POLITICAL SPACE

&

INTELECTUAL ENGAGEMENT IN TODAY’S ETHIOPIA

 

                                                                                

Genenew Assefa

 

It has now been almost five years since the 2005 post-election turmoil petered off before escalating beyond the point it did. It has been almost that long too since the subsequent tense urban climate of anxiety was overtaken by a sustained spell of stability amid robust indicators of developmental change. Indeed much has happened since then that warrant the rising public expectations about the promising prospects of the country’s immediate future. This optimism — mostly agrarian — is predicated on confidence in the continuity of the 11+ percent successive annual growth that the economy scored during the years in question. Credit for the impressive success rate must, therefore, go to the effective implementation of the much maligned Agriculture-Led Development Strategy and the unprecedented expansion of basic infrastructure. Certainly praise is due to the architects of the rural-focused development package and the new cadets of agricultural aid workers. For, despite being denounced as a ruinous policy in a seemingly unending series of saturated assaults, needless to say unmitigated by constructive suggestions, the strategy continues to deliver the desired result. So much so that, much to the chagrin of domestic and Diaspora naysayer(s), even the skeptical among foreign experts have to admit, albeit grudgingly, the astonishing achievements of the development effort in Ethiopia. In fact, it is not too farfetched to presume that the results obtained in this country may have had something to do with the recent pro-agriculture paradigm shift in the thinking pattern of top World Bank development theorists. (1)  

 

  One needs no conformation from a foreign expert to sense where, in the leaner income-based grading of nations, Ethiopia will be listed in the not too distant future. For anyone who ventures out of any one of our urban centers cannot help but be overwhelmed by the ubiquitous signs that this country is on the brink of a takeoff, verging on a virtual socio-economic transformative leap. At no time have so many of the rural population ever had, as they do at present, so vast an opportunity to improve their lives and secure a dependable future for their children. It is, in fact, no longer shocking to hear ordinary rural folks proudly talk about their assets and savings that, in no small cases, amount to several millions of Birr. The soaring confidence in widening opportunities generated during the last four or five years, is not restricted to selected rural enclaves as some might be inclined to believe. The potential for greater benefits to be had from the growing economy is certainly creating a stir among non-agrarian social sectors as well. A corresponding level of optimism can indeed be discerned among residents of many small and large cities of all the nine regions of the country. For there has no doubt been, though after prolonged delays, a very promising urban   development

initiative that started vigorously a few years before the 2005 elections. The changing contours of our cityscapes are constant reminders of a booming construction industry interlinked with a no less impressive growth in the manufacturing and service sectors. Fueled as it is by the Integrated Public Housing Program, the expanding construction sector has in turn engendered a new thriving small-scale industry. An industry that is increasingly absorbing large numbers of urban youth which might otherwise have sunk into the ranks of the unemployed. Thus, buoyed by estimates of an even higher rate of success expected to gush with the scaling-up of the implementation of the rapid development strategy, policy-makers and experts are not shy to make hopeful predictions of a virtual renaissance in Ethiopia. Despite the current international economic crisis and high domestic inflation, the official prognosis is that within the coming 15 to 20 years or so, Ethiopia would most likely rise to the ranks of the world’s middle-income countries.  (2)

 

Inspirational as this prognosis is, no less encouraging is the democratic legislative measures that parallel the rapid economic growth. It must be pointed out that the rational for the increased rate of promulgation of new laws is borne out of one fundamental conviction: It emanates from a firmly-held official belief that sustainability of development can only be guaranteed by an ever expanding conducive democratic, legal and political environment. It is important here to bear in mind that these laws are expressions of the renewed commitment to greater democracy that came in the wake of the 2001 inner-party Renewal (Thadesso) movement. (3) Many who followed those trying times will surely recall that the subsequent pledge made by the EPRDF democratic majority to greater democracy emerged from the party’s bold self-admission of the seriousness of the problems it was facing at the time. It stemmed from a candid acknowledgment, to be sure, that before the Thadesso, the EPRDF was sinking into a deep political quagmire. One that had unaddressed would have inevitably reeled back the democratic gains and economic progress that the country had made since the ratification of the constitution. Even those with short memory will never forget the degree of openness with which the majority wing of the EPRDF leadership exposed the ruling party’s internal troubles much to the shock of friends and foe alike. The majority of the party hierarchy openly admitted that at one point the EPRDF had, in fact, come very close to becoming a dictatorship. Rare is indeed, especially in Africa, where a ruling party willingly confesses its shortcomings in such brutal language and startling honesty. (4) The new glasnost was, of course, not just a theoretical exercise. It had important positive practical outcomes. By no means the reforms that followed — devolution of decision-making power to Woreda level, political realignment with the entrepreneurial middle peasantry and belief in the need for rapid development could have been possible without such self-critical approach. Neither could the series of initiatives designed to promote ---- transparency, accountability and good governance ----- could have been taken without the daring political will to squarely admit mistakes. Based on this culture of bold self-reexamination, other remedial measure, reformist directives, and rectification steps have been taken. By all reckoning, these interventions have helped to broaden the democratization process. These proclamations have certainly augmented the jurisdictional competence of the regional states and devolved regional administrative sites to the lower rung of the political structure, resulting, among other things, in a remarkable performance of the national economy. 

