“We Ethiopians need democracy and freedom, we deserve them too…We believe that building democracy is now an existential matter for us” — Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed, April 2, 2018.Many Ethiopians are inspired that there is now the political will to build a democratic system for all citizens so that they can overcome past divisions between winners and losers.
Under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s leadership, the majority of those who felt excluded from socio-economic, cultural, and political power and participation are now beginning to feel included and respected.
But Ethiopians need more representation, regardless of membership of a political party or ethnicity, by establishing a democracy that ensures the participation of political and civil communities that can move from our divided past to a shared future.
Building democracy is a means to this end. It offers non-violent resolution of controversial political issues such as multinational federalism through dialogue and compromise. This is vitally important for Ethiopia, which must find durable solutions for the reconstruction of the state and society.
Cognizant of this, Abiy promised to deepen the democratic system during his inaugural address to parliament in April, stating that building democracy is an existential matter for Ethiopia. Since then, the country has experienced tectonic changes, making progress in reforms to strengthen democratic institutions, liberalize the economy, and fight corruption.
Ethiopia now dreams of competitive national elections in 15 months’ time. However, it remains to be seen whether the reforms, combined with likely fierce competition between federalist and pan-Ethiopian forces, will create security and the basis for sound public policy.
Ethiopia’s transitions have always been violent. The change of 1916 was carried out by a palace coup, the transition of 1974 by a people’s revolution, and 1991 by the victory of guerrilla forces. Although there were hopes that 1991 would bring peace to the second largest nation in Africa, these hopes have been shattered.
The trajectory of the last five elections from 1995 to 2015 also confirms a rugged political path. Although the 1995 elections represent a crossroads after two decades of military dictatorship and civil war, in practice it was a “one-party affair”, according to political scientist and opposition veteran Merera Gudina. In the 2000 elections, even though the opposition won 13 of 547 seats in parliament, the process was as vicious as before. The lack of a level playing field remained the major problem.
The stakes are sky high
In the run-up to national polls in May 2005, for the first time the democratic space was significantly opened to create fair electoral competition. When the momentum moved toward the opposition, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi overreacted, using special forces to raid campuses, imprisoning opposition leaders and their supporters, arresting activists, shutting down media outlets, and killing over 200 demonstrators. Infamously, 2005 ended in acrimony and resurgent authoritarianism.
For the 2010 elections, the democratic space narrowed even more after the introduction of several draconian laws impacting the media, political parties and civil society. The stifling statutes restricted citizens’ ability to participate in the political process. Meles’ passing in August 2012—after he had led the country for more than 20 years—brought Hailemariam Desalegn to power. Yet the EPRDF’s 100 percent victory in 2015 showed nothing but the flaws in the system. The rise in anti-government protests and violence since 2015 underscore the public’s frustration over the lack of a political process to pursue change.
Under the leadership of Abiy, Ethiopia is on the verge of a significant step forward by holding credible democratic elections in 2020. The stakes are sky high for all. Either Abiy will pass the test, earning himself a high place in history and making Ethiopia a member of the democratic family of nations, or the hopes of the Ethiopian people for a democratic transition will suffer a serious blow, bringing back authoritarianism, or leaving the scene for an unpredictable fall out.
The elections could lead to the first democratic transition in the modern history of the country, and this is the right time. Ethiopia needs peaceful and credible elections so that all parties, no matter who wins, accept the result. This will help restore national unity and allow Ethiopia to keep pace with its aspirations for development.
Failure to succeed could mean disaster. Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa after Nigeria, still suffers from famine and is so divided politically and ethnically that it may again fall into chaos. And unlike in the past, the country’s youth will not allow the holding of pseudo-elections.
For a divided country, free elections will be cathartic, and they will start the process of dissolving the quagmire of the EPRDF system. They will allow a popularly elected government to begin responding to the demands of the people, successively presenting various options.
However, the tragedy of this transition is that there are no dynamic opposition groups that look like they can bear the responsibility of the people’s aspirations and breathe life into the political system.
Recently, debates have flared up among Ethiopians about whether to postpone the elections. The debates show that the next polls in Ethiopia will either herald a new democratic nation, lead to a political crisis that disrupts the transition, or, worse, result in state collapse.
Critics are also warning about the transition process. Since his red-carpet return, activist Jawar Mohammed, the lead organizer of popular protests that brought Abiy Ahmed to power, warns: “the preparation for the elections is very small. I am very concerned that the dialogue between the government and the opposition has stalled, and both sides have yet to begin negotiations on the road map for the transition.”
These concerns are valid. If time runs out and no plan is agreed between the government and the opposition, Ethiopia will face all sorts of social, economic and political calamities. Unfortunately, now they are leaving themselves little time, as Abiy signaled at the House of People’s Representatives on Feb. 1.
