One of if not the worst feature of Ethiopian politics is the sheer unwillingness to engage in a constructive conversation and dialogue on any topic. Though developments currently unfolding in the country seem to bode well in this regard, the absence of mutual trust amongst political actors means their relationship is still characterized by deep mistrust and in some cases outright hostility. The inability to hold civilized dialogue has made it possible for the powerful to dominate the political arena and do whatever they please even as it landed in jail or forced to flee overseas scores of elites capable of contributing a great deal to improving the lots of their compatriots. While this era of lose-lose is giving way to a new chapter of respect and tolerance, old habits like horse playing and needless provocation die hard. Since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) came to power in April 2018 his administration has taken a raft of reforms. These include facilitating the conditions for an even playing field and the return of exiled parties waging armed struggle, appointing a person commanding broad acceptance as the chairperson of the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), which does not have a shred of credibility in the eyes of the public, as well as holding talks with the leaders of rival parties on the next general elections. Further discussions on a raft of election-related issues are slated to be organized by NEBE in the run up to the 2020 elections. It ought to be clear to every Ethiopian political actor that going forward there are no viable options other than negotiations and dialogue.
A democratic order may be built by politicians possessing a proper grasp of the concept, not individuals or groups who have no inkling what it means. Given Ethiopia’s politics was beset with deep-seated intolerance and acrimonious bickering over the past half century it did not lend itself to the peaceful and democratic pursuit of political objectives. Many were intimidated into silence because the individuals controlling the levers of power were more inclined to engage in labeling and discrimination than respecting the right of thought and expression. Now is the time to make use of the rare opportunity before us to accommodate differences in a civilized manner and focus on working together to advance the national and public interest by broadening the democratic space. Sticking with the failed business-as-usual approach of the past is bound to derail the nascent reforms underway and entail dire consequences.
There is no denying that the playing field is too crowded with over 80 registered political parties vying for power. It would be infinitely preferable if their numbers were to be whittled down, where possible, to a manageable few through merger or they were to form coalitions. If the 18 months to go before the 2020 elections are deemed to be insufficient in terms of making the necessary arrangements towards ensuring that they are free, fair and credible, it may be possible to extend them elections depending on the fulfillment of certain conditions not least of which is a constitutional amendment. Failing that, it is imperative to exert the utmost effort to finalize preparations in accordance with the time table to be announced by NEBE. All political parties running for office need to realize that it is incumbent on them to transform themselves into organizations capable of addressing the root causes of the plethora of challenges facing the public and delivering the solutions thereof. If they think that past reputation is enough to stand them in good stead with the public they are sorely mistaken. The current generation is and critical and is well-informed about the track record of anybody seeking its votes. That is why parties dragging their feet when it comes to strengthening their capacity and earning the trust of the electorate will be eschewed and end up irrelevant.
One of the fears many observers express is that politicians who have doubts that they can win over voters are liable to poison the political atmosphere. This fear is not unfounded. The proliferation of parties that are one-man shows, a glaring feature of Ethiopian politics, constitutes an impediment to peaceful political struggle. Incapable of contributing something meaningful to broadening the democratic space, such parties only serve as instruments of forces bent on disrupting the democratization process. Law-abiding parties genuinely committed to serving the public owe a shared responsibility of exposing these pseudo parties for the frauds they are. The upcoming elections can truly be peaceful, democratic and fair insofar as the playing field is level for each and every contestant. That’s when the transition from an autocracy to real democracy may be anchored in a solid foundation. All parties are duty-bound to join hands in laying the groundwork for an inclusive political space.
As the saying “The wise man learns from the mistakes of others, fools do not learn even from their mistakes” goes repeating the mistakes that previous administrations are excoriated for untold misery will befall the country and its people. The democracy that Ethiopians aspire for and indeed deserve can only be attained with the unswerving commitment of all stakeholders to the fundamental principles it embodies. These principles have no place for intercommunal conflicts, conniving or the use of force to settle differences. The pervasive culture of intolerance, hatred and backstabbing afflicting Ethiopian politics has taken the nation backwards. Democracy is about abiding by the principle of give-and-take and the will of the people as expressed in periodically held elections. If the political space is to be opened up and usher in participatory democracy, it’s of the essence to submit to the rule of law and refrain from anti-democratic practices. It’s vitally important for political parties to be governed by a set of principles should they wish to craft people-centric agendas and make a good showing in the elections they take part in. We call on political parties to listen to each other, to negotiate in good faith, to engage in civilized politics. It’s only then that the democratic space may be broadened.