The ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is today celebrating the silver jubilee anniversary of its assumption of power by toppling the military Derg regime. It is touting successes in accelerating economic growth as well as encouraging strides in the social arena as it looks back on its twenty-five-year administration.
Nevertheless, the grave shortcomings observed in the political sphere, and to a lesser extent in the economic and social arenas during the Front’s tenure, need to be critically examined. It should acknowledge that in as much as its overthrow of the Derg has brought about countless benefits, its rule was also beset by a raft of flaws. It is undeniable that Ethiopia has undergone fundamental changes over the past quarter of century. However, the changes have had both positive and adverse ramifications. Let’s take a look at those that stand out.
The measures taken to create a single economic and political space have led to promising outcomes in terms of ensuring respect for the rights of nations and nationalities and managing diversity in a way that enhanced the participation of the citizenry in national development endeavors. This said, questions arise over the extent to which such a new chapter could and should have progressed. Though the rights to self-rule, to use one’s language as the working language in regional and local administrations and courts, and to be taught in one’s mother tongue have been exercised since the constitution came into effect, a lot remains to be desired with regard to accommodating political differences in accordance with the constitution.
The political space has become constricted because of a distinct lack of desire to promote or legitimize any political ideology the EPRDF does not subscribe to. The oft-criticized human rights record shows no sign of improving. Civil society institutions that can play an instrumental role in the democratization process have been sidelined. Most of the basic tenets of democracy exist only in rhetoric; they are not practiced on the ground. And a large number of political parties pursuing a peaceful political struggle have either gone bust or become irrelevant due in large part to political pressure. This inability to accommodate differing political views is one of the gravest problems facing the country.
The rave reviews Ethiopia has been receiving owing to its economic advances are sadly detracted by the continuous censure of its spotty record on the global stage in promoting democracy and human rights. Nothing much has come out of promises to rectify past historical injustices. It’s only when democratic and human rights are protected, diversity of views is respected and the building of a multi-party democracy take root that the country’s peace and journey on the path to development can be assured. This requires the facilitation of conditions whereby citizens can participate fully and with a sense of ownership in the development and prosperity of their beloved country.
The achievements of the government geared towards extricating Ethiopia from the clutches of centuries of abject poverty and put it on a growth trajectory have earned it plaudits from far and wide. In spite of the rosy outlook on the economic front, the country continues to be at the mercy of the scourge of drought. Its inability to end dependence on rain-fed agriculture to feed its people has rendered citizens vulnerable to the vagaries of nature and become perennially food-dependent. The suffering of millions must and can no longer be blamed on climate-change-induced drought. It is a source of national shame that many countries which have a harsher climate than Ethiopia have managed to become prosperous while we go begging cap in hand despite possessing optimal weather conditions, vast arable land, considerable water resource, and a population that is predominantly youthful. Such a state of affairs should not be countenanced any longer.
The economic growth that the EPRDF is proud of is not immune to one legitimate criticism, though. Were the benefits of the growth equitably shared and trickled down to the masses or did a select few get rich at the expense of the poor? The rags-to-riches story of a handful of individuals within the blink of an eye is a case in point while the vast majority of the population leads a wretched life makes the case that the growth is not genuinely inclusive. How can hardworking families who barely make ends meet accept that growth has occurred when they are left out? How can we talk about an equitable distribution of wealth in the face of the plundering of the nation’s resources at the hand of those who became unbelievably wealthy overnight through corrupt practices? Though the fact that the per capita income of Ethiopia is steadily rising may be used to substantiate the argument that the country is on track to become a middle-income country within a decade or so, the increase would be hollow if the living standard of the bulk of the populace does not improve as a result of the growth. The signs that Ethiopia is on track to join the rank of middle-income nations would have been apparent by now if its growth was more inclusive.
The EPRDF is prone to comparing itself to the Derg, a military dictatorship it ousted, and Eritrea, which chose to go its separate way, as it evaluates the past twenty-five years. The seventeen years of the Derg’s horrific and tyrannical rule is not something the EPRDF should measure itself against more than two decades after the junta’s overthrow. One winces to see it occasionally goes back even further and engages in a comparison with rulers of the feudal era. And contrasting its record against that of Eritrea—a country which has spurned even sham elections, multi-party democracy and a free press, among others—is akin to setting a low bar for itself. Instead it should aspire to emulate advanced democracies and economies in Africa and elsewhere. It’s senseless to compare oneself against egregious regimes at a time humanity is living in an increasingly globalized world.
Ethiopia needs to have a national consensus if it is to rid itself of deep-seated problems which have beset it for centuries. Citizens who feel they have a stake in issues of national importance must be encouraged to contribute their share regardless of differences in political outlook. Doing so can go a long way towards persuading them to devote their knowledge, experience, capital and other resources to the nation’s development. This requires, inter alia, respect for the rule of law. The age-old propensity of the executive branch of the government to put itself above the law has to stop. The principles of separation of power as well as check-and-balance between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary ought to be scrupulously observed. The more the executive flexes its muscle forging national consensus is bound to be quite difficult. A nation can grow and prosper when its citizens are empowered and believe that they have control over their destiny. Assuring respect for the rule of law is central to the realization of this ideal. As the EPRDF celebrates the twenty-fifth year it overthrew the Derg, it should reflect on its failures even as it extolls its successes.