Ethiopians have just celebrated their new year - 2011 - which according to the Julian calendar is seven years in the past. 2010 was a year full of significance for Ethiopians as the establishment’s main leaders changed radically, with a similar change apparently occurring with the ideology of the party in power. The new year has been highly anticipated by all Ethiopians as a new opening, a new spirit and a new vision, as proclaimed by the current prime minister who came to power following prolonged protests throughout the country during the previous three vibrant and controversial years.
The new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed (PhD), has introduced a new ideology of unity and love for one another among the country’s citizens. He dismissed division on ethnic, linguistic or religious lines as something that “has only hurt us and not worked for us”. He argues it has motivated us only to kill one another, which is shameful and destructive. He has called for peaceful negotiations on whatever issues we fail to agree and condemned violence and killings as a means of resolving problems as “old fashioned.”
He repeatedly asserted that the country needed to unite all its forces and resources and pull in one direction, and not be entangled in intestinal trivialities. He outlined his vision for a more integrated Horn of Africa sub-region, calling upon neighbours such as Djibouti, Sudan, Kenya and, particularly, Eritrea. The latter has always been the closest and most kindred neighbour due to the fact that the two countries were in fact one for years before Eritrea’s secession in 1991. The people are of the same stock, and enjoy similar historical traditions. At one official gathering during which the leaders of the two countries were present the premier declared: “From now onwards, if any one believes that Ethiopians and Eritreans are two different peoples, they must be naïve.”
One of the most outstanding achievements of this government during the just-ended Ethiopian year has been Abiy Ahmed’s decision, along with his party, to accept the Algiers Peace Deal that concluded the 1998-2000 war between the two nations. This was fully accepted by the Eritrean leader Isaias Afeworki and after such a thaw, the two countries have begun very close ties in all aspects.
The two embassies have reopened, transport links by air, sea and land have been reinstated, and exchange of visits by official delegations have been conducted. All these were inconceivable just a few months ago, before the surprising announcement made by Prime Minister Abiy to accept the terms of the peace deal and pledge to abide by it.
Although the devil is in the details, up to now all the activities that have followed the announcement have created a new spirit not only between the two leaders but also among the two peoples.
The assertion that neither of the two countries can do without the other is true because the trade that can flourish between the two nations would definitely boost their fledgling economies. The usage by Ethiopia of the Eritrean ports will immediately lessen its current burden of having the use of only one port, in neighbouring Djibouti, which is often severely overcrowded and has high demurrage payments that affect the economy. Ethiopia can now use both Massawa and Assab to handle its import-export transactions, and this will provide further oxygen for the economy.
On the domestic front, the achievements of the new prime minister during the last Ethiopian year can also be considered remarkable. There has been tremendous relief on the part of the citizens, who had dreaded that Ethiopia was on the verge of collapse due to ongoing unrest and ethnic or religiously motivated clashes resulting in hundreds of thousands being evicted from their homes and displaced. There were increasing signs of intolerance in various parts of the country inhabited by ethnically mixed populations.
Most blame the outbursts of violence on deliberate, ethnically based policies orchestrated by the previous government, which ruled the country for more than twenty-five years. Many had criticised ethno-linguistic based federalism for being dangerous and leading to chauvinism and interethnic clashes among Ethiopians. Observers of Ethiopian politics for the last three decades have often asserted that the division was intentional to make sure that power never left the hands of the ruling elite, itself arranged on linguistic and ethnic lines.
The new leadership wing that came to power from the same coalition, however, is diametrically opposed to this idea. It has openly stated that only unity of all Ethiopians can lift the nation out of potential chaos and deep poverty, firmly rejecting artificial boundaries or demarcations inside the country.
The new prime minister has openly discredited the past policies not only as a failure but also as dangerous, for encouraging people of various ethnic or religious origins to take up arms against their own compatriots. He has spoken in favour of freedom of expression and movement, as well as the need to be united under one flag, exerting all efforts to resume the disrupted trajectory of economic development.
The prime minister also denounced all those who worked day and night to divide the nation in order to benefit from the resulting troubled waters. He condemned all forms of nationalistic chauvinism and accepted that differences in policies and strategies does not mean that people holding these views should be imprisoned, killed or exiled. He has thus opened up the political space for all political parties as long as they adopt peaceful negotiation methods.
He has formed various committees of experts to discuss and change the special laws that the previous government used to attack and imprison all opposition party members or activists. Everyone, no matter what their ideas may be, is invited to work for the good of the nation. Thus the press law, the civil society law, the anti-terrorism laws are now under close scrutiny.
He has also talked directly to the diaspora, something not done by the government in Addis Ababa for decades. This is a clear departure from the past and no leader had ever taken this step with such a consensus. He has released all political prisoners, asking their forgiveness for all the tribulations and sufferings that the government had inflicted on them.
The fact that he humbly asked for this pardon in front of the Ethiopian people for all the wrongdoings of his party surprised many. He expressed regret that a few people had hijacked the results of the prolonged struggle carried out during the military junta for their own personal gain and glory.
Thousands of prisoners have been released. The premier advocated not only for peace but also for love, forgiveness and unity as the only ways forward. He argues this policy will work not only for Ethiopia but even for the entire sub-region. For this he has obtained the appreciation of the neighbouring leaders such as Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta who publicly endorsed his policies. He has also pushed the South Sudan leaders to reconcile and embrace one another while helping restore peace between Djibouti and Eritrea, earning the appreciation of the UN.
It is evident that the challenges that the country faces in the coming months are enormous and no one has illusions about them. The deep-rooted wrongs, the extensive and systematic corruption fuelled by the arrogance of power, the prolific illegal trade in contraband and foreign currency trafficking have harmed the economy. All these facts were not only admitted by the ruling party, but also condemned and there are now unstinted efforts underway to recover as much as possible.
The country’s mega projects turn out to have been a major source of misappropriation. The biggest of all the projects is the flagship construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, GERD, with billions reported to have been pocketed with scarce accountability. The fact that the project manager was found dead in the centre of Addis Ababa has added even more concern to the dark cloud threatening to engulf the project’s completion. Millions have expressed their deep dismay on this issue.
Analysts say the country is really at a crossroads and now is the time that it needs real, visionary leadership to ward off a slide into uncontrollable disruption or economic breakdown.
The celebrations of the Ethiopian new near were personally fronted by the prime minister and his close associates, along with all opposition forces amid expressions of bright hope.
Ethiopia has the opportunity to join the democratic countries of the world, and will never again tolerate any form of aristocracy or totalitarianism, many were heard pronouncing. The mood is now really joyous and the current new Ethiopian year will be crucial in the country’s trajectory towards full democracy.
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