Understanding Abiy through his rhetoric
People both inside and outside of Ethiopia listened to the acceptance speech of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) delivered to the House of Peoples’ Representatives (HPR) on April 2, 2018 during which he was sworn-in as Prime Minister to fill the position left vacant since the resignation of his predecessor Hailemariam Dessalegn on February 15.
In an extra-ordinary session called by House Speaker Abadulla Gemeda, over 478 MPs attended the inauguration ceremony of the new PM. The House witnessed perhaps one of the highest levels of participation that day with invited guests and more than 210 journalists and photographers present at the event. Dignitaries include members of the diplomatic community, invited opposition party leaders, religious leaders, Abba Gedas, and prominent personalities.
Shiferaw Shigute, Head of EPRDF Secretariat and the runner up in the Chairmanship election, read Abiy’s biography focusing on his political career as he presented the party’s choice to fill the PM position.
Following the confirmation, president of The Federal Supreme Court, Dagne Melaku, had Abiy take the oath of office declaring him as the Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia.
In his thirty five-minute speech, Abiy covered pertinent issues ranging from Ethiopian history to the current crisis that has plagued the nation. He emphasized upon unity and forgiveness and vowed to work hard to eliminate all political, economic and social challenges Ethiopia faces.
Highlighting the history of Ethiopia and the history it shares with neighboring countries, Abiy, departing from government’s usual rhetoric, pointed out that the relationship with Eritrea is an important one which he characterizes as a blood-relationship and expressed readiness to work with the government of Eritrea to restore past problems amicably.
He also mentioned geopolitical challenges that emanate from strategic interests of different powers in the region and underscored the importance of unity among Ethiopians to withstand these challenges.
In addition, he further captured the attention of many people in his attempt to honor history and fallen heroes in defense of the motherland in Metema, Karamara and Badme.
“Go to Ogaden, you will find the remains of the Amharas who defended the motherland from foreign aggression. Go to Metema, you will find the blood of the Tigrian fighters shed while pushing back on foreign invaders. I urge you to go to Adwa, and you will find the remains of the Oromos. You will be sure to find the remains of Sidama, Wolaita, the Harrari and Gambella, the Afar and the Benishangul Gumuz mixed in the battle field of Badme. We are born Ethiopians; we die Ethiopians as our body becomes part of the earth,” Abiy said.
In light of social issues, he noted the challenge of corruption and the task of bringing quality to the education system in the country. He also raised the issue of women and the challenges they are facing and vowed his government will support women.
In the same vein, he talked about the rights of Ethiopians to move and work freely in all parts of the country and cautioned against “racism”—a reference to ethnic-based division in the country.
Furthermore, he vowed to provide opposition voices a level playing field so that they can work freely. In fact, what has attracted the attention of the public was his decision to refer to political parties as ‘Competitors’ instead of ‘oppositions’.
In his speech, Abiy also addressed the need for unity while apologizing to the people affected by the protest that shook the country to its cores.
“The world is eagerly awaiting our country’s transition; and they are waiting in fear,” Abiy said in his maiden speech as PM. “We have a country which is kept together by the blood sacrifice of our fathers,” he said. “We have to learn from our mistakes and compensate for the lost times,” he continued.
He further spoke of freedom of expression and right to assemble to be adhered to as in the constitution.
An in-depth look at the speech reveals that Abiy actually mentioned the name “Ethiopia” 40 times, unusual to the parliament which is accustomed to references to country’s official name: the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.
Nevertheless, one thing that seems to be apparent is the fact that Abiy’s speech was juggling between purely liberal and revolutionary democracy thoughts all the way up to the end.
“It was confusing whether he was an EPRDF PM or not; I saw both,” said one prominent political commentator and political researcher on condition of anonymity.
Abiy kicked off his speech by acknowledging Hailemariam for leaving his post to be part of the solution to alleviate the challenges that the country is facing.
“Today is a historic day. We bear witness to peaceful transfer of power. I would therefore begin by expressing a particular appreciation to His Excellency Hailemariam Dessalegn, who has been part of the solution to ease the political instability that was evident in the past few years and ensure peaceful reconciliation,” Abiy reiterated.
“For me his speech is a total divergence from the normal EPRDF rhetoric,” an expert working for an international organization based in Addis said. “EPRDF is always ethnic focused, but Abiy’s speech glorified Ethiopianism and this makes it an original speech.”
“EPRDF believes that Ethiopia is a collection of its pieces, but Abiy magnified the whole is bigger than the sum of the pieces,” said the expert.
Kebour Ghenna, executive director of Africa Chamber of Commerce and founder and director of Initiative Africa, a non-governmental organization which strives to promote qualitative education in Ethiopia, shares the expert’s view.
“The first of the things that I thought of while going through the speech was the unionist approach and that comes first from all of the issues raised in the speech,” Kebour told The Reporter. “The speech is a total departure from what we have used to from the EPRDF camp.”
The other issue that made the speech of the new PM unique is the human face that he gave to his speech.
“One of the biggest departures from the common EPRDF rhetoric is his personification of the leadership which is not the party’s culture at all; the words were always ‘we’ and ‘our party’,” says the expert from the international organization. “He has broken out of the political culture and introduced a touch of individualism.”
For the surprise of many, as Abiy himself admitted, the speech “was unusual one to be delivered in the House of the People’s Representatives.”
He thanked his mother and his wife Zinash Tayachew for instilling a belief that he would one day stand in front of the whole Ethiopia and the later for taking his mother’s vision and contribute her part to his success.
“His predecessors even did not dare to call their position as power but assignment; he went further to give us his human element,” the expert opines.
For the expert, Abiy acknowledged individual rights including human rights and freedom of expression in a departure from his party’s culture of viewing people demanding such rights as enemies.
“He saw citizens as a capital entity, which for me is a total departure from the normal EPRDF rhetoric,” he stands.
Kebour also believes that it is a very good beginning that the speech showed a human face of a leader.
Although the ideas expressed in the speech show huge departure from EPRDF, Kebour has doubts if Abiy is capable of instilling new ideological thoughts into the EPRDF camp.
“I do not see how Abiy’s speech can push ideological shift in the party,” Kebour argues. “There is no different ideological ground and his speech does not indicate what his future directions will be as it is devoid of programs or directions.”
But, he observed that the new Prime Minister has avoided the common party words like ‘deep renewal’ and the ‘legacy of Meles Zenawi’, the late Prime Minister of the nation.
For Kebour, it is way too early to deduce concrete shift is coming to the EPRDF direction or if he will carry on the traditional way.
But, for the expert at the international organization, this was clearly an indicated in Abiy’s speech. His speech showed his procedural change of direction.
Though liked, and even accepted by tears at the House, his speech won’t leave him without challenge, both experts agree.
The biggest challenge for the PM is a very high expectation from the public because of the promises he supposedly made on the same speech. If he fails to fulfill his promises, he will be thought of as a mere orator. However, the system’s restrictive nature is believed to be a big challenge for Abiy to walk his talk.
Contributed by Brook Abdu and Yonas Abiye