Civic Engagement Can’t be Overrated

We should be grateful for the rally that took place to support Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) on June 23 in Addis Abeba. It ought to matter little which side of the political fence one stands on. Whether one agrees with the theme of the rally or not, it is a significant step in the right direction.

The political rally, by all accounts, is most likely the biggest of its kind in the country’s history. But it is also unique in that the government or a political party did not call for it. This goes against the usual modus operandi in this country.

What usually happens is that either some government body or a political party calls its supporters through its structures, provides the transportation and paraphernalia and may even pay per diems to attendees. On that fateful Saturday though, participants spent their own money to buy t-shirts and made placards to express their feelings. It was a popular rally in every sense of the word.

Admittedly, that made for a lot of disorganisation. I have heard some valid criticisms and legitimate concerns about the risks involved in bypassing institutions with the mandate and experience to handle such big gatherings. However, even with all its technical shortcomings, which will hopefully be corrected with experience, voluntary and popular participation in the country’s political life should be a welcome development.

That is because there can be no democracy without active and engaged citizens. A short coming  that has existed for the past forty years, by different parties and governments that proclaim their goal is building a democratic state in this country, is the inability to mobilise citizens without bribery or coercion.

If nothing else, the fact that a broad cross-section of society became interested enough to get involved in the political life of the country, is a positive contribution towards building a stable and democratic order.

The benefits of citizen activism and self-organisation are not limited to the political arena. It can have an enormous economic impact.

Francis Fukuyama in his seminal book, “Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (1995),” grapples with the question of why some societies are better than others in creating economic prosperity. The answer, he argues, is that societies that have a high trust culture are the ones most successful in creating wealth.

One of the prerequisites for the creation of a high trust culture is what he calls “spontaneous sociability”, which is a form of social capital that is created when societies are free to connect in various voluntary associations like labour unions, social organisations and indeed even private corporations.

These trust based voluntary associations serve as buffers between citizens and their government – they reduce the cost of doing business. There is less need for government intervention to legislate every minute transaction, as is the case in societies that do not trust their governments as much, becoming rigid and inefficient.

What we saw last week was a form of ‘spontaneous sociability.’ It may be just a seed, but nurtured the right way, it can go a long way into creating a habitat of shared values and trust. It can grow to build the social capital necessary to further economic development.

That is not all. Perhaps the acutest disease that is ailing the Ethiopian economy is corruption. The most potent medicine to cure it is a population that believes it has a stake in the country and its economy.

Citizens who believe they are part of the development agenda are the best defence against corruption that has metastasised in the last few decades because ordinary people were excluded from the political process. Anything that results in the reengagement of the public in a participatory democracy should be encouraged.

These are a few reasons, among why we should all be happy about last week’s rally. Of course, at the same time, we all should be bitterly disappointed and disgusted by the cowardly act of violence that resulted in the loss of lives.

By Tibebu Bekele
Tibebu Bekele can be reached at

Published on Jun 30,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 948]



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