Ethiopia’s new prime minister sworn in this morning: What change can he bring?

By Adualem Sisay Gessesse – Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) sworn in this morning. “We need to clean ourselves from revenge, hate and racism,” Prime Minister Abiy said, indicating that the people of Ethiopia have already made enough sacrifices in their lives to bring the country where it is today.

Ethiopia’s ruling coalition the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) last week on Tuesday evening revealed its new chairman. The 180 members’ council of the party which has been conducting a closed-door meeting for over a week has elected Dr. Abiy Ahmed.

In addition to EPRDF’s chairmanship, Dr. Abiy replaced Hailmariam Desalegn, who announced his intent to resign weeks ago.

Explaining why he decided to resign on national TV, Hailemariam stated that he wanted to be part of the deep-reform the coalition decided to pursue. His resignation came following the anti-government protests that are causing death of many civilians and ruining of investments in many parts of the country, mainly Oromia and Amhara regions.

The anti-government protest began Oromia a few months after the EPRDF announced a 100% national election along with five regional and ethnic sister parties (Gambella, Somali, Benishangul Gumz, Harari and Afar),
which altogether have less that 9% share within the national parliament.

Since then the Oromo, which is estimated to represent one in three Ethiopians, has been a major headache for the regime forcing it to declare a state of emergency two times in less than two years, including the current one introduced after Hailemariam expressed his intent to resign.

Began by the youth who opposed the expansion the Addis Ababa City into the surrounding territories of Oromia Region, the protests have expanded quickly across the whole Oromia Region.

The election of Dr. Abiy Ahmed who represents one of the four member parties of the coalition – the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO), is considered by many people as a positive step the party has taken in its recent history.

His appointment is also welcomed by the opposition parties. ‘We welcome his appointment if Dr. Abiy’s election is a result of struggle between the hardliners and the pro-change youth leadership within the EPRDF,” said Prof. Birhanu Nega, leader of PatriotsG7, an armed group labeled as terrorist by the government and currently in arms struggle from its base in Eritrea. He said during a discussion on the topic with the Voice of America Amharic service on Thursday evening.

“We can see if the EPRDF led by the new prime minister is really committed for change and widen the political sphere if he manages to release the thousands of prisoners across the country, end the state of emergency, reform the intelligence and the security apparatus,” he said.

Dr. Abiy has got 108 votes out of the total of 180 members’ council followed by Shiferaw Shigute of The Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement (SEPDM) and Debretision Gebremichael of Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) who got 58 and 2 votes, respectively.

OPDO has managed to get all the votes of the Amhara party – Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), according to insiders. Till the last minutes Demeke Mekonnen of ANDM, who is currently is holding the deputy prime minister position, was supposed to run for the Prime minister position.

In what looks a well calculated move behind the hardliners within TPLF, Demeke declined to run, according to insiders. Had he run for premier position, the election could have been concluded by declaring Mr. Shiferaw as the new chairman of EPRDF or even Mr. Demeke himself if he managed to secure at least half of the votes of the TPLF.

In addition the outgoing Prime Minister Hailemariam is said to play a key role in helping Dr. Abiy secure additional votes from his fellow leaders in SEPDM and a few pro-change in TPLF.

The fact that 60 have casted for the two individuals who are considered as change resistant and pro-statuesque, signals the hardship the 42 years old protestant Christian prime minister is facing in uniting the EPRDF towards the reform the party has been promising to the people.

The people on social media have already began listing the issues the need change about urging Dr. Abiy to focus on those issues. Some expect the new prime minister to launch negotiations with all political parties within the country and the exiled ones.

While others say he should pave the way and facilitate the widening of political sphere for the upcoming May 2020 national election to take out Ethiopia from the ethnic politics it has been swimming in for the past 27 years.

While others urge him to cancel the restrictive anti-terrorism and charities laws and encourage the involvement of the people in the politics as well as reforming electoral board, intelligence and the military.

For long many Ethiopia’s allies have been advising the TPLF – dominated EPRDF to build democratic institutions and bring genuine democratic change to the country. A kind of change that provides equal opportunity for all citizens of the country and treats all without ethnic or other biases, which have been resulting in high-level corruption, mass dissatisfaction and resentment against the regime.

Democratically elected
Some observers argue that for the EPRDF still considers itself as democratically elected party, it is unlikely to involve opposition, civic organizations and others to get out of the current turmoil Ethiopia falls into. The EPRDF hardliners still oppose the call of the opposition for a national reconciliation conference that involves all different interests in the country.

While others say it is hard to expect change from the new prime minister except other than calming down the current Oromo protest. They argue that after all the new prime minister is elected to advance the program of the EPRDF.

Unless he is able to win the minds and hearts of the TPLF hardliners, he can’t be different than the previous prime minister who was unable to fully exercise his power, they argue.

They say getting the willingness and acceptance of the hardliners, of who most are former rebel fighters from Tigray, cannot be something the new young prime minister can attain in short time.

He also needs to sustain the support of those who gave him the votes to stick to his agenda and lobby the hardliners about the need for EPRDF to genuinely reform itself and open doors for other political parties to freely operate.

Unlike the other three members of the EPRDF, the leadership of OPDO is applauded for acknowledging the political crisis in the country while others portray the problem as only economic problem raised by the youth.

The EPRDF still argues that the current anti-government protests are results of the country’s growth, unemployment and the emergence of demanding generation.

The collective leadership style the EPRDF introduced after the sudden death of its powerful Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, is believed to be a
major challenge for the new prime minister to exercise its full power. Some also says that his decisions are likely to be resisted by the hardliners who are still running key areas including, the military and the intelligence among others.

“We are seeing the tendency by the government to make the current crisis only an economic affair,” said Lidetu Ayalew, of the opposition Ethiopian Democratic Party, who is often accused of conspiring with the EPRDF during the controversial 2005 national election in which the opposition coalition – Coalition for Unity and Democracy declared winning the election.

During a rate live transmission on the Amhara TV on Thursday evening,
Lidetu calls on the government to facilitate the formation of an independent council composed of different interests in the country to launch national dialogue and bring national consensus.

What the vote numbers tell in general is that there is no consensus within the EPRDF four member parties and within TPLF to transform the coalition and bring the desired change the people have been calling for.

But what one can tell for sure is that two people out of three within EPRDF are pro-change, at least at the moment.

The big question then now is, ‘can those two people bring the remaining hardliner one aboard and implement their reform and change agenda or can they be trapped by the conspiracy of that one-third who still control the intelligence and the army, among others?’.

“The coming years of Ethiopia will be the years of love and forgiveness,” Prime Minister Abiy said this morning expressing his hope.