(ethiopia-insight)—Three months after COVID-19 was announced in China, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on 11 March. It has now caused 317 infections and five deaths.
In Ethiopia, the coronavirus led not only to health problems—it also shook the natural order. Cities are in partial lockdown, with social relations and economic activities seriously affected. Yet, it has also had a positive impact, by moving political discourse away from a potentially explosive election to another issue of common concern: public health.
Focusing minds and dominating discussion, the pandemic shifted the debate from pure politics to a more socio-political conversation and, for once, opposed actors discovered common ground. It is rare that Ethiopian politicians debate on a matter of common concern. The only notable recent exception was the confluence of opinion on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), as everyone fulminated against U.S. meddling.
The electoral board’s suspension of a 29 August vote, citing logistical difficulties, came amid mounting observations that this was an inauspicious time to conduct an election anyway, due to the lack of political trust, weak democratic culture, and absence of an elite bargain. Going by these observations, the election was unlikely to be beneficial. By forcing postponement, the pandemic was therefore a blessing in disguise for our political fortunes.
With the arrival of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018, Ethiopia brimmed with optimism and self-indulgent euphoria. Prior to his rise, the country was almost at the brink of civil war. However, Abiy’s bold moves to dismantle the rotten EPRDF system instilled hope in the hearts and minds of many Ethiopians who considered him a messianic leader, Ethiopia’s Moses, in both spirit and deed. Commentators thought that he would navigate our tumultuous political landscape, unify a divided nation, revamp institutions, and set right an imbalanced economy.
The Prime Minister initially tried to create unity through appeals to shared history, benevolent social values, and Ethiopians’ interwoven destiny. He invited exiled groups home, released more political prisoners, and helped heal schisms among religious sects. He fired high-profile security officials accused of graft and human rights violations, and created advisory groups to remake the security and justice sectors. These aggressive reforms did not please everyone, and opposition soon emerged, including from disgruntled EPRDF officials deprived of power and privilege. Abiy’s measures also met stiff resistance from his own Oromo Democratic Party colleagues, who worried they could no longer steer the change.
But what was most striking was the inability the political classes displayed to adapt themselves to the tectonic changes.
Indeed, Abiy himself sometimes appeared to have no plan. His administration was unstable and the opposition ill-prepared to find their way through the thicket of daily developments. There was also palpable role confusion: officials acted like opposition and opposition parties struggled to flesh out their ideological differences with the incumbent.
Worse, in the months after Abiy emerged, grievances over ideology, land, and power surfaced through tribal and religious clashes. A broken security apparatus and the rupture of a centralized party structure created a vacuum. Accompanying this was an arms race among regional governments that are largely organized along ethnic lines. As a result, more than three million Ethiopians were displaced by conflict and hundreds were killed. The frequency and magnitude of clashes has diminished recently, despite the fact that an ethnicized environment remains virulent, and the security situation volatile.
The cumulative effect led to the euphoria giving way to ambivalence, and cast a shadow over the prospects for democracy. Today, if they are assessed against criteria such as the prevalence of the rule of law, officials’ popular legitimacy, protection of human rights, citizens’ confidence in public institutions, and sense of ownership of the changes, the reforms fall short of being structural or substantive.
Of course, systemic changes require time, patience, and a conducive political environment. But we need to display the urgency our crisis demands to stay on track for democracy, peace, and inclusive development.
So far, one major path to progress remains untrodden.
Ethiopia’s constitution lacks sufficient popular support due to, among other factors, disputes over the state structure, language, minority rights, and unlimited self-determination. But more than two years after the Prime Minister came to power, these thorny issues await candid discussion. The constitution thus symbolises the elephant in the room and reveals the cosmetic nature of the reforms so far.
The government has tried to justify inaction by referring to its lack of electoral legitimacy and the volatility, saying now is not the time to tackle such sensitive issues. However, these justifications are arguably little more than recycled time-buying excuses, which, some say, the government strives to regain internal coherence and return to authoritarian ways. Obviously, meaningful reform should have begun by tackling the sources of political, social, and economic woes. In this regard, the prioritization of amending electoral and other laws while keeping intact the source of them—the constitution—put the cart before the horse.
Moreover, similar transitions in other countries show that elite bargaining—negotiations and agreements by political players on the distribution of power and resources—often come before, not after, elections, and those who participate do not necessarily have to be elected. Popular legitimacy was sufficient to merit involvement and there is no reason why this could not apply in Ethiopia also. The justification for avoiding hot-button topics such as the constitution thus does not seem rooted in thick soil. This is why people doubt the government’s sincerity to cure the disease, rather than battle the symptoms, and its commitment to usher in fundamental change—a total break from the past; a past dominated by a heavy-handed paternalistic state.
