13 May 2018

Ethiopia: The Tour De Force of the PM - Restoring Confidence in Government

The recent history of Ethiopia shows that it has not had the fortune of democracies across the world which periodically experience peaceful and voluntary transition of power. A smooth change of leadership at the highest levels is crucial for the continuation of any nation in its trajectory. Episodes of unrest, anxiety and at times even violence and bloodshed have characterized many of these transitions in our country.

In most cases our historiography shows that there are very often intrigues and showdowns behind any authority and more so during a transfer of power. This was probably because we were never blessed with the basic idea of a strong, representative and accountable system of government chosen directly by citizens. We probably may have had our own native sense and understanding of democracy in various other manners, but not necessarily the same as what the world intends it today.

Unfortunately, coups, counter coups or attempts of the same were also among the features of our recent history. Violence or use of force has never constituted a scandal either. It has always been the winner who took the comman ding position and dictated things. When in 1974 the last emperor was ousted by the popular movement of Ethiopians, composed mostly of workers, students and the armed forces, there was no pre-established and reliable manner of replacing the monarchy. Hence, what followed was a gap filling dictatorship, meant provisionary at the beginning, but later on resulting permanent. It took seventeen years of struggle to overturn and replace it with the current establishment. Ethiopia hence had to pass through another transition that had very little of peacefulness and tranquility.

When the movement headed by EPRDF managed to depose the military junta they replaced it with their own system and their own understanding of how to use the power they had grip on. It could be said that it was probably more of a matter of luck and coincidence that the new administration managed to occupy the National Palace without bloodshed particularly in the final days.

Few pockets of violence and few explosions apart, the transition was largely peaceful also because Ethiopians have a certain discipline and faith and do not normally resort to violence restraining themselves. Even the dismantled army with their weapons did not resort to violence, using their weapons or loot and kill. Instead they were seen resorting to begging people for alms.

So much about the past but now, one can say that this time around Ethiopia has been lucky enough to experience such peaceful transition of power that everybody craved for when Dr Abiy Ahmed replaced the former prime minister Hailemariam Dessalegn.

When on April 2, 2018 the new prime minister took oath and promised to open a new chapter in the history of modern Ethiopia, there was an air of relief and hope among citizens across the nation.

To begin with, the first speech he made was a true sign of renaissance in the political landscape. The tone and presentation as well as the content were all admired and appreciated not only by party supporters but also by the neutrals and opposition perso nalities.

Many remarked that in one speech he had managed to harness the attention and emotion of the people. His very simple and straight forward language appealed to all Ethiopians. His apparent, deliberate avoidance of the language of ethnicity and nationality, perhaps orchestrated too much to certain levels during the past three decades in the attempt to emphasize the diversity of the country has gained him appreciation. For many observers, too much focus on the idea of nations and nationalities, had undermined the unity of the country and its identity was being eroded with consequent risks. Doubtless, the existence of a united country is a prerequisite to protect and fulfill the rights and expectations of nations and nationalities, components of the sovereign entity, Ethiopia. To them the risks of pushing towards narrow nationalism needed to be countered and avoid disputes and violence motivated by nationality-motivated ego.

Hence, it was in this sense that people were acknowledging as the first success of this new prime minister where he introduced a new approach towards the idea of a united Ethiopia, a country that has had a long and respectable history and dignity for which millions had sacrificed their lives. His insistence on this point and underlining its maximum significance, preaching the idea of unity and not division and the strength that originates from such reality won him support. His injection of certain spirituality in his addresses is also an unprecedented move in any rhetoric of his party. Mentioning his family as a source of strength for him as well as for any one in our country amplified the role of women. This appealed to the sentiments of people attributing him credit for the recognition. The centrality of family values was underlined and these were things that introduced the man in to the hearts of citizens, a precondition to accept him as an authority, a leader.

Dr Abiy's next move was to consolidate the sense of unity and purpose he mentioned earlier in his speeches and meet people of various nationalities by travelling to their localities. He offered the chance to representatives of the public to interact with him in places such as Jigjiga, Ambo, Gondar, Bahir Dar, Assosa and Robe. It was in a way reminiscent of the American system of staging rallies in search of popular support when they enter their election cycles. This was indeed a success.

Acknowledging that what had happened between the Ethiopian Somalis and the Oromo around the eastern border as deplorable and not to be ever repeated, he made his first internal visit there. He tried to defuse the pressure and inject some reassurance on the part of his government. Not only did he express his regret over the occurrences, he also promised support to the victims and change. Recognizing that mistakes could unfortunately be committed here and there, he vowed they would not be repeated.

Talking about policy matters, he promised that no one would be persecuted just because they had a different idea than what the government may uphold. Everyone was welcome to the table of discussion and exchange of ideas based on clear principles and rule of law, he noted.

His idea of 'one Ethiopia' for 'all Ethiopians' on an 'equal basis' was perhaps what most wanted to hear from him being articulated and underlined. After all it was the issue of bad governance that had triggered the forces of change which culminated with him taking the lead in government.

Dr. Abiy's face to face encounter with the large public was a success full of gratification from the public who had the opportunity to present their questions. There was an air of festival wherever he appeared and his speeches were underlined by enthusiastic applauses and cheers. This by itself represented a form of democratic process and this brought some form of enthusiasm among the people.

Observers were commenting that the air of enthusiasm he brought to the political landscape by itself was a victory to the system. It dawned a new day they argued. The future cooperation between the people and the government appeared promising. The level of confidence and trust that had gone dwindling along the years appeared to be restored. Crucial in this state of affairs could be the personality of the new premier and his approach towards power.

Dr. Abiy has been riding the horse of popularity and his rate of acceptance by the public has been increasing.

The other issue he focused on was to find and meet the leaders of Ethiopia's neighbors. He traveled to Djibouti as it is a key outlet for the economy and then went on to Khartoum, another key neighbor. Then he visited Kenya where he was welcome with much pomp and ceremony. In all three cases he struck very significant deals, capitalizing on the long standing relations with these nations. After all, their vicinity and their vital influence on matters in Ethiopia are incontrovertible.

The path that Dr. Abiy traced and moved on seemed very well planned and the results seem excellent. New ideas of collaboration with all three important neighbours were forwarded and apparently accepted and the future could only be more and more promising. Ethiopia needs to be reassured that it will not have problems with its neighbors. It intends to move to more economic and political integration than any time in the past, and this is a critical beginning.

Two outstanding points that many were heard suggesting were the homework to be accomplished regarding our neighbour in the north and the key issues pertaining to the Grand Renaissance Dam. If the new prime minister manages to settle these issues, then we could say that the premiership of Dr Abiy Ahmed could only be rated as complete success and any challenges that may crop up in the future could only be better tackled.

The public's expectations for a restructuring of the government in line with the fight against corruption and bad governance constituted another point. More accountability and transparency in government was every one's desire. The strengthening of the so called independent democratic institutions such as the Electoral Board, the Human Rights Commission, the Judiciary, and the Media etc. are also among the priorities in the expectations of citizens which the prime minister will take time to address.


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