Inaugural speeches are just that – a declaration of faith or pronouncement of vision. They are meant to rekindle hope among leaders` support base and reassurance to the camp that may feel threatened due to their rise to power. If lucky, they can mobilise the vast majority of the population on a joint march to a shared destiny.
Ethiopia has never been short of orators who tried to do that, some firebrand and others intelligent. From Emperor Hailesellasie to Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.), the chairman of the Dergue, and Meles Zenawi, first chairman of the EPRDF since 1995, carefully prepared speeches have scarcely disappointed.
Walking the talk though, especially on the political front, has remained unsatisfying. Ambitious goals have remained merely that – goals. The recurrence of the inability to fulfil promises has allowed the government’s promise to create political inclusivity for the last couple of years fall on deaf ears, with political contests taken to the streets, and recently on the social media platforms.
Prior to his swearing-in as Prime Minister before Parliament, last Monday, Abiy Ahmed (PhD) made a speech that has inspired the public, galvanised his support base and drew much media hype. It primarily encompassed issues that have remained in the public domain since a political crisis took hold in Ethiopia for nearly two generations.
He spoke of the need to grow the political space before a parliament that is entirely controlled by the ruling coalition he now leads and its allies in the peripheries. The absence of a single MP representing opposing views of the public is a grim reminder of how much the hegemonic aspiration of the Revolutionary Democrats undermind the politics of pluralism in Ethiopia.
He spoke about corruption in the public sector and how it has become entrenched, thus a burden on the economy, not to mention the process of democratisation. It was notable that he reiterated these problems are a primary function of the lack of leadership and political space that has been too narrow to accommodate anything other than Revolutionary Democracy.
And while the government would work on solving its inherent issues, it would be a period where the public would usher in “rapprochement” and “compassion”. There was an emphasis on the need to renounce the ethnic tensions that have engulfed the nation and led to the loss of innocent lives.
In his over half an hour speech, Abiy did not forget the precarious situation of the economy. Ever since Hailemaraim Desalegn’s decision to resign, the macroeconomic condition of the nation has found itself overshadowed by politics. But not it seems to Abiy, according to his address to the nation.
Inflation is at its highest since half a decade ago, with that of last February’s standing at 15.6pc. And then there is the government’s most significant headache – forex crunch. It is an issue that is singled out as one of the primary worries for businesses operating in the economy – a challenge that the former Prime Minister has said would last for decades. The federal government has failed to meet its goals of export revenues, while import bills remain high.
There is also low financial deepening, despite growth in deposit mobilisation by banks. The financial sector has nonetheless been characterised by the inadequate provision of financial services, not to mention the lack of innovation to draw in national savings for crucial investments. Both domestic and external debts are rising to a worrying degree. Although it skipped his attention, unemployment and youth bulge are threatening the very narrative of Ethiopia as an oasis of stability in a region of chaos.
Although the new Prime Minister is not the first to notice, he also pointed to the connection between the political and economic problems of the nation. It is refreshing for an official to note at such a stage that although there has been economic development over the years, its structure has not been one that allowed a consistent growth in economic opportunity.
Ethiopia’s development has been characterised by growth in foreign direct investment (FDI) and massive public expenditure. While this has meant growth, it has also given way to debt stress and a weak private sector that has been neglected on the economic front. The latter’s fruits have been undiversified export, low domestic revenues and few economic opportunities for the youth – the last of which has been cited as one of the drivers of the protests.
Abiy’s speech was refreshing in that it was not a confirmation of the ruling coalition’s success. It was not even a reaffirmation of the need to stick to the ideology of Revolutionary Democracy, at least in the form it is packaged and delivered.
It signalled a unique digression to party orthodoxy, perhaps best manifested in the Prime Minister’s call for the supremacy of the law, and the full autonomy and accountability of democratic institutions. Contrary to the one party hegemonic political environment his party had been advocating since the 2005 elections, he called for competitive politics. He played semantics describing political rivals as “contenders” rather than “opposition.” In a highly charged political context of a zero-sum game, these subtilities say more than just words.
Unabashedly, he recognised the deeds of activists for democracy and human rights, while apologising for the pain and suffering of victims by the state. Equally, he acknowledged the ultimate price members of law enforcement paid while in lines of duty. From the chambers of Ethiopia`s legislative house, Prime Minister Abiy declared his unwavering commitment to the liberal convictions of individual freedoms of speech and association and that of constitutionalism.
Past leaders have never been short on rhetoric though. But they have remained hollow in the front that matters most.
The EPRDF had pledged, upon taking the custody of power in 1991, to bring peace and stability to Ethiopia. Its record, by and large, has been satisfactory. Bar a couple of wars with neighbours and highly contained domestic insurgencies, the last quarter of a century has been one of the peaceful periods in Ethiopia`s recent 500 years history.
Successive leaders of the EPRDF had promised economic growth; economic growth, they have delivered. But their choice of a state-centric economy, a result of the need for political legitimacy by way of speedy growth, has resulted in an unhealthy economy. While demand grew, supply has been severely constrained.
The government has in this instance been tempted to take the next worse measure than just sitting idle. It has instituted policies and regulations that have been akin to putting a bandage on an infected wound. It has been unable to allow structural reforms of the economy, fearing short-term consequences that would undeniably be painful but worthwhile in the long run.
Of the three significant promises, the ruling coalition has been most disappointing on the political front, particular of ensuring democracy, honouring human rights and restoring the rule of law. Although the constitution was authored to allow a multiparty system of government, where checks and balances can take effect, reality has remained just the opposite. The EPRDF has monopolised the political space, abated by democratic institutions that have not been independent or fair to opposition political parties.
Abiy is a Prime Minister that has been installed as the nation’s premier to parts of the public’s enthusiasm. His speech at the parliament pointed to a person that has a good comprehension of his place in history. That he knows how to do charm offensive has been established. Commentators and opposition figures have described the speech as the sort that Ethiopians had wanted and needed to hear for so long. For a nation that has been longing for something to anchor its hopes, it is perhaps a long overdue public address.
This is a welcome development in that it could help subside the violence that has brought a bad name to legitimate democratic questions of equitable economic opportunities and inclusiveness in political governance. Whether or not his administration believes it does not reduce the merit in his address.
But what promises can do is to buy time in putting a hold on public discontent. What matters, in the end, is whether citizens` wellbeing has improved, living standards have been raised, and leaders are held accountable through the ballot box for their failures, if not misdeeds.
The new Prime Minister has set the bar high for himself. What remains to be seen is if he can muster the knack and courage to persuade his comrades in the party to move in a direction that can realise the institutionalisation of power and the restoration of the rule of law to create competitive political space. The strengthening of the private sector to elevate the national economy to a higher level will also be his ultimate challenge.
Such is a feat demanding from a leader measures far beyond talks and rhetoric. The public is enthusiastic and generous to Abiy to see if he is such a leader. It is up to him not to squander such a rare unity in hope as he alluded in his address that Ethiopia has, unfortunately, missed on a number of occasions.
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