By Shiferaw Abebe
So much has changed in Ethiopia in the past one year, mostly for the better. A twenty-seven-year state tyranny was ended peacefully and a country that was a prison house for political dissidents, journalists, and human right activists has become a land of press and political freedom.
Individuals and political parties that were condemned as “terrorists” and banished from their country were redeemed fully and accepted with open arms to take part in the legal and peaceful political process. Draconian laws created to stifle dissent and critics are being revoked or amended.
The Election Board is now headed by a new chairwoman as a new female president is appointed to the Supreme Court, both picked from outside the EPRDF orbit.
A number of EPRDF old guards were rooted out of the security forces and key government positions and sent home for retirement. Meanwhile charges have been brought against dozens of federal and kilil officials for egregious corruption and human right violations; no match to the number that should face justice but a strong message nonetheless that the new government will not tolerate such crimes.
In all, the political liberalization that took place in Ethiopia under Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed’s leadership has been spectacular in its speed, scope, and peaceful manner.
Meanwhile, an equally, if not more, remarkable feat has been stabilizing and governing a country that was in a freefall politically, economically, and financially. Ensuring millions of federal and regional public sector employees are paid their salaries regularly; continuing government programs and services at least at the status quo levels; servicing the pile of domestic and international debts; and averting famine from millions of Ethiopians were tremendous tasks for a new administration that inherited a bankrupt public account from TPLF.
Today, inter-ethnic conflicts and internal displacements are serious problems but they could have been much worse if it were not for the goodness of the Lord and PM Abiy’s constant messages of unity, harmony, and love. His lucid and powerful messages were perhaps most responsible for calming down Ethiopians and creating space in their collective minds to hope for a better tomorrow rather than harboring self-fulfilling fear of doom and gloom.
Over a year ago, many were anxious about the potential disintegration of their as they feared the breakup of the security forces along ethnic lines following the end of the TPLF rule. Today, while the militarization of kilils is a potential threat for the unity of the country down the road, there is no serious concern about the unity and integrity of the federal security forces. The PM’s military background and his wise and calm commander-in-chief leadership has diffused any tensions within the security forces, recommitting them to their legitimate role of safeguarding the unity and integrity of the country.
On the external front, the swift and strategic action in ending the 20-year impasse with Eritrea and restoring the brotherly-sisterly relationship between the two people, and the efforts to recalibrate relationships with other horn countries is already paying off in ways that will be more apparent in the years to come.
The above is a partial list of PM Abiy’s and his administration’s accomplishments over the past year. If he were to retire tomorrow, I would think he would retire his shoulders high and proud of what he has done for his country. But there is more work to do – most importantly the country will need to move beyond political liberalization toward a political reform before the next election. He, more than anyone we can think of at this point in time, has the right combination of intellect, skills, temperament, wisdom, and institutional advantages to lead that reform.
Resolving the conflict between democracy and ethnic self-rule…
Whether Ethiopia will have a stable political system that ensures peace and stability and create the environment for economic development and social wellbeing for all its citizens will depend on whether democracy is institutionalized in the country. However, instituting democracy is not going to be easy or straight forward, not only because the key political players have their own versions of democracy; more importantly, because some of them see ethnic self-rule as paramount even if it must be guaranteed at the expense of democracy. Ethno-nationalists, in general, and the extremists among them, in particular, see democracy as merely a bundle of rights and ethnic self-rule as a core democratic right.
Contending this view are those who see democracy as more than a bundle of rights, primarily as a political system of a particular form with laws and other institutions that ensure equal and inalienable political, economic, and social rights and equities to all citizens regardless of kilil, differences in language, culture, or any other demographic background.
This contention cannot be resolved by referring to the constitution because the constitution is conflicted, indeed contradictory, on the relationship between democracy and ethnic self-rule. On one hand, it provides for the political rights of individual citizens including their right to vote and be elected to political offices “without any discrimination based on colour, race, nation, nationality, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion or other status” (38:1). This implies, a non-ethnic political party can compete in local and kilil elections and, if elected by a majority vote, form a government in those localities or kilils.
At the same time, the constitution takes away individual citizens rights stated under 38:1 when it gives all sovereign (political) power to nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia (8:1) “expressed through their representatives …” (8:3). The notorious Article 39, which provides for “the unconditional right of Nations, Nationalities and People to self-determination, including the right to secession (39:1), further states “every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has the right to a full measure of self-government which includes the right to establish institutions of government in the territory that it inhabits and to equitable representation in state and Federal governments” (39:3).
Ethiopia is the only country in the world that has the kind of constitution it has and the type of federalism it has. That, in and of itself should lend a strong support for changing both. More aptly, constitutionalized ethnic self-rule is undemocratic in its essence, because it discriminates citizens on the basis of their ethnic background. This fact is incontestable in today’s Ethiopia given the eviction of millions of Ethiopians from their homes and property on the basis of ethnic identity, or in view of the fact that, as we speak, non-ethnic political parties are not allowed or given protection by kilil, zonal or woreda authorities to hold public meetings, open offices or establish party structures in most parts of Oromia, for example (not to mention Tigray). This problem has snowballed to other kilils as well, making political activity outside of Addis a precarious proposition for non-ethnic parties at this point.
