On Thursday August 1, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed held an open press conference to the media which was welcomed by the public. There are things people would like to hear directly from the head of government on affairs critical to the nation; such as the general status of law and order and the state of the economy. Inflation, unemployment and respect for the rule of law remain vital issues. These are complex for this young executive body in a transition that is turbulent and at times worrying for many. Where exactly is the government heading? Quo vadis?
Of course the premier does have a number of occasions when to convey important messages but the media would prefer to face him with their own questions and the public watches attentively.
Such interactions are fondly anticipated in the absence of pre-scheduled appearances with the media. The premier once hinted that he believed in delegating the exercise to save him time. But as it was usual with the other premiers who preceded him, the ruling party would not refrain from calling press conferences when it had something to clear or convey. At a time when millions are glued to their smartphones following social media posts, interventions of this kind become key to counter influence. If the public receive the news directly from the horse’s mouth, it would enhance the government’s credibility. Up until now the general population failed to trust a ‘hidden administration and the government understands that the only way to regain public trust, is transparency.
A controversial issue that the premier addressed vigorously was the shut down of the internet. He dismissed the protests and justified the shut down on grounds of security. No life is less precious to save, he argued. After all he said internet was not oxygen, nor water. He also stressed he would not hesitate to switch it off for longer terms if it was used to incite violence or encourage people to kill citizens and destroy property. It was the government’s prime obligation to protect the safety and security of the people, he noted.
However, critics were not impressed by this response. They saw it as ‘a pretext to suffocate critical voices’. But we have all witnessed several times the reckless use of social media to generate and disseminate hate speech and violence. We have seen how easy it is to radicalise people through such mediums. For a public of our kind the dangers are even more palpable as the notion for fact checking is uncommon. The Democratic of Congo and most recently have also resorted to such measures to quell unrest.
When the premier was asked about the elections, he expressed his party’s readiness to conduct them as scheduled but thought it more reasonable to reach a consensus with all stakeholders. He however did not see any problems arising from postponing them if done legally and using constitutional means, a process he pointed out many countries had used without being labelled ‘illegitimate’. He said the arguments for and against were only logical, and would not delve further into polemics.
For many this upcoming election cannot be overestimated. It must be an opportunity to solidly drive the country along democratic rails and once and for all settle key perennial issues. This could even mean change to the way the system functions. Ethiopia is indeed in a process of transition and the challenge now is how to steer it peacefully, confidently and legally.
Most if not all of the past elections held in this country had major flaws and irregularities. The post electoral scenario never satisfied those who took part in the process. The results were contested and the electoral commission was accused of partisanship. The upcoming election is expected to divorce itself from the past. The premier has repeatedly pledged it will be free and fair. If defeated he would resign immediately. But there are still many political groups who fear the EPRDF not being the ‘group of angels’ would not refrain from ‘falling back to their usual election tradition’. That is why they insist that the electoral laws be thoroughly revised. The way in which funds are earmarked for the campaigns and the way the conductors and observers of the election are recruited remain thorny issues. Independent procedure is at risk.
The press conference also addressed international issues such as the Ethio-Eritrean relations. With regards to Eritrea the premier dismissed allegations that relations between the two have diluted. He said lasting processes are underway, including the repairing of roads linking Ethiopia and Eritrea and soon there would be tangible economic returns.
The premier also dismissed deep divisions in the ruling coalition alleging that the ‘war of words’ recently burst between the ADP and TPLF (Amhara Democratic Party and Tigray People Liberation Front) describing the incident as ‘normal’ in any healthy political discourse.
His reaction to the recent violence in the South Region was of anger as it was common criminals who took advantage of legitimate political demands to indulge in raw criminal acts, he blasted. He urged the public to expose those elements to the newly established ‘Command Post’ led by the armed forces.
He talked about relative progress on the overall economic performance but admitted the inflationary cycle still needing to be aggressively addressed.
The premier dismissed allegations that the recent ‘attempted coup’ was used as a pretext to put down political dissent. He said his government was faithful to the principles of the rule of law and the ones caught and arrested illegally would soon be cleared and restored to their normal life.
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