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Democracy and its Trade-off: Ethiopia ’s Path to National Reconciliation

Doubtless, attempts to create governments in which ruling and opposition parties work together have failed in many countries. The reason seems obvious to me: many of these attempts were either imposed by patron countries or the existing government was in a weak position and needed to buy time to regain strength. The recent remarkable achievement of Tunisia confirms that a genuine willingness to include the opposition is the only way of moving toward a democratic path. After a bumpy road marred by assassination of opposition leaders followed by massive protests, the Tunisian prime minister announced the formation of a new government of technocrats. The decision was a clear concession to the secular and leftist oppositions whose main demand was the change of the pro-Islamist dominated government. This momentous concession led to the signing of a new constitution committed to a secular state and guaranteeing basic freedom and gender equality. “The constitution,” the assembly speaker said, “without being perfect, is one of consensus.” Contrast this outcome with that of Egypt: the refusal of the Morsi government to include the opposition in the political process despite large and violent protests demanding unity government only led to the ousting of the Islamist government by the military, which is but a serious setback in the democratization process.

Two major lessons can be drawn from the Tunisian experience. 1) There is no democracy without compromise with the opposition. The Leninist version still practiced by many African countries, including Ethiopia, and according to which democracy is the violent silencing of the “enemies of the people,” is diametrically opposed to the simple fact that democracy means the acceptance of participation in the political system of all those who have different programs from the ruling party. This same requirement applies to the opposition as well: opposing the government cannot mean the political exclusion of the ruling party by means of election or armed struggle under pain of adopting the Leninist version of democracy. 2) In the case of Ethiopia, which is entangled in the far more serious ethnic embroglios, the feasible solution is a government of national reconciliation, which government only works under the condition that all those concerned and especially the TPLF make the necessary concessions by themselves, that is, without external intervention. If it is imposed or accepted reluctantly, it will undoubtedly fail. As attested by the Tunisian case, the willingness to make it work must be equally present in all the parties. By will I understand a strong commitment emanating from well-thought out interests by all concerned, especially long–term interests. Simply put, it is a choice between dictatorial power––the severe downsides of which are blockage of development in all aspects of life and uncertainty with the constant danger of popular rebellion––and democracy with the promises of stability and the unleashing of the creative forces of the country. That is why I say it is a rational position.

I add that, on top of securing protection against revengeful policy, the TPLF can find another opportunity, no more to rule Ethiopia exclusively, but to become the patron of its democratization, a role that can be construed as a corrected continuation of the sacrifices paid to defeat the Derg. The perception by the people of the TPLF as a patron and protector of democracy is not only how it dissolves the popular resentment accumulated during two decades of repressive policy, but also how it acquires authority, as distinct from brute force, which authority can easily be used to build popular support within and outside Tigray.

A government of national reconciliation is by definition transitional; its main task is to create mutual confidence, realize some common goals achieved through consensus, define clearly the duties and rights of all participants, and ensure their protection by established institutions. Moreover, each time the government stumbles against a contentious issue that seems irreconcilable, it refrains from making any final decision. Instead, it agrees to put the matter to a popular vote as soon as conditions for fair debates and voting permit. How long this government of national reconciliation will last should also be a matter of agreement.

It follows that the immediate task of the government is not to organize elections; rather, it is to prepare the conditions of fair elections. To rush to elections without establishing the appropriate condition, especially the creation of an atmosphere of mutual confidence, is to invite the fear of “winner-take-all.” Elections must be organized only when all involved feel confident enough to no longer fear repression and revenge and when the country shows some sign of real development, not only for the few, but also for the many so that people see what is at stake when they cast their vote. The purpose of reconciliation is to create the hope for a better future for all involved and to get out of the present system in which the gains of some are built on the mistreatment of others.

Posted on ECADF

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