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Op:Ed: Saving Ethiopia from its enigmatic present

Caption: Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians who came out to the streets of Addis Abeba on June 23/2018 to support the reform agenda being undertaken by PM Abiy Ahmed have pinned their hopes for a better Ethiopia

Belachew Mekuria, PhD, For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, October 21/2019 – Ethiopia has come a long way in experimenting on multi-national federalism as an organizing principle that was adopted not as a consocietional compromise to its enduring ailments, but as a result of elite bargaining. After almost three decades of learning, disruptions and regionalization, we are yet to see the genuine dividends of consociational democracy where divided societies endeavor to design grand principles and practices that help them find a peaceful way to survive together.

In no other time than the present is our future together brutally questioned. Neither have we come so close to democratizing the country. Paradoxically however, our politics and politicians appear in a state of acute care, and Ethiopians legitimately wonder as to how the country should be governed. To our misfortune, leaders, present and past, are pre-occupied with the tasks of managing the moment, with less energy and attention for the future directions of the country.

At present, we are witnessing the administration extremely engaged on addressing the concerns of the hour, and not the one year, two, three, thirty years down the line. Probably, planting of the seedlings was the one enduring structure that will outlast the leadership, even for that, prayers should be in order so that a successor doesn’t emerge with a resolve to redo, as it were, every initiative of the immediate past.

One may have to thoroughly investigate the underpinnings of communal tensions in Ethiopia. From reported incidents, a pattern for economic interests (jobs, land and other resource access) outweigh cases of boundary or other forms of contestations. Elites disagree largely due to shares in federal government positions and the likes which too have to do, to an extent, with resource/economic interest. Behind federal language controversies lie the economic dividends that come with being a native speaker of a widely used language at the expense of the minorities. It is therefore a matter of the highest significance to focus on economic transformation that lifts the youth out of poverty, anxiety and joblessness. Particularly the latter must be an agenda that should keep governments both at federal and regional level awake at night.

Dreaming to resolve the undercurrents of tension in the country in one season or one decade is complete naivety. We should however view it as a process that will only be a compromise, less than full satisfaction to all involved. Moreover, attention must be paid to building democratic institutions that enable the public to be an active player in the processes of striking the bargains that must not be left just to the elites. Where there are mechanisms in place to inform, engage, consult and listen to the common people, only then we truly are in-route towards sanity and hope for a democratic nation where linguistic and cultural groups continue to co-exist, tolerance and debate being their foundational principle.

The art of incremental reform

I have indicated in my earlier piece for AS that ‘the biggest mistake reformers commit over and over again is finding themselves laboring on a wholesale reform (ስር-ነቀል ለውጥ) that usually ends up achieving almost nothing. Many learn the art of incrementality the hard way and usually after it is too late. Belgium’s experimentation on federal state structure offers useful lesson that has come a long way in compromises while more act of perfecting it awaits both the political elites and the community. A number of subjects are parked by agreeing to disagree. The issues on Brussels, its boundaries and interests of the Flemish minorities that reside in the city remain subjects on which agreement is far from a success after six successive reforms of their governance structure.

For Ethiopia, no other subject is as critical as the economy at this very moment. Politics has become a lead subject of discussions for many Ethiopians, both within and outside the country. This comes not as a surprise because of the enduring implications of every political decision on people’s lives and livelihoods. As population expand together with coverage of education, the race for decent jobs intensifies and self-employment becomes the most aspired pathway to a living. Enablers of self-employment fundamentally relate to the way politicians and political institutions behave on matters of the economy. Tax regulations, licensing processes, land policies, financial regulations, ICT systems and capabilities of protecting lives and private property from wanton destruction play a do or die role in private sector development. That could explain why everyone has become a keen observer on what goes on in politics. Unfortunately, on many of those topics, malevolence and indifference, instead of benevolence, characterize the behaviors of a substantial number of our political elites. All available wisdom should be directed to articulating the preferred path for economic development. Even for that, incremental reform initiatives should be introduced rather than beginning to alter the fundamental structures of the economy through swift measures being taken at light speed.  

Learning to live with conflict

A fundamental reason for adopting federal systems is to resolve both historical and on-going conflicts in diverse societies. What that means in a long-term perspective is to establish permanent structures that take course whenever the need arises to respond to impending conflicts or in their aftermath. The understanding here is no human effort may ever root out causes that may trigger conflict in a society, even more so in societies as diverse as ours that opt for federal systems by way of a compromise. Ethiopia’s recent past for example, saw displacement of sizeable number of people and loss of lives and livelihoods as a result of inter-communal clashes, and political establishments at regional level are openly exchanging insults and continue to muscle up with each other. It is extremely strange that no specialized institutional machinery is triggered a result of any of those conflicts and the ensuing devastation that for a moment looks to threaten our very survival as a nation and eroding the values that kept the country together. Beyond the usual deployment of the police and the military (together with mobilization of emergency aid and resources both from within and abroad), it is an urgent matter to look into our institutions so as to approach the problem from an impartial, civilized and procedurally accessible institution point of view. That is how many countries prone to linguistic and other forms of conflicts have learned to live with those unfortunate tendencies and to a large extent avoid sliding into widespread crises. Such institutional set-up must be easily accessible, its procedures and mandates be clearly defined and should have resources at its disposal to make sure that it delivers legally and professionally sound decisions through swift processes. Not having such structures will ‘force’ people to take the law in to their own hands and violence will continue to breed more of itself.

