Ethiopia’s struggle to find its political tone
It was back in July 2018, while Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) was visiting the US that he made a pledgeto thousands of Ethiopians in the diaspora that the ultimate goal of his administration would be to ensure that a democratic election takes place in Ethiopia. In this regard, many political commentators and members of the opposition block zeroedin on one very important year: the year 2020.Meanwhile, many advised the administration to widen the political space in preparation to a truly competitive and inclusive national election. And that,the country should repeal certain oppressive laws that serve as the rules of the game in “the rather repressive political landscape of the country”.
Even though the PM vowed his commitment and aspiration in foreign land, his promise to widen the political space and create an all-inclusive environment for all political players was signaled much earlier on his inaugural speech at the House of Peoples’Representatives (HPR).
However,both to political commentators and members of the opposition block the first stage to creating an all-inclusive and enabling political environment requires a detailed negotiation and agreement on what they referred to as “the rules of the games”.Though the PM signaled his readiness to engage in negotiations and discussions, the negotiation between the opposition political parties and the ruling party, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), started before PM Abiy assumed the leadership of the front.
Prior to the PM`s invitation to all political players to be part of the democratization process, the former president MulatuTeshome (PhD) had reiterated a similar sentiment a couple of times in front of bothHouses while delivering his annual state of the union address detailing the plans of his government for fiscal year 2017 and 18.
Following the promise of the former president,opposition political parties started their tiresome negotiation with the incumbent EPRDF.Consequently, the negotiations between national opposition political parties, originally 22, a number that later dwindled to 15,and the ruling EPRDF took place between January 2017 and June 2018.
If anything, these negotiations were bumpy, and at times mired in controversies.But, the parties did manageto agree on critical issues, including: amending the Revised Political Parties’ Registration Proclamation (No. 573/2008) and the Electoral Law of Ethiopia(Proclamation No. 532/2007). Above all, the two sides agreed to amend the existing electoral law which in turn required constitutional amendment and an increment in the number of seats at the parliament.Furthermore,the two sides have reached an agreement to shift the electoral system of the country from the existing first past the post to a mixed electoral system.
Though the two sides managed to secure an agreement on these important issues, the negotiation rather remained inactive since June 2018 due to a political turmoil in country.
However,following the resignation of the former Prime Minister HailemariamDessalegn in February 2018 and fast-paced reforms at the ruling EPRDF,the political space opened up for all Ethiopian forces including previously exiled opposition parties such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Patriotic Ginbot 7 (PG7) and the OgadenNational Liberation Front (ONLF), all branded as terrorist organizationshitherto. This brought in new actors within the opposition party block.
Fast forward present, the opposition political parties and the government are once again engaged ina negotiation.However, this time around,the negotiation is not only limited to the parties which are legally registered by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) but parties which have returned home following the invitation by the PM.
Subsequently,a fresh meeting between the PM and representatives of the opposition politics, totaling 81 parties, was held last December.During the meeting, the PM suggested a three phase consultation, including upfront discussions with opposition party leaders before and after the 2020 general elections. He also suggested the talks to be facilitated by the NEBE.
Inthe discussion between the PM and the leaders of different political parties, which was held at the PM’s office, the two sides discussed various issues following the PM`s presentation of a three-stage plan to democratize the country in coming years. The discussions included ways to reform the electoral system, ways to make the upcoming general election free, fair, democratic and credible and issues to be considered in the post-election period.
In this regard, the prime minister stated that the meeting with opposition parties was intended to create conducive environment for all political actors to contribute their share in the democratization process of the country.
According to the PM’s presentation, the first stage would belaunching the negotiation or the discussion to deliberate on various issues related to the political landscape of the country and other related issues pertaining to political activities.
The consecutive meetings are aimed at garnering inputs through discussions, building a vibrant political and democratic space, creating a cohesive national and mutually understandable discourse and, most importantly, holding credible, free and fair elections.
Apart from this, the PMdirected the new NEBE under BirtukanMideksa to collect all the questions and concerns of the political parties regarding the political activities towardsthe preparation of a draft rule of engagement that will guide the subsequent discussions and negotiations.
Accordingly, two weeks ago, political parties had approved a draft procedure prepared by the Board that will guide and regulate the subsequent negotiations.As per their agreement, parties gathered earlier this week to deliberate on the draft covenant that is to rule the relation between the parties, which was also prepared by the Board.
Though there were numerous agenda topics on the table, leaders of political parties were seen quarreling and engaged in verbal volleys completely off agenda,making it is very difficult for the newly appointed chairwoman of the Board to stir the gathering towards a consensus.
According to the schedule, the meeting was called to comment on the draft covenant prepared by the Board.However, participants were forwarding highly random issues as they see fit,irrespective of the agendaofthe day.
The Chairwoman repeatedly tried to guide the discussion to the original direction but failed; leaders and representatives of parties adamantly raised issues which are not directly related to the draft document.
Issues such as peace and order, stability in the country, constitutional amendment, the past negotiation between the parties and so on were reluctantly raised by politicians.
The chairwoman’scall for emphasis to be given to the covenant casually landed on deaf ears.
One of the participants,Abreah Desta of Arena Tigray, for example, raised a question related to the legitimacy of the covenant itself. He questioned the implementation of the agreement or any other decision on in his constituency Tigray. “Whether we are ratifying the covenant or not is it possible to impose the agreement in Tigray,” he asked.In fact, FikaduTesema of EPRDF wasquick to reply that the ruling EPRDF is committed to impose the agreement on all of its member parties.
However,Fikadu`s response ushered in a sarcastic sigh and laughter across the hall.President of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP) ChaneKebede (PhD) on his part stated; “Let alone now, even previously, there wasn’t uniformity of implementation among member parties of the EPRDF.Andas such, the response by the representative of the EPRDF is a mere propaganda”.
He, further, stated that the discussion is not going according to the approved draft procedure.Therefore,Chane arguedfor strong and skilled negotiators to be assigned to lead the discussions. “If the subsequent negotiations and discussions are going to be like this, it is very unlikely that it will hit its target. I don’t think something tangible will come out of it,” he underscored.
Similarly, vice chairman of the All Ethiopian Union Party (AEUP),MulugetaAbebe also argued that it is very difficult to expect something meaningful from the ongoing discussion between political parties since the fate of the previous negotiations are not yet known. “The previous negotiation at least achieved the amendment of some restrictive laws and regulations.At this time, what I have witnessed is disorganized and ill managed discussion where everybody says whatever they wants; this makes the discussion both futile and endless,” he highlighted.
Participants approached by The Reporter during the discussion were so frustrated over the procedures and were saying, “It is very difficult to imagine the opposition to become a better competitor in the upcoming general election while everyone has its own axe to grind”.
Seasoned politicians such as LeencoLata and AregawiBerhelooked extremely bored and frustrated with procedure;Aregawi, at one point,wasseen taking a stroll around the meeting hall, shaking his head in disapproval as he listened to some of questions and suggestions forwarded by the participants.
Despite continuouscalls for parties to forge alliances and challenge the incumbent EPRDF, the recent discussion seemed to be a manifestation of the status of the opposition camp,which appeared to have miles to go before becoming a formidable alternative to the Ethiopian public, many would argue.