I won’t lie by claiming that I am not dead
Even if there was no rigging or ballot stuffing or any such shenanigan during the day of an election and vote counting, obviously an election held in an atmosphere of fear and the brutal suppression of dissenting voices is anything but democratic, argues Gedion Timothewos Hessebon.
“I won’t lie by claiming that I am not dead!” As some of you might recall, this is the refrain uttered by one of the characters in a short story authored by the late Mekonnen Endalkachew. In this short story, the principal character who makes this paradoxical statement is a patriot who has been part of the resistance against the Italian occupation. To his great dismay and surprise, when he returns home after the Italians were defeated, he finds out that his wife has married an Italian and his children are being raised by their Italian stepfather. That is when he says; “I won’t lie by claiming that I am not dead!”
I imagine that, if the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE) Constitution could speak today, that is what it would say. The Constitution, which has been more than two decades in existence finds itself in such a precarious situation that to speak of its very existence is an act of faith rather than an observation of a factual state of affairs. As its name indicates, it was a Constitution that was supposed to reorder the Ethiopian state, the Ethiopian empire if you will, into a Democratic, Federal Republic. Well, the Ethiopian state has yet to show these qualities in any meaningful and discernible manner. Let me elaborate on this claim.
A republic we are not
Let us start with the promise of a republic. Very often, we understand being a republic quite narrowly and take it to mean that a republic is a state without a monarch. Hence, the mere fact that the monarchy has been abolished might have meant for some of us that we have a republic. I, respectfully would beg to differ. I would argue that, being a true republic means much more than that. A republican polity is a polity in which citizens are free from domination and the arbitrarily or despotic exercise of power. It is a polity in which one enjoys the peace of mind that comes from knowing that those who govern are bound by substantive and procedural laws that protect one’s liberty.
Very often, the opponents of civil and political rights in countries like Ethiopia try to undermine the value and importance of such rights to ordinary people. They argue that these rights are merely the preoccupation off well of urban dwellers and the nascent middle class or that of the intelligentsia. I would beg to differ. Take a poor, illiterate single mother of who is struggling to make sure that her children will not starve to death and would get an education and a better future. Imagine she lives in Addis Ababa or Adama or Hawassa. Now think of how she encounters all sorts of despotism and arbitrary power in her daily life. The “denb askebari”, the local kebeleofficials, the local Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) organizers and cadres – these are all people who could willy-nilly order her around – chase her off the streets if she is a street vendor and then chase her to the streets when they want her to join a rally or demonstration called by the ruling party, give her credit and support if and when they want to and deny her this support if they feel like it or even worse demolish her dwelling and send her packing one fine morning. Think of her counterparts, her compatriots in rural Ethiopia who find themselves in a much worse situation.
The land that is the very basis for your survival could be taken away from you at any time. You would have local government officials, development workers and cadres giving you marching orders which you cannot question or resist. You have to farm like this, you have to retain water, you have to dig a well, you have to buy and use the fertilizers we have brought for you, on and on and on. The orders and demands are endless.
The problem in both cases is not the fact that there are government officials and administrators with whom you have to interact. The problem is that the interaction is so lopsided and that you are at the mercy of the government, the party or that particular official or cadre. There is no structure and mechanism that protects you from the arbitrary and despotic use of these powers. And as we all know, despotism and even arbitrary and sadistic use of power is quite prevalent all around us. Not just individual citizens, but society at large as well as our cultural, religious and academic institutions are dominated by the state and the party.
The party has enveloped the state and is trying to control all aspects of societal space and every kind of organized life. We have reached a stage where the party decides what our religious leaders, or intellectuals, our artists should think and say. The tune we sing and dance to as a society is dictated by the powers that be. A republic, this is not! I would even dare say that with the way that the party is swallowing society and the state with its “developmentalism” agenda, we have become a proto-totalitarian state. The inherent limits of the “developmental state” agenda and its lack of scope to make it a comprehensive ideology seems to be the only thing that is standing between us and the nightmare of a full-fledged totalitarian states. At least, we could take solace in this!
