Ethiopia is undergoing rebranding of its politics. In just a few months, there has been a such a turnaround that no analyst could have been able to predict it.
Week after week, we are taken aback by an unfortunate incident somewhere in Ethiopia, a massive rally of some sort, or a controversial statement by government officials and politicians. We are living in a state of perpetual breaking news, where one seemingly unforgettable episode is forgotten when another exhausting incident takes place within a matter of days.
At this time of social media frenzy and political transformation, our politicians are becoming careless in the things they say or do publicly. Perhaps they subconsciously believe the statements they make will have a short lifespan in the public arena and will be forgotten easily.
Or perhaps they are taking a page out of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) book. He has been praised for dropping EPRDFite parlance and his candour, relevance, wit, humour and casualness.
His public persona has helped him connect with people. He repeatedly mentions his mother and seems to have a gregarious – almost cuddly – nature that has helped show people his human and caring side. He effortlessly spurns the “robotic” attributes that Western female politicians like Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, and Theresa May, sometimes pejoratively, are accused of exhibiting.
But this casualness in his communication with the public has its downside. He requires a robust communication team to fend against the unintended interpretation and misrepresentation of his comments. Coming from a prime minister, these can have dangerous consequences.
Politicians should follow suit. Two incidents in the past two weeks flabbergasted the public. The first was a picture of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn smiling next to an old man that was later revealed to be Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.).
It was coupled with a post by Hailemariam on his Facebook page that read: “I wish to see more former heads of government and state in my country contributing their parts in different capacity after peaceful transition of political power.”
Reconciliation sounds nice, but a rapproachement with Mengistu, who has shown scant remorse for crimes and human right violations he committed, is going too far. There is justification in giving amnesty to soldiers that may have participated in atrocities, but leaders that have directed them must face justice.
Another surprising statement came from Negeri Lencho (PhD), head of the Oromia Communication Affairs Office, last weekend when one of his social media accounts posted an inflammatory statement that spoke of a “puppet lowland dictator” and “highland old masters,” and was quickly spread all over social media.
A statement has since been issued saying that the account was hacked and that the post does not reflect the views of Negeri. It may well be true that the account was indeed hacked. It was too overtly incendiary for the former minister of the Government Communications Affairs Office not to have been wary of the consequences.
In the post-truth world though, that is beyond the point. People have not only their own opinions but also facts. By the time the explanation had reached much of the public, the damage was already done, and I have yet to meet an individual that believes the account was indeed hacked.
The more politicians fail to explain themselves straightway, the more it seems like they are hiding facts and taking their time to present a version that has been tailored.
People are tense. What transpires in these couple of years can have far-reaching consequences. Many times, it has been described as a break-or-make moment for Ethiopia. I doubt there is much exaggeration in that statement.
Thus, the margin of error is too large and too consequential. It can be some unfortunate conflict somewhere in the country or an assuming statement from an official that sparks mass civil unrest.
Hailemariam should have either explained how he believes a man such as Mengistu can contribute to Ethiopia’s politics today or apologise, depending on his stand. Negeri’s team should have responded with an explanation for the post on a much wider scale to diffuse that the information was false quickly.
It would not be the first time that miscommunication between officials, politicians or public figures and the public created a rift. It is fascinating from the perspective of history but epically tragic when it occurs. The path toward reform is arduous as it is – there is no need to add to it by failing to communicate accurately.
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