Now that the election has been definitely postponed to an indefinite date, what should the incumbent government do in this long interim before election? There are certain actions the government needs to take , in addition to managing the Corona pandemic , to set the country in the path of democracy. In some ways, Dr. Abiye’s government have already started doing that, even though in some instances superficially, there are still more.
The freeing of political prisoners, and the invitation of the previously outlawed political opposition groups, the armed and unarmed, whether inside the country or in exile , to operate freely in the country, practically granting out-right amnesty, is very commendable. So as the relative freeing of the press, the attempt to revamp the judiciary, and the placing of Birtukan Medigsa to head the election board, all are very impressive and encouraging moves taken by the government.
But there are some who regard these as just cosmetic changes to mollify a demanding public and not deep and genuine reforms. As a reference, they point out that the same EPRDF apparatchiks that were part and parcel of the Woyane regime still hold key positions in government. Moreover, some of the new positions open in government are being filled up by mainly Oromos, favoring party affiliates to the detriment of merit-based hiring , which indicates that the same ethnic biases and preferences that was the hallmark of the previous government is still in place. People think not much has changed and that business is as usual.
This public perception of Dr. Abiye’s administration as favoring Oromos will erode public trust in government. Considering that the history of the ruling governments of the past was full of examples of oppression and marginalization, the incumbent government need to be cognizant of that fact and not only demand of itself a higher standard of moral turpitude and selfless public service , but most importantly be governed by the constitution. Resuming governmental practices just like in the old days where the ruling elites ruthlessly run roughshod over the citizen, flouting the constitution, is not going to be tolerated anymore.
In addition, there are legitimate concerns that the government has been dealing with the press in a heavy-handed way. The press which is considered as the eyes and ears of the public, still finds its voice muzzled now and then by the government. The state media continues to be the voice of the government and invariably shuns from criticizing it. Complaints by the opposition of not getting enough time on state media is not given much weight and repeatedly ignored. Journalists appear to be freer than when under TPLF/EPRDF, but in reality are not completely free. The anxiety over the new version of ‘anti-terrorism’ laws , a watered-down variety, looms large in their minds. As in the previous government, it can be invoked at any time to repress and detain opposition individuals or groups. Many think when government feels much criticized, it’ll feel threatened and start clamping on the press and other media outlets. This practice is all too familiar, the public had seen how that worked in the twenty-seven years of TPLF/EPRDF rule(mis-rule).
Abiye’s government needs to speed up the reform process and genuinely address inefficiencies and corruption in the bureaucracy. This is going to be a difficult task because of the entrenched culture of unaccountability and non-transparency. The corruption is conspicuous, the same individuals from the previous political party, who were notorious for dealing and wheeling in shady businesses are now in the prosperity party carrying out their nefarious business as usual. These opportunistic individuals need to rectify their corrupted conduct or removed from their positions. This could be an obstacle if the integrity of key leaders in the prosperity party Is already tainted. Embezzlement, graft, nepotism, and other corrupt practices were well-established in a neo-patrimonial state such as the previous government. It takes a strong leader with impeccable probity to fight such a deeply embedded culture of corruption. It all starts with the leader, a leader who is unblemished by kleptocratic tendencies , who observes the rule of law, and whose deeds are accountable and transparent. Such a leader will set a model for his followers to emulate. But, of course, there will be some in the government, despite the leader’s example of unblemished conduct, who will abuse their office to get rich. It’s very rare to see a government that is not afflicted with corruption , it exists every where , and the degree of corruption varies from place to place.
Clientelism, kleptocracy, Neo-patrimonialism, or simply using the generic term, corruption, is prevalent in weak states in most developing countries. In a country such as ours where the private sector is undeveloped and jobs are scarce, getting into politics merely to have access to the state’s resources and quickly enrich oneself has been the coveted career for many individuals. As long as the state is perceived as this prolific cow that can be milked at one’s desire , we will always have wicked individuals more interested in lining their pockets than serving the public.
