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Abiy’s Reform Agenda: Gaining Momentum or Losing Steam?

By Meles Alem | May 13th 2019 at 08:37:51 GMT +0300

Towards the tail end of my graduate studies at the University of Nairobi, I struggled to find research material on topics informing governance, policy or democracy of Ethiopia.

Despite Ethiopia’s rich heritage and historical significance, few graduate students in Kenyan universities had attempted to venture into the land on the horizon.

When I inquired the reasons as to why Ethiopia is given a wide academic berth, two main responses were given.

Ethiopia was viewed as a ‘closed’ country, and, I was also informed that if a country controls access to the internet, or curtails freedom of expression, then that country is as well as closed. For the latter reason, Ethiopia may not have had a sufficient supply in stock. Hence, when viewed from the lenses of a ‘comrade’ the description of Ethiopia as closed holds.

To begin with, today, Ethiopia has ‘opened’ up both internally and externally, and while at it, it is beaming with all characteristics of an open and democratic society.

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This is catapulted in a large part by the reformist agenda pursued by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Since his ascension to power, Abiy’s internal reform agenda and foreign policy outlook have in all measures contributed significantly towards the ‘opening’ up of Ethiopia.

A few years ago, Ethiopia may have appeared as a closed nation, where the government machinery regulated over all important issues.

For long, the country was exposed to traditional type of authority which is established on the belief that authority comes from the past, is tested over time and since it proved itself, it should be sustained.

Therefore, any attempt towards understanding why Ethiopia was hitherto ‘closed’ should embark at the point of mapping the inadequacies of yesteryear governments, which spun over 3,000 years. In the same breadth, seek to identify the new beacons bedecking Ethiopia’s national development agenda.

In his inaugural speech, Prime Minister Abiy acknowledged that Ethiopia had a myriad of urgent problems which required quick fixing.

Problems which, when viewed from the outside seemed to cast a blanket cover over Ethiopia.

They included past state human rights abuses, corruption, and internal conflicts among other drawbacks.  

To address the above, a variant of progressive raft reforms were introduced by Abiy’s government.

Pardoning political prisoners, allowing exiled dissidents to return, implementing security sector reforms, and compounded by a bold programme of renewal to ensure political inclusion, while striking a balance in gender, ethnic and religious representation in government.  

Against this backdrop are various common transitional challenges which must be overcome.

However, all is not gloom as there is light at the end of the tunnel. The government is committed to ensuring that rule of law, in all its shades prevails, strengthen institutional frameworks, promote integrity and uphold accountability.

In the same measure, the need for transparency and fight aganist corruption cannot be gainsaid.

On the regional front, Abiys foreign policy pursuit is an exemplification of the principles he upholds.

Attuned to the interest of neighbouring countries, it’s no coincidence that in early March, together with President Isasia Afwerki they both travelled to Juba to revive a flagging peace deal.

Two days later, Abiy travelled with President Abdullahi Farmajo to Kenya in an effort to resolve a maritime issue.

But perhaps mending relations with Eritrea and ending one of Africa’s most intractable military stand-offs marked the highlight of new found openness.

Since the signing of the peace deal, Ethiopia-Eritrea relations have borne financial and security dividends to both countries.

Resumption of flights between Asmara and Addis Ababa marked the end of a 20 year hiatus and cemented rapprochement efforts between the two countries.

The tenacity with which reform agenda items are pursued and implemented has not gone unnoticed.

In March this year, Prime Minister Abiy topped the Nobel Peace Prize nomination list, and early this month, he was named as laureate of the 2019 edition of the Félix Houphouët-Boigny Peace Prize for his role in pacifying his country and the Horn of African region.

On the short term, Abiy’s administration will continue to trail blaze reforms and spur democracy.

Ahead of the scheduled election national elections in 2020, the appointment of a former opposition leader as the chairwoman of Ethiopia’s electoral authority, signals his commitment to multiparty democracy.

On the long run, the pace of reforms will continue to gain momentum. In the process leaving a trail of case studies for research, complete with living points of reference.

A rich mine field for students of international affairs. Who knows, Ethiopia may be the next education frontier for Kenyan students.


Meles Alem is the Ambassador of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia

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