Why Ethiopia’s New Premier’s Seat Could Not Be Any Hotter

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Just a few hours before Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s appointment was announced, one notable commentator asked on Twitter, “Is there any reason to be this anxious about who becomes PM?”

My answer was, yes.

The new premier inherits a country that is divided more than ever. And the status quo merited all the nail-biting.

In fact, I can imagine the 180 members of the ruling party’s council having chills in their spines as they put their pen to the secret ballots on the night of 26 March 2018. They must have had a very vivid image in their minds of a country at a crossroads. And they should have.

Thanks to the ill-administered ethnic federalism, the very continuation of this 3000-odd-year-old country, which is known to have successfully defied colonialism, was hanging in the balance. And that is exactly what makes the task at hand very menacing for a young politician like Dr. Abiy.

As the new Prime Minister takes on the country’s hottest seat, Dr. Abiy will have myriad social, economic and political concerns to grapple with – both at home and abroad. His challenges will range from managing the intrigues of internal party politics to engaging Egypt on the issues of the Nile, from fighting corruption to keeping a balance and dealing with the bipolar demands of China and America.

However, his main challenge will remain national consensus building, and this pursuit will have the following pillars, among others:

Re-creating a united Ethiopia

For anyone who is familiar with Ethiopia’s politics, this is an issue that needs no introduction. Everything and everyone is ethnicised – literally. Our churches, bars, schools, football clubs, cross-country buses, politicians, academics, singers, writers, prisoners, actors/actresses are all ethnicised. We have come to a point where we can tell someone’s ethnicity by simply looking at the insurance sticker on his/her car, by his/her bank card or by the brand of beer she/he frequents. Our resident cards carry our ethnic identity as they did in pre-genocide Rwanda. It doesn’t get any worse.

Fixing this is going to be easier said than done. And it will pose Dr. Abiy’s toughest test of leadership. Probably, scrapping the ethnicity indicator off the resident IDs could be the easiest, but very remarkable, starting point.

Dealing with dissenting voices at home

1 – The press

The government does not tire of blaming activists in the Diaspora of radicalizing the people via social media. They may have some truth in there, but they have no one but themselves to blame for it. Nicholas Benequista, a former journalist who worked in Ethiopia, told Washington Post, “Ethiopia is more vulnerable to the rumor, misinformation, and provocation coming out of the diaspora because it has prevented an independent, professional and ethical media from growing inside the country.”

If the new Prime Minister wants a better legacy in this department, he needs to develop a much thicker skin than his predecessors. Under former PM Hailemariam Desalegn and the late Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia was ranked the sixth largest jailer of journalists, fourth most censored country, and second only to Syria in producing the highest number of exiled journalists.

2 – The Opposition

The government is at war with insurgent groups on many fronts. Patriots/Ginbot 7 is fighting in the north; OLF (Oromo Liberation Front)  in the south, and ONLF (Oromo National Liberation Front) in the southeast. While they all fight for different causes, they claim to share one thing. They all claim to have resorted to armed struggle when it was clear to them that the democratic route to effecting meaningful change in the country was closed. Currently, every single one of the 547 seats in parliament is taken by the ruling party.

Will Abiy succeed in bringing the various insurgent groups and opposition parties back to the negotiation table – and in a meaningful way?

Dealing with dissenting voices abroad – aka the Diaspora

About three million Ethiopians live outside of the country. And, if the last three years have taught this government anything, it is that the Diaspora is not mere spectators anymore. They have huge political and economic leverage, and they know it, and they will use it if necessary. In the last fiscal year alone, Ethiopians in the Diaspora sent home between four and five billion USD in remittance. That is over five percent of the country’s GDP; one-quarter of its total foreign exchange earnings and remittance sometimes exceeds the country’s export earnings.

First of all, a lot of these people are highly educated and experienced, and as a leader, it’s incumbent upon the new primer to use every tool in his toolbox for the betterment of the country. Above all, however, he has an obligation to engage the diaspora simply because they have every right to be involved in the way their country is run.

What can one man do?

A lot of people are asking this question already especially because the ruling party has this age-old, revolutionary fetish for collective decision-making. But if Ethiopians really doubt the capacity of one man – for better or worse, I say we all have such short memories.

And as the bible says, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.”

I will be the first to admit this. It’s not easy, and the sit could not be any hotter. But, as I argued in my Facebook post, if any of the four candidates could to take this hot seat and turn that heat into energy, I think Dr. Abiy can.

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