The talk that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) will let the nouveau riche in the country spend five million Birr for a ticket to sit at a dinner in his company grabbed international headlines last week. But the irony was not lost on many Ethiopians who are struggling to make ends meet.
If they see cynicism in the whole affair, they should not be blamed. The funds were raised to finance a project for the rehabilitation of Addis Abeba's river banks, estimated to cost one billion dollars. What would cost a businessman in search of patronage from the power that be can build no less than 30 water wells for desperate citizens in rural Ethiopia, if not three well-equipped clinics?
From renovating his office to restoring the grounds of Menelik II Palace, Abiy appears to be excited with matters that have more of a symbolic value. His attention and energy seem to be spent in mobilising funds from members of the public here and in the diaspora, giving the impression that he may end up forming a "Go-Fund-Me Administration". The irony is that he reigns over a country that has far too many essential needs to sustain life and a government with as many crises to handle.
The Prime Minister oversees a highly polarised nation where passionate debates, which could use more civility over administrative demarcations, jurisdictions, statehood and federalism, are bitterly held. These can be indicative of the elevated political activism currently evident as long as violence is not employed as a means of advancing political agendas.
The attention and energy expended on symbolic matters could have better use in steering dialogue between the political opposition and the incumbent. It is now rocky, narrow and seems to wane in significance given the overarching socio-political and economic changes currently taking place. It is also not a platform for charting a shared destiny or common values, for these require more than mere party leaders meeting up in a hall.
Abiy would do himself good to acknowledge this as a Herculean task. Even then, doing so could be a thankless job in a nation where constituents have widely varying and more so conflicting priorities and interests. His analogy of the state with a room that has been accumulating rubbish is not far removed from the historical processes that gave way to a country without strong institutions, democratic culture, shared values and accountable power.
Informed by the past and steered by grievances, the public would have hardly any reason to develop an interest in the fancy projects of scene and decoration. Many want to see their leader focus more on optimum gains from the transition that will help the nation move to a peaceful, orderly and just future. With a lack of clarity of purpose, confusion and unpredictability in the driver's seat, there is much more appetite to see a series of political reforms, despite their significant consequences for the slow, methodical building of institutions.
Every political transition has been an opportunity for some segment in society, party or group to assert its position, ideology or reading of history on the state. Without a grand bargain out of which shared goals could be forged, even when it comes to symbolic matters such as a national flag, colour preferences, movements and revolutions have been born to challenge the structure and systems of the state.
Political transitions in Ethiopia are examples of the failure of the various representatives of society to come together to chart a shared destiny. They have missed opportunities that have, in time, been counter-productive for there never were the diverse legislative bodies, an independent judiciary and strong democratic institutions to back them up. It would thus be a tragedy to fail to take stock of the lessons of history and focus where it matters most.
Discourses and debates around politically hot-button issues abound. Citizens should continue to voice their concerns. It is only characteristic of individuals' rights to demand change and answers from the government and their representatives.
The public's emotionally-rooted political activism should serve as fuel in the practice of constituent politics, but parties should find the courage to exercise forbearance as does Abiy's administration. Meeting such demands requires a sober, fair and quantitative implementation that can only be provided by independent democratic institutions and diverse legislative bodies.
Beyond the impartiality of the process and the decisions that are arrived at in the end, it is also crucial for the state to be able to bear the socio-political impacts of the reforms.
Without such a prudent approach in addressing grievances as they relate to the systems and structure of the state, this opportunity would be yet another episode that gives rise to a new round of instability. It will be driven by public discontent like all the rest were, and the nucleus of the opposition would be the disenfranchised section of the society.
The nation's elites across the many divides have their work cut out for them. The most critical piece of task on the table is rebuilding the institutions into ones that the public can trust. It is a task that has already begun even if the input from opposition parties leaves a lot to be desired.
Realising the upcoming national elections with a process and results credible in the eyes of the voting public should be the most fundamental task ahead for the Prime Minister. Only credible elections held in a timely manner will be able to ensure the legitimacy of the legislative bodies whose contributions to any major changes to the structure of the state will be acceptable.
The heaviest burden lies on Abiy's administration, which possesses the de facto transitional mandate. It has the duty to focus its resources and attention on institutionalising power to realise a legitimate election, ensure law and order and reverse the macroeconomic slowdown that will have consequences in the political realm.
The conduct and exercise of power by this administration will set precedents for the years to come. Failure to be wary and cautious in the exercise of power, and the use of state resources to influence public attitudes, will only serve to delegitimize the elections before they even begin.
The absence of credible elections and a grand bargain by elites on the organisation of democratic institutions will no doubt drive the nation deeper into uncertainty. It is only after such homework is done that the government can move towards instituting changes that address demands made by the various social and political groups across the country.
The delicacy and disorganisation within the nation demand that Prime Minister Abiy set his priorities right. It will be consequential if he chooses his legacy to be defined by his effort in painting the house with new colours, while its foundation is cracking up.