The Foundation for a State in Peace with Itself

Mar 23 , 2019.

On March 14, 2018, 107 of the nation’s political parties reached a milestone. They signed a document that codified their relationship between each other and their conduct. The document created a council, represented by one delegate from each party, which elects a chairperson and a secretariat that rotates on a six-month basis.

The parties agreed to self-regulation, which may have a more binding effect on the incumbent party. In signing the document, the parties agreed to the supremacy of the rule of law, constitutional order and the government’s right to the monopoly of coercive power.

For an observer not versed in Ethiopia’s politics, these may seem like basic concepts to for a state aspiring toward a democratic rule. In putting the incumbents on the same footing as the opposition, especially in prohibiting it from using state resources for political motives, it is indeed a significant step forward for a nation lacking in democratic culture or the institutionalisation of power.

The significance of such an agreement has much more meaning when seen through the historical context of Ethiopia’s politics. Opposition parties have never been allowed into the political landscape until the 1990s. Even then, the path toward plurality has proven bumpy. Those that have been able to wage meaningful opposition were eliminated and prevented from participating in the political process.

One of the first important steps taken by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) administration is the olive branch that was extended to opposition groups, a testament to a willingness to tolerate differing views. In removing parties such as Patriotic Ginbot 7 and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) from the terrorlist list, Abiy asked for the opposition to meet him halfway. This uncharted path toward a democratic state is an offer that has rarely ever been made.

In signing this document, what the opposition has done is reciprocate the goodwill extended to it. In agreeing to the supremacy of the rule of law, constitutional order and the government’s monopoly of power, what the parties agreed to was not to question the legitimacy of the state. The laws and character of the state, they have agreed, can never be challenged by violence but only through legitimate political processes.

This is a far cry to how past regimes and administrations were treated by the opposition. Starting from the Dergueuntil Abiy’s recent reconciliation efforts, active armed opposition to the government were a continuous problem. Political transitions took place by coups and military actions, and the state was rebuilt in the singular vision of the victors. This cycle has perpetuated itself, giving each generation grievances to pick from.

The problem for this has always been an incumbent that looked to settle scores and right wrongs in its own vision rather than ensuring that injustice and relapses to autocratic rules are not repeated. The incumbent imposed its character, system and laws of its own making. EPRDF - whose constitution was largely liberal and whose rhetoric was democratically inclined – lacked the courage to see the opposition eye to eye.

It is no wonder that the victors attempted to remake the state in contrast to what their predecessors tried. Abiy took the leap to embrace the opposition, however costly to his own political standing. It was an important step in getting the opposition to sit together around a table and to similarly back down from a game of winner-take-all.

The document is a compromise and a sign of an assertion that no single group of elites have all the answers and that a grand bargain is indispensable for the collective wellbeing of every constituency.

But while the greatest burden lies on the incumbent, which has the resources as well as the legal mandate, the document is an important step toward ensuring the political transition is owned by non-state players.

Incumbents cannot be expected to provide the cure-all to each of the nation’s challenges. Expecting them will be setting them up for failure. This document will only be meaningful if the opposition is willing to use it resourcefully. Coupled with a free media landscape and a politically active citizenry, non-state actors have the power, more than any other time, to influence government action and policy changes.

Even better, the opposition has the power to chart a path toward building a viable state. It is a chance to cap the perpetual violence and victimisation and allow justice to reign.

But it is in the end only a platform. Like the institutions of the nation and the laws of the country, it will mean little unless it is utilised according to how it was designed. There will not be a consensus unless each party is willing to take its fair share of responsibility.

It is especially incumbent upon EPRDF to abide by its own initiatives. Unless it can be shown, as the party with the most resources and influence, that it can abide by the rules, any further effort to come to an understanding will be curtailed. Just as importantly, ensuring that no party is above the rule of law, has no access to undue influence and receives no special treatment by the government will legitimise the council.

The opposition, too, has its fair share of the responsibility. It should be noted that each party’s duty within the council is separate from its political agenda. A party’s conduct in relation to this council should be seen through the microcosm of carrying out its duties to the benefit of the democratic process, instead of the political ideology that it espouses.

If such crucial parameters can be fulfilled, there is no actual barrier that can derail a grand bargain that serves as the foundation for building a state in peace with itself.

PUBLISHED ON Mar 23,2019 [ VOL 19 , NO 986]

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