Resolving the contradiction between democracy and ethnic self-rule in Ethiopia will require a courageous, principled, yet pragmatic approach that, on the one hand, acknowledges that ethnic politics may not or need not disappear tomorrow (the pragmatic), while, on the other hand, affirms the precedence of democracy over ethnic self-rule (the principle).
A democratic system based on the respect of the rights of individual citizens does not preclude the existence or participation of ethnic parties in the political process including their ability to form local, regional, or federal governments if elected democratically. What a true democratic system does not allow is a constitutionally-mandated ethnic self-rule. In other words, how or by who kebeles, woredas, kilils, or the federal government are ruled is left up to the democratic political process.
A good example for this could be Canada where a democratic federalist system has functioned since Canada’s creation some 150 years ago. One of its provinces, Quebec, is distinct in its predominant French background, which in turn has shaped the politics in that province. Quebec has a dozen and a half registered parties with ideologies ranging from federalism to nationalism to sovereignty, and from neoliberalism to social liberalism to Marxism-Leninism. Looking at the past 15 years, for illustration, Quebec was governed by Quebec Liberal Party (a federalist and neoliberal) from 2003 to 2008 and from 2014 to 2018; by Parti Québécoi (pro sovereignty and social democratic) from 2012 to 2014; and by Coalition Avenir Quebec (pro Quebec nationalism and fiscal conservatist) since 2018.
It goes without saying French speaking and non-French speaking Quebecers have exactly the same democratic rights and the same protection of their personhood and their property under the law at all times and regardless of which party is in power.
A political roadmap through a national convention …
Those who would like to keep ethnic federalism into the future argue the inequities of the past 27 years were a result of TPLF’s undemocratic and hegemonic power exercise. The fact is, however, any of the other ethnic parties would have committed more or less the same inequities had they been in TPLF’s place. That aside, the past one year has proven that Ethiopia cannot be at peace, ensure democracy or mitigate its economic challenges, let alone prosper, under the current political system. In fact, we are witnessing an evolution of a multipolar power dynamics between the major ethnic groups that will inevitably weaken the federal government, heighten power and resource competitions and increase inter-ethnic tensions, conflicts and displacements at a scale much bigger and wider than seen in the past. No one – no kilil, region or community – will benefit whatsoever from a system that is prone to alienation, constant conflicts and instability.
Reforming the current system will require changing the constitution, but this cannot be achieved through the constitutional route, i.e., by following the process stipulated in the constitution itself. Because, the constitution (thanks to TPLF’s sinister ploy) confers a veto power on each and every one of the nine kilil councils (not to be confused with the people of those kilils) to vote down any change to chapter 3 of the constitution – the very chapter that is the basis of the current ethnic federalism.
What would be needed is to rewrite the current constitution by a political decision. A strategic approach to accomplish this would be to first engage all stakeholders through an honest dialogue on the kind of political system the country should have going forward. Moving from one political system to another peacefully requires time and a well-planned process and broad buy-in, hence the need for a national convention to develop a political transition roadmap.
Over a year ago, many Ethiopians called for a national convention to chart a new political direction for the country, a call that is as relevant today. Meanwhile, in the past several months, the PM’s office has used different platforms to engage intellectuals and other thought leaders in on-going conversations of topical and immediate issues facing the country. As useful as these dialogues are, they cannot substitute or delay a political level dialogue on reshaping the political system in the country. This dialogue will need to be structured, focussed, outcome oriented and facilitated by a preliminary outline of a roadmap prepared by the PM himself.
The national convention could be preceded by the PM’s targeted engagements starting with the executive committee of EPRDF, followed by as many opposition political parties as possible (individually and in small groups), intellectuals and other key stakeholders.
The goal of the convention should be to come out with a consensus that will allow the PM to draft a clear roadmap for political transition in Ethiopia. The format and length of the convention are process matters but as important as the end objective. For example allocating time for structured and focussed bilateral and plurilateral conversations between the various stakeholders would as important as the all inclusive discussions.
How the upcoming election fits in the roadmap could be part of the dialogue at the national convention. One option could be push the election as far back as necessary to rewrite the constitution and ratify it through a referendum. However, as long there is an agreement on a clear roadmap and the election assured to be fair and free, rewriting the constitution can wait for after the election.
There are risks associated with any step as bold as changing a political system. However, not taking this step will have graver risks. Ethiopia cannot be held together for long by bandaging an inherently divisive, contentious political system. Changing this system is the PM Abiy’s historical responsibility, destiny and the legacy he can leave behind for generations to come. Without changing the system, everything he has done so far and staked his life for will not have a lasting impact. But he cannot do this by himself; at the appropriate time in this process, he should bring the Ethiopian people into his plans and seek their support. He is still a highly approved and trusted leader by most Ethiopians. With their support, he can do anything!