Political Violence Is Back, and It's Depressing

June 29 , 2019.


There are few moments in the long history of a particular society when incidents serve as a prelude to what is yet to come. The regrettable assassinations of high profile political leaders and top brass military officers late last week could serve as one of these. It is not that this country is new to such episodes of political violence. There were several such moments of despair and anguish in the past.

The attempted coup on Emperor Hailesellasie by the Germame brothers, in 1960, was a pivotal moment in Ethiopia`s recent political history. It might not have succeeded in overthrowing the Emperor, but the brothers did succeed in changing the course of Ethiopian politics. Another pivotal moment was the assassination of Fikre Merid (PhD), a prominent activist during the student movement and one of the leaders of the All Ethiopian Socialist Party, in 1976. Though it did not bring about an immediate change in the power alignment, that event precipitated a change in the rules of the game. It ushered in the era of political violence in the country.

What transpired last week in Bahir Dar and Addis Abeba could very well be such a pivotal moment. Using violence as a form of advancement of political ends is a different order of magnitude than the average breakdown of law and order the country has been experiencing recently. All political actors in Ethiopia, particularly those who hold the lever of the state’s coercive power, are standing at a pivotal crossroads of history. The choices they make now will determine the course of this country for decades to come.

History might help in showing how other countries facing such moments have managed to overcome trying times. When Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in 1990 after 27 years of imprisonment, there was almost universal euphoria. Most people thought there would be a quick transition from Apartheid to democracy. But the reality was never that straight forward.

Four years of unremitting destabilisation led to the loss of 14,000 lives before the first all-inclusive election was held in 1994. In the run-up to the election, there was an average of 452 deaths monthly as a result of political violence. Consequently, the world was holding its breath, fearing the country might descend into civil war following the election if the losing parties did not accept their defeat gracefully.

When societies held together by an overwhelming force of the state are released from the grip of authoritarianism, it may not be surprising that conflicting interests contest for political power. In the absence of the only glue they knew - state coercion - they often resort to replacing it by fragmented political violence.

Collective actions that involve brutal physical force in causing damage to an adversary to impose political aims describes a culture of political violence in society. It often occurs when part of the polity demands radical change to transform some aspect of the state after it develops a perception that the status quo is unattainable. Yet, its advocates also would conclude that meaningful change through the traditional process of legislation and institutions are either unavailable or seen as too slow and incremental to make a difference.

The sad incidents of last week reveal that part of the Ethiopian political society has reached such a conclusion. The stage for the emergence of a political subculture sympathetic to violence appears to be set due to a long history of a one-party system, which denied an opportunity for alternation in political power. As a result, the hegemonic party became synonymous with the state, and the political elite in power displayed utter disregard for accountability and the responsible use of power. The compounded outcome of this was the loss of legitimacy of the party system by the general public, leading to social conflicts and various mobilisations of discontent.

This is not unique to Ethiopia though.

Waves of state formations in history have usually followed chaotic and catastrophic events like the two world wars. It seems like the natural path toward a state that is formed by a bargained consent of the governed has necessarily to go through a period of polarisation.

It is at the stage of polarisation that different interests make claims - often conflicting - on the behest of their constituencies. However, unmediated polarisation in a political culture eventually leads to escalation due to gross misunderstandings by elites representing opposing camps or factions. Nonetheless, if the Madisonian view is any guide, if factions in society are inevitable, “It is best to have lots of them.” It is not possible to eliminate factions without deploying an unacceptable degree of coercion or ensuring conformism that would be subversive of a democratic order.

The trouble comes when these factions progress their escalations to radicalisation where members of the various factions immerse in their self-constructed versions of reality and lose a sense of external reality, if not the ability to foresee the consequences of their actions.

The politically motivated killings of the three leaders of the Amhara Regional State in Bahir Dar, and a few hours later the murder of the Army Chief of Staff and a retired army general in Addis Abeba are evidence that there is a deeper crack in Ethiopia`s political culture.

They show the emergence of highly radicalised groups in a political subculture where their followers are immersed in violence that distorted their perception of external reality they disagree with. It also demonstrates the increasing sense of justification for violence as “right”, and collective radicalisation considered not as deviance but a norm. It is more than evident now that radical subgroups in broader social movements are in motion in Ethiopia. They are competing for resources and recruits in pursuit and services of radical collective identities, while in the absence of autonomous, robust and competent state institutions.

Describing this development as disturbing is an understatement.

James Madison has advice to offer to societies which find themselves in such a delicate and fragile situation. “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and, in the next place, oblige it to control itself.”

The Ethiopian state of old that was based on a unitary form of government or the existing multiculturalist federalism held together by a paternalistic and authoritarian state is wobbling under the weight of contestations for power from nationalist breeds of pan-Ethiopianism and ethnonationalism. The centrists in this dichotomy appear to have little space as their voice is too frail to be heard.

It matters how those holding the state power choose to respond to the challenges they face. Putting the full force of the law to hold those behind the crimes perpetrated against the political and military leaders should be the first order of business.

Nonetheless, the political challenges they should overcome is far broader and more substantial than law enforcement. They may come to see that the culture of repression may feed into isolation and further radicalisation. They would instead opt for the constraints imposed on political violence in the form of institutionalisation of confrontations by the various subgroups and the depolarisation of social and political movements. Such a process, however, could only succeed if run by a legitimate government whose popular mandate to govern is earned through fair and credible elections.

That brilliant mind of political science, Samuel Huntington, has this to say on the subject: “For democracy to work, the government of the day must be vulnerable to replacement while the regime survives.” Indeed, there is a trove of scholarly work that demonstrates that “the more deep-rooted democracy is, the less widespread is political violence.”



PUBLISHED ON Jun 29,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1000]





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