A significant number of people see Dr Abiye as an incorruptible and selfless leader who indefatigably labors in the interest of the citizen. Their expectation is that he would gradually uproot corruption from the state machinery and corral the bureaucracy into functioning as a democracy. He is expected to strive to lead the country in the path of democracy. As a priority, he is expected to overhaul , streamline , and make the state efficient to serve the needs of the public. In other words, they anticipate that he cleans house as he embarks on this experiment in democracy.
Next in importance to fighting corruption is maintaining political stability and security in the country. The precarious security situation is complex to deal with when you have well-armed regional militias operating freely and lawlessly. Disarming militias with political ambitions of their own could be a mammoth undertaking that demands soft and hard power.
The government should have the will to use soft power to politically settle differences with all political actors by understanding their needs, and collectively deciding on a win-win solution. This will demand from the government an unprecedented way of dealing with challengers, it requires having faith in dialogue to overcome problems , unlike in the historical past where the stronger group relies on its coercive power to silence its challengers. Alternatively, hard power should only be used as a last resort, after all means have been exhausted , and when the security of the country is at stake. It should be the last card to be played to save the country from disintegration.
The corruption and mis-governance is not limited to the Federal level. The Federation’s ethnic states suffer from the same disorganization and lack of professional integrity. The same venality operating in the center is also operating in the peripheries. The local police forces in the ethnic states are under-trained and full of corruption. The local inhabitants are inadequately protected, security is chaotic, extra-judiciary killings and evictions from homes are frequent occurrences. There is no rule-of-law, the rule of the jungle reigns, and the public is left to their own devices to protect themselves and their properties.
The lock-down necessitated by the corona virus opens up opportunities for government leaders to wage a full-fledged war against the virus to curb its spread and, if successful, will garner public trust and legitimacy. But it could also be used for nefarious political ends; under decreed emergency laws, malicious leaders could abuse the executive power gained from this emergency situation.
This is where the upper and lower chambers of parliament need to vigilantly oversee the execution of the emergency state laws. They have to make sure that the executive branch of government is strictly governed by the emergency state provisions stipulated in article 93 of the constitution. Article 93 specifies that the council of Ministers shall have the power to decree a state of emergency in the event of “ a breakdown of law and order which endangers the constitutional order and which can not be controlled by the regular law enforcement agencies and personnel , a natural disaster , or an epidemic occur. “ Sub article 3 of article 93 states , “ a state of emergency decreed by the council of Ministers , if approved by the House of Peoples’ Representatives , can remain in effect up to six months. The House of Peoples’ Representatives may , by a two-third majority vote , allow the state of emergency proclamation to be renewed every four months successfully. “ Article 93 also grants the Council of Ministers the power to “ suspend such political and democratic rights contained in this constitution to the extent necessary to avert the condition that required the declaration of a state of emergency. “ But rights provided in Articles 1 , 18 , 25 , and sub-articles 1 and 2 of Article 39 cannot be suspended. Sub article 5 , as a protective measure against abuse of the emergency laws, allows the establishment of “ a state of emergency inquiry board consisting of seven persons chosen and assigned by the House from among its members and from legal experts. “ So , it is obvious that there are provisions in the constitution to address emergency situations: the scope of executive power, duration of the emergency laws, and the functions of the inquiry board as an overseeing body. The question that has been circulating amongst the public is whether Dr Abiye’s administration will in good faith abide by the provisions provided in the constitution. Even though there are some positive signs that the government is willing to play by the rules , it remains to be seen if it will continue doing that in the future. The public is vigilantly watching.
The postponement of the election to an indefinite date has been a hot-button issue. Some in the opposition question the constitutionality of such a move. They cite there is no provision in the constitution that allows deferment of the election date due to an emergency. I personally think the provision in the constitution, Article 93, sub article 4b, makes deferment possible: “ the council of ministers shall have the power to suspend such political and democratic rights contained in this constitution to the extent necessary to avert the condition that required the declaration of a state of emergency. “ This is just my assumption of the provision, as a layman. In so far as voting is a democratic right and one can only vote on a determined date, according to the constitution those rights can be suspended in an emergency situation such as a pandemic, natