Illiberal Ruling Party Makes National Consensus Elusive

Pledges of national consensus from the ruling EPRDF have reached an all-time new phase. In his latest address to the Political Parties Consultation Council and a gathering of intellectuals...

Pledges of national consensus from the ruling EPRDF have reached an all-time new phase. In his latest address to the Political Parties Consultation Council and a gathering of intellectuals, Prime Minister Hailemariam raised the issue. He argued that it is high time for the key political players in the country to agree on the essence of the Ethiopian nation state.

In no way could Hailemariam expect the idea to percolate evenly among the various aisles of the political spectrum. After all, there never had been an issue as contentious as national consensus in contemporary Ethiopian political dynamics.

Even the ruling coalition did not have a smooth journey on the concept. In its early days, the perception within the coalition was that a rightful representation of the peoples of the nation in the Transitional Government could serve as a starting point to consensus. After the ratification of the Constitution, the issue became a done deal. The assumption was that the Constitution embraces the fundamental consensus on the path the nation is to take.

With the split in the TPLF, however, the issue resurfaced. As the most influential member of the coalition went “spoiling”, with Bonapartism allegedly a driving factor, the need to create a common understanding about the future path of the nation became vital. The role the late Meles Zenawi played in the evolution of the concept, at least within the camp of the Revolutionary Democrats, could not be discounted.

Ever since, the ruling elite has been pronouncing its will for national consensus. Yet, it has remained a hard sell in the political sphere that is divided, fragmented, acrimonious and vengeful.

As far as the concept goes, there seems to be as many interpretations as there are political players. For some, national consensus is analogous to national reconciliation (settling the historical accounts right). Others take it as defining what being Ethiopian entails. Still others consider it as forming an umbrella identity that protects the other forms of identity expressed within the nation. The playing field is so disorderly that no one definition predominates to serve as a standard.

Far from what its opponents perceive, the ruling coalition perceives national consensus as creating an understanding on the imagined form of the Ethiopian nation state. Discounting all the other interpretations as latent efforts of negotiated power sharing, the Revolutionary Democrats argue that the discussion has to be about the future. So much as the Constitution has established a fundamental societal consensus, the EPRDFites argue, there is no way to go back to debating the structural fundamentals of the nation state.

All recent efforts of the ruling party, therefore, are meant to create a homogenous imagination of the future of the nation. Democracy, rule of law, diversity, economic prosperity and equality of opportunity are some of the principles the Revolutionary Democrats preach. As the popular line of the time goes, it is all about “creating a single political community”.

In the real sense of it, what the ruling elite is doing is wholesaling its Democratic Developmental State model. Thus, the search is for a consensus on the guiding ideals of a ruling party that controls the political space and treats dissent as treachery.

Be it in community platforms, intellectual forums or policy discussions, the ruling elite stands firm to define the need for consensus from the perspective of developmental progress. Their latent wish seems to be to baptize every Ethiopian in the name of Revolutionary Democracy and Developmental State. At the end of the tunnel, they see a political economy subservient to the unlimited powers of the state. Of course, they have not always been like this.

A typical manifestation of the evolution in the camp of the ruling elite is the Constitution. A largely liberal document, in both presumption and provision, the Constitution is not like the ruling EPRDF. It is hard to imagine the current form of the Constitution without the end of the Cold War, the shattering of the Socialist movement, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prominence of the liberal camp. In the eyes of the changing global dynamics, therefore, the Constitution is largely an expression of the compromise the ruling elite could made with the new world order.

Indicating the shift, the Constitution embraces provisions on limits to the state, separation of powers, individual rights, freedom of expression and property rights. In so many ways, the document is on par with the supreme law of many liberal nations. But commitment to group identities, group rights and linguistic-cultural federalism show that some of the pillar socialist arguments remain intact.

No doubt that the process by which the Constitution came to existence was hugely influenced by the ruling EPRDF. Yet, not everything that was like the EPRDF was legislated.

If there is one thing the last two decades witnessed, it is the declining faithfulness of the ruling elite to the very constitution it promoted to issuance. The basic provisions of the Constitution continue to be eroded through legislative inconsistencies, executive overpower, judicial partiality and unaccounted law enforcement. By and large, the whole scenario shows an illiberal ruling party struggling to come to terms with a liberal constitution.

True, consensus is far from achieved in the Ethiopian political space. There still are political forces, at home and abroad, that do not agree with the shared imagination. A higher number of political parties do not agree with some provisions of the Constitution. None but the EPRDF subscribe to the concept of Revolutionary Democracy.

If the ruling EPRDFites are, then, talking about consensus on the Constitution, they better ask themselves why that has not been achieved for 21 years now. If their latest talk is about the ideals that resulted the Constitution, the time frame needs to move 24 years backwards. Regardless, it should be clear to the ruling elite that consensus could not come in vain.

For the ideals that resulted in the Constitution being consensual, there is a need to bring all forces that are preaching otherwise to the core. This may need fierce negotiation, but it has to be done, if the stability of the whole system is to be guaranteed.

And for consensus to come on the Constitution, the EPRDF has to regain its faithful commitment to it. It needs to replace its boring constitutional rhetoric by recognisable commitment to the values and provisions of the supreme law of the land. They cannot continue talking one thing and living a completely different thing.

But if the talk is about the model of development the nation ought to follow, then, difference ought to be cherished. No one model has the absolute truth. Each model has its own pros and cons. The case is no different with the Democratic Developmental State.

What would serve the broader purpose of sharing an imagination for the country, however, is to have a political system that is sufficiently democratic, inclusive and participatory. If this is guaranteed, then, every other difference could be healthily entertained. And the existence of the system would not be endangered.


Published on Mar 29,2016 [ Vol 16 ,No 830]



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