 

Though such has been the overall picture of the objective trajectory of developments, there has in recent times, nevertheless, been a sustained litany of angry complaints against the narrowing of political space in Ethiopia. The central supporting argument for the putative shrinking of political space revolves mainly, though not exclusively, around a series of parliamentary legislations written into law after the 2005 national elections.  Chief among the regulatory measures which are routinely denounced as anti-democratic edicts intended to decrease latitudes of political dissent in Ethiopia are: the Parliamentary Working Procedure of 2005, the Amended Electoral Law of 2005, the new Press Law of 2008, and the Charities and Societies Proclamations of 2009. It is undeniable that there was a prolonged period of public apprehension regarding open expression of political opposition that came in the immediate aftermath of the post-election confrontation. It is not surprising either that a public – especially one with a history like Ethiopia --- to be leery of politics after going through a virtual pre-revolutionary situation of head on collusion in which several people died and even more were rounded up. As much as the immediate post-election psychological current was not particularly inviting to spirited political activism, there is a different factor that shades light on why the urban public refrained as long as it did from airing its political disaffection in the immediate years following the 2005 crisis.

 

 This has to do with the confusion between legitimate expression of dissent and confrontational act that is beyond the pale of legally permissible form of political protest. In other words, there were many who misconstrued the measures taken to quell the post-election violent riots as an open repression of legitimate protest and not as action intended to restore public order. In consequence, there was a time of palpable indiscriminate apprehension of anything pertaining to politics among the urban public.  It is this state of affairs that the shrewd among the opposition entities are attempting, though belatedly, to recast as a consequence of the post-2005 laws enacted, as it were, to narrow political space. However, so far no critic has been able to show, article-by-article, how these laws enumerated above condense the parameters of legitimate oppositional political action. Worst still, none of the critics have a single positive word to say about the developing healthy relationship between the EPRDF and parliamentary opposition parties much less express any appreciation to any of the reforms in the pipeline concerning party finance or equitable access to the national media. At any rate, a close and detailed scrutiny of these laws is necessary to determine whether their provisions shrink or actually broaden space that foster legitimate political intervention. If analysis shows that these laws don’t curb political space, as it most likely would, it would at least save gullible Diaspora Ethiopians from being robed by slick political fundraisers.  In other words, such an analytical disclosure would expose the newly self-exiled CUD faction that is currently mobilizing foreign currency to ostensibly dislodge the EPRDF from power as a punishment for stealing the 2005 elections and subsequently narrowing the political space in Ethiopia (5) Conversely, in the unlikely event that these laws are found wanting, given its tradition of critical self-appraisal, it is not improbable that the ruling party would consider their repeal or reformulation of the contentious provisions. At any rate, no matter how shrill the criticism is, as events are already vindicating their democratic content, more citizens are bound to welcome these new laws. It is, therefore, useful for now to focus attention on the latest scheme concocted by EPRDF’s detractors to have the world believe that political space in Ethiopia is fast disappearing.

 

The latest fashion invented to reinforce this spurious claim is shading crocodile tears over the supposed decline of intellectual participation in the political life of the country. It is not very clear, however, what the critics mean by decline in intellectual participation in the domestic political arena. For it is difficult to tell whether the critics are referring to A) reduction in direct intellectual involvement in oppositional politics or B) a slack in independent learned intervention in public affairs. (6) Below we present a review of the sequence of post-election events that we believe might have helped to reduce elite hostility towards the EPRDF.  But we have no data to accept or reject the claim about the decline of active and direct of this stratum’s involvement in oppositional politics. What we have, however, is concrete information on the huge number of college graduates that joined the EPRDF after the 2005 national elections. Nevertheless, since no college-trained citizens that join the EPRDF are considered as educated in opposition corners, the critics obviously don’t have these elements in mind when they complain about declining elite political participation. By the same token, it is difficult to presume whether what the critics mean is reduction of autonomous and self-initiated constructive intellectual participation in public spheres as stated under B) above. For the Ethiopian intellectual has never in the last 17 years stepped into the public arena in an independent guise to make its opinion felt much less to make a difference in the effort to redefine Ethiopia in democratic terms. To the extent that the elite played any vigorous public role in this country at all, it has been via anti-EPRDF parties and/or NGOs that define themselves not as potential partners but in terms of opposition to the government as well as the constitutional order.

 

  Nevertheless, we are constantly told that the post-2005 policy direction has finally closed the little political space that had once allowed some measure of intellectual political engagement. The diminishment of public space, we are quickly reminded, has reached a frightening level detrimental to the future of democracy in Ethiopia. As result, the argument goes, the nation’s public-minded intellectuals are mortified to even air their political disaffection much less have the opportunity to advance their alternative political views through organized opposition. The often-cited alibi for the worsening ‘anti-intellectual’ trend is the legal action taken against some senior CUD leaders implicated in the dangerous instigation of the 2005 post-election violence: Action that, according to the government, had to be taken to censure unlawful activity. Upholding the general prosecutor’s case, the charges brought against the accused were later found in a free and impartial court hearing to have been laden with an even more ominous implication of graver nature. No doubt among those brought to justice on charges for conspiring to undo the institutional expressions of the constitutional order were individuals with advanced academic credentials. (7)

 