Given these failings, the pandemic presents a golden opportunity to restore fading hope of inclusive nation-building and a democratic transition. It has given our elites bonus time to strike a consensus; a missing element in the ongoing reform and an indispensable ingredient for enduring peace. It is a grace period for them to stop self-deception and address national issues. It is a chance not to be missed; a chance to dig the wells of liberty and opportunity from which future generations will drink deeply, with an everlasting thankfulness to the ‘founding fathers’ of a new Ethiopia.
This will only be realized, however, if we all cooperate, conduct an honest self-assessment, acknowledge both our glorious and dark pasts, and use our engrained collective values to build a nation on the pillars of equality, patriotism, hard work, and the rule of law.
An ethical approach
President Obama once wrote that “the practice of modern politics itself seems to be value-free” and I find this nowhere truer than in Ethiopia. Our politics encourages fabulists, charlatans, and radicals. It incentivizes playing the victim, character assassinations, and conspiracies. It rarely rewards wisdom, moderation, or accuracy. This is aided by a growing moral decadence across society that manifests itself in mob justice in religious institutions, universities and other places.
Yet, designing and implementing an inclusive democratic system based on the rule of law requires politics with an ethics capable of transcending ideological differences. For example, Ethiopians place a high value on respect and dignity. This is part of our individual and collective cultural DNA that we have sacrificed a lot for in our long history. The sense of being respected and dignified is an emotional need of most Ethiopians, and is the bedrock of our national pride. Unfortunately, though, this emotional demand is over-emphasised in our daily lives, and petty disagreements and political disputes are often attended by someone feeling disrespected or despised.
This means our engagement is bereft of mutual respect. Even now during this unprecedented health crisis, civility on how to tackle the pandemic is missing, at least on social media. Sadly, value-free politics has left us in a situation where politicians make their own personal problems communal and sometimes even national. If we are to move forward, we need to discard value-free politics and embed moral principles derived from ordinary Ethiopians’ dearly held, long-established social virtues of tolerance, respect and mutual understanding. For this, we need cultural transformation, a change of attitude, and concrete action. The combination would eventually deliver the society we want, and a nation that we are all proud of.
Negotiating the non-negotiable
In most countries, there are some matters that are amenable for negotiations and some which are not. In Ethiopia, however, there is almost nothing, even the country’s existence, which cannot be disputed. This absence of ‘no-go zones’ makes politics unruly, elitist, and a cause of despair for ordinary people battling everyday challenges. A fresh approach is long overdue. We need national renewal and awakening that distinguishes the bad from the good, and singles out what can and cannot be tabled for compromise.
For a start, we can label at least three things as non-negotiable: state integrity; the protection of ethnic, linguistic or religious identities; and respect for the rule of law. We can negotiate on the ways and means of attaining these goals, but we should not compromise on the fundamentals. For example, democracy cannot be built on anarchy; it is a system to be constructed within, not outside, the province of the rule of law. There is thus a moral obligation to stand against anyone who tries to settle differences through violence, something which is becoming the general norm. Similarly, everyone should desist from engaging in acts that harm the country’s integrity or the right of groups to exercise self-determination, develop their language, and promote their culture.
Election is no panacea
As we strive for renewal, we must also not get seduced by quick-fix solutions.
Ethiopia’s political problems are not going to be solved by an election, however fair and free it might be. While elections are on the list of solutions, the country’s challenges are too complex and toxic to be resolved by a winner-takes-all vote. Although most of our politicians consider elections their favourite battleground, they are not a panacea for our chronic problems. After all, the democratic process requires creating a consensus among a critical mass of the main political actors on the rules of the game, building the requisite institutional infrastructure, and advancing the political consciousness of the public. None of these pieces are in place in Ethiopia.
Even before the decision to postpone the vote was made, the process was already encountering problems that were more likely to lead to an intensified crisis than a democratic transition. Both government and opposition seemed set on winning at any cost. Disturbingly, some already appeared certain about victory. It did not look like they were ready to concede defeat at the ballot box, a vital component of successful democracy.
The process was further tainted by opposition complaints of harassment. Some prominent parties such as Oromo Federalist Congress also questioned the impartiality of the electoral board. Worse, the public was no longer enthusiastic about voting; many ordinary Ethiopian were increasingly indifferent. For many, the concern was whether the process would lead to worsening security, and even possibly a Yugoslav-like civil war. Overall, most things that we saw before the decision to postpone looked like omens for violence with potential to derail a democratic transition.
