One of the prominent historians of Ethiopia, Bahru Zewde (PhD) in his book, “Society and State in Ethiopian History” calls Emperor Tewodros II the “first dreamer.” He holds that the Emperor felt great grief at the profound underdevelopment of his country.
Although burning with a passion for modernising his country, Tewodros’s dream never took off the ground. He set up neither an education system nor a social contract that would mitigate this lament of his. Rather, fuming at the inability of his people to share his vision and to labour his passion, he punished them.
Mengistu Neway (Gen.) and company faced similar popular resistance. The people did not quite understand their dream.
The General seemed to be convinced that the nascent student protests that began just ahead of the attempted coup d’etat in the early 1960s was an expression of his dream. The leaders of the attempted coup announced freely that their goal was to establish a Constitutional Monarchy bound by law and to accelerate development. They had tried to link their struggle to that of the students.
The students’ struggle directly targeted the Emperor. Nevertheless, their demand was a far cry from a call for democracy. Instead, the storm of socialism wreaking havoc on the world’s horizons started blowing on the thick clouds of the system that ruled our country for millenniums
This ongoing battle between the people and its rulers is rooted in the type of governance desired by the people and the type its rulers want to impose, which has been a complete mismatch. Both the governed and the governors want the other to be subservient. Both want to force themselves as the sole owners of sovereign power of the country and the country’s very own existence.
The problems in our politics that remain to this day are all fundamentally down to this. While the people’s sovereignty is not realised, the age-old absolute power of the governors has somewhat declined.
There have been repeated attempts by our country’s rulers to bind their relationship with the people on a constitution. It would not hurt to consider this attempt as a positive effort. In the early years of our history, between the 13th and 20th centuries, the Kibra Negest and the Fitha Negest were the main documents attempting to introduce law and order.
Much later, during Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign, we saw the first constitution purported to have been inspired from the Japanese experience. This constitution made the Emperor sole proprietor of both the country and its people. The only right it accorded the people seems to be their nationality.
The 1955 Constitution on its part proclaimed the source of power to be divine and not popular. Although never applied, it had provided some civil and political rights to the people. Many regret the constitution drafted in 1974 at the height of the anger and protests against the government, which was believed if adopted, would have perhaps saved us or at least prevented us from the political, economic and social crisis that we find ourselves still mired in.
The flames of revolution were already raging though consumed along with the draft constitution the entire existence of the rulers. The dream for liberal democracy of our dreamers stayed just a dream. The Dergueregime’s constitution recognised that the source of power lies with the people and not with a supreme being. It went even further and stated that the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Republic lies not just with any people but its workers. In the name of the workers though, Dergueonly waved high the sovereignty of the barrel of the gun.
The EPRDF for its part recognised neither a supreme being nor the people as the source of power. It rather dug its claws in ethnicity and tribalism. Sovereign power is not given to the people but is handed out to each ethnic group separately. As EPRDF itself repeatedly tried to tell us, the constitution was not adopted by popular consent. Negasso Gidada (PhD), who was a chairperson of the constitution drafting assembly, also said that the consultation took place only between the EPRDF and a few individuals.
Even if that was the case, the draft was never put to a referendum. The sovereignty of the government continued to trump the sovereignty of the people. Even if its word and actions always diverged, EPRDF’s constitution contains rights provisions. However, just like the preceding constitutions, it could not protect the people.
Popular consent or lack thereof has the power to determine the success or failure of administrative and political directives from the rulers. It is the reason why our country has been standing still for so many years. It will be futile to expect results if the people are not allowed to consult on their problems, interests and hopes. We do not have an ideological thread that ties our yesteryears to the present. And if we do not learn from the past and the present, it will be inevitable that our tomorrow will stay the same.
Tewodros’ dream to lift his country out of Zemene Mesafint and build a stable and modern state came out of his yearning for a better tomorrow. Those Ethiopians who have had the exposure to the level of development the world had reached in the early 20th Century also dreamed of a modern Ethiopia. Mengistu and his allies confrontation with the age-old monarchy was also related to the same dream of modernising Ethiopia.
