Opinion: Managing transition in Ethiopia: Averting a looming danger


Jawar Mohammed, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, June 14/2018 – Since the Neway Brothers’ attempted coup d’etat of 1960, generations of Ethiopians have fought and died for the ideals of a democratic republic where the rights, dignity and equality of citizens are respected and protected by law. Though the struggle waged for nearly six decades brought about notable progress, at least in raising popular consciousness about the importance of popular participation in self-governance,  a democratically elected government remains an elusive goal. In the last two dozen years, the rhetoric of democracy has reigned supreme in Ethiopia, but democratic participation has never been more diminished. Under the rule of Ethiopian People’s’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), authoritarianism was peddled as a democracy of a revolutionary variant. For so long, EPRDF regarded Ethiopians as unqualified for a participatory democracy because it insisted its priority was to lift millions out of poverty under a developmental state.

However, the nonviolent resistance of the last four years has obliterated the status quo, forcing the regime to embrace reform rather than stick to the gun. The advent of change that once seemed unimaginable has given way to a renewed hope, even to a euphoric anticipation, about the possibility of democratizing Ethiopia at long last. In fact, in some corners, the ruling party’s decision to semi-liberalize the political sphere and the new prime minister’s adoption of the narratives of the political opposition and the human rights community, has led many to the conclusion that  the country has already been democratized. While I myself remain cautiously optimistic about a democratic transition, I feel obliged to ring the alarm bell that the road to the long-sought democratic order is fraught with danger.

Let me start with what has gone right so far. First, the people stopped waiting for the political class (i.e. vanguard liberation fronts and fractured opposition parties) and took on the regime. Next, the masses  stopped viewing guns as the only means of forcing change and adopted nonviolent resistance methods. This resulted in a massive public mobilization that was further facilitated with the expansion of social media use. The mass mobilization and leveraging of alternative methods of weakening the ruling party’s tools of repression produced a sustained social movement that it could not neutralize. In the end, the movement moved into the ruling party apparatus and the corridors of power and resulted in the emergence of reformists from within.

Second, in the ensuing internal fighting and debate between the reformists and the hardliners, under intense pressure and growing imminence of the regime’s downfall, the reformists gained the upper hand. During EPRDF’s Executive Committee meeting in December 2017, both sides reached a negotiated deal to try to conduct a tactical retreat and rely on a softer approach to managing the crisis. In other words, both sides chose to defuse the tension by making significant concessions to the protesters rather than stick to the failed securitization approach.  The resulting opening or liberalization of the political sphere, evinced with the release of political leaders, the conciliatory rhetoric of the new prime minister, and repeal of the state of emergency, has resuscitated hope to the possibility  of democratic transition through negotiation (transplacement) rather than a complete overthrow of the authoritarian regime.

In Ethiopia today, the “rule of the gun” has been rendered useless by the tactics of civil resistance and de-legitimized by  reformist leadership of the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO). While the semi-liberalization of the political sphere that we are witnessing could be the beginning of a transition to democracy, if not approached strategically and methodically, it could open the door for a return of authoritarianism followed by a much bigger danger.

In general , people obey an authoritarian regime out of fear of the state’s possession of coercive force. In other words, they are governed by the “rule of guns” and not the rule of law. In a democracy, people obey the government out of respect for the law. That means, in a democracy, the rule of law produces obedience. Liberalization of the political sphere means loosening of the rules and mechanisms of repression. These rules and mechanisms of repression need to be quickly replaced by those of democratization. Otherwise, as repressive rules and forces relax, beneath the euphoria of new-found freedoms lurks potential anarchy.  For instance, previously the police maintained law and order by using guns and other forms of violence against dissenting forces. With liberalization, the people no longer expect or accept the “rule of guns” and the police lose the guidance and courage to either continue enforcing the authoritarian rules or experimenting with democratic rule of law. Hence once the state gives the signal to the public that the days of “rule of guns” is over, it must be immediately replaced with rule of law to avoid the vacuum that would lead to confusion, frustration and lawlessness.

This phenomenon is apparently beginning to emerge in Ethiopia. Confusion is spreading among security forces and the public. A security vacuum is being created. If the lurking anarchy increases, the very people who rebelled against authoritarian rules and forced its liberalization will start to have doubts about their new-found freedom. Remember people usually want freedom and security in combination,  If they have to choose between security and freedom, they tend to vote  for sacrificing freedom to regain security.  We are already starting to witness the early stages of anarchy. In much of Oromia, the lower level administrative apparatus is paralyzed and replaced by organized youth.  In cities such as Ambo, Waliso, Nekemte, and Adama, there are reports of armed robbery and a spike in the murder rate. It is important to point out that the crime rate remained very low in these cities, even during the height of the protests.

