Prime Minister Abiy’s Mountain to Climb

It is always good to see new faces coming to the fore as leaders. Change is never bad while sticking to the old can be detrimental in a globalised world and a nation such as Ethiopia with a youthful population.

The critical question is what Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) should do to win the government the trust and respect of parts of the public that have been discontented?

One of the most contentious issues of the last 27 years is the federal form of government which is drawn along lingo-cultural faultlines. The concept of federalism itself has been fundamental to modern governance. It is one of the preferred forms of national governance, next to that of a unitary state, where state governments wield a great deal of the decentralised power.

Complex democracies in countries such as India, Brazil, the United States, Mexico and Germany have adopted the system. However, for most of these countries, the division of states is based on geography rather than lingo-cultural fault lines.

The advocates of Ethiopia’s form of federalism argue that it helps manage inter-ethnic tension within a country, but there are few cases where it has actually been successful. Currently, few nations such as Nepal, South Sudan, and Pakistan practice it and the former Yugoslavia, used to.

A better pill would have been federalism along geographic lines. It could be one that is redrawn after undertaking a nationwide referendum, and gauging out to which administrative state individuals want to belong to. It is then that a better flow of capital from one region to the other can be ensured, which would help the economy of the country.

It will also create healthy competition among the regions. Competition increases the quality of service and encourages a system of transparency. Those regions with a competitive edge would grow first, but they will also help their neighbours move upward.

Addressing this highly controversial issue should be on Abiy’s plate. Evidently, it cannot stop there for Ethiopia faces a multitude of political and economic problems. Most detrimental of these are transparency and accountability – both pillars of democracy. Either can only exist with the realisation of good governance.

Good governance is a tone that can be set at the top. But a nation cannot and must not be dependent on the goodwill of its public officials. This was why the authors of the constitution found it crucial to set up separate branches of government and decentralise power.

But without the realisation of a government that includes multiple parties, even a separation of power between the different organs will not materialise. It is only when officials are looking to advance their political goals that they are likely to check – and thus bring balance to government – other officials. This will help transparency, and bring accountability.

Practising a multiparty system of government, and not just including it in rhetoric, will likewise bring autonomy to organs of the government such as the law enforcement bodies, military and courts.

A part of Abiy’s moving speech during his swearing-in at the parliament was his willingness and readiness to restart dialogue with the Eritrean government. For people that had shared a country for centuries, a peace agreement would be a dream come true for many people. It would mean wonders to regional stability also.

Of course, the relationship between the two nations has worsened as agreement on what Ethiopia can comprise on has worn off. Thus, Abiy faces getting his own party to agree on a solution to the border disagreements before he could ever begin the climb of reaching a peace deal with Eritrea.

Creating a fairer wealth distribution, as officials have pointed out, is another crucial objective that has to be met. A healthy competition must be created for all market players. It is people with genius ideas that have to gain economic benefits than those with genius connections.

While public sector transparency would help realise this to a great extent, Abiy likewise needs the natural forces of demand and supply to determine wealth distribution rather than the government itself. Allocation of resources such as foreign currency and land to more productive sectors, individuals and businesses are more likely to happen when the government has a lesser say in the system.

There is no doubt that democracy is a process. No country gained it without sacrifices. In the olden days, this has meant human lives. But there is no reason that such a trend should continue.

It is better that EPRDF takes lessons from past regimes and realises rigidity did not do either the Dergue or Emperor Haileselassie any good. The political space has to be opened, and people have to see the political opponents debate. Inclusivity is the only way forward, anyone with an opinion should get a say.

I believe that the EPRDF is trying to reform itself if Abiy’s public speeches are any indication. He is an ambitious and optimistic leader that seems fully aware of what the public is calling for.

The most significant question is whether or not the people around him can help him fulfil his ambition. Improving the political and economic condition of Ethiopia is not a task only a Prime Minister can shoulder. He will need the full weight of his party and that of oppositions to help him walk the talk.

By Samuel Zenebe
Samuel Zenebe could be reached at

Published on May 05,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 940]



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