by Netsanet Fekade
In recent history, Ethiopia has had three political transitions. All three involved the death of several civilians, displacement of communities and loss of property. The current transition has been less chaotic than it could have been, given that the state was on the verge of collapse before the change in leadership. Nevertheless, inter-ethnic clashes resulted in the displacement of 1.4 million people in the first half of 2018, rendering Ethiopia the country with the highest number of internally displaced people in the world. Like many, I long for a peaceful political transition in Ethiopia.
I am using Ghana as the frame of reference which, like Ethiopia, is a diverse multi-ethnic country. Ghana has been consistently ranked on the Global Peace Index as one of the 5 most peaceful nations in Africa and sometimes, the most peaceful country in Africa. I have lived in Ghana for a long time. I have witnessed five peaceful elections where each of the major political parties conceded defeat more than once. There have been minor incidences of clashes between a handful of political party supporters but nothing on the scale of what has happened in Ethiopia. So, what is it about Ghanaians that make them shun violence? Ghanaians are generally proud of their ethnic identity. Ethnic favouritism has had its influence to a certain degree, whereby a significant proportion of some ethnic groups see one party as their natural political vehicle as against the other. However, at the 2016 elections Ghanaians shocked politicians and surprised everyone else monitoring Ghanaian politics, by voting across ethnic division. Ghanaians, as a whole, have understood the importance of voting on issues and the dangers of tribal politics to peace and democracy.
The story should and could have been different, given the fact that Ghana was under colonial rule for over 100 years. The colony of the Gold Coast (pre-independence name for Ghana), was the collection of warring kingdoms brought together forcibly by colonial masters. Colonial powers exploited and promoted this division. It took strong post-independent leaders to lay the foundation for a United Ghana. Kwame Nkrumah, a nationalist, is widely credited for promoting boarding schools for students as young as 11 year olds. The students were mixtures of different ethnic groups that have come from the four corners of Ghana. Those boarding schools are still in existence receiving students from different ethnic groups. By the time a student graduates his/her best friend or even sweetheart, is most likely to be from another ethnic group. The effort to avoid ethnic tribalism is also supported by the legal structure. The Constitution of Ghana promotes integration. Both constitutional and electoral laws explicitly prohibit membership of political parties based on ethnic and religious divisions. Political parties are also prohibited from adopting names, mottos, colours or any other symbol that can arouse ethnic division. In other words, the politicisation of ethnicity is prohibited. This foundation for unity is sustained by the choice made by the vast majority of Ghanaians to live in peace and goodwill.
In contrast, Ethiopia- after more than a century old unity (albeit, one affected by civil conflict) and despite never having been colonised – established ethnic federalism. Extensive constitutional devolution of power to ethnic groups rendered Ethiopia the country that has gone the furthest with ethnic federalism. Many political scholars and concerned citizens foresaw the unavoidable consequences of such arrangement but their warning fell on deaf ears. The country was pushed into unchartered waters. National identity was relegated. Ethnic groups and their right to self-determination took prominence in the 1995 Constitution. Regional boundaries were re-demarcated along ethnic lines. This led to further division and violence. EPRDF seized the opportunity to consolidate its power and rule the country with an iron fist for 27 years, killing, imprisoning and torturing those who resisted tyranny. However, even this all-powerful government couldn’t suppress the defiant spirit of Ethiopians- that spirit that galvanizes the nation to fight foreign invaders and authoritarian rulers.
Some seem to have forgotten that the freedom that thousands died for is at hand. The fight should now be against the nation’s common enemy- ethnocentric politics! Citizens should be smarter than politicians that exploit the misdeeds of past leaders in order to breed tribalism and hatred among ethnic groups. Politicians should never be allowed to use history, good or bad, to divide the nation. It should be noted that separation does not guarantee freedom from repressive leaders. Eritrea is a good example here. Its secession from Ethiopia has not granted the people the democracy and freedom they fought for. The unity of Ethiopia is paramount to economic growth, military strength and cultural wealth. It will always be difficult to maintain such unity, if ethnic identity takes precedence over national identity.
The current government has taken positive steps to unite the nation. Institutional reforms and establishment of the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission are steps in the right direction. The review of repressive laws relating to the operation of civil society groups and the media is also vital for a democratic system. In connection with this there are calls for constitutional reform. As eager as I am to see the Constitution and electoral laws reviewed with respect to ethnic issues, the timing may not be conducive. It could be the spark that would set the country ablaze. Perhaps, a more effective approach will be to work on shifting mind-sets first. Once elections are held in 2020 and we have the first democratically elected parliament, questions of constitutional review must be raised. Meanwhile, the government should intensify the message of co-existence and inclusiveness in high schools and tertiary institutions, and tap into the power of music and art to galvanize mass support. The sense of unity in diversity should be inculcated in school children. Civil society organisations and religious leaders have a major role to play in promoting national cohesion.
As individuals, we have a greater role to play in sustaining peace and unity. I believe it is the responsibility of every Ethiopian to applaud the government when it is doing the right thing and hold it to account when it falls short of its responsibilities. We need to develop the habit of resolving issues through discussion that is devoid of ethnocentric bias or violence. We need to be big-hearted to rebuild a nation that was divided for almost 30 years. Peace and prosperity will come only if we all give it the best that we have.
Netsanet Fekade is a human rights lawyer (LLB, LLM, MBA)
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