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Politics in transition: the medemer factor

Politics in transition: the medemer factor

Medemer has become the new buzzword around town. Taken from the widely accepted inaugural speech of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), medemer has now transcended what the PM said or wanted to say in that address. As the PM went on his much publicized reconciliation process, political pundits debate the implication of this term, Asrat Seyoum.  

There are some political speeches that just resonate with the audience in such a big way. From the “I have a dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. (PhD) to the inaugural speech of John F. Kennedy or the speech on going to the moon; all have made their mark in the lives of their constituencies. Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech is one that is said to have altered the course of the 2008 presidential election in the US and ultimately delivered him the presidency.

In Ethiopia’s context, the acceptance speech of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) looks to have reverberated across the public in ways that most people did not expect in the fragmented and polarized political environment of Ethiopia. In that speech, although there were a number of concepts which are quite new to the Ethiopian voter, none of them gained prominence like the so called Medemer literally translated to “to be added to something”. 

In his speech the new PM noted: “…in a friction of ideas, are solutions. There is strength in cooperation. When we add-up together, we become stronger…”

Now, as it is the case with other influential speeches, opinion leaders, and social media activists; the public run with the concept of medemer for the coming weeks. It became a bit of a buzz word in the country. The PM took notice of this and pronounced the Medemer idea for the second time in his second parliamentary appearance.

In subsequent weeks, the concept of medemer looks to have transcended its original reference in PM Abiy’s speech and enter the realm of “unity”, “reform” and in extreme cases “unitary system” and the like. In the meantime, Abiy doubled-down on the medemer narrative while hosting President Isaias Afeworki of Eritrea at the Millennium Hall three weeks ago.

In the speech, constantly interrupted by cheers and roars, Abiy extended the medemer rhetoric as in “addition” to saying that it also includes “subtraction” and “division” where “subtraction” is applicable to hate, corruption and lack of commitment and “division” is attributed to love, wisdom and wealth. “Isaias and I are now added up and what we are dividing is the Assab Port,” the PM announced to a cheering crowd.

It seems that the interpretation of medemer (a motto according to Abiy) is running wild these days. The various personal interpretations of PM’s mottocatch phrase aside, one thing that is clear is that a number of people are torn between what medemer could mean to the future of the nation’s political sphere; most importantly to the Constitution and the ethnic federalism system.

With the medemer concept fast spreading among the Ethiopian public; it is time to ask what it really means politically. Whether it is a political ideology or strategy? According to one political commentator, the answer is a definite “No”.

“I see nothing more than a political marketing tool just like we see in the liberal political orders around the world,” the commentator argued. Slogan politics is common in the liberal world, and “Yes We Can” of Obama is a perfect example of why and how such political marketing tactics are playing an increasingly major role in the global politics. “It is appealing to the young and that is why candidates are increasingly drawn to it”.

But, if it is a political thought, he says, I wander what its substance is, what its proper objectives are and what support base and ideology it has.

With that said, he is of the view that, medemer, as a unifying rhetoric is a useful tool; especially in such fragmented political environment like Ethiopia’s.

Yilikal Getahun, President of Ethiopian National Movement and founder and former president of Blue Party, would not give the medemer concept a time of day. “I do not think that it is a well-thought out idea at all. I found no philosophical and conceptual depth in it,” he said. He believes that this is a concept that is overstretched.

On the other side of the political spectrum, Abreha Desta, Chairman of Arena Tigray, the only opposition party contesting for the Tigrai constituents, also admits that it is not clear about the concept of Medemer in general. “But, so far, it sounds like medemer is rallying people for a certain cause in spite of having inherent differences and conflicts of interest,” he says, “rallying for unknown cause under different political ideology, flag or interest”.

Unlike the others, Kibrom Berhane, a lecturer at Mekele University, School of Journalism, said that there could be some depth in the so called medemer concept after all. He, however, admits that it is a term that is not properly interpreted and explained in a way that the larger social group can understand.

“As far as I am concerned, people have different identities, so Medemer is a concept where people without having to abandon their individual identities can still rally behind one common identity,” he told The Reporter in a phone interview.

But Kibrom recognizes some interpretations which are completely the reverse. In fact, for many, Medemer means subscribing to a certain identity like a national identity having suppressed their individual identities, he added.

Unfazed by the misinterpretation and confusion, PM shifted gears to go about implementing what medemer is in practical terms; that is an all-out political reconciliation process. In an extraordinary speed, Abiy freed almost all politically related prisoners and gave them free pass to operate in Ethiopia. That was substantiated with the enactment of an amnesty law and procedure.

In some instances, the PM held a personal “meet and greet” session for some of the high-profile political prisoners, who were released from prison. This too was quite unprecedented in Ethiopian politics. That was followed by another bombshell diplomacy and reestablishment of relations with Eritrea, erasing an animosity of close to two decades.

