Recent protests in Ethiopia

From CDRC DIGEST: A monthly publication of the Centre for Dialogue, Research and Cooperation (CDRC)

With the potential to undermine peace, stability, political and economic successes Ethiopia registered in the past two decades, protests have been witnessed recently, some planned and others ‘spontaneous’, in the Amhara and Oromiya regions of the country. Some of these protests were peaceful, while some were deadly–destroying properties and resulting in the loss of lives. This has put immense pressure on the government and the public at large.

The crisis naturally infused concerns about the sustainability of Ethiopia’s developmental efforts. It equally generated questions among observers, inside and outside the country, reflecting concerns with respect to how the EPRDF-led government would address the emerging challenge, which has the potential to jeopardize the hard-won commodity in the country, peace, stability and development.

Things now visibly have reached the point where the government has simply to react, at times forcefully, to protests clandestinely organized via social media outlets. The EPRDF government made solemn declaration and commitment to combat ‘rent-seeking’ at all levels including top party and government leaders. However, not only the public but also the leadership itself cannot claim that it had been successful to subdue rent seeking.

Symptoms signaling ailment of the implementation of government decisions have repeatedly manifested at times with sluggish response to address them comprehensively. The handling witnessed in relation to the delivery of justice and good governance, job creation for millions of unemployed youth in urban and rural areas, the Addis Ababa Master plan, new traffic rules and few other instances, could be taken as cases in point.

The government’s initial reason for the protests may not be dismissed out of hand, though this has not as such convinced many. No doubt, the government doesn’t discount the possibility that grievances over governance issues and lack of employment opportunities may be the drivers of the protests. But the government narrative is much dominated by concerns with law and order and focuses on the role of external actors in instigating the crisis with a regime change agenda.

In the meantime, emotions surrounding governance matters appear to be dealt with by government leaders at the rhetorical level, never being given priority attention. The claim that the country faces external challenge and that the recent turmoil has some external drivers is not all that implausible. Indeed, there are groups, some operating from distant places (paradoxically in states considered friendly to Ethiopia) and others from areas very close to Ethiopia, for whom there is no greater satisfaction than seeing Ethiopia’s progress derailed and the very existence of the country put in jeopardy.

But the question that comes to the fore is: how did EPRDF falter to realize the fact that if not properly handled, such popular questions could easily be used and ultimately hijacked by elements conspiring to undermine the trust people have in the EPRDF? How did EPRDF sire a generation, cautiously nurtured and engaged within the fold of an all-encompassing federal arrangement, opt for politics of hatred that engendered violence and destruction? Why was EPRDF unable to question whether it has created one political and economic community that it envisioned for the country?

These opposing groups while they have loud noise and their role in the social media might have been extraordinarily deadly, their effectiveness on the ground, particularly concerning military activities, (Vol. 1 No. 1 SEPTEMBER 2016 )2 has been minuscule and downright insignificant. The results in the propaganda domain, nonetheless, have been different, thanks to the low level of attention given by the government to the role of the media. But still despite the fact that the protests appear to have been driven by social media messages coming from outside the country, it is impossible to ignore that much of the protests appear to be domestically generated, and even more critically, more or less spontaneous.

None of the political parties inside the country have owned the protest movements, though there have been some who are inclined to seek credit for the turmoil. The Semayawi/Blue party came close to ride on the Bahir Dar protests of August 7, but distanced itself quickly. Apparently, one cannot rule out the possibility of acquiescence from within the party circles intent on imposing their version of solutions to some of the challenges facing the EPRDF. Whatsoever the case, how could the security apparatus fail to notice and restrain these protests, letting the whole affair boil up to the extent of involving the military to check the protests?

It is fast becoming evident that EPRDF’s future depends on the government’s determination to pursue long envisaged plans and strategies with clarity and renewed vigor embracing all stakeholders including those with dissenting voices. Even though the government would pay much attention to its internal cohesion rather than the protests, to observers, both Ethiopians and outsiders alike, what underlies these ever widening protests is perhaps the lack of sufficient trust in what the government says and does and the growing conviction, or feeling, that the government has failed to deliver on its promises.

