The challenge now is to renew Ethiopia with what is right with Ethiopia


By The Strathink Editorial Team

For the last several years, Ethiopia has been in the midst of a serious political crisis. Civil unrest in various parts of the country, particularly Oromia, triggered the resignation of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), Ethiopia’s governing party, is undergoing what it calls “deep renewal”—a process that began with intense self-evaluations at all the party conferences.

In particular, the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) issued a statement accusing its own leadership of  “taint[ing] the hard earned gains of the party and the public alike.” The Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO) along with the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) had a similar leadership shakeup, although not as drastic. And the Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM) chose new leadership last month following the resignation of the Prime Minister.

It is understandable to be focused on the current problems—civil strife, corruption and loss of public confidence in the state are formidable challenges. Yet, it is not unhelpful to step back and look at the bigger picture of Ethiopia’s trajectory beginning in 1991 with the fall of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s government.

For those of you Ethiopians over 50, especially, it might be helpful to take that step back and remember what Ethiopia looked like in 1991—or 1981. While today Ethiopia stands as the fastest growing economy in the world, just 26 years ago our image of Ethiopia globally was a country of starving people. The photos of famished children bombarded us over broadcast media and Ethiopia became synonymous with hunger. Remember?

In 1981, Ethiopia was recovering from Red Terror, a period of several years where the government declared war on the country’s young people. The new rites of passage for young Ethiopians were arbitrary imprisonment, torture and even death. Their mothers and fathers were not allowed to wear black, the color of mourning, and paid for the bullet that murdered their child. Remember?

The Ethiopian Government was a military state with a command economy governed by a ruthless strongman who rose to power by imposing an infantile version of socialism on the Ethiopian people. This allowed him to rule by dictate, eliminating the opposition through extraordinary violence and repression. Remember?

The fact that Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned, citing his failure of leadership and his desire to be part of the renewal process, in a peaceful transition is extraordinarily significant. The fact that political parties are holding their leaders accountable for the government’s failures is extraordinarily significant. The fact that the government has acknowledged publicly the need to open political space for the opposition is extraordinarily significant. The fact that the government released thousands of prisoners is extraordinarily significant.

The fact that Ethiopia plays a leadership role on the continent is extraordinarily significant. The fact that Ethiopia provides more peacekeeping troops to the U.N. than any other country is extraordinarily significant. The fact that Ethiopia will be a middle-income country by 2030 is extraordinarily significant. The fact that Ethiopia will provide power to Africa via the Hedase Dam is extraordinarily significant. That fact that Ethiopia hosts more refugees than any other country in Africa and has one of the most humane refugee policies in the world—including refugees from Eritrea—is extraordinarily significant.

We can go on but you get the picture.

At the same time, stepping back and looking at Ethiopia’s remarkable progress in just 26 years does not diminish the challenges of governance in the 21st century. The problems are big and require new thinking about serving a country of 100 million people who, thanks to the sacrifices made by the courageous young people of the 1970s and 1980s, are free to want more—to dream for an even better life.

There are big questions for the new leadership to answer. Is ethnic federalism the solution or the problem to ethnic tensions in Ethiopia? How will the government address the challenges of identity politics in 21st century Ethiopia? Is it time to build national parties based on ideology or interests and not ethnic identity? How will the government provide the political space for opposition parties required for democratic development? How will the government address the problem of rent-seeking and government corruption? Will the state continue to play the decisive role in development?

The problems of Ethiopia’s “youth bulge” need definitive answers and quick action. What is the impact of social and economic exclusion to mobilizing youth to carry out violent activities? What are some regional and national initiatives to address Ethiopia’s rising unemployment and underemployment of its youth? Does Ethiopia’s educational policy promote curricula that encourage skills and enterprise development? How do schools educate children in not only human rights but also citizenship responsibility?

In 26 years, Ethiopia has fundamentally transformed its state, economy and society. Obviously, given the tensions today and gap in good governance, sustaining the progress made in the last two and a half decades requires new thinking about Ethiopia’s new reality. It won’t be easy. It will take courage, perseverance and patience.

We call on Ethiopians everywhere to put aside your differences for now and work together towards solving these problems. Yes, the State of Emergency is unfortunate and should be lifted as soon as possible. As former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said just last week in Addis Abeba, Ethiopians need more freedom, not less.

For a country that can trace its roots to antiquity, the theme of “renewal” has an especially profound meaning. For Ethiopia, the 21st century began with the promise of hope—after centuries of monarchy and military rule, economic stagnation and collapse, and social inequality.

However, there is an ebb and flow to achievement and failure.

U.S. President Bill Clinton said, “Our democracy must be not only the envy of the world but the engine of our own renewal. There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”

The challenge now is to renew Ethiopia with what is right with Ethiopia.

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