Plurality within Reform

It is only fitting that media is focusing on the preeminent national agenda of deep reform, set by the incumbent long before the Ireccha flare-ups that spread like a prairie fire across the wider parts of Oromia.

Much has been written in an effort to come to grips with the underlying cause and long-term implications of the summer outburst that wreaked havoc – especially along the thin but noticeable industrial belt around the outskirts of the ever expanding Finfine.

Hopefully, it is in the same vein of trying to make sense of recent acts of despair amid signs of hope that the editors of Fortune commissioned a series of articles on the subsequent Cabinet reshuffle.

There is, however, a little noticed irony in commentaries made apropos of the topical issue at hand. An irony that lies in the concurrence of the headline grabbing news of riot and reform – though these are ultimately interlinked.

As it happens, the unexpected outbreak of the June/July unrest compelled the government to impose an emergency law no sooner than the Prime Minister went to great lengths to reassure the public of his party’s awareness of the need for deep reform. Or a strange coincidence, as it were, where Hailemariam Dessalgen found himself in an awarded position of explaining the rationale for the emergency law no sooner than he spelled out the need for improved accountability, transparency and good governance.

In the Prime Minister’s own words, this dense set of malaise has, in recent years, gone from bad to worse, causing a rift between the government and an increasingly demanding society. Alas, it is irony, is it not, that just as public expectation of democratic reform began to soar, the nation suspended basic liberties by executive order. Coming in the wake public uproar against abuse of power, the severity of the restriction would no doubt have been contested. Yet challenging the emergency law goes against the grain of responsibility, given that the Ethiopian constitution allows the temporary curtailment of basic freedoms in times of grave threat to public safety.

The good news is that the trade-off that involved an uncontested waiver of elementary rights in exchange for national security has a legally proscribed time limit of six months and no more. Beyond this, the emergency law has to be voided – unless extraneous circumstances dictate otherwise. All other things being equal, therefore, in a four-month timespan or so, citizens can not only look forward to the full restitution of their constitutional rights, but also for a prompt delivery on the promise of democratic reform.

In the meantime, despite the emergency law, the public seems to harbour guarded optimism that this time around the pledged reform is not, as in the past, a mere promise, but a well-nigh deliverable action plan. As a matter of fact, even the congenital sceptics feel somewhat encouraged by the selection of the new Cabinet, out of which 70pc of the appointees consist of new faces with notable academic credentials. Others, however, would rather have seen the infusion of professionalism at the mid and lower levels of key administrative institutions and service providing state agencies.

There is merit to this wish list, so to speak, in that what is lacking in this country is not framers of quality policy design – which, by the way, is not the exclusive preserve of academics in executive posts. Truth be told, the case of Ethiopia has amply demonstrated that a fast-learning dedicated team with an unflinching sense of purpose is just as good, even better, to lead a country through a domestically engendered sound strategic plan. Besides, as much as the EPRDF is criticised for many things, hardly anyone with credibility, at any rate, reproaches the leadership for an inability to formulate a policy framework.

Rather, the chief challenge, which has for years cried out for remedy, is the glaring slack in the execution of policy directive. This is due partly to failure to upgrade the competence level of the civil service. To this must be added what the government itself characterised as an alarming preponderance rate in rent-seeking, corruption, patronage and even abuse of public office for personal gain. By all accounts, it is not at the level of policy making, but at the meeting point of incompetence and corruption where public outrage is loud and has led to demands for sweeping reform.

That said, a quick disclaimer is perhaps apposite here – lest the claim above is misconstrued as a hasty second-guessing of the decision to balance the composition of the Cabinet by a large number of appointees from higher institutions of learning. The male/female ratio – almost all male – has, however, disappointed female parliamentarians and independent gender activists alike.

Despite this indefensible oversight, there is a general optimism in the air that the new appointees would put to good use their scholarship – particularly at this time of transition, which, among other things, demands high-calibre administrative personnel. However, as much as the academic credential of the new ministers is commendable, reformulating, much less, revamping the EPRDF’s general policy direction is beyond their reach. Put differently, their latitude is limited to fine-tuning and not re-charting the current national roadmap.

Clarifying this limit perhaps helps to mitigate the risk of disappointment embedded in the high public expectation, even overconfidence, in the new Cabinet members’ capacity to deliver the much sought public goods. No doubt, sanguine expectation arose largely because many see the current composition of the Cabinet as the right to enhance the present implementation rate of the national development strategies, as well as the good governance reform package.

Whilst this is a welcome prospect, there is an even more promising side to the selections of the current executive branch that so far has not received the attention it deserves. Indeed, a closer look indicates that the allotment of ministerial posts stemmed from awareness of the country’s backslide to the obsolete party/state model with, no less, EPDRF’s connivance. In and of itself, the preliminary step taken to decouple the state/party linkage betrays a serious rethink of the skewed governance pattern in Ethiopia that has long called for remedy. Not least because the distinction between party operatives and civil-crevice functionaries has remained blurred for too long.

