By Girma Feyissa
The Ethiopian government seems to have convinced its people, and the rest of the world, that it has made many improvements to the national economy. While this is debatable there is no doubt that it has done very little to build democracy.
In a democratic nation would journalists be sentenced to three years imprisonment, merely for expressing their views?
The forthcoming elections are certainly going to put the ruling party to the test. African countries with upcoming elections currently have chaotic political landscapes. Leaders who have managed to stay in power for a suspiciously long time are trying to cling to their power. Some have tried to amend or reform constitutions in order to extend their terms of office. Others take more drastic actions, such as finding excuses to sue or even imprison journalists and workers at media institutions.
Any free expression of ideas or views in newspapers, on websites and on social media might be interpreted as an act of terror, or, indeed, treason against the country’s leadership. In fact, some of the actions of the ruling party seem to be deliberately insidious. For example, the recent imprisonment of the Muslim Solution Finding Committee Members and of Oromo members at a time when the ruling party ought to have been lobbying for votes because they represent the majority of the electorate.
In any case, it should be the duty of the ruling party to prepare a level ground for every party and any private contenders. They should be conducting talks on procedures and using television and newspapers to tell the people what they intend to do in order to solve the urgent and long term socio-economic issues we face as a nation.
A political party should understand the country. They should identify and discuss the problems of the people living in both rural and urban areas and then debate possible solutions. Unfortunately, regardless of years of independence, our political organisations have never been “people-centred”. They have always been about the politicians themselves.
The ruling power was assumed by ascendancy to the throne. This was obtained by force, alleged as a power that had been “elected by God”. This power was then passed down to descendants. It has been only 40 years since the monarchy was forcibly deposed by the Derg regime. This regime similarly refused to recognise the supreme power of the people.
Those of us who have lived long enough have observed that the powers succeeding the monarchy, whatever name they use, all have one thing in common: they vow to do this, or they swear they will do that. It is always in the name and for the good of the people. But they do not seem to know “the people” and their needs. What the people want and need cannot reach the members of the ruling party because they have no means of communicating with them.
In this internet age, where our children are better off than us older computer illiterates, we expose how little we understand the impact of social media. We do this when we criticise them for blogging or for using Facebook. We do this when we unjustly imprison them for expressing their opinions. It is reminiscent of the first scientist to discover that the earth was round: he was stoned to death for his discovery. He may have been killed but what he discovered remains true.
Ruling parties may genuinely fear individuals misinforming the public through social media. It is a real threat because it can indeed trigger public disobedience and social disruption. But, if this is the case, they must take steps to avoid misinformation and participate in social media. They must come to understand it and how it is used in order give the people the right information, rather than beating the bundle for fear of kicking the donkey, as the old saying goes. Otherwise they will fight a war of lost battles.
The secret of longevity in power is simple. It is not a question of informing or misinforming the public. It is certainly not beating drums of self-congratulation. It is simply knowing the urgent needs of the people and genuinely attempting to solve them. In plain language, it is respecting the fact that the people are the source of all power and they are its legitimate owners. They choose their leaders and they put them in office or depose them.
Our elections are only six months away. The people of Ethiopia, the powers that be, need to know the contenders and know them well. It should be known that the majority of us live in rural areas. We want to have clean drinking water, rural electricity, health care services and access to markets for our products. We should not be forced to go to jail for complaining about poor services or corruption, and we should always get a fair trial.
Six-lane rapid roads and city trams are no solution for our shortages in flour, edible oil or sugar. If they serve any purpose at all it is to increase the cost of transport. If anything, leaders should be mindful of what happened in Burkina Faso recently and be reminded of the supreme power of the people.