Putting the wishes of the people front and center
Ethiopia cannot be a land of peace, democracy and social justice as long as all political actors disrespect the public. A peaceful and democratic political engagement will remain elusive if the ruling party in particular and its rivals do not put the public interest above theirs. The country’s transition from a dictatorship to a democracy has been derailed time and again due to irresponsible politicians and political parties that do not respect the will of the people. In the constant struggle to protect the vested political and economic interests of certain groups, the public, whose name is invoked in vain, is marginalized; the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression is brazenly violated, enabling a vociferous few to have an outsized influence; and the effort to build a nation which all citizens call home is undermined. Such blatant disregard for the public only engenders mayhem and destruction.
The re-emergence of problems that used to elicit severe chiding is a reminder that no one is immune from coming down no matter how highs he goes. The administration of Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has been enjoying broad support owing to its lofty aspirations to transition Ethiopia to democracy. The inspiring speech the premier gave to Parliament upon his coronation on April 2, 2018 as well as his condemnation of the injustices committed during the rule of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) had earned it unprecedented levels of support. The series of political and economic reforms undertaken thereafter were also appreciated by the majority of the population. Consequently, many dared to hope that his government would bring the transition to a successful conclusion by holding credible elections that help end tyranny in Ethiopia once and for all. This hope, however, was dashed owing to the raft of deplorable atrocities which resulted in the death of innocent civilians and the destruction of both private and property. Aside from occasional strong-worded demands for the rule of law to be upheld the administration did not meet fierce opposition over its failure to adequately protect the safety and security of citizens. Gradually, though, the wide support for the Prime Minister has been steadily waning. Though the honeymoon period was bound to come to a halt, the unnecessary measures the government took to counter the criticism that it had been soft in discharging its law enforcement obligations have not helped it at all.
The meetings and press briefings called by the political party known as Balderas on various occasions regarding the governance of Addis Ababa have been repeatedly banned for allegedly being illegal. The party was even forced to hold its inaugural congress on the streets because it was denied permission by the city administration. In a seemingly personal vendetta the party’s leadership was subjected to frequent harassments and other provocative acts not befitting a reformist government. And in the past week a presser organized by another party—the Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA)—to present the findings of a study it commissioned by professionals into land grabbing and the unlawful transfer of government-built condominium houses in Addis Ababa was halted by the police. The government’s banning of the press briefing on the ground that it was not granted permission instead of addressing the findings of the study is indefensible by any standard. Instead it ought to have done its part to ensure that the study is complete and credible. The ban squarely flies in the face of the right to assembly, freedom of expression and the public’s right to receive information without limitation. It also comes off as an attempt to suppress a toxic secret whose disclosure entails a terrible political cost and creates the impression that the government is not committed to displaying transparency and accountability.
Democracy cannot take root insofar as a tyrannical mindset continues to flourish. The foundations of a multi-party democracy can be laid as long as all political parties are allowed to operate in a level playing field. The ruling Prosperity Party should not have anything to hide if it cleans house, rids itself of corrupt and myopic elements, and demonstrates in deeds, not just in words, that it is determined to serve the public diligently and honestly. If anything it needs to show by example that it offers a better choice than its rivals. Sadly, the reality on the ground is far from this. Disrupting the lawful and peaceful activities of a rival party and trampling on the public’s right to have access to have access to information not only defeats the very purpose of the reform underway, namely to pave the transition from a dictatorship to democracy, but also portends a bleak future. It’s not too late for the ruling party to formally apologize to the public and take the necessary corrective steps. That’s the only viable course of action open to it going forward.
Ethiopia has always squandered the opportunities that came its way due to the propensity to entrench the dominance of the ruling class as opposed to building a system founded on equality, freedom and justice. Resources that should have been devoted to nation building have been misused by powerful cliques to stoke internecine conflicts. This is precisely what is to blame for the non-existence of strong and independent institutions of democracy, government bureaucracy, law enforcement organs as well as civil society and media organizations. It’s also why power has habitually been assumed through the barrel of the gun, not the ballot box. Instituting multi-party democracy is inarguably the best mechanism to redress past injustices that had made life an ordeal for the masses. This requires the elimination of any and all attitudes and practices impeding the peaceful pursuit of political objectives. Failure to do so is bound to exact a heavy toll on the country and its people.
As we have said time and again it’s of the essence to learn from past mistakes. If the ruling party perpetrates injustices to consolidate its hold on power its opponents are likely to retaliate in a similar fashion, making it well-nigh impossible to realize the smooth and democratic transition citizens had hoped for. This specter is not farfetched given the unrivaled history of Ethiopian politicians when it comes to frittering historic opportunities. The era where power is assumed through the barrel of the gun must come to an end. The people, in whom sovereign power resides, should be empowered to choose their representatives freely. Moreover, it’s imperative to bring about national reconciliation and forge a broad consensus on issues of common interest. It’s exceedingly difficult to create a shared political place in the face of conflict and discord. If Ethiopians are to truly enjoy democracy the country’s political forces must practice a brand of politics which is anchored in the needs of the people and has no place for division, greed, hatred and vindictiveness. It’s for this very reason that the rivalry between these forces should put the wishes of the people front and center.