The free flow of alternative ideas is one of the fundamental prerequisites without which the people of Ethiopia cannot dream of living in peace and freedom. Allowing the free expression of diverse views is essential in creating a free and democratic society. Democracy can truly be a marketplace of ideas insofar as citizens are able to fully exercise such basic liberties as freedom of thought and expression. Unfortunately democracy has remained an elusive ideal for Ethiopians to the present day. It’s customary to belittle or quash someone who holds an opposing view. The country’s history is testimony to how much the suppression of invaluable ideas for the sake of ensuring the hegemony of a certain group has taken it backward. Many golden opportunities have been squandered because victory is deemed to be the source of legitimacy regardless of the illegitimacy of the manner in which it was attained. This has to stop.
A cursory examination of the developments that unfolded in the wake of the 2005 general elections suffices to illustrate the point we are trying to make. The enactment of the draconian press, civil society and anti-terrorism proclamations has resulted in the abridgement of fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution despite protestations to the contrary by the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The private press was dealt a fatal blow after the controversial mass media proclamation law came into effect. Its emasculation has rendered voiceless citizens with alternative views and curtailed freedom of expression. The number of independent newspapers and magazines offering information on a range of topics which the state-owned media shun has plummeted. Consequently views that do not toe the official line have a relatively lower chance of seeing the light of day. This is a misfortune for a great nation like Ethiopia.
Though civil society plays a vital role in the democratization process, the 2009 charities and societies proclamation has particularly stunted organizations working on human rights. Even if, as the government is fond of saying, no country has developed on the back of NGOs they could have contributed their share towards raising the consciousness of the community as well as the creation of a transparent and accountable society. Civil society organizations would also have acted as watchdogs in ensuring that the three branches of the government operate compliance with the principle of checks and balances. As a result corruption, bad governance, miscarriage of justice and inequality would have not assumed the alarming proportions they have now; a culture of civilized discourse and advocacy would have taken root. Unfortunately, the climate these organizations operate in is not enabling and as such does not permit them to effectively accomplish their missions.
The EPRDF’s hackneyed assertion that it alone has the panacea to Ethiopia’s political, economic and social ills no longer has traction. Despite controlling the entirety of parliamentary seats with its allies there is growing opposition to its 26-year rule. Its propensity to suppress ideas that do not conform to its ideology has earned it nothing but antagonism. Such intolerance for a view different from one’s has strained intra-party relations as well. Curbing freedom of expression has no use except to exacerbate grievances and sow conflicts. And instead of trying to ease the political tension gripping the country by holding negotiations is with opposition parties, the majority of which are pathetic at best, the EPRDF ought to have engaged representatives of the public from different walks of life. Although countless golden opportunities have been missed over the years, it’s not too late hold dialogues on issues of national importance.
Ethiopia is a diverse country which is home to some 76 nations, nationalities and people having distinct languages, cultures and beliefs. It’s naïve to expect such a multi-ethnic society to believe in a single ideology or political roadmap, to sing alike from the same songsheet. Hence, the EPRDF must abandon its obsession with controlling every aspect of citizens’ lives and start to broaden the political space. On their part the forces in the opposition camp owe it to the public to renounce their futile rhetoric and genuinely abide by the tenets of a multi-party democracy, to stop the politics of exclusion and advocate the importance of diversity of opinion. Democracy cannot be realized by waving a magic wand; it requires putting in place the conditions which enable the free and peaceful expression of competing ideas.
All in all the utmost effort should be made towards enabling the public to enjoy fundamental freedoms if society is to become liberated. Voters can make an informed choice when they can choose from among ideas proposed by political parties that compete on a level playing field. Naturally this calls for the facilitation of a forum where the public can take part in a free and frank dialogue. Such a dialogue paves the way for responsible citizens who feel they have something to contribute and critical thinkers to emerge from the shadows. That is why as we have said time and again it is vitally important to foster the free exchange of ideas.