Leadership and Dagu in Ethiopia

The new PM Dr Abiy Ahmed, the first Oromo to lead Ethiopia, talked about leadership a few days ago. His Chief of Staff reported these words on Twitter: ‘Leadership is not about welding authority. It is about mobilizing talent, capacity and creativity of all to foster collective action.’ What a relief that he doesn’t believe the kind of nonsense taught on most MBAs – where apparently leaders need to create visions, be decisive and crush resistance to change (in the crudest versions).

Clearly he understands that building relationships is more important than feeding the fantasies about leaders being in control and able to achieve anything on their own. Perhaps his PhD in peace, with its focus on social connections in conflict, has prepared him for leadership far better than a conventional business school? One consequence appears to be that he realises that who he includes in speeches is hugely significant.

Last week I visited Ethiopia with colleagues from SOAS on behalf of the Global Research Network on Parliaments and People and key elements of his speeches were relayed to us. Two stand out. At the beginning of a recent speech he thanked his mother and then his wife. Apparently no Ethiopian leader has acknowledged their family, and specifically the women in their family, in this way ever before. Women scholars told us that they felt a slight edging towards the idea that they are part of political world, a world they have been excluded from until recently. And by mentioning family, he found common ground with everyone across the nation.

At the end of a speech he thanked god – not his specific Protestant one (his mother is Christian, his father Muslim), but god in general so that Protestants, Orthodox, and Muslims could identify. Apparently no PM since Haile Selassie has acknowledged the importance of god’s role in peace. So this deeply religious society has had to pretend that god was irrelevant to politics. But how could believers see a future of reconciliation without god playing any part when it is god who is the important source of morality for them

So rather than just calling for unity as an ideal abstracted from people’s everyday experience, through in these various thank yous he recognised what is important to his fellow Ethiopians – family and god – and spoke to all.

In the mobilising he has also been travelling across the country and meeting with a huge range of groups in society, including the opposition. This gives him the opportunity to follow the rules of Dagu, found among Afar pastoralists in North-Eastern Ethiopia, where crucial information is  always exchanged because often people's survival depends on it. If someone were to be uncooperative, then there would be serious consequences: ‘Failure to pass on relevant information is not only an offence to the conversation partner, but a harm to the community. To this end, misuse of dagu is subject to punishment within customary law (Mada’a)...’

When politicians and citizens interact we could all benefit from following such rules for communication on both sides. After all the interests of indivdiuals are entangled with whatever multiple communities they belong to, so to foster collective action means receiving and passing on information that keeps the interests of the collective in mind. The risk of failing to lead by listening, and revealing ‘relevant information’, is a breakdown in relationships. Perhaps Dagu should be included within the MBA curriculum?


The potential of dagu communication. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265143838_The_potential_of_dagu_communication_in_north-eastern_Ethiopia [accessed May 25 2018].