Patience as a tool of statecraft

At least one world leader, Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia, sees the virtue of asking for patience to solve such problems as ethnic violence.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

Anger is such an accepted part of modern politics and statecraft that its opposite, patience, is too little noticed. Case in point: Who is grateful for the European Union’s forbearance toward Britain as it sorts out Brexit? Or who notes Mexico’s quiet restraint in the face of difficult demands on migration and trade from the United States?

One place where patience is now on full display is Africa’s second most populous country, Ethiopia. In 2018 a new leader, Abiy Ahmed, took over as prime minister from authoritarian rulers and immediately set free political dissidents and revived democracy. There was just one problem. The new freedoms also unleashed deep tensions among the country’s 80-some ethnic groups that had been suppressed by previous governments and could now easily complain of being marginalized.

Last year, Ethiopia had the world’s highest level of violence-related internal displacement – almost 2.9 million people out of 105 million citizens. Mr. Abiy, who is Africa’s youngest leader, is now touring the country asking for patience from ethnic groups demanding referendums on whether they can set up their own regional entity, a right allowed under the constitution. At least 11 groups have submitted such bids. Ethiopia already has nine ethnic-based regional states.

In July, violence broke out in one minority community, the Sidama ethnic group. On Sunday, Mr. Abiy visited the Kafficho group, which is also demanding a federal state. “If you think that statehood will solve your problems, that’s a shortcut,” he said, asking it instead to help build “a great Ethiopia.”

Mr. Abiy sees patience as just one part of his strategy to rely on love and forgiveness to revive Ethiopia and unite its diverse people. His Ministry of Peace has organized the return of most displaced people to their areas of origin. He is eager to hold elections next May that will be free and fair enough to help shape a stronger Ethiopian identity. The country will be a model of peace and development, he said, “by loving each other and casting away the spirit of hatred and revenge.”

His task – creating a citizen-based nationalism to replace ethnic-based nationalism – is a long one. It requires him to keep reminding Ethiopians to be grateful for reforms already underway. No wonder he asks for patience. The virtue is built on an appreciation of steady if ofttimes slow progress.

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