It was a remarkable scene to see Lencho Letta, and his comrades, greeted at the VIP Lounge of Bole International Airport by Abadulla Gemeda, chief national security advisor for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD), mid last week.
Almost three decades passed since Lencho had surfaced in the nation`s political map as head of the delegation of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), negotiating an end to Ethiopia`s bloody civil war at a summit brokered by the Americans in London. The peace conference was to be held between delegates of rebel forces and the military regime, whose energy and resources were exhausted during the final years of the 1980s.
The Dergue was losing the war. Its international backers and ideological companions – the Soviet Union, mainly; East Europeans and Cuba – were withering away, with their own problems to attend to, and had limited military assistance for Ethiopia. Kicking and screaming, Mengistu Hailemariam (Col.), then president of the country, had to send his Prime Minister, the late Tesfaye Dinka, for negotiations with the rebel leaders.
Lencho was representing one of the three rebel forces, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), invited to the summit. The late Meles Zenawi, whose forces encircled Addis Abeba, was there leading the EPRDF delegation. The long-serving current President of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, attended the Conference as the head of the Eritrean Peoples` Liberation Front (EPLF).
It was a radical turn of events for a nation where legitimate dissent had never been practised up to that point. It was also a desperate time of hope and uncertainty calling for drastic measures. These men met under the shadow of a possible exit from the country by Mengistu, to Zimbabwe, which did occur before the summit formally began. It gave rise to a set of events where the EPRDF forces entered the last stronghold of the Dergue, Addis Abeba. Abruptly, the need for dialogue became moot. Thus starts a rocky culture of dialogue in Ethiopia’s politics.
The subsequent incumbents, the EPRDFites, were able to win the war, but not the peace. Different from their predecessors in allowing a multiparty system of government, they have been consistent in having national elections every half a decade. But in each election cycle, the ruling coalition asserted its hegemony, with its political opposition weakened as the playing field became uneven and unfair. For over two decades, the EPRDF was able to sustain its authority in parliament.
The natural outcome was a lack of diversity of ideas and perspectives, which severely eroded civic participation. No less, the political environment constrained alternatives in policy-making where the incumbent has had no incentive or threat to listen to voices different from its own.
But times change. As technology in communications advanced, the elite monopoly the EPRDF has enjoyed for so long in reaching out to the public was shattered. For the first time, other elites with competing convections found it easy and cheap to communicate with a captive public as it has become safe for members of the public to respond to their persuasions.
The regime was too slow to realise this tectonic shift in the game. The government it leads has since been hardpressed to maintain stability in an era of hyper-political activism where dissident leaders and activists could be far away, far beyond the coercive hands of the state.
The ruling coalition had remained utterly disillusioned to the need for change in governance. Public discontent taken to the streets and the subsequent violence employed as a form of political expressions should have been fodder for the regime to begin probing itself. Disaffected citizens can point to a growing gap between what was promised and what has been practised. Disgruntled citizens that take to the streets is an indication of institutional failure to address the public’s call and should have served as a wakeup call.
Little did it matter that the warnings were written all over the wall before the bell rung in 2015 when students in a small town in Ginchi, Oromia Regional State, mustered the courage to say enough.
The EPRDFites were compelled to respond to popular demand but only in their own mediocre way. They invited the legal opposition parties, none of which have seats in parliament, to the negotiating table. Last year, the ruling coalition and over two dozen political rivals embarked upon such a journey, debating on crucial issues such as the electoral and the controversial anti-terrorism laws.
These talks were detrimental, but they were not inclusive enough. The overseas-based opposition groups, whose activists had been able to gain prominence through social media platforms, were excluded. The modalities within which the dialogues were to be held similarly remained tame. While there are specific laws that deserve reflections, the negotiations with the opposition parties should have comprised the state of Ethiopia’s democratic institutions.
The nature and intensity of the unrests of the past years called for a reexamination of the regime’s policies, and the revaluation of the EPRDF’s position on the condition of the political playing field. During his inaugural address to the nation, Prime Minister Abiy promised such a reform would be one of his priorities.
The arrival of Lencho et al, under the banner of the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF), comprising Dima Negewo (PhD), vice chairman of the party, is a positive move rekindling hope. It shows that there is a willingness by Abiy`s administration to go beyond rhetoric and walk the talk in realising competitive politics in Ethiopia. It also opens the door for other dissident groups that have remained on the fringes to come in from the cold, and build the culture of dialogue.
Unavoidably, much rides on how the negotiations would be conducted. The primary focus ought to be to ensure that the coming national elections in 2020 can be held in an environment that is fair and credible in the eyes of the electorate. It would mean restoring public confidence on the non-partisan conducts of democratic institutions such as the courts, the public media, the national electoral body and, most importantly, law enforcement agencies and the bureaucracy.
That such dialogues are conducted within the confines of the constitutional order and should be left closed to parties that use violence to advance political goals should go without saying.
The ultimate target should be to ensure the separation of state and party institutions. The tendency to further political goals is as common as it has shown its effectiveness in getting leaders to strive for the socioeconomic success of a nation. An incumbent’s incentive to working towards the political and economic development of citizens is the possibility of political advancement.
But for such an arrangement to work, there is a need for democratic institutions that can intermediate contending parties in a non-partisan manner. It is this institutionalisation of power that Ethiopia lacks, and could bring legitimacy to any party that claims the mandate to rule.
No country has been able to democratise overnight, and Ethiopia will not be different. A task too onerous for any one single person or party, it would require as much time as it needs compromise by all contending parties with as few exclusivities as it can get.
The ongoing negotiations with the ODF thus will serve as a litmus test. It will show whether or not the ruling EPRDFites have it in them to give in to demands and the patience to reach a compromise.
Since that futile London Conference, such negotiations between parties that have diverging worldviews have been rare. Much of this has to do with the lack of diversity of ideas within parliament, where decisions are reaffirmed instead of debated before legislation.
The talks with the ODF is thus a historical milestone.
Hopefully, it will mark just the beginning of a long march to general elections in two years with an outcome of a legislative body that reflects the diverse views and interests of the electorate. Discussions and debates over issues of national interest between groups with diverging views ought to be a common occurrence that in and by itself should not make it to the front page, let alone the history books.
Until such time as parliament becomes a hotbed of ideas and constructive debates, the robust national discourse that is pivotal to democratic maturity can only and ought to take place outside of the houses of elected representatives. That will not be pleasant news.
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