Viewpoint

Depolarizing the discourse

Ethiopia needs offline forums for democratic debate to combat the threat of increasing social media-fueled division

In a positive twist amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ethiopia experienced a rare constructive debate on how to manage the constitutional crisis. While great uncertainty still looms, it has brought people together to engage in an otherwise polarized political landscape.

The substantive discussions held over recent weeks on the constitutional question should not, however, distract from the ever-present fault lines. Today the country remains as likely as ever to rupture along these cracks. Given the importance of this conversation, and the many more to come, we must reflect on how to better overcome our differences on issues of common concern in the same spirit, in a way that endures beyond these unprecedented times.

The fight for freedom and prosperity in Ethiopia is as old as the country itself.

Many notable moments mark the journey to where we are now, the most recent being Abiy Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018 after years of protests. At a great cost to Ethiopians along the way, the struggle for change has often been rooted in the polarizing nature of our politics. Although the source of division has changed over time, an undemocratic political culture founded on a zero-sum mentality has persisted throughout, inexorably exacerbating Ethiopia’s fragmentation.

Competing visions

As noted by political scientist Semir Yusuf, a centrally managed federalism that essentialized ethnic identities coupled with state fragility has contributed to conflict in different parts of Ethiopia. The contention between ethnic and pan-Ethiopian nationalism is thus a key driver of polarization. The competing ideologies found common ground in opposing the EPRDF regime, but their fundamentally different visions for the country beyond this goal meant that their strategic alliance was short-lived. In the years since Abiy’s emergence, the relaxing of the overall security apparatus combined with ethnic mobilization has emboldened actors to fuel unrest.

This became evident in the run-up to national elections, then thought to take place in August this year, when political parties instrumentalized ethnic nationalism to mobilize populist support. Accordingly, the battle for who gets to represent the electorate rather than who proposes the best way forward has come to dominate political discourse—with unfavorable consequences.

Changing this deeply ingrained calculus will require politicians to recognize that in a country as diverse as Ethiopia, it is necessary to build coalitions across ethnic lines in order to consolidate legitimate political power. Such a shift will naturally take time and, more importantly, well-regulated and accessible forums that lend themselves to such a meeting of minds.

Social media conundrum

For Ethiopia’s nation-building project to work, critical conversations around border disputes, autonomy demands, and minority rights are needed to effectively address long-held grievances and disputes across the country.

In the absence of viable democratic forums to hold such debates, political figures and commentators alike have turned to social media. This trend has arguably served to further fragment rather than foster a framework of common understanding, even in established democracies. In Ethiopia, where democratic institutions have yet to take root, the effect is even more destabilizing.

Social media platforms are conducive to the spread of sensationalist ideas and content, regardless of accuracy. Shocking or oversimplified messages are more likely to garner attention; the ease with which such information is shared and the difficulty with which sources can be verified undermines fact-checking and other moderating factors.

As a result, networks foster increasingly extreme world views and political discussions online are markedly less civil than they would be in person, giving rise to impenetrable echo chambers and dangerous disinformation campaigns. Instead of facilitating more nuanced and balanced exchanges on issues of common concern, online spaces have served as an extension for those looking to weaponize fear and anger.

The state of online discourse on Ethiopian politics makes this very clear, in the way that polarizing interpretations of history and current events are rallied around and the level at which inflammatory claims and opinions are amplified.

It is apparent that the success of social media mobilization in the protests leading up to the coming to power of Abiy has encouraged continued mobilization of anti-government rhetoric online. The government appears to understand this conundrum, as social media presence among officials has significantly increased, perhaps in an effort to appear more in tune with popular sentiment and offer a counter-narrative to activists.

However, curbing polarization and elevating the discourse will require that venues beyond social media are explored. These could be organized by educational, research, or media institutions. Because of its complex nature, the solution to polarization will need to consist of social and political measures such as safeguards to freedom of expression, media reforms, and these new forums for meaningful intergroup dialogue.

Unfulfilled promises

The high hopes instilled by Abiy’s vision for a unified Ethiopia have been tempered by the government’s inability to manage the legacy of divisive politics still haunting the country.

Recognizing the need to build bridges, Abiy created the country’s first ever Reconciliation Commission in February 2019. Beyond announcing the commission’s members, little is known of any progress the body has made in achieving its mandate. In a recent interview, a commissioner indicated that it was facing logistical and financial constraints. Considering that members hold concurrent professional responsibilities, the government needs to take the lead in holding them accountable to their duty to meet regularly and deliver tangible results, as per its founding proclamation.

Another initiative explored by the Prime Minister’s Office is the Addis Weg platform, intended to host discussions on key public issues. While it initially touched on issues around the country’s political transition, the forum has effectively become a mouthpiece for government policies and ideological ramblings.

