Ethiopia’s very survival is anchored in the prevalence of sustainable peace and democracy. These ideals cannot be realized just because its people say they want to; they require an unwavering commitment. The wellspring of such commitment is a deep love of country and sense of public service, particularly on the part of the political elite. No nation can mature into a stable and prosperous democracy if it is not blessed with the genuine love of its citizens. If Ethiopia is to transition from a dictatorship to democracy guaranteeing freedom of thought and expression is an essential prerequisite. Diversity of opinion ought to be cherished as much as diversity of identity. Although Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic country the collective rights of ethnic groups shouldnever be exercised in a manner that curbs individual freedoms and liberties. Needless to say all this can come true when the rule of law is firmly upheld.
Several political parties operating overseas due to the oppressive environment are returning home amidst the political sea change Ethiopia is undergoing. The first thing the parties have to do up on theirreturn mustbe to give due recognition to the very ideal they have passionately defended— freedom of thought. This involves, among others, a public condemnation of the vilification and intimidation of critics on social media and other forums. The statements they issue as they arrive in Ethiopia testify to the fact that most of the parties have no inkling about their support base and lack a proper grasp of the breadth and depth of the political struggle they are engaged in. The needs and expectations of the supporters they left behind when they fled years ago differ vary much from that of the current generation. They would do well to understand that the youth of today are enrolled in schools in great numbers and are by and large well-informed,perceptive and not prone to let their emotions get the better of them. As such it’s incumbent on them to abide by the rule of the law so as to empower the youth in terms of exercising their right to support or criticize the views espoused by actors on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
The masses may enjoy the benefits of freedom and peace when they are presented with a menu of choices. Aside from being the bedrock of the democratization process the ability to hold and articulate different views enables Ethiopians to feel they are free in their day-to-day lives. Democracy is said to be a marketplace of ideas which empowers everyone to freely express his thoughts without reprisal. In the Ethiopian context, however, democracy still remains a distant dream. The shockingly commonplace practice of pillorying, defaming and even inciting violence against anyone who does not subscribe to one’s beliefs, which has resulted in the killing, displacement and traumatization of thousands, continues apace today.Ethiopia’s history is proof of the dangers of starving constructive ideas of oxygen by the incessant promotion of a single narrative, mostly after the contentious 2005 general elections. More recently the political turmoil that rocked Ethiopia for the past three years is primarily attributable to pent up public disgruntlement due to the suppression of fundamental rights and the complete mockery that has been made of the rule of law.
Although freedom of expression is gaining a new lease on life following the closing of a sad chapter and the beginning of the transformative change afoot in Ethiopia, there abound incidents that go against the basic tenets of the change. Granted that the kind of epochal change the country is experiencing is bound to be fraught with problems, nevertheless the lawlessness transpiring in some regions is a causefor grave concern. Elements denigrating the sacrifices paid to secure freedom and bent on reopening old wounds are sowing the seeds of instability and attempting to derail the yearning of the people for a peaceful transition to a real democracy. The liberties enshrined in the constitution are under attack from ethnocentric bigotslabelling fellow Ethiopians “settlers” to neighborhood bullies to savages that have no qualms about butcher innocent citizens. Naturally, there are political merchants behind these outlaws. Anyone guilty of wreaking havoc behind the scene to thwart efforts to broaden the democratic space needs to face the full force of the law.
The worst aspect of Ethiopian politics persisting to this day is the palpable culture of intolerance for the views of others. Ethiopians’ tradition of listening to, supporting and understanding each other, which has been handed down for successive generations, is being systematically undermined. Consequently, the social fabric that has held them together for centuries in spite of their differences is becoming fragile. The diversity and freedom of thought that the people of Ethiopia have cherished during their harmonious coexistence for eons has been slowly eroded at the hand of the vitriolic rhetoric spewed by the political elite. Their lust for power is such that they would not hesitate for a moment to precipitate deadly internecine conflicts if they deem that doing so furthers their evil agenda. If a democratic and prosperous Ethiopia is to be bequeathed to future generations its citizens have no choice but to uphold the rule of law.
Sustainable peace and democracy are attainable insofar as all sorts of ideas are allowed to flow freely. The final arbiter of which ideas enjoy ascendance is the public. Adhering to the principle that ultimate sovereign power resides in the people is a necessary condition of democracy. The surest way to do so is to organize free and fair elections through which they express their hopes and aspirations. Building a democratic order that is founded on the will of the people calls for facilitation of conditions wherein each and every individual feels empowered. Though professing support for or opposition against any political program as a bloc is a constitutionally guaranteed right, the exercise of such a right in a manner that infringes individual rights is a clear violation of human and democratic rights. The rule of law may be upheld when each and every citizen is able to voice his opinion freely. Freedom of thought and expression must be respected no matter what. The government, political parties, civil society organizations, the media as well as the public at large have to do their utmost to ensure the unfettered exercise of this right. The rule of law cannot be upheld without freedom of expression. It’s only when the rule of law reigns supreme that anyone can breathe the air of freedom.