For Ethiopia’s new prime minister, the key initial job in his office should be encouraging greater freedom of expression within government and throughout society.

By William Davison (African Arguments) |

The swearing-in this week of Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed and his promising inaugural speech suggests Ethiopia has its best chance yet to address a political crisis that has been building for decades.

This comes not a moment too soon. Youthful protesters, particularly in Oromia, are emboldened and angry. Since 2015, security forces have killed more than 1,000 people as the government has shown both frailty and ruthlessness in the face of persistent demonstrations. Without altering its current trajectory, the country would risk a worsening conflict.

Promisingly, the promotion of Abiy looks set to ease unrest and provide space for a rethink. The young leader, still in his early 40s, is the head of the Oromo party in the ruling coalition, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). This grouping, in power since 1991, has made major achievements in nation-building and socioeconomic development. It has done this partly through the Marxist-Leninist concept of “revolutionary democracy“. This has entailed monopolizing power across all tiers of government, politicizing the civil service, and maintaining a weak judiciary and legislature. It has also involved prioritizing material improvements over civil rights, leading to restrictions on the opposition, civil society, and media.

The EPRDF has recorded some impressive achievements in office, but it has also witnessed growing rifts between its four regional parties and a rising crisis of legitimacy. With this now reaching a head, it needs to democratize as promised.

The former rebel movement must shed some of its attachment to secrecy, control, and coercion, and convert itself into an actor in a multi-party system. The EPRDF can maintain its commitments to collective action, minority rights, and state-led development. But it needs to recognize that its vision to transform Ethiopia will not be realized if it continues to exercise complete control and therefore provoke intensifying resistance.

This can be done by borrowing from the liberal democratic playbook without straying into neoliberal territory that is anathema to the EPRDF.

The key ingredient for a new Ethiopia: freedom of expression

The key initial ingredient will be encouraging greater freedom of expression within government and throughout society. While many point to the inflammatory dangers of social media in a polarized environment, the need for greater openness trumps such concerns.

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