Can Ethiopia’s State of Emergency Lead to Genuine Reform?

Editors Note: From one of our readers.

by Kassahun Alemayehu

 The spike of unrest in parts of the country that preceded the Ethiopian government’s declaration of a state of emergency led many observers to ask, “Is Ethiopia’s success story of economic growth and political stability at last fizzling out?”  For fourteen years, Ethiopia has registered unprecedented economic growth universally recognized as pro-poor. Why, then, were Ethiopia’s leaders and Ethiopia-watchers surprised by the scope and magnitude of violence and the level of young people’s involvement in the disturbances?

However, to those who have been closely watching developments in the country, the writing  was  on the  wall.

The recent unrest inside Ethiopia came as good news for detractors of the EPRDF-led government that signaled the beginning of the end. There have always been those who have ignored the success of EPRDF’s political and economic experiment in fundamentally transforming the lives of the Ethiopian people during the last two decades.

The perniciously optimistic elements within the rejectionist opposition in the Ethiopian Diaspora have in fact begun falling over each other to get their one way tickets to Addis Ababa, to claim, as it were, their rightful places in the corridors of power. For the seventy-something old emigre politicians on the other side of the Atlantic or Europe, it was a dream come true at last–the ignominious defeat of a system they had long faulted for everything that had gone wrong in their own lives. People long thought to have lost their bearings were suddenly in fighting mood. The situation was that bad indeed—or so it appeared.

Obviously, there was a great deal of confusion as to where Ethiopia was heading even among those who support the EPRDF, most importantly the  peoples  of Ethiopia. As the most stable country in one of the most troubled neighborhoods  in the  world, it is not entirely  surprising  that the events in Ethiopia  drew that kind of heightened  interest

How do we explain this widespread violence that shook the country as well as understand the rationale and implications of the state of emergency?

Barely two months into the declaration of emergency, the situation in the country has shown a marked change for the better. This is not for lack of efforts by those who are bent on creating chaos in the country. Rather, the peace-loving people of Ethiopia has taken into their own hands the opportunity to rally behind their government’s efforts to effectively address the crisis. peace-loving people of Ethiopia have taken the opportunity the state of emergency has offered to rally behind their government’s efforts to effectively address the root causes of the crisis. The Ethiopian people  are identifying people within their own communities who are in the business of propagating  hate and promoting  violence.

It is my view that the pundits’ have provided an often misleading analysis of the circumstances that led to the unrest and the potential ramifications of these tumultuous events this past year. It is only appropriate, then, that we try and take stock of the underlying factors that will help explain how  we  have come to where  we are.

I believe that there are three major factors that account for and explain why the unrest took on the kind of decidedly violent form they did.

First, the country’s impressive has created objective conditions that not only raised the expectations of the people for better public services and amenities, but also an exponential increase in the population of the country. This caused an all too obvious stress on the government’s capacity to deliver on some of its promises.

For all the success the government has achieved in creating access to secondary and tertiary education to millions of Ethiopians–a miraculous feat in a country that could barely feed itself less than two decades ago—the job opportunities were for college graduates could not keep up with the number of students graduating every year This was inevitably causing frustration among the youth—leading many to say that Ethiopia was perhaps becoming a victim of its own success.

Second, the tendency on the part of some within the government to enrich themselves at the  expense  of  the  public—or the  use  of  public  office  for  private  gain—was creating  a  credibility gap for the government in the eyes of the public, long been accustomed to a state machinery steeped in the tradition of prioritizing the interest of the public first. The widespread grievances about bad governance and corrupt practices by some government officials were also beginning to take its toll on people’s patience.

These two factors made for a recipe of widespread public discontent in many parts of the country, more violent in some parts of Oromia and Amhara Regional  States.

The reason why these otherwise legitimate grievances had taken  on a  rather violent nature explains the third factor becomes all the  more  important.  While  the government  all along recognized that people were within their right to take it to the streets in a peaceful manner, campaigns, mostly orchestrated by the rejectionist elements in the Ethiopian Diaspora, were largely responsible for the introduction of unabated violence that claimed the lives of hundreds of people-both protesters and security forces alike. To make matters  worse,  financing,  training  and material  support  by foreign state and non-state ate were on full   display.

While the government was making substantive efforts to address the public’s legitimate grievances responsibly, well received by the majority of protestors, those who had long underwritten violence aimed at not only regime change but more importantly at the disintegration of the Ethiopian state would not stop at nothing to achieve their sinister objectives.

