In the 18th Century Great Britain, one that was on the brink of losing its treasured colonies, William Pitt was in the mood of negotiating with the revolutionaries now popularly referred to as founding fathers of the United States. A great statesman of his time, known as First Earl of Chatham, he had served his country as a prime minister, twice; despite his position to the highest office, he had found it impossible to sway Parliament and public opinion on the need for concession.
Indeed, history absolved him for his prophetic statement.
“Let’s retreat when we can,” Lord Chatham had urged Parliament. “Not when we must.”
If the Revolutionary Democrats here found a lesson or two from history, even if it is not one from home, their call a few months ago for a round-table with the legal opposition can only be commendable. It is appropriate and productive for them to engage with their political opponents when they can, not when they ought to.
So were talks began between the ruling party, the EPRDF, and no less than 21 political parties in the opposition camp, but grouped into three. If there were anything these talks succeeded in getting, public anticipation is way down in the list. They utterly failed to capture the popular imagination, for a reason.
Talks between the ruling party and its political foes are nothing new. Since 2005, there has been a modicum of engagement that culminated in the legislation of a forum for dialogue between political parties registered under the national electoral board. Two notable exceptions are in this forum: Semayawi (Blue) Party and the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum, a.k.a Medrek, which have refused to partake in this platform.
When the head of the state, Mulatu Teshome (PhD), addressed the joint houses back in October 2016 and pledged the government’s commitments to introduce electoral reforms and start a dialogue between the political parties, it was a call for broader inclusions of parties within the Dialogue Forum and outside it.
After a round of talks mainly on procedural matters, the parties have now reached a deadlock. Both Semayawi and Medrek announced last week their respective decisions not to continue with the talks, claiming negotiators from the ruling EPRDF have failed to concede to their demands. Both parties want to start the discussion on substantive issues with the help of third party mediators, a demand categorically rejected by the ruling party.
Engagement with the ruling party has remained tough for opposition parties, which suffer from trust deficit owing to their previous experience. Mutual trust has been the collateral damage between the Revolutionary Democrats and their political opponents ever since the formation of the transitional council in June 1991. It is a big drawback when trying to have any breakthrough in dialogue; it poses a roadblock for opposition leaders unless the ruling party takes the courageous initiative to prove its intent.
Being in the opposition is not a foolhardy affair in Ethiopia. The political space is so constrained, opposition leaders and their activists find it close to impossible to reach out to their support and social bases. Thoroughly whipped out from the legislative platforms, both at the federal Parliament and regional councils, they have left with little venues to make their presence felt, and limited to few urban centres.
Electoral politics is a game between an over-sized and abundantly resourced incumbent, with no limits to misusing state resources to its partisan goals, on the one side. On the other hand are the many fragmented and polarised opposition groups, broke and timid, if not often harassed.
The opposition is banished from using the airwaves in the public media, bar limited period during electoral campaigns. They find their path full of hurdles to conducting town hall meetings, stage public rallies, raise funds from their supporters, and rent hotel rooms, if not distribute leaflets to reach out to their bases. They are also operating in an environment where institutions that are meant to be impartial in their exercises of power enormously biased for the incumbent.
Time and time again, oppositions have come far to be blown apart by challenges not restricted to internal dynamics in nature. Such a hostile environment for politics makes those with resources and passion feel joining the rank and file of the opposition is lethal.
The ruling party being inflexible with the way it wants to go about the engagement and the opposition parties deciding to withdraw from the talks if it is not their way has left the round-table to a stalemate.
Opposition leaders need to stand their ground and not be so quick to play the quitting card when negotiating with the ruling party. They should not lose sight of the strategic goals of their engagement. It should be to compel the Revolutionary Democrats to broaden the political space for competitive elections whose result should be credible in the eyes of voters across the country. It will not be easy to get what they want, and no doubt it takes time. The political oppositions need to show the public that they are here to stay and build trust and confidence among their supporters and beyond. They have to put on the table that in exchange for a concession from the ruling party, they are commited to the constitutional order, and renounce violence – unequivocally – as an instrument to advance their political goals.
Leaders of the incumbent party need to accept that the hegemony they aspire for and the status quo they maintain now is impossible to sustain for too long. It is not good politics to have an EPRDF controlled political system where there are no contenders that reflect the diversity of voices and interests in society as polarised as Ethiopia is today. It could only be beneficial if the political oppositions have a say, and be part of the democratic process.
It is in their self-interest for the EPRDFites to be inclusive in their approach to dialogue whether a political party is based here or abroad so long as it accepts the constitutional order and publicly renounces violence. They need to move beyond tactical motive in their engagement, one that is far from a cosmetic approach only for the cameras. The stakes are high for the country in whose name they have sacrificed so much and to whose development they have accomplished no small feet.
Again, it remains relevant and appropriate to turn a page from history for an important lesson.
Edmund Burke, the great Irish statesman and philosopher, saw his fellow MPs in Great Britain mishandling the popular revolt in the colonies back in the 18th Century America. He saw the dangerous mix of incompetence and complacency in the leadership, which prompted him to heed warnings to his friend.
“Without a great change in national character and leadership, the nation could slide down from the highest point of grandeur and prosperity to the lowest state of imbecility and meanness,” Burke wrote in his letter. “I am certain that if great and immediate pains are not taken to prevent it, such must be the fate of this country.”
Alas, politicians of Great Britain at the time failed to pay attention to such advice. They were doomed to lose the colonies forever, despite wars, distractions and losses of lives in the false hope of preserving them.
There should be no reason history repeats itself in another century and in another place. EPRDFties need to dare to take “great and immediate pains” to avoid a total loss.
What have they got to fear, but fear itself?
It is commendable that they have extended their hands to the opposition parties, and that the opposition has reacted positively to the gesture. All sides have to keep moving forward with the talks as long as the shared goal is broadening the political space for competitive politics. With national elections coming up in three years, the foundation needs to be laid now; the dialogue is crucial in ensuring that the results of the last election do not repeat themselves.
The ruling party needs to follow through with its promise to the public and the opposition and proceed in the talks. Its leaders need to face their rivals and listen to what the oppositions have to say and compromise. The negotiations give hope to the public there is a political discourse taking place in civility. The biggest burden is on the incumbent to approach it with goodwill to make the process relevant, as the outcomes should be credible.
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