Police officers have begun to disappear from the streets during the night and may even join in on the crime business. With the high profile murder of Dangote cement’s country manager, the business community whose confidence was only recently returning after the protests, is now back to witnessing the deteriorating security with high alarm. In the east in Ethiopia’s Somali regional state, the president, Abdi Illey, has renewed his horrific border conflict.   Elsewhere in Oromia and other regions communal violence and displacement is being reported. Just in the last few days alone, clashes were reported in Hawassa, Walkite, Harar, Mandi, and Chinaksan. The unusual broad daylight bank robbery in the busting quarter of Bole in Finfinne (Addis Abeba) also indicates where things are heading. The new reformist leaders are pointing fingers at the deep state hardliners, accusing them of being behind the growing insecurity. Evidences also point in that direction.  Actions have been taken against the high profile men of the deep state to pacify their threats.  Unless legal and participatory measures are taken to get rid of rule of repression and quickly replace it with rule of law that can be enforced legitimately, the security situation is likely to further deteriorate.

To make things worse, the economy is in a free fall as a result of the tactics of the civil resistance, which centered around paralyzing the economic pillar of the regime, and also due to manipulation by the TPLF oligarchy flexing its muscle to derail the ongoing change that they perceived as a potential threat to their domination. The deteriorating security situation and deepening economic crisis combined could  shape the current perceived liberalization into widespread lawlessness, hopelessness and desperation.

At this juncture, the reformists have three choices:

The first option is to return to authoritarian rule and use force to restore order in towns and villages, and also  intervene in the economy forcefully to correct the market distortion created by the oligarchy. The downside to that is, in the process, they will become the new dictators, something that should never happen.

The second option is to watch as the situation spiral out of control and risk getting toppled by the hardliners, who may garner the backing of the insecure public. Again, this too should be dismissed outright.

The third option, the desirable course of action, is to quickly and firmly replace the “rule of guns” with rule of law. That is  to embark on a fast-track  transition to democracy.

How would rapidly transitioning to democracy help avoid further political crisis? As mentioned above, in an authoritarian system, order is ensured because people fear the rule of guns. In contrast, in a democracy, order is a result of citizen’s respect for the law. For people to respect law, they must believe that the law is legitimate and feel that law was proclaimed with their consent – consent which is gained through election. Citizens elect their representatives to enact laws that the electorate can be expected to obey.  Therefore to pivot the current trajectory away from possible anarchism, a clear path towards a free, fair and competitive election must be put forward. This will help avoid a crisis by, first, providing the masses with an opportunity to look forward to participating in the political process. This conveys a message that the lawlessness and economic hardships are temporary problems that will last only until a new social contract is reached through election. Secondly, preparation for an election will help channel the energy of the restless and desperate youth into participating the political process that holds out hope of a better future. In the last four years, the youth have been trained and mobilized on tactics to sabotage the authoritarian state and dismantle its structures. Now they have to be oriented to building a democratic system. Empowering them to participate in the political process by organizing them into a political force will allow them to direct their energy and also enables the elites of both the ruling and opposition parties to guide them. This will allow other non state actors to provide structure for the youth in party discipline until the rule of law is adopted following the election.

Therefore, it is in the best interest of the ruling party, the opposition, the activist community and other non state actors to push for the development of a clear path towards democratization. As I have argued time and time again, the reformist faction of the ruling party cannot lead this transition alone. No matter how good the reform measures they may enact into law, it will lack legitimacy in the eyes of the masses as long as the opposition is not involved. Of particular importance at this time is the need to negotiate with the opposition on the rules, administration and the timetable of the election. Both sides need to reach a clear agreement and announce it to the public. Delaying discussion on the path to a free and fair election by being misled with the euphoric response to the reform steps that have been taken is a serious blunder that will cost us all.  Even worse, heading to the election season without a prior binding agreement on rule of the political competition (electoral law and administration) is inviting campaign chaos and post election violence.

Similarly, any attempt to postpone the election without the consent of the opposition will be another wrong approach with disastrous consequences. Lastly, the ruling party should know that staying in power by rigging the election is no longer an option. At least in Oromia, the Qeerroo will not allow it. As I mentioned earlier, as lawlessness spreads and economic crisis deepens, the reformists may be tempted to bring back the rule of guns to assert control. That will amount to committing a fateful mistake that will bring both them and the country down.  AS

Ed’s Note: Jawar Mohammed is Executive Director of Oromia Media Network (OMN), and a prominent Oromo activist

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