The EPRDF must introduce sweeping political reforms to ensure a more democratic and egalitarian future for the country. Otherwise, it will keep facing resistance and serious challenges to its hold on power every now and then, writes Gedion Timothewos Hessebon.
The carnage has continued. Many are being gunned down in broad daylight. Hundreds have already been injured and thousands have been detained. Oromia, the biggest and the most populous regional state in Ethiopia is in a state of siege. There seems to be no indication that the crises we are facing will be resolved peacefully. The government has indicated its intention to use overwhelming force to suppress the protests. At the same time, the protests seem to be increasing in their intensity and continue unabated. The images that are that are coming out from the region are very tragic and disturbing. There is much to denounce and lament. But in this piece, my main intention is not to do that. Here, I want to offer the government and the ruling party some unsolicited advice with all the good faith I can muster and as candidly as possible. I offer this advice with the faintest of hopes that it will be heeded. But even if it is not heeded, it still helps me feel less wretched for not being able to do anything about the whole matter. So, heeded or not, here I go.
My first advice is for the government is not to be deluded by its own spin and propaganda. Refusing to hear voices outside of its echo chamber is the surest way for the government to keep repeating the mistakes it has been making so far. In the narrative the government has been pushing so far, the whole problem is the making of “external forces”, “forces of destruction” and “narrow-minded nationalist” that have misled the public. For arguments sake, if we take this narrative seriously, then we have to explain how these forces were able to have such a strong following and influence in a country where the ruling party claims that it has won 96 percent of the votes and 100 percent of the seats in parliament in a free and democratic election. In a region where you have won an election by such a huge margin, how come that “forces of destruction” are able to get so much support? Something does not add up. As they say, reality is a stubborn thing. You can spin all you want, but once in every while, reality has its way of coming back to haunt those who have chosen to treat it casually. The party line to explain the cause of the protests is the “lack of good governance”. This response still begs another question. If you have a “good governance” deficit that is so bad that ordinary people all over the region go out protesting against you in droves, how come that just a few months ago these very same people voted for you giving you a landslide victory against your opponents? It just does not make sense.
So, let’s not fool around and let’s admit that the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is not in power as a democratically elected political party. No party wins 96 percent of the votes nationally and 100 percent of the seats in all regional and federal parliaments in a democracy. That simply does not happen. Anyone who seriously believes that EPRDF’s “electoral victory” can happen in a democracy might as well believe that we can resolve food insecurity in Ethiopia with a diet of unicorn steak. So, let’s face the facts and call a spade a spade. Contemporary Ethiopia is an autocratic one-party state. Without acknowledging this reality one cannot go far in resolving the crises we are facing.
While we are calling a spade a spade, another fact that we have to face is that in contemporary Ethiopia, many people believe that the political economy of the state favors elites from a particular ethnic group. The reality is that a significant number of people feel that EPRDF is a coalition very much dominated by TPLF and is an instrument serving the political and economic hegemony of elites affiliated with TPLF. This is by no way meant to imply that the people of Tigray have been treated more favorably than other ethnic groups by the EPRDF. Far from it, it might be that ordinary people in Tigray have suffered even more than people in other regions. However, there is a widespread perception that the political hegemony of the TPLF, underwritten by its dominance in the national military and security apparatus has facilitated the rise of a class of nouveau riche hailing from Tigray. While one might contest the fairness of such perceptions, the truth remains that the perceptions are shared by a significant portion of the population and are to a degree well founded. Furthermore, on such matters, perception is a form of reality. So, what we have in Ethiopia is a one-party, autocratic state in which there is in perception and reality, ethnic favoritism. This is a deadly combination. An autocratic one party regime, especially one that delivers economic growth can be stable and last in power for decades. Especially in ethnically homogenous countries, this would not be very difficult. But in a country like ours, undemocratic governments that are perceived to show ethnic favoritism, especially to the detriment of the largest ethnic groups in the country are courting serious trouble.
For decades, particularly Oromo students and intellectuals have led a precarious existence in Ethiopia. Many have been arrested, disappeared and tortured. While the Ethiopian state has not been tolerant of dissent coming from any group over the past two decades, it is obvious that political activists from Oromia have been disproportionately affected by the brutal crackdown of the government over the years. The pain and sense of disenfranchisement in Oromia run deep. EPRDF might somehow manage to suppress the protests that are going on in Oromia right now. It might even weather a few more storms. But it would be foolish for it to think that this situation could continue like this indefinitely. Something has to give!
The EPRDF must introduce sweeping political reforms to ensure a more democratic and egalitarian future for the country. Otherwise, it will keep facing resistance and serious challenges to its hold on power every now and then. It might be able to suppress by force many of these challenges but one of these days and a lot sooner than we can all imagine, there will be a crises that will overwhelm the might of the government. By suppressing the ongoing protests, the EPRDF is merely postponing the inevitable and making its final reckoning much more violent and uglier than it has to be.
With some courage and a little bit of imagination, I hope and believe that it is still not too late to set things right. It is still possible to create a more democratic and fair society in which those who are in power today would not become losers or victims. If they play their cards right, those in power are not destined to face disenfranchisement and deprivation in a just and democratic Ethiopia. If they were to introduce the political reforms necessary to ensure a fairer and freer Ethiopia, they could ensure that even if they might not be in power, they would not have to fear.
Their current situation is not tenable in the long run. It is utter foolishness to keep a 100 percent sweep of all the seats in a “free and democratic election”. It is sheer madness to gun down peaceful protesters day in and day out and expect that things will get better. Even if you succeed in “pacifying” the protesters today, the “peace” you get will not last that long. You have to wake up to the reality that with a few more pyrrhic victories like these, you are sure to drive the whole country and yourselves into the abyss. It does not have to be like this. It is possible to build a different Ethiopia. Your enlightened self-interest would demand that you stop the carnage and set in motion the wheels of reform. For the love of all that is good and noble, I implore those in power to take a leaf from the book of the National Part of South Africa and salvage the country before it all goes up in flames. I hope against hope that somehow, someone, somewhere would listen to this advice before it is too late.
Ed.’s Note: Ed.’s Note: Gedion Timothewos Hessebon (SJD) is a legal scholar whose research focus is on constitutionalism, rule of law, democracy, freedom of expression and religion. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].