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Vive la différence!

Vive la différence!

Ethiopia’s backward politics has no place for difference of opinion. Intimidating, jailing and killing anyone subscribing to a different belief has for centuries been and continues to be the norm. The country’s political elite abhor the long-cherished adage “vive la différence!” Though some of them claim to be proponents of this principle, they eschew it when push comes to shove. Given that the operating principle of most political parties in Ethiopia, which tend to lean left, is democratic centralism they become agitated if someone in their rank diverges from the party line. Countless parties have broken up acrimoniously and disappeared from the scene due to an ingrained culture of intolerance for diversity of views. Ethiopian politics may be delivered from the backwardness characterizing it insofar as it is possible to collaborate on issues over which there is a shared view and go separate ways peacefully when differences cannot be bridged. This is what civilizedness is all about.

Democracy is a market place where diverse views compete freely against each other. The political parties jostling in the market place of ideas do owe an obligation to demonstrate transparency, accountability and civility as they engage one another. Just as intraparty divisions are settled through a decision of members, political parties are judged by the people—the ultimate repository of sovereign power. No political party should try to sell its idea to the public before doing its homework. Neither should it set out to garner the publics’ vote if it lacks the discipline required to undertake a peaceful political struggle. The leaders of political parties need to possess high caliber, experience and integrity. They have to understand that failure to offer the public a clear set of policy choices and abide by the ground rules of the game is bound to cost them dear. The era of usurping power through demagoguery or insurrection is gone for good. The race to win over the hearts and minds of the people ought to be conducted in a manner that has the best interests of the country and its people at heart. First though it’s of the essence to develop the culture of coexisting peacefully with someone subscribing to a different belief.

Ethiopia desperately needs a democratic space ensuring the free flow of varied opinions. One of the key benchmarks against which respect for freedom of expression, a fundamental human right, is measured is the extent to which differences in viewpoints are respected. While opposing the policies and strategies of rivals is par for the course for any politician, what is more important is to present the public with better alternatives. It’s only then that democracy may flourish. People organized under political parties or other entities cannot see eye to eye on everything all the time. What they can do is to thrash out their differences through healthy debates and failing that to agree to disagree while working together towards shared goals. The other option is to divorce amicably if their differences prove to be irreconcilable. Apart from this peddling vitriolic rhetoric aimed at goading supporters into attacking one’s “foes” does not work in this day and age. The vast majority of political leaders are guilty of adopting this tactic to get their way regardless of the toll it exacts.

Ethiopian politics has never been anything but divisive owing to the propensity of its politicians to resort to trouble making whenever something rubs them the wrong way instead of seeking constructive solutions. Moreover, the fact that irrationality is a hallmark of the way they conduct the business of politics renders them incapable of coming up with sensible ideas grounded in reality. Rather than exploiting their human, financial and material resources to formulate sound policies that serve as the building blocks of a winning election platform, they are preoccupied with complaining about real or perceived slights as well as disparaging the decision of other political forces to coalesce around a shared vision. It’s entirely unclear why anyone claiming to be the vanguard of the democratization process in Ethiopia vilifies everyone else holding differing views as though they are sworn enemies. Democracy cannot take root if the politics of intolerance, to which the unencumbered exercise of freedom of thought and expression is anathema, is not rejected flat out. In particular, self-appointed political activists and analysts must understand that it’s unhealthy to expect everyone to accept everything they say unquestioningly and that Ethiopians deserve to be empowered to choose from a different set choices espoused by political rivals.

Ethiopia’s political arena is dominated by secretive and irresponsible forces which incite deadly internecine skirmishes and perpetrate other egregious acts. If the rivalry between political parties is to be peaceful it is imperative that they adhere to generally accepted norms of their tradecraft. From internal party democracy to relations with third parties they need to demonstrate that they cherish diversity of opinions. It’s also incumbent on them to be at the forefront in upholding the rule of law. No one should tell them that without the rule of law Ethiopia’s very existence as well as the unfettered exercise of basic liberties, including freedom of expression, will be at stake. It’s then that the public will be able to make an informed decision through elections free, credible and peaceful elections as to which party should have the chance to govern it. As the right to hold differing views and the parties espousing them are accorded respect the political space is sure to be unchained from its shackles. Vive la différence!