Bumpy Road to Democratic Culture

One has to be a cynic to miss the ray of hope that signaled a democratic Ethiopia immediately after the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), the closure of the notorious detention centre, Ma’ekelawi, and the release of political party leaders. I, too, was a cynic.

In Abiy, I see a man that is determined to change the status quo, but nevertheless gets bogged down by a partisan bureaucracy and an unresponsive legislative body. Closing down Ma’ekelawiand releasing prisoners meant, and still means, little to me as long as the underlying laws governing civil societies and anti-terrorism stay intact, law enforcement remains non-transparent and the courts are not autonomous.

There are still people who see politics in Ethiopia taking a turn for the worst with the current administration. And given that democratic institutions largely lack autonomy, and checks and balances in government remain inadequate – both of which will take years to meaningfully address – our hopes are dangled on officials’ promises. But, there are already positive developments as far as building a democratic culture is concerned.

It seems to have improved since the lifting of the state of emergency and after Abiy made a speech criticising the government, often confused with the ruling coalition. The most important point was his acknowledgement of state-sanctioned terrorism. The fact that long-serving government officials, who were deemed untouchable by some in the public, have now retired has also helped the liberal discourse.

Media outlets have become liberal in their coverage and the sorts of opinions they allow to be expressed on in air. Even state enterprises have been aggressive in their criticisms of government organs – they rarely criticise the current administration nevertheless, if at all.

The public is as well revelling in its new-found freedom to freely express ideas, and social media is a testament to this. Polarisation has probably increased, but the subjects now openly discussed were considered taboo just a few months ago.

We can see the same phenomenon in the support rallies held for Abiy in Addis Abeba, Bahir Dar and Arba Minch. A multitude of flags are waved, and participants are seemingly allowed to hold placards that are derogatory.

Bar some of the extreme polarisation, such expressions of feelings, ideas and ideologies will allow citizens to debate and reflect on a hot button issues. But it should be nurtured the right way. Too many social media users are unjustifiably hostile to those that criticise the current administration, with the discussions deteriorating into insults and name-calling.

Here, public figures can help. The labelling of unseen and unidentified groups should cease. It merely helps demonise political organisations, individuals and, at times, an entire ethnic group. This is not helpful to the democratisation process as it turns what could have been a constructive diversity of ideas and opinions into toxic polarisation.

As airing different opinions become the norm, and people are no longer prey to self-censorship, political engagements will improve. This will help citizens get more informed about the politico-economic situation of the nation as well as knowing more about their rights and duties. There are few things as important to a democracy as an informed public.

The maturity of Ethiopia’s political democratic culture has also gained by measures taken soon after the conflicts in Hawassa. The unfortunate accident was followed by Abiy’s call for the resignations of zonal administrators.

It is strange to see officials being held accountable for an incident that were not directly their faults. But they were indeed responsible as the conflict took place under their watch. Calling for their resignation is a milestone for a nation that has had a lopsided understanding of the role of officials and leaders.

Leadership has for far too long been depicted as an act undertaken by state and federal officials who get out of their ways to help their communities and nation. It has never been seen for what it really is: part of the social contract. It is a relationship between the governed and the governors that only lasts as long as officials are bound by the rule of law or can perform their duties adequately.

There are no written laws requiring office holders to resign in the face of incompetence. But having them do so can help set a positive precedent in how officials exercise their power and how they behave. The power of such unwritten rules that govern officials cannot be underestimated. A government cannot function properly if public officials are not self-restrained and cognizant of public sentiments.

Cautious optimism is called for in how we view this current administration. But it is also important to acknowledge that political culture is flourishing, albeit with flaws – its power should not be underestimated.

After all, there was no law that prohibited running for a third presidential term in the United States until the mid-1940s. But that unwritten tradition of serving just two-terms was never breached – Ulysses S. Grant ran for a non-consecutive third term but lost – for around a century and a half after the first two presidents resigned setting the precedent.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is Fortune’sOp-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in the directions of both print and audiovisual storytelling.

Published on Jul 14,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 950]



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