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Dereje Gizaw  2-7-19

Having started from within and learned the ropes of EPRDF politics, the new popular Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, has had a spectacular rise to power. He is considered by many Ethiopians as a saviour and healer who will save Ethiopia from its demons and from destroying itself. He is a youngand charismatic leader revered by his supporters as God sent and even described by manyas God. His rise to power is on many levels historical and quite timely--he is the first leader from the Oromo ethnic group and the first Muslim in modern Ethiopian history.

But the exercise of canonizing a living person to such a degree barely a month after coming to power by raising expectations too high and potentially unattainable could be setting the PM up for failure. It is not fair to him as Ethiopia is at another historical cross-roads and faces significant and seemingly insurmountable political problems. It is not impossible for him to overcome many of these issues, but it will be an uphill battle. He will need the support of ALL Ethiopians and I believe most good people would wish him successand support him as it is in the best interest of the country. Ifhe does not get the support he needs, Ethiopians could find themselves indulging in fantasies of hope and prosperity or,more cynically, live in despair for a long time to come. But it could get a lot worst. We will get to that later.

Soon after coming to power, the new PM implemented several policies that may have saved the country from chaos and possible civil war, albeit many of the changes may have been already planned and approved by the EPRDF long before he became a Prime Minister. In rising to power, the PM did not bring about original visionary changes—he became the change. The change the country desperately needed at precisely the right moment.Not only did he become PMat the right time, but he didn’t waste any time in diving into the deep end of the pool and implement changes.

There were other reasons for his popularity as well--his predecessor’s failure to address a number ofsignificant and increasingly urgent issues in a timely manner, anda fatigue factor among many Ethiopians that the EPRDF, viewed by mostas a Tigrayan led, was in power for too long(even though the EPRDF is still in power in one form or another).There is nothing new or wrong about political parties staying in power for extended periods of time(example: German’s Christian Democratic Union),provided they are doing a good job, but the EPRDF for its part may have made many mistakes over the years that needed to be addressed. It is therefore quite understandable that people were looking fora meaningful change and an out from the uncertainty and unrest that existed. All of this contributed to the popularity of the new PM. He was received with open arms and a red carpeton arrival and hailed as a redeemer. He did indeed bring hope to the people which was essential.

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Contrast that with Prime Minister Meles who had to earn respect from the people after years of hard work and following momentous economic development, stability and national securitythe country never experienced in its long history. Even though his bold leadership was recognized by many inside and outside the country, the ultimate evidence that Meles earned the respect of the people came when he passed awayand thousands of Ethiopians intensely displayed their lose and sadness at his premature death.When he came to power, Meles was accused of not being true Ethiopian and responsible for looting Ethiopia to move wealth to Tigray (Tigray “zeketech”), among many other things. Not sure what wealth the DERG left in Ethiopia but nevertheless the new PM has just rebuked that thought by stating that Tigray did not benefit and in fact did worst than the rest of the country in the last 27 years.

PM Meles brought about security, stability and respect from neighbors, enemies and indeed from the international community as seen by the increased Ethiopian profile in various forums such as the G8, G20 and African Union, and in wielding strong relationships with world powers such as the US and China.Ethiopia became respected and recognized again as a significant and stable power in Africa with its military strength and its dramatic economic growth as repeatedly established by various reputable international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank among other agencies.

Where Meles failed in my opinion was in his choice of his predecessor, perhaps done in the name of diversity or loyalty. Mr. Haile-Mariam is by all accounts a decent person and an upstanding citizen. However, even though he was afforded the same opportunity as Dr. Abiy to lead the EPRDF and the country, he did not rise to the occasion.In doing this, I believe Meles allowed a leadership gap to occur and Haile-Mariam’s failure to provide strong leadership may have contributed to, or resultedin, the crisis that ensued. Some may argue that thiswas a blessing in disguise in that it allowed Dr. Abiy to assume power.

Despite its enormous contributions to the development of Ethiopia, the EPRDF was never able to make peace with various groups especially those in the diaspora who were their arch enemies even before the EPRDF came to power. These entities who have suffered politically and militarily at the hands of the TPLF/EPRDF in the past, have worked relentlessly to destroy the reputation of the TPLF and made them hated by many in the diaspora and Ethiopia. They used ethnicity as a main weapon to vilify the government and downplay their achievements.