As if academic certificates exempt the holders from legal accountability, the case brought against the CUD leaders was, nevertheless, depicted as if intellectual dissent itself was put on trial. The prosecution of the CUD suspects in court of law was even more grossly distorted to appear as an indiscriminate crackdown on the entire dissenting-intellectual element of the society. A shrill media campaign both at home and abroad was unleashed to deceive citizens and expatriates alike about the truth of the situation as defined and interpreted by the Ethiopian laws. The aim was naturally to mislead the public into thinking that the CUD offenders were being tried not for their self-confessed brazen involvement in a cabal to overturn the lawful government by means expressly prohibited by the constitution.  But as if they were being prosecuted to preempt the danger that their sheer intellectual prowess might pose to the government. The irony is that this baseless hearsay continues to be disseminated long after the offenders were pardoned on self-admission of guilt and years after their constitutional right to engage in political activities was reinstated. Ever since the attempt to leverage regime change by whipping mob action disguised as an anti-vote fraud protest was nipped in the bud by firm legal action, clamorous clatter about an anti-intellectual persecution mania and closure of political space in Ethiopia has become legion. (8)

 

Though more pronounced in the post-2005 electron years, charges of anti-intellectualism against the EPRDF have been made intermittently with varying degrees of intensity. But no one has outdone himself in making this allegation than Prof. Mesfin Woldemariam, the self-appointed human rights activist who recently turned opposition political leader. During the prime minister’s second round of discussion with the Addis Ababa University staff, the professor pocked his former academic colleagues by a snide rhetorical remark. In one of the shrill Amharic weeklies, he mused with a typical smug sarcastic tone, how anyone could continue teaching at the Addis Ababa University ‘under an anti-intellectual regime’. (9) What could be more telling about the professor’s moral dubiousness than this? For he never ever said a word of this nature when teaching at the same institution for 17 long years under the bloodiest and most repressive regimes in history. We would certainly have tipped our hats for him and given him credit  for consistency had he uttered anything like this when thousands of students, including his own pupils, were either thrown into the dungeons, brutally tortured or summarily executed, as most were, by an official bloodthirsty proclamation of state terror. We would have also applauded him as a courageous man of principle had he resigned his teaching post protesting the complete banning of academic freedom. When, that is, even a slightly different interpretive take on the ruling party’s ideology carried perilous consequences. The reason why we singled out this professor is very simple. He epitomizes, as no one else does, the chauvinistic Ethiopian literati whose distinguishing hallmark is a malignant habit of sowing poisonous seeds of discord behind the curtain. And, an incorrigible habit of surfacing on the public stage in heroic garb at the most un-heroic of times when the question of personal safety is no longer a concern.

 

  In a national culture where intellectuals are measured not by their creative output but by the formal certification of the credit hours they attended, it is not surprising that the guru of the sulking chauvinists could spew such baseless statement against the EPRDF leadership. That is also why the middle and upper-echelon of the EPRDF leadership is reproached, as it often has, for lacking advanced academic diplomas when coming to power. The criticism would have made sense had the regime that the EPRDF ousted was a paragon of intellectual-friendliness: Or had any one of the EPRDF leaders staked a claim to university-level academic posts. Again, if the ruling party were to be found guilty of assigning government posts to educationally unqualified and inept appointees, then, the criticism would certainly have had some validity. And further, had, like its predecessor, the EPRDF retained and tightened censorship the allegation may have had something to recommend it. To the contrary, as many would remember, the ruling party fought for the constitutionalization of freedom of expression, including academic freedom. No anti-intellectual party is keen on or favorably disposed towards a right as essential, particularly to the educated elite as the right to free expression. Besides, for such criticism to stand, at least some aspects of the party’s major political, social or economic policies had to be found lacking in rigorous rationalization, or in sound theoretical underpinnings. But the evidence against EPRDF’s lack of intelligence is so overwhelming that one can’t help but laugh whenever such facile characterization surfaces in connection with the leadership of the Ethiopian government

 

 Attacking the EPRDF leadership as a daft circle of party bosses is even more ludicrous when considered in light of what foreign experts, senior diplomats, heads of states as well as think tanks have to say about its capability, particularly of the prime minister’s mental agility. It is not for nothing, for instance, that the last AU heads of states meeting unanimously chose the Ethiopian prime minister to represent the continent in the G-20 Summit scheduled to be held in London this month. The series of face-to-face discussions the prime minister held with various Western intellectuals and renowned world statesmen, on the one hand, and the dialogical sessions that he intermittently holds with the Addis Ababa University academic community, on the other, corroborates the assertion here about his intellectual capability. More importantly, Meles’ exposition of  his government’s policies in a recent frank and open televised exchanges with delegations of the country’s teachers, youth and women has helped to clarify much of the  confusion the elites had  regarding vital national-policy related matters. No less impressive is the clarity and fennec of presentation that the other EPRDF executive committee members and regional state presidents display whenever they hold televised dialogues with their respective business and intellectual communities. To cut a long story short, as it is the first to admit, the EPRDF leadership has many challenges and shortcomings. But by no means, mediocrity is one of them.      

