For all EPRDF’s shortcomings over the past three decades, it was never a coalition that claimed Ethiopia is undeserving of democracy. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) administration is not new in making reform promises since it came to power. Considering the narrowed political space it inherited, the reforms of the new administration are, indeed, worthwhile.
The administration’s reforms towards a multiparty democracy have been commended by the public media, government officials, international institutions and local intelligentsia, as they should be. The lack of matured, stable and independent institutions has blurred the line between party and government, giving way to a nation starved for a professional bureaucracy and an informed public.
Interestingly, there is a rather strong consensus that democracy is fruitful, but no clear indication that it supplements economic growth. China is a conspicuous spoiler against this argument. But transparency, democratic institutions, civil society and independent media will make authority more malleable to the will of the majority.
But multiparty democracy comes with its own complications. It requires political sophistication by the public, the media, opposition parties, the incumbent and institutions. Voters are expected to be refined in their use of freedom as the media is required to be credible, objective and fair in its role as provider of unbiased information. Opposition parties are expected to respect the legitimacy of each other while holding political differences, as much as the incumbent in power is supposed to conduct itself with forbearance.
None of these are legally mandated, but they are the unwritten rules necessary for any democracy to strengthen. In Ethiopia’s current political context, this means that even if the political reform underway has an overwhelming acceptance by the majority, it should not judge, at least not in the court of public opinion, individuals, groups or organisations that hold contrary positions. It has always been the case that those who turn to armed struggle are those convinced that the state has failed to give legitimacy to their cause and protect them from the tyranny of the majority.
Those who hold state power today should acknowledge that it is an institution, an instrument for registering the social pressure brought to bear upon it by various groups. This includes those in the minority who oppose the exercise of state power against views they happen to hold.
It is troubling to note that there is increasing rhetoric against being anti-reform in both the public sphere and by government officials. Anti-reform sentiments have become taboo as the reform agenda has overshadowed the fundamental difference of opinions important for democratic discourse.
The reforms are necessary and the best bet towards a stable and prosperous nation, but cannot be considered to be above reproach. The motives, the shortcomings and the timing of the reform agenda should be challenged and open for debate. Abiy’s administration may argue that its policies are the best, but it should not fail to tolerate those that hold contrary views.
Using democratic institutions, such as the public media, characterizing its political foes as groups with evil intent, is nothing but the recycling of old rhetoric and party demagogy. It is an extension of the paternalistic nature of authority in Ethiopia.
Successive governments have insisted certain sentiments harm the nation, and should not be tolerated. During the monarchy, these were elements that challenged the Emperor’s legitimacy to rule and for the Dergue, it was the “non-nationalist”. For many years, it has been the “anti-developmental” for the EPRDF under Meles Zenawi and his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn; and currently, it seems to be the “anti-reformist”, increasingly accused as forces that stand for a poor and undemocratic Ethiopia where torture and corruption was rife. The last thing Abiy would want to is to be defined by the dichotomy of “saints” and “evils,” as well as “us” versus “them”.
There is confusion over the differences that exist between being “anti-peace” and “anti-reform”. The forces the administration claims are instrumental for the instability in many parts of the country – those that use violence to advance their political agenda – have become too closely attached with those uncomfortable with the way politics is being handled today.
Understandably, it is valid for an incumbent to believe in the supremacy of its political programs. The Derguethought that the nation’s unity is of prime importance, and EPRDF held that state-led development and federalism should be the way forward. They were entitled to their ideologies. The red-line they crossed was when they closed the political space to allow social groups radically opposed to their central policies.
Successive political transitions merely reorganised the political landscape, instead of opening it broadly. The state’s instruments, from public media to the bureaucracy, were utilised to forward a single political narrative. It was a problem that arose from the incumbent’s assumption that it knows best.
Abiy’s administration should not follow suit. In its attempt to open up the political space, the incumbent is failing to emphasise that sentiments held contrary and in opposition to the current agenda, whatever disagreements or faults therein, have to be tolerated by the “reformist” force. There always exist differences of opinions, all contending for the public’s attention and sympathy. Under a democratic order, this means that certain views may be overtly radical, short-sighted, hollow or outright nonsensical. They should all be tolerated so long as they are expressed peacefully and within the bounds of the law.
Failing to tolerate such expressions only reinforces them. Instead, an incumbent should still be able to debate, though there lies an unfair advantage in the state’s resources. It should feel reasonably confident of winning the debate without delegitimising the other side. Voters can then make their own decisions.
Notably, any opposition to the incumbent should be peaceful. The state should not under any circumstances tolerate the use of violence for the advancement of political agendas. Unlike information, ideas and ideology, the state is entitled to the monopoly of power.
But there needs to be made a clear distinction between the advocacy and use of power and the mere airing of “anti-reform” sentiments. Walking that thin line is a test past administrations and regimes have failed – and knowing that democratic reform is a superior game – it would be a tragedy if this one fails as well.
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