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Opinion: Elections in a divided Society: National elections or national reconciliation for Ethiopia?

Members of Ethiopia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Moges Zewdu Teshome @MogesTeshome10

Addis Abeba, May 08/2020 -It might seem very strange, at a first glance, to regard Ethiopia as a divided nation but the truth is that Ethiopia is more divided than ever, partly because of the polarized nature of the contemporary politics. Yet, the big question is: why is the politics so polarized in the first place? From the get-go, there is no single answer for this question. Nonetheless, I would argue that the main ‘culprit’ for this ever-expanding polarization is the lack of general consensus on the historical narrative(s) of the state building process and the conflagration of politics that came with it.

Essentially, there is no national salvation without national humiliation; that is to mean that unless we come to terms with our past, there will hardly be a way out of this haunting experience. Thus, in this piece, I will discuss about the primacy of national reconciliation over national election and how best to achieve that end.

National humility for national salvation

It is to be noted that there is an initiative to bring about national reconciliation in Ethiopia through the instrumentality of the Ethiopian Reconciliation Commission (here in after the Commission), even though the process appears to be stalled. In any case, the main challenge for the Commission is to met out the ‘truth’. However, the truth finding function of the Commission is not apparent from the nomenclature of the Establishment Proclamation. On the other hand, the Commission is entrusted with the overarching objectives to attain. The Proclamation states that ‘‘the objectives of the Commission are to maintain peace, justice, national unity and consensus and Reconciliation among Ethiopian Peoples.’’ Consequently, the truth finding task of the Commission is implicit in its general and ambitious mandate. Here, I will not deal with the detailed mandates, legitimacy, and efficacy of the Commission, for the sake of space. Rather, I will focus on one important subject relevant to the issue under discussion; that is, the truth-finding chore of the Commission.

So, what is truth and how can one reach at a truth, if there is any? More particularly, whose truth? Unfortunately, truth is not a monolithic concept and it has various layers. Since we try to uncover truth from the debris of historical events and historical events, in turn, happen within social, political, and economic contexts, it is not possible to formulate a single truth acceptable to all. Truth is also highly related to and /or determined by identity; that is, as Michael Ignatieff  puts it, ‘‘[w]hat you believe to be true depends, in some measure, on who you believe yourself to be.’’ This makes the narrative truth very contingent as compared to factual truth, which can be verified through corroboration.

More challenging is the task of finding authoritative truth in socially divided nations, where various groups offer their own narratives about historical events. The nature of the truth being what it is, the Commission or any other body that will deal with truth finding chore can achieve a core minimum. That is, to quote Michael again, ‘‘[a]ll that a truth commission can achieve is to reduce the number of lies that can be circulated unchallenged in public discourse.’’ Accordingly, the starting point is to acknowledge our gloomy and tortuous past and agree on the bare minimum of truth about history as we endeavor to make great strides towards democratic system. To reach at such a consensus, national dialogue and accommodative politics is imperative. Like individuals who experienced trauma find a means to deal with it, ‘‘[s]ocieties shattered by the perpetration of atrocities need to adapt or design mechanisms to confront their demons, to reckon with these past abuses’’, argues Kritz. Simply put, without political consensus on the historical narratives, including the pathologies of the Ethiopian politics, there will be no national healing. This bring us to the healing process via national dialogue and accommodative political system.

Accommodative politics and transition to democracy

It is undeniable that we have embarked on a transition from authoritarian rule replete with dark memory of the recent past. Indeed, the ruling party has officially admitted this fact and promised to transform the political culture of the country, for better. And there are some signs which point to that direction. Nonetheless, we are still as divided as before, if not worse, and the symbolic election has been deferred due to Covid-19 pandemic. Hence, we are facing double crisis: the unresolved political polarization and the looming constitutional gap (crisis).

But the concern many people tend to have overlooked is whether holding the election in a divided society will be a curse or a blessing. I am of the view that before embarking on election there needs to be national dialogue to address the outstanding problems; lack of national consensus, polarized politics and the marginalized roles of the political parties and civil societies in ‘‘making the environment safe for democracy.’’ Enthusiasts for election (un)wittingly overlook the fact that post-election violence is more devastating than not having a symbolic election at all. As Ishiyama correctly observed ‘‘…elections in ethnically divided societies will produce “census elections” that are inimical to democracy. This is so because such elections tend to create impermeable blocs that detract from inter-ethnic accommodation.’’ Admittedly, we have a perfect storm for census election as things stand now.