 

 

While we are on the same topic, a cursory glance at the EPRDF’s higher education policy, pursued as it is against expressed donor disapproval, is sufficient to show the party’s commitment to expand and raise the academic standards of the country. No other area brings to sharp relief this point than the place of priority the EPRDF’ gives to increasing coverage of tertiary level education.  This is a firm stand, one must add, that reflects the party’s principle of national equality where all, not just some, are entitled to have access to advanced learning and advanced training opportunities. The expansion of higher-institutions of learning across all regional states speaks volumes about official resolve to broaden the intellectual horizon of the coming generation of the country. Ironically, it is the constitutional obligation of ensuring  equitable regional distribution of education, on the one hand, and, the development-driven reformulation of the national curriculum, on the other, why the Education  and Training policy was, until recently, denounced as ‘a generation killing system’. This hyperbolic dismissive language has been repeatedly echoed in the opposition’s incessant demonizing tirades against EPRDF’s other policies. Many would recall with what intense zeal and crazed emotion the opposition trounced the ethnic federal arrangement as ‘a nation killing conspiratorial scheme’. No matter how bombastic the anti-EPRDF rhetoric has been, the government, nevertheless, never shirked from taking steps to dissolve the monopoly that the few exercised over all opportunities to university education and above all to the right to hold the levers of political decision-making. Given the government’s unflinching stand on both matters, the right to govern ones region and the privilege to attend higher education, could no longer be restricted to those who by some self-ascribed superior trait fancy themselves as the sole bearers of these rights/privileges. It is the twin democratization of the institutions of decision-making and equal opportunity to higher studies why the most vocal among the anti-government critics often come from the older generation of the educated elite. This is the selfsame stratum that in turn sprang from a privileged ethno-social background that to this day thinks that access to political power and higher-education should be the exclusive preserve of the few ‘natural- born leaders’. 

 

Progressively, however, decentralized regional sovereignty is consolidating as college enrolment of students from previously disadvantaged ethnic and gender backgrounds continues to grow.  No doubt it is from this class of university-trained men and women that the new bonafide intellectual is emerging. One thing is certain in this regard. This upcoming intellectual stratum will not be saddled by undemocratic residues that weighed down its predecessor to a point of being incapable of living with the principle of self-determination which constitutes one of the cornerstones of the constitution. It is reasonable, then, to expect that the nascent multiethnic and multilingual intelligentsia will increasingly take greater ownership of the young Federal Democratic Republic. And, thus defend its principles and laws, articulate its social and economic imperatives, and, subsequently broaden its political base.  There are other positive implications too when the first generation of educated elites from marginalized backgrounds come of age. For instance, lamentation and wailing about the fading of the old hierarchically structured Ethiopia that for years conditioned the urban adversarial political discourse is bound to lose whatever intellectual pretensions it may have flouted at one point. Such an anachronistic and obsolete political outlook is without question destined to be confined to a pitifully few diehard political geriatrics who will live out their remaining days reminiscing the good old Ethiopia where every ethnic group ‘knew its place’. In the meantime, then, it is fare to presume that it won’t be long before the terribly skewed perception of the EPRDF as a disuniting factor loses its sway over  at least the credulous urban public. In other words, in the face of mounting countervailing developments, it is doubtful that the old grossly contorted urban image of the EPRDF will remain as pervasive as it had been until recent times. Nor is the quasi-paranoid fear of a secret EPRDF agenda and political machination calibrated to disunite Ethiopia is likely to retain the potency of its former poisonous acridity. With the complete failure of the repeated apocalyptic forecast of doom that, so long as the EPRDF is in power, Ethiopia would inevitably drown in abysmal interethnic carnage, many are likely to attenuate their otherwise frightfully dim and scary view of the ruling party.  The fact that in the last 17 years, no serious organized mass-based ethnic insurgency has troubled the state, or, on the other hand, that no politically driven ineluctable inter-communal clash has ever ravaged the country, underscores one thing.  It proves that the fear that the federal arrangement would lead to interethnic slaughter in Ethiopia was a misplaced concern grossly inflated by the opposition. But one that today must be given a decent burial for it no longer has any purchase.

 

To the contrary, Ethiopia has traveled a long distance in breaking the age-old village-bound isolation and cultural insulation to bring the peoples of this country closer than at any time in their long history. As a direct result of the massive development both at the infrastructural and superstructure levels, higher interethnic interaction, better mutual cultural understanding and, despite the recent hiccups, greater reciprocal religious tolerance has been visible than ever before. As a direct result of the unprecedented expansion of infrastructure i.e., communication networks, including roads, airlines, postal, telephone and internet services, the Ethiopian peoples are at present infinitely closer to each other than at any time.  Coupled with the lifting of the ban on free movement, there is an increased level of interregional traffic as well as higher volume of business and tourist travels across all the administrative ethnic-based boundaries. With the development of a market economy and expansion of commerce, there is a growing interdependence between the business communities of the various regions who otherwise might have had to rely on local partners of limited access to resources. On a different register, but perhaps even more importantly, with a higher coverage of electronic media and frequent airing of ethno-cultural programs, the different ethnic groups of Ethiopia have been able to have a visual sense of each other for the first time ever. Previously, for instance, few Northerners scarcely knew what the peoples and nationalities of the South looked like much less an inkling of understanding of the important elements of the cultures that define them.   

 

 

Vise versa, even less among the peoples in the Eastern part of Ethiopia could ever identify the physical features of their counterparts in the West let alone their ways of life. The constant beaming of narrated-documentaries, focusing on the histories, cultures, belief systems and production patterns of the multitudes of nationalities is creating a new and realistic self-understanding of modern-day Ethiopia that resonates with the country’s constitutional principle of autonomy with equality. No less important has been the ongoing attempt to equalize the ethnic representation in the federal bureaucracy, the defense establishment as well as in the law enforcement agencies in terms of bringing personnel from disparate geo-cultural origins under the same roof of state administrative structures. The rapid expansion of universities reinforces the contention that the ethnically distinct but politically equal citizens of this country, particularly youth, are becoming more conscious of cultural plurality and ethnic equality than the previous generation. For during an important period in their lives, they undergo a learning process in an intense interethnic setting that could not have been possible at any  point in this country’s long past. And, as a result of this growing thick multiethnic encounter, a better mutual understanding is being forged in ways that could not have been imagined in earlier times. It is not difficult, therefore, to foresee a healthy cultural chemistry emerging from the growing closer interethnic, inter-religious and intercultural interaction made possible by an objective material condition hitherto nonexistent in Ethiopia. No doubt when this rich gratifying experience takes deeper roots, all citizens are more likely to greatly appreciate, value and defend the new profile and definition of Ethiopia as a mosaic nation of nationalities bounded by a constitutional principle of equal opportunity.  

