The past week was a break away from one of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) promises that the era of non-transparency and lack of expedient communications with the public was over.
Following a demonstration held on September 17, 2018, where thousands of residents of Addis Abeba went out on the streets protesting against violence in the town of Burayu, the city was gripped by mass arrests beginning in the middle of the week. There were multiple interpretations of what the arrests entailed, chief among them being that the government was quashing dissent against its incapacity to enforce the law. Lack of any official statement compounded the narrative.
When the authorities spoke, it was too little too late, if not uninformative and unhelpful. It only added to confusion and mutual recrimination. It was a sad state of governance.
Last Monday the Addis Abeba Police Commissioner, Degfe Bedi (Maj. Gen.), gave a press statement on the matter. He claimed that they had only set eyes on offenders: instigators of violence and petty criminals. But members of the media were not allowed to follow up with questions.
Indeed, there has been a perceptible rise in crime in the city in the past few months, which the Commissioner also alluded to. It is hard to disagree with his assertion, the increase in crime in Addis Abeba has been alarming to the authorities and worrying to its residents.
Nonetheless, the statement by the city’s police boss—coming out days after the incident despite new information about dozens of civilian deaths in the run-up to the welcoming celebration at Mesqel Square for the leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front—seemed hard to swallow. The lack of transparency, as well as the provision of timely and relevant communications in the conduct of the operation, had lost Abiy’s administration a substantial portion of credibility, which primarily is predicated upon perception, in the eyes of many of Addis Abeba’s residents.
Many people were rounded up from bars and joints where people consume khat and shisha. In the absence of arrest warrants from the courts, often residents, mostly young, were taken to the nearest police stations for screening overnight. In the mornings, those who could produce residence or work IDs were let go, while those who failed were transported outside the city.
The handling of these random arrests was only one in a line of promises to realise good governance that continue to be broken by the administration. It is stumbling only months after showing the willingness – in the face of daunting political and economic challenges – to embrace multiparty democracy.
The cracks in the principles the Prime Minister espoused has been nowhere as evident as the two instances of internet blackouts. The first occurred after a confrontation between federal and local forces in the city of Jijiga, capital of the Somali Regional State. The second came after the Prime Minister told journalists in a televised press conference that shutting down the internet is not a solution in times of political crisis. Just over a month later, the government resorted to the same measure of internet blackout that lasted almost two days.
The public media is similarly being used to fit the purposes of the administration. It is not an institution that has gained its autonomy but has merely changed sides. It is as selective in its presentation and choice of subjects as has been the case with past administrations.
What should perhaps be most disappointing is the continued politicisation of the security services.
During a congress in Jimma, Demelash G. Michael, the recently appointed deputy director of the National Intelligence & Security Service, was voted into the central committee of the rebranded Oromo Democratic Party. It can be seen as a significant setback in the effort to make democratic institutions, particularly the intelligence services, law enforcement bodies and the military, free of political contests for power.
The government, which will spend upwards of 6.7 billion Br this year to ensure the provision of public goods in justice and security, also continues to attach normalised and privatised violence to organised groups that as of yet have not even been named. It is merely helping deflect from the stark socio-political tensions all too evident in the country.
Prime Minister Abiy has kept enough promises to prove that he is not acting in bad faith, chief among them being his administration’s willingness to open up the political space. But his approach is that of one foot in and one foot out. His administration is too quick to renege on its promises when matters take a turn for the worst.
Granted, even governments in countries with mature democracies are known to take dire measures when tested, but only during drastic times. In the African case, heavy-handed approaches are favoured as an easy way out.
Few have minced words about the difficult challenge the administration faces. The nation is dealing with a mostly frustrated public looking for quick fixes, a difficult macroeconomic situation and weakened political centralisation. To boot, opposition parties are highly sectarian and show little interest to contribute policy alternatives to address massive unemployment and inadequate access to clean water, electricity, health services and quality education.
The temptation to confront such problems with little political damage to oneself is often too great. And that has been a route past administrations and regimes usually settled for, often at the expense of creating new political and economic oppurtunities.
Such adverse challenges make taking shortcuts, such as shutting down the internet instead of wrestling control of the narrative and ensuring law and order on the ground, seem preferable.
But this comes at the cost of allowing the government wide discretion in the affairs of the state and disenfranchising those with minority voices for the expedient socio-political and economic advancement of what is perceived to be the majority. It will be a repeat of the political spaces that have been too lopsided to allow any common ground.
Abiy is not expected to solve the nation’s challenges right away. It will require a political will to allow criticism, compromise and patience in testing the waters. The democratic ideals that he espoused at the peak of his popularity should not waste away when he begins to face disapproval from various camps.
Good governance, long the watchword of the EPRDF, is neither easy nor is it fanciful. It is most acutely tested in times of trouble, not during periods of public enthusiasm and trust in the political leadership. Through thick and thin, it should only be a principled policy of upholding the rule of law, even under extraordinary difficulty that is expected of a reformist leader worthy of his claims.
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