We applaud the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission for its ground-breaking work on the recent political disturbances in the Oromia and Amhara regions. Ethiopian political development is being continuously nurtured by the successes and setbacks of the federal system and democracy. This work by the Commission is one example of progress that contributes to confidence building in the country’s political system and judiciary. We hope the Ethiopian parliament will ensure that the recommendations identified in the Commission’s report are implemented, including bringing perpetrators of crimes to justice.
Be that as it may, it appears that some segments of the Ethiopian public at home and abroad still remain anxious about the implications of the recent political grievances in different parts of the country. The rising up of forgotten peoples like Kemants to demand recognition of identity, representation, autonomy and other legal rights might have created a perception that the Ethiopian federation is encouraging narrow and particularistic interests at the expense of the collective interest of the national community. The crux of the matter is that democracy encourages citizens to challenge the system that governs them. Governance systems are not designed to perfections, so that they ought to be modified from time to time to improve their relevance for the changing needs and aspirations of different generations. In this light, political grievances in general should be seen as a virtue of democracy and as a driving force for policy and legislative innovations.
The experience of the European Union (EU) is worthy of mentioning here as a context. The years and decades following the creation of the EU saw rises in demands for regional and local autonomy, even in countries like Britain which have centuries of experience of state building. In 2014, the people of Scotland held a referendum to decide whether or not to separate from the United Kingdom. They voted to stay with the Kingdom, as they have a lot to gain from their association. The EU itself faces major challenges as the dozens of independent member states continue to struggle to harmonize each other’s national social, economic and security policies. Knowing that inter-state conflicts had ravaged Europe for centuries, Europeans (with the exception of the British who are debating whether to leave the Union) seem content with unity under the EU body as a viable solution for ensuring continued peace, stability and economic growth. The European experience applies broadly including to Ethiopia which has experienced internal political strife and armed conflicts for centuries.
The two-decade old Ethiopian federation has achieved peace, stability, economic growth and produced an attentive citizenry increasingly asserting its civic, economic and political rights. The issue rather is to what extent the authors of the 1995 federal constitution had thought ahead of their time to anticipate the emergence of “generational” issues. Today’s new generation of Ethiopians (numbering in tens of millions) are passionate about asserting their ethnic and linguistic identities and rights for economic inclusion and participation in decision-making processes. This time it is linguistic and ethnic groups in the heartlands of Amhara and Tigray who are demanding recognition of identity and autonomous rule. In a decade or so, a new generation of elites could develop a vision to improve administrative efficiency by breaking up larger regional states into smaller states, especially those that had swallowed two or three provinces when the current federal structure was created in the 1990s. A linguistic group in any part of the country could rise up to demand the recognition of its language as a second official language at regional or federal level. The point here is that Ethiopians from all walks of life, including political and civic leaders, must recognize that federalism requires ongoing constitutional negotiations and compromises to address the evolving needs and aspirations of contemporary society. Failure to do so would create preventable political crises that undermine the legitimacy of the federation.
In the film that shows Emperor Haile Sellassie addressing the League of Nations convention in Geneva following the Italian invasion in 1936, Italian journalists are seen shouting, yelling and insulting the dignified Emperor. Today such behaviour would be considered as a disgrace to the journalistic profession and even an embarrassment for the Italian people. From this example, we can see how society’s attitudes and perceptions change overtime. The Amhara region political party ANDM is regarded as one of the most disciplined party in the country. Yet, when Amhara nationalism flared up in response to the demand of Kemants for a separate administration, the party must struggle to stick to its principles. Despite rigorous ideological training, it seems that there has been little change in the mindset of the mass of officials and political cadres who make up the region’s political and state apparatus. The murder and displacement of Kemants in the watchful eyes of party and state officials remain an agonizing experience. Future generations of Gondaries would perhaps look back and wonder why the Kemant issue had been such a big deal. Meanwhile, the lesson here is that many of the party and state officials might not have fully embraced the norms and values of the federal constitution and the ideology of developmental state. This gap needs to be recognized and addressed as one of the challenges in the process of Ethiopia’s political development.
Those of us who live in the West are aware of both the maturity of democracy and its complex dynamics in politics. The current Republican candidate Donald Trump (known for his ill-mannered public rhetoric) got transformed to a populist leader by virtue of his claim of independence from the American conservative establishment that is known for partisanship and creating political stalemate. If Trump defeats the Democratic Party candidate Hilary Clinton in the upcoming presidential election, the American people may elect more democrats who would dominate the legislature to create the checks and balances of liberal democracy. In America, democracy is deeply sunk into people’s psychic that, no matter the imperfections, they trust the system. It is this kind of trust that should be continuously nurtured by the successes and setbacks of the Ethiopian federal system and democracy. Forcing the shelving of the Addis Ababa urban development master plan by sections of the Oromo society is a victory for democracy. Those who celebrated the retrieval of the master plan as a political setback for EPRDF might probably have a point, but they failed to see that the whole affair increases Ethiopians’ confidence in the federal system and democracy.
June 19, 2016