It is indeed ironic that a government that seeks to control the airwaves within the country is barely listened to; and some media outlets financed by those who are mortal enemies of the country have won significant domestic followers. Moreover, uncharacteristically, the EPRDF has recently not been very coherent, giving credence to the view of many observers that the ruling party is not that united, creating anxiety among Ethiopians that care for the unity, stability and development of the country. That the country is adrift is a sentiment shared by many. Apparently, internal disenfranchisement within the ruling coalition has visibly engendered narrow group interest of a given circle, or circles aspiring to ascend into a ruling elite by exploiting existing deep entrenched backward cultural and political misconceptions, potentially derailing constituting groups from the urgent task of addressing the biggest existential challenge Ethiopia faces—poverty.

Consistent frictions involving political elites, religious groups, diverse admixture of the populace in a way have defined the very fabric of the Ethiopian multi-national state for a longtime. In the process, distinct national identities have crystallized based on a long history of political, economic, ethnic, linguistic, socio-cultural and territorial ties; so has entrenched consciousness for co-existence. Since 1991, Ethiopia has been exercising the establishment of a federal arrangement and the possibility of self-determination by nations and nationalities recognized constitutionally. The nation building process in Ethiopia has yet to be completed.

Given these realities, current protests in Ethiopia also need to be viewed in light of an ongoing process of state formation and consolidation. In this regard, the role of the social media, extensively utilized by (Vol. 1 No. 1 SEPTEMBER 2016 3) government detractors, in fueling the unrest should not be underestimated.

Recent protests fuse historic as well as immediate grievances, and if not addressed in time with all the necessary wisdom and magnanimity, would entail grave consequences for the people and government alike. Embedded tribulations, including developments in the past twenty five years, simply await a point of ignition to spark an emotional outburst, and can potentially more than dent the country’s irrefutable achievements. This must not be allowed to happen.

The government’s democratic developmental state strategy and pro-poor initiatives have obviously created losers and winners within the social fabric. Those in power should create mechanisms to address these grievances. If left unattended divergent aspirations and anarchy could easily prevail and may easily impair the way forward. Whenever governments unwaveringly continue stifling political space and fail to accommodate dissent, discontent and anger naturally seek for an alternate fissure to vent long pent up emotions. Where viable channels – be it access to the media, political association/representation, and/or outright readiness to interact with the masses – remain stifled, those at the helm of power are simply begging for social unrest. It requires vision, wisdom, humility, caution and leadership acumen to touch bases with the essence of the popular demand. EPRDF has consistently expressed its readiness to create a demanding society.

But this requires an independent and functioning civil society. Various sectors of the society must be encouraged and assisted to organize themselves in associations and unions and defend their interests. They can play a critical role in the country’s peace and stability as well as development if they are allowed to function independently. Trying to mold them along party lines might not help either EPRDF or the society. In fact, EPRDF’s avowed mission to create a demanding society, whereby the people exert the necessary pressure on the government, cannot materialize unless the people are organized independently along their interests.

On the other hand, opposition groups are not distancing themselves from the ‘doomsday’ analogy, and are not helping the people to navigate these difficult times and failed to assert their positions of credibility. EPRDF, shouldering the burden of running both the state and government, equally has to scrutinize its deliberations in good governance and democracy as well as public engagement. Those questions, if not attended to, will be hijacked by violence prone opposition parties working day and night to undermine the legitimacy of EPRDF.

In a parallel development, some within EPRDF, energized by self-proclaimed assertion of nationality identity are already doubling down on the claim that bad governance lies at the root of many citizens’ problems. The sense of being left aside and decline in living standards, irrespective of the unprecedented economic growth, readily lends considerable appeal to the argument these populists pose. Rent seeking individuals and groups within and outside the ruling party, distorting and exaggerating existing economic grievances, inter-ethnic tensions, and skewed power representations in the various institutions, are bound to attract support, which will compromise the very fabric of EPRDF.

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