When the elections of 2015 passed far-smoothly than anyone might have expected, with the incumbent EPRDF and its regional allies having won every seat in parliament, it was testing to imagine what the subsequent three years had in store for Ethiopia.
Two years down the road, there has been a devastating drought and economic development lower than projected. This is not to mention the loss of life, destruction to property and the hundreds of thousands that were internally displaced last year. The government never stood by idle. Its response was a 10-month-long State of Emergency, the first ever in its rule of a quarter of a century, a series of pledges to reform and the assumption of responsibility by the senior leadership of the EPRDF for the unrests.
Of these, only the first realised in full form and force. But there has not been substantial reforms, at least the kind that would reduce the ruling coalition’s hegemony in the state. And even if it was laudable that senior leaders admonish themselves for the current state of affairs, they failed short of taking accountability.
Such that the political situation has aggravated, having even knocked on the doors of Addis Abeba not long ago, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn no longer believed he was equipped to handle the grave situation. It was back to the drawing board for the ruling EPRDFites, with the Council of Ministers having found it prudent to reinstate a state of emergency.
For all the libertarian argument that freedom must trump security, and Benjamin Franklin’s view that “those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither,” given the scope of the unrests, it would be insensible not to condone it.
What has been unfolding over the past few months, with alarming intensity in the past couple of weeks, has led the state to reclaim its rightful role in society; to restore law and order. Its use of a constitutional provision in declaring a state of emergency is a necessity and understandable.
The state has evidently lost its monopoly over the physical force it has mandated to utilise proportionally, and violence has been privatised to the point that it has become regular. Protestors have targeted civilians based on their ethnic identities and inflicted pain, brought death and destroyed properties. Such were atrocities committed in the name of advancing “liberty,” but indefensible as they were regrettable.
As unfair as it may seem, to give up the constitutional liberty for assembly or the right not to be detained without due process of the law, either of them has become an indulgence under the current political stalemate. The state must reclaim its exclusive monopoly over all forms of physical force. It should protect the lives of individuals and their properties without due process.
Concurrently, it is prudent that the emergency decree does not exceed its mandate. The arrest of suspects must be made public, and they should be treated in a dignified and humane manner while they are under custody and investigation. These are inalienable rights even such a distressful time must not preclude. It is reassuring to see the government set up a civilian body doing oversight on the conduct of law enforcement agencies, in carrying out their duties during such extraordinary times.
But there is truth in the words of Franklin. The government must not take away the liberty of citizens to move freely and speak their mind if it is merely prepared to give them temporary safety. There should be this worry for, with the benefit of hindsight, what the previous emergency declaration achieved was a transient calm.
Given such recent history that there could be voices against it should not be unexpected. The United States Embassy in Addis Abeba believes the decree would only exacerbate the situation. The better alternative, the diplomatic mission believed, was more freedom instead of less. It was a voice echoed by others such as the European Union, the United Kingdom and Germany.
Neither is it an argument without merit. For far too long, the public did resign to accept a tightening on fundamental rights. It had hoped it was only temporary and that there were long-term possibilities in ensuring both freedom and security, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive, can be guaranteed. The state would in the meantime use its extended powers to clean the blemishes that led to such a state, a process that mostly should have included deep introspection.
But the ruling EPRDFites failed to put the relative calm that was observed during the state of emergency last year to good use. They ascribed the unrests to unemployment, a mere lack of good governance and harmful indoctrination of the youth by overseas opposition parties. They made the fateful miscalculation that this was a public discontent that would pass like all the others. They were complacent with the momentarily calm as they had been self-deceived.
Thus, they took a combination of measures to rid the nation of such nuisance. All the while, EPRDFites failed to take steps that show the political system can host different sets of ideologies, through multiparty politics, or that institutions are strong enough that citizens can turn to them for answers instead of the streets.
The government pledged to pour a 10 billion Br revolving fund, hoping to appease the youth with jobs, while technocrats rose to the rank of ministers in the hope that performance and competence could be attained in the bureaucracy. Last year’s high-level corruption probe also saw to it that well over a hundred officials were arrested.
On the political front, EPRDFites were adamant in that their political foes based overseas have no place in the Ethiopian political space. Unlike the recent communique by the OPDO, which extended its call for dialogue with the opponents abroad, the discussions were exclusive to the somewhat discredited opposition at home. If there was hope that such talks had begun, there was little encouragement in the outcome. Talks that have allowed an incumbent party with massive resources to challenge far-weaker oppositions at the ballot to become the only victor has been allowed to continue largely unchanged.
Under such a climate, the temporary limitation to political freedom in Ethiopia bore no fruit. There is even less optimism in that a second emergency declaration would bring real reform. It is not enough and adequate without responding to the calls for inclusiveness in politics, equitable distribution resources and respect to the rule of law.
What perhaps has dominated the days and weeks leading to the Prime Minister’s decision to resign was that the ruling EPRDFites are against change, even if they promise it. The feeling of hopelessness and the lack of trust in the democratic institutions have given way to the attitude that if there is any change to come, it would not be from the ballot boxes.
In the six-month stay of the state of emergency, this is the primary challenge the EPRDFites have to address to see a stable nation. Doing as such will only require them to have the political will to realise one of their key promises, which is widening the political space, institutionalising power and taking accountability for leadership faults. As an example of the effectiveness of such reforms, the ruling party need not look much further past than the promising developments that preceded the recent emergency declaration.
It began with the public pronouncement of shutting down the most infamous and notorious police facility known as Ma`ekelawi and the release of opposition leaders, activists, journalists and religious figures. OPDO’s conciliatory call to hold discussions with opposition parties that have previously been made a pariah of Ethiopian politics by the government was a refreshing breath.
Such talks are detrimental for groups have found acceptance domestically. It may not mean the government should condone some of their actions or pronouncements, but it should acknowledge that they too have the ears of a large chunk of the populace, especially groups that feel they are disenfranchised and marginalized.
Through such discussions that span the political sphere, the EPRDFites would be better off ensuring that the political system can be permissive to allow healthy competition, ushering in transparency and autonomous conduct of democratic institutions. Law enforcement bodies, the judiciary, the public media and the electoral board must, in the eyes of constituencies, be deemed fair arbiters of the contest for political power.
To ensure that law enforcement bodies have no other business but to protect the constitutional order and the public media is accessible to all voices as it should be fair and critical in its coverage is indispensable to restore public faith in the democratic institutions before the next national elections. Agreeing on the structure and composition of the national electoral body to ensure its mandate is carried out free from political influence and non-partisan manner is even more crucial.
It will be the only means of assuring that citizens would turn to the rule of the law and voters to the ballot boxes, instead of the streets, the next time they want to hold their leaders accountable.
Such negotiations, give and takes as well as compromises should take place under the explicit agreement that all participant parties accept and acknowledge the constitutional order as they publicly renounce violence as an instrument of political advancement. Political parties which continue to use innocent lives as a bargaining tool have nothing worthwhile to add to deliberative democracy.
The ruling coalition’s reformist and forward-looking agenda must best be encapsulated in Hailemariam’s resolve to resign from office. In him lies a leader that found his approach unproductive, took the responsibility the power of the office naturally confers in him and had the moral imperative to accept that the nation finds itself in more than he can handle. He held himself accountable.
The ruling coalition must take a page out of Hailemariam’s book. The culture of giving in, taking responsibility and the willpower to be accounted should be entrenched. And if the results of the national elections in 2020 are detrimental to their political interests, then they must have the courage of their conviction to accept their fate without hesitation as if it was not to be.
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