If the election is to benefit us, we must first accept its limited role. An election—unless preceded by elite bargaining, subsequently framed by laws derived from that consensus, and overseen by independent institutions—is more of an existential threat than a path to a democratic order. It is therefore imperative to step back and restart from the basics of healthy politics: build trust, engage in sincere negotiations, and, through compromise, reach a fair deal on the state structure, division of power, and distribution of resources. This is by no means easy, but it is a step that cannot be skipped in building a strong polity.
Most Ethiopians’ daily struggles relate to shared economic and social problems. Apart from the desire to enjoy unencumbered religious and cultural freedoms, people want better health, education, roads, electricity, housing, and food; a seat at the table; and the rule of law. Yet our politics reflects none of these societal demands. Our politicians focus on winning arguments rather than solving basic issues through realistic policies. Even at election time, debates on policy choices to address them are absent. It is high time for our politics to mirror the lives Ethiopians live. This means addressing not only economic but also other social and cultural problems deeply-rooted in society, such as sexism, nepotism, corruption, and ethno-centrism
Our politicians should also resist the temptation to follow the easy road and enter the wide gate. Healthy politics requires taking the daunting route and entering through the narrow gate. There are, after all, no shortcuts to justice, equality, and prosperity. Politics that thrives on division, disenfranchisement, and resentment requires no talent and is short-sighted. Our past shows us that peace and prosperity for all cannot occur when one group controls wealth and power and the neighbour sleeps on an empty stomach. Riding on the politics of division and resentment, attempting to benefit one group at the expense of another, is thus not only ill-advised but also suicidal in the long run, as it breeds enemies for one’s own group.
On the other hand, taking the long zigzag require profound interest in lasting change. It means addressing perennial problems by showing a passion for justice, equality, and freedom, a wisdom to negotiate and readiness to compromise, a good dose of patience and a solid understanding of the things that matter most. It requires speaking the language of love and peace, not hate and violence, building bridges not walls; sowing seeds of unity and harmony, not of discordance and division; creating new or consolidating existing social fabrics, not tearing them apart; and most importantly, practicing humility and compassion.
The long route and narrow gate require us to persistently fight against our own self-assuredness; to re-evaluate our truths and narratives; to improve our own knowledge; and have the courage not only to preach the justness of our own cause but also show sympathy to those of others.
Ending empty empathy
Ethiopians generally consider themselves empathetic and, indeed, the lives of ordinary people exhibit this virtue. However, in the last few decades, our politics has suffered from a chronic empathy deficit. This has made compromise—vital for inclusiveness and nation-building—tricky. The main reasons are claims of absolute ownership over truth and knowledge, a stubborn refusal to admit the other side might have a point, or that their emotional suffering deserves attention and empathy. The prime example is the recurring dispute between Amhara and Oromo elites over historical narratives, with the empathy-deficit so painfully visible on each side.
Empathy is not really about reason or fact. Instead it is about valuing and sharing others’ emotional pain, whatever its foundation, although understanding the origin is critical for engagement. In a situation where every aspect of a country—ranging from the flag, to its heroes, historical narratives, and state structure—is disputed, empathy, when combined with honesty, heals wounds, narrows rifts, and overcomes societal fissures.
Unfortunately, some of our political elites can be heard speaking of the irrefutable correctness of their own stories and the seamlessness of their historical narratives, whether they are hard core ‘Ethiopianists’ who talk about a flawless glorious past, TPLF proponents of Meles’ Democratic Developmental State, or other ethno-nationalists fixated on a too-neat narrative of historical repression. Devoid of humility and dripping with intellectual arrogance, they act as fountains of truth and high priests of knowledge. They assert authority from selectively-picked sources; sources which possess the truth—a truth which appears incontrovertible only to them.
What they overlook is that politics is not only dictated by objective truth. Facts alone, no matter how accurate, cannot settle our disputes. Addressing the quagmire requires understanding the symbolic value and healing powers of empathetic gestures. It demands adding empathy to our engagement with fellow citizens. This is not necessarily doing what is factually right, but what is emotionally correct. After all, not everything emotionally correct is factually accurate, and vice versa.
Politics of compromise
In an era when the idea of objective truth is challenged, our politics has been reduced to a zero-sum menu of for/against and either/or. It does not acknowledge the facets of life that are not amenable to the right/wrong dichotomy, nor the difficulty of categorising even individual perspectives along binary lines. Reality does not offer only two options. Not everything is hated or loved, cared for or discarded. Indifference also resides in between hate and love, care and carelessness. In politics, too, there are plenty of options amid what we think is right and wrong, correct and incorrect, appropriate and inappropriate. Healthy politics acknowledges a third way and allows room for alternatives.
