Dangerous Developments in the Ethiopian Political Environment
October 3, 2020.
Some attribute the volatility of Ethiopian politics to its beginning – the revolutionary era of the 1970s. Left-wing political ideals tuned to the Che Guevara-style political struggle seemed appropriate for a country that was languishing from poverty and all forms of human rights violations. Like Che, Ethiopia’s young elites were radicalized by the poverty, hunger, and disease they witnessed among the country’s majority population. Many political parties proliferated, some with diametrically opposing views while others did not have visible departure points. With time, dialogues changed to violent confrontations and then to assignations and armed confrontations. This might have been aggravated by the military leaders that banned the right to assemble and hold civil dialogue but there may be more to it as this can’t explain why political groups exterminated each other even in areas not controlled by the government. What was obvious is that each political group held radicalized views and dogmas, and no one was willing to compromise, which was characteristic of that era’s political posture. Ultimately, those with ‘big guns’ settled the matters in their favour, at least, so they thought. As a result, the next generation vowed not to set foot on politics. After the downfall of the military government in 1991, the environment seemed to slowly change with many political groups entering the space. Unfortunately, we seem to have come full circle with a return to that old political style. At a time when we expect the political environment to move to civility and modern dialogue, our politics is still being haunted by its past. Is this a sign that the political forces of the 1970s have re-entered today’s space or the new elites have found some value in bloody politicking?
Though it had its own share of criticisms, the politics of the 1970s had its own unique characteristics as well – nationalism and a clear articulation of and sticking to political dogmas, just to name a few. By and large, this remained the political ambiance until recently. However, signs of deviation from this orthodoxy have been observed, though whether the changes are constructive or beneficial to the public is debatable. Simeles Abdissa’s recent secret speech is a case at hand. Many of us wondered if Shimeles’ secret speech is an isolated case or is characteristic of the current environment. I would like to argue that this is part of a slowly developing political trend. Today’s politicians seem to have classified principle-based approaches as outdated and ‘defeated ideals.’
Let us see the main features of the new approach. First, instead of rallying supporters along with an ideology and purpose, politicians tend to rely on public confusion, secrecy, and manipulation. The manner through which the new leadership ascended to power and the silence on the ruling party’s socioeconomic strategy and its real political intentions are clear indications that this was indeed what Shimeles was talking about. Instead of developing an agenda around peoples’ demands, the ruling Party- through public media outlets and those owned by its supporters - focus on renewing the palace, beautification of the capital city, or tree planting. I am not belittling these undertakings, but citizens are crying foul at the country’s lack of peace and security, macroeconomic instability, and diplomatic regression which should have been the government’s top priority. Government representatives, including the prime minister, also deliver tailored speeches to please targeted groups though it is common to see speeches designed to please one group of audiences offend others. The prime minister and his entourage are also being accused by regional institutions such as IGAD for using similar deceptive approaches. Though this approach is the ruling party’s trademark, it is also getting traction among other politicians. That is why I feel these systems are creating dangerous precedents.
The main defect of the new political approach is that it reputes the public as a passive consumer of political discourses broadcasted by media outlets owned and run by the elites and the belief that the public can tactfully be manipulated. Of course, this is an absurd assumption, but the political cleavage along ethnic lines must have led the elites to believe in this delusion. Indeed, this leads me to the second feature of the current politicking – identity as an ideology. My main concern is on the political engagement of the country’s youth. If we refer to the 1970s political profile, one will find elites from all economic and ethnic backgrounds espousing diverse political opinions. Unfortunately, what has developed over the past few decades is the congregation of supporters along ethnic lines. Each elite group has its own designated supporter and information consumer. There is no dialogue across the ethnic fences – neither at elites nor at followers’ level. Lack of open engagement across the political groups and the new political culture which is rather based on blackmail and unhealthy exchange of ‘hot air’ must have forced the youth to rally behind ethnic-based elites. Nowadays, it is common to hear certain ethnic groups being associated with a specific ideology. This is not healthy and will not create conducive grounds for inclusive political culture.
The third feature of the new political norm is the attempt to create a personality cult. The political basis of the 1970s being a communist ideology, its promoters believed in collective responsibilities and ownership. Attributing success to individuals seemed a taboo even when it seemed obvious. In a stark contradiction to this, all public and media outlets that support the ruling party are busy portraying the prime minister as a more-than-human figure. Not only have our public medias relegated important socioeconomic agendas to the side, but the prime minister is also being accused of undermining institutions. On the other hand, the same media campaigns tirelessly work to demonize the premier’s major challengers. Whether or not this emanated naturally from peoples’ desire to find a hero/saviour from life’s harsh realities or this was designed for a purpose is open to dialogue. Some suspect this was an attempt to create an ‘idol’ and use this ‘idol’ to change the country’s parliamentary system to a presidential one. The prime minister’s popularity being where it is right now, that ambition might have gone down the drain.
Employing assassination as a political tool is the fourth feature of the new political environment. In the past three years, the country has seen senior government officials being killed in mysterious ways and in a manner that reminds us of the 1970s. Even though time will reveal the true perpetrators of these crimes, some of the government’s actions make one wonder if the government itself something has to do with these assassinations. Contrary to standard procedures, government officials appear on public television almost immediately after such killings to point their figures at their political rivals. Often than not such accusations are followed by imprisonments. This makes it open to speculations. How did they know about these killings that quick? Is this a strategy devised to divert attention away from the real perpetrators? Even worse, years after the killings of engineer Simegnew Bekele (former head of the grand dam), the leaders of the Amhara regional state, the country’s high-ranking generals, and the musician Hachalu Hundessa, the legal system has nothing to show to the families that lost loved ones. Thus far, none of the perpetrators of these high-profile murders have been sentenced. Is assassination being used as a political tool to remove key rivals? Are these parts of the new trend or just the results of circumstantial events?
Of course, Ethiopia has in the past few decades, created wealth that never saw in its past and anybody would want to take credit for or fancy to control it. It is also customary to view political skirmishes as attempts to control power and these resources. The question is – are the new political trends desirable or do these changes tally with Ethiopian values? Of course, the ramifications may transcend politics. First, this will destroy the political parties themselves. Members of a party may conspire against other parties, but they will soon start to look at each other with suspicion and disrespect. I am not talking about across political aisles, but even within the same party. How can the individual members of a party - whose modus operandi is trickery and mischief - trust each other when they know the rule of the game? Second, what happens in politics does not necessarily remain in politics – it can creep into other areas of societal values and can ultimately lead to permanent degradation of our social interactions. Already these approaches have in the past few years dragged the country to massive displacements, ethnic-based killings, economic disruptions, instability, and social fractions. People that lived together for many years have started to develop mistrust and enmity against each other. I am not naïve who views politics as a fully principled enterprise or as a game of angels. However, I also refuse to believe that politics is fully a game of trickery and mischief. Hence, the Ethiopian politics should demonstrate respect for some basic principles that are cherished by our societies. Our youths are the future of this country and if they continue to be shaped by the current political atmosphere, what type of country will they inherit? Ethiopians should, therefore, voice their disgust against such types of politicking. Our politicians should be reminded that Ethiopians are not passive consumers of political garbage but are watching every step of the way and can’t be deceived by lies and malicious acts. We demand politicians to stand taller than their egos and political ambitions and respect the people they claim to serve.