Katharine Viner, the editor-in-chief of the Guardian, one of Britain’s oldest media institutions, noted in her superb essay on media’s mission in an era of turbulence that making sense of a political movement when one is in the midst of it is difficult. No doubt this is true of many things in the world today, including what is unfolding in Ethiopia.
Like many countries, Ethiopia is going through upheavals whose full magnitude and impact are difficult to grasp right now. It is facing great crises due to political repression, economic uncertainty, and the politicisation of identity that makes many feel apprehensive and powerless.
Tensions have risen, and abound. Some parts of the country appear to be in turmoil, in sharp contrast to the calm in Addis Abeba which seems too good to be true. Few kilometres farther than its outskirts, injuries were incurred, or vehicles set on fire if lives were not lost a few weeks ago. If at all they appeared to have subsided now, their recurrence may seem inevitable, considering the history of insurrections over the past three years.
The sudden rise of internally displaced people, as a result of conflicts, has been the most worrying sign that all is not well. For if people feel the need to leave their homes, in fear of losing their lives, then there are sufficient reasons to claim that the country is in crisis.
For a ruling party, which controls every seat in the parliament together with its regional allies, either bullish of the political climate or just anxious over the fate of investments in its stunt to lift the 10-month-old state of emergency, the culprits are the “forces”. The state machinery is on the lookout for groups based both overseas and locally, which allegedly are orchestrating the unrests to engender tension, threaten the unity of the country and hold onto power.
In response, the National Security Council, chaired by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and headed by Siraj Fergessa, minister of Defense, drafted a security action-plan, which is to be enforced throughout the year. Heads of regional states were present, as were senior officials of the national defence forces and police commissioners. Siraj, also the secretary of the Command Post during the state of emergency, most notably, if not gravely, warned against protests of the type that cause damage to life and property.
If in discussing security problems Siraj took one too many peaks at Lemma Megersa, president of the Oromia Regional State, also present at the meeting, it would not be without its unintended symbolism. Lemma’s administrative domain has shown the most worrying signs of violent protests, inter-communal conflicts, displacement in the thousands, attacks on unarmed civilians as well as loss of order. Just last week, a corn farmland belonging to the ELFORA Agro-Industries was torched down in the West Arsi Zone, near the town of Hawasaa. Since August, unrests in Ambo, West Shoa, have seen businesses closed, roads blocked, injuries sustained and, unfortunately, lives lost.
The Amhara Regional State, under the rules of Gedu Andargachew, is not faring better, where a chip-wood plant in the Menjar zone was burned down by protestors. The situation – apparently getting out of regional government’s hands, similar to that of the other unrests in the state – prompted Siraj to warn federal security forces would be compelled to take action if stability cannot be ensured.
More serious were the conflicts in the towns along the borders of the Oromia and Somali regional states, which left hundreds of thousands of people displaced. Social media’s and NGOs’ frenzied assessment of the incidents was much darker than that of Hailemariam’s explanation to legislators before parliament last month; he painted a water downed picture for the cause of the conflicts.
The Ministry of Education’s (MoE) recent decision to reallocate freshman year students from the Oromia and Somali regional states is an indicator that torched cars and factories are the least of the nation’s headaches. The Ministry’s action betrays a country where its citizens within their geographical limits are curtailed from moving around, which is unfortunate, for nothing says disharmony than the inability of goods and people to travel freely across state borders.
In Hailemariam’s world, all would be fine if only khat did not exist (or was abundant enough), contraband trade was curtailed, forex was not smuggled, overseas anti-government protestors would mind their businesses, and corruption was scaled down. It reveals how much foresight his Administration and many of its stalwarts lack in understating what is unfolding before their eyes.
Alas, the incidents could have deeper roots; one that the Council or all of the state’s coercive might would be hard-pressed to solve. The only antidotes are those that, though fundamental, have not been attempted before.
Widening income inequality and deprivation of social justice is festering the politics of ressentiment among many who seem only able to express their frustrations through instruments of identity politics. It is horrifyingly mirrored by fragmentations in the mainstream political order and paralysis in the leadership of a ruling party whose leaders once felt they were at the height of historical hegemony.
The current tide signals something much broader than the sustainability of a status quo, or its failure thereof. Something is offing for Ethiopia; perhaps an early stage of a break up of an old order whose foundation was laid during the radical student movement of the 1960s and ’70s.
There has emerged a restless generation whose desire is to see a better political representation, space for free expression, equity in the resource sharing, and an opportunity to affect their respective region’s future, and not just in rhetoric. It is just the sort of democratic ideal that could only be realised if power lied within transparent and accountable institutions, instead of individuals or a party. These are legitimate and understandable aspirations for reform, liberty and social justice.
If a revolutionary generation of the 1960s and ’70s now holding onto power, reasoning self-preservation above anything else, is seen out to squash this dream, it is only ironic. Sadly, the strategic goals of the current posturing by the federal government remain unclear. The Council appears to be bent on pursuing the draft action-plan on whose details the public stays in the dark, or has not been consulted of or consented to. The unrests, which destroy communities, constrain tourism and diminish business confidence, are nonetheless much more than mere security problems the state can swat away with its instruments of coercion.
No doubt, the increasing regularisation and privatisation of violence has reached a worrisome level. The state and its agents should be the only institutions to control and exercise the legitimate use of force on citizens.
It is beyond saying to state their mandate to restore law and order as well as to protect properties and lives of citizens. These are their constitutional duties and responsibilities they have assumed under oath. But their actions to do just these should remain within the bounds of the constitution for them to have a full force of the law and deemed to be legitimate. If the administration of Hailemariam is tempted to find a way short of having the parliament declare a state of emergency to abrogate fundamental individual rights, it would only be an unfortunate error of judgment. But it could also be a matter for opposition leaders and advocates of civil liberties to test the water, taking the case to court, challenging the unconstitutional moves the federal government may have made.
The federal government should charge its law enforcement agencies to restore law and order without breaching constitutional provisions that guarantee citizens with fundamental rights. That may not, however, happen short of power consolidation within the ruling EPRDF and subsequent introductions of reforms designed to permit competitive politics.
The Revolutionary Democrats may feel good about themselves of the negotiations they currently have with the domestic opposition parties. For all that can be said, their leaders take these gestures as a significant change in their conduct of politics. They may be, considering their zealousness for political hegemony.
But these changes are pitiable in the face of the type of resistance the EPRDF is facing both from within and without. Save for expanding the seats in the parliament – which requires a constitutional amendment, the sort of change the Revolutionary Democrats are famous for avoiding – there is little that could effectively bring about transparency in government, the institutionalisation of power or a better engagement of the public in political discourse. It is little this can achieve in taming a generation appearing to be consumed by politics of ressentiment.
If the uninspiring initial outcomes of the negotiations are proof, it is unreasonable to expect any different from the tabled agendas, for instance, on reforming the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE). It is unfortunate since, more than the security action-plan, negotiations such as this could have been where real and long-term solutions to the country’s peace and stability lied. They could have been broadened to be inclusive of all those “forces” so long as they pay allegiance to peaceful conduct of politics, renounce violence as an instrument of advancing their political interests, and accept the constitutional order.
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