Other than those structural matters, every policy design and reform initiative should be scrutinized from specific perspective of its potential for conflict. Would this measure in any way be an actual or perceived cause for conflict? How will this be perceived from the perspective of societal fault lines, linguistic and ethnic communities, large and small? Does it unfairly favor one group over the other? These and other questions must serve as litmus tests for enacting or abrogating any legislation or policy. 

We are at a critical time where the civil society must support initiatives for the development of political party establishments that pick the farmers’ and workers’ interest as an agenda instead of identity-based political groupings. The institutional arrangements that help us adapt to the realities of conflict together with such positive actions that dilute identity-based differences will eventually put us in the right course of stabilizing the polity. All these however will only be possible if they are made to stand on strong foundations of democracy, not so much through the organization of periodic elections, but through actual practices of free speech, assembly and establishment of strong pillars of democracy in the forms of independent judiciary, professional police, human rights commission and parliamentary committees.

Living the ‘constitutional moment’ with caution

When we speak of priorities one contentious subject relates to constitutional amendment. There are calls that advocate for exploiting the ‘constitutional moment’ we are currently living in as an opportunity. Prof. Bruce Ackerman, who discusses the subject within the American context, points out to four stages that may implicate a political change as signalling a ‘constitutional moment.’ Michael W. McConnell summarizes these stages as follows:

  • “Proponents of the change must ‘signal’ that they have the broad, deep and decisive support of the people for the constitutional transformation;
  • The political leaders of the movement must elaborate their transformative agenda into relatively concrete ‘proposals’ that the people can accept or reject;
  • There must be a ‘substantial period for mobilized deliberation’ by the people… during which the proponents of change gain the deep and sustained support of the majority of the People; and
  • Those accepted positions of the changes must be translated into ‘cogent doctrinal principles’ that will govern constitutional law in the future.” (Michael W. McConnell, The forgotten constitutional moment, p.121)

Are we in that state of constitutional moment in the sense that the political changes we are going through demonstrate strong challenge to the earlier consensus? This is a fundamental question that only an empirical research judiciously answer. In the words of McConnell, ‘broad, deep and decisive support of the people for constitutional transformation’ is critical to set the stage for the constitutional remaking process.

In today’s Ethiopia, no single subject has emerged around which we may confidently say there is popular support. A number of fundamental questions seize our attention that, one way or the other, lead us back to the drawing board – the constitution. But there is lack of consensus as to which path to take on every contested topic: the current multi-national arrangement for the federated units, land policy, fiscal de/centralization, constitutional adjudication through a court system, secession as a group right, etc.

I submit that a new constitution, whether by way of amendment or replacement, is best born as an outcome of a comprehensive peace process. Constitution being a social pact that not only serves as a limit on government power but also a reflection of the collective national vision of ‘THE PEOPLE’, it is imperative to first attempt to come to terms with our past through a peace process by which we endeavor to right ‘some’ of our past wrongs. There are ready-to-deploy tools of transitional justice that can be drawn from global practices and be usefully implemented with minor adjustments to our context. What were the historic facts that have led to economical, cultural and social grievances? What were the temporal and spacial contexts in which they took place? Who were the primary victims and perpetrators? What were the material and moral damages that ensued? How should we make amends to the extent practicable? And how should this guide our collective destiny as groups and communities inhabiting Ethiopia-that we commonly call our country?

There is hardly any doubt on our being in a constitutional moment of sorts. However, how can we pace and do sequencing on the measures that help us achieve the best out of this moment begs for answer. There are commitments to organize the national and local elections as per the set time frame under the existing constitution for fear that going even a day beyond the May 2020 election would deny this legislature (out of which the government is born) a mandate to govern. On the other hand, there are significant number of scholars and politicians that call for constitutional amendment before conducting any election. There are however less voices that call for a comprehensive peace process with a view to answer some of the questions outlined above together with many others before election and/or constitutional amendment. 

A more sensible sequencing would therefore put reconciliatory processes as first steps to be followed by either an election or constitutional amendment, whichever is collectively agreed upon. Any election in Ethiopia under the current environment means a certainty for a transitional government that will lead to a consociational bargain among those parties that have secured seats in the parliament. In the absence of continuity of the old order with or without elections, moving directly to constitutional amendment after a peace process would actually save resources that an electoral process would consume. The business of governing Ethiopia in its current form and with its existing enigmatic structures will be, to put it mildly, pouring water in a leaking jar.

The country has a Prime Minister who has received a global recognition for his efforts of forging peace in the region, particularly in thawing the ‘the no peace, no war’ state between Ethiopia and Eritrea. That is by far a significant achievement calling for a deserved Nobel Peace Prize. However, it is a paradox that his efforts at home in terms of restoring and/or forging healthy relations among various groups has never been this difficult. One may only wish that his concept of ‘medemer’ together with the momentum created by the international award will eventually put us in the right course of a comprehensive peace process and enable him serve a decisive blow against the cynics and the naysayers. AS

Editor’s Note: Belachew Mekuria (PhD), was former commissioner of the Ethiopian Investment Commission. He can be reached at


PS: The title for the article was inspired by Professor Messay Kebede’s book “Survival and Modernisation: Ethiopia’s Enigmatic Present” (1999, Red Sea Press, Eritrea).

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