Think of it this way. Ethiopia`s politics is on a dance of some sort. The choreographer is a young politician with a unique background in the military and cyber-intelligence.
As a professional choreographer would do in music, Abiy Ahmed (PhD) tries to muster the political steps and routines to the delight of his audience, if not the disorientation of his critics. The troupe of this choreography appears to be in the formation, although there looks to be a core group of them around him.
Ironically, to what music this choreography is designed, practised, tweaked and adjusted is yet to be clear. Since his ascent to the political power atop a ruling party that has been long in a living decay, Prime Minister Abiy remains elusive on what conviction informs his series of public addresses.
It was in a town hall meeting in Gonder, in the Amhara Regional State, Abiy was confronted by an audience of the lack of infrastructure and job opportunities. He underlined that his priority lies elsewhere – in continuing dialogue with constituencies, maintaining the relative calm the country is currently enjoying and guaranteeing that there is enough support to sprint in the direction of economic development.
On the political front, he sounds like a champion of liberal values, preaching the gospels of political inclusiveness, as he is for social justice and more equitable economic growth. Time and again, he talked about the need for transparency and accountability in government and competitive politics in his party`s relationship with the political opposition. He even set a new narrative describing them as “political contenders” rather than opponents.
He called on the militant political opposition in exile for an unconditional conversation while offering the overseas-based media with opposition to the regime to move their base to Addis Abeba.
If anything is consistent in the public addresses by this star-powered leader of a centre-left ruling party, it is the lack of policy clarity. For a nation still looking to find a footing after a disorienting three-year long paralysis in leadership, political unrest and a macroeconomic crisis, Abiy’s preference to remain vague is unfortunate, if it is not part of a grand design.
Granted, reforming a ruling party while in power is an uphill task. It is truer to an illiberal kind the EPRDF is, with deep roots in the leftist political culture. If there was not much change over the past nearly 30-year of the EPRDF, it ought to be the party`s culture of secrecy, the elitism of its leaders, and intrigues at the place of highest order. Power hardly originates from a popular will, but an outcome of the intrigue of the very few select groups of people at the top of the party.
Whether Abiy is an ambitious politician with interest to change this culture or a courageous reformer with a grand plan to reorient his party to a liberal order remains unclear. Arguably, however, he is a political maverick who won power against all the odds. He had managed to overcome a series of blows thrown at him by veterans of the Revolutionary Democrats for his alleged heretical bent and accused as a liberal in a closet.
Considering a politician who has been groomed and mentored by gurus of the left could have a wholesale change to liberalism is perhaps too much to expect. It could be the case that he is just bridging the gap between the liberal ideals espoused in the constitution and the reality on the ground that is a political hegemony of the left. It should go without saying that when the gap between the ideal and the real widens, Abiy may think that just changing the rhetoric may avert a system breakdown.
In his rhetoric, Abiy has acknowledged that the EPRDF’s claim of a multiparty system of government has not matched its actions and that the political field is in favour of the incumbent. Although the necessary checks and balances have severely been lacking in government, giving way to the hegemony of a single party, what has gotten the most emphasis in almost every public address the Prime Minister has made is national unity.
Given that in the weeks leading to his election to the party`s chairmanship were stained by attacks on specific ethnic groups, that it is the need for national unity which takes a central point has not been surprising. Alongside his political ally, Lemma Megersa, president of the Oromia Regional State, Abiy has made rebalancing ethnonationalism a fundamental objective. Together, they have presented a view that dares to rebut a narrative that linguistic-cultural formation is the central political question of the Ethiopian people as was forwarded by Wallelign Mekonnen, in a student paper that used to be known as Struggle.
This assertion has gained traction with the first generation of EPRDFites. The proponents of the current constitution have thus given great emphasis to it, redrawing the political landscape along lingo-cultural fault lines. They ensured an infamous provision granting regions the right to self-determination to the point of secession – no matter that this remains next to impossible in practical terms – was included.
Abiy’s conviction though seems to lie elsewhere. He presents a separate argument that federalism based on lingo-cultural fault lines has precipitated resentment between ethnic groups, and failed to address the identity issue. His insistence is that the central question of Ethiopians is justice, the fair allocation of resources and good governance.
The EPRDF has never claimed to have a perfect system in place that ensures wealth is distributed equitably. But that the need for self-determination by nations and nationalities does not take a centre point in the politics of the ruling party, is indeed a notable departure. It could spark an unprecedented departure from a party ideology that has been relied upon for a generation. It could also widen the current fissure between member parties of the ruling coalition, and spell the end of democratic centralism within the EPRDF.
Alarmingly though, Abiy`s choreography goes too much to the nationalism tune, exposing his inherent conflict between his embracing of liberal inclusiveness and the exclusivist nationalism all at the same time. There has not been an indication that Abiy is inclining towards a liberal form of nationalism – civic nationalism – which is a healthier prescription to Ethiopia’s body politic.
The alleged liberal leanings of Abiy though will be better tested in his handling of economic policy matters. That details on what entails Revolutionary Democracy is murky; broadly though it is a political machine that invests in mega projects hoping to win votes. In practice, it might have bought political support but left the country piled up with debts.
It is evident that the Revolutionary Democracy stands relative to free-market capitalism. The relationship with the private sector has been one of suspicion and unease.
In his discussion with business leaders at the Sheraton, Abiy has indicated that his administration will gradually give more space to the private sector. And the currently adverse macroeconomic conditions could force his hand to consider speeding up liberalisation, privatisation, and the undertaking of more public-private partnerships (PPP).
If Abiy can indeed find the middle-ground between his political rivals and the hardliners in his party, and hold the much needed public discussions, he would indeed have improved the party culture and sharpened the political dance.
He ought to move more in the direction of liberalism if the political and economic bottlenecks that previous administrations have grappled with are to be addressed efficiently. The nation has tried feudalism, socialism and the Revolutionary Democracy, the latter not far off from Lenin`s National Revolutionary Program. Perhaps, it is time liberalism is given a try. But it may be too good to be true coming from Abiy Ahmed.
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