Ethiopia is not ready for elections
“Ethiopia no longer needs to conduct ritual elections to meet the periodic requirements of the constitution, since such elections can lead to disastrous consequences,” warns Bahar Oumer, a former law lecturer at Ambo University. The concern is valid as a badly held election may be worse than no elections, since the possibility of creating a shared future will be lost and is unlikely to reoccur soon.
Concern over the tight schedule is also raised by Bizuneh Getachew, a doctoral student at the University of Kent in the U.K., who argues that “Ethiopia is not ready for elections. We need time to do the basic work of building democratic institutions and building consensus among the main political forces before we go to the polls.” He reasons that hasty elections could be a recipe for violence, so it is necessary to take sufficient time to prepare so that the parties involved do not dispute the results.
However, commentators are concerned that postponement means the government will continue to rule and develop policies beyond the mandated period. Bahar says postponement could lead to a “constitutional crisis and legitimacy crisis” for the reform group headed by the Prime Minister, as “anti-reform” elements will eventually exploit the borrowed time to shape the transition to their advantage. Such a scenario could return the country to violence, even before it goes to the polls.
Defeat or delay
Those who oppose postponement also claim that it will send a message that Ethiopia is closed for business. This concern seems legitimate, since uncertainty may prompt investors to hold back. Those who propose a delay also say circumstances do not allow for free and fair elections, referencing the mass displacement from drought and communal conflict.
However, despite the validity of some of these arguments, postponement is largely defended by political forces that oppose multinational federalism, which has held Ethiopia together for almost three decades. The idea therefore seems to come from political groups under pressure.
The prospect of the opposition winning the next elections is not as likely as during the 2005 elections. After the liberalization of the political sphere, it is no longer easy for the opposition to gather public support with mere criticism of government ills. Thus it must overcome its fragility by forming a viable coalition to provide alternative policy options, but this is not yet happening. In fact, before them there is a choice between possible defeat, if they remain fragile and continue to denigrate Ethiopia’s cultural communities, or an uncertain opportunity to break the deadlock that may arise if there’s a delay.
For now, it seems that some opposition are inclined towards swapping a possible defeat for unpredictable consequences of postponement. With a delay, these groups may buy themselves time, but it is risky. These forces must open their eyes to see what Samuel Huntington noticed in 1993 during his one-week visit to Ethiopia: the complement of the inevitable and undesirable in the current structure,. Just as the revered political scientist weighed up the inevitability yet divisiveness of ethnic parties, the opposition must decide between which is the lesser evil: risking defeat or the risks of delay.
The timing of the election is not the only fraught debating point. “The problem with federalism in Ethiopia is not in its ethnic character, but in its practice. As a result of the hegemonic interests of the TPLF, it was devoid of democracy,” said Merera Gudina early this month at a conference of political parties.
As part of the ongoing political reform, everything seems open to negotiation, but that should not go for the federal structure itself, at least for the next two decades. The democratic transition the country is striving for must also continue to protect the political representation of the cultural communities.
Those who choose to postpone elections in anticipation of saving their political ambitions risk pushing the country into the precipice. These future calamities cannot be avoided until these groups have the courage to allow a bitter pill to pass down their throats: accepting current federal arrangements.
Outlawing policies that consider ethnic representation in the government is undesirable and unlikely to succeed over the next decades until a solid foundation is established for an inclusive political community.
Democratization of the federation is needed
Obviously, that community does not mean erasing or ignoring differences between people. Instead, it means that all people, groups and communities, despite their differences, should participate in rebuilding the state and society. Creating such an inclusive community is the cornerstone of a peaceful future.
This, however, depends on societal relations, and attitudes to the authorities, as well as on whether people can reinvest their trust in the state. Holding credible elections are therefore the means by which individuals express their free will as to how national political agendas should be managed, and so regain trust in the system.
Similarly, the inability to build such an inclusive process could eventually spark renewed violence. One of the disputes over previous settlements was the creation of a political community based on conquests and dispossession that only corresponded to the imagination of the incumbents. It is time for Ethiopian society to move from a divided past to a shared future, which needs to be shaped by consent.
Abiy’s government is trying to introduce this new tradition, laying the foundation today so that yesterday’s conquerors can see the light and be reborn as political equals. What is needed now is the democratization of the federation, which is the only way forward to ensure that the building blocks that hold the country together do not collapse. This can only be achieved through civic discourse and compromise between all concerned parties.
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Main photo: Abiy Ahmed with, on his left, National Electoral Board of Ethiopia chairperson Birtukan Mideksa and Supreme Court President Meaza Ashenafi; Nov. 22, 2018; Office of Prime Minister
This is the author’s Viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
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