Need, Necessity Dictate Political Engagement

Ethiopia is in the midst of a state of emergency. At a press conference earlier this week, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn reflected on the status of the almost two-year old crisis: “As far as the date of lifting the state of emergency is concerned, it should be seen in the perspective that we have to consolidate the gains that we have made so far.”

No doubt the state can count its gains in the form of restoring calm in a troubled nation. The youth may not be out on the streets battling with police; angry protestors may not burn tyres and bloc roads; violent protestors may not loot and destroy properties; and the discontented public may not dare to vent out its frustration on the failings of its administration. Sadly, this was not a nation which should have come to this.

The actions of the government followed widespread protests across the nation. Regrettably, it left behind loss of lives and damages to property worth millions of Birr to local residences and foreign investors. Hundreds of people have perished and thousands have been dispelled, while tens of thousands of civilians were rounded up to be detained in military camps. There is an aura of fear, not optimism in the country, and unsettling uncertainty in the country today.

Thousands of citizens still languish in prison, without due process, not for their criminal activities but largely their political activism. The government has promised to listen, not just react, and be inclusive, not exclusive to what is heard and seen in the nation. While the economic progress in the country is to be commended, a slew of government shortcomings are becoming the norm of the land and the leading conversation among ordinary citizens, understandably behind closed doors.

The government and the ruling party have only themselves to blame for this. The latter in particular has become a victim of its own victory. Its leaders become oblivious to the inequalities and injustice around them; triumphant of their military might; and feel untouchable. They have begun to act in impunity, in an environment where there is hardly transparency and accountability.

This has neutralized the very success their regime has gained within two decades, making the economy grow consecutively by an average 10pc. Under the EPRDF, the once poverty-stricken nation has become, according to the World Bank, “among the countries that have made the greatest progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals.” The push is to become a middle-income nation in less than a decade. The government has placed much emphasis on economic development. On human rights and the rule of law? Not so much!

While the country has made positive economic strides, it lagged behind in terms of income inequality, human rights, and the rule of law. These are understood to be the ingredients to the recent civil unrest seen in different parts of the country over the past two years. The ruling party should address these issues, not jail the actors in the midst of the widespread protests. Opposition voices have called – tirelessly – for the release of political leaders; the end of the suffocation of voices that are different from the status quo; the introduction of credible elections; the end of favoritism, nepotism, elitism in the corridors of power; and the institution of rule of law and not rule by law.

The EPRDFites should have addressed a number of these issues immediately. Yet, it is better later than never, as the popular maxim has it. The Prime Minister has disclosed last week that his administration has started a conversation with a noted opposition leader, Beyene Petros (Prof.), hoping to overcome the impasse, while placing an important opposition figure, Merara Gudina (PhD), in jail, for his temerity to have been in public sitting next to a leader of an outlawed organization. Nonetheless, the gesture to reach out to the opposition appears to aim to address the lack of political engagement in the country while broadening the political spectrum to a diversity of voices, not just the partisans.

Indeed, the ruling party is preparing its various leaders and functionaries with the intent of engaging the political opposition. It can be taken as a move dictated by need, should be welcomed. But it should include jailed opposition activists and leaders within Ethiopia and those forced to shout out their protests from the outside while charged and convicted in abstenia.

The move should also dictate necessity upon the political opposition to engage the ruling party in good faith. In the absence of dialogue and engagement, the nation is heading to inevitable stalemate in the next three years when two crucial developments will take place.

Local elections will take place in May 2018. It includes elections for the Addis Abeba City Council and 10 of its districts. The town of Dire Dawa will also have its elections for councillors, while 112 municipal councils across the country will have the same. Add to these elections to be carried out in 68 zonal and 670 wereda councils as well as 20,000 councils at the kebele level. In three years, the country will have to handle national elections to vote for 547 seats in the federal parliament and fill seats in nine state councils.

The ruling party is up for a situation of “damn if you do, damn if you don`t” scenario whether it decides to conduct them or otherwise in the absence of political dialogue and compromise. Yet, no election can take place in the absence of a national electoral board whose mandate has come to an end.
The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), the architect of the fragile national electoral affairs, is almost at the end of its mandate. It was formed in June 2007, for 10 years, comprising nine members, two of which were nominated by opposition parties. In about six months the mandate of the current Board and its members, under the chairperson of Merga Bekana (PhD), will expire. There should be a serious and credible engagement with opposition leaders, based on trust and unbinding standard. Political leaders do not belong in a jail cell, but at the table and in parliament, debating and discussing important public issues. No reasonable political player should be an advocate of violence, to the state, or the people of Ethiopia.

It is also a legitimate political platform for the opposition to engage the ruling party however frustrating the process could be and the trauma of the past in dealing with its leaders. Their call for change in the composition of the Board should be a reasonable and open debate that is to be respected as a foundation of shared values.

Both sides need to remind themselves the recent political events are taking the nation backward, not forward and in the way of progresses to a reputable and economically powerful country. What is at risk is not just the economic interests of the country, but its very survival. It should have downed upon them that the stakes are high. The ruling party should act, not just react to the voices of citizens that have genuine concerns in the running of the country. As much the political opposition has to abandon its anti establishment rhetoric and unabashedly denounce violence as an instrument of advancing political objectives.

Where there are no shared values and common grounds, it is hardly possible to have dialogue in good faith. Half a year away from reconstituting the electoral board, leaders of the ruling party and its political opposition can start talks in restoring trust and establishing the ground on which they can stand together. Indeed, there are such elements in both sides.

Published on Jan 17,2017 [ Vol 17 ,No 872]



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