 

In addition to the unifying dynamics discussed above, the national educational curriculum, the state media mass awareness programs, the continuous audience-specific trainings and seminars, the numerous open public policy deliberations, the periodic televised dialogues with senior government leaders, including with the prime minister etc is strengthening the process of molding a national consciousness rooted in the principle of unity in diversity.  To be sure, in the last three years, an increasing number of the city-based educated elite, particularly those that recently came to maturity are exhibiting a significant attitudinal change vies- a-vise the ethnic-based constitutional political order. This is by no means to suggest that this segment of the urban population is dying to embrace Revolutionary Democracy— the ruling party’s ideology — or rushing to be card-carrying member of the EPRDF. Nor is the argument here intended to suggest that the entire city population, particularly of Addis Ababa, is shading its deep distrust of the EPRDF and its policies. Such a claim can by no means be sustained. To begin with there is a stubborn urban circle of elite with varying degrees of proximity to and responsibility in the previous ruling party that will never forgive the EPRDF for robbing it of all its old privileges and totalitarian-like preponderance. As this circle is very skilled in minting phrases and coining political slogans that panders to the worst fears of the urban populace, it still commands a disproportionate polarizing influence over the urban public. The relentless anti-EPRDF campaign that this circle wages with the aid of old contacts and subsequent effective penetration of the private press, foreign-based radio programs, multilateral organizations, legally registered political parties and human right watches is difficult to counter in so short a time span. Certainly, its corrosive activity of discursive attrition of  EPRDF’s legitimacy conducted  via  carefully selected advocacy NGOs, higher education departments, chambers of commerce(s) faith-based voluntary associations etc, is a formidable challenge. More, therefore, has to be done to win the hearts and minds of the urban population that for years had fallen pray to the sharp-tongued senior agitprop cadres of the defunct Derg/WPE.  

                   

 As formidable as the challenge has certainly been, there is, nevertheless, a marked reduction of learned confusion, as it were, regarding the logic behind the core government policies. The prolonged misconception and confusion around EPRDF’s fundamental political point of departure was doubtless effectively exploited to create a seemingly unbridgeable gap between the ruling party and the city-based educated population. Two key factors help to explain why a growing number of elites are becoming uneasy with their old unexamined political perception of the EPRDF’s nationality-based doctrine, the government’s pro-poor development policies and the country’s overall progressive direction. As briefly discussed above, one explanation is the increasing visibility of the results brought about by the EPRDF's rapid development plan and commitment to the much needed reduction of poverty. The ever-present indicators of sustainable growth-cum-development have become impossible to ignore much less deny. No one in his or her right mind can today gainsay that the majority of the peoples of all the regions of this country have better access to: credits, fertilizers, improved seeds, expert-instruction, and market outlets. Neither can any sane person feign ignorance regarding the immense benefits that the rural population is deriving from the unprecedented access to, say, potable water, sanitation facilities, healthcare services, primary schools, including electric power supplies and telecoms. It is the aggregation of all these inputs channeled through the numerous rural development extension-packages why there has been an 11+ percent successive annual growth in the Ethiopian economy.     

 

 Naturally, given the tangible and visible manifestations of the profound recent changes, the old elite-induced political hostility, shared as it has been, by the educated and urban middleclass is less likely to remain strong. Put in other terms, it is difficult to maintain the kind of de-legitimating discourse that for years effectively alienated the EPRDF from no small segment of the civil servant, professional class, petty-traders, nouvousriche, and mostly, the vulnerable sector of the city population. However, such a negative political opinion regime and the frantic labor to reproduce it is doubtless difficult to sustain against a government that is on the verge of bringing about a virtual socio-economic transformation. The fact that the majority of the rural population is, through sound food-security schemes, close to ending dependency on external aid bears this out. No self-respecting elite could, therefore, hold its previous jaundiced view of the EPRDF as a party bereft of any agenda than undermining the material wellbeing and national unity of the Ethiopia peoples. Alas, it would be silly to pretend to be ignorant about the truth that the majority of the Ethiopian people are politically, socially and economically better off today than under any previous regime. After 18 years, therefore, whatever justification there may initially have existed, from hereon it would be insane to continue harboring fear that ethnic federalism in Ethiopia would lead to total economic failure or a nightmarish national disaster. As is widely known, this dual fear was the cornerstone that served as an extremely powerful platform to rally a significant part of the urban population against the EPRDF.             

