24 June 2017

Ethiopia: Gain Without Giving-In Invites Bigger Chaos

editorial

It is not unusual for members of the ruling party to sit with the opposition in the name of dialogue and negotiation every time their rule is challenged. What is customary in their deliberations and negotiations, however, is that there is scarce sincerity.

For the Revolutionary Democrats, embracing their opponents in such a situation has always been the smart boxer's tactic. As the talented boxer would go to an opponent with arms wide open, the EPRDF invites its opponents to round-table talks.

As a smart boxer would flash a big smile and give an opponent a hug, a playful squeeze on the arms or some pats on the back to assess the opponent's muscles, the EPRDF promises that the sky is the limit and that the opposition can come to round-table talks on a myriad of issues. But that appears to be with the tactical bent to assess their strengths and weaknesses.

Last October, in 2016, President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn pledged the government's commitment to introduce electoral reforms and start a dialogue with the legal opposition ahead of the next elections.

They both announced that there is the need to widen democratic platforms to ensure that alternative views are expressed with a tone of reassurance that negotiations with the legal opposition are necessary and that the government would go as far as a constitutional amendment if there is a need for one.

Such talks, the boxer's big smile, give an impression to some people that the Revolutionary Democrats are ready for negotiations. But history shows otherwise. Every time there is a formidable challenge to the EPRDFites' administration, they invite and sometimes pressurise citizens, opinion leaders, and political parties to sit with them for long meetings and dialogue.

Not surprising though, almost all such discussions have to end to EPRDFites' gain. Indeed, the Party has also been ruling the country guided by policies of opportunities, instituted over the years after such leadership crises.

That is what happened with the Oromo Libration Front (OLF) during the transitional government. Ever since, the same tactic has been repeated several times, only with few concessions in the aftermath of the bitterly contested 2005 national elections, with the election code of conduct that was developed following the negotiations among parties, which in effect did not improve the political playground.

The political culture of the country appears to be polarised and is blind to the principle of realpolitik, the demand from the opposition is also no less than all. Needless to say, as the ruling party is also not alien to the culture, that is what it is exercising.

For the political opposition, much of the political currency is associated more with being extremist, rejectionist and sentimental than tabling an alternative policy advocator, an ardent negotiator and reasonable debtor. Mostly, that is the reason why Medrek, Semayawi, and former UDJ parties were more popular than others at different times.

When some of them agreed with the ruling party to abide by the new election code of conduct, their popularity had decreased. Obviously, parties which acknowledge the success and weaknesses of the government have been cursed and considered traitors, and sell-outs. That seems to shadow politics in Ethiopia.

As it has already been the convention, following the political unrest in the Oromia and Amhara regional states in 2016, the government has invited the legal oppositions in the Dialogue Forum and outside of it to negotiate on issues of public interest.

The premises of the need for negotiations lack clarity though. The government invited the parties for negotiations to create the impression that the political atmosphere is inclusive while it believes that the source of the political unrest was primarily a result of an overflow of the internal crises within the EPRDF.

Even though the unrests were abrupt, and no one did claim to take responsibility for organising them from the legally registered opposition political parties at home, more than 21 of them saw an opportunity and decided to negotiate with the revolutionary democrats with the aim of creating a better political sphere.

In due course, as predictable as it may be, some of the political parties were left out from the discussion while 17 political parties continued talking about, mainly, procedural matters and selection of agendas for discussion. After 11 rounds of talks, the forum came up recently with a list of 13 points for negotiation, many of which are rejected by Shifaraw Shigute, EPRDF's office head, and his comrades, who negotiate representing their party on the table.

The Revolutionary Democrats expressed their willingness to negotiate on points short of constitutional amendment, policy issues, national borders, "political prisoners" and the land regime. Only laws governing the electoral system, civil societies, anti-terrorism, freedom of media and access to information, creating national consensus, building democratic institutions and matters relating to the justice system are agreed upon by the EPRDF.

In the light of the absent culture of political dialogue, the recent attempt may be viewed as a promising gesture from the Revolutionary Democrats, for 'something is better than nothing'.

However, they seem to have created two layers of negotiation, each layer making a filter of both points of dialogue and the parties. At a higher level, some parties and many agendas could be dropped while 'negotiating on the agendas for negotiations'.

At the next level, the Revolutionary Democrats seem to, despite and setting aside the promises and pledges put forth by the President and the Prime Minister in October, be using a finer mesh to screen the points for discussion in such a way that they gain from both holding, though merely nominal, the talks and keeping the effect thereof to a minimal.

It would, at first glance, be considered naive, on the part of the opposition, to present policy issues for negotiations and to demand a change of constitutional provisions through political dialogue.

However, they are quite right to raise the agenda for negotiations. Anyone should have the right to initiate a request for constitutional reform, notwithstanding the fact that it should ultimately pass through the constitutional procedures.

A slippery slope for the Revolutionary Democrats is, however, that Shifaraw might have forgotten that changing the electoral system may demand a constitutional amendment. It remains to be seen whether they will invoke their tactics and limit the changes to some trivial matters or circumvent their stubbornness and amend the constitution.

The issue of the land regime should have never been a constitutional matter. It is a policy prerogative. However, for all its sensitivity and determining the factor of the entire economy, the parties should push and negotiate the agenda to the table for a referendum.

It is high time that the ruling party opens its doors to discuss issues related to not only some of the proclamations deemed to have negatively impacted the political landscape of the country but also to those which it has, out of necessity or arrogance, tacitly classified as untouchable, amending elements of the constitution. The myopic gain from tactical suppression of dissent may invite bigger chaos as public grievances are contagious.

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