Two events of great importance were marked this past week. First was Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed`s (PhD) meeting with leaders of the political opposition where he said Ethiopia`s future is in multiparty democracy.
Abiy is not the first to pronounce this nor to meet members of the opposition. The late Meles Zenawi has had his encounters with leaders of the opposition camp on several occasions. In a training manual he authored in 2008, Meles made it clear that the democratic order he wanted to see built was a multiparty democracy.
The difference between the two Prime Ministers is the context in which they say almost the same thing. Meles noted this when he was at the helm of a strong and powerful party centralisation. The EPRDF under his rule was aspiring for hegemonic status in the political system to the great peril of the political opposition. The political playing field was lopsided in his party`s favour.
Abiy’s statement came at a time when there is a promise of political opening, and the EPRDF under his watch is saddled with a fragmented leadership unable to enforce its culture of democratic centralism. Quietly, the ruling party appears to have abandoned its claim of political hegemony.
It is thus refreshing to hear Abiy say he would like to see Ethiopia has “no option except pursuing a multiparty democracy supported by strong institutions that respect human rights and the rule of law.”
The other development is the statement by Se’are Mekonnen (Gen.), chief of staff of the Ethiopian Defense Forces, delivered to the top brass of the military last week. It was quite a departure from a tradition where Meles has defined a military doctrine he authored, where he described the military as the last bastion of Revolutionary Democracy.
Se`are affirmed to the high officers the the military’s mandate remains non-partisan in the political power contest. He believes it should rather stand in defense of the constitution and its core values. It is the bastion of the constitution that has no loyalty to a particular group or community.
For both men, history has presented a rare opportunity to walk the talk. And the country and its millions of citizens, many groups and communities need to see this happen desperately. The desperation comes from the need to lay the ground for a lasting path, helping the country avoid the risk of sliding towards the bottom of the list on the fragile state index.
The think-tank Fund for Peace ranks Ethiopia as the 15th most fragile state among 178 in 2018. Its ranking is similar to the previous year, higher than Nigeria, but lower than Eritrea and North Korea. The top three were South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.
Lack of democracy alone does not point to state failures. Ethiopia may have a less autocratic government than Eritrea, but the nation scores badly in areas of security threats, fragmentation of institutions along factions, schisms in society, population pressures, internal displacement, external intervention and even the provision of public services.
None of these has been uncommon in Ethiopia. It is a nation where recent regimes have not changed hands peacefully, and where poverty and inequality have plagued the citizenry. Such threats are attributable to the lack of a capable state, one that has failed to secure social cohesion, a public inadequately informed of its rights and duties and the absence of a meritocratic system that rewards hard-work and innovativeness.
Coming out of two decades of constitutionalism with a liberal ethos in it, calling for ploralism should not seem like big news. Unlike previous regimes that did not allow pluralism, but instead embraced constitutionalism, the EPRDFites have endorsed a multiparty system of government.
But the playing field remains lopsided in favour of the incumbents. The government is non-transparent, the public media is biased in favour of the power in place, and accountability in law enforcement remains illusive. The EPRDF’s statist economic policies also ensure that there would not be a strong private sector that can support involvement of non-state actors.
While national unity and economic development had been priority agendas for the regimes under Emperor Haileselassie and the Dergue, democratic consolidation had to be relegated to the back of the list, given the lack of stability that plagued the nation, especially in the latter case.
Through ambitious, long-term public investments, the federal government under the EPRDFites has tried to draw legitimacy from economic development. This tactic worked for a decade and then began to falter in 2015. Political and social unrest has threatened the free movement of people across borders and investor’s confidence. Civil liberties had to be constrained after parliament found it necessary to impose two states of emergencie.
The current administration, like its predecessor, has failed to secure the peace and stability that it promised. Public unrests still make the news despite the assumption of office by Abiy, shakeup of his cabinet, release of imprisoned political party leaders and journalists, rapprochement with Eritrea, acknowledgement of state-sanctioned torture, and removal of overseas-based opposition parties from the terrorism list.
Abiy deserves the benefit of the doubt though. Despite the casualness and non-transparency that plagues his administration, it is too soon to critisize him of acting in bad faith.
But he has yet to walk the talk on institutionalizing power. It requires him to sit down with parties at home and overseas to agree on the reorganisation of the judiciary, law enforcement agencies, public media outlets and the electoral body to a degree where they can earn the electorate’s trust.
It also requires making the political space a marketplace of ideas paving the way for a peaceful political competetivness. There are welcome developments in this regard: liberalisation of the media landscape and the entry of overseas-based opposition parties are some. While Patriotic Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) are no longer terrorist organisations in the eyes of parliament, and multiple blogs, websites and TV stations have been unblocked.
The same environment that is crucial to the realisation of a multiparty system of government can give rise to a polarised pluralism. In societies where polarisation – along lingo-cultural, religious, racial or ideological fault lines – is rife, pluralism can present problems that cannot be overlooked.
Where there are political parties in government, extreme polarisation would create political deadlock, weakening policy making. In Ethiopia’s case, where none of the opposition parties has a seat in parliament, but are now allowed to become more assertive outside it, extreme polarisation will lead to a diminished influence of centrist or moderate parties. It will lead to lower levels of civic capacity, distrust and lack of empathy between members of the society.
Any group should have the right to organise and campaign as long as it does not use violence as a means of advancing its ideology or objectives. Just as important though are the unwritten rules of engagement that have served as the backbone of democracy around the world.
Addressing it will require forbearance on the part of political parties, where they can tolerate opposing views as well as the groups that espouse them.
It also requires the ability to compromise on political objectives as well as the courage to condemn all acts of violence in the country. The incumbents should just as well set favourable precedents by refraining from ruling by fiat and the indulgent exercise of power. Crossing the aisle and working with local governments creates positive externalities in the advancement of democracy instead of circumventing essential stakeholders to reach a political end.
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