After more than four months in power the Ethiopian prime minister gave his first press conference to journalists on Saturday 25th August, an extensive and inclusive press conference to journalists from all media outlets including the foreign-based ones but in Amharic, the official language. It was intended to provide an opportunity to as many of the media as possible and to include all sorts of questions without any censorship or restrictions, including quite personal queries on the prime minister’s life, health and family-related issues. Many of the questions, some quite blunt, concerned current reforms, reaction to the reforms and the suspicion that there was a section of the ruling coalition that was fiercely resistant to any changes.
The recent ethnic-based clashes in various parts of the country as well as the perceived shortcomings of the judiciary to present prompt and satisfactory responses to criminal behaviour were among the first questions the premier had to address. There were other questions from various interest groups that included bloggers and website administrators. The press conference was relayed later on to fm radio stations and TV channels, making it very accessible to the public.
The Maskal Square grenade attack, the murder of the Grand Renaissance Dam Chief Engineer Simegnew Bekele and the recent attacks that took place in the eastern Ethiopian Somali region causing scores of innocent casualties figured prominently in the questions.
The prime minister allowed ample time to respond to as many questions as possible and remained cordial even when asked provocative questions about who was to take the credit for the Ethio-Eritrean peace deal. He explained the background to the issue, saying that what was important was the success of the venture rather than who should be the “father of the success.” He credited the media as being among those who contributed to the success of the negotiations and said what was even more important was to consolidate the peace deal and put it into practice.
A difficult question was one concerning the issue of migration. The government is working hard to have migrants return back home, with agreements with neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Sudan. However there are still new migrants attempting to go overseas using illegal and dangerous routes. The question was, “When will migration stop from Ethiopia?” The prime minister’s answer was logical and predictable.
“It will be impossible to stop movement of people in several ways and means but our main concern is the ones that are ill-informed and based on false premises,” he said.
He said even the most developed countries have their share of people moving abroad. Hence, movement of people cannot be totally controlled but migration due to socio-economic or political issues will be reduce only when the country manages to meet the aspirations of its nationals and people feel reasonable comfort in their native land. And to that end everyone was required to play their part in building the nation, he stressed.
The premier received questions from all sides and gave, if not priority, a lot of attention to female journalists, of whom there were a fairly large number in the hall. However, he did not show any preference for particular journalists.
One of the first questions was from a female journalist who began by complaining that being a journalist these days was a challenge that not even the current changes succeeded in addressing. She lamented the extremely limited access people like her had when important events unfolded, saying that they were forced to quote government media such as the Ethiopian News Agency or the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation and to write reports based on these secondhand sources rather than relying on their own reportage. She referred to the occasion of the recent visit of the Eritrean president in Addis as well as the prime minister’s trip to the US, where he had discussions with the Ethiopian diaspora.
The prime minister came across as dynamic and alert, taking notes and often responding to questions with a smile. He was disarmingly frank, admitting to various shortcomings attributed to his new team and the party. He asked for people’s patience and time to address the most pressing issues first and then proceed to the deep-rooted ones that continued from regime to regime.
He urged people to make fundamental changes of attitude, particularly regarding new ways of resolving problems, saying that they should not view every issue or solution from an “ethnic affiliation” point of view. He advised people to consider things as they actually were and focus on the larger picture of being Ethiopian, rather than being a part of a particular region, ethnic group or religion. He stressed that this latter attitude had dragged the country back for years and that what is needed now is “merit-based management and government” without regard to the ethnicity of the staff composing it.
The premier said that his government was not in a position to make constitutional changes because he did not have such a mandate. Referring to the accusation that he did not take urgent or prompt action against those who committed violent acts, he said that his government was cautious in the use of force and should restrain from illegal use of power, excessive force or mass detention when it comes to potential suspects. The era of arresting as many people as possible and then trying to sort out who are innocent and who are guilty, has passed, he said, emphasising that the innocent must never be implicated along with the guilty. He also stressed the strict application of the law and that there should be no resort to rule by law.
He said, “You should always remember that the government itself is under the law and no one can violate the law with impunity.” For this reason, he said that he would not stay in power even for a day should the elections not hand him a mandate to govern. The verdict would be up to the people through the ballot box.
He continued that the first task of this government is to prepare elections that are acceptable to all contenders in a peaceful and transparent manner and that it will be inclusive and not discriminatory. He said he will not attempt to stay on power through force, that this is a break from the past and that such attempts have alienated the public, sowing distrust and suspicion against the government and the system itself.
The prime minister stated that institutions that enable the holding of free and fair elections will be formed and that work has already begun through ad hoc committees working on this and other issues such as the nationalisation of public enterprises, the auditing of time-consuming mega projects and other key economic and political issues.
He said that during the election season, platforms will be open to everyone and the process should be totally free, fair, peaceful and credible to any interested observer.
He said no political group will be allowed to return home and organise an army of its own because that is the exclusive privilege and mandate of the government in power. However, all forms of peaceful debates and discussions will be allowed and the more discussions there are the better for the enrichment of the democratic process as the country would benefit from it.
The prime minister stated that the country needs to converge into one strong and growing Ethiopia and not promote division and violence. That process, he said, had proved to be a terrible failure that cost the country the useless deaths of brothers. There is no heroism in killing compatriots because of one’s differences, he said. He expressed regret for the fratricidal wars and killings that took place during the sixties and seventies. Almost all of the political movements of that time revolved around the idea of socialism or communism, he explained, and yet they considered their rivals as “enemies” and tried to physically eliminate one another. That was shameful and useless because murder is a sign of defeat and nothing more, he argued.
Finally, he stated that Ethiopians must end that tradition and transform it into a peaceful forum of discussions and debates based on principles and good manners. Killing one another for any reason whatsoever is never worth it nowadays, he ended.