On the third week of October 2018, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) answered questions from parliamentarians on a motion presented by former President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) who outlined the administration’s priorities for the current year. The tone, content and response to his address were yet another sign that Abiy’s premiership honeymoon of the last few months has ended.
Understandably, diminishing law and order is paramount in the minds of many legislators and the general public. With the opening up of the the political space and the resulting state weakening, the country is faced with a myriad of security-related challenges.
Religious conflicts have increased; so have conflicts among communities over disputes of administrative demarcations as seen in Somali, Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and Gambella regional states. The smuggling of small arms and contraband has expanded. The increasing number of unemployed youth across the country adds fuel to the security situation where local policing has weakened. In some areas, hooliganism and mob actions have taken control of administrative government structures, requiring the intervention of federal law enforcement agencies and even the army.
The confrontation of the Prime Minister by an unruly band of soldiers who came demanding salary creates more anxiety.
These are indeed very alarming developments, if not unsettling and disturbing.
The Prime Minister’s tone before parliament was not optimistic and high-minded as his inaugural speech was but was rather marked with frustration and uncertainty. The response was likewise muted, with many finding his explanation over the mass arrests in Addis Abeba – that the police cannot still enforce the law adequately – unsatisfactory.
The lack of civility in the political landscape, coupled with the increase in partisanship and loosened political centralisation, shows Abiy’s political capital is waning. Extremism and radicalism are budding. Reform has come to be seen as a Pandora’s Box, with every tinkering bound to unleash some nuisance and every new political party’s return home pushing the common ground asunder.
Even if Abiy continues to enjoy the sizeable public support he initially garnered and can consolidate power within the ruling coalition, democratising the nation cannot be a one-person job. Those who are in the frontline articulating and advocating various expressions of interests and desires among the public would have to agree and come to the negotiation table to discuss the way forward. It should not be the bargain of the elite only, but rather care should be taken not to exclude any side or group that have an interest.
The bare minimum standard should be that parties agree to refrain from the use of violence to advance their political agenda and adhere to the constitution. Many have complied. However, they have yet to bring forth their proposals. They will have to debate, compromise and draw up a path forward. They will have to agree on the rules of engagement; the autonomous standing of the democratic institutions that should intermediate the political contests; and the independence of the personalities leading these institutions from partisan interest.
With only 14 months to go before the 2020 elections, there is yet to be a call for a national consensus summit. Neither is there a timetable or forum for any meaningful conversation to take place on a national scale.
This delay is taking place in a political space where goodwill between the contesting parties is diminishing. With too few initiatives available to anchor parties on ideologies and policies, opposition groups are reliant on the lingo-cultural rhetoric, giving the perception that their representations are exclusive. Opposition parties that have seldom been seen to campaign outside regions of their self-claimed social bases are focusing on antagonism and, in some cases, continue to deploy violence as a political tool.
It is also not helping that in this atmosphere of high emotions and charged extremism, the divergence of opinions is not merely over how institutions are organised. It is over the values of the constitution and the system and laws in place to govern the country. Based on how the issue over flags and names of cities has been handled, matters raised over resources are bound to be even more difficult to overcome.
In the middle of all of this is the state that is losing trust in the eyes of the public over its inability to arrest lawlessness. Its authority and power are challenged by regional governments that are becoming more assertive and, in some cases, are under tension with one another. The damage that is doing to the prestige and power of the state has been given little attention. This will be consequential.
At the centre of the state is a young Prime Minister who heads the government and commands the army. Seeing him before parliament alleging the existence of elements in the military with ill-intent toward him should be alarming. Though Abiy still commands adoration from a large section of the public, the political capital that he had carried during the period between his inauguration and the rapprochement with Eritrea have no doubt diminished.
True, there is a risk in a popular leader in a country where institutions are weak. But it is also essential that the head of government draws upon public support when uncertainty prevails, political centralisation is waning and there is a shortage of fiercely autonomous democratic institutions.
As unfortunate as this may sound, the changing course of Ethiopia’s politics seven months after Abiy began to call for unity, equity and justice do not show any conclusive signs of abating the violence and loss of lives.
Lack of civility and rhetoric are not exclusive to Ethiopia’s politics. Even democratically mature countries are suffering from them. But the nation currently does not only lack credible institutions to cushion the fallout but also the political centralisation to assure national elections can be held as planned.
The administration’s openness to granting liberty to organise and speech and the return of political parties from exile is commendable. No less noteworthy is the effort to reform close to eight laws that are believed to have constrained the political space. It will be counterproductive if they fail to subscribe to shared values, acknowledge democratic institutions as autonomous, accept the systems and comply with the laws of the country.
None of this can be realised without negotiations for which the clock is ticking. Thus the administration has to prioritise the task of getting a national assemblage in a hall of summit among all contending parties very soon. There needs to be a timetable and outlines of the national agenda prepared to lead the debate and create a consensus among the participants.
Too much time has already passed. More delays will only mean continued diminishment of the political goodwill and too little time for reaching agreements before elections. And without a national consensus, Ethiopia will be on its way to a situation where the elections will be disputed or be deemed uncredible in the eyes of the electorate or be postponed. Both scenarios have the ability to trigger further political degeneration and violence.
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