10 March 2018

Ethiopia: Institutionalisation of Power, the Way Forward


There was little doubt that the Minister of Defense Siraj Fegessa's briefing to members of the media last Wednesday would not be a running list of the successes of the recently reinstated State of Emergency. Even for the residents of Addis Abeba, whose city was relatively calm through two years of unrest in the surrounding Oromia Regional State, it was evident that the political environment was far from tranquil. At least Siraj's briefing came on the final day of a sit-in in towns surrounding the capital, leading to a shortage of goods such as gas and food supplies in Addis Abeba.

Siraj's report was a confirmation that the emergency decree still faces an uphill battle in the attempt to restore the state's monopoly of violence. Around 17 security officers were injured since the Council of Ministers declared the second State of Emergency last February. Over a dozen private and public transport vehicles were vandalized, and local kebeles administrative offices, as well as a factory, were put to the torch.

In the Defense Minister's eyes, the perpetrators are those that are trying to cease power by circumventing the constitutional order and without the means of a free and fair elections. But Siraj, a senior member of the EPRDF, a coalition that exists on one side of the political spectrum, failed to mention the argument at the heart of the stalemate. The Revolutionary Democrats may consider themselves a constitutionally elected ruling coalition, serving the needs and wishes of the majority while upholding the rights of the minority, but those on the other side of the spectrum beg to differ.

Popular belief has it that the Revolutionary Democrats rigged the system, leading to their hegemony over all facets of government. They weakened opposition parties, causing unhealthy competition in politics - one that is bound to benefit EPRDFites and their regional allies. And if elections have not been rigged per se, an unfettered dominance of the democratic institutions that were meant to safeguard against one-party rule has failed to present the image that these institutions are in fact fair to all sides.

There is merit in these arguments. The National Electoral Board of Ethiopia (NEBE), an autonomous federal body tasked with the enormous responsibility of conducting national elections, can best exemplify this. Merga Bekana (Prof.) served as chairperson of the Board through the 2010 and 2015 national elections, the latter of which saw the Revolutionary Democrats control over 90pc of the seats in parliament.

Bekana was then appointed by President Mulatu Teshome (PhD) as ambassador to Sweden. His replacement as chairperson of the Board was Samiya Zekaria, formerly the director-general of the Central Statistics Agency (CSA) before becoming the ambassador to Nigeria. The chairman of the EPRDF at the time, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, nominated her. She was then endorsed by a parliament that solely has EPRDFites and its allies as members, to a post that is expected to remain neutral to all parties and coalitions.

Such appointments are not solid proof that elections will be slanted in favour of the ruling coalition. But they do not instill confidence in the eye of the electorate. More often than not politics is about perception, which in the case of the Electoral Board, does not look good.

Such views of Ethiopia's government, dragging the incumbents into a crisis of legitimacy, are compounded by the public media's conduct over the years.

Despite the limited space for opposition parties during elections, the public media can be considered a chief player not just in painting an image of partiality, but in actively overstating the achievements of the Revolutionary Democrats. It is rare to come across coverage of red alerts on the nation's economy, such as underperforming exports, too high imports, low domestic revenue, stagnant remittances or a debt burden. What is always encountered is the economic success of the double-digit growth of the gross domestic product (GDP).

And if it is not that, then the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) makes the rounds, as do the legacies of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. There is a perceptible filter in the public media that has led the populace to rely on information from sources on social media that take no responsibility for the content they produce. Rather, public media outlets, which are nothing more than government communications services, should have remained neutral to all causes and ideologies.

The same can be said for the judiciary and the state's law enforcement apparatus. A recent ideal example regarding the former is a federal court's inability to impress upon Hailemariam the weight of a summons for the Bekele Gerba et al court case. The Prime Minister never heeded the order, providing the justification that he was too busy to attend.

At a time when the ruling coalition is accused of standing above the law, the judicial branch of government betrayed its partiality, or weakness, in its failure to make the chairman of the EPRDF testify in a court case that was to decide the fate of a significant opposition figure that was facing a prison sentence.

The public at large can hardly be faulted for believing that political pluralism is on its knees in Ethiopia, and the Revolutionary Democrats would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise. The state's security apparatus has an excellent means of persuasion at its disposal in order to arrest violence in Ethiopia. But a steeper hill has to be climbed to impress upon the electorate that these institutions can ensure the credibility and fairness of national elections such as the one that will be held in 2020.

But what some opposition forces are prescribing as an antidote to restore the autonomy of democratic institutions will be detrimental to the political future of this nation. A multiparty system of government that is more than rhetoric is far less likely to be realised through the sort of transfer of power where force is involved. The best example of this is Ethiopia.

If the past half-century is any lesson, non-peaceful transitions have not been a check against the abuse of power. From monarchism to Marxism-Leninism to revolutionary democracy, the shifts have been bloody and economically destabilising. All the sacrifices that were paid ended in the dismantling of institutions and the redrafting of constitutions to fashion those that fit the new incumbents' political leanings as opposed to that of the public.

Going down that same rabbit hole for the third consecutive time would be unproductive, if not tragic. The Revolutionary Democrats have authored a fairly liberal constitution, with some points that could have been put to a referendum while others could go through a process of amendment. The constitution, which, by and large, should have many of the opposition parties' support, ought to serve as a blueprint for a new way forward.

It is not the system of government that needs fixing but the institutions in place to safeguard it. The ruling coalition is conducting an on-going negotiation with opposition parties. There may be goodwill here, but the move is too half-hearted to cure the political disease.

Such negotiations must be all-inclusive. If anyting, should encourage only those who accept the constitutional order as a basis of engagement and publicly renounce violence as a tool to advance political agendas. Within that frame of reference, whatever the ideological underpinning of a party may be, all and sundry must be made privy to the negotiations.

The talks ought to be conducted with the single vision of institutionalising power, not only to protect the constitutional order but also to appear to be capable of doing as such. Mapping out the composition of democratic institutions, the terms of office of those in charge and how they are appointed must be the ultimate purpose of the negotiations.

All of this would require the EPRDFites to have the sheer will to compromise. For a ruling coalition that has never been too keen on change, the resignation of a senior official such as Hailemariam from his premiership and party chairmanship should be an example of the sort of will needed to traverse the current climate.

There is very little hope of a smooth transition of power or of a peaceful continuation of the incumbent's governing mandate if the EPRDFites cannot live with the fact that most of what is good for democratic institutions will not be good for revolutionary democracy.


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