(Legitimacy vs Illegitimate vs Illegal) and
Public Health Scare
Solomon Mezgebu 05-12-20
There is a complicated national crisis in Ethiopia and a political impasse seems to precipitate into an overall paralysis. The government in power, definitely the Prime Minister seems upset that one of the states, namely Tigrai, is planning on conducting an election within the mandated time frame. The PM recently made a not so veiled threat if the state goes ahead with its plan that he will use the might of the government with dire consequences. For the last month or so the PM and his acolytes have been invoking all types of excuses, including cherry picking articles of the constitution, to delay the election, solidify and extend their already illegal power grab. This includes even employing public health scare to declare an extended state of emergency and circumvent an election mandate on expiring term. This folly should stop and a political dialogue, no matter how difficult and intricate, should be sought. The presumptions particularly as it relates to the perceived threat of COVID-19 as a primary reason should not stop Ethiopia from conducting an election and definitely not in all regions. For instance Tigrai, a state with a stable environment and with demonstrated capability of handling much more complex issues can go ahead with the election. As amply demonstrated in the ground during this pandemic if hundreds of people do wait in line for a taxi, do their shopping in groceries and markets in an orderly fashion, then they should not have a problem casting their ballot while keeping a safe distance.
As expressed in the FDRE constitution states have absolute sovereign right for self governance without consent or approval from the Federal government. Conducting an election to govern is just one basic element of this right. Never mind when their term expires, which is the case in point, they can hold as many elections as they like before even their term expires. If a state incumbent needs a fresh mandate or fails to govern (due to public unrest or pressure) it is perfectly alright and within its right to conduct such elections. The only requirement is for the state stakeholders (in this case Arena, Baytona, Salsai Weyane and TPLF) to agree on the time table and manners of conducting the election inline with the state constitution. Maj General Abebe well articulated this on missed opportunities and elections we could have in his most recent appearance with Abo Lencho on OMN. I will get to this point later. The principles of Federalism and the specific articles of the constitution referring to state sovereign power are clear and there is no room for interpretation. That is not open for debate. Unfortunately that seems to be lost among so many clueless and/or reckless politicians willing to unreservedly opine and confuse the general public. Maybe the general discourse we see on multitude media outlets and social media has a silver lining: in that many will get educated around the ABCs and fundamentals of the constitution, particularly the preamble, article 39 and 52. That is a good thing. Regardless, if Tigrai wanted and needed an election it has every damn right to do so and nobody can stop it.
The perceived threat of COVID-19 and its impact on conducting an election
I would like to challenge the current perception. I hate everybody repeating whatever the government spits or taking the declaration of state of emergency at its face value. Even seasoned politicians seem not to seriously question it (maybe their understanding of public health and particularly infectious diseases is so limited). Without going too much into epidemiology let’s look at this from a public health perspective. The disease is new (but not entirely new): we know some things and we don't know a whole lot. It is a new virus, mainly attacks the respiratory system, causes serious illness and has a higher mortality rate than other flus we already experienced. We still do not know for certainty what kind of immunity you need to survive it and if exposed and did well that you won't get sick or die next time around.
We are a year and half or more out before a proven vaccine comes out. And no effective treatment or therapeutic solution as of yet. So we can’t be dismissive or arrogant about it. We have to be very careful to protect our family and our community and take all necessary and precautionary measures like wearing facemask, frequent washing and keeping adequate distance in public places. But we also know it is a member of the flu family (in simple terms). Flu in it's serious variant has been a killer disease in many Asian and European countries, not so much in African countries, and definitely not the case in Ethiopia in recent history (save the Spanish flu of 1918). Current scientific consensus is that COVID-19 to be 10 times more deadly than swine flu (H1N1, which has similar characteristics in how it spreads easily from person to person) but less deadly than SARS and MERS (but these two do not spread easily). Over the last 20 years or so we have seen the impact of any of these in Africa in general and in Ethiopia in particular has not been that devastating and definitely not incapacitating. Subsequently you can reasonably argue and make a policy bet that the proportional public health impact from COVID-19 in countries like Ethiopia couldn't be as deadly as it is for Italy, China and the United States.. Obviously SARS and H1N1 were not. So far, that is the fact. Why? Maybe the universal BCG vaccination and the painful shots we got in the arm during childhood or growing up in a TB endemic area helped those of us from poor countries. Maybe a more deadly variant with serious consequences for Africa has not evolved yet, I do not know. That is a serious scientific research question and I don't want to speculate here.
