Towards Relevant Political Opposition in Ethiopia

Articles and Analysis

Towards Relevant Political Opposition in Ethiopia

The presence of opposing organized interest groups is a necessary condition for the functioning of democracy. It all started in England in 1215. On this date, a British King signed a Magna Carta (charter) that required him to consult his feudal lords on how he spent tax revenues. The signing of this agreement was a culmination of refusal by powerful feudal lords to pay taxes should the King continue to spend tax revenues without their consent. The King complied. And this marked the birth of democracy, according to historians. In the next centuries, Europe would produce great philosophers who propagated different political ideals. When electoral democracy became the norm, interest groups organized around those different ideals (left, right, centre, etc.) and form competitive political parties aspiring to influence the course of societal development. Parties that have the majority of votes governed society, while the other parties (with minority votes) became identified as opposition and sat in parliaments to play democratizing roles by initiating debates on ruling party policy directions, decisions and accountability issues. This system has continued to work well in Western countries.

In Ethiopia, the downfall of Derge in 1991 opened up political space. The 1991 National Conference organized by EPRDF brought 31 political groups together to chart the course of the country’s political development. The problem was that, unlike Western countries, Ethiopia had no intellectual history and cultural capital providing guidance for political groups to define their visions, values, principles and practices in societal contexts. Western and Eastern (communist) educated elites simply took up key neo-liberal terms like media, civil society, human rights, free elections and rule of law, and organized themselves into political interest groups. Added to this was the emergence of a political divide between the ruling EPRDF party and the opposition which came to include any group not part of EPRDF’s coalition. Led by old generation intellectuals, the intellectual and political argument of the time focused on forming a united opposition front to topple EPRDF. Nobody asked “who is who”, so that a lot of “junk” entered the opposition arena under the guise of neo-liberalism. The lump summing of diverse groups with conflicting political values and experiences into “political opposition” created mutual suspicion and mutual mistrust, leading to political fragmentation. Some of the opposition leaders have been called dictators, autocrats, opportunists, etc., by their own followers.

Political groups in the Diaspora transformed their roles into organizing demonstrations and boycotts against anything identified with the Ethiopian government. A current example is the protest and campaign against Diaspora fund raising in support of the Hedase Dam project. Not only are political groups trying to disrupt fund raising events, but they are also labelling both organizers and participants as “Woyanes/EPRDFs”, which means associates of the Addis Ababa government and even adversaries of the political opposition. Even then, this strategy appears to have the opposite effect of galvanizing Diaspora support to this national project and increasing the number of Diaspora entities turning to engage with EPRDF. Political activists might have contributed to their own further alienation from Diaspora communities and Ethiopian society. Let us be clear that there is nothing wrong with political activism (since it is a democratic practice), but political activists should be aware that they are expected to consider Ethiopia’s national interests. Everything has also limits, which means that a deliberate attempt to discredit the development efforts of the Ethiopian people should no longer be acceptable as an exercise of democratic right.

To be relevant for Ethiopian society, the different opposition groups should consider getting together to engage in constructive dialogue and develop alternative political and policy agenda. Opposition elites must overcome the 1970s generational experience, which involved organizing at the center and Diaspora and then branching out to different parts of the country with their ill-defined and at times conflicting political agenda. Today Ethiopians have much more capacity to understand political and public policy issues, considering that hundreds of thousands of university graduates have entered their own regions, towns and communities with broader knowledge and experiences that rival those of historically dominant elites. To get the support of this generation, opposition groups must propose alternative strategies that direct the course of Ethiopia’s development. They must focus on practical issues (access to land, workers’ rights, jobs, education, health, environment, social safety, corruption, etc.) that affect the common people and work bottom-up to achieve consensus on alternative political and policy agenda.

In short, today we have warring political opposition groups that try to justify their existence by opposing anything that the Ethiopian government does. This has done little to improve their reputation and credibility in national society. The international system may remain sympathetic to the opposition, but this does little to build opposition political momentum. This contrasts with the growing strength of EPRDF. The rise of Haile Mariam Desalegn to power has given the party a fresh look. The leaders think and plan decades ahead to position EPRDF for continuing rule in the coming decades. And there are models for this including the Malaysian ruling coalition party which just won another term after 56 years in power. Opposition groups must match EPRDF with political caliber and policy outlook that provides alternative vision and strategy for societal development. Otherwise, they will contribute nothing to society other than perpetuating the cycle of political stagnation. Instead of producing frequent commentaries denouncing EPRDF, the “intellectual opposition” could also help build a strong and united political opposition by identifying innovative ideas that develop organizational discipline, good political behavior and forward looking political and policy agenda for Ethiopia’s development.

Getachew Mequannet
Ottawa, Canada
May 28, 2013

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