With a reformist administration in charge of the executive, there has been a relentless drive towards lofty goals such as unity, democracy and justice. The driving force is “Me`demer,” the process of positive-sum envisioned by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD).
The release of journalists and political leaders from prisons was one of the earliest steps taken toward reforms by the new administration and has continued in the 10 months since Abiy came to power. This political transition is not happening in a vacuum. There are ongoing criminal investigations for alleged offences in corruption and human rights abuses. In parallel, a bill for the establishment of a national reconciliation commission has been passed by parliament.
There are as well commendable efforts underway to reform the justice system, strengthen democratic institutions and engage with opposition parties – if not still allowing a wider space for civil society and the media. The appointment of individuals with credentials and records of independence to lead constitutional institutions is a praiseworthy move.
But the lack of practicality, fairness, clarity and a way forward for the process in bringing the promised reforms – especially in addressing social tensions – is debatable. The process is fraught with controversy between those that claim the government is not proceeding aggressively, and another group that stresses justice is being apportioned selectively, if not retributively.
In the middle is Abiy’s administration whose actions and rhetoric offer few clues on the direction that should be taken. The state appears to take charge and assert itself to reconcile these contrasting views, but without offering a clear way of going about the reforms.
No doubt that this is a rough road to travel with so few chances to make mistakes.
The most talked about post-Apartheid reform in South Africa came in the form of transitional justice.
Transitional justice of the 1990s in South Africa is often touted as one of the most successful institutional attempts to address past wrongs and foster a democratic future. Through political reforms and reconciliation processes, it was seen as one of the prime examples of restorative justice for countries that face a complicated past for a chance to move forward.
What is not often discussed is that it was a process that took at least four years. The process was too little too late for some, partial to those currently in power and tasking for the individuals in charge of leading it. The late Desmond Tutu was chair of the process, the Truth & Reconciliation Commission of 1996, which was mandated to inquire, record and grant amnesty.
Bishop Tutu believed, “forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones . . . is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing.”
He was talking about the bittersweet nature of transitional justice.
It was not a process that won political points for anyone, nor was it specifically concerned with reparations, criminal prosecutions, facts or even institutional reforms. Accountability, political changes, acknowledgement of wrongs and compensation were taken with the view that the past informs the future.
Understandably, having difficulty with overcoming the trauma of the past, leaders and activists in the Ethiopian opposition bloc are opting for quasi-retributive justice, which is quite a normal response to addressing the ills of past regimes. It is inspired with the view of bringing accountability. But, it also falls apart when it comes to the practicality of holding to account all those that allegedly caused harm and compensating all those that have been victimised without causing damage to current stability or the transition itself.
Perhaps the best example of this was the Dergue’smeasures after the 1974 revolution when top government officials under the Emperor were executed without due process of law. For those that claimed victimisation by the previous regime, it was a winning streak, at least initially, and an unjust measure for groups and individuals that saw the merit in the political system run by Emperor Haile Selassie.
But there was no rehabilitation, and neither was the right lesson taken from history. Transitional justice for the Derguewas washing away the past and growing hegemonic within the Ethiopian society, eventually turning on its allies. It proved that it was not individuals or organisations that are good or bad but unaccountable power and society in conflict with its interpretation of its past.
Abiy’s administration is facing the same problem of how to deal with this transition. The transitional justice of 1974 and 1991 were more political than neutral in their approach. They both missed an opportunity to build an enduring democratic order but fell into the trap where power was concentrated and abused in the hands of a single individual and organisation.
The critical take away should be to build a consensus between the various movements and political parties and focus on building a functional state that serves the interest of all its citizens. It entails building institutions, strengthening the justice system and being open to accepting admission of guilt and requests for forgiveness of those who betrayed the trust of the nation and committed crimes.
Most crucially, the past should not be used for political consumption in the service of those in power today. Citizens must indeed learn from history. But the lesson should not be that crimes were committed because a specific individual or party held power but as a result of those in power collectively failing to uphold the rule of law. The adage that power corrupts will always hold unless a mechanism to check it is put in place now.
This calls for change and maturity in the political culture, through debates, discussions and discourse. Society must arrive at a factual and yet rational interpretation of past events. It is a process that Tutu described as the “honest confrontation with reality.”
But in an environment where the political culture is immature and the foundations for a just society has not been laid, it is the clarion call of today for the new administration to bring about a national consensus for the way forward.
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