Without having a national consensus on historical narratives, taming the polarized politics and empowering political parties and civil societies to play greater role in the transition process, what is the grand aim to be achieved by holding elections? The ultimate goal of any election is to entrench a democratic culture and ensure rule of law. Nothing more, nothing less. Democratic culture, in turn, takes hold if it is solidified by political legitimacy of the incumbent government. Legitimacy is not taken for granted but earned through trust building process. To this end, competing political parties should be engaged and there must be a broad agreement on the rule of the game- the election process. Any election, no matter how legal it might look, will still be devoid of political legitimacy. The tenet of a free, fair, and credible election is determined both by its process and its outcome. Put differently, constructive engagement with relevant stakeholders, especially with the opposition parties, is quintessential to bring about democratic culture.

Without these minimum trust and general political consensus, the election process will be shambolic, and its outcome will be symbolic.

To be more precise, the recent crisis is as much political as it is legal. Practically speaking, the incumbent is a transitional government with another name. Its legitimacy, if there had been any, was disrupted by the event of the breath-taking protests that allowed the reformist government to stay in power. In fact, the change itself was the cumulative result of the contributions of various groups, the youth, political parties, and civil societies. As such, there was an informal ‘social contract’ between the government and those stakeholders that contributed to the political reformation. Henceforth, the government needs to engage the political parties, in good faith and with a view to earn trust and enhance its political legitimacy. This constructive dialogue has also an added value, which is its direct positive impact on the national consensus, peace, and eventual reconciliation.

Without these minimum trust and general political consensus, the election process will be shambolic, and its outcome will be symbolic.

The Constitutional gap and national election: The way forward

As the four possible legal leeway to avoid the quagmire has been extensively discussed by various experts, I will focus only on one of the alternatives tabled by the government, which is in tune with accommodative politics. I call this a purposive and limited interpretation of the constitution, which is part of a political package deal. The package deal includes holding election within a short and designated time, an agreement on the necessity to make comprehensive amendment of the constitution, establishment of an independent consultative body to provide recommendations to the government on the activities to be done in the interim period and periodic national dialogue on the outstanding issues discussed above. The limited interpretation of the Constitution will be an interpretation of Article 54/3 of the Constitution (on the term limit) in light of the consequence of the pandemic. In other words, the effect of the pandemic on the term limits of the members of the parliament as opposed to making a blanket interpretation that extends the term limit in case of any future crisis. The general exception to the term limit shall be addressed in the comprehensive amendment of the Constitution in a later stage to be agreed in the package deal.

Arguably, the limited interpretation of the Constitution as backed by the package deal is legally sound and politically pragmatic. Comprehensive amendment of the Constitution answers two concerns. The first one is to constrain the government from resorting to sweeping interpretation and bolstering the role of competing parties in the transitional process. The second, and perhaps more important function of the comprehensive amendment is to address the persistent and legitimate public outcry for amendment of various controversial provisions of the Constitution. For example, the Amhara people and other pro-unity camp had rejected the Constitution, not only because of its exclusionary adoption process but also because the Constitution was nothing more than TPLF’s Party Manifesto. Put differently, the Constitution has been suffering from a legitimacy crisis and it must be rectified.

To sum up, we need both national reconciliation and national election. However, before embarking on election, we need national political consensus through accommodative politics. And the preferable alternative to the current Constitutional gap, which may lead to acute legitimacy crisis, seems to be a limited and purposive interpretation of the relevant provision of the Constitution as part of a political package deal  for it accommodates the political and legal issues. AS

Editor’s Note: Moges Zewdu is a former law lecturer at Haramaya University and has law degrees from Addis Abeba University and the University of Dundee. He is a candidate for a Master of Advanced International Studies at Vienna School of International Studies.

He can be reached at mogeszewdu2013@gmail.com

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this opinion are that of the author’s and do not reflect the editorial stand of Addis Standard.

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