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Is the new prime minister an agent of real change in Ethiopia?

14 mins read

By: Shiferaw Abebe
abiy .Nope! I doesn’t seem he has the intention or the capacity to bring any fundamental change. From everything he has said so far, his intention is to keep the status quo largely intact. He does not admit there is a systemic political problem that caused the current crisis, only some failures in leadership which he says EPRDF is already fixing.  His preoccupation is therefore on bringing stability in the country and getting back to TPLF’s growth and transformation plan, as he put it in Mekele last week.
So here is what he will do over the coming few weeks:
He will do some reshuffling in current cabinet positions (per negotiations between him and TPLF). I wouldn’t be surprised if Getachew Assefa and/or Samora Yonus are let go. I would be surprised if at least one of them is not removed. The cabinet reshuffle will be sold as an important political reform except that it is not. Replacing individuals will not make any difference unless the entire security and intelligence apparatus is reconstituted
Second, more political prisoners will be released, which will be a welcome action but has nothing to do with reforming the political system.
Third, he (or his cabinet) will lift the State of Emergency (SoE) probably once he travels to the Amhara region and perhaps to the Southern people region. Lifting the SoE is no reform but it will be trumpeted as one.
Finally, as he indicated at the Millennium Hall speech, he will amend some of the draconian laws. This is more for the consumption of Western donors; for Ethiopians, as long as TPLF remains in power, its security forces will kill, arrest, and torture without the anti-terrorism law, as they did prior to 2009.
That is all. There is no further political or economic reform planned by this prime minister.
Can he get away with this?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. It all depends how fast Ethiopians woke up from the spell of his dazzling speeches.
Words have power in Ethiopia, especially when they are uplifting.  Meles was an articulate speaker too but, besides being a tyrant, he was mostly nasty and lacked the gentle and likable personality of the new prime minister.  Hailemariam was boring and at his best a bad imitation of Meles. By contrast, the new PM is animated and appears to be comfortable in his own skin.  No wonder, therefore, his word power is earning him some dividends already: his audience appears captivated and lulled, and the demons of protest cast away, at least for now.
But, if one observes closely, the more he talks the more mistakes he is making and, worse, the less substance one finds in what he says.  The question is how many are listening closely.
His inaugural speech was all about our “identity crisis”, so to speak. He spoke at length how Ethiopia is a great country with a shining history; how great we are as a people and capable of solving any problem in front of us if we come together and work harder. Lofty, uplifting narrations Ethiopians longed to hear from a leader for 27 years. Many thought that speech was great despite his failure to acknowledge the immediate crisis that made him a prime minister let alone articulate his approach to resolve it.
After his inauguration, the speech he made over the weekend at the Millennium Hall provided him with the opportunity to articulate the real root causes of the crisis; and more importantly, a real, clear, practical roadmap to solve the crisis.  He passed up the opportunity and instead he spent over half an hour going over a hodgepodge of quite superficial business as usual prescriptions.
He acknowledged that the unrest of the past two or so years have caused economic setbacks, but his solution was to suggest that everyone stands guard to keep peace and order;
He talked about the foreign exchange crunch, and his solution was to accelerate import substitution and stem capital flight;
He repeated TPLF’s tried and tired “building democracy is hard”, slogan, and his offer was that EPRDF will do its best to make the next election fair and transparent;
He talked about the judiciary as being liable for its transgressions but said nothing how that can be accomplished;
He said the security and intelligence forces will continue to be neutral of politics (an infuriating concept to say the least). Think of TPLF’s killing machine, Agazi, being described as neutral to politics by none other than some one who became a prime minister because of the price thousands of youth paid in the hands of Agazi;
Of the media, he said it should be a responsible partner for promoting peace and order;
Of artists, he asked them to create more humor and comedy to take the edge off angry protesters;
He talked about the quality of education that is in the gutter and said improving it will be a priority (no clue how); and
Of the youth, suddenly the darling of EPRDF, he told them to stop protesting and instead use their youth fire to melt iron ores to make steels, to tap rivers for irrigation, to build factories and bridges, etc.
