There is a general understanding that Ethiopians have never sat down together in a round table to talk about the vital issues of their country, like the kind of country they want to have and what kind of government they want to be administered by. In fact, looking at the history of the country we find out that in one way or another it has always been governed by authoritarian systems of government with little consensus among the people. Hence, it is everybody’s guess that there have always been dissatisfied portions of the population on how the country is run and some even consoled themselves by resorting to rebellion alleging that they were not consulted or considered as citizens of Ethiopia as the rest of the people. The felt left out and hence did not have a sense of belonging to the nation. Among the bitterly contested factors one can mention the current constitution which many consider as a reflection or will of only one party and hence not all inclusive.
Referring to history when Ethiopia was governed by monarchies, it was clear that it had nothing to do with democracy as what has always mattered was the ‘wills of the reigning monarch’ and his or her close associates. Power was monopolized by a few people and there was no issue of representation of the general public. In a way, it was the magnanimity of the monarch that decided how the affairs of the country were run in consideration of the citizenry’s concerns.
As there have never been any competitions for the top spot with elections based on qualification or merit, if there was someone who did not agree with the policies of the government, the only chance or hope they had was to resort to rebellion in any form possible, organized or not, including some sort of guerrilla fight and then hope to oust the monarch. Ethiopian history has shown us multiple episodes of the kind. That is why many historians say the history of Ethiopia is characterized by continuous feuds and conflicts, be it internal or external. Records show frequent and protracted battles for power between various contending forces and personalities.
Ethiopian history in this sense is very different from that of other African countries. A succession of monarchs has characterized the history of the state of Ethiopia, often with violence and palace intrigues. But when there were alien invasions that were the moment when Ethiopians would unite leaving aside their internal discrepancies and exert every effort in unison to foil the aggression. However, as soon as the enemy is beaten and the danger is avoided, Ethiopians would begin again with their intestinal brawls for power.
Many observers say this must have something to do with the system of government, with the way people conceive or understand their country and the place they believe they deserve to have. The key issue is that there are many groups of people in Ethiopia who believe they have been left out from the share of the national pie. The perception may be debatable but if it has some base, it could create problems for any government that aspires to govern the country. Some people believe inclusiveness and staging a free and fair election would alleviate the problem but would it really? This is a question that must be addressed and the sooner the better. And many assert that the current seemingly endless conflicts in our country is nothing but a reflection of this basic discrepancy among Ethiopians of this generation on what sort of country we can have and what system of administration must we adopt. Of course external forces also have their influence in this diatribe but if Ethiopians could sit down and discuss their destiny many believe they could resolve their problems using even traditional ways and means. And unity among Ethiopians would be the best defense against any external pressure.
There is a lot of talk about democracy being the panacea to all the ills of the world. Many people however say democracy as intended in the west is not something that functions well in Africa. The experience of democracy in Africa has raised more reservations than acclaims in the minds of many observers and researchers. But a recent close study on how people look at this issue has shown that democratically elected governments are better in terms of availing better services to the public, delivering justice and fairness, and respecting of human rights while autocratic system of governments are more prone to suppression of human rights and violations of civil liberties.
If we want to examine things with utmost honesty, Ethiopia has never had a democratically elected government formed after an all-encompassing and well accepted election by all contending forces. In this sense, even the current government has battled to secure recognition by all political forces but did not succeed, even considering that the elections were labeled ‘the freest and fairest’ ever carried out. Admitting that elections cannot be expected to be perfect as any other human activity, in the case of Ethiopian experiences regarding elections, there have always been skepticism, particularly with those who are accustomed to putting preconditions in order to take part in any electoral process. Hence, the experience of democracy in our country has met with various challenges that have not satisfied many.
‘Experiments of democracy’ including elections were carried out even during the imperial times and subsequently the military government. There were parliamentary elections even without the existence of parties, but the kinds of elections carried out in those years had always left a lot to be desired. First of all, there were issues of comprehensiveness in terms of access to the list of candidates besides issues of transparency as well as level of playing field in the contention. All contenders did not have similar resources in terms of campaigning for the seats, and clearly those who had sympathy with the establishment or the authorities in power were favored compared to those presumed hostile to the ruling elite or the system. Those near the establishment had better chances of being elected and hence qualify for some high position.
On the other hand, those who were reputed to be critical of the system were reserved disappointments. Many critics say that such elections have been conducted with little transparency in the process and hence lost incredibility. The so called electoral commissions in charge of administering the polls and delivering the election results have always been suspected of partisanship and favoring the ruling parties’ candidates.
Even Africa’s experience of democracy has had its ups and downs. While a democratic process is it of any sort would be preferable to outright military or authoritarian system of government, nevertheless, some people say the mask of democracy has been used to abuse the rights of people. In the case of Ethiopia for instance the government we had for 27 years was considered by many, especially by those who supported it, as democratic. This facade helped it continue unchallenged in power for decades. Such marriage with power can hardly exist in the truly democratic systems. Voters do change governments as they wish if they consider it not being faithful to promises. This has not worked in our case. Ethiopians know how much democratic their system has always been. Many times they have complained of systematic abuse of power by the state machinery and this has always given birth to disenchantment with the system itself. Such discontent even if based only on perceptions may beget severe negative consequences on the country going forward with its plans and administration. In the long run it could create animosity among various interest groups.
Using all the parameters of democratic principles, many critics say, the current system would fail because it is not representative of all political forces or groups. The critics have never desisted from noting that practically every election carried out in this country had flaws and weaknesses that should have been addressed. They say the irregularities could be seen beginning from the selection of candidates. They allege all those with the potential or suspicion of opposing the government and the leaders would be excluded from the contests. Key instruments in such contests such as freedom of thought and expression are many times restricted or used in a partisan manner favoring selected candidates. The media in this sense is crucial because its role is decisive in promoting or downplaying candidates. That was why among others many people who have reservations for the system including the way things are run in the country must be revised in a manner that can accommodate the concerns of all political, social and economic groups and forces. Some people say it could look idealistic and difficult to realize, but having been never attempted we should not discard it outright!
The other key problem is that many Ethiopians are convinced that the system has excluded them from play and they are always ready to join any force or party that would work against the system, including using violence. We have seen in the past that all those who were dissatisfied with the establishment resorted to forming some sort of party that would engage in violent means to overthrow the government! That is why given this background the only lasting solution for political problems in Ethiopia should begin with a nationwide all inclusive discussion on matters of importance so that some sort of consensus is attained on fundamental issues that could determine the fate of the future of this mighty country. That is why we have heard of talks of a general national dialogue that would give the opportunity for all to state their views on what sort of Ethiopia we have in mind. Many say if we cannot agree on the shape of the country, how can we agree on how to administer it? That is why the prospected national dialogue could come up with certain guarantees to all those who have felt excluded from the establishment so that they present their contribution and feel a sense of belonging. Nation building could only begin with first agreeing what sort of nation we envisage to have, and then we can talk of what sort of constitution shall govern us so that we can hope to form an all-inclusive government, irrespective of our differences and, accommodating our diversities.
BY FITSUM GETACHEW
THURSDAY 17 FEBRUARY 2022