Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed has been widely received at home and abroad as a reformist. Indeed, within a short period of time, PM Abiy has initiated some notable changes. Significant among them is releasing political prisoners, ending the state of emergency, removing some political parties from designation as terrorists, paving the way for exiled political organizations to return home, and, most recently, brokering a rapprochement with Eritrea. These accomplishments have brought PM Abiy both support and goodwill internationally and have created a wave of optimism at home and abroad.
While the changes introduced thus far are welcome, several major challenges remain unaddressed. How his government handles them will determine the trajectory the country will take. The PM represents the EPRDF, a party which has overseen an era of severe repression: curtailing of freedoms, jailing and torture of opponents, use of excessive force leading to killings and maiming of citizens, massive displacements and widespread crackdown on dissent. The EPRDF presided over the closure of democratic space as it set aside key provisions of the constitution and established itself as a defacto one-party state. Though PM Abiy has made eloquent public statements in support of more democratic judicial, media, electoral and human rights reforms, it is yet to be seen how much the political culture and practices institutionalized over the last several decades by the EPRDF will change.
A central issue in Ethiopian politics remains how the diverse interests, visions and narratives held by constituencies in the country can be articulated and negotiated democratically. Ethiopia is currently caught between two traditions–one of a powerful centralized and unitarian state on the one hand and on the other, a nascent multinational federalism experiment which for the last two decades has struggled to be fully realized. Questions remain about PM Abiy’s vision for the future of federalism in Ethiopia. Will PM Abiy continue to build on the legacy of the unitarian traditional view that former leaders of Ethiopia have held or will he usher Ethiopia into an era of a truly multinational federation with more regional autonomy and build mechanisms for peaceful coexistence among the various regions?
We have yet to see how PM Abiy will address the demands of several groups; the Oromo demands regarding Addis Ababa and making Afaan Oromo a federal working language, the question of Welkait, the demands of the Sidama, Somali, Wolaita, Konso and other groups for more regional autonomy. It is not entirely clear where the PM stands on these issues. A great challenge for the PM remains how to respond to the demands raised by the historically oppressed groups in the country while also attending to the interests of historically dominant elites. Understandably, laying out a clear vision, policy and a narrative that resonates with all of Ethiopia’s people takes time and effort. Nonetheless, it is an unavoidable task as the future of Ethiopia’s diverse people depends on it.
At the end of July, PM Abiy is visiting the U.S. and will be speaking to diaspora communities in DC, California and Minnesota. We have used the opportunity of his visit and his stated interest to engage the diaspora to put forth a number of questions and concerns that we believe must be addressed by the PM in order to maintain and then to build on the support and goodwill he currently enjoys. Ultimately, what determines the success of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government will be how well it manages to respond to the demands that rocked the country and his party, bringing him to power.
Below are some of the questions we raise:
Over the last decade, Ethiopia’s civil society has been crippled and virtually silenced by the passage in 2009 of measures such as the Charities and Societies Act and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation among others. What actions will the government take to remove this problematic legislation?
According to national and international election observation reports, a significant hurdle towards free, fair and periodic elections in the last two decades has been the absence of an impartial national Electoral Board. Does the government have plans in the immediate future to establish an Electoral Board that is autonomous and has the technical and administrative capacity to oversee elections at the local and federal level? What are the processes that are currently being implemented (or will be) to ensure free and fair national elections in 2020? What is the timetable for improving the Electoral Board? Will the local elections now scheduled for 2019 take place?
What is the PM’s vision for the future of federalism in Ethiopia and how does it differ in practice from the way it has been practiced over the last two decades? What are his plans to address the demands of the Sidama, Somali, Konso, Wolaita and other communities for more regional autonomy?
In the past, majority of the cultures of Ethiopia’s peoples has not been given the space and priority to flourish in urban centers. What steps will PM Abiy’s government take to create truly multinational urban cultural spaces that reflect the plurality and diversity of Ethiopia’s people?
What is being done to attend to the massive displacement of persons throughout Ethiopia, particularly along the boundaries between Oromia and Somali Regional States, Guji and Gedeo, and in Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar Regional State? Does the government have any plans for relocating the displaced to their homes?
What is being done about the violence affecting communities alongside Somali-Oromia border? The number of displaced from this conflict alone exceeds one million people and continues to grow. This crisis is bigger in scale than the displacement of Rohingha at the border of Burma yet the federal government hasn’t raised a cry of alarm asking for international help to meet this serious humanitarian crisis. What is being done to address this conflict that has been going on over a year?
Reports of outbreaks of violence throughout the country continue to be alarming with little credible information about the reasons for violence and who is behind it. What is the government doing to investigate and stop the killings that started in Oromia and are now happening all over Ethiopia? What steps will the PM take to address and halt these atrocities?
The PM has called for “reconciliation” and “forgiveness” on a number of occasions without providing a lot of clarity about what that means. What does “reconciliation” mean for those how have been harmed by the State and whose lives have been destroyed? Who is reconciling to what? What does he say to the people in Ethiopia who have lost their loved ones, who are victims of torture, imprisoned without cause and lost years of their lives and have suffered other forms of State sponsored violence? There has yet to be any recognition or apology from the State. Will there be a concrete plan for bringing justice to the aggrieved including public recognition of injustice and other attempts to redress them?
What is being done to establish strong and consistent mechanisms for accountability of officials responsible for gross human rights violations? What forms of accountability will be brought to bear for those who perpetrated massive human rights violations in the previous four years?
Several issues that were key to the demands of the protesters in Oromia remain unaddressed. Examples include the special interest of Oromia in Addis Ababa, the demands to make Afaan Oromo the working language of Ethiopia and the displacement of farmers from their livelihoods. What is the government doing to address these demands? What will the PM do to ensure further displacement of Oromo farmers around the capital city does not occur?
What is the government’s plan to address other demands of the youth, namely access to opportunities, inclusion in specific measures to provide jobs and build prosperity at the local level, participation in local and national government, high standards of education, and increased access to the internet?
In the past, the Ethiopian government has sought to engage the Diaspora in the development of the country. However, some areas have received more investment than others. What steps will the government take to provide opportunities for Diaspora investment in all regions of the country?
The diaspora’s access to family and friends in Ethiopia has been heavily limited by Ethiopian government restrictions on communications systems. Do you plan to lift such restrictions? In what ways do you plan to improve the communications infrastructure of the country? Are you prepared to include non-state providers for communication systems and servers?
What measures will be taken to protect the environmental pollution introduced by international companies who have little oversight? How will the government address the high rate of birth defects in areas where major factories are located?
Does the government have any plans to expand or encourage the introduction of health care services into areas that are drastically underserved? Are there any specific plans to engage well-trained diaspora medical personnel in meeting that challenge?