Earlier this week,28th year anniversary of the down fall of the military regime, thederg, was celebrated, albeit in lower tempo than before.Signifying the rather divergent paths various regional states and the federal government are these days, the celebration of this holiday was as colorful as it was only in Tigray Regional State. Though PM Abiy Ahmed (PhD) still never relented from sending out holiday message regarding the commemoration and described it as one of the events that “shaped the history of the country” it suffices to say that the day did not get much attention as it is used to do.
Twenty-eight years ago, when the then rebel forces advanced on the capital Addis Ababa, different scenarios were forwarded as to what will happen next members by the international community and political analysts,alike. Though the majority of the populations were in fear of conflict and gathered in different religious institutions to implore the almighty, scholars from different disciplines and political analysts were also firm in stating that Ethiopia is facing similar chance of disintegration as that of Yugoslavia.
Notwithstanding all these expectations and predictions, May 28, 1991,heralded the departure of the derg after 17 years of iron and fist rule in the country as president of the nation MengistuHailemariam(Col.) fled to Zimbabwe, and his senior officials were imprisoned, leaving the country firmly in the hands of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). The change was followed by a national conference giving rise to the Transitional Government.And,a year later,the country’s first multi‐party elections were held. Dozens if not hundreds of publications sprang up overnight; a new Constitution was ratified in 1995, and as they say the rest is history.
With regard to democracy or citizen participation in politics and development, Ethiopia has had what the renowned scholar and author of the two authoritative books on Ethiopia entitled Greater Ethiopia and Gold and Wax;the late Donald Levine calls a “structural opening” or “missed opportunities” for transformative political change.
These missed opportunities according to him were: the abortive coup of December 1960; the ferment of 1974 revolution; the regime change of 1991; the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998; and the May 2005 national election. All of these moments were opportunities for democratic change. Instead they were turned into “missed opportunities” that led to an escalation of violence as a sole means of effecting social change.
For many commentators of the Ethiopian politics, the split of Tigray People’s Liberation Front (EPRDF), the nucleus of EPRDF, derailed the hopes and aspirations of democratic transformations of the country further.Many political writers agree that the Ethiopian political environment has started to take more authoritarian fashion following the split at the higher echelons of power of TPLF, which was concluded with the victory of the side headed by the late PM MelesZenawi.The space for democratic discourse within the party and the government began to narrow down, then after, as powerbecameincreasingly concentrated on and around the late PM.
The split within TPLF also ushered in another problem in the country in the form of a bloody border war with the newly independent state of Eritrea.After Eritrea’s independence in 1993, official relations between the two countries largely remained cordial; the two leaders (Issaias Afeworki and MelesZenawi) advocated fraternity between the two countries and promoted trade and cooperation.
Since formal boundaries had never been demarcated between the two nations by the time the border war started, the conflict finally led to the landmark mediation of the case by an international body. Instead, when Eritreans who entered the town of Badme in May 1998 were met with gunfire from Ethiopian militia, massive military operations between the two states followed quickly. According to different reports, the two-year active warfare produced an estimated 100,000 casualties and some 400,000 refugees. According to Levine’s theory, this is one of the “Missed Opportunities” in Ethiopian politics to redirect the nation into a better political future.
Another milestone in the past twenty eight years is the May 2005 election which kicked off with a fresh start but ended up with the killing of civilians and detention of politicians and journalists.Basically, the post-2005 period was marked by trading of blames and counter-blames between the incumbent i.e. EPRDF and the oppositions camp mainly leaders of the Coalition for Democracy and Unity (CUD) for derailing the democratization process in the country.
In 2004, the government decided to make the May 2005 general election a surge toward political pluralism. Opposition parties, for the first time, had access to the media, where political debate between representatives of the opposition and ruling parties, was televised.The election were monitored by international bodies, including representatives from the European Union and the Carter Center, which called the elections fair in many respects yet noted serious irregularities before and after the election day. The election outcome saw opposition groups leap from 15 to 180 seats in parliament and sweeping the seats in Addis Ababa City Council. This is where one could see another “Missed Opportunity”to change nation’s political future for the better.