 

The second factor why there might be reduction in elite animus towards the status quo is the new discernable disposition of critical self-questioning, at least on matters of politics, among the urban educated. Indeed at present, one could sense from both formal and informal public discussions an emerging commonality of understanding concerning the folly of espousing extremist and rigid political positions: And, a realization of the danger inherent in a political stance of wholesale negation, particularly in a young democratic order such as we have in Ethiopia. The compounding factor of the current moderation of political disposition could be the disintegration of one of the opposition parties that, relatively speaking, did well than any before it. We are referring here to the CUD on whom the city population naively, as it turned out, had at one point pinned its hopes on. Despite promising beginnings, the CUD, nevertheless, imploded much to the disappointment of the huge urban voting-public it galvanized during the 2005 elections. Upon introspection many today are convinced that the decisive reason why this party atrophied had largely to do with the dangerous path its own leaders chose to trade. Leaving the contentious details aside, there is a growing consensus among former CUD voters concerning the Coalition’s fructuous demise.  Even more have come to accept that it was the intransigent strategy which the CUD leadership zealously pursued to advance its equally febrile political agenda why it met a ruinous end. For such a maximalist political line naturally backfires since there is no place for its strategy that inevitably combines legal and illegal tactics in a constitutional order where lawful and only lawful forms of political intervention are permissible. As well known elsewhere, this is because the operational principle even in an emerging democracy is compromise, mutual accommodation and above all, respect to rule of law. Currently, an expanding circle of urban elite, who during the last elections rallied behind, what to its dismay proved to be a destabilizing political mobilization, is gravitating towards a similar conclusion. A sizable portion of the former CUD supporting elites appear to have finally come to terms with the notion that political change in a constitutional democratic process is piecemeal, gradual, and consensual. And, not an outcome that can be achieved by one sweeping big push through one election as some in the CUD had mistakenly believed.

 

As stated in the opening pages, no less significant has been the gains in other fronts, which will also have a mitigating effect on urban political hostility towards the EPRDF. Take, for instance, the often well-publicized deliberations in the House of Peoples Representatives. The free, uninhibited and sometimes heated inter-party debate over legislative matters of vital public interest, including issues of war and truce is certainly a vast improvement on what we had in the past.  Not to mention that the lively debates in the legislative chamber also underscore that the House is no rubberstamp parliament though some had tried hard to have us believe. It follows, then, that no open-minded person can at present deny the glaring fact that greater political space has opened-up in the legislative chamber since the passage of the Parliamentary Working Procedure. Conversely neither could any one, in retrospect at least, fail to acknowledge that, from any possible perspective, the politics of boycotting parliament is politically self-destructive, morally irresponsible, but above all a betrayal of public trust. In fact, as they watch the activities of the House of Representatives, many who supported CUD’s decision of boycotting parliament in hindsight regret the great historical opportunity the opposition missed on account of a myopic leadership guided, as it were, by an equally shortsighted dictums, ‘now-or-never’ and  ‘all-or-nothing’. 

 

Another legislation that, despite massive self-serving negative propaganda, is bound to inevitably broaden democratic accountability is the new press law. One indicator of its democratic nature is the enormous amount of time that the drafters devoted to discuss its merits and possible demerits with stakeholders and the public at large. If truth be told, no bill has been subjected to so an intense and repeated public scrutiny as had the press law before the final version reached the legislative floor. The upshot is a growing consensus among informed citizens and stakeholders that the Information Act contained in the press law is by far one of the most important democratic gains made in this country in recent years. For the Information Act certainly compels all branches of government to avail all timely and relevant information to the press. There is no question that if responsibly used by the private media, this new enabling Act would open policymakers and public officials to greater public scrutiny and, by extension, to greater accountability. Speaking about responsibility, few would deny that the lack of it in the private press was one major problem why citizens among the reading public were not often able to make informed decisions. In a country where the free press is used as the chief instrument for creating a wide chasm between the government and the urban public, the need for a new regulatory legislation, but one that  does not curtail freedom, should not have been subjected to acrimonious dispute. Unfortunately in this case, the drafters of the bill had to weather years of hostile criticism before the presses law started to receive favorable public response.    

 

 

 The same can be said about the Amended Electoral Law — whose institutional expression, the Election Board – was a major bone of contention during the 2005 election. Despite the hostile campaign against it, the amended law has allowed inclusion of opposition nominees into the Board that would markedly improve the institution’s credibility and perception of impartiality. In this regard, it seems that an important lesson has been learned from the experience of the last election.  For measures intended at boosting public confidence in the impartiality of the National Election Board will help to avoid one of the biggest mistakes of the last polling: An erroneous practice where tarnishing the integrity of the Board was tolerated as a legitimate part of the election campaign. As we bitterly learned from this sad experience, in an electoral process where a candidate party is free to tarnish and to discredit the impartiality of the institution entrusted to conduct the race, the outcome of the election is inevitably contested.  Thus, one would have thought that any legal amendment intended, as it was, to remove snags that lead to dispute over election results would be universally welcomed. At the very least, one would expect that those that generally favor opposition parties over incumbents would warmly receive the amendment law. Unfortunately, these elements have, in fact, been the most vocal in denouncing this electoral law with the same level of vehemence as they often do the other regulatory legislations pertaining to the press and NGOs.       .     

 

  Notwithstanding the critics, in terms of promoting democracy the Charity Law could also be read as a blessing in disguise. Indirectly and involuntarily as it is, by freeing advocacy NGOs from dependency on external sources of funding, the law would, so long as the commitment is there, provide an opportunity to these advocacy non-state actors to set their own local agenda. If these NGOs strive hard and mobilize fund from indigenous sources, their leverage over the government is bound to increase. At least, one would argue, the law would markedly enhance their previous lobbying clout than when they had to answer to external donors. In his book, Developing Democracy, Larry Diamond puts it this way.  

