After the government declared victory – by 99.6pc of the vote – in the last general election, the former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, introduced his new cabinet to the parliament. One of the newcomers was the minister for Science & Technology. That was the first day I saw one of the youngest faces in the cabinet – Abiy Ahmed (PhD).
Asked by journalists what he plans to do, he would say, “I am new here, so let’s talk after a year.”
In the parliament, he asked serious questions on reports and challenged ministers. It was why one journalist wrote on her Facebook page that he was “the hope” she saw in the new cabinet and admired his serious and deep questions.
Following the series of protests the country went through that same year, a state of emergency was declared. During that period, his ministry organized an event called “Book for all.” I was invited to attend, on October 1, 2016, and went there with my cousin, mainly because it was a book-related event.
It included a tour of the newly refurbished building in which the Ministry resides. The completely revamped building was similar in form and style to those typical government buildings. Abiy guided the tour. He explained how he managed to get all the changes and the concept behind the change and what he wanted to portray staring from the artworks hung on each floor.
The changes were remarkable, especially if one knew how typical government buildings are constructed. The interior was upgraded with different concepts focusing on knowledge, culture, and art. Each floor was dedicated to one Ethiopian giant such as Tsegaye Geberemedhin or Aklilu Lemma, with descriptions of their contributions.
The office furniture, made with good materials, were well arranged and proper. The spaces were clean and well lit. My professional side was telling me something could be better, but I had to tame it down to finish the whole tour. We went to his office, passing through a true executive secretary space.
The office was spacious, uncluttered, simple and elegant. What came to my mind was the picture of Roman Abramovich in Time magazine, with a table and his seat with no guest chairs.
One visitor asked why there were no guest chairs in his office, and he answered that it was “not to give my colleagues a reason to continue to discuss non-work-related stuff apart from what they come in here for.
“Visitors will be told that I am in a meeting, which is not always the case, as we all tend to talk about non-work-related stuff. If you come here to ask me to sign on a paper I already know the case about, give instructions, or get brief feedback, it should only take a minute or so, and there is no reason for you to sit.”
We also saw his private toilet and dressing area, where he kept books. For a guy who enjoys reading in the toilet, that was a nice moment. He completed the tour by inviting us all to the main hall where he talked about science, books, life, country, and the future. He went on explaining how he manages the Ministry and his relationship with his staff. He reflected on the implementation and financial challenges he faced in the process and the solutions that came through.
After his speech participants asked him many personal and general questions which he handled very well with his simple, yet complex, and witty, yet executive, responses.
My cousin, who does not usually get easily impressed, was excited with his descriptive face, mouthing me, “Who is this guy?”
The level of articulation he portrayed is what I feel I deserve as a citizen, and even though I was satisfied with what I saw, I was not overwhelmed like the others.
When given the chance, I thanked him for what he did for keeping the standard and showing what can be done with limitations. But I also told him that I was not as impressed as the others because what he did is what it should be in the first place. My main question though was about continuity.
As that time, there was a talk of a major reshuffle. I asked what will happen to the ministry and the changes made here if he was to be assigned somewhere to a top position or to another Ministry. After all, we live in a country where leaders are perceived and considered as makers and breakers, which is true in almost all areas.
He said, “I have confidence in my team, and they will continue and improve things whether I am around or not,” which I thought was very confident.
The speech he gave that day circulated on social media and many were introduced to this guy who talks very differently than other officials.
My cousin wrote him a letter. We talked about him with friends and random people, especially my cousin who told the experience like an original tale. He was talking about him with the degree of certainty that Morpheus had for Neo in the Matrix movies, to the point we used to fight over it when I came up with new information and reflected on his “newly found leader”.
He would say, “You saw him firsthand and experienced the energy he could pass to others. How can you have the slightest doubt?”
But few events are not enough to be sure about someone, especially for a person who is pragmatic about information such as me.
Just weeks after that event, he was assigned to be the head of OPDO office with other responsibilities. That was the time the “Team Lemma” tagline became more popular. He came to the spotlight, and many started to notice and talk about him.
Fast-forward to December 21, 2017, when he was the keynote speaker on the first Mindset session held at the Oromo Cultural Center, I witnessed yet another milestone.
When he walked onto the stage, I texted five of my friends who were in the hall, “Pay attention, this is your future leader.”
At that event, he gave what I am convinced is one of his most important speeches, which made him connect with more Ethiopians as it was shared through social media. The audience was very receptive, looked satisfied and acknowledged him with generous applause.
One thing I perceived from my experience and the reaction of many in his rise to the chairpersonship and premiership is that he has connected with many within a short period of time. Like all politicians, he has hidden agendas for sure, but it seems he will take the middle road. I hope he does, as his age gives him a unique and strategic opportunity to relate to all ages.
Despite the continuous narration of the ruling party, I do not think that collective leadership is the case in our country. Culturally we see individual leaders as the strong person and decision-maker, which has been the case in our recent and past history of governance.
I understand the immense and mountainous challenges he will face. I feel he gives hope to many, and hope takes not only a person but a nation to a different level. I think his character is a subset of Vladimir Putin, Emmanuel Macron, and Barack Obama, current or past leaders of Russia, France and the United States, respectively.
His age and fresh look give him that “Macronic” euphoria and his optimising and effective connection with many give him that Obama effect. His time in the military and intelligence gives him that Putin effect.
I also hope he has the effect of Nelson Mandela to create the platform for diversity and reconciliation, and the effect of Angela Merkel to be open enough to accommodate new ideas.
I also hope he admits like Paul Kagame when his country is in trouble, the effect of Shinzo Abe to apologise for the mistakes of his government and the effect of David Cameron to give up his seat and power when the people say “no”.
The coming two years and three months are decisive to give him the historic opportunity to be one of the greatest leaders in the history of our nation, as he is the leader of the nation in one of its darkest hours.
He is one of the few people who have the determination to be a Prime Minister. I also think he is open about it, which might be perceived by few as an ambition to be carefully monitored. Many have said they were appointed to the positions they are assigned to.
It will be natural if people attribute many things to his success, or make claims. I hope he does not fail for our sake not to deliver to those who have started to cross their fingers.
He and his colleagues in the EPRDF ought to take this unique opportunity to change the course of history and admit that time has changed and the solutions are within us provided we work on our subsets. They must also assure with actions that the future is for all and provide a platform for the likes of me who do not align themselves with any ethnic group.
Making a clear distinction between the civil servant and the party to assign educated, informed and prepared people in the right places is mandatory, as will not changing too much too fast. And I do hope ethnic, religious, and political allegiances will not shadow his decisions
I wish to see his campaign for the next election against the opposition. I will follow all his steps with caution like I used to and will make no exception to bring out the faults and appreciate good deeds.
The euphoria in many parts of the country following his appointment is contagious, and a critical piece of information I will use as a litmus to monitor his success.
An old friend once said, “pessimism is the lack of information.”
With the information that I have now, I am cautiously optimistic.
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