Sunday, April 14, 2024

Curbing public participation recipe for unheeding the government!

The government frequent protestations that Ethiopia is a country which registering a double-digit growth, undergoing a democratization process anchored in a federal system that guarantees respect for the rights of nations and nationalities as well as fair benefiting from the national wealth, making the transition from an agriculture- to an industry-led economy, etc usually fall on deaf ears because they do not correspond to the facts on the ground. The absence of adequate public participation either directly or through representatives has eroded trust in it. But when the public is empowered to exercise the decisive say vested in it by the constitution its sense of belongingness as well as the government’s credibility will deepen.

The other downside of curbing public participation is the ensuing of damaging political implications due to the passage of decisions reflecting solely the interests of certain public officials, networks of individuals or companies which have an axe to grind. Consequently the public will be disinclined to have faith in the government as the decisions are apt to exclude the majority of the populace from a process that affects their daily lives and the fate of the nation. This will induce unnecessary discontent and conflict. If, however, the public is involved at every stage of the decision making processes of the government the relationship between the two will be based on the principle that the public is the master and the government its servant.

The manner that the government analyses and presents the country’s economic growth, which requires to be simplified owing to the fact that it is usually couched in language elites in the field of politics and economics converse,  is completely different from the way the general public perceives it. Citizens perennially leading a miserable existence find it hard to accept the assertion that Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies. They are liable to view the growth as benefitting a select few who are flaunting their new-found wealth. In particular, compatriots summarily dispossessed of their land-holding and property thereon by corrupt bureaucrats in the name of development without being given a comparable plot of substitute land or adequate compensation see the much-touted growth in a negative light. If development efforts focus on material only and neglect the human aspect the government and the people it rules are bound to be at odds. The terrible effects of disempowering the public have been all clear to see over the past couple of years. How can the government and the people listen to each other or for that matter forge an understanding on fundamental issues when officials are not held accountable for violating or failing to protect basic liberties?

It has been claimed time and again over the past twenty-five years that Ethiopia’s federal system is anchored in the will of the people. It’s true that the regional states of the country have for some time now been able to self-administer, use their own language and develop their culture as they see fit. The constitution affirms that the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia are strongly committed, in full and free exercise of their right to self-determination, to building a political community founded on the rule of law and capable of ensuring a lasting peace, guaranteeing a democratic order, and advancing their economic and social development. However, the public always wonders why these ideals have never been faithfully implemented since the constitution’s enactment. A considerable number of Ethiopians have been rendered second-class citizens at the hand of narrow-minded elements who infringe the right to live, work and own private property anywhere within the national territory as well as to be protected from forcible displacement. How is it possible for the government to engage in a constructive dialogue with the public when the perpetrators of these egregious violations act with impunity? How can the ensuing credibility gap be addressed?

As the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) continues with the deep renewal exercise in which it is supposed to evaluate critically its performance over the past fifteen years it needs to be brutally honest about its shortcomings. The fundamental human and democratic rights enshrined in the constitution have been routinely flouted. These appalling infringements have led to, among others, deaths, incarceration, large-scale overseas migration, crippling of opposition parties, marginalization of the masses at the expense of a handful of individuals and groups enjoying political patronage, utter dislike of the state-owned media on account of their inability to shed light on widespread public discontent, rampant corruption, and pervasive misuse of government power motivated by the desire to amass wealth. What does the EPRDF hope to gain from displaying the commitment to take firm measures against the culprit? Isn’t it wiser to own up to the bitter reality so as to regain public trust than attempt to appease the people with insincere promises? The public knows well what is going on despite the curtailment of its participation. And it cannot countenance those who lie to it in the face.   

Public participation does not mean organizing sham forums where cadres claiming to represent the people spew empty propaganda. The people can be deemed to be duly exercising the sovereign power residing in them either through direct democratic participation or indirectly through elected representatives as well as various forms of civil society organizations. Enabling the public to have a stake in the affairs of the nation is not only the foundation of a democratic order, but also instrumental in assuring peace and security. Respecting the rule of law and the right to the equal protection of the law without any discrimination are essential to creating a system ensuring public participation. On the contrary, sidelining the public from decision making processes will rob the government of the political capital it desperately needs. Trying to project the image that the government’s actions are inclusive when the reality paints an opposite picture only serves to compound the loss of public trust in it. Curbing public participation is thus a surefire way for the government to be unheeded by the body politic.

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