Ethiopian Politics – Building Democratic Institutions Is Not a Panacea


A year has passed since Ethiopia’s new rulers declared a new beginning for the country, although no-one seems to know the real contents of its roadmap until today. The ruling party is no longer as unified as it used to be, and the opposition camp is characterised by controversy and mischief.

This has trickled down to other groups, such as public and religious institutions, and even families. A brief glance at the contents of social media outlets is enough to see how disfranchised our communities are and how the political elite (the so-called “politicians” and “activists”) have succeeded in dividing our communities.

Even sports venues and learning institutions have become places of tension where fighting based on ethnicity is a common occurrence. Those who purport to having a miraculous solution to this political ailment prescribe the establishment and fortification of institutions as the sole remedy. No doubt, democratic institutions, if staffed with people of the right mindset and attitude, can play a vital role in improving the country’s political climate. However, do such institutions have the power to heal the minds of power-hungry political elites who dare to use “any tool under the sky” to get what they want?

Can these institutions transform the minds of millions of youth who have been indoctrinated by blind hatred against their fellow citizens from the “other” ethnic group? And, above all, can these institutions repair the broken relationships between people who have, time and again, been told by their own political elites that their neighbours are indeed the reason for their poverty and lack of proper governance?

We are at a time when we need to take a hard look at the circumstances before recommending an easy fix for the myriad problems the country has sunk into. If we assume that strengthening institutions alone will resolve the problems the country is faced with, I am afraid that we may be setting ourselves up for further disappointment.

I have been fortunate enough to visit dozens of countries in the continent of Africa on many occasions, and as such, I have had the opportunity to take a close look at their institutions. By comparison, I rank Ethiopia’s policies and institutional strength among the best. If the existing institutions were led by people of the right conviction and deeds, these institutions would have taken the country some distance.

This is not to mean that all is well, and Ethiopians should not improve their policies and reform their institutions. On the contrary, new policies appropriate for every new occasion should be promulgated and existing ones revamped. However, to blame all ills on the lack of institutions does not seem justified.

After all, institutions are staffed and led by people. It is people who have become so wayward that they need repair more than institutions do. What magic can institutions perform in order to transform the corrupted minds of such elites? The situation in Ethiopia has, unfortunately, invited elites who have no shame to deploy their privilege for the wrong purposes. Under the circumstances, there is no guarantee that extremists will refrain from blaming any form of organization and blame anyone in a position of authority until they get what they want – establishing their own “kingdom.”

According to opinions expressed in social and print media, the existing political system is another factor blamed for the country’s problems. However, I am unsure whether the current extremism and discourse of hatred have anything to do with “politics.” Politics is meant to have been founded upon some ideals and principles. I see none here but the dissemination of deliberately and skilfully crafted false narratives by those who are determined to get to power at any cost. Some of those actively engaged in the political space do not deserve to be called “politicians,” because they are not.

Whether we like it or not, the elites have come to realise that whatever they utter will be supported by the communities they claim to rally behind without much debate or discernment. This has further encouraged them to continue their evil deeds. The public in general, and the youth in particular, tend to be drawn in to this deception due to the long-standing suspicion of public systems among groups. The question is, how long should the country continue to be unstable, and what does it take to stop these power-hungry elites from taking the country to hell with them?

In my opinion, the political elite has failed to reach a consensus, or even conduct a decent dialogue. Even now, each group within the political elite is trying to outpace the other by claiming to be the political Messiah who spearheaded the movement against the establishment. These elites, including Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) group are frequently heard talking about their “tigil” an Amharic term meaning “struggle.” I do not think the word choice is random. Even though Ethiopians undoubtedly know where these elites were and what they were doing before the changes, these elites deliberately chose the word to counter their predecessor’s use of the term “tagay,” meaning “one who struggles.”