The bitter and despondent opposition…
At a dinner he hosted for opposition parties, which he now calls “competitors” he was but engaging. The new name he coined for them may sound positive and even admirable except that it is not. By calling them “competitor” he is legitimizing TPLF/EPRDF, not elevating the opposition. Besides there is nothing wrong with the name opposition, what is wrong is TPLF/EPRDF took away their right to exist or function.
That aside, during the dinner speech, he did not say anything substantive on how he intends to engage with them to resolve the crisis or chart the course for the future of the country. Instead, he lectured them on democracy and freedom and scolded them for being bitter and despondent. I am surprised no one left the dinner at that point.
The golden people of Tigray and the contented Wolkaites…
His Mekele trip seemed as though he was paying homage to TPLF (still the capo) and intended to appease Tigrayans. Yes his audience were clapping to his speech with an irritating frequency but I don’t believe the rest of Ethiopia joined in.
His reference to the people of Tigray as gold, tested by fire, left a bad after taste for many Ethiopians. Not because he complemented the people of Tigray, but the “gold” reference brings back to memory a boastful, if not racist, remark by the late Meles Zenawi for being born to the Tigrayan society.
The “tested by fire” part, likely in reference to the 17-year guerrilla warfare TPLF waged against the Derg regime is even more ill advised. If Tigrayans and the new PM derive pride in that, that pride remains their alone. The rest of Ethiopians cannot share it because they never believed TPLF represented Ethiopia’s interests from its inception to this date. This is a treasonous organization that not only at first wanted to secede Tigray; not only fought for the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia, but upon the overthrow of the Derg regime, it made Ethiopia landlocked, without even giving it a chance to negotiate. A prime minister that fails to recognize these facts and appreciate the feelings of the Ethiopian people at large cannot truly be a prime minister for the whole country.
Second, his characterization of the Wolkait identity issue as non-existent and reducing their concerns to one of lack of health clinics, water, electricity and such – is shameful, to say the least. He declared the identity issue was something that was fanned by Diaspora Ethiopians, who by extension also created the Wolkait Identity Committee led by Col. Demeke Zewdu. He even implied Wolkaites are content with how they are treated by their internal colonizer, the Tigray kilil. We will see if he will repeat these assertions in Bahir Dar or Gondar.
It is the economy stupid, or is it?
The new PM’s latest talking engagement was with the business community which further exposed his flawed understanding of the nature of economic crisis and his superficial, minimalist approach to solve it. He touched on a long list of issues that can be grouped into three themes.
The first and, by his own admission the main reason for arranging the meeting, relates to the dire foreign currency shortage that has crippled business and investment in the country.  He admitted the problem will not be solved any time soon but had very little strategic to offer for a long term solution.  As a bandage solution, he mentioned government will cut back on international travels, which he admitted were taken advantage of for personal vacations. Then he turned the table on the business owners and asked them to bring the foreign currency they have stashed away in Dubai and China. That was quite a strange confrontation but also an incredibly naïve notion on his part.
He mentioned the remittance embargo by Diaspora Ethiopians where he used a hilarious analogy to describe the situation. He likened the TPLF/EPRDF regime as an errant child and Diaspora Ethiopians as a cruel parent who penalizes that child by taking away his or her dinner. He suggested softer penalties like writing critical pieces (like this one) or demonstrating in front of Capitol Hill.  Really funny staff.
The second theme was unemployment. He essentially boiled the popular uprising of the past two, three years down to youth unemployment. TPLF could not have a better spokesperson. His solution was to entreat with the business owners to create more employment (apparently by bringing back the hard currency they stashed away in Dubai and China) and save the regime from the angry unemployed youth. He literally said that.
The third theme was business morality 101. He spent a great deal of time going over business ethics, corruption, free service, leading by example, and staff of that nature. Of course, no mention of the most scandalously corrupt business empire in the country run by TPLF.
All in all, same old, same old TPLF talking points delivered by a sharp tongued PM.
It is a shame that, as someone aptly put it, the young bull Ethiopians hoped to use for next ploughing season is already dead meat in a butcher’s shop.
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