Why does the Ethiopian politics seem to have been stuck in the 1970s? The Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – despite repeated grace periods granted to it by Ethiopians – ended its reign in disgrace. When the new leadership officially commenced its tenure, the prime minister promised to adopt a reconciliatory approach that transforms the political environment and swore to practice transparency including televising the proceedings of his party’s meetings, introduce inclusive political dialogue, and initiate a free and fair election.
He gave the impression that his government was to adopt an approach that is in complete contrast to what we knew was EPRDF’s way. However, seasoned politicians knew the promises were unrealistic and deliberately meant to seduce the public. The rest of us placed our hopes on this new leadership because we thought these new group of leaders had learned from within and is one that understands the needs of the country’s youth and is capable of adopting and practicing a new political culture. However, it is public knowledge that very little has been done to realize those promises. Instead, the new leadership like its predecessor found itself entangled in unending controversy and politicking.
A group that received unprecedented popularity when it began went into a moral and ethical bankruptcy faster than its predecessors. Arguably, even the Derg was able to rally sympathizers for a longer time. But why? What is in the DNA of the Ethiopian political elite that no one learns from the past? I just can’t sight any country that wasted such a long and valuable time trying to do the same thing despite historical evidence against it.
After a few months of disquiet due to the global pandemic, the country’s next election has returned to the limelight of social and mainstream media. Both the ruling party and the opposition have resumed exchanging ‘hot air.’ But what is the real issue behind this election and why does the ruling group seem to be charier than its competitors? The answer must lie in how the newly branded Prosperity Party (PP) fares its popularity level and its chances of winning. The popularity of the prime minister and his party has plummeted over the last two years and as a result, the PP does not have the confidence it once had to win the elections. But why should losing be a nightmare for the PP – isn’t that part of a political game? After all, the new leadership calls itself a ‘Lewt Meriwoch’ meaning “reformist.” Unless the reform agenda the PP has in mind is some kind of a mystical concept, its two-year performance doesn’t tally with the title it gave itself.
Reform seems to be a smokescreen to cover the group’s worship of power and glamour. Besides, it is to be noted that our current leaders were not only part and parcel of what the EPRDF did and failed to do in the past three decades – and are equally accountable for all ills of that era – but also for more human rights and constitutional violations that occurred since they seized power. Most likely, our new leaders may fear what the future leaders might do to them. This may be the reason why the PP has been trying to ignore issues of elections. The problem is that the constitution has circumscribed the election period in which case the PP has to either disregard the constitution, which it can’t or find excuses to extend the time elections will be held.
After months of public outcries and requests from the country’s political groups, the country’s election commission published its election timetable. Not only was the date set to be at the peak of the agricultural season, but that was also made impossible due to COVID-19. The global pandemic could not have come at a better time for the PP, which created the exact excuse it must have been waiting for. Indeed, politicians and citizens reverted their attention to the health threat, at least for a while. But, with the end of the official mandate of the parliament fast approaching, the election agenda couldn’t be avoided. When the prime minister summoned some of the opposition party leaders for an urgent meeting, many expected this to be the beginning of the unavoidable political debate. Instead of an open discussion, however, representatives of the few handpicked political parties were presented with a script that proposes some forms of extending the government’s reign beyond its mandate.
The process itself is very strange because the issue at hand is that of a constitutional deadlock which calls for a wider discussion with all concerned political parties. If indeed the discussion was meant to serve this purpose, all stakeholders should have been invited and adequate time is given to digest the matter. However, the prime minister was not ready to entertain any other idea than what his party prescribed. Even worse, the prime minister – instead of having the decency to give appropriate answers – preferred to trash-talk some of the opposition leaders who suggested alternative ideas. The strategy is clear. Both the House of Representatives and the House of Federation are controlled by the ruling party and the PP is manipulating the system to its advantage. If all goes as planned, the PP will temper with some articles in the constitution to extend its tenure beyond its mandate, which is exactly what the constitution tries to avoid.
In a continent where incumbent governments frequently amend constitutions to extend their mandates, it is better if our constitution does not open such a door. Unfortunately, the PP may go into history books as the first party that opened a back door for subsequent governments to find excuses to extend their mandate, especially if they sense they can’t win elections.
In the past few days, various political parties have been expressing their views and almost no other political party supported the government’s proposal. Instead, they are in favour of inclusive dialogue. Nonetheless, it seems the decision on when and how the next election will be organized is in the hands of the PP. Practically speaking, the House of Representatives and the House of Federation will decide to prolong their mandates and that of the PP. What happens in the coming months is anybody’s guess. But citizens are concerned that their country may be heading to a dark season. What is at hand is a problem the constitution can’t resolve and one that requires dialogue and consensus. Before the election, it is necessary to agree on some core principles and protocols regarding the election processes, on peaceful engagement, on protocols that guide individual and group participation, disciplines related to the declaration of results, and subsequent public engagements. If the parties go to the elections without some kind of agreement on such matters, the country can return to further violence and insecurity.
Whatever the outcomes of the sixth general election may be, the PP will have serious issues to deal with. Without meaningful dialogue, even if by some stroke of magic the PP wines fairly and decisively, the opposition will definitely create the impression that the PP has rigged the results. But it will also be faced with unprecedented resistance to implementing the agenda it has been hiding from the public, for example changing the constitution or the federal arrangement. If on the other hand, the PP fails to win a majority, all indicators show that the prime minister has no plan to hand over power to the winner(s).
Hence, without a meaningful discussion in advance of the election days, all paths lead to chaos and more insecurity. Also, there are new realities that call for a meaningful dialogue. Unlike the old EPRDF’s times where one party and its allies dominated the political space in all regional states, it is evident that such dominance by one party has ended. This is a new reality where the Ethiopian political leaders don’t have the experience to deal with. For example, what happens if the winners of some regional states are different from the party that controls the majority of the Federal parliament? Can the Federal government dictate the regional states to implement a socio-economic plan that was not voted for by the people of those particular regional states?
The tension between the PP and the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) is a clear indication of what might be in stock should multiple parties win the elections. However, if history is anything to go by, the call for dialogue will most probably be ignored by the PP, or even if dialogues were to be held, ‘undesired’ proposals will likely be ignored. The prime minister’s government has already started to threaten those with opposing opinions and such attitudes will probably continue to escalate as we approach the election days. The question is what instruments can the government employ to silence serious opposition? If the government contemplates using its military assets to subdue popular uprisings, that may end up being the beginning of the end of the Prosperity Party.
By all measures, the PP is not any different from its predecessor whose ideology and practice it vehemently condemns. If anything, the PP has upped the game on trickery and secrecy. No one knows for sure what its true agenda is and where it plans to take the country economically, politically, and ideologically. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) likes the glamour of being at the top of the country’s political seat and there does not seem to be an incentive for him to make the elections free and fair. Unfortunately, EPRDF seems to have engendered its worst clone. What we hoped to transform the political environment ended up polluting it even further.
Above all, the new group seems to have forgotten what brought it to power in the first place. The popular demands for reducing corruption, creating employment opportunities, reform the civil service to function properly and ensure proper self-administration have been forgotten. These demands didn’t even get equal attention as the prime minister’s new projects designed to beautify Addis Ababa and renew the palace. I hope that the new leaders will realize they have a huge responsibility not only to lead the way in healing the country’s wounds but also in creating a new political culture. Ethiopia deserves to have leaders who are ready to embrace the ways of the 21st century – one that resolves issues through inclusive and purposeful dialogue.
Ed.’s Note: Maereg Tafere (PhD) is based in Toronto, Canada. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].
Contributed by Maereg Tafere