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Ethiopia’s New PM – Can he deliver?

By Faisal Roble

Plagued by endemic joblessness, ethnic unrest, an ever-narrowing political space for dissent voices, the weakened Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has picked the 42-year old Abiy Ahmed as its next Prime Minister. 

Many observers in Addis Ababa acknowledge the new Prime Minister’s reformist credentials, while they doubt his ability to make meaningful changes to address some of the burning issues. As a young and well-educated leader who grew up in a revolutionary culture that fought against Mengistu regime, how he approaches and ultimately tackles a number of challenges would determine the direction in which he takes this troubled multi-ethnic old empire. 

With the recently concluded Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) conference, Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo an ethnic Oromo, was elected by a majority vote of 108 of the ruling party.  He will be the first Oromo to occupy the highest post since the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) ousted the dictatorial regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam almost thirty years ago. 

In Ethiopia’s imperial history, Dr. Abiy Ahmed is neither the first member of non-Amhara nor Oromo Head of State. Aman Mikael Andom, an Eritrean, was the first post-imperial Head of State, followed by   Tefferi Benti, chairman of the Dergi regime. Mr. Benti was an Oromo by birth. Even Mengistu, who succeeded Mr. Benti, was Amhara on his father side mothered by an enslaved Walyta servant from the South.

To follow suit, as soon as Dr. Abiy changes his new address to the Liyu-belyu Palace, a symbol of Emperor Menelik who enslaved many ethnic Ethiopians, the Oromos in particular, he is expected to cease being an Oromo and become a party loyal, and the default ruler of a “united” Ethiopia. 

Now that Ethiopia is nominally in the hands of Oromos(Prime Minister, Speaker of the Parliament, the President,and the Foreign Minister, and many of the country’s top generals are all Oromos,can the opposition and those who have been oppressed still continue to complain about the dominance of the Amhara-Tigray upper-handedness? Or, the complaint needs to be reassessed? 

Meanwhile, many challenges are on the plate of this new Prime Minister.

Some of the most salient issues the new Prime Minister would be quelling the Oromo uprising, democratization, addressing deep-rooted historical injustices, and butter and bread issues.

Since 2015, the Oromo region has been awash with violent and destructive riots.  Some of the rioting youth, like the Qera groups, behaved like vigilantes and destroyed lives and properties.  Somalis have been the most visible victims of Oromo riots. 

The new Prime Minister is expected (a) to bring said riots to a permanent halt and (b) instill a sense of confidence in Somalis by not taking his Oromo side.  Some are already expressing doubts about his fairness since he is closely associated with his former boss and the sitting president of the Oromia region, President Lemma Megersa.  Many innocent Somali civilians have been mercilessly killed in Western Hararge and in Awadey under the watch of Mr. Lemma Megersa.

Land question, the most stubborn issue in Ethiopian history that which impacts the Oromo masses more than any other ethnic group, is also another challenge he may have to adequately address; he must come up with a clear land reform policy.  Haile Selassie was overthrown because of archaic land tenure system which transformed most Oromos peasants into landless serfs.  Neither did Mengistu era solve the issue.  Since EPRDF took power, a highly commercial land tenure system transferred many agricultural lands from small farmers’ ownership to multinational foreign companies. 

Massive youth unemployment and an impacting migration from rural to already strained urban centers will certainly give him many sleepless nights.  Balancing popular needs with the vagaries of cruel economic growth will hit him in the face.  And, there is no simple solution to these developmental issues.

Democratization questions are also on the to-do list for the new PM.  The current system of government that he will soon preside over is one dominated by democratic centralism; it caters to the ideology of the EPRDF coalition. The 575 strong member parliament, as well as the executive branch, are controlled by EPRDF, which renders free and fair election moot.  The last election in 2005 was far from being a free and fair election.

Moving away from what appears to be a one-party-dominant political system to a more democratic form of government is hard to imagine; nevertheless, this is one of the issues on his plate.

There is also the deep state issue. Dominated by the military and security branches of the government, some reforms and the full implementation of articles provided in the constitution may not perfectly align with the goals and objectives of the entrenched coalition.  For example, can the new Prime Minister come up with a system where ethnic representation in the parliament as well as in the executive branches matches respective population size?  Otherwise, continuing with a system where EPRDF is both the government and the lawmaking body to the exclusion of others can hardly pass as a reformist regime.

If he fails to do that, he will appear as a token Prime Minister only to perpetuate the current in favor of those groups that are part of EPRDF vs those outside this once revolutionary organization.

Foreign policy will likely stay unchanged. Chinese investment will continue surging while its wish to dominate the Horn of Africa vis-à-vis the Gulf state will continue unabated. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s foreign policy toward Somalia is not expected to change from its longstanding policy – to meddle in and permanently marginalize the fragile Somali Federal Republic.  And that is not one prudent policy instrument that needs change; lest for the long-term interest of the region, it is to the new Prime Minister’s advantage to reassess his already untenable rapprochement with Somaliland and choose a robust constructive diplomatic engagement with the Somali Federal Republic.

Lastly, Ethiopia will be continued to be haunted by its search for a permanent access to the sea, especially with its globally integrated economy growing at the astronomical rate of 10% per annum.  New innovative policy to constructively engage the Somali Federal Republic has more to offer than the risky and adventurist past policy which it has been pursuing in recent years.

Lastly, Ethiopia will continue to be haunted....

Faisal Roble is an expert on the Horn of Africa. He is currently the Managing Director of Economic Development and Master Plans for the City of Los Angeles

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