Looking at the historical flu data and current COVID-19 epidemiological pattern, the extent of fear in Ethiopia right now at this moment is exaggerated and I think for a political end. I even question the adequacy and method in the public health prevention response: it imposes copycat measures, quite few are impractical, does not take local scenarios into account, and doesn’t identify never mind exploit opportune moments. Hence inefficient and has many loopholes. But not to digress. This is not to let our guards down, as a new virulent strain of the virus can come to haunt us in a season or two. So we need to be vigilant and not close shop altogether. But while keeping an eye we can and should continue to do the fundamentals of running a country: the first basic thing should be conducting an election as we did it during a war time. The current COVID-19 epidemiology and facts on the ground does not support curtailing the election. It may take a little bit of logistical work-around and more resource mobilization but it is doable. Maybe it may take 2 to 3 more days longer (let us even say a week or two) to sparse people around to keep adequate distance while they cast their ballot. As witnessed in Meqelle, Addis and elsewhere people move around in droves to address their daily grind, crowding the markets and worship places. With this picture conducting a well organized election for people so used to queuing (thanks to Derg and rationing) while maintaining a decent public health measure is a piece of Himbasha!
Lack of legitimacy vs illegitimate vs Illegal
None of the current local, state and federal governments in Ethiopia are ruling the country and respective areas with legitimacy. The 2007 (EC) election that resulted in a 100% seat for EPRDF does not only lack legitimacy it winded down as illegitimate as proven by the non-stop protests, displacement, destruction, anarchy and ungovernable 5 years that followed the election. The said election, unfair and rigged, denied the government any form of legitimacy, and the subsequent brute force they used to suppress the protest and discontent by people demanding legitimate representation (among many other governance related grievances ) made them an illegitimate administration. This is ‘Tsehay Ye Moqew’ and many said this in so many ways and in many forums but Major General/Prof. Abebe lucidly described it in his recent TV dialogue with Abo Lencho. I agree in entirety with his statements. So I encourage folks to watch this if they haven't done so, and I will not belabor nor do justice repeating it here. So the Federal government is in no legitimate position (not just because constitutionally incapable) to hector states how and when they could conduct elections. Actually while the state government and the Federal government have been ruling their respective domain illegitimately, the coming of Abiy and “Prosperity Party” (actually I believe it is Prosperity Gospel Party and a Southern United States Evangelist satellite) heralded Illegality into the current picture. The Prosperity Gospel Party (a deadly mutant EPRDF virus) is sitting in Arat Kilo and in state capitals of some of the regions, not even putting itself through the usual facade of an election. It only swindled the illegitimates, turned them into cowardice, and literally did a break-in into the power seat and declared himself a king.
Abiy and his current regime do not lack legitimacy (as in 2007), nor are they illegitimate (as is the Hailemariam era of 2008 through 2010): they are through and through Illegal. Because we do not have pity or tears for the complacent, arrogant and illegitimate outgoing government does not change the fact Abiy’s regime is Illegal! Period. Now for the Illegal to challenge the illegitimate is ironic and funny! Sad but funny! As the saying goes: who is calling the Kettle black! Having said that Ethiopian current politics dictates dealing with the devil, yes including Prosperity Gospel Party, the TPLF, OLF and all kinds of nationalists, ultranationalists and puppets (though remote Progressives may even get a flicker of a chance). No one is above the fry and a political discourse is the only way out of anarchy and destabilization.
I do see folks expressing worries that the line of argument I outlined above would support current ‘TPLF’s position and would give it a lifeline to continue its suffocating and suppressive hold on power in the state. It is reasonable to be suspicious and downright object to the notion TPLF on the helm of controlling elections in Tigrai. But to venture into questioning the sovereignty of a state prerogative to conduct an election, never mind seeking federal intervention, because you do not like or trust the party in power is profoundly flawed and lacks to understand the basic tenets of the constitution. It is either laziness, irresponsible or wicked. The preamble governs all the articles outlined under the written constitution (sadly some folks seem to think it is just a nice introduction to a book) and along with Articles 39 and 52 clearly articulate the power of states upto and including declaring independence. That is sovereign. As the song goes you can't touch that! This is not about TPLF, OLF or any other political entity’s demands, mechanication, and power play and whether they dance to the song invoking Article 39. This is about whether we fully comprehend the fact that the State of Tigrai and any other state for that matter has the power and sovereignty over a statewide election. The Federal government can whine and cry a river but has no right over this issue. It can try to leverage a negotiated settlement and seek political compromise around the manners and election timetable. And the Federal government has a lot of resources and arsenals to leverage towards achieving some political settlement. But ramshoding state prerogative is not one of them; forget threats of force to stop an election. Again this is not about TPLF, this is about Tigrai. Having clarity over this fundamental issue is paramount. If we overcome any illusion over this issue we can then move to the next subject: how do you conduct a fair and free election in Tigrai (for that matter in any other part of Ethiopia) under the current circumstances and given TPLF’s one-party rule obsession? I will address that in the followup article.