“Ethiopians have eagerly listened to the promises of the new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But if he does not carry out the reforms he promised, the country will end up as a failed state,” says opposition politician Lencho Lata.
Leenco Lata prefers not to spend a day longer in the dark and wintry Norway. He has been living in exile there for years because he is not welcome as an opposition figure in his East African homeland.
But perhaps the wait will not last long now that a reformist new prime minister has taken office in Ethiopia early this month. Since his swearing in, he has promised, among other things, the release of political prisoners, more democracy, open and fair elections, and space for the opposition.
If he fulfills those promises, that would be a turning point in the history of Ethiopia. Opposition parties never really had the change in Ethiopia. There is opposition on paper, but in reality the ruling party, the Ethiopian Revolutionary Democratic Popular Front (EPRDF), has been in total control since 1991.
In the ruling party, which consists of representatives from four regional groups, Tigrayans, who account for only 6 percent of the population, have been in charge since 1991. Over the last three years, Oromo and Amhara activists, the two largest ethnic groups, have been protesting against political inequality, land expropriation and human rights violations. The big question is whether Abiy Ahmed, himself an Oromo, can bring an end to Tigrean total domination of Ethiopia’s politics and econony.
Q & A with Lencho Leta
Do you have some confidence in the new prime minister?
He seems to be a promising young leader. He is an Oromo because the current rebellion against the EPRDF is concentrated in that territory, but the Amhara and other ethnic groups see him as a symbol of change also. He has already done some good things. He is visiting areas where the protests were most intense, gives promising speeches, and has even been in talks with the opposition, which is completely new in Ethiopia. Also the Maekelawi, the regime’s a torture chamber, has been closed down and imprisoned journalists and opposition members released. With his cabinet, He is also taking a positive step, replacing a number of anti-reformers with reformers, and it is good that a number of female ministers have been appointed, and some who have been suspected of corruption were removed. But this is not enough. My suspicion is that harassment and torture of dissidents are still going on. That must stop. The release of political prisoners is not yet complete. There are still tens of thousands of people in prison. The Prime Minister must also abolish the state of emergency so that the arrests stop.
What is the biggest risk?
The Tigrayans [Tigray People Liberation Front – TPLF] are opposed to reform and want to continue exerting influence behind the scene. If they succeed, the society’s expectations will never be fulfilled, resulting in the rebellion persisting. All ingredients are present: a large young population, who are unemployed and angry, feel deceived by its political leaders. The TPLF leaders have to make a choice: do they want a failed state or an Ethiopia where everyone has equal rights?
What can Abiy Ahmed do to keep the situation under control?
First, the EPRDF has to democratize internally. The TPLF is still the most dominant member of the coalition. The number of representatives per ethnic group must be a reflection of the population. Secondly, the security apparatus must no longer be exclusively controlled by TPLF. Unemployment, environmental problems, and land ownership issues must also be tackled.
The political model, organized along ethnic lines, seems to generate a lot of conflict. Is it not better to reform this part of the system?
At the moment you can not ignore ethnicity in Ethiopia. The population, like Oromo and Amhara, have not yet enjoyed enough freedom to see ethnicity as a side issue. It is still too emotional. I think that the importance of ethnicity can decrease, that people will organize themselves based on their political ideology, but this will happen gradually.
As a product of the left in the sixties and seventies, Lencho Lata was concerned about the position of the Oromo, the ethnic group to which he belongs, after his study in the US. First as a guerrilla fighter against the Derg regime, and later as a negotiator in the realization of the current federal system in Ethiopia. In 2013, after an ideological disagreement with his previous party, Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), he founded the Oromo Democratic Front. His wish is a democratic Ethiopia, where all ethnic groups have an equal voice.”
By Shemsu Bireda