Ever since the widespread unrest that rocked Ethiopia soon after the erstwhile ruling party-the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) won all parliamentary and regional seats in the 2015 elections, this paper has time and again underscored the imperative to avert the specter of the country turning into a failed state. This is not just alarmist talk. The chances of Ethiopia joining the ranks of failed states in the immediate future may arguably be slim. Nevertheless, the prospect of this scenario coming to pass in the medium-to-long-term cannot be rejected outright. A slew of factors signaling that Ethiopia is already a fragile state and could be careening towards ending up a failed state abound. Let’s examine some of these factors.
Although it may not be possible to arrive at a universal definition of what a fragile state is, there are several generally agreed indicators which help define the countries that may be deemed to be fragile. Chief among these are political indicators which include, inter alia, the de-legitimization of the state; a rising disregard for the rule of law; the progressive deterioration of the public service; the widespread violation of human and democratic rights; the proliferation of factionalized elites whose political competition risks the fragmentation of a state institutions along ethnic, class, clan, racial or religious lines; and the intervention of other states or external factors. Aside from political indicators, social indicators like demographic pressures, massive movement of refugees and internally displaced peoples, sustained human flight, and the wellbeing and quality of life as well as such economic indicators as uneven economic development affecting fractions of the population can also be used to determine if a state is fragile. Sadly, Ethiopia ticks practically all these boxes.
A controversial decision which was a major topic of discussion in the past week engendered the perception that one of the indicators of a fragile state—disregard for the rule of law—was playing out in real time. In a letter it wrote to Balderas for True Democracy, one of the parties running in the June 21 general elections, the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), said it was difficult for it to comply with a decision passed by the Cassation Bench of the Federal Supreme Court requiring it to allow four jailed candidates of the party it had refused to register to participate in the elections. Citing the conclusion of candidate registration on March 9 as well as the completion of the lottery-based allotment of candidate’s spot on the ballot paper and printing of same, the Board argued replacing the candidates it had already approved with the four candidates went against the electoral law. Though it later reversed course and announced that it had commenced the process of registering the candidacy of the jailed members of Balderas, its initial refusal to honor a court decision constitutes a violation of a fundamental pillar of the rule of law.
It has been a long-held axiom that public confidence in the judiciary is essential to its functioning. Both municipal and international courts have limited powers to ensure compliance with their decisions. While courts may punish disobedience by using the contempt power, for example, this remedy does not by itself guarantee compliance. A strong belief in the rule of law and respect for the courts as fair and impartial arbiters, however, has historically resulted in substantial compliance with court orders by government officials and the general public. In nearly all cases, judicial decisions have been respected as the law of the land in Ethiopia. On rare occasions, disobedience to court orders has threatened to weaken the credibility of the judiciary, challenge its status as an independent branch of government, and undermine the rule of law.
The imperative to uphold the rule of law can never be overemphasized. As the ultimate guarantee for the very survival of Ethiopia and its people it is incumbent upon us to constantly urge respect for it. There can be no peace, stability, justice, development or prosperity without the rule of law. It’s when each and every one of us abides by the rule of law that citizens will come to truly believe in the principle of equality before the law. If the rule of law is non-existent or not duly observed, if criminals can do whatever they please and terrorize the innocent the trust that citizens should have in the law will be eroded and eventually completely lost. Such a loss of confidence in the law is bound to turn into a serious threat to national security. Short-lived as the NEBE’s reluctance to obey a duly passed court decision may be, it’s something the Board should not have considered even remotely and as such must not be repeated ever again.