July 1st 2019, marked the first full report of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to the Ethiopian parliament. It outlined the performance of his government including the challenges. But the entire process was overshadowed by the recent killings of five top leaders.
This was definitely unprecedented in the history of the country since it became the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, FDRE. Under the current Constitution Prime Minister Abiy is the third premier but may be the most popular and followed with enthusiasm given the image he managed to create of himself as a politician with a human touch. Some have admired his opening to his adversaries and critics as positive and unprecedented. Many consider him as one of them and are ready to listen to what he has to say on any given occasion.
Since his first address to parliament all of his appearances in the House have been characterised by high rates of public interest. There were instances when people followed his Q and A sessions in the House whilst travelling on public transport, with such passion that even those who once cared little about politics seemed fascinated. Citizens say the premier has brought some life to the parliament, allowing it to evolve from what it used to be.
The July 1st session was particularly lively and interesting for the kinds of questions posed and the explanations given. On some points, he was visibly upset and emotional. After all he had just lost some of his closest colleagues. He stressed that if the unity of the country was put in danger, he would put away his pen and lift the Kalashnikov. He literally said he was ready to die!
This is a truly unprecedented expression used by any leader that I can remember. The premier said he would entertain and appreciate any issue presented to him and would address them duly as long as they followed the precepts of the Constitution. But he immediately warned that any mingling of unconstitutional acts with the legal way putting thus in jeopardy the integrity of the nation would not be tolerated. For many, this is a stern warning for some individuals whose continuous rhetoric included flirting with the idea of unilateral declaration of self-determination from the FDRE. He mentioned the recently crushed rebellion in the Somali Regional State as an example insisting that people must observe the legal procedure in both presenting a demand and seeking a response.
Hence, ‘forceful and arrogant demands’ cannot be entertained and that is what the mandate of his government was all about: to preserve law and order within a united country. But he was open to procedures of rearrangement, including Constitutional amendments.
It was clear that the premier was giving a reassurance to all those who have been accusing it of inefficiency and lenience with people who continued to violate the laws under the pretext of an interpretation of federalism. He underlined that observing constitutional provisions was not an option but mandatory. This applied, not only to the Federal Constitution but to the regional ones as well. Anyone who breaks any of the provisions of any of the regional constitutions, is also violating the Federal Constitution. And in this sense the recent attempt at Bahir Dar in the Amhara Regional State was an attempt against the FDRE and no one should have illusions about that, he emphasised.
The premier’s intervention in parliament was particularly stern when he addressed some of the security challenges the country faced. He went the extra mile to explain why the events of June 22 constituted an attempted coup d’état even if it failed completely thanks to the concerted efforts of “the valiant defence and security forces”, he said. He did not want to reveal every detail of the attempt but pointed out that the ambition of the plotters was far more extensive than what they actually achieved. He also mentioned that there were several other attempted coups people did not need to know about.
The 11 month performance report was hence dominated by this principal security crisis and the various federalism issues. The premier took a lot of time to explain the confusion on what kind of federalism was applied in the country and how the arrangement could be modified but based on public request. But he insisted that dismissing the Constitution and taking part in elections or carrying out any political activities were contradictory. Every activity in the country must presuppose that the Constitution is valid and binding. Amendment could be entertained but only based on the precepts of the Constitution itself, he underlined.
Finally, he reminded the MPs and the public at large that the government was more resolute than ever to transform the society to a new high through the reform, and no one would stop it from achieving just that because he said the government was on the right track.
The public reactions outside parliament were mostly positive admiring the resoluteness of the premier. However, a few were skeptical about his warnings that seemed to stretch to authoritarianism. Some disagreed with the way he depicted the Constitution: “obtained with a huge sacrifice”. Many argue that the FDRE Constitution is basically a political document that the ruling party drafted for its own convenience and consecration and hardly bothered to embrace the feelings of the nation for which no one sought consultation.
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