If anyone deserves to be called a “tagay,” it should be the people who suffered for decades not only because of the ruling party, but due to the overall political conundrum. However, these elites have awarded themselves the title purely because they have the power to do so. To call the political trickery and the series of narratives and counternarratives that these groups were engaged in as “tigil” does a disservice to the true meaning of the word. Be that as it may, the primary objective of the very mention of the word is a direct claim for compensation by the new, self-proclaimed “tagays.” In other words, they are the winners in this “tigil,” and they deserve to be rewarded with a “fat chair” of some kind. By extension, they are also telling us that those whom they reportedly defeated should lose everything. This sends a clear message as to what their intentions were – nothing but power. Even if we were to believe that the current changes were a result of their “tigil,” should Ethiopians allow these elites to hold the country – and its people – hostage?

How many more people should have to die and how deep should the economy plunge before we can say enough is enough? In fact, shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the new “tagays” to set a different pathway, if they are to set themselves apart from their predecessors? In addition, the political elite and individuals need to be reminded that if the trend is not reversed, there will always be another group of “tagays” that will come sooner or later, which may proclaim that its predecessor shall suffer the same fate (pay in kind).

My point is that institutions alone will not be able to fix the current problems. In addition to the principle of “institution-building,” if not preceding it, Ethiopians must work to reset their mindset and focus on emphasising common grounds, rationalism, and a culture of dialogue. This is the most likely path towards bringing order and direction to the state of the country. The youth should also go through an “unlearning” process in order to erase the Wild West mentality and learn the process of civil dialogue in order to embrace more constructive channels of protest.

We need to stop ourselves from falling into the trap of cheap propaganda and calls for violence. If politicians are not willing to abide by some form of discipline, then we, the people, must force them to do so. A nation, whose youth makes up 70 percent of its population, cannot stagnate in political limbo. Nor can it afford to derail the momentum in economic development that it has experienced in recent years. Investors need a stable country where their assets can be protected and be productive. Every economic and political opportunity lost means more unemployment, which adds more fuel to further chaos and social crises.

Prime Minister Abiy’s failure to unite his own party, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is also, in my opinion, part of the problem. Whether or not Abiy is unable to unify his party or he wants to perpetuate the tension for some political gain in the future is unclear. However, the tension between the EPRDF member organizations and the lack of consensus on some core agendas may indicate that the party is either “broken beyond repair” or there is an internal power struggle where the PM’s role is in fierce contention.

This can create unease among Abiy’s camp and supporters. Unless the party’s integrity is restored, and each member party shows allegiance to the party’s common objectives and purpose, the discordance will continue to trickle down to the public; opposition parties and activists may blow the differences out of proportion and use them to agitate their groups which in turn can create apprehension and anxiety among the general public.

If the ruling party and its leadership can’t demonstrate that it is capable of resolving its own differences around the table, the prime minister can’t blame other organizations and the general public for not tolerating each other’s differences. George Washington, being a leader of a new democracy himself, was known to have “believed unity, not division, was necessary for a [new] democratic republic to survive.” Hence, Abiy’s team needs to be the first to demonstrate tolerance and willingness to resolve differences peacefully. We are at a time when heroes are needed to lead the way.

In addition, systematic and intentional transformation needs to be planned and executed at two levels – short-term, and long-term. The political elite has failed Ethiopians in the past five decades. It is time that citizens take charge and bring back a sense of peace and stability. For that to happen, Ethiopia needs to invest time and resources in order to transform the minds of its citizens.

Families, schools, faith institutions and the media need to run a “Save Our Country” campaign by inculcating the right socio-political behaviours in the population, while at the same time a long-term plan is put in place to save the future generation. As Albert Einstein insisted, our sanity will be in question if we continue to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result.

Institutions are as good as the people creating and running them. We can have world-class democratic institutions – even designed by angels, but without people of the right attitude and conviction, institutions will fail to deliver the miraculous results we are all looking for. In reality, people come before institutions. The investment made towards creating people of the right social responsibility determines how these institutions perform. Let the government work refining institutions but investing on the youth shouldn’t be ignored either.

Ed.’s Note: Maereg Tafere is based in Toronto, Canada. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. The writer can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Maereg Tafere

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Publish date : 2019-05-13 08:43:30

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