Ethiopia’s Political Gridlock Won’t Be Solved by Meetings

Over the past two weeks, the Revolutionary Democrats have locked the entire civil service in a series of meetings, in their desperate effort to indoctrinate public service people with their ideological conviction. It is a replay of the same old story from the pages of the EPRDFites’ book; when in crisis, keep the rank and file busy holding marathon meetings with members of the public over how the party is indispensable to the very existence of the Ethiopian nation-state.

Part of this is a recurrent narrative on how much the Revolutionary Democrats have changed the fate of this nation which was once a poster child of drought, famine, and destitution. It presents them as a beacon of change and national renewal. Their narrative hammers the point that 25 years ago the EPRDFites reversed a downward spiral of the last 500 years, and heralded Ethiopia’s renaissance, with the ambition to take it to the club of middle-income economies in two decades.

To their credit, this narrative has some truth to it. When the rebel-cum-ruling party took control of the country in 1991 – with sword and fire – it had promised three things: stability and peace; respect for human rights and the institution of democracy; and economic development. Their records to date show a mixed bag.

Banning official censorship, decentralization of power, opening the space for political discourse and allowing opposition parties to participate were among the major reforms. Moreover, more than five elections have taken place since the EPRDFites overthrew the military government.

Despite their commendable achievements in writing the constitution and building institutions, they have little to show in observing citizens’ political, economic and human rights. They have undermined the rule of law and consequently neutralized the essence of checks and balances on the state’s power. Nonetheless, for over two decades, they have kept the country stable and ensured peace, albeit with an increasingly discontented public.

Where the Revolutionary Democrats deserve accolade is in the economic front. Ethiopia under their rule is not anywhere similar to the one they inherited two decades ago. It is one of the fastest-growing economies in the continent and lifted tens of millions out of abject poverty. They have built the nation’s physical infrastructure in a remarkable manner while creating an environment where the size of the middle class has drastically increased. The life expectancy of Ethiopians has gone up by over 20 years, from the mid-40s it was in the 1990s.

Such impressive gains have strangely been made while the fundamentals in the political system remain not right. It starts from the very worldview of the Revolutionary Democrats, which is unsettling and disturbing. Contrary to their grand role in writing a constitution, which enshrined a political system based on multipartyism, the EPRDF has always been a party that strives for a political hegemony, thus narrowing the political marketplace for competitiveness. For the successive generations of EPRDFites, there is no boundary between the party they belong to and the state they are running. Sadly, party and state are synonymous in concept for not only large number of the rank and file but also, and disturbingly, significant number of those in its leadership.

Much of the trouble the Revolutionary Democrats find themselves in today comes as a result of their obliteration of their political rivals whom they have rendered irrelevant in the legal political platform. They and their allies have now complete control of the judicial platforms in the federal and regional governments, as they leave no space in the executive branch but to their rank and file.

Not surprisingly, they are left with a bureaucracy that behaves and acts with impunity, run largely by demagogues who are far from being transparent and accountable to the electorates which arguably voted the ruling party to a position of power. The regime is now plagued with corruption and maladministration at all levels; the public is in rage.

Ironically, the more the administration of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn commits publically with its resolve to fight corruption, the more questions pop up than answers to the problem, only exposing the underlining factors that there is a big problem of corruption beyond the capacity of his administration.

Hailemariam admitted before the media last week that the biggest problems with corruption lie with higher administration officials, despite the absence of material evidence. His answers imply his administration either cannot effectively investigate its own officials or that there is a political reason for the government’s deep reform not to reach those at the highest corridor of power.

Predictably, in a political environment where there is a hegemonic privilege of a ruling party, there should be no surprises if there is too much peddling and entrenched partisan interests holding the Prime Minister back. From each public pronouncement Hailemariam makes, it is his indecisiveness which shouts louder.

But should he become decisive, his resolve should not be only in locking up a couple of ministers or powerful politicians as he did during the early years of his reign. Prosecuting over 50 senior officials and businesspeople has not deterred others from abusing or misusing the power of their offices. Corruption is still alive and kicking, and is not showing any signs of slowing down.

Hailemariam and his allies can use the courage of their conviction to redefine their party’s legacy in Ethiopia’s society. It may begin with a step in abandoning the party’s hegemonic aspiration and unequivocally accept the constitutional rule that this is a country with a multiparty democratic formula. He should see his party’s obsession in equating the policy choices its leaders make with what the whole nation accepts through a national consensus in the form of constitutional order.

Granted, the EPRDF has made its ideological preferences in a form of strong and intrusive state. Neither are their political opponents – very few of them – calling for a weaker state; they call for a focused and coherent state. Yet, there is no constitutional provision, which ascribes to either of them except that it imposes the rules of separation of power and checks and balances in as much as it dictates on rule of law.

Contrary to the views held by Hailemariam and his political allies, the public has not been up in arms simply because it has been deprived provisions of good governance or the youth lack jobs. That would be a tragic misreading of the situation on the ground.

The implosion in public discontents in Oromia and Amhara regional states, for instance, was caused rather by improper use and abuse of executive powers by the federal and regional authorities. It is provoked by a growing perception of inequality, lack of equity both in the economic and political arenas as well as exclusive nature of the ruling party.

Ethiopia has a constitution that aims to build one political and economic community founded on the rule of law. It is the gap between rhetoric and reality which angers many who are fed up with institutions of checks and balances that fail to carry out their role in a fair and impartial manner. The larger electorate wants to see the electoral commission, the public media, the judiciary, the human rights commission and Ombudsman, and law enforcement agencies to have their fidelity not to the governing party, but rather to the law of the land.

This is where the real problem lays and fixing what has broken should start here.

Published on Jan 24,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 873]



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