Stock of the Past, Wish List for the Future

It has been a year of turmoil and uncertainty for Ethiopia. There has not been a year over the past quarter of a century when popular uprisings and subsequent conflicts were as frequent, intense and wide in their coverage as last year. What started out as a protest by high school students 30km from Ambo, in Oromia Regional State – with local authorities attempting to claim plots of land under a school yard – has now become an all too common challenge to the ruling EPRDF, and its regional allies.

Despite the places and nature of each protest, their popular demands are often not clearly articulated. If they have something in common, it is their challenge to the very legitimacy of the Revolutionary Democrats to maintain their grip on political power. A year after they declared a total hegemony of power in Ethiopia, bizarrely controlling 100pc of the federal and regional legislative bodies, the Revolutionary Democrats see almost all their regional parties with a doubtful mandate to govern. And it is rare to see such a large number of people across the political aisle wonder, perhaps for the first time, about the viability of the exiting political order and thus fear the unfortunate fate of the country.

Understanding what may have led the EPRDFites, and the nation under their thumb, to have reached this point is worth reflecting upon in order to chart the course ahead.

Fundamentally, it lays within the very aspirations of the Revolutionary Democrats, who set out to establish a one party dominant rule. In a country with a long history of patrimonialism, and a non-existent culture of competitive politics, institutionalising the rule of a dominant party has always been a recipe for trouble. By its own admission, today the party cannot even discipline its rank and file trapped in the spoils of unchecked power. It has only bred a political machinery that is not transparent and remains unaccountable to the very constituencies that entrusted them into office.

In an environment of accountability and transparency, the incident that triggered an avalanche of uprising could have been handled justly and responsibly. One way forward in the upcoming year could be to see the incumbent coalition officially abandoning its aspiration of total political hegemony and opening up for its contenders be part of the legislative and executive life of the state.

One such legal impediment to restore faith among the political opposition is the electoral formula itself. Ethiopia’s electoral system awards the winner all. It is a world where winners take all and others lose everything. It is a first past the post electoral regime, where a candidate who is the first to reach the finish line wins. There is nothing unusual or uncommon about this system, with no less than 58 countries – including the United States and United Kingdom – using it to their convenience. Yet, it is worth noting that countries, such as Germany, Australia and South Africa, have abandoned this electoral system in favour of proportional representation; they see that a first past the post regime is “all votes for anyone other than the runner up are votes for the winner”.

Ethiopia’s experience in four regional and national elections demonstrates that this electoral regime disadvantages the political opposition and its voters, however small or large their voters may be. In the absence of a consolidated opposition platform, in large part due to the failure of the political opposition, the fragmented votes given to the many opposition candidates only work in the interest of the incumbent. Changing the electoral regime to proportional representation could be a monumental signal coming next year from a ruling party with a desire to demonstrate its political will for reform and inclusion.

Much of the frustrations and widespread discontent towards the EPRDFites’ rule come as a result of the absence of the rule of law. The Revolutionary Democrats have instituted a culture of “rule by law”, which they tend to apply surgically and upon their convenience. The injustice of such a culture is behind the majority of the public that feels aggrieved by the arbitrary measures local officials often take.

The full force of the law does not rest on everyone in equal measure. The system has created its own untouchables, where corruption is far less limited to economic nepotism. Political corruption in favour of the incumbent is evident everywhere; it is an unsurprising consequence of a ruling party that has been determined to fill every regional and federal office with its own card carrying members – to the exclusion of anyone who declines to tow the line. It borders on political naivety to coerce every beneficiary within the youth or female populations, or those provided public loans and projects in micro and small enterprises, to join the incumbent should they benefit from taxpayer’s money.

Federal and regional institutions meant to be non-partisans in the political divide – such as the electoral board, law enforcement agencies, the judiciary and public media – have in large part been taken over by political operatives of the incumbent. As a result, these institutions have become too political and in favour of the ruling party. In any situation where the referees are partisan to one side of the contenders, there can be no fair game. The spectators know this well, thus would never give either the game or its results any legitimacy.

After 25 years of a near total monopoly of political power, it appears that the Revolutionary Democrats have woken up to this reality now. They have to let it go. They have to be bold in accepting the verdict of the public gracefully and gratefully. In the coming year, it is admirable to see their leaders demonstrate political courage to reverse the course, and save themselves and the country from what many understandably fear is an inevitable abyss.

Sending powerful signals in the meantime is crucial though. It may come in a form of a complete and sweeping cabinet reshuffle, which the Prime Minister has indicated is in the offing. The extent of the reshuffle, and walking the talk in bringing on board competent and experienced technocrats who may not be members of the ruling party, is highly anticipated. Nonetheless, to think the public’s demand for transparency and accountability of an administration, and righting the wrong in social justice and wealth distribution, can be met with simply cabinet overhaul borders political naivety.

The popular outcry across the country is about a call for a new social order. Legitimate representation in the political process and equity in the economic pie is what lies underneath these protests. It is written allover the walls that the public is frustrated over the lack of and desperately craving for a dignified life, one that is filled with hope. These are rather crude demonstrations of desires and aspirations to develop a form of society in which there should not be the gross inequalities, which have began to emerge and grow. From the many anecdotal stories, there is evident of a new phenomenon where inequalities in power and wealth destroy equality under the law.

But it will no doubt take a long process of healing and inclusion; dialogue and negotiation; as well as courage to compromise before politicians across the political aisle achieve national consensus on the new social order. Hopefully, it will be a year where the Revolutionary Democrats come to terms with the fact that when an order reaches at a point it needs to use force as its argument, thus exposing its inherent weakness, it has lost its moral compass.

Published on Sep 13,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 854]



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