Stay Woke

The rate of change in Ethiopia is disorienting. It was just two weeks ago that the Executive Committee of the EPRDF shocked us with two major announcements that contradict what we have come to expect from the Revolutionary Democrats.

One was the unexpected news of the partial privatisation of state-owned enterprises: Ethiopian Airlines, Ethio telecom and the Ethiopian Shipping & Logistics Services Enterprises (ESLSE), just to mention a few. Then there was the even more surprising news of the decision to implement the Algiers Agreement without the preconditions that had been attached earlier.

It would not be too far-fetched to say that the new chairman of the ruling coalition, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), has a great deal to do with this momentum of change. The past weeks might have just been the tip of the iceberg, as the past months have been coloured by unprecedented reforms that could betray more is yet to come.

Leaders of political parties have been pardoned, or their charges have been dropped and released from prison. There is an ongoing discussion with an overseas-based political party – the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) – and the 10th and 12th-grade national exams have gone by without the need for an internet blackout.

I am happy with many of the measures being taken at the moment. I appreciate that most times Abiy visits a foreign country, he comes back with at least Ethiopian detainees to show for his travel costs taxpayers have to foot the bill for. I am glad for the fact that he has become a leader whom the populace depends on for moral guidance – as far as I can see, he is acting in good faith.

I have my reservations about a number of his decisions – such as his cabinet appointments, or privatising state-enterprises before liberalising the sectors they belong to – but I am happy in that he is a rare leader that seems to understand that legitimacy stems from popular acceptance.

With that acceptance, accomplished by his ability to endear himself to people through public appearances, he has been able to muster the courage in his conviction to make unpopular decisions such as conceding Badme. There have been critics, but they have been far too tame than had the decision been made by our previous Prime Ministers.

But it is this very public acceptance that Abiy has been able to garner that unnerves me. The state broadcaster, ETV, reported that four-fifths of the Ethiopian public has a positive view of the premier, citing WAAS International. Opinion polls have to be taken with a grain of salt, but I think this one is spot on. In my discussions with friends, families, colleagues and members of opposition parties, our new Prime Minister’s detractors have been far and apart.

Social media tells a similar tale. It has become unpopular to criticise Abiy – one is often bombarded with highly unflattering, sometimes personal, comments. At this point, it has become like talking down Teddy Afro – it makes one a social pariah.

In a country with strong institutions and democratic values, a highly respected and beloved leader, even if his popularity borders on a cult of personality, is benign. In fact, with the sorts of decision that politicians in key offices have to make, and the checks and balances and media exposure prevalent today, it is hard to maintain a wholly favourable public image.

This is not the case in countries such as Ethiopia. We do not have the institutions to check against individuals that can wield great influence throughout government. Accountability is rare because checks and balances have been eroded over the years as the line between government and party became blurred.

It is precisely for that reason that we should remain sober to the decisions Abiy makes. We should not be pessimists – I am not, I am largely happy with much of what I am seeing. But it is too easy to be carried away with idealism and drown out the voices that tell us that nothing is ever just black-and-white.

At some point we have to ask, is this too good to be true?

I wish it is true, especially the political developments. But I am going to stay woke, as they say these days, and I hope all of us are. For decades now, the lack of institutions has thrown us into a cycle of unrests and regime changes. If we fail to demand them from the government once again, this time, lack of democracy is on us.

By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye ( is Fortune’s Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Jun 16,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 946]



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