In March of this year, the government enacted the Hate Speech and Disinformation Prevention and Suppression Proclamation. While similarly signaling an effort to reduce online polarization, this initiative in practice not only fails to address its root causes but also generates more problematic questions around limiting freedom of speech in a fledgling democracy. Draining political discourse of unconstructive opinions can only be achieved by creating alternative platforms for the purpose of discussing contentious issues. To this end, it can be concluded that the government has yet to keep its promise of healing the deep fissures inflicted by decades of polarized politicking.

In sum, a lot has been said about the need to love, forgive, and reconcile since Abiy took office. But these sentiments must be reinforced by actionable goals in order to be realized. To this end, the government should take steps to revitalize the Reconciliation Commission and establish forums for political debate between divergent views. In this regard, the work of organizations such as  Inter-Africa Group, CARD, and Destiny Ethiopia should be consolidated in a way that streamlines their efforts for a more inclusive dialog on Ethiopia’s past, present, and future.

By the same token, all Ethiopian political figures should refrain from propagating populist messages that stoke resentment and incite violence. In fact, everyone concerned with the fate of Ethiopia’s democratic transition has a role to play in ensuring conversations on the subject are honest, informed, and constructive.

James Baldwin, novelist and civil rights activist, once made a bold case for equality on the premise that an unjust society ultimately makes victims on either side of the divide. Understanding this insight is key to collectively leaving behind the polarizing ways of Ethiopian politics for good.

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Editors: Rebecca Assefa Zerihun, William Davison

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About the author

Abdulnasir Bereket Adem

Abdulnasir is a Lecturer at Dire Dawa University, College of Law. He holds LL.M from Central European University. Follow him on Twitter @AnasirBAdem

14 Comments

  • Dear David,
    I am very sorry to see a mentally sick person, Yoni Magna, as a reference in the recent blog article titled as “Depolarize the Discourse” by Abdulnasir Bereket Adem, Dir Daw University.

  • The sentiment is good but the analysis is rather superficial.

    Your attribution of the polarizing behavior to the “ignorance” or “moral culpability” of the political class misses the point. They know what they are doing, including the recognition that the only thing they cannot control is the social media. So, they condemn it and engage in the same thing to counter it (some of what it does is a misuse of media freedom, for sure) precisely because they cannot control it. Mind you: They control the independent media at home, and they own the massive state and party-owned media outlets. There is insufficient space to express political opinion in the country–hence, the resort to the Web.

    The problem is better understood in terms of “incentives.” Any regime that embraces identity politics is, by definition, polarizing–we versus them exclusionary politics. In the absence of strong and independent civic and political organizations to restrain power, even the most promising regime would inevitably degenerate into a dictatorship. The synergy of ethnicity and lack of accountability to citizens produces a cycle of exclusionary, ethnocentric dictatorship–what the country has under Biltsigna. Until we manage to have a negotiated citizenship-based constitution and clean up of the control structures of EPRDFism, polarization and the wars of words will remain with us for a while.

    • BA,
      The Ethiopianist group isn’t any different, it is exclusionary group, they have deep hate to ethnic community, they have “we vs them” mentality. Don’t try to pretend as if your group is immune of exclusionary politics. People have different ways to accomplish their community need, thus you have start to be inclusive. “Ethiopiawinet” group is an identity group by itself, they just don’t want to use the word “Amhara”, otherwise everyone is identity politics player with different cover names.
      Derg was an Ethiopianist but he was the worst butcher, HaileSilasie was an Ethiopianist but he was a dictator. What is your claim? Meles Zenawi was way better than Derg and HaileSilasie in many ways you can compare, even Meles Zenawi a dictator but he was the least evil of both.
      My point is, Ethiopians need to start to be honest with ourselves, we have to stop being pretentious. We don’t have to repeat all the bad things done in the past. Dr. Abiy came to power with least bloodshed, thus we expect him to be better leader of all past leaders, but that’s not what’s happening in the country. Abiy grew in the system, he knows the system, thus he should have been a true reformer, but the indications are he will end up being Derg 2.0, I hope he assesses his two years journey and come to terms to discuss with all forces.

      Tnx,

    • Mr Ba
      Agree except for the solution. Ethnic politics in our case is a high wired C-4 explosive dug up and placed in the minds of the majority. It takes eternity and wisdom to defuse it. Some one has to start it slow and the need to be watchful of all the troublesome whitsle blowers. Who is better equiped than a graceful oromo, an ethnic victim (ambiguity at large) turned saviour. There comes our abiy then.