What many of these groupsdidn’t seem to recognize or deliberately ignore is that the country was already divided and many liberation fronts such as the OLF,EPLF and TPLF were roaming the country and fighting previous governments long before the EPRDF came to power. There needed to be a solution.Part of the political reforms that the EPRDF implemented as a solution consolidated many provinces that were historically divided based on ethnicity (Wollega, Gojam, Tigray, etc.). Ironically the policy of consolidating 4 or 5 provinces into one was successfully exploited as ethnic division by their enemies. As evidence that the idea was not necessarily new or bad, one can see how countries around the world from Canada to Europe are governed. There is also no obvious political or strategic advantage for the TPLF or Tigray in doing this. If anything, one could argue that the other states (provinces) gained significant political advantagesas a result of these changes.

Back to the current PM, and some would argue that he is not without fault either. Yes, already!

Is this a new beginning or the beginning of the end for Ethiopia?

Releasing all prisoners regardless of their crime,without due process and in the name of creating peace and stability, has its own down side but if it can help achieve those grandiosegoals, so be it. However, the PM seems to be sucking and blowing at the same time in professing love and releasing all prisoners while jailing others for seemingly less serious crimes. Doesn’t this defeat the purpose of the exercise (love, justice, fairness, forgiveness, unity)?

First, if releasing all prisonerswas a legitimate gesture (and not a political stunt), it should have been applied uniformly—as they say, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.Second, this creates an uneven playing field and by extension unequal justice thatcan potentially lead to economic, social and political unrest and destabilization or even war.

Instead of staying in the forgiveness lane he embarked on, the PM seems to have chosen the “looproute” and got right back in to jailing people in no time. This in itself is disturbing but, in many ways, the PM also appears to be biting the hands that fed him (a group that allowed him to grow as a person and as a politician) thereby potentially loosing a solid base and loyal support critical for his own political survival. Thiswould be acceptable if done for the right reasons but concerning if it was done to appease different groups with unknown agendas and dubious motives.

Moreover, soon after he came to power, the PM made a particularly divisive comment by saying something to the effect that the last 27 years were a period of darkness. First, there are many Ethiopians who would respectfully disagree with this characterization. Second, good, bad or different, it was neither necessary nor timely for a Prime Minister who is professing to bring about peace and unity to utter these words. He could have as easily said there were many problems and mistakes made that his party will address moving forward while recognizing the achievements made over the last 27 years.

The other unfortunate thing was his attempt to create a wedge between the people and the TPLF. While the democratic notion of people having to choose political parties may have been well-intentioned, his comments were untimely and perceived by some as lacking in terms of his understanding of the complex relationship between the people and the TPLF. It was too soon and unwise, and many have taken note of this and questioned his motives.This is not to suggest that the support for the TPLF is universal, but no other statements could have united the people more swiftly than these 2 comments.

As a Prime Minister of one of the largest countries in Africa, the PM now has the power.But, as most people know, power is useless if one is not in charge while allowing and encouraging a legitimate democratic exercise by the people and political parties. The main question remains, is the PM in charge as a leader? Does he have the clout and respect (and not just love from the people) from the various political parties, factions and the military or is he being influenced and manipulated by vocal groups.The PM is undoubtedly intelligent, and I believe his heart is in the right place but if he acts like a teddy bear during the day and behaves like a grizzly bear at night, it makes one wonder if he is indeed under the influence from others--which for some may be akin to beingovertly covert.

Whether the actions of the new government are marginalizing some people, or it is simply a perception, many feel the PMneeds to address thissoon. If he is truly interested in peace and unity which I believe he is,it may be wise for the PM to think and consider his comments carefully (such as the 27 years of darknessas if the 17 years before it represented a bright star in the country’s history). In digestingsome of the words and actions of the new government, many people are pondering whether this will come to an end soon or if it is going to be death by a thousand cuts. It may beprudent for the PM to give a public address to make it clear that the government will not stand any ethnic or religious based violence and reassure Ethiopians that he represents everyone’s interestequally and fairly. The PM could be treading on dangerous waters politically if he leaves these issues unattended for too long.

No one wins in a war. And those who are beating the drums of war should recognize the long-term consequences of their actions and impact on the people of Ethiopia,not to mention the survival of the nation, before it is too late. Ethiopians, regardless of their ethnicity, are decent and peace-loving people and theyshould be spared from unnecessary wars because of actions by simple-minded individuals or groupswith distorted ideas. Political parties should be thoughtful and look at the bigger picture--work hard and focus their efforts to achieve peace, unity and prosperity for all Ethiopians through a legitimate democratic exercise. Calm down and carry on—those who get mad first lose first!!

Dereje Gizaw, Toronto, Canada. the idea, not the person!)

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