In Ethiopia, politics is often perceived to be a battleground of two opposing blocs: ‘federalist’ or ‘ethno-nationalist’ forces, and the so-called, ‘unitarist’ or ‘Ethiopianist’ regiments. The battle misleadingly suggests that the only options available are ethnic federalism or a unitary state. Both have their die-hard fans and are often successful in pressing the soft spots of their fans to claim moral superiority. Neither of them routinely looks beyond their dogmatic positions. There are, however, alternatives, which can be constructed from the best of our values, history, and destiny.
The alternative starts from acknowledging a simple fact: Ethiopia is not only a country of ‘federalists’ or ‘unitarists’ but a land of both federalists and unitarists. This means doing away with the idea of the uniqueness of Ethiopia’s problems and the accompanying near impossibility of tackling them. Ethiopia is not the only country where ethnically, culturally, linguistically and religiously diverse groups coexist. Nor is it the only country which has unrectified historical grievances, or one that has an incomplete process of nation-building—the world has plenty.
Moreover, as ‘every door has a keyhole’, no matter how difficult it might seem, there are solutions to our problems—if we are ready to work together and join hands in the task of looking for them. As Cory Brooker, the U.S. Senator, said: “A united country is an enduring struggle. It takes collective work and individual sacrifice” and Ethiopia is no exception. In fact, the solidarity shown in the pandemic fight and the convergence of opinion on GERD demonstrate our ability to address matters of common interest together, and that ‘despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us’.
Hence, it is time to look around at our situation and come to terms with the country’s reality, which cannot be simplified to a choice between two systems. The ideal option is one that is suitable for Ethiopians—not just ethno-nationalists or Ethiopian nationalists—an alternative that balances divergent interests and moderates extremes.
For example, Switzerland is a confederation of 26 autonomous regions. Despite the fact that it has four parts (German, French, Italian and Romansch), cantons are not strictly organized along linguistic lines. This is to avoid overlapping identity and territory—something cited as a cause for conflict. The system is designed to protect self-determination as well as act against the dangers of territorial ethno-nationalism.
A ‘third way’ in Ethiopia could also be forged in this manner, with adjustments to accommodate our distinct characteristics.
One hand cannot clap alone
As with the idiom ‘one hand cannot clap alone’, our problems are too complex to be tackled single-handedly. However smart and experienced an individual is, or organized and strong a group, the challenges require collaboration between individuals and across groups. Whether they like it or not, ethno-nationalists need to cooperate with Ethiopian nationalists, and vice versa, if they want to lead the nation.
Amassing votes from their own constituencies to secure a slim democratic majority is not a promising recipe for governing this diverse country. What they need is the ability engage in politics that transcends their polarized electorates. This is critical not only for the country as a whole, but also for their long-term self-interest—as if Ethiopia sinks, none of its components will float.
In conclusion, two years after Ethiopia embarked on this transition, there is no clarity about our future path. No doubt Abiy introduced monumental change. His brave decisions have provided some respite from the yoke of authoritarianism—a wonderful feat, which in itself is worth celebrating.
On the other hand, if we judge the reforms by objective standards, such as the confidence of citizens in the independence of institutions, protection against an authoritarian relapse, respect for the rule of law, citizens’ sense of being fairly included, a reduction in ethnic discrimination, and the presence of an elite consensus we end up with a less impressive scorecard.
Incoherence, stunted democratic experience, and a culture of mistrust, all contribute to this grim reality. Now the national elections are postponed, and the country is about to enter uncharted constitutional territory. Nevertheless, it is not just a crisis; it is also an opportunity to step back and ruminate on the journey we have taken and assess ways to straighten the path to democratization and realize the long-overdue project of creating an inclusive country.
Ethiopia no longer has the patience or strength to entertain one-man rule, a despotic regime, or a system which benefits some and marginalizes many—it has already had more than enough of those. There is an urgent need to change course from the past and venture into creating a new order, one rooted in the best of our values such as generosity, tolerance, and love of neighbours; history, demonstrated, for example, by battles like Adwa; and collective destiny. The country desperately needs economic advancement and deserves democracy.
For this, we need to get the politics right—and there will be no better time to do that than now.
The starting place is sitting together to resolve national issues, many of which arise from the constitution, through purposeful elite bargaining. The Prime Minister’s engagement of political actors in efforts to deal with the pandemic and related issues is encouraging. This should be formalized, and must go well beyond how to contain the coronavirus.
It is time to seize the day, summon the courage to touch the tough issues, and the endeavour to tackle them. In doing so, both incumbent and opposition should know that neither can successfully manage this transition, let alone resolve our complex problems, without the participation and cooperation of the other.