Ethiopia`s Parliament, the highest legislative body in the land, has had an unusual meeting with members of the public, including media leaders, late last week, where the Speaker, Abadula Gemeda, was in attendance. It was called to consult with stakeholders of Parliament`s journey over the past 15 years and provide a stock of its accomplishments, including the legislations of 665 bills.
Interestingly, the Secretariat was not shy from offering a laundry list of its limitations and those of five other institutions answerable to it; they are known as pillars of a democratic rule. But nothing in the presentation was as alarming as its assessments of trends that are undermining the consolidation of democracy in the Ethiopia`s society. Of the seven challenges listed and shared among democratic institutions, one stands out for the failure to guard the secularistic nature of the Ethiopian state.
Indeed, Ethiopia`s constitution aspires to form a secular state, with all the safeguards established in the checks and balances among its various branches. It is a social contract citizens, and those capturing state power govern their relationship. It is a document whose content – larger than two-third – is with a liberal conviction. And secularism is one major principle of this charter.
A secular system of governance separates, in the strict terms possible, the state from religious institutions; and protects, in the veracious manner it gets, the equality of individuals before the law, despite their respective religion and beliefs. It protects the rights of believers alike those of non-believers in as much as it guards the rights of the few against the imposition of the majority.
A secular state should be about rational and reasons in discourse as its partisanship should be to the rule of law in its actions.
Barack Obama, perhaps one of the few secularists of American presidents, has this to say on political and religious forces who try to impose their worldview and belief system on others: “Their proposals must be subject to argument and reason, and should not be accorded any undue automatic respect.”
His statement is very much fitting to the kind of debate that has transpired among Ethiopians since the news of an abattoir in Bishoftu (Debrezeit), which processes the meat and skin of donkeys for export, claimed the public sphere.
A Chinese company, Shandong Dong Abattoir, has started operations two weeks ago after its staff slaughtered close to 2,000 donkeys. The news was met with much frenzy and controversy among Ethiopians in the country, and overseas, many of whom expressed their outrage on social media platforms. Understandably, many cringe in private with the possibility of such meat creeping its way into the local market.
Almost a week into the start of operation by the slaughterhouse, authorities at the Bishoftu Administration relented to the pressure from the vocal public and pulled the plug on the project. A clear demonstration of moral panic, the demands of this segment of the public seemingly outweighed rational and reasoning. It is a kind of case where President Obama would have put in the category of those which should not be granted undue automatic respect.
Of those who argue opposing the use of donkey meat for human consumption and skins for medical purpose – even when it is intended for exports – many believe it is contrary to “Ethiopians` religion and customs.” They view it as a practice unacceptable to the belief system of “Ethiopians”. Fitsum Arega, the commissioner of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, the federal agency which issued the investment permit, went on the record claiming that such investments are “not in line with societal values and culture;” and, his agency has stopped accepting such business proposals since 2014.
Although few in size, those who would argue in favour cite the purpose of the investment, which is not to provide donkey meat for the domestic market, but export it to China and Vietnam. They believe the investment should be tolerated for it generates foreign currency to a cash-strapped economy and provide jobs for many locals.
In all earnest, the latter are making their case for the wrong reasons.
The dispute on the donkey slaughterhouse should be neither about a source of forex to a nation nor economic benefit to some of its citizens. It is rather about a populist action of local authorities, which betrays rational and reason, if not in violation of the rule of law. As Parliament put it last week, it is also one more evidence on how the federal government fails to garner the secular nature of the state.
The state`s concerns with the consumption or use of certain items come when and if they endanger the well-being or health of the public. There is no evidence to prove that the use of donkey meat is a risk to human well-being; it is no different from the use of beef or mutton.
Neighbouring Kenya, for instance, has legislated the use of donkey meat, alongside horse meat, since 2012. Following the findings from its Cabinet Secretary for Agriculture, Livestock & Fisheries, the Kenyan government has granted a license to a Chinese company, Goldox Donkey Abattoir, to export donkey meat since last year.
The two Chinese businesses that are close to starting exporting donkey meat and skin have gone through similar licensing procedures in Ethiopia before they commit their investments of close to 200 million Br.
It was not without submitting their project proposals authorities at the federal government granted them investment and businesses permits, and local authorities provided plots and construction permits for their eventual erection. One of the plants has been in the making for five years, in broad daylight and under the watchful eyes of the authorities.
In the absence of evidence that the use of donkey meat does harm to humans and risk public health, the argument against its operations rests on “popular culture” and “religion”. It is the traditional conservatives and the religious who may have gotten offended; thus the authorities have tried to appease.
Wanting to consume donkey`s or any other meat is an individual’s choice and right. Obviously, no law in Ethiopia prohibits the consumption of donkey meat by people who may have the desire to consume it. Religious observance should be the least of the justifications for there is none prescribed by the Ethiopian state.
When the state decides that a particular practice is against the culture or religion of the country, it must be careful that it is not generalising and excluding those that it does not concern.
A survey two years ago by Pew Research Centre may find that 98pc Ethiopians believe religion is very important in their lives. But a deeply religious country has a state that is secular thus with an obligation to protect the 2.6pc of Ethiopians who are found by the national census of 2007 as non-believers or with traditional beliefs.
It is the constitutional duty of the state and those who act for its sake to remain non-partisans. There is a grey line that has not been defined in what is considered to be the “culture” of Ethiopia. It is a wishy-washy topic but one that can sometimes bring a lot of heat such as the case with the donkey abattoir with no solution. But sometimes it is a card used in a time of confusion and panic in a very conservative society.
The closure of the Shandong Dong Donkey Abattoir was not in line with the rule of law, not only because it was shut down arbitrary but also because it was carried out without due process. An executive branch of the state should not act impulsively, as local authorities of the Bishoftu City Administration flipped the script. They have produced no court order but moved nonetheless in a blatant show of misunderstanding of the constitutional provisions on property rights.
What motivated local authorities, beyond the popular appeal, remains unclear. It just seems that when the news of the facility broke, the negative media attention it garnered caused them to act on stroke. Unfortunately, the message such sporadic actions send to other foreign investors would not be a good one. Many foreign investors are eyeing Ethiopia, and they will hear of such knee jerk move against a company. They would be thinking twice before setting foot in the country.
Predictability and consistency in how the law is applied should be the trademark of any society that is trying to build a stable state. Flip flopping when it comes to the law and being inconsistent will break down any progress made.
The country cannot achieve the level of development and rapport it yearns if authorities are fixated with protecting intangible cultures and norms of a country which are not well defined or outlawed.
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