Political Café: A new future for Ethiopia?

On Tuesday 27 November, FMS, FEPS and NIMD organized a Political Café in Pakhuis de Zwijger about the future for Ethiopia, but also about neighbouring country Eritrea. Since the appointment of the new prime minister Abiy Ahmed in April, many reforms have been implemented in Ethiopia. The country welcomed its first female head of state and the first female president of the federal supreme court. Furthermore, Ahmed and Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki signed a declaration of peace in July that formally ended two decades of hostility. Experts in the field of, or from, Ethiopia and Eritrea discussed the new situation in these countries. The moderator of the evening was Alberta Opoku, journalist and political scientist, leading the evening and challenging both the speakers and the public with her questions, furthering the dialogue.

Home-grown changes

After FEPS-representative Vassilis Ntousas had opened by describing the work of FEPS and his own recent experiences in Ethiopia, an introduction was provided by Jan Abbink, Professor of Politics and Governance in Africa at Leiden University. Dr. Abbink recognized the (positive) changes that have been taking place this year in Ethiopia. He argued that these changes have mainly been orchestrated by prime minister Abiy Ahmed, a very charismatic person who engages people and convinces them to be part of these changes. Abbink calls the change a home-grown development: It is influenced from outside the country, but the developments are the result of deep undercurrents of democratic aspirations in the country itself without the meddling of NGO’s. Abbink ended his story with two remaining challenges for Ethiopia and Abiy Ahmed, namely: The ethnic based violence which is still taking place and the challenge to get the economy going.

Optimism

Next, a short documentary by filmmaker Kibret Mekonnen focused on the recent changes in Ethiopia and showed the reflections on these by a lawyer and a human rights activist from the country. Then the first panel took place, with professor Assefa Fiseha from Addis Ababa University; Nesru Hassen Koroso, PhD candidate at Twente University; and Mekonnen. They agreed on the fact that Abiy Ahmed is an charismatic leader and the person who is closing the gap between the ruling elite and the citizens; therefore, he is earning legitimacy. However, Dr. Assefa Fiseha argued that if elections in Ethiopia would be held today, no one would be able to win and a coalition would be required, but he considered Ethiopia not suitable (yet) for such a coalition. The panellist finished their discussion with the role of the diaspora, also engaging the audience. Nesru Hassen Koroso said that the diaspora is behind the reforms, which sends a strong message home. All panellists agreed that there is a lot of room to be optimistic about the future of Ethiopia, but we also need to stay cautious. After the panel, a cultural intermezzo provided a short break and brightened the atmosphere when dancer Rosa Abera Verkerk performed an Ethiopian dance for an enthusiastic audience.

Room for dialogue

The second panel of the evening focused on Eritrea. The panel consisted of Mikal Tseggai, city council member for PvdA in The Hague, and Dr. Sennay Ghebreab, Associate Professor at the University of Amsterdam. Mikal Tseggai shared the optimism about the developments in Ethiopia, but at the same time she was a bit cautious. She said that every time people have thought that changes would occur, disappointment would follow. Dr. Ghebreab shares the optimistic view: he said that transparency was key in development and involving people, but this, he argued, is not happening enough at the moment. Both panelists expressed hope that the positive changes in Ethiopia will also result in positive developments in Eritrea. Dr. Ghebreab said that the first step has been taken in the form of a peace treaty: the shadow of war is now gone. Tseggai agreed and said that now that the threat of war is gone, the government could finally change. The challenge for Eritrea now, they concluded, is to get the people engaged and to start the dialogue.

Hope for change

It was good to see the room filled with so many interested people, both from the Ethiopian and Eritrean diaspora communities and people otherwise interested in, or involved with, the issues that were discussed. There was room for dialogue which made for interesting exchanges of thought as well. The general atmosphere at the end of the evening was hopeful: despite the acknowledgement of the changes that still have to take place, and the situation not yet being as it should be, a lot of positive changes have taken place already, creating hope for the futures of both Ethiopia and Eritrea.

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