In his inaugural speech, Dr. Abiy highlighted that this last transfer of power was historical in that it took place peacefully and “in accordance with its governance system”. This assertion of his may be true from a certain perspective, but not entirely so from another: True that it is not the outcome of a palace coup, and proceeded according to the rules agreed upon, and ultimately based on the norms emanating from the constitution. It is not so true because it is the second time that this happened under this very same regime; and even more importantly, it lacked the direct or indirect participation of the Ethiopian peoples.
Be this as it may, the inaugural speech and the several speeches Dr. Abiy delivered subsequently in various urban centers of the country reveal a marked shift not only from EPRDF/TPLF’s well-trodden political agenda, but also from its usual attitude in resolving current and past crises. The most obvious change that one has so far noted is that the new PM has shifted from a politics of violence and intimidation to a politics of reconciliation and dialogue. For its entire existence the EPRDF, or more specifically the TPLF, has relied on its military, security, and its well-developed network of spies to maintain order. Now it appears to realize that such a system of control and coercion it not only unsustainable, but has greatly eroded the already little trust the Ethiopian people have in this regime. It is, whether it has been declared as such or not, the primary reason for the people’s uprising.

We can declare the late Meles Zenawi as being the one most responsible for inculcating the notion that his party and the EPRDF were indispensable for maintaining not only the integrity of Ethiopia, but also the condition of her prosperity and peace. This belief has never been under question by his successors. The regime core’s dogma and fundamental message has been that without it Ethiopia will plunge into civil war and would ultimately end up becoming another failed state. It has desperately tried to convince the Ethiopian people that it alone can save Ethiopia from herself and lead her to prosperity. Even if it acknowledged that errors have occurred its tendency has been more to blame the people than itself.
Dr. Abiy has adopted a different attitude, or one may even call it a strategy: instead of reciting the glorious achievements of his party and accusing the people of ingratitude, he chose the way of contrition and reconciliation: he has openly admitted that many errors have been committed by his party, and has declared the necessity for a process of national dialogue to resolve the many problems Ethiopia is presently facing. To be sure, this was begun by his immediate predecessor, Ato Hailemariam Dessalegn; but Dr. Abiy seems to have made it the whole mark of his political agenda. The inveterate belief of this regime has been that if people were provided with enough carrots they could handle easily the sticks. This belief has proven not only cynical, but simplistic and ineffective. It in effect revealed the complete disregard the regime displayed towards Ethiopians’ fundamental desire for freedom and free speech. Dr. Abiy has eloquently acknowledged this truth in his inaugural speech by declaring that: “[Freedom is] a gift of nature to all that stems from our human dignity”. That he acknowledged and elaborated on this point gives me hope that he is committed to a democratic process, and the dignity of the Ethiopian people.

Intimately tied to this point appears to be Dr. Abiy’s declared commitment to democratic pluralism. Since 2005, opposition parties have practically gone under, and have been forced to conduct their affairs almost clandestinely. We still do not have the full account of the persecution they have been subjected to both under Meles Zenawi and Hailemariam. The fact that Dr. Abiy seeks a politics of inclusiveness over exclusion and marginalization is clearly expressed in his inaugural speech as well as in his invitation of opposition parties leaders at a state sponsored dinner. This is undoubtedly an encouraging sign. No one needs any reminder however that many of them have been languishing in prison just a few days or weeks prior to this.
But what is even more encouraging is that Dr. Abiy appears to affirm the necessity of opposition voices anchored in his belief that good governance stems from it. As he put it: “In the fight over ideas we find solutions”. Dialogue with dissenting voices is not only a matter of principle, but a pragmatic way of finding optimal solutions to Ethiopia’s perennial problems. This is quite clearly a departure from the regime’s presumption that it alone holds all the right solutions for every problem in Ethiopia.
The EPRDF, or perhaps more cogently the TPLF, has made the politics of division its defining agenda. It adopted it not out of malice, as many have maintained, but out of pure expediency: the TPLF understood from the day it entered Addis Ababa that it could have not survived for long if it had opted for true democratic process; and even subsequently, it could not have committed itself to the very principles of the constitution it helped create for the very same reasons. Its tribalist and divisive politics has secured its survival for 27 long years. But the animosity and tensions it hoped to become permanent in order to remain in power unimpeded not only vanished, but the exact opposite has been happening in Ethiopia: Ethiopians more than ever have embraced their unity as well as their shared history to the dismay of the TPLF.

Dr. Abiy has been clever in ceasing the message of the people making it his own. Ethiopians, despite all the trouble the TPLF has gone through to convince them otherwise, they more than ever have re-affirmed their commitment to remain one. Dr. Abiy has indeed declared unambiguously that the “national unity is paramount”. This appears clearly to open a new chapter since the TPLF took over power.
No Ethiopian of sound mind and goodwill would question the fact that every ethnic group within the confederation should have the right to preserve its culture, customs, language and tradition; that it should have its own geographical space that it calls home. But to jump from such principle to declare its independence from the rest of the commonwealth is not only unwarranted but is utterly injurious. Indeed, Dr. Abiy has himself highlighted the contributions of all the Ethiopian ethnic groups in defining Ethiopia, and by the same token has affirmed also the necessity of remaining one.
Under Meles Zenawi laws were not created in order to achieve justice, but merely to implement his will and whim. By stating that Ethiopians are not “simply seeking laws, but the realization of justice” Dr. Abiy appears to clearly shift from an autocratic to a democratic notion of justice. What should make laws enforceable should not be coercion alone, but their moral power.
Ethiopian expatriates have always been viewed by this regime as the enemy; excepting of course those few who are its undying apologists. The so named Ethiopian Diaspora has always been a thorn on the side of this regime that it has desperately tried to belittle and silence, but thankfully has never quite succeeded in ignoring as much as it would have liked to. Ethiopians abroad have appreciated that Dr. Abiy has chosen to extend his hand to invite them to be part of his new vision of Ethiopia. This is as encouraging as it clearly shows true leadership.

As anyone can attest the new PM has clearly shown genuine goodwill and desire to make amends as well as change course. But the fundamental question remains whether the changes he has promised are meant to perpetuate the rule of TPLF’s regime for as long as possible, or for the good of all Ethiopians? Is it to modify in order to survive, or to earnestly establish the foundations of a true democratic process, come what may? It is of course too early to tell. But like all of my compatriots, I wish Dr. Abiy every success in his effort to achieve all those genuinely commendable goals he outlined in his various speeches. If he indeed is truly committed to them as a true leader should, then we should witness a new, truly historical beginning in Ethiopia. But if this is done only to simply pacify the people in order to maintain the status quo, then we shall for ever see it as the most odious of deceptions.
The Ethiopian people appear ready and willing to give Dr. Abiy the benefit of the doubt and are mostly supportive of his agenda. But they would be utterly ill-advised to let their guards down and just wait for change to come down from the top. Nor should they expect that the TPLF will join him in his laudable endeavors. No one doubts that they will mount every possible obstacle if he indeed proceeds to implement his democratic and nationalist agenda. The best way the Ethiopian people can help him is not by “just letting him alone” and “giving him time to sort things out”, but by holding him accountable, and reminding him of his many promises at every turn. The peaceful struggle must continue without pause if we want any result at all. We have certainly been edified by his words, but words alone don’t define the man. His true mettle will be defined by his actions since “every tree is known by its own fruit”.


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