Ethiopian Imperative: We Rise Together, or We Fall Together

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New Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Ethiopia needs debate, diversity, pluralism. Photo: Facebook

[Africa: Commentary]

It takes an exceptional reform minded party and a real leader to lead a people into a new political life and era.
Our new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, has set exactly the right tone to achieve this remarkably difficult feat during his address to the nation: expressing at the same time resolve and humility; making it clear that he is proud to be an Ethiopian while asking for forgiveness for the errors and violations of the recent past; affirming continuity through embracing the rule of law and the constitution, while welcoming a robust democracy and the change that it will undoubtedly bring.

In speaking about his mother and his wife, Abiy Ahmed has given us perhaps a glimpse of the ethics that guide his life. That must have also brought home one fundamental truth in politics which is nonetheless usually ignored: That human touch has an amazing resonance here as well.

For generations, the mothers of Ethiopia have silently and uncomplainingly borne the burdens of the ambitions of their husbands and sons. During the years of revolution and war, they were ready to sacrifice everything, to gain nothing for themselves. Our mothers must finally win the recognition they never sought but have always deserved. I bear witness to the truth that I proudly and humbly include my mother among these noble souls. Their prize should take the form of a simple normality in which they can see their families enjoy stability, in which progress can be achieved without destruction and mayhem, and in which children and grandchildren can grow up safely without political leaders demanding that they risk their lives.

The young people of Ethiopia have been at the forefront of every change that our country has undergone. By force of ideas and ideals, by bearing arms , stones and placards they have been our vanguards. Today’s political dispensation was induced yet again by our youth. Now the torch passes to the rising generation. They must take us forward guided by Patriotic Wisdom.

Every patriotic Ethiopian must wish PM Abiy well. If he succeeds, then we all do.

How should a wise patriot understand the situation in our country today? Our axiom, I believe, is that we have learned many painful but important lessons over the last two generations. We need equally to recognize our successes and admit our shortcomings—and those triumphs and failings can’t be missed for they are ubiquitous.

The most important lesson is that public affairs is not a zero sum game. For some of us to gain, it’s not necessary for others to lose. On the contrary, all Ethiopians will rise together, or fall together. We should never trust a political agenda that begins with wrecking what we have so that something better may come. The way ahead lies through respectful dialogue, building consensus, and reform. That reform may be rapid and far-reaching—but it should never be the brute application of dogma, but should instead be creating the space where diversity and pluralism can flourish.

For another lesson that we have learned is that there is no monolithic single formula for our country. Nor is there a ruling formula which justifies hubris on the part of those who have practiced it, in some cases for centuries. Recent development on the global level are making this all too apparent.

The EPRDF was conceived as a revolutionary party with an ideology and organizing principle which gave it self confidence that gradually developed into what many felt was an overbearing attitude. It is impossible to ignore this, nor is it an unjustified calumny. What recent developments have made self-evident is how much public opinion matters and that political parties would ignore this at their own peril. A fundamental truth in politics is being validated in Ethiopia today – people can be governed only by consent. This should in no way be alien to the EPRDF whose success right from the beginning was owed to the support of the people.

There is an underlying solidity to Ethiopia’s social contract of rule only by consent. This was one of the most important values that were validated by the success of the EPRDF’s armed struggle. For sixteen years of struggle, the fighters of the EPRDF were ready to sacrifice everything for the victory . Most liberation movements that win power come to see that power, and all the privileges that go with it, as their entitlement forever. Reformers in the EPRDF should recognize their ultimate victory in the triumph of human rights and democracy. This is a nobility of spirit that must be honored and if it has somewhat atrophied through time, should be regenerated.

With every passing day, it is getting more plausible that Ethiopian politics is entering a new era, of tolerant pluralism. For sure, some social media is dominated by polarizing voices and the official media remain unsatisfactory. Public Politics has, for now, been confined to the debates within the EPDRF, which is far from satisfactory. As institutions, our political parties—in government and opposition—are uneven, in transition or work in progress. But our social capital is strong, and for now that is compensating. It is impossible to quarrel with the notion that we have a people that any country would be proud of having. Our luck starts from there. They need a government they deserve - The best.

PM Abiy Ahmed in his speech has shown a keen sense of where Ethiopia’s societal strength lies. This is important: this transition cannot be squandered. If Ethiopia were to follow the path of most Arab Spring countries—Egypt falling back to authoritarianism, Yemen, Syria and Libya collapsing into chaos—that would be a historic cataclysm. Today, the trajectory is promising. The army and security must play their constitutional role and staying out of politics. Extremists with populist, exclusionary agendas should be kept on the margins. Our new PM has gravitated towards the political center, aware that the mechanism for change is political reform, and that the reform agenda must be managed through consensus building.

Our country lies in a troubled region, and in recent years more and more countries have been meddling in the affairs of the Horn. Remarkably, despite our internal difficulties, Ethiopia has remained a bastion of stability in a turbulent region. We still contribute peacekeepers and diplomats to help resolve the conflicts in neighbouring states; we still play a constructive role at the African Union and United Nations. For twenty years, some have predicted that we will fall apart like a rotten log. That hasn't happened so far and it shouldn’t be allowed to happen in the future.

PM Abiy extended the hand of peace to Eritrea: our friends in Asmara would be well advised to take that offer, not just because the strategy of waiting for Ethiopia to fail is as mistaken today as it has ever been, but also because neither of us can afford to remain divided by conflict and mistrust, when we collectively face far bigger problems that we must overcome together. But it is déjà vu all over again – Sadly, the preliminary indications are far from encouraging.

The challenge of political reform in Ethiopia is that we have so little experience of managing it. Our elites and commentators range from the cynical and fatalistic to the aggressively arrogant and self-righteous. Too few of our political class have the experience for the kinds of bargaining and compromise, reaching across the aisle to make a pact with a political rival, working with others whom they disagree with, for the common good.

Fortunately, there has been enough of that working experience of everyday politics within the EPRDF for the party to work through its crises, up to now. But the many years in which all others were excluded from the workings of public administration, and shut out of debates on matters of public interest, have taken their toll. The social capital of trust, of community ties to those who exercise public authority, have been strained.

Our new PM has a very difficult challenge. The public has high expectations for change—and some of those expectations require time or are mutually incompatible. There will surely be disappointments. There are many ready to ignite an agenda based on fear, should he falter.

But PM Abiy has a huge asset. His party has committed itself to reform and his state institutions are functional, our society has proven its mettle. Fifty years of upheaval have not weakened Ethiopia’s social capital, but to the contrary have strengthened it: Ethiopian women and men have a deep appreciation of the gains of stability, coexistence and respect for one another and for order, and a profound understanding of the perils of charging down the wrong path. Our society is bigger, stronger, and wiser than our politics, and the wise patriot will respect that.

This is too important a moment for Ethiopians to be spectators in their country’s turning point for the better. It is a moment to welcome the new order and to talk constructively about how we can contribute to a balanced, moderate, patriotic new political dispensation. We should not risk our transition by making maximalist demands, or threatening to burn the country should our ultimatums not be met.

We need to cultivate a political culture of respect, compromise, patience and give-and-take. That can start with a robust national political dialogue: what kind of Ethiopia do we want, and how can we safely get there? But at least one thing can be settled with no need for an extended discourse: Ethiopia should be prepared, sooner than later, for a political landscape when the EPRDF would be just one of the parties in the country with the capacity to govern, the consent for that privilege to be conferred by the Ethiopian electorate.

That is when we would say this ancient country – a beacon of hope for the Black race – has achieved sustainable peace, democracy and economic development.

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