It was refreshing to see Berhanu Nega (Prof.), leader of an opposition party in exile, at the national stadium two weeks ago addressing a rather electrified base. Welcomed by tens of thousands of his movement's supporters, the essence of his public address was to focus on the need to agree on the rules of engagement for an electoral politics and redefining democratic institutions to carry out their autonomous mandate.
It was a rare but sane call for institutionalised democracy in the face of fetishisation of political symbolism that has reached a feverish pitch over the past three weeks. It has reached a point where the youth deface public property by painting the colours representing flags of their choices. The contest for a piece of the public space has led to violent conflicts between various groups, threatening law and order.
Citizens feel they have gained the freedom once denied them. The contests are manifested in slogans, shindigs and symbolism. The phenomenon could be considered understandable, if not for the consequences that should have been avoided.
Regrettably, the positive feeling of liberation is developing to have no bounds. The mob behaviour is now unconstrained, multilateral and irregular, manifesting itself across the city, if not throughout the country. Left unchecked by law enforcement, which seems to have grown acutely non-assertive and passive in the face of regressive actions of youth mobs, politics has become toxic. Law enforcement is seen as reluctant to ensure legitimate public safety and order, while politics has transformed itself from an organised expression of opinions to street-mob politics.
The adults in the room, the opposition party leaders and the activists flooding the country from overseas, to whom much of the celebratory hubbub has been drummed up, appear to be reveling in these antics. They rarely point out that such revelry is unconstructive to the political discourse and mars the socio-economic wellbeing of the citizens.
Instead, they partake in name calling and bluster. They indulge the youth to denounce without presenting meaningful alternatives. Rational arguments are relegated to the background in favour of emotional appeals to nationalism, history, culture and land.
For quite some time, the opposition was spared the brunt of the critical political commentary, most of which was directed at the incumbent, the EPRDF, as it should have. Even the flawed decisions by some of the opposition political parties like Patriotic Ginbot-7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) to take up armed struggle was considered a symptom of the ruling coalition's failure to create a level playing field.
EPRDF, having subscribed to multiparty democracy and having drawn a constitution that is mostly liberal, have not lacked local resistance. But the main weight of the opposition, except for a brief moment during the 2005 elections, has been outside the fence.
The part the opposition played was one of resistance, opposition and, in some cases, making the country ungovernable.
Very few in their midst appealed for the institutionalisation of power, the separation of government and party and the political and economic enfranchisement of those they believe are marginalised. Corruption, ethnic favouritism, repression and non-transparency have been high on the list of political ills they believe plagued the government dominated by the EPRDF.
Times have changed though. The administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) has acknowledged that the government indeed harboured the ills it was accused of. His administration has taken up the opposition's concerns and is pledging to implement a wide array of reforms on the economic and political fronts.
It has also opened the political space. Journalists and opposition politicians have been released from jail since, and three overseas-based political organisations have been removed from the terrorist list. Blogs and websites were unblocked as satellite broadcasting channels have similarly been un-jammed.
In the wake of this relatively liberalised political environment, the political opposition has been allowed to return home on the arrangement that its leaders would pursue their aims without resorting to the use of violence to advance their goals. But with the widening of the political space, it seems as if they have put the cart before the horse. The opposition appears to have lost sight that if, indeed, the 2020 elections are to be held on schedule, the time left to accomplish the needed crucial work of institutionalising power is very short.
Instead, the homecoming celebrations, the endless flag waving, speeches of "never again" and name-calling have taken centre stage. The public space is worryingly devoid of necessary discussions about the country's macroeconomic and political ills. Such substantive issues appear to have been relegated for the sake of generalised prescriptions that, if only Ethiopians liked each other more, lasting peace and prosperity would automatically be realised.
The fact that obsessions with flags, culture, history, language and administrative demarcations have little to do in advancing democracy has not been grasped. The opposition is pandering to the lowest common denominator of Ethiopia's youth to shepherd its narratives by engaging them prominently in rallies and social media. It has lent a hand to the indulgent rhetoric of beating the same old drum of blaming the past or the previous political leadership of EPRDF.
Outside the applause of the crowds in the halls, this hardly achieves much. The confrontations on the streets would contribute to a general discord and a growing lawlessness that could give rise to excuses for repressive populism.
The opposition has to graduate from activism to providing alternative policy prescriptions to the social, political and economic problems facing voters. Their sights have to be reoriented to the crucial process of building autonomous institutions, which is the priority before national elections are held in less than two years time. The nation remains economically weakened and politically fractured after three years of unrest and can not afford another 2005-style electoral debacle.
What gets the public incensed and engaged in politics today will not be the tedious businesses of governance if the activist and the opposition win office. The complicated and lengthy process of reforming institutions, creating checks and balances and making consensuses with political opponents is not the same as delivering sentimental catchphrases to rally the youth. In time, the opposition will face the reality of losing some of the support it now enjoys.
But a political culture of showing moral and ethical leadership even when it is unpopular to do so, reaching beyond the support base and showing restraint during emotionally charged times should be the guiding principles of leaders.
The opposition has diverse political agendas and is no less fractured. This is fine as long as violence is not used in the contest for political power. But it would be unfortunate if the discourse falls prey to the same polarized politics that scarred so many African countries just after they gained independence in the 1960s and '70s.