The students who protested with slogans of land to the tiller and equality of ethnic groups, also dreamed, within their ideological framework, for a better tomorrow for their people. A democratic Ethiopia is one of our unborn dreams.
When in 1991, one revolutionary government was replaced by another, it was not clear where Ethiopia, by then worn out by civil war, was heading. The transitional government, which many had hoped would determine the country’s fate in a positive manner, was not inclusive of the many first-hand stakeholders.
The transitional government’s key component, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), had walked out. Thus began our flight back to where we started. When the ensuing government still professed to lead us to a liberal democracy we believed, we waited. Journalists published newspapers. Several hopeful beginnings flourished to the point of suspicions about the intentions of the government. Politicians formed political associations. The international community coalesced to ostensibly positively influence the government with “constructive engagement”.
The mills of governance were heard far and wide, but its pipes remained empty and nothing substantive came of it. We hoped for Revolutionary Democracy to engender liberal democracy, but we could not change the law of nature. Revolutionary Democracy only multiplied itself.
Democracy has always been a painful pregnancy in Ethiopia but has thus far not cost the motherland’s life. Yet, the foetus of democracy, not sown from the right seed, was aborted without seeing the light of day. The dawn of democracy, awaited by Ethiopians hungrily in towns, cities and foreign countries was shot down by the government muting the overflowing feelings of hope into deep frustration and helplessness.
In its journey backwards, the government hunted, labelled and threw in jail Ethiopians who broke the spell of fear and shunned death.
Like hermits who recluse themselves into darkness, we faced isolation from our people, our loved ones and our beloved children. It was a life sentence, but the judgment did not hold. People’s will and determination decide the length of the struggle, not the arrogance of rulers.
Today, we see some glimmer of light. The leaders have understood the path that has been taken will lead nowhere. Youngsters and youths have paid the ultimate sacrifice in life for the sovereignty of the people. The trouble is that when the struggle slows in pace, the government believes it is strong and respected by the people. If it continues with this belief, it would be making the century’s biggest mistake.
It is imperative that the government now submits itself to the sovereignty of the people. It is a mistake to expect all solutions to pour down on us from the government. It is wrong to expect one person to be the solution for a country as big as Ethiopia. Everyone should do their parts.
We should bury for the last time the culture of intolerance and divergence that has plagued us since Zemene Mesafint or the student movement. We should be enraged for democracy not raging to destroy each other. We have not succeeded in bringing about a lasting change for our country. Everything we have done thus far was impulsive, unreasoned and unsustainable.
The main reason was that the people, without whose participation nothing can be achieved, were not owners of their country’s affairs. The rulers of Ethiopia since Emperor Tewodros have not succeeded in establishing a stable government because they were not governments of the people. No amount of weapons or gold reserves can make a government strong. Governments should obtain the blessing of the people and be founded on deeply rooted and just institutions.
Even though the hands of the oppressive rulers were heavy, the deep roots of our cultural and historical social contracts, as well as practices, have been our strength to withstand all. Denigrating or maligning one another will lead us nowhere. To overcome our shortcomings and to take back our hopes we need to find common ground in our shared history.
We cannot otherwise build a country we love. We will continue to deny each other’s achievements if our interpretations of the past are conflicting. No nation or people exist that are without faults in their history. The difference is in how they have learnt from their past and built a reliable foundation for their future.
Change, in particular, positive change, advances at a tortoise pace in Ethiopia. But this is not the time for business as usual. We are in fast-moving times. The government should rush to facilitate such a forum, while the political forces inside and outside the country should fast adapt to the current political needs.
The culture of and desire for reciprocal retribution should be buried deep. Politics and not law can solve our political problems. It is true that the rule of law is the basis for democracy. However, we cannot rely on the law alone to bring about all the solutions. We should cancel each other’s debt with forgiveness. Just as we say, “forgiveness dries blood,” we need to open our hearts for national reconciliation and brotherhood.
Oppressive governance stands between us and a democratic Ethiopia. I have resolved to get across with forgiveness, love and brotherhood. But I cannot do it alone.
Indeed, I do not want to cross alone. Let us stride, together, without losing hope and without dwelling on the past, the path of unwavering peaceful struggle and cross to a democratic Ethiopia.
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