Sunday, June 16, 2024

Assuring transparency, public participation

Relative peace has returned to the Amhara regional state after the rolling protests, some of which turned violent, that had rocked it for over a week apparently died down. In one of the massive expression of dissent directed at the federal government in the past five years since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power, huge demonstrations took place across several cities in the region against the implementation of the government’s decision to dissolve the controversial regional state special forces and integrate their members into the national army and police forces. Arguing that the move was aimed at disarming Amhara Special Forces in order to forestall any opposition to the hand-over of the contested “Western Tigray” and parts of southern Tigray, which were occupied by these forces immediately after civil war erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020, to the Tigray regional government, the protesters claimed that the disbandment would leave Amhara vulnerable to attacks from neighboring regional states. The unrest was yet another security challenge the government has been confronted with following the peace deal it signed in November 2022 with Tigrayan leaders.   

The federal and Amhara regional governments were seemingly unprepared for the reaction the restructuring of the special forces would elicit. They kept quiet for some time as criticisms against the disbandment mounted, choosing to break their silence after tensions came to the boil in the Amhara region. From the prime minister to the top brass at the national army to the Amhara regional state government and the ruling Prosperity Party, all attempted to justify the abolition on the ground that it was undertaken as part of the need to build a strong centralized army capable of ensuring the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. They were also at pains to point out that the decision to dissolve the special forces was arrived at by the leaders of each regional sate after a thorough study and deliberation on the matter, was not intended to disarm their members, and is being executed simultaneously all over Ethiopia contrary to some reports. 

Several calls have been for some time now demanding the disbanding of regional special forces on account of their questionable status under the federal and regional constitutions, the human rights abuses they have perpetrated, and the potential threat they pose to the nation’s stability. The 1995 constitution clearly lays out the respective responsibilities of the federal and regional state governments insofar as the task of ensuring peace and security in Ethiopia is concerned. Accordingly, regional governments are only allowed to establish and administer a state police force and to maintain public order and peace within their respective territories. Regional constitutions also say nothing about the regions having the power to form special forces. This therefore robs regional special forces of any constitutional basis. Moreover, the involvement of these forces in documented inter-regional conflicts and egregious human rights violations and the fact that some of the heavy weaponry they have stockpiled could very well endanger national security have further been cited as justifications for their dissolution. 

Given these compelling factors, convincing Ethiopians about the exigency to dismantle regional special forces should not have been a hard sell for the federal and Amhara region governments. This failure is symptomatic of a larger problem that has bedeviled Ethiopian politics for far too long. Although the federal government maintains that the decision was marked by careful planning, discussion, and the formulation of a comprehensive integration program, there can be no denying that the views of the general public was not sought either directly or through its representatives during the decision-making process. The lack of a genuinely participatory and transparent process has naturally given rise to distrust of citizens implacably opposed to the dissolution of these forces, which they deem to be the ultimate protectors of their security. Whether the credibility gap, particularly in the Amhara region, is attributable to what the government says is a misunderstanding about the disbandment’s rational on the one hand and on the other the deliberate peddling of a false narrative by the “promoters of a destructive agenda”, it’s a manifestation of the absence, on the part of the government, of the desire and willingness to engage the public on matters of grave importance.      

The role of the public in building a democratic order is irreplaceable. Democracy is a market place of ideas which serves as a vehicle for the exchange of opinions vital to building and guaranteeing the survival of a nation. If citizens play an enhanced role in the affairs of their country they will be able to make informed decisions on matters affecting their lives and contribute more to the growth of their country on all fronts. An environment where public participation and a sense of ownership are non-existent is bound to lead to events which exact a heavy price and harm the national interest. The scores of bloody conflicts that occurred in various parts of Ethiopia over the years bear testimony to the government’s minimal engagement with the public and display of transparency. That is why it’s incumbent on the government to discharge its constitutional obligation to conduct itself transparently and ensure public participation on matters affecting its fate if Ethiopians are to enjoy the dividends of democracy, development, justice and prosperity.

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