There is no guarantee that the recent protests sweeping the Amhara and Oromia regions of Ethiopia will not spread to other regions. Though the constitution recognizes the right of citizens to assemble and to demonstrate together with others peaceably and unarmed, the protests have led to the death and injury of scores as well as property damage. The heavy-handed response to the protests is liable to sow further conflict and instability.
It has become customary to hear of deadly conflicts now and then owing to the government’s checkered record in discharging its obligation to deliver solutions for the bevy of problems facing the public. This is in no small measure attributable to its predisposition to externalize the problems instead of engaging in introspection and a dialogue with the affected parties. Its behavior has also made it impossible for the current protests to be organized lawfully by aresponsible force. Even as the government accuses the protesters of being incited by foreign elements bent on undermining the constitutional order, it has been widely reported that members of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) are also involved in the Amhara and Oromia protests. The government’s pointing of its finger at others while failing to clean up its own house plays a role in rendering it difficult to find a durable solution to perceived problems.
As we have said time and again there are far too many unanswered questions in the political, economic and social spheres in Ethiopia. If the government does not do whatever is necessary to genuinely tackle as many of these questions as possible, turmoil may well ensue. Actually, senior government officials have repeatedly acknowledged that the ordeal the public is undergoing due to the prevalence of bad governance, miscarriage of justice and corruption pose an existential threat to the establishment and needed to be tackled firmly. So why is the government loath to listen to the questions raised by citizens at the recent protests despite its oft-repeated protestations that it is committed to tackling the cancerous problems festering at the hands of elements within its own rank? It is incumbent upon it to abandon the ingrained habit of blaming others for all mishaps and embark on a discourse with the public; it has to address the public’s demand in a lawful and democratic manner.
The government’s response to the demands of the public should be subjected to a credibility test. Should it find acceptance it stands to be to the benefit of everyone concerned. If, however, it is high-handed it is bound to be counterproductive. Ensuring that the response is credible is instrumental in promoting democracy and the rule of law. It is a grave task which requires absolute dedication. Interpreting the exercise of the right to demonstrate as an act of collaboration with foreign enemies or terrorists that results in intimidation and incarceration does not augur well for the flourishing of democracy. One of the issues on which the public and the government do not see eye to eye is the complete disconnect between the government’s take on what motivates expressions of dissent and the real factors driving public discontent.
Resorting to the use of force to quell protests inhibits the enjoyment of such fundamental rights as freedom of expression as well as the right to assemble and demonstrate. This is particularly true for a country like Ethiopia where questions pertaining to identity and other democratic rights abound. It is simply unthinkable that a certain region of the country can taste the fruits of democracy while other parts are subjected to authoritarian rule. It is of utmost importance to seek a shared solution to grievances in a manner which does not beget further gripe. The EPRDF and the government it heads must desist from characterizing itself as the sole guardian of the country and others as forces of destruction. Regardless of whether the demands being articulated are widely shared by the public or otherwise, it is imperative to listen to them and offer a reasonable and credible response. It must not be perplexed when elements having an ulterior motive hijack citizens’ dissatisfaction with the response they get from it.
The ruling party needs to engage directly in a constructive dialogue with opposition groups and the public on how to deal with the underlying causes of the recent spate of deadly violence that potentially jeopardizes national security. If the dialogue forums are conducted in a spirit of mutual understanding the participants can raise any question without fear of retaliation. Failure to set in motion a participatory process whereby a definitive solution is sought can have dire consequences.
Speaking of the violent protests of the past fortnight the public deserves to know the identity and the number of the dead, injured and jailed as well as the value of the property damaged. The protestors who were arrested should not be transferred to far-off detention centers so that their families can visit them and provide them with whatever they may need. Their right to a speedy trial must also be respected. The most important lesson that can be drawn from the disturbing outcome of the protests though is that the government owes the duty to consult with all stakeholders—including opposition parties, elders, religious leaders, civil society representatives—with a view to identify the root causes of the disgruntlements that spawned the protests and eliminate the real threats they pose. The surest way to ensure that the response to conflicts gains credibility in the eyes of the public is to scrupulously uphold the principle of due process.