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Is Ethiopia heeding the alarm bells?

Is Ethiopia heeding the alarm bells?

We express our heartfelt condolences on the assassination of the leadership of the Amhara Regional State in the regional capital Bahir Dar and senior military commanders in Addis Ababa on June 22, 2019 and wish solace for their families and the people of Ethiopia. Such horrendous and downright vile act must never be repeated. The loathsomeness and grim implications of the assassination warrant an examination of certain critical issues. Though the change currently underway in Ethiopia has ushered in signs of promising democratic reforms, the continued flourishing of the politics of hatred, division and bickering as well as the failure to bring about real reconciliation and a civilized political discourse is giving rise to grave threats engendering apprehension across the board. The usual antagonism between forces on opposite sides of the political spectrum is still playing out between the proponents and detractors of the change. The fact that there abound within the change camp undemocratic behaviors and tendencies worse than those exhibited by opponents of the change demonstrate that the change is teetering on a knife’s edge, that Ethiopia is on the edge of an abyss. The events of June 22 sound an alarm bell which Ethiopians ignore at their peril.

In view of all this it’s imperative to dwell on some three issues of paramount importance—an unwillingness to set the peaceful and democratic pursuit of political objectives as the sole rule of the game, the inability to forge a shared understanding on the tenets of democracy, and the failure to stop armed groups from meddling in politics and to be clear-eyed about it. In the context of the objective realities of present-day Ethiopia the only practical way forward either individually or as an organized group is to engage in peaceful political struggle. In particular organized entities have no option but to enhance their capacity to earn the public’s trust by advocating nonviolently for the unfettered enjoyment of legally guaranteed basic liberties and the upholding of accountability by holding criminals to account. Given that a peaceful political struggle puts an end to Ethiopia’s long-running history of changing a government by force, it’s not in the interest of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) alone to internalize the value of constitutionalism and democratic elections. Although calls for the assumption power through the ballot box, not force may be perceived to be motivated by the desire to prolong the tenure of the government in power, it’s a foundational principle each and every citizen needs to accept and respect. The question is not about accepting the constitution or not; it’s about whether there exists or not a democratic space that enables both who accept and reject the constitution to compete on an equal footing. The solitary means by which the people are empowered to make an informed decision from a menu of choices is to solicit their opinions through constructive dialogues. Any other alternative is unviable.

Nowadays, Ethiopia’s political landscape is relatively enabling when it comes to peaceful political engagement; organizations designated as terror groups have returned from exile upon the lifting of the designation; political prisoners have been set free with some appointed to senior government positions; the playing field is teeming with established and rookie parties alike. Against this backdrop it’s incumbent on all sections of the public to foil any and all attempt to usurp power through destructive and unconstitutional means. Ethiopians have always yearned for democracy, to be free of injustice and tyranny. If democracy is to be practiced in its true sense it’s of the essence to go beyond opening the door a little and endeavor to lay it on a strong foundation. It’s also crucial to display the willingness to resolve misunderstandings peacefully and accept the outcome graciously. Why do Ethiopians keep losing sight of the importance of engaging in sensible and constructive conversations when a rare opportunity to make democracy take root comes along? Why do we resort to force to settle differences while it’s eminently preferable to do so amicably through frank discussions? Why are politicians loath to be judged by the public and resort to killing each other? How can centuries-old challenges be overcome if we keep on hurtling down this dangerous road? What are we teaching the youth? Where are we taking Ethiopia to? During this critical chapter of our history it’s obligatory to avert the threats facing us with wisdom and prudence. Otherwise, the consequences will be dire.

Armed groups are bound to be a threat to a nation when they take up mainstream politics without disarming. The legal framework governing the relationship between the federal and regional governments is seemingly not being properly managed. Nothing is constraining regional governments as they embark on a race with the federal government and with each other to amass military-grade weapons and swell the rank of their security forces. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recent remark that the federal government’s budgetary subsidy to regional states is not intended to feed their militias is indicative of the gravity of the problem. The concept of “militia” is not defined by law. Neither is the nature and mandate of “special forces” and “special police”. The indistinguishability between party and state that had characterized the one-party rule of the EPRDF persists to this date even after the sea change Ethiopia has undergone. It’s been shown time and again that the moment armed groups dabble in identity politics ethnicity will detrimentally impact the safety and security of the public. Though the details have not been disclosed yet, last week’s assassination lend credence to this conjecture. Moreover, contrary to one of the stated goals of the change—building independent institutions—the government has been found wanting in terms of ensuring that federal and regional law enforcement organs are free of bias and credible in the eyes of the public. The government itself has far to go before it develops the capacity and the mindset to fully respect the rights and dignity of the people as well as to rid itself of ethnic partisanship. The complex set of challenges confronting the country is sure to render the hard work required to achieve this goal even harder.   

Even if the task of dismantling the politics of hostility and building a nonpartisan government apparatus which serves everyone equally were to begin immediately, until such time that blatant political partisanship gives way to a culture of performing one’s duties responsibly government leaders owe the obligation to see to it that individuals serving in the defence and security forces, the police, prosecution office, and the judiciary are barred from all political activity and party membership and that they carry out their functions impartially. If these institutions become appendages of political parties though the Bahir Dar and Addis Ababa incidents should serve as a warning call. This specter can be avoided through a steady process of democratization. There is no doubt that it will take a while until government structures are able to become genuinely impartial and resist the assault of powerful interests intent on making them do their bidding. The question, however, is not how long the process takes but whether Ethiopia has begun the first step towards this arduous journey, whether it’s heeding the alarm bells sounded by the assassinations and their terrifying ramifications.