Notes for the American Delegation
By Merera Gudina (PhD),
Professor of Political Science & International Relations, Addis Ababa university
Chairman, Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) and
Chairman, Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (MEDREK)
- Burden of history: In the last fifty years our country has experienced:
– the failure of the Imperial model
– the failure of the quasi-socialist model and
-the failure of the federalist model in all of which the country paid a very high price.The consequences of all of them is a transition from crisis, through crisis to crisis. Sadly, as a result we have continued our journey on the wrong side of history because of both the rigidity and hunger for absolute power on the part of our successive leaders. And, as a result of our leaders’ refusal to change millions lost their lives, millions were displaced, and millions have become refugees across the globe – in which very often both nature and our dictators have been cooperating against our peoples.
- For the present change to come
– my home region, which houses the country’s largest population, i.e. nearly 40% of Ethiopia’s population – paid very dearly. More than five thousand of our youth lost their lives, tens of thousands languished in prison (including myself) and nearly a million were displaced from their homes. Surprisingly, despite our contribution to the democratic struggle, the major forces from this region who immensely contributed to the change have been sidelined and our region is in turmoil where most of it fell under the declared and undeclared state of emergency – here known as rule of the command posts – i.e. military administration where there has been total disregard for the rule of law despite the much fuss made by the government cadres regarding their law enforcement actions.
- Knowing the intricacy of political transitions, my party – the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) with a larger coalition called the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Unity Forum (locally known as MEDREK), suggested the need for a National Unity Government that can oversee the reform of institutions from the judiciary to the security sector structure and the Election Board. To this end, we called for a genuine all-inclusive national dialogue, which could help us to ensure a smooth transition by helping us to conduct a ‘free, fair and credible’ election for the first time in the country’s long recorded history. Especially, we strongly suggested the need for a common road map that should be agreed upon by all the major stakeholders and the agreements reached honestly implemented by all.
- The response of the new leadership, which is incidentally an outshoot of the totalitarian party leadership, which ruled the country by using the ideology of ‘revolutionary democracy’ – a mother of all political problems in the country – is imposing a one-party road map, which is really copied from the country’s authoritarian past. The end result is the total mismanagement of the whole process of the transition, which reduced the changes introduced to cosmetic ones that includes the key institutions central for democratic reforms from the judiciary, the military security structure to the Electoral Commission – all created by one party and working in the interest of one party. Here, we think that the complex, insurmountable and interconnected challenges of the country cannot be solved by one man or one party.
- My party, the OFC with its partners – on the one hand has continued to push for an all-inclusive national dialogue while on the other hand preparing itself for the election. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, what I then called a ‘Devine intervention’. While the government was pushing for a unilateral decision to extend its term of office, we pushed for a need for an agreement of major stakeholders to ensure the smooth running of the country and use the opportunity to fix our outstanding political problems. To this end, we made a 7-page proposal that identifies the major pitfalls in the country’s hoped-for democratic transition and in the way forward by proposing the creation of a joint body that could oversee a genuine national dialogue that can win public trust, which in turn could supervise the impartiality of the government institutions in delivering the services expected of them – especially ensuring the independence and impartiality of the country’s Electoral Commission to conduct a ‘free, fair and credible” election. Again, sadly as the ruling party’s myopic political agenda is staying in power at all costs by making empty promises – it has frustrated our effort and went ahead with its own political theatre to unlawfully extend its terms of office. We strongly warned its possible consequences, but the ill-advised ruling party to satisfy its lust for power ignored our advice and illegally extended its government’s life span by getting it rubber stamped by a 100% one-party parliament. In this regard, it is important to note that all this is before the tragedy in Tigray, the much-worsened crisis, and killings in Oromia, Benishangul, Amhara, etc. regions.
- Let me answer why and how we are forced out of the upcoming election theatre:
- As we were struggling for a level playing field, Oromo’s most popular singer, who moved millions of Oromo youth (popularly known as Qeerroos) for freedom and democracy was cold-bloodedly assassinated under mysterious circumstances. The incident provoked a popular anger on part of the Oromo population, which led to hundreds of deaths and destruction of property. Using this pretext, the government moved very quickly by unleashing a war of repression against two of Oromos largest opposition groups – my party, the OFC and another Oromo party, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). Consequently, in a systematic repression, hundreds of our members, who are potential candidates – including part of its top-leadership as well as tens of thousands of its supporters were herded to prisons;
- In a shrinking political space – 203 of our offices across the country were closed (reduced from 206 offices to only 3). And even as the recent Report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (a government institution) clearly shows, a horrifying account of human rights violations are emerging across Oromia where the situation is growing from bad to worse. According to the same report, shockingly not only grownups, but underaged children and women are detained with their babies as young as five months old to tell the whereabouts of their husbands who have allegedly joined the rebels.