  

 

Without question, civil society makes its deepest, most organic, and most sustainable contribution to democracy, when it cultivates a significant base of financial support among a broad and indigenous constituency. (10)

 

  The clamor against the Charity law may not be entirely driven by selfish motives.  But it is hard to believe that the commotion has completely nothing to do with concerns about the reduction of job opportunities that might come with the passing of the law. This is not surprising for NGOs are, after the government, probably the second largest full–and part-time employers of the educated community. However, what does not make much sense is why the State Department had to join the chores of condemnation of the Charity law in its annual human rights country report. (11) Since by any reading, the most essential part of the provision of the Ethiopian Charity law is in no way different from the relevant decree regulating advocacy activities in the United States. More bewildering and bizarre is the State Department’s temerity to scornfully lecture the Ethiopian government on the alleged human rights violations of its army during Ethiopia’s legitimate anti-terrorist military operations in the Ogden and stateless Somalia. What is equally strange and embarrassing is that almost all the information which the report is based on is derived from opposition parties and spokesmen of the terrorist entities themselves. Worse still, some of the human right violations that are blamed on the Ethiopian government were in actual fact perpetrated by the selfsame terrorist groups backed by their regional and international sponsors. There is a double irony here in the whole farcical twist. For, in connection with its army’s intervention in Somalia, Ethiopia is severely attacked and maligned by certain forces as a stooge of Washington. And conversely, Ethiopia is subjected to condemnations by human rights lobbyists and the State Department as a terrible human rights offender. Paradoxically, it is to Ethiopia and her army that the UN and other multilateral organizations first turn   to and relay on to shoulder peacekeeping responsibilities in most troubled spots in Africa. Be that as it may, such unfair and baseless allegations can only be countered by a prompt and case-by-case refutation aimed at discrediting the responsible parties in the eyes of the Ethiopian people. Thus, since there is little one can add here, we will do well to proceed with the discussion of the topic at hand.

 

 Space does not permit to discuss the other policy initiatives taken in recent years that, glib criticism to the contrary notwithstanding, equally help to broaden democratic space in Ethiopia. Suffice it to make the following observation why the current deceptive disinformation about the de-politicization of the intellectual in Ethiopia had any saliency at all. Chiefly, we contend, it is because a widespread pubic theoretical misconception about the political role of the intellectual in a non-dictatorial ideo-poltical setting. As is well known, in the history of modern politics in Ethiopia, the task of the intellectual was always conceived in adversarial terms. Put differently, ever since the introduction of higher education, there has been a widespread tendency to equate the role of the educated elite with the functions of an opposition political agent. No doubt there is a historical reason why there is a longstanding popular association of the intellectual with an uncompromising confrontational political party. As there was no legal space for any redress under the previous two successive regimes, the college-attending youth with some basic knowledge of political rights, had several reasons to gravitate towards politics and political radicalism. Thus, most among the younger generation of students, including many of the present policymakers, was heavily engaged in the struggle against the monarchy and its successor, the fascist-like military regime. The mental residue left by this historical experience regarding conceptions of the historical task of the intellectual in adversarial terms unfortunately continues to cloud the judgment of no small sector of the urban public. Long after rule of law was enshrined in the constitution along with the protection of all basic democratic rights, including the right to organized dissent, there is still, however, a tendency to view the intellectual as an anti-establishment political activist bent on altering the status quo.

 

Doubtless in both established and emerging democracies intellectuals serve as watchdogs against any state abridgement of citizens’ rights.  This is not to suggest that they never lend their expertise to dictatorial regimes. Our own experience is a living testimony how professors could be eager to lend credibility to a reign of terror. But by and large, however, it is democratic intellectuals that articulate the arguments, furnish the rational, and voice opposition to state encroachment on public sphere.  Even in emerging democracies, as they challenge the new state to broaden space for dissenting political activity, intellectuals never hesitate to speak out against any demagogic party that mobilizes the worst instincts of the popular masses with a cunning intent to capture majority vote only to subsequently destroy the fundamental principle of democracy of multi-party competition Thus there is an inseparable dual responsibility that democratic intellectuals shoulder which unfortunately is not well known in Ethiopia. In many countries, intellectuals are aware of the grave consequences that would follow if they fail to sound alarm whenever any rebel-rousing party seeks to use free electoral procedures for undemocratic ends.

 

 

 Whereas in Ethiopia, silence has been the preferred intellectual response to any opposition party that claims to dislodge the EPRDF. So long as a party promotes an anti-government agenda, the tendency among the urban educated has unfortunately been to lend a sympathetic ear irrespective of the party’s program or ultimate objective vis-à-vis democracy. By preferring silence at a time when its counterparts elsewhere would have chosen to stand up and be counted, the Ethiopian intellectual has so far failed to live up to expectations associated with an independent and conscientious social actor. What is more pathetic is, until recently, any urban intellectual who dared to even mildly criticize any opposition organization did so at a serious risk. For one thing there was the perennial risk of being ostracized as a traitor from colleagues, friends, including extended family members. Or else a vicious smear campaign and character assassination awaited anyone bold enough to openly disagree with any anti-EPRDF party. One could say that, paradoxical as it might seem, there was no space to criticize the opposition as much as there was limitless opportunity to tare the ruling party apart. Shielded from intellectual scrutiny by complicitous self-imposed elite gag, opposition parties could never develop political civility or learn to temper their political ambitions within the realm of the possible guaranteed by the federal constitution.  It is not surprising, then, that under such a scenario, political space is measured by the degree of latitude not only to unseat the incumbent or win as many legislatives seats as possible. But, as it were, by the threshold of tolerance towards subversive activities and demagogic incitement expressly aimed at undermining the institutions on which the democratic order rests. There are others who gauge political space by the frequency of street protests, particularly the kind that end up in altercations with law enforcement agencies. For them endless display of defiance, irrespective of the merit of the cause, is the true measure of democratic space. From such a skewed perspective, therefore, any regulatory enactment of laws intended to bring civility to public expression of opposition to disagreeable government policies is a priori construed and denounced as a repressive act.