The election that carried hope and euphoria altogether were turned in to fear and misery as protest and demonstration in June and November led to numerous deaths, bringing the total fatalities to 193,as a Commission’s report confirmed later, and the detention of tens of thousands. More than one hundred dissident political party officials, civil society leaders, and independent journalists were incarcerated. Their long detention during court procedures judged to be flawed and end up exacerbating animosities between the two sides. Resulting polarization weakened the new government’s claim to legitimacy and damaged its effectiveness.
Not only that, the incumbent also doubled down on the tense political environment by introducing different draconian laws mainly dealing with the civil society, media and other interest groups; and issued the Anti-terrorism Proclamation with its flawed provisions which were open to interpretation, largely regard as the law that nearly brought political activism to its squeaking halt. The provision on the media was particularly harsh ushering in a new era that journalists were detained for their stories and many fleeing the country in fear of such persecutions.The CSO law, on the other hand, halted most of the already limited civic-related activism work by NGOs and other associations;Many NGOs which were especially active in election and voter education campaign in the May 2005 election took the biggest hit.
By using those draconian laws the government mounted pressure on the media, political parties and CSOs,on top of a strong security apparatus policing political activities. This has been working for some time since the Oromo protest launched some four years ago.
The Oromo protests of 2014 and 2015/16 have weakened the administration considerably. In Oromia, the then Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and now the Oromo Democratic Party’s (ODP) structure looks to be broken at the district level with little prospect of reorganizing and reasserting control.
The protests have also exposed the economy,which appears to be in a more difficult state.The financial sector is in such a terrible shape and the lack of credit and liquidity for private banks is threatening to take the economy down.
Confronted by the grim reality, the regime has suddenly become responsive to the public demand, uncharacteristically for an Ethiopian government, it has taken responsibility for its incompetence in delivering services, and issued apologies.
Following the apologies and the resignation of PM Hailemariam Dessalegn, another twist occurred in Ethiopian politics, last April, which is the rise of PM AbiyAhmed (PhD) to power; the air was filed with optimism and euphoria, once again.
As usual,during transition,Ethiopians from different walks of life were overjoyed, and for the first time in many years people were hopeful. Everyone was looking forward to a bright future, and most Ethiopians thought that the 27 years of deprivation of basic political rights had finally come to an end. However, in just in few months, almost all of that euphoria and joy started to dissipate and fear, misery and pessimism to takeover.
The failure of recognizing what type of transition is occurring in Ethiopia is one of the factors leading to conflict. Transitions have always come to Ethiopia by an outside force, violently replacing the incumbent. The derg deposed Haile Selassie through a coup d’état and came to power. The Tigray (later led by EPRDF) and Eritrean uprising chased the derg from power through protracted armed struggle. However, the current change is different. Even though forced from the ground up, this is a change that materialized from top down. It is a struggle within the ruling party that finally led to the change.
Yet again, the current political development appears to be rather an orthodox. For one, an over bloated ethnic tension,even within the ruling party cadre looks to be threatening the very cohesion of the federal state. This is so what exacerbated by the lack of institutionalizing of the reforms already taking place in the nation.
But one thing that is for sure is that the current situation in Ethiopia presents once again a unique opportunity for the country: one that, if not missed, could lead to deeper and sustainable democratic system in Ethiopia.
Therefore, many cautions that this too shall not be another missed opportunity.Once again, deep and informed consultation and discussion should be conducted amongst all stakeholders on this issue, commentators agree. The road to build democratic system involves complex transformation within the economic, social and political system, they continue to ague, and should not be undertaken haphazardly. The consequence of failure to capitalize on the current chance and hope is going to be dire and peoples at the helm of the power should step boldly, but very carefully, they conclude.