- Against our advice, the Electoral Commission, whose members were mostly handpicked by the ruling party has deployed election officers, whose list surprisingly includes – people from the streets such as: daily laborers, errand boys/messengers, unemployed youth, etc. In the past, election officers were thieves, but at least they knew what election means and were physically known to the local communities. Furthermore, they were not imported or exported to the localities. Central to the lack of the leveling of the playing field is that not only the Election Commission has totally lost its independence and there is a fusion between party and state, which has reduced all institutions in the country to a level of being instruments of the ruling party, what we call in political science: a ‘privatization of the state’ – a situation where the state and its institutions fully controlled by one group and work in the interest of that group by totally undermining the separation of powers and the check and balances thereof. The most serious worrisome thing in such a monopoly of power is both the politicization and partisanship of the security sector. That is why we are forced to say enough with sham elections, which failed to attract even ordinary citizens who are now being forced to get registered as voters with direct and indirect government pressures that run from the use of force by local administrations, which include denial of basic amenities of life such as sugar and oil without showing the registration cards. In fact, deadlines are extended several times because of a very low-level of voters’ registration.
- We tried to salvage the situation by proposing joint committees to be constituted from the election executives and the competing parties. It was agreed, but both the partisan Election Commission and the ruling party working in unison killed it at the implementation level. Far worse, even if about fifty registered political parties including the ruling party agreed last January over six main agenda items that constitute a package of national dialogue, one of which was to be focusing on election issues and to be completed before the upcoming elections – as usual the government side has frustrated it and nothing happened to date.
- In the upcoming sham election, 50% of the country’s population is going to be out of the game – as in Oromia, the country’s largest region only the ruling party running nearly alone, Tigray is already outside of the electoral schedule, Benishangul is in full crisis where several hundreds of people died while there are problems here and there in the South, Amhara, Somali and the Afar regions. In such a situation an all-important question that should be asked is; what Ethiopia’s PM and his strategists plan to achieve? The answer is what we call in political science: ‘electoral authoritarianism’, a show case to ensure the flow of aid from the donors by looking democratic and good to them, with little concern for its being a farce and meaningless game for their own citizens. Another equally important question is: can such election drama deliver the country’s three greatest needs: durable peace and stability, the birth of democratic Ethiopia and meaningful economic development? The answer is largely big Nos in all the three cases. And we hope many keen observers of Ethiopian politics can easily understand that what the triple failures means in a country where the cost of living is dangerously growing and millions of unemployed youth roaming the country’s streets with hopelessness, hunger and anger.
- What we expect from friends of Ethiopia?As we are at a very critical crossroad, we need a balanced support from the international community to cross the crossroad to peace, stability, and democratic governance. In this regard, what we want is a win-win situation based on a fair game for all, not more or not less. My party’s two main crimes are: to sign a memorandum of understanding with the OLF – another Oromo-based major political group and holding mass rallies last year in the North, South and Eastern Oromia, which attracted several millions of people. Both have panicked the ruling party cadres, who feared total loss of Oromia seats, which constitute more than one-third of the national seats. An important point to note here is that the population of Oromia is 8 times larger than Tigray – with boundaries with most regions of Ethiopia and stretching from North and South Sudan to Kenya, the two Somalis and Djibouti and any lay man can understand what the role of this region meant in holding the country together as a united polity. It is also equally clear what messing up such a huge region means to the stability of the country. Hence, we strongly believe that Ethiopia’s future as a democratic united polity lies in a genuine national dialogue and reconciliation – possibly like the South African ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ model supported by the international community – that can lead us to a new social contract between/among the country’s diverse political forces and communities. Hence, reiterating our commitment to salvage our country by contributing our share to the solution, we suggest the following actions to be taken without delay that can help us move out of our present political dead-ends:
- The government extend the election schedule, which is making little sense to millions of ordinary Ethiopians and may well be a source of yet another round of more disastrous crisis. Here, it should be clearly told that there is no military solution to the country’s complex problems, which has successfully failed under Ethiopia’s successive regimes. We sincerely believe that sham elections without choice no way help us to civilize our politics and cannot give a good image for the country that claims three thousand years of history.
- The ruling party stop running away from national reconciliation and immediately start honest and meaningful national dialogue with all the country’s major stakeholders so as to stabilize the country as quickly as possible;
- The government release all political prisoners who are detained under trumped up charges without delay – without whom national dialogue will be ineffective and meaningless.
- To level the playing field for all stakeholders, the ruling party stop criminalizing opposition politics, open up the dangerously narrowed down political space and allow political parties to open their offices as well as run them without intimidation, fear and harassment.
- The ruling party stop its strategy of a dialogue of the deaf and agree to draw a common road map that could help all of us to reach a win-win situation through a broad-based new political arrangement, which in turn facilitates the country’s hoped-for democratic transition.
- The ruling party and government immediately stop the massive violations of human rights across the country including extra-judicial killings, which is a worrying development and is reminiscent of the darker days of the quasi-socialist military regime from 1974 -1991.