Thursday 25 July 2019

The BBC’s flagship World Service Radio debate programme, World Questions, came to Ethiopia at a crucial time in the country’s history.

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, has initiated a series of unprecedented reforms in his first year in office. He has made peace with Eritrea; freed 60,000 political prisoners, unbanned opposition groups once deemed terrorist organisations; and appointed women to half his cabinet. He has pledged free elections in 2020 and made a prominent opposition activist head of the electoral commission. He now faces one of his biggest challenges - moving the economy from state-led to market-based growth while overseeing far-reaching political reforms. So, if Abiy Ahmed succeeds, Ethiopia will cement its position as one of Africa’s biggest players. 

Hence it was but fitting that the Addis Ababa World Questions focused mainly on debating whether Abiy’s reforms will see Ethiopia enter into a new era of peace and prosperity and the BBC’s Jonathan Dimbleby was joined by a panel of leading Ethiopian politicians and thinkers, in English, led by questions from a public audience at the Hilton Hotel at the beginning of May. 

Quoting Llywelyn, Head of Communications for Wider Europe, 

‘As Jonathan Dimbleby introduced himself to the audience, they broke not into the customary polite clapping but loud, sustained applause and cheers. Given his long standing links with Ethiopia, this was not surprising. It was an edition of World Questions Jonathan had always hoped to present. However, back in 2016 when we first set-up World Questions he had remarked to me “it’ll never happen as last time I was there I accidentally sparked a revolution”. Both Ethiopia and this partnership have come a long way since.’

It may need clarifying here that Jonathan was referring to a drought that he covered more than four decades ago. The reportage that he did became a catalyst for the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie I as, despite its severity, the famine was not reported until its sudden exposure by this ITV documentary (entitled The Unknown Famine) in October 1973.

So, no surprise that the event was keenly waited for by Ethiopians and non-Ethiopians alike residing in the capital. In fact, the registration for the event was closed within 24 hours as all spaces were booked out. Llywelyn, who has led the organisation of 16 World Questions events from the British Council side, said that it’s the one of, if not the, fastest that he has seen so far. 

The turnout at the actual venue was not disappointing either. The long queues that formed almost an hour before the event indicated how eager people were to see the panelists hammer it out with Jonathan as a moderator. 

The four panelists that adorned this World Questions were; 

•His Excellency Mustafa Omer: President of the Somali Regional State, an avid supporter of Abiy who is gaining popularity throughout the country

•Professor Merera Gudina: Political Science professor and leader of the Oromo People's Congress, Merera has spent several years behind bars for his outspoken opposition of the leading party and government 

•Tsedale Lemma -Managing Editor and owner of The Addis Standard, An independent print and online magazine

•Eskinder Nega – a journalist, activist and campaigner who, just like Professor Merera, has been arrested for several years for his protest against the government. 

The debate addressed different questions including whether the current reforms led by PM Abiy will succeed and why/why not, the security and displacement issues that seem to be rampant throughout the country, the power being wielded by the different regional states, ethnic federalism and its effect on the country, the newly drafted anti hate speech law, and etc. 

You can listen to the actual recording by logging in to 

As Llywelyn noted, ‘As it was remarked upon several times during the night, politically it would have been impossible to debate in such an open and public way in Ethiopia until very recently. It is therefore perhaps fitting that our 30th joint edition came from Addis Ababa, and our 6,000th audience member an Ethiopian.’

BBC World Questions is a series of events delivered in partnership with the British Council. As a cultural relation and educational organisation and partner of the BBC World Service, the British Council helps to enable a platform where the general public can join a democratic debate on a global forum.