Political Settlement the Way Forward to Overcome the Deadly Impass

Oct 16 , 2021.

For many, the past rainy season was a critical moment in the life of the nation. One was the second and most crucial filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), likely to detrimentally affect the balance of power in the region and infuriate Egypt, a country over three times the economic size of Ethiopia. The other was the much anticipated sixth national elections for federal and regional legislative houses, which was controversially pushed by a year.

It was assumed that getting past these events would help the government focus better and give its political and economic situation normalcy. This is how the ruling party, which formed a government earlier this month sees legitimacy that shall no longer be questioned and a “new chapter” for the country.

Prosperitarians are even going a step further. They appear to show magnanimity as in victory by giving three opposition figures cabinet positions. The earlier signals were when regional governments included opposition personalities in their respective executive bodies.

It is a gesture emphasising that although voters in constituencies where the election took place voted overwhelmingly for the Prosperity Party (PP), oppositions parties would still have their voices heard and even have a say in how the country is governed.

In normal times, such inclusivity would have spoken louder. It would have shown that some federal agencies and institutions would be headed in a more accountable and transparent manner, no small thing for a country that has never known a pluralistic government and an autonomous civil service. But these are not normal times, and the political space is no longer dominated by groups that are merely frustrated with lack of representation. The stakes are much higher. The matter of political representation is not for eventually democratising the country but a case for actively saving lives and livelihoods.

The Ethiopian state is in the process of degeneration, the days of mere political hegemony appearing to be a lost golden era. To the international community, it is no longer recognisable except to a much older generation that knew it during the civil war and famines of the 1970s and ‘80s.

Before a cavalier attempt at inclusivity, there needs to be a political settlement that serves as a foundation for a semblance of peace and stability, if not liberal democracy. All it takes to recognise this is to look around the country, where displacement, hunger and massacres have become commonplace.

Two regional states - Tigray and Amhara - are already locked in a fight to the death, while the former is at risk of famine. The Oromia Regional State is home to a growing insurgency. The Afar region is embroiled in the northern civil war even as its paramilitary forces constantly clash with neighbouring Somali regional forces. Benshangul Gumuz is ungovernable, almost, and the Southern region has its share of conflicts. There are a few places people would visit these days without anxiety.

The headwind the economy faces would not make things easier. There is no better proof of the macroeconomic upheaval than the International Monetary Fund (IMF) cannot project the country’s economic outlook for the following year. It is telling that the IMF did not feel the same way about the economic prospect of other hot spots of trouble such as Libya, Myanmar, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen. Ethiopia finds itself in the same bag as Afghanistan, Syria and Lebanon.

Against such challenges, a government that includes members from opposition parties contested and lost in the general election is akin to putting lipstick on a pig. The problem is with the structure of the house, not the paint applied to it. The house is crumbling, and its debris is falling on people trapped inside of it. It desperately needs an overhaul, not flag-waving, constant drumming up of nationalism and the token inclusion of a few opposition-lite faces in government.

Ethiopians need the courage of their leaders to free them from a state of fear and uncertainty. At this point, there cannot be an advantage to continuing the war. Even those who insisted it was necessary almost a year ago now falter in justifying it and only make arguments motivated by their insecurity.

It is not that it is hard to justify the war. It cannot be won. Over the past year, both sides of the war have pointed to advances on the battlefield as to why it should be continued for a bit longer until they can wipe out their foes once and for all. This logic does not hold up unless either side can successfully carry out atrocities of overwhelming proportions – as the civil war is not merely between armed groups but lingo-cultural ones. It is either this or an imposed peace by the victors, several of which Ethiopia has had before but without guaranteeing sustainable peace.

Lasting peace needs a fair and inclusive political settlement between the various leaders of groups contesting for power. The same cannot be achieved with ideological allies, such as Prosperity Party and Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice (EZEMA), only tolerating each other. Before, such alliances had been forged between the EPRDF and its allies with groups considered “periphery” or between the Dergue and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (popularly known as MEISON). But these have disenfranchised massive sections of the population, and the eventual resort to armed struggle as the civil war in the north and the insurgency in the South-West is a testament.

The net needs to be cast much wider than political forces with shared ideological persuasion. The goal should be more ambitious than a symbolically inclusive government.

Political forces such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) boycotted the last elections, questioning their fairness. Others, such as the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), designated a terrorist organisation by parliament, are in an open-armed struggle, as is another one in the Oromia region. Several leaders of major opposition groups are also behind bars. The current government needs to make its peace with all of them or continue to confront them for however long it is in power. The latter is not sustainable.

The leaders of the various adversarial groups need to negotiate for political settlements. This is not nuclear physics, but it requires courage none of them has shown before. They can find their motivation in the continued suffering of the people they claim to be fighting for. Instead of the bare-knuckle battlefront deathmatch, they should consider agreeing on settlements where their ideas are voted for in the political marketplace.

Military confrontation has not worked to date.

PUBLISHED ON Oct 16,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1120]

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