As festivals, demonstrations and protests unfold, what should be obvious is that the country is in a constant state of flux. What this is uncovering is the deep inefficiency in government, especially arising from the lower components, writes Ambessaw Assegued (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Events lap periodically at the human experience much like the rising tidal waves of oceans crush against the shorelines of a continent. The recurrent theme is that tides rise and ebb expectedly, governed by celestial forces, and creatures of the shores adapt their survivals to its rhythms.
Unlike the tides, however, human encounters with events are random, erratic and inexplicable where the course of history can be altered irrevocably in an instant. The rise of the Dergue in 1974 and the march of a rebel army into Addis Abeba in 1991 are two such pivotal events that forever changed the trajectory of Ethiopian history – many argue it changed it for the worst.
Today, we are in the midst of a new tidal wave, the Abiy phenomenon, after its charismatic leader Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD). We are witnessing the outpouring of emotions of a people who have felt they have been denied their liberties and rights. The rallies, demonstrations and protest marches are nothing more than a reflex, a response to the political ills that have taken hold of the country.
New marches seem to sprout somewhere almost every week – from Hawassa to Gonder; from Adama to Bahir Dar; and then, of course, in Addis Abeba.
In mid-September, it is the celebration of Mesqel that drives thousands to the streets. The largest crowd assembles in the capital and hundreds of thousands more attend festivities in other cities.
A week later, Bishoftu is the site where a huge gathering takes place for the Irreecha festival, the thanksgiving observances held in many parts of the country. The celebrations have attracted very few international tourists and outside visitors. But, as luck would have it – in a sea of white togas, colorful embroidery and vibrant pendant necklaces – a lone diaspora couple in designer sports outfits and sunglasses, stand out and find themselves ensnared by the authorities.
They have evidently grabbed the attention of three or four security agents who surround them and immediately proceed to frisk them. At first, one of them resists being manhandled and asks to see identifying documents. But it was to no avail. The bag is snatched by one of the officers, opened, examined in minute details, re-examined and probed before they left, without any explanation.
There is no notion of probable cause here; no Miranda rights are read, nor is there a duty for law enforcement officers to identify themselves before they conduct a search.
Why would tourists and visitors venture to a country where basic rights can be trampled by lowly, untrained police officers? Why risk being hauled away by the authorities as thousands have been rounded up recently? These are dark sides to the political transformation that is underway in the country. No one seems to know what the new rules are anymore. The country is straddling a line between lawlessness and euphoria. The endless marches, have become the crucible on which the durability of the Abiy phenomenon is being tested.
It is necessary to look back and compare what is happening today to what happened in our past. During the imperial times, the choicest hangout for the great many tourists, government officials and city dwellers from Addis Abeba that came to the resort town of Bishoftu for the Irreecha festival was the Bishoftu Ras Hotel. The hotel, sitting along the southern slopes of the hills that surround Lake Hora, is just a small hike away from the festivities.
Hundreds of guests, mostly Europeans and Ethiopians alike, would descend to the shoreline of the lake along a small trail from the hotel leading to where the Irreecha festival is held and mingle with the participants. They enjoyed a day out mingling and roaming among the festivities as they shuttle between the hotel and the festival.
Alas, Bishoftu Ras Hotel, an architectural heritage, a tourism destination, was demolished by officials just a few years ago. Before its demolishment, it remained neglected, abandoned and boarded up for at least ten years after its reallocation to an investor.
Today, only a few may notice that along Lake Hora most of the ancient trees have fallen, leaving a single sycamore tree the conduct the ceremonies. the little stream that flows just beneath the ground has been channelized, and where it surfaces as a water spring, it has been bordered up; the gentle slopes of the lake, dotted with acacia and mimusops trees, have been gouged and excavated for road building; debris and excessive construction material have been pushed willy-nilly onto the native vegetation downhill; and the shoreline has retreated several meters by stream diversions and construction activities upstream.
The demolition of architectural and historical heritages like the Bishoftu Ras Hotel, the unwarranted realignment of streams and waterways, the destruction of natural habitats and the failure to protect basic human rights by law enforcement can all be summed up by one festival. Here is a glaring example how government, both local and federal, have become the primary accomplices to what ails our country.
Those who act against the interest of the citizens must be held accountable when they act contrary to the common good. We need to guard against those that do not want to see positive changes.
Change must come from the bottom up, not the other way around. Changing the heads of the government banks, tourism agencies and ministries or commissioning boards and committees may be productive for generating news cycles, but it fails to address the core issue of reform.
The greatest harm to the common good is being perpetrated in the lower ranks of government: the minor officials in the courthouses; the officialdoms of woreda and kebele offices; the mandarins in the municipalities; the lower administrators in the ministries; and, of course, the rank and file of the security forces. Reforming the bureaucracy at the bottom, starting from the guard that stands at the gate to the lowest clerk, whose only duty may consist of stamping documents that occasionally pass her desk, must be paramount.
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