The honeymoon appears to have come to an end. Members of the public are no longer in unison in their support of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD). Considering the informality, the rapid momentum and broad aim of his administration’s intended reforms, it is perhaps not surprising.
Chief among them is the administration’s decision to open up the political space at a pace that would have been unimaginable just a year ago. The attempt at genuinely competitive electoral democracy was commendable.
That it came without agreed upon rules of engagement by forces espousing diverse and often irreconcilable interests though is evident. Ethiopia is a state where the process of nation-building has yet to be completed, thus considerable divergence among groups and their respective followers exists on most fundamentals: shared national identity and symbols designed to represent it.
The administration may have ascertained that the groups coming back after laying down arms will not resort to violence to advance their respective goals, but it remains unprepared for the “groupism” their entry has provoked. The country is without an informed public, progressive civic societies, centrist parties with a broad base and institutionalised power. It does not seem to be heading toward multiparty democracy, but rather toward weak political centralisation.
A spate of violence against unarmed people over the weekend of September 15 and 16, 2018, is one more illustration of the pain and fallouts that come from rapid changes.
The weekend was inundated with news of gruesome attacks on innocent civilians in Burayu, a special zone of the Oromia Regional State, on the outskirts of Addis Abeba. By police admission, no less than 20 died as a result of mob violence that targeted innocent citizens, including women and children. Over 10,000 residents are reported displaced and are now sheltering in schools and churches.
It is an act that should be condemned in no uncertain terms.
The law enforcement bodies claim that they have done their best to halt the atrocities and keep them from spreading. Alemayehu Ejigu, the commissioner of the Oromia Regional Police, claimed that a significant difficulty in battling the violence was the natural terrain of the town, which made it hard for the police to pursue the perpetrators. In the same interview given to the media, the commissioner urged residents to return to their homes.
But as macabre and unfortunate the incident in Burayu was, it was one in a long line of ethnically charged conflicts that have only grown in intensity, frequency and geography. The violence is not confined to any one region, and the contexts seem to vary. It is impossible to connect them to a centralised force or a specific reason. Connecting the dots, however, will show a rather large picture of what is unfolding.
It is about trying to manage a peaceful transition from electoral authoritarianism practised by EPRDF, to competitive politics under the passive authority of the military, intelligence, police and other law enforcement agencies in playing their custodial role in protecting state institutions and securing the population. Failure to ensure that peaceful change takes place with an active but non-partisan and protective position of democratic institutions in defense of the nation has consequences.
Innocent lives are being lost. People are being displaced from their homes, and property is being damaged. In the first half of this year alone, 1.4 million people have been displaced, the largest segment of which was along the West Guji-Gedeo border, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
What afflicts the nation is not a citizenry wired to reject freedom, a society disposed to be irreconcilable to democracy or an as yet unnamed forces that lay behind certain episodes of mob violence. It is not even a government unable to provide its constituency with the most basic need, safety, though that has played a significant part.
What is driving the conflicts are the various interests of groups over shared resources and, as was the case with the flag controversy, different preferences. It is unhealthy in any country to arbiter such competition without creating a consensus on the system of government, laws and institutions first.
While such interests have always existed, they have rarely been allowed to be outwardly expressed. And when an opportunity presented itself, it manifested through a lack of civility unencumbered by a government that has lost its grip over the monopoly of violence. It becomes private and regular.
Indeed, peaceful and democratic transitions have never been smooth in developing countries. Governments will have to confront a citizenry that is used to underdevelopment, militancy, ethnic loyalty and massive conformation biases.
Adding political liberalisation to the mix, which heralds expanded freedoms to move, use communications technology and organise, will make democratic institution’s capacity to legitimize political competition much more complicated. A law enforcement body that can arrest the breakdown of law and order without resorting to excessive use of force would be helpful. It is a bargain hard to come by and cannot be a long-term solution as incompetent law enforcement is a symptom of the main weakness at hand: lack of effective political leadership.
The nation is rushing toward an election without first having to address historical baggage that one regime after another has been unable to deal with. Let alone the divergence over how resources are shared, the nation remains divided over issues that will not even have substantive outcomes such as choice of flag or what to name its capital.
Such issues will not be swept away to the side out of a deep-seated desire to live happily ever after as the hollow concept of Medemerseems to purport. There are not enough resources to allow such a utopia, where some are destined to have more than others. Such a reality is unavoidable, and the most an administration can realistically aspire for is to build institutions that ensure the meritocratic distribution of resources.
Creating such institutions will require a broader political settlement to ensure that another winner-takes-all scenario will not occur.
Granted, the administration’s decision to open the political space for the political opposition here and abroad was just the first, albeit crucial, step. Thus little surprise to see all sides currently on the lookout, trying to either protect their piece of the pie or gain some more of it. What should follow should be the willingness to compromise on issues each side holds dear, including on the structure of the very state, laws that can keep order and the organisation of institutions to enforce the order.
All sides believe that they are entitled to some gain. The longer there is a deficiency of institutions and laws that the public believes are legitimate, groups will continue to compete and seek recompense through violence.
Establishing a law enforcement and intelligence apparatus capable of dealing with a liberalised political space should be close to the top of Abiy and his administration’s agenda. His main priority should be addressing the domestic issue of working toward reaching a political settlement with all parties.
It will require a great deal of conviction and direction to boot elements dead set on gaining exclusive right to resources. The alternative will be another cycle of political and economic disenfranchisement, instability, underdevelopment, displacement and of course the unfortunate loss of lives.
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