Mending fences with foes and friends is never easy in politics. It means that the parties involved had reached an understanding and decided to start with a clean slate or agree to disagree and live with differences for the greater good. But, it is not a matter that is impossible. Some might translate this as waving the white flag or admitting defeat. In the political arena, those in power do call their foes to the negotiation table to try and mend their relationship somehow.
After facing much pressure from public outcry and violent unrest, which resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency, the usually omnipotent and closed of ruling party, the EPRDF has started talks with the opposition. The ruling party usually keeps a firm grip on the country’s affairs and there has not been such disorder on this scale in the last 25 years.
It does not, however, mean that it has never been in talks with political rivals. It has. In fact, the EPRDF began its rule in June 1991, a month after its forces controlled the capital city, calling for a transitional arrangement where several of its opponents took part, including the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).
Yet, the EPRDFites often get into such dialogue for the wrong reasons. History demonstrates this, as no political party has stayed the course after negotiating with them. Often, their calls for talks is in exclusion of this or that party. Even with those parties that braved the vilifications of their respective followers, for coming to the table, the net result has been disappointments and regrets.
Not surprisingly, the EPRDF’s legitimacy to rule has always been questioned and a source of controversy, including its past claims to have won national elections five consecutive times for five-year terms. Such claims of successive victories of the popular will in grand scale, albeit in disputes, led its leaders unable to see power has inherent limitations when exercised in the hegemonic way as they have practiced over the years. They have proven to be stubborn in their inability to hear what those with differing views have to say.
The exercise of power in a contested legitimacy, as the EPRDF has been trying to exercise for so long, can do little to bring obedience, but defiance and resistance. Positional power does not necessarily guarantee legitimacy to rule. It is something that needs to be earned from the electorate.
Legitimacy to rule comes not from the lethal power of victory. Such is only a zero-sum politics where the winners take all and the losers are completely banished. Legitimacy comes from voice, predictability and fairness, attributes the EPRDF lacks in exercising political power. This is something even its senior leaders acknowledge as their deficit. They have refused to hear the plight of those who stood on the opposite side of the political aisle; the laws and policies they impose change so often it is difficult to follow; and their treatment of citizens is in large part in favour of their members and supporters.
The ruling party has not been fair in the use of the public space in a country with a diverse hallmark of religious, cultural and linguistic traits. In a nation with close to 100 million people holding different opinions about the affairs of the state, one political party alone cannot represent all.
There is a near total monopoly of the public space by the EPRDF; it is unfortunate that in this age and era of civilization the EPRDFites have yet to realize a state such as Ethiopia can only be ruled through a coalition of forces in politics, civil societies, media, religious institutions and those in the intellectual community. Suffocating other voices just because it can be done might silence citizens but does only breed discontent and rebellion. Often, it is the absence of dialogue, in good faith, that leads to confrontations.
For many years, the EPRDF has been able to stay in power by exercising dominance and absolute power over most areas of administrations. It has always been criticized for its style of ruling and marching to the beat of its own drums; and, not conforming to the laws.
Take for instance an attempted protest in Addis Abeba in 2012, called by an opposition party to protest against the erection of a mausoleum of Rodolfo only in three days, Graziani. A war criminal responsible for the lives of 30,000 during his fascistic rule in Ethiopia, Graziani’s statue was resurrected in his hometown of Affile, Italy. During the protest, dozens of people were arrested, including a notable lawyer, and the rally was stopped. The regrettable message from this was only that even at this level people are not allowed to display any sort of dissent, which shows that there is a room in the public space for any other voice to be heard or tolerated but the one and only ruling party.
After it branded opposition parties as “anti-peace, anti-development and anti-democracy” – and some in the Diaspora as “terrorists” – the ruling party has now decided to sit down with the domestic opposition for dialogue.
The beginning of dialogue and negotiations is a step in the right direction, for the alternative is always a sum that ends in zero. Peacefully resolving differences, which is an indication of civility, is an appropriate strategy to use at this time of uncertainty. The EPRDF seems to be sending signals to negotiate with opposition groups numbering close to 60, which have never accepted its style of total domination in politics. That friction has been a nuisance for the ruling party, but it is the path it chose to take.
In 2010, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi held negotiations with oppositionists and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with his rivals, including the late Hailu Shawel (Eng.). To the frustrations of many, much had not happened or changed in the rule of the EPRDFites since this agreement was signed. No doubt it served a publicity stunt and used to buy time and a temporary respite from the wrath of the disgruntled public.
This came after the ruling party had vilified its opponents while closely studying their moves and understanding how they work. Part of it was a systematic maneuver to outwit and undermine the credibility of opposition groups, in a bid to divide and conquer them.
Hopefully, the EPRDF has learned from its past error of judgment, hence its leaders are taking a different approach now.
The negotiations should not be used as a bait to lure the opposition in and throw them back into deep waters. It should not be used as a tactical instrument for partisan political gains or buy time before consolidating power. For the talks to have any real meaning and substance, the EPRDF needs to acknowledge the opposition parties’ rightful place in the public space. It has to accept that there is a limit to its reach to cover all this space.
In exchange for recognition, it is fair for the EPRDFites to expect the opposition to meet them halfway in accepting their legitimacy to rule, at least up until the coming national elections.
The ongoing dialogue should give all sides the chance to reach an understanding that goes further than just a memorandum of understanding, which is not a legally binding agreement but something a little more than a verbal promise. It should be used as a platform to work out an arrangement where two or three political party formations emerge in the pursuit of multiparty politics.
They should not lose sight of what is at stake; Ethiopia is faced yet with another opportunity in its history. Squandering it, as it did four or five times over the past 60 years, is only regrettable. At a cost.
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