Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) sat last week before leaders of the political opposition and members of his coalition to launch the much-awaited dialogue to restructure democratic institutions. It includes the possibility of exploring laws long blamed for constraining competitive politics and opening negotiations to fix them.
No doubt it was a powerful and enduring symbolic significance, where groups with diverse interests were allowed to be represented. Little should it matter that the initial meeting did not seem much more than ceremonial. Providing a platform that brought groups with extreme worldviews together is a remarkable gesture by the administration of the Prime Minister.
The ambiguity and confusion exhibited by opposition parties last week will hopefully evolve and lead to sober and mature reflections in the months ahead. Few seemed to have the clarity of goal or a prepared political program. Even an understanding of the importance of the occasion and opportunity it presented in shaping the character, institutions and laws of the country seemed to have been lost by the representatives present. The nature of the gathering as a space for discussing the rules of engagement, and not to come to terms with each other, was lost on many of the attendees.
Unfortunately, some engaged in hollow optimism. Agendas that could not be addressed in such a gathering were presented, failing to see the point of agreeing to the reasonable recommendation forwarded to form coalitions in the best interest of the country.
Others chose to dawdle in concepts such as the supremacy of the law after it had been repeatedly made clear the subject was not on the agenda. Many failed to grasp the importance of discussing matters directly related to the rules of engagement and the autonomy of the federal agency entrusted with administering the electoral process.
The first impression of the gathering was not a promising beginning. There were barely any signs that the dialogue was more about the Ethiopian state and not about the political parties themselves. This is a grand bargain that would more likely be shaped by the incumbents and few of the opposition parties that have recently entered the country from overseas and revolve outside matters not directly related to the electoral board and electoral laws.
Pledges related to the lack of independence of the law enforcement community, the judiciary, the electoral board, the public media and the bureaucracy may be held at arm’s length. Faced with opposition parties that may fail to see the broader picture of institutionalising power, the burden may ultimately rest on the shoulders of the incumbent. Here, there are much more promising beginnings than how the opening of dialogue between the parties at the Prime Minister’s Office went.
One such sign was the appointment of Birtukan Mideksa to chair the Electoral Board. No doubt, the criticism that her election comes before the political parties have had their say on who should chair the institution needs to be pointed out. But the symbolism of putting a former political figure that was sentenced to life in prison during one of the most contested elections in this nation’s history cannot be disregarded.
Birtukan is a highly-trained lawyer who exudes articulation and integrity. She has an honourable record for being determined, fearless and independent-minded against the might of an authoritarian state that tried and failed to break her will and resolve. She has sufficient political capital to speak up or make a statement simply by walking away.
By putting her in charge of electoral contestations, it speaks volumes of Abiy’s resolve to see a crucial democratic institution become autonomous of partisan political bias.
No less bold was Abiy in nominating Meaza Ashenafi, another formidable and independent-minded person, as Chief Justice. She comes with no prior history of affiliation to any political party, and her appointment by Parliament is promising. In taking such a step – in the right direction – the Administration has taken a course against the long-established sway the executive has had over the judiciary. In putting into place another person whose opinion and presence grabs the attention of the public, it can be the beginning of an increasing assertiveness by the judiciary, removed from partisan meddling.
Indeed, no holder of public office should be beyond reproach. Reputations should only matter as far as past events are concerned. There are too many iterations of saintly individuals that have either been compromised or began to lose sight of the overriding public interest once in office. This peculiar impact of political power on human behaviour is why elections, a multiparty system of government, and checks and balances are most crucial.
Appointments to high offices would also be of little significance if institutions, such as the courts and the electoral board, are not impacted. Democratic institutions in Ethiopia do not command the trust of the public, due largely to political interference and subservient leadership. Most are seen to be influenced by the executive, and if there is no direct evidence of this, the perception is along a similar line, which is just as damning in politics.
This would mean having to reorganise bodies such as the Electoral Board in a structure that the opposition parties have signed off on. This process would inevitably be time-consuming and requires a great deal of dialogue, negotiation and compromise among the contending parties.
Neither should the Chief Justice’s task be any picnic. The most significant step would be instituting a system for vetting judges against political affiliations or biases along layers of identity. No less significant would be making the judicial system efficient from waste of time and resources that dissuade citizens from seeking legal recourse.
Prime Minister Abiy has his work cut out for him just as the new heads of democratic institutions do. Nothing is set in stone until power itself is institutionalised. Even then, sustaining it will not be a walk in the park. The United States, the oldest democracy in the world, remains an imperfect system.
But putting into place independent-minded professionals, such as Meaza and Birtukan, in leadership positions of democratic institutions is an impressive feat, indicating Abiy’s resolve to see a credible election. It will remain inscripted in the pages of history, in gold.
It is indispensable to ensure that this process is to be led by people that have enough political capital to act independently and are knowledgeable of the functions of the institutions that they are leading. Nonetheless, strengthening institutions will require input from the public and transparency.
In the face of what may be myopic opposition parties, informed, progressive and non-partisan individuals in leadership positions can be the best defence against the shortcomings of the grand bargain between contending parties.
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