A media and intransigent elite that continues to question the fundamentals of the system­ accommodation of diversity, equality, and development remain serious challenges to the stability and even survival of the state. Social media further confounds the problem. The US-based rejectionist elites have launched a last ditch all or nothing campaign to destroy the system at its core. The fact that they had the audacity to target even traditional sources of authority such as Abba Gadas, religious leaders, and community elders–who they considered instruments of submission–was part of the destructive agenda these groups have been promoting at the behest of Ethiopia’s traditional enemies.

If the frustrations of youth were about lack of employment opportunities, the rejectionists’ answer was Molotov cocktails to burn down investment projects that had at least shown promises of creating badly needed jobs. The attack on investments also seemed  to have had the blessing of   a wide array of mostly non-state western actors who were jittery about Chinese  influence and the government’s insistence on policy autonomy. Traditional enemies of Ethiopia joined the fray with passion, hoping that a weakened or dismembered Ethiopia will  not  be  in a position to utilize its rich natural resources.

In fact, the violence target critical infrastructure and public facilities, including hospitals, schools, farms and factories.  The objective was obviously to destroy everything that represented progress in  the country,  thereby driving a wedge between the people and the government and ultimately creating an  ungovernable space. For good measure, armed motor-bike gangs were roaming the rural areas throughout the Amhara and Oromo regions, torching all signs of positive development into   flames.

It was clear the government and the peace-loving population were trying to shoot a moving target that had a much more sinister agendas than many  outsiders  cared  to recognize  for what  it was: a full-fledged armed rebellion targeting the peace, stability and development that had long started to benefit millions of Ethiopians. It was also a clear attack against the emerging democratic institutions of the country.

Some of Ethiopia’s friends were looking sideways, at best, or at worst colluding with the trouble makers, hoping that by diffusing the crisis a weaker EPRDF would crawl back to their fold. This might also lead to the forced abdication of EPRDF, giving way to a western-midwifed government, strong enough to do their bidding but too weak to preach and exercise policy autonomy. Their lack of finesse in diplomacy, their single-minded focus on their loosely defined economic interest, their geopolitical obsession with shadow-boxing the Chinese, and for good measure, their unquestioning promotion of the messianic democratizing mission, espoused by the National Endowment for Democracy and Human Rights  Watch,  have  all  been  on open display. Equally important, they seemed to believe they have the magic wand to put things back together once there is an implosion. After all, this has been the case in other countries. In Libya, Syria and Tunisia, external interference all began as benign attempts at fighting tyranny, or so it was presented.  The rest they say is   history.

Why, then, did the government declare a state of emergency if the grievances prima facie were legitimate?

In my view, the state of emergency is fundamentally about creating conducive environment for the government to address the legitimate grievances of the people by carrying out a genuine reform. The state of emergency was declared by the government to allow it the space deliver on its promises

Under the state of emergency, there are temporary limits on some selective democratic rights. This is to ensure the effective and efficient coordination of the security forces both at federal and regional levels. Coherence of action is important for a collective effort of the security apparatus to work, even more so when it comes to law enforcement on a scale such as the now given the violence.

The state of emergency has already restored the public’s confidence in the government’s capacity and readiness to maintain peace and stability and to protect badly needed investment. This will go a long way in creating thousands of job opportunities for young people—a key source of their frustration. Today, our youth want more jobs, not fewer; more peace, not less.

Implementation of the state of emergency has been successful not because of the numerical strength or weapons of the security forces, but because the people who saw the destabilizing aspects of the violence first hand gave their unwavering support to its success.

Equally important are the built in institutional  mechanisms,  such as the establishment  of the board  of inquiry accountable to the parliament, which have so far been successful in allaying the fears that the state of emergency would degenerate into an exercise to suppress democratic rights.

It confirms the people’s confidence about the intentions of the government that, following, a  recent  remark  made by  Prime Minister Hailemariam in parliament about the possibility of putting  an  end  to  the  state  of emergency  sooner  than  scheduled, the public reacted with caution rather than euphoria. While the emergency measures will only last as long as they are absolutely necessary, the fact that these measures have brought about a measure of much needed  normalcy is not lost on the   public.

What is the way out of this crisis situation? The EPRDF government must deliver on its bold promises of reform and genuinely so.

The state of emergency was declared to protect civilians and the constitutional order. It was not declared because the leadership of the country had second thoughts about the national imperative to advance the democratization process and to accelerate the process of strengthening independent institutions in the country. The Ethiopian people believe that dialogue, not Molotov cocktails, peace, not violence, are pre-requisites to strengthening a functional democratic system. When all is said and done, the state of emergency ultimately will facilitate addressing the root causes of the unrest . Until then, the state  of emergency  will  remain  in  place until such time that it renders itself   unnecessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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