 

 As much as there are those who by design propagate such views, there are also others who are wedded to such a perspective out of deeply-held misconception. Most among the latter apparently don’t seem to understand the challenges involved when mass political participation, universal national elections as well as mass expression of dissent are legalized before the requisite institutions have had time to be fully built or the chance to take roots. Everyone knows that when the 1991 Transitional National Charter was signed and its successor, the 1995 democratic constitution, was ratified, no democratic institution existed in Ethiopia. Nor was any democratic culture that could have tempered opposition political behavior or guided citizens to responsibly exercise their new democratic rights. Few among the present critics of the post-2005 laws seem to be aware of the challenges involved in building democracy from a scratch much less that:

          

            Some scholars have argued that the key to stable political change is sequencing of political transformation, with an emphasis on building strong political institutions before moving towards mass democratic participation. It might be possible for governments to be accountable to the international community during a period of institution building, with elections to follow at a later date. Many of Western Europe's historical transitions to democracy involved delayed electoral participation, and a number of commentators have noted the problems of introducing mass participation without having strong institutions in place. (12)

 

  No doubt cultivating democratic culture is a protracted process that involves intense public awareness activities where received undemocratic notions of governance are seriously questioned and emphatically discarded. As much as cultivation of democratic habits and attitudes is an educational imperative, the promulgation of laws, nevertheless, is equally important for it is through legislation that democratic institutions are built. Unfortunately, in Africa including Ethiopia and partly in post-communist East European countries, every new state law, directive or policy is generally greeted with suspicion and mistrust. In fact, the response to such state initiatives is, as some scholars have pointed out, often knee-jerk and undisciplined. In no small measure, it is the paucity of laws commensurate with the country’s aspiration to robust democracy, on the one hand, and lack of awareness about those that exist, on the other, why there has been a pervasive urban public confusion regarding the inseparable links between right and duty, freedom and responsibility that the opposition eventually whipped into frenzy during the post-2005 election crises. Thus, we can dare say that it is the persistence of this legacy why the laws that we discussed above are subjected to rampant distortions in an effort to recast them as hurdles to democratic space. Fortunately, mostly for reasons broached earlier, many among the formally educated opposition elites are beginning to understand at least one cardinal democratic principle. A growing number seem to finally sense that the task of a progressive intellectual is not to polarize political opinions but to caution moderation, tolerance and compromise. For, though only recently recognized in Ethiopia, these are the stuffs out of which free societies are built and liberal ideas thrive on.  One indicator of an increasing de-radicalization of political views among the city-based population is the current moderation in the rhetoric and practice of the Ledetu-led party — EDP. (13) As the EDP was not only the second biggest party in the CUD coalition but also the largest in terms of attracting a huge urban following, it is useful to occasionally cast a glance at its glaringly tempered political activities. If for nothing else, turning our gaze towards this party from time to time helps to gauge the pendulum of political opinion in and around Addis Ababa. Thus, from what can be observed so far,  it appears that it will not be long before the  elite fully realizes that neither the letter nor the spirit of the legislative acts considered above are intended to narrow the political space in Ethiopia. If any thing, what these laws will do is close the gaps that for years encouraged politically-motivated illegal activity.

 

 

Finally it would be unfortunate if the reader is left with an impression that the political situation in post-2005 election Ethiopia is, according to the argument in this text, rosy or problem-free. To the contrary, not even the top-level policymakers deny the arduousness of both the internal and external challenges that dedicated change-agents face as they endeavor to anchor democracy in firm social grounds and implant its principles in solid public consciousness. Indeed no less than a Herculean effort is needed to overcome the occasional and intermittent state relapses to undemocratic practices and failure to live up to the ideals inscribed in the constitution. However, one thing is certain. As much as the higher echelon of the EPRDF has done a commendable job to lay the ground for democratization, it alone cannot be expected to emancipate the society from the vestiges of deeply-rooted undemocratic cultural traditions. The role of the independent intellectual can, therefore, neither be replaced nor be underestimated if the desired level of democratic space is to be achieved in Ethiopia.

 

Without question, elite political culture is crucial to democratic consolidation. Unless elites accept, in a regular and predictable way, the rules and limits of the constitutional system and the legitimacy of opposing actors who similarly commit themselves, democracy can not work. But this is not the whole story. Ultimately, if democracy is to become stable and effective, the bulk of the democratic citizenry must develop a deep and resilient commitment to it. (14)

 

 

 Thus, the onus is equally on the independent public-minded intellectuals as it is on the ruling party to fulfill what the peoples, nations and nationalities of this country promised to themselves and to the coming generation when they ratified the constitution through an assembly of their own choosing.

 

April, 2009