Various insurgent groups have returned from exile from neighboring Eritrea over the past couple of months to embark on the peaceful pursuit of their political programs. These groups claim they were forced into taking up arms because the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) made it impossible for them to engage in peaceful political struggle. Ever since a raft of measures that foster an environment conducive to the attainment of peace, democracy and prosperity were taken following the advent of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) opened up the political sphere and rebels were invited to rejoin the political fold though there is a clear desire on the part of all political actors to withdraw guns from Ethiopian politics. Upon their return home to a rapturous welcome by their supporters the groups announced that they were committed to conducting themselves peacefully. However, the lack of transparency on what terms they agreed to abandon armed insurgency detracts from the entire process. All insurgent groups keen on advancing a political cause in a legitimate manner must first disarm and demobilize their forces. After all the state alone enjoys monopoly on violence, i.e., it has an exclusive right to use or authorize the use of force. No political party can take part in peaceful political struggle while it is unwilling to lay down its weapons.
The government must disclose the nature of the negotiations it held with rebels and the accord it reached with them. Needless to say the agreement has to abide by the constitution and other laws of the land. Last week the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), led by Daud Ibsa, declined to confirm that it was prepared to disarm. It even questioned the government’s right to disarm it and hence the state’s monopoly on violence. Why is it reluctant to turn over its guns? What is the crux of the arrangement it made in the talks it held with the government? On his return to Ethiopia the OLF leader had unequivocally affirmed that his party was committed to peaceful political struggle. What then induced the change of heart? It would not be unreasonable to surmise that this can be explained by the existence of unresolved issues. Such state of affairs does not bode well for the country. The government’s announcement that it will disarm OLF fighters unless the latter does so voluntarily is commendable. Nonetheless, it needs to act swiftly lest the OLF’s decision prompts one-time insurgents to consider re-arming. What is the reason for the OLF’s reticence? What concerns does it have? What assurances are that overseas elements have no influence on opposition groups and are not acting behind the scene to further their agenda? All these issues ought to be thrashed out in frank dialogues.
In addition to determining why some political parties have not disbanded their armed wings and informing the public of same the government must make it clear in no uncertain terms that with the exception of its police, security apparatus and army no political entity is entitled to be armed or used physical force. Though demonstrating magnanimity and patience may help democracy take root, it is of the essence to draw and firmly enforce a red line. Too much coddling will be taken as a sign of weakness. Preaching love and forgiveness alone cannot guarantee the peaceful governance of a nation. Even as the government goes about broadening the democratic space with a view to enable rival political parties compete fairly and equally its foremost duty is to uphold the rule of law. Given confusion, misgiving and mistrust are liable to arise at a time any country is undergoing a transition it is imperative on the part of PM Abiy’s administration to take credible steps which lay the foundation for a conflict-free politics.
As rebel groups may be leery of giving up their arms due to the increasing eruption of deadly conflicts here and there the government should allay their concern through legitimate measures aimed at ensuring law and order. Towards this end it’s incumbent on it to utilize the full capacity of administrative and security structures at all levels. This can succeed insofar as these structures are purged of incompetent manpower and staffed with capable leaders and professionals. If paramilitary groups have a free reign to operate with impunity, the security forces are loath to discharge their duties and the relative political stability is shaken by skirmishes the ongoing change and indeed the fate of the country will be imperiled. The government needs to do whatever is in its power to see to it that such a specter does not come to pass.
Ethiopia has for centuries rebuffed the advances of foreign adversaries on numerous occasions. Consequently, it continues to in their crosshairs even now. It’s naïve to think that these historical enemies of the country will not exploit the current security gap to sow instability. Over the past half century many organized forces were compelled to quit peaceful political struggle on account of the egregious repression perpetrated by rulers. Politics is an art that requires both wisdom and wit. Its ultimate goal is to manage competing interests in such a way that no side loses and all stand to benefit. Everyone can emerge victorious through participatory democracy, constructive dialogue and compromise. This ensures that power is legitimately derived from the true repositories—the people—not the barrel of a gun. Resorting to violence to assume state power only hastens the onset of despotism.
Ethiopia must soar to greater heights on the back of the change underway. If this beginning of a new chapter in its history helps strengthen institutions of democracy and civil society organizations, empowers citizens to freely exercise fundamental rights and liberties enshrined in the constitution and brings about a level playing field the 2020 will be free, fair and credible. Naturally the use force as a means to achieve one’s political objective should not be tolerated if the democratization process is to bear fruit. The state monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force is a right that no political party can neither claim nor exercise. A violation of this defining characteristic of the modern state is a recipe for anarchy and eventually disintegration. That is why it is vitally important to withdraw guns from Ethiopian politics.