Ethiopia has embarked on a journey to extricate itself from centuries of poverty and backwardness and steer on the path to modernity and prosperity. Needless to say this aspiration may not be realized without a visionary generation and leadership as well as a broad consensus on matters having a fundamental bearing on the national interest. Though Ethiopia has a sizable youth population and a wealth of natural resources, they will count for nothing if it does not utilize them properly. It may play an influential role in East Africa and beyond insofar as its people come together as one in taking steps spurring growth on all fronts. Such unity can be forged primarily through a concerted effort aimed at reforming the country’s deeply flawed political culture that has long been characterized by historically unjust relationships. The signs being seen now help to ramp up this effort.
Modern Ethiopian politics has always been afflicted with animosity and intolerance, engendering conflicts that have destroyed the lives and livelihoods of millions. Most political parties lack any semblance of ethos governing their behavior and have made peddling false narratives their stock-in-trade, robbing them of credibility in the eyes of the public. All this is attributable to one and one factor only—putting party interests above the public interest. Invoking the public’s name in vain has become fashionable. The unending tug-of-war between parties for selfish political ends as opposed to doing everything possible to fulfill the needs of the people has made adversaries of forces that had set out together to bring about change. Although the problem has been festering for some time, it now threatens to put paid to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that has come Ethiopia’s way. The dominance of the political landscape by actors devoid of governing principles has meant that they cannot engage in the dialogue needed to bridge their differences and take the country forward. This has to stop immediately.
There is no denying that unless Ethiopia manages to decisively tackle the raft of intractable challenges that continue to beset it, the fate of its over 110 million people is bound to be grim. Chief among the challenges are chronic unemployment, a crippling level of both domestic and external debt, a spiraling inflationary pressure, the perennially high number of citizens seeking emergency assistance because of natural and manmade disasters, the inability to achieve food security despite the availability of vast arable land and considerable water resources, a weak manufacturing base incapable of substituting imported capital goods and food items, a widening trade imbalance, the debilitating socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the destructive desert locust infestation. Without the concerted effort on the part of the government and other stakeholders these challenges cannot be overcome. This effort may succeed as long the government itself and each and every segment of society uphold the rule of law, transparency and accountability. Then there can be a shared understanding on the need to create a stable and inclusive political space.
The single most important factor in securing Ethiopia’s future is the forging of a compact between its children. One of the clearest examples to date of the futility of the enmity and infighting blighting Ethiopian politics is the release of thousands of prisoners incarcerated in jails across the country and the return of exiled individuals, political parties and insurgents following the ascension of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) to power in April 2018. The opportunities Ethiopia wasted due to their exclusion from the political arena has exacted a heavy toll on its people. It’s paradoxical that these forces are the principal instigators of the unrest roiling the nation during the transition underway. It’s not too late to see through the transition so that the democratization process is laid down on a strong foundation. The political space necessary to achieving this goal requires a genuine trust between the government and citizens.
Intellectuals and the elite have an obligation to promote the free flow of constructive ideas and a culture of rational dialogue. It’s also incumbent on them to do their part to raise the political consciousness of the youth so that they develop into critical thinkers that are not easily incited by elements harboring sinister agendas into perpetrating violence against fellow countrymen. As they acquire knowledge and start to better understand the intricacies of the environment they live in they will not only become intellectually curious, but also generate solutions to society’s problems. Moreover, as their world outlook expands conditions for the prevalence of the rule of law, democracy, equality and good governance are apt to be favorable; there will be no place for tyranny and lawlessness. It’s then that the political space can be truly inclusive.
In the past couple of years there have been heated debates as to whether it’s ethnic politics or citizenry politics that is appropriate for Ethiopia. The propensity of the proponents of the two schools of thought to let their differences degenerate into a destabilizing discord is a sign of immaturity. Why can’t the advocates of both ideologies agree to compete peacefully in their bid to garner public support instead of treating each other as sworn enemies? Is it impossible to address citizenry or ethnocentric issues without resorting to violence and other manifestly undemocratic means? In an environment where basic liberties are fully respected these competing beliefs can be espoused freely. As long as politicians recognize the cardinal principle that they can assume the reins of power upon the consent of voters as expressed through free and fair elections they need to abide by their decision. It’s for this very reason that reforming Ethiopia’s political culture is a task of the utmost importance.