A “democracy”….? Let’s not kid ourselves
At this point, anyone who dares to tell you that Ethiopia is a democracy or is in the process of building a democracy is insulting your intelligence. Anyone who has any inkling as to what democracy is would know that Ethiopia is not a democracy and that with the passage of time we are not getting anywhere close to being a democracy. I have little patience for the glib argument of dull-witted cadres telling us that even in the West, democracy is imperfect or that even in country X or Y democracy is really a sham and that a few rich people control everything. As amusing as it is to hear such people parrot the propaganda they have been fed in the tedious indoctrination marathons of the ruling party, it is getting a tad annoying these days.
In this essay, I do not intend to engage with such self-serving nihilistic views about the very existence or possibility of democracy as a system of government. I would assume that by providing for periodic elections and the possibility of multiparty democracy as well as the right of citizens to express their views, to assemble and associate with one another in the Constitution, the ruling party has acknowledged what a democracy would and should look like.
As opposed to what is set out in the Constitution – as we all know very well – for five years, the ruling party keeps its subjects in a tight leash. Our ability to express our views, to associate with like-minded people and advocate for any cause is not limited by the law but by the invisible red lines drawn by the securocracy. You can never be sure what is allowed and what could get you in trouble. Therefore, most of us have surrendered to the fear that pervades our society and we choose to err on the side of caution. We ignore what is going on around us and find our escape in all sorts of diversions. We work assiduously to be and be seen as apolitical. We even make a virtue out of this “necessity” by ridiculing those foolish souls who risk the ire of the forces in the shadow. We take a vow to “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil” and of course dissent and political criticism is what we mean by evil. Under these circumstances, we hold “elections” and form a House of “Representatives”.
Even if there was no rigging or ballot stuffing or any such shenanigan during the day of an election and vote counting, obviously an election held in an atmosphere of fear and the brutal suppression of dissenting voices is anything but democratic. The food you eat would not be clean and healthy just because it is presented on a clean plate and put on a nice table on a fancy table cloth. If the sanitary conditions in the kitchen are questionable and if the ingredients that were used to prepare the meal were rotten and poisoned, your clean plate is not going to be of much help. So, even if we leave aside the dirty tricks on Election Day and vote counting, the daily reality of our country in the years between elections is such that our “democracy” is a farce.
And then there is the capital “F” on our FDRE. To begin with, can we really talk about federalism in a one party autocracy where “democratic centralism”, centralism being the key word here, is the name of the game? When was the last time that you heard a regional state launch a unique policy or legislative initiative with regard to an issue that is of major importance to the residents of that region?
The level of uniformity in policy positions and legislative programs in all the regional states, particularly in the four prominent regional states is very obvious. They all seem to echo the same lines and have the same policy priorities set by the Federal Government. Plus, they seem to have no scruples about handing over some of their core constitutional powers, such as administering land, to the federal government.
The capitals of the regional states might speak in different languages but they always seem to be saying the same thing. The relationship the regional states have with the federal government is not one of cooperation but that of virtual subordination. Their communications and encounters do not look like consultations but appear to be top-down interactions in which the “capital” tells the “provinces” what to do.
Given this reality in which our Federal Democratic Republic appears to be just a mirage. What else could the Constitution say but “I won’t lie by claiming that I am not dead!” Now, you might say, why should I care if the Constitution is dead or alive? “It is just a piece of paper with fanciful provisions meant to provide a façade to an ugly reality of continued domination, autocracy and centralization”, you might quip. But, I would argue that we should all care because so long as we resign to the slow death by atrophy of the Constitution, we are courting the near inevitable collapse of the Ethiopian state and any prospect of a peaceful and prosperous future for the people who inhabit it. We ignore the brutality and injustice that is going on all around us at our own peril. I pray that we do not!
Ed.'s Note: Gedion Timothewos Hessebon (SJD) is a legal scholar whose research focus is on constitutionalism, rule of law, democracy, freedom of expression and religion. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].