Since imperial days, Ethiopians continually waged struggles to find release from authoritarian rule and a stifling public culture. Of late, in the wake of protracted public protests and a change in the leadership of EPRDF, there are signs, warmly and widely welcomed, of a turn to a more open and freer political space, among them: the release of imprisoned dissident journalists and leaders of the political opposition, a relaxation of restrictions on public expression, decriminalization of opposition parties, and a public commitment to honor human rights.
These steps, bold as they are, aim at rectifying glaring faults of the past. It is important to ascertain that they are also expressive of a standing aspiration to create an enduring democratic space of wider scope. Does the release of dissidents and the decriminalization of opposition parties demonstrate a full commitment to the rule of law, essential to the creation of a free and open democratic space?
To understand the importance of this question it would be useful to take a glance at change and continuity in Ethiopian political life. All who previously proclaimed change in Ethiopia set free dissidents and other prisoners deemed unjustly victimized by their predecessors. These acts, however, did not usher in a new dispensation where similar abuses became uncommon, much less unthinkable. It also helps to recall significant moments under EPRDF rule that may well have given rise to expectations of a new era of respect for the rule of law: the reasonably fair trial of senior members of the military regime, the flourishing press during the transition, the vigorous electoral contests of 2005.
What, then, is required by way of institutional design and public engagement to create a lasting public democratic space that is not hostage either to the magnanimity of public authorities or to transient passions of the populace?
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Eidtor’s Note : This article was released December 2018
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