutional limitations, even if there is a written law of the land. In order to facilitate their governance thus, these dictators most of the time resort to suppressing civil liberties, intimidation of politically active members of society, and mass propaganda in order to maintain political power. However, it is easier for Abiy Ahmed to implement his dictatorial desires because there are no state institutions to deter him from not violating municipal and national laws; by contrast, if Donald Trump wants to resort to illegal actions, he will be met by formidable institutions that can effectively deter and/or stop him from converting his caprice into action; and as a result, Trump’s lawless and turbulent administration will end with disgrace, thanks in large measure to congressional act of impeachment, but also thanks to his own former  cabinet members who suffered with tongue-biting silence for a long four years but are speaking out now. In the case of Abiy, his vagaries and dictatorial governing style will come to an end only when the now scattered federalist forces gather momentum and rise against him, or when there is a mass upheaval and/or people’s uprising.

One other thing that I found in common in these two dictators is their deliberate reversal of policies and/or projects of their predecessor regimes; for instance, Trump has effectively undermined Obama Care and the Dreamer’s potential of becoming legal residents; Abiy, by the same token, effectively halted major projects of the EPRDF like the Djibouti-Hara Gebeya Kombolcha-Mekelle Railway, not to mention the many institutions that govern the federal system that have been stalled. I found their actions entirely without historical precedent, more lethal and ominous. Moreover, their mono-directionality in policy making is also shared by many other dictators, whose policies are tainted by psychopathology of dissociation.

Finally, I just want to add two important ideas coming from two prominent people, one a philosopher and the other a religious leader. The philosopher I chose is Hanna Arendt, who once said, “Our discipline runs the risk of degenerating into a de-bunking enterprise, based on ideology than evidence,” and as it is abundantly clear now, Trump has no evidence whatsoever to claim that the election was ‘fraudulent’ and/or ‘stolen’; similarly, Abiy, without giving a chance to national reconciliation resorted to war against the Oromo and the Tigray people. As Ethiopia is going down the drain now, it is apparently obvious that the ‘risk of degeneration’ is taking place in Ethiopia under Abiy Ahmed, but the US with all its robust institutions and strong government apparatuses will overcome its present predicament.

The religious leader I chose is the 14th Dalai Lama (the current Dalai Lama), who once in his interview with Charlie Ross said, “destroying your neighbor is destroying yourself” but this profound and instructive saying of the Dalai Lama would never penetrate into the minds of dictators, never mind minuscule dictators that I have discussed in this essay; both Trump and Abiy could care less about the destruction of their own people, as very much demonstrated by the insurrection of Washington DC incited by Trump and the wars being conducted against Tigray and the Oromo in Western Ethiopia.

The destruction of one’s neighbor or own people is directly related to treason committed by the dictatorial regimes; Trump has surreptitiously engaged himself with the Russians during the 2016 election campaigns; Abiy, on the other hand, openly, not secretly, forged alliance with Eritrean and Somali forces, not to mention the United Arab Emirates drones, against the people of Tigray. These foreign forces reinforced the Ethiopian Defense Forces and the Amhara militia in their war on Tigray and because the latter conducted war against Ethiopians by fielding with foreign terrorist forces, they could be charged with treason.   

Destruction is bad; it destroys civilizations, tears apart the fabric of societies, and above all wipe out entire populations. Whatever happened in the last two months in Ethiopia, that is, major war in Tigray, deadly conflicts in Benishangul Gumuz, Oromia, and Konso, and skirmishes and instabilities everywhere in Ethiopia, it will take decades for Ethiopia to recover; and I like to extend a piece of advice to Abiy Ahmed in order to restore peace and order to the great Ethiopian nation-state; he should not follow the track of the proverbial donkey, and if he is indeed sincere, he could simply apologize to the Ethiopian people, and particularly to the people of Tigray for all the violence, atrocities, and massacres perpetrated against them and call rather for national reconciliation and dialogue.

In order to absolve himself from the proverbial donkey, thus, Abiy Ahmed should encourage such humanitarian initiatives like that of the Oromo Abba Gada, who extended a 4 million Ethiopian Birr worth relief for Tigray; unlike some chauvinist elites and flag waving charlatans who view the people of Tigray as their enemies, the wise and humane Oromo portray Tigrayans as their own brothers and sisters; deep down they understand and acknowledge that Tigrayans paid a huge price, not only for the self-determination of the Oromo but also for the formation of the self-governing regional states for other Ethiopians as well. The Oromo are dignified Ethiopians and Abiy Ahmed   must preserve and respect his Oromo heritage and act accordingly to bring about peace and order in all Ethiopia.

Lastly, my advice to Abiy Ahmed is not to be indifferent, an onlooker, and a bystander when the Eritrean forces destroy and loot the public property of Tigray, steal the household items of Tigrayan families, and attack UNESCO heritage site of Debre Damo monastery. These edifices of worship are not just Tigrayan; they are Ethiopian and African as well and as such must be preserved and, if possible, maintained in their original or existing states.        

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