By Dawit Endeshaw – The Reporter Ethiopia
It has been more than three months since Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed (PhD) was sworn into the highest public office in Ethiopia. Over the course of the last three months a lot has happened, which is shaping the political discourse of today’s Ethiopia; as the saying goes there are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen, writes Dawit Endeshaw.
Unlike the usual political culture of the ruling party, Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), where individual leaders within the party have little chance of prevailing over the EPRDF itself, this time around, the iceberg of such a dogmatic culture has been broken. Nowadays, it is visible that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), the chairman of EPRDF, has indeed prevailed over the statue of its own party. And that was what was going on this week – a rare practice for Ethiopian media houses (both state and private-owned) to talk about the first hundred days of Abiy’s premiership. The paradox here is that similar practices are in fact experienced in a presidential system of government where individuals are more important.
Abiy Ahmed’s election as a chairman of the EPRDF came against all odds. At least till the last minutes of the election no one was sure about it. All the estimations and the rational guess were also not in favor of him. The very secretive nature of election process has in fact helped people to give their own rational guesstimates. However, by the time – and off course given the political orientations – member political parties within EPRDF, till the 11th hour were favoring Demeke Mekonen, the current deputy chairman of EPRDF the fill the position that was left vacant after the resignation of Hailemariam Dessalegn. However, be it a last minute individual political decision or the alleged alliance among some of member parties or grouping within EPRDF, the election result finally gave rise to the young and charismatic Abiy Ahmed who became the third chairman of the EPRDF.
His election on March 27, 2018 has actually come following a three years political turbulence and conflict which shook the country to its core. The ruling party, for the first time in its history, saw the resignation of its second chairman Hailemariam Dessalegn. As of February 15, 2018 Hailemariam resigned from his post both as chairman of the front as well as the premiership.
On April 2, 2018, on a very ceremonial process, Abiy Ahmed, 42, was sworn in as the country’s Prime Minister in front of the Ethiopian parliament. On the same day, during his speech, Abiy announced that he has come up with a new narrative and approaches. His speech, which was in contradiction with the EPRDF’s culture, was said to be more liberal.
Following this, “the restless leader” as some on social media referred to him began his first weeks in office traveling across the country. He made a number of public address, lectures as well as speeches.
He first went to Jigjiga, the capital city of the Ethio-Somali Regional State. Accompanied by Lemma Megersa, president of Oromia Regional State and other federal officials he urged Lemma, Abdi Muhammed of Ethio- Somali region to resolve their differences.
During his trip to Jigjiga, he stressed that the conflict between the Ethio-Somalis and Oromos should not have happened and it shall not happen again.
Abiy since then has toured across all major cities and towns across the country, except Dire Dawa and Harar. During those tours, he spoke about unity, and tried to calm the trending ethnocentric thoughts with nationalistic rhetoric.
Moreover, in Addis Ababa, he spoke to different stakeholders’ including members of the business community. Particularly, during his two and a half hour meeting with the business community he focused on different issues concerning businesses in the country.
“We are a developmental state and what makes a developmental state different from other forms of government is the selection of its soldiers. It is impossible to bring about a sustainable victory with borrowed soldiers,” Abiy said, emphasizing on the role of domestic investors. “We know that we won’t go anywhere if we don’t train and use you for the goals we target; what you need to do is identify yourselves either as borrowed soldiers or our own soldiers.”
This greater emphasis on the role of local investors was followed by another milestone decision which somehow left the investors in awe and confusion.
Just one month ago, the EPRDF Executive Committee decided to privatize some of the key state-owned enterprises (SoEs) in Ethiopia which some commentators argue contradicts the current ideological as well as policy practice of the ruling party. The ruling party is known for advocating strong state involvement in the economic spheres in line with the teachings of the developmental state theory. However, the decision which was said to be passed unanimously by the 36-member EPRDF Executive Committee addressed a range of bold economic reforms considered to be outside of the realm of the developmental state model.
In this respect, the party decided to transfers government-owned stakes at key SoEs including Ethio Telecom, Ethiopian Airlines, Ethiopian Shipping and Logistics Service Enterprise as well as some of the hydroelectric power plants. The government, however, will remain a majority shareholder in the aforementioned enterprises.
Later, the PM affirmed his party decision in front of members of parliament (MPs). However, there is still confusion whether the government is planning just to transfer shares of SoEs such as Ethio Telecom or to liberalize the whole sector.
Some feel that this attempt might push local investors aside while prioritizing foreign investors. Later, the PM tried to ease the concerns by saying that local investors will also be allowed to buy stakes at SoEs, including Ethio Telecom.
Aside from domestic affairs, diplomacy has been one major area of focus for the PM. In fact, Abiy has traveled to almost all neighboring countries of in the Horn of Africa region and beyond.
Particularly, during his tour to Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the PM and his delegation convince the respective governments to release Ethiopian prisoners who have been behind bars for years.