All through, the PM remained consistent in arguing that his medemer motto was nothing without deep reconciliation and rapprochement. “Our medemer goes a bit further than the standard mathematics principle; we want to bring down walls and barriers between Ethiopians; we want a complete fresh start,” he said.

Abiy followed up his Eritrean reconciliation with another move equally unprecedented: reconciling with the longstanding opposition camp in Norther America. Last week, Abiy led a delegation to the US and toured Washington DC., Los Angeles and Minnesota to meet ardent critics of the Ethiopian government.

After a worm reception and an overwhelming rhetoric of love and medemer, the PM said to the Ethiopian public upon his arrival at Bole International Airport that “finally, the walls have come down”.

Meanwhile, back home, in the same week, wave of rallies swept across the Tigray Regional State in the North. The rallies featured slogans asking for a swift measure to end ethnic based - violence, proper investigation regarding the killing of Semegew Bekele (Eng.), General Manager of The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, respect for the country’s constitution, proper public consultation in the Ethio-Eritrea reconciliation process and some others.

For Yilikal, this is an indication that in spite of aspiration and rhetoric to bring about a unified Ethiopia, the various political elites in Ethiopia remain highly divided. The fact of the matter is that Ethiopian politics is in its worst shape yet; let alone the various political elites. Members of the ruling front itself have reached a point where they cannot work together, he argued.

However, the most interesting question is rather why medemer is not so appealing in some parts of Tigray. Abreha argues that the Tigray community has always been pro-reform. “But, you have to understand,” he said, “Tigrain aspiration for real change has been frustrated by the Tigran People Liberation Front (TPLF) hence, it is not surprising if people are suspicious of the current reform vibe.”

“To be honest, the current wind of reform does not look like it has an institutional base either. There is nothing done to improve institutions and protect citizens. Still the ideals the people fought for have not come true,” Abreha lamented. “Don’t get me wrong, there are hints of change which cannot be downplayed,” Abreha told The Reporter. In this regard, he cites the act of releasing prisoners and the rhetoric about unity. “It is all good. But, unity does not come simply by mobilizing people; rather it needs an environment where there is justice, freedom and a system that treats citizens equally”.

Nevertheless, Abreha admits that Ethiopian political elites do need some sort of reconciliation; but not the people. However, he argues that due to ethnic politicization, this conflict among the elite is trickling down to the public and hence reconciliation of the elite is important to the public.

“People are still victimized everywhere. The Tigrai community is under attack due to misleading narratives equating TPLF with the Tigray people,” Abreha expounded. Although the idea of medemer is noble in itself; I think it is missing something which is a system and an institutional arrangement which will allow people and groups with varying political interest to work for a common goal, he argued further.

As far as the young politicians are concerned, the political implication of medemer is next to meaningless. “I think eliminating hatred is one thing but you have to understand that the so called hate is there in the first place due to political problems. So, without addressing these underlying political problems, the reconciliation process would not be sustainable at all,” he elaborated.

For the anonymous commentator, it is no surprise that the public in Tigray are uncomfortable with some changes driven from the center. Since for the first time, the political reconciliation process is set to bring about a new dynamic where those who have followed anti-Tigrain narratives in the past are set to join the nation in a peaceful political contestation process.

“Without putting the proper ‘rules of the game’ in place, there is bound to be suspicion and blowback from all corners,” he continued to argue. In his view, with all the opposing political forces, including those who have raised arms in the past, heading to Ethiopia, the administration of PM Abiy should be careful to set clearer rules with which everybody will abide.

Abreha also agrees that “Once these political forces agree to Medemer, they would face danger of reverting back to old divisions and without adequate platform to address these political differences it is bound to go into conflict”.

Since the start of the reform, we are seeing ethnic attacks, terrorism and the like in different parts of the nation. That is why all political parties must agree on “no-go” areas and set rules. “If you don’t have a well defined and agreed upon rules of the game, Medemer could be self-destructive,” he said.

Abreha has different takes on the ethnic based violence in various parts of the country. He believes that the lack of political freedom is the legacy of the past 27 years. “Repressed people would eventually go such directions. I do believe that some of the PM’s statements are taken out of context and twisted to fuel these attacks,” he says. However, he is firm on the point that, stopping these attacks and making sure that they never happen should have been a priority to PM Abiy. 

The other concern, according to the same commentator is the perceived exclusion of the Tigrain community from the current reform process. In his view, Abiy’s reform drive should be in-sync with at least one of the political groups hailing from this region; whether it is TPLF or other parties.

Both Abreha and the anonymous commentator agree that the way forward should be to focus more on institutional reform and building more inclusive consensus in the country. While the commentator insists that the most important thing to look at is the rules of the game, Abreha sees the most urgent measure should be on stopping the ethnic based violence across the country.