  • There are many political issues in Ethiopia. For two years now in matters related to TPLF, Abiy the “peacemaker” also became Abiy the purveyor of disparagements and defamation – 27 years of darkness, daytime hyenas, and recently reached a low-point using the word bandas. There was also the selective arrests and prosecution of TPLF people, which included a mass media “frenzy” of venom and vilification. In the meantime, medemer was being hyped in Addis Ababa while the feeling in Mekelle became that of betrayal. It got worse with the so-called “peace” between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Peace implies goodwill and reconciliation. However, the peace at the border has descended into a travesty because it seems to be a “personal alliance” between Issaias and Abiy intended to exclude TPLF, and thereby Tigray region, to prevent the consolidation of the peace and the normalization of things at the border / the region where the conflict took place. As things stand now to call it peace, and praise it as peace, is more than a travesty – it is grotesque !!! This situation, in addition to other political issues, needs to be rectified in order to repair the damaged relations between Abiy and TPLF / the region.

    • Tplf has gone heaven and earth to discredit abiy and all looks blick. Its only been two years, people have put up with whole 27 yrs of theirs. They should atleast have the decency of affording him a couple of years before winning like a baby. I bet the rest of us will take the bitching as an insult to our pride. A pride which took a blow for 3 decades. Lets not settle scores. Lets agree to disagree.

      • I would not have preferred to use such words, but one must have done quite a bit of whining and bitching ad nauseam for 27 years to know what it means. Agree to disagree implies civility – the absence of animosity and resentment, the absence of vilification and falsification. It remains to be seen if some people find that doable.

        • Mr Kidus
          “some people”?. Patience is a virtue afforded for some and not for all. 27 & 2 are the magic numbers. You are absolutely right, my apology for my indignity in choosing words.

    • If your complaint about Abiy is the words he used such as 27 years of darkness, daytime hyenas, and banda it shows you have very high expectation from him, which in my book is a plus for any Ethiopian leader. If you are assuming Abiy used those word referring to tplf members that is just not true. As far as the peace deal with Eritrea he did the best he could do in his power. restoring full peace deal between tplf and Esayas will take willingness of the two old allies which is not an easy thing. tplf can’t even get alone with Abiy let alone with Esayas. The political game that is being played in Ethiopia and the region is changed for good with Abiy and other new players. Yet, tplf still want to play the old game with its old players which is why it is loosing. I am afraid for now tplf is dragging the Tigray people with it. If it is not stopped soon it will take the rest of Ethiopia and the region with it.

      • It is generally understood that Issaias wanted TPLF / Tigray region excluded from the so-called “peace”, and Abiy has accepted this arrangement to excluded and abandon his own Ethiopian citizens in Tigray region. This is called peace in Addis Ababa and betrayal in Mekelle. That is what makes the whole thing bizarre and grotesque.

  • The author has brought forward a very important issues which are undermining the transition and draining hopes. It should have been the government who should take a genuine initiatives to bridge the polarization. But, in this regard the Abiy’s government has utterly failed the Ethiopian people. The above mentioned Commission is nothing more than a window dressing. It is an effort to twist the mounting pressure on the government to mitigate the inter-ethinic conflict. From what has been going on for about two years, it is pretty clear that the incumbent has a little interest to properly manage and stop the polarization and solve the deep rooted grievances. Rather, like its predecessor, PP is using the situation as an opportunity to consolidate its power.

    I love to disagree with any one who try to present the current federalism or the ethnic based parties as the causes for our current situation while covering up the problems in the oppressive unitary system which led to the foundation of dozens of ethnic based political parties. So lets stop this and push for a genuine and inclusive dialogue. Ethiopia needs to listen to its citizens’ without labeling and sidelining some of them. This will not take us to the future we want.But, genuine reconciliation and forgiveness will.

  • I would rather have a Paul Kagame alike authocrat in Abiy than a chaotic, emotionaly unstable nerd like Jawar. A good willed autocrat can eventually amend a crooked genocidal populace psychi. People’s as well as their elites inability to criticaly analyse situations for their own good, makes them utterly helpless and liable for weaponization by the wicked and strategic foes. Hence the need for a kagame styled autocrat, atleast for the time being, until the populace mature mentally.

  • PLEASE PLEASE Block the rubbish Face Book and You Tube user called YONA MAGNA. He is nonsense, unable to spek English (He pretend as if he is good in English), who is againt ETHIOPIA his ouw county he didn’t resperct people. He is happy to insult rubish irrisponsible prostitutes in Fcafe book lke him.

    Please tell him to shout his stinky bid mouse and to learn from genuine, intelectual and rational Ethiopians who providing valuble information in social media to contribute for the stronger, better, knowladgable sociaty for the Ethiopian future.

    Thanks,

    Habesha

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