Moreover, in his tour to Djibouti and Sudan, Abiy made a deal to acquire stakes at port facilities there and made commitments to invest. In his Kenya tour, the PM also made the same deal which will facilitate the acquisition of land at Lamu Port for Ethiopia to develop. Yet again, the PM won over the hearts of the Emiratis in getting three billion dollars support where two billion dollars will be invested by the United Arab Emirates and the rest was given to solve the recurrent foreign currency shortage in the country.
In fact, the Emiratis are said to have played a major role in the new peace deal between old foes Ethiopia and Eritrea, though the later two have said there was no third party involvement.
Foreign Minister, Workneh Gebeyehu, in a press briefing told local media outlets that there was no third party involved. “It was all done by the two countries,” he said.
This week, as of July 11, 2018 Khaleej Times, a daily English language newspaper published in United Arab Emirates said the UAE will play a major role in a rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Quoting Workneh, it was stated in the news that UAE, particularly Shaikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan has played a role.
“The historic accord between his country and Eritrea was a result of the extensive efforts made by His Highness Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and thanked him for the seminal role he played in the diplomatic breakthrough.”
The two countries in the most historical turn of events have agreed to avoid their difference. This spectacular shift has ended a two-decade-old “no peace, no war” relationship between the two countries. Abiy made an official visits to Asmara where he was welcomed by a thousands of Eritreans.
This step by the two governments came following the EPRDF’s Executive Committee decision to accept the Algiers Accord.
As far as domestic politics are concerned, PM Abiy and his party – over the past three months – have made a number of political decisions in the name of widening the political space. The government already released politicians, activists, and journalists who were convicted or charged in different crimes.
He promised to build an inclusive system where all political ideas will be treated. Upon his invitation to political parties, and groups who were operating outside the country, parties such as Oromo Democratic Front was the first to accept and enter into the country.
Moreover, close to 547 individuals including members of Patriotic Ginbot 7 were released. Yet, again the parliament delisted groups such as Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) and Ginbot 7 from groups who were labeled as a terrorist.
As part of consolidating his power, Prime Minister Abiy has made a reshuffles and shake ups in the former cabinet, security and intelligence apparatus. More than anything, he replaced Getachew Assefa, the erstwhile head of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) with Adem Mohammed (Gen.), who was the chief of the Ethiopian Air Force. Moreover, Samora Yenus (Gen.), retired as Chief of Staff of the Army, and was replaced by his deputy, Seare Mekonnen (Gen.).
Despite the positive reforms which for now got popular support, the past three months were also a time rising challenges across the country. The internal displacement which came after a communal violence between West Guji and Gedeo resulted in the displacement of close to 900,000 people from both sides out of which 100,000 are children.
Another conflict associated with ethnic tension between Wolaiyta and Sidama have resulted the death of ten civilians. More worrying is the tension is still there.
Moreover, a pocket of violence erupted here and there including the one in Benishangul Gumuz, Amhara, Southern and Oromia regional states. Just recently, Dawd Ibssa’s OLF was fighting with Ethiopian government where causalities were reported in Kellem, Wellega Zone, and near Dembi Dollo. Just, few days ago the group has temporary ceased fire.
The security challenges in the country reached its climax during a rally held in Addis Ababa in support of Abiy where a grenade explosion claims the lives of two civilians injuring more than 150. Following the incident, security officials including Girma Kassa, the former deputy commissioner of Addis Ababa City Police, were arrested.
For some Abiy made some controversial statements including the one where he called upon youths especially those who live in less developed regions to be vigilant and be wary of strangers.
He said “strangers” are causing problems in those regions and youths have to make sure and work with security officers to apprehend those people who he labeled strangers. The PM didn’t specify who these strangers are. Moreover, the PM called on those who he alleged are against the current change in the country as “day time hyenas”.
Such vague statements and naming by the PM have cause controversy where some argue will undermine the current positive reforms and will result in civil unrest, and disobedience.
Aside from this, it is not clear how the EPRDF and the member parties within the Front are planning to go ahead. Commentators are speculating that over the coming few months there might be new alliances, splits among political forces both within the EPRDF and other political parties.
The EPRDF Council meeting, which is expected to be held in August, is expected to clear the fog and determine the fate of the ruling party.
During PM Abiy’s visit to Semera, Afar Regional State, one of the issues raised at the meeting with the public was a need to resolve differences among groupings within EPRDF. In the meeting, the PM was told to resolve the alleged differences with the veterans of the Tigryan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and others in the EPRDF.
Moreover, there were cases where TPLF, have shown some its reservations on some of the decisions made by EPRDF Executive Committee. For instance, when the EPRDF Executive Committee said it will accept the Algiers Accord, TPLF made it clear that there has to be public consensus and discussion first.
Despite the challenges, the opportunities ahead have left many to be optimistic. Ethiopia is now at a historic juncture where the political discourse of the country as well as the region is bound to change, according to commentators.