In this regard, it would be redundant to restate that a professional civil service, free from party loyalty, is indispensable to avoid a conflict of interest in state function and impartial public service delivery. By the same token, it needs no emphasis that a professional bureaucracy, steeped in technocratic knowhow, guaranties routine administrative continuity in instance of incumbent turnover – a commonplace occurrence in mature democracies.

Commonplace too in democracies is vigorous intra-party parliamentary debate. Whereas in Ethiopia, despite intense private political conversation and the existence of several couch parties, parliamentary debate remains the missing link to qualify this nation as a full-fledged democratic republic. The irony is that the EPRDF places a premium on plurality, yet there is no plurality where it matters most – the House of Peoples’ Representatives – by far the highest authority, responsible for passing laws binding one hundred million people.

It’s small wonder, then, that many criticise the legislative chamber as a rubberstamp parliament in which practically no voice is heard – other than the affirmative roar of deputies of the governing coalition. Few, however, know that, procedurally speaking, it is not the EPRDF’s fault that the current configuration of Parliament hardly reflects the main political interests except one, albeit the most dominant. Many factors account for this state of affairs; too many to explain in the space available.

Suffice to point out two fundamental reasons why the Ethiopian Parliament is almost monolithic. The first has to do with the sociological and spatial structure of the Ethiopian society, where 85% of the voting-age population work and live in rural areas.

As a coalition that arose from a protracted rural campaign on a pro-smallholding cultivators programme, the EPRDF has, at least so far, an unbreakable link with the overwhelming majority of the Ethiopian people. This avails its candidates a tremendous election advantage over rival parties that by and large confine themselves to urban enclaves. The sheer lop-sidedness of the odds suggests that every election is arguably for the EPRDF to lose.

A second factor that augments the incumbents’ advantage is the very electoral system of the country, commonly known as First-Pass-the Post (FPTP). Most scholars in the field agree that the FPTP system inherently produces disproportional outcomes. The 2010 and 2015 election results bears this out, in that, despite winning 40 to 45pc of the popular vote, opposition candidates were shut out of Parliament. The scary part is that, so long as Ethiopia remains wedded to the PFPT system, the EPRDF’s monopoly on law-making is liable to continue indefinitely.

Now, though not from the point of view of procedural democracy, perpetual and total single-party dominance over the legislative chamber smacks of authoritarianism – particularly in a pluralistic society, where the dominant party celebrates diversity. To its credit, the EPRDF has, on its own initiative, included in its reform package a new electoral formula that, if applied with ironic distance, could well be a game-changer.

In his opening address to the joint session of the two houses, President Mulatu Teshome hinted at, though not in so many words, his government’s intention to switch to a Proportional Representation (PR) electoral system. If so, the impact of his message could be taken as a milestone in Ethiopia’s efforts to consolidate democracy through, among other things, enhancing proportional representation. This must be good news to contending parties vying for parliamentary seats.

Indeed, a real opportunity has come their way to serve their constituencies as loyal opposition bound by the constitution. So far, however, not much has been heard from opposition parties one way or the other. Strange as it is that leading contestant parties prefer to abstain from expressing their views on the matter, many in their ranks will perhaps have a change their mind once the ban on public political discussion is lifted. Regardless of what they may decide to do when the time comes, however, one thing can be said with a fair amount of certainty.

Indeed, the day after the gag on free speech is removed, public discussion is bound to centre on the pros and cons of adopting the PR electoral system. In that event, parties favouring the proposed switch to a PR system could point to two of its advantages to Ethiopia. The first and most important of these is that, whatever party comes out top, the Ethiopian Parliament is certain to turn into a robust assembly of several parties with a mandate to debate set agendas that their seats may warrant.

Second, PR provides incentives to all parties to compete for legislative seats and thereby diminishes the inclination to pursue a political objective by extra-parliamentary means. Nonetheless, it is well to think through the downside of the PR system before rushing to embrace its promises. For instance, parties in disfavour of changing the existing election laws could cite the inherent risk of instability, as the PR system does not always produce a clear winner. There are other issues of concern that need to be ironed out before discarding even an imperfect election system, since the stakes are high in determining which party commands the consent of the governed to govern. Many other related issues will perhaps be clarified in the course of public discussions – hopefully informed by a comparative study of international electoral systems.

To end on a positive note, the governing party deserves credit for setting the agenda of proportional representation, as it is under no obligation to do so, except its own commitment to build a pluralist democratic society.


By Genenew Assefa
Genenew is a policy adviser to the Office of Government Communications Affairs.

Published on Nov 22,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 864]



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