Make Way for Big Brother

Few could be faulted for failing to see the cause of the public’s shock at learning of Abadula Gemeda’s (MP-OPDO), speaker of the parliament, tender of resignation. A resignation is not new under any circumstances, but a politician doing so, from a high-level post as Abadula’s, is almost unheard of. Not long after, Bereket Simon, another veteran figure in the Ethiopian political scene, did the same by resigning from his post as an adviser to the Prime Minister in charge of Policy Studies & Research Centre.

For Ethiopians, both resignation tenders, one of them already accepted by the Prime Minister, signal a particular shift. It is not in policy or ideology, but something more tangible. A change not yet announced by the government or accurately hinted at by any political pundit, but a shift nonetheless.

It is in the air. One can feel it by the various unrests in the Oromia Regional State, the currently ongoing top-level corruption cases, the half-baked measures to devalue the country’s currency and, as aforementioned, the resignations by veteran politicians.

All of this begs the question, what has changed?

The current government has been around for well over two decades. Most of its policies square perfectly well with its initial developmental mentality. There is no significant ideological shift, the federal structure is still around, and the political landscape is as exclusive to the Revolutionary Democrats and their allies as ever. Just as the party likes to reiterate every year with the coming of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death anniversary, by way of homage, the goal is to continue with the set agendas.

And why not. It has worked thus far. At least where the economy is concerned. Almost every foreign newspaper opens with the famous double-digit gross domestic product (GDP) in discussing any matter that has even the remotest link to the economy. The Revolutionary Democrats have fed more people than any previous government and have created myriad opportunities for the youth compared to past regimes.

Imagine the 2015 El Nino-induced drought in the hands of the Dergue, the Revolutionary Democrats’ predecessors. It is true that the drought would have been far worse without Western aid, but the government has done a relatively admirable job in dealing with the situation, at least according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Having operated with the assumption that the best way to the people’s heart, to ensure political legitimacy, is through their stomachs, a.k.a. the economy, the government has hit a wall. It must be a disturbing thought, the type that has been anticipated but seemed as far away as one’s demise. The government, for better or worse, is now faced with an Ethiopia it can no longer adequately manage.

There is no new reason this has happened. The Revolutionary Democrats have not taken a novel measure the Ethiopian public has found specifically wrong. There is nothing that unique in Prime Minister Hailemariam’s administration, except for technocrat ministers, than that of his more famous predecessor.

There is no new injury, but an old wound that has now festered and is oozing pus. As always, there is a lack of perspectives and weak institutions.

The tensions within Ethiopia are further exasperating because the solutions are fundamental. In fact, they are part of the incumbent’s theory. It seems the Revolutionary Democrats are better authors than governors as the Ethiopian Constitution of 1995 has few faults in it. If it has been practised as written, the political environment would have been far more stable.

For one thing, it allows multiple parties to coexist. Every five years, many political parties are allowed to run for seats in the parliament and local government councils. But every half a decade, the Revolutionary Democrats come out with a landslide victory, which does not exactly concur with social media posts and last year’s state of emergency that betray an unpopular party.

As an antidote, the incumbents have negotiated with opposition parties to fix the electoral system of first-past-the-post, by infusing it with the proportional representation. This way, opposition parties could more easily force their way into decision-making positions.

But I do not believe this in itself, under any circumstances, would fix the primary problem with the current political scene, which is the lack of new ideas for Ethiopia’s problems. Any electoral reform should be accompanied by ensuring that freedom of speech is guaranteed. The state should make sure that all voices can reach the public unfiltered and unbridled.

Similarly, transparency in government bodies has a long way to go.  With more of it, power would be shifted from individuals to institutions. In a state where the public is privy to all of the government’s actions, institutions would be most beholden to citizens. Transparency and media independence are, more than anything else, tools for shaming the government into doing the right thing. Officials’ loyalty, as the constitution prefers it, cannot help but be biased towards the entity that has more influence on their career.

The Revolutionary Democrats need to have a boss, a Big Brother-type, as they do in theory, one that can keep them in line, which is a public that gorges on facts and a variety of ideas.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is Fortune's Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling.

Published on Nov 05,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 915]



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