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A Political Renaissance in Ethiopia: What Should Change Look Like?

This is an extraordinary time in Ethiopia’s history, a time of tremendous opportunity and hope. Long overdue reforms initiated by Prime-Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took office on 2nd April 2018, offer the prospect that democracy and social unity could at last become a reality in the country.

Before PM Ahmed took office Ethiopia was ruled by one of the most violent and repressive regimes in the world; freedom of the media, freedom of expression and assembly, political dissent and the judiciary, were all tightly controlled by the TPLF regime, which had been in power since 1991. Miraculously, all of this has now changed, and within a very short space of time, it offers hope not only for Ethiopia, but for the region and the wider world.

The new governments reform program has three main ‘pillars’ as they are called: 1. A vibrant democracy. 2. Economic vitality. 3. Regional integration and openness to the world. All very general and nothing extraordinary, but positive actions have followed and goodwill built. If democratic change can occur in Ethiopia it can take place anywhere, but, over and above the obvious elements, such as the observation of human rights, political pluralism, freedom of the media, independent judiciary etc., what should that change look like?

Impressive start

After undertaking a nationwide tour in which he stressed the need for forgiveness and reconciliation, PM Ahmed and his team swiftly began work. All exiled opposition parties were invited to return to Ethiopia and engage in dialogue, thousands of ‘political’ prisoners were released, including all journalists; the torture chamber known as Maekelawi Prison in Addis Ababa was closed, constitutional amendments were announced to limit the length of time anyone could hold the office of prime-minister, and the draconian state of emergency was lifted. The PM met the Eritrean president and began discussions to end the twenty-year conflict, and in a broader sign of how this cooperative approach is impacting on the region, the Djibouti and Somalia authorities have since held peace talks with Eritrea.

A series of historic actions followed: the military occupation of the Ogaden or Somali region has been brought to an end, all prisoners held in the notorious Jail Ogaden released and the prison closed down. A new regional president, Mustapha Omer, who was critical of the region’s authoritarian leadership, was appointed. A new cabinet was announced and gender parity established. Women now hold the two key security positions – defense and the Ministry of Peace, which oversees the police, the intelligence services and the information security agency. All this and more within months of assuming office. Remarkable by any standards. It shows what can be achieved if and when the political will exists.

While the new government attempts to build unity and social harmony, there are others, bitter remnants of the past that continue to work to aggravate ethnic divisions and ferment violence. As a result of inter-communal conflict there are estimated to be over two million internally displaced people in the country. Other than providing some humanitarian aid, the federal government has done nothing to relocate these people, whose homes have been destroyed. This is a national emergency and needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

What kind of democracy?

Despite a decade of economic growth averaging 10% per annum, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world and ranks 173rd out of 186 countries on the UN Human Development Index. Around 26% of the population lives in extreme poverty (less than $2 a day), and a much larger percentage struggle to survive on under $5 a day. While the government claims that 50% of the population has been lifted out of dire poverty in recent years, the principle beneficiaries of growth have been those in high office and the already comfortable few. With growth the cost of living has rocketed, food, accommodation and transport prices have all increased dramatically, impacting on the poorest sections of society.

Whether in Ethiopia or elsewhere in the world, sharing is key to overcoming poverty and establishing social justice; sharing wealth, resources, skills and knowledge based on need. Sharing also cultivates trust, encourages cooperation and helps to build peaceful communities. Participation is a form of sharing and a cornerstone of democracy.

In addition to poverty, within the catalogue of challenges facing the new government, health care and education stand out, as well as environmental issues – Addis Ababa e.g. is the third most polluted city in Africa, after Cairo and Casablanca.

As Ethiopia enters into what Prime-Minister Ahmed describes as a ‘political renaissance’, the opportunity to discuss what kind of nation it wishes to become presents itself; what values and ideals should be pursued, what methods employed? In the demonstrations that brought down the previous regime protesters cried out for democracy, for freedom and justice. In response, the government’s first reform ‘pillar’ calls for the creation of a ‘vibrant democracy’. What form should that democracy take?

The corporate state democracy of the west, in which political power is married to economic wealth, is a far cry from true democracy. While a level of freedom exists and, in some countries, civil society is strong, there is no social justice and participation by employees in the workplace, students in education and the general public in politics is weak or non-existent. Western democracy has been conditioned by government’s ideological devotion to an economic system rooted in competition and commercialization. It is a model that has failed the vast majority of people and poisoned the planet. True democratic values such as tolerance, sharing, understanding of others, cooperation and kindness, are incompatible with the ideals of the market – profit at any cost – human or environmental, separation, personal success, greed.

So, what type of democratic country do the people of Ethiopia and their government want to create, and, given the international pressure to conform to the economic stereotype, do they have any choice? Listening to the PM’s speech at the World Economic Forum it would appear not. He made clear his government’s intention to embrace the Neoliberal circus; he sounded more like the CEO of a medium-size electronics company looking for investors, rather than a national leader. Perhaps the audience conditioned his remarks, but there was no real vision, other than the usual economic ambitions; it was all disappointingly familiar.

Like all of sub-Saharan Africa the population of Ethiopia is young, the median age is just 18, around 60% of the country are under 25. More children are attending schools than ever and although Internet connectivity is poor and until recently access was heavily restricted, young people are in touch with the wider world in a way that was not possible for previous generations. Hundreds of thousands of under 25-year-olds took part in public protests, which began in November 2015 and led to the collapse of the government. They risked their lives for change, they deserve more than a market-led democracy.

This is a truly historic time for Ethiopia, general elections are scheduled to take place in 2020, between now and then the opportunity exists for a national debate to take place. For too long the people were silenced, now their voices must be heard. Platforms within the media – state and independent – in universities, schools and within the church, need to be established that allow the community as a whole and young people in particular, to express their views and share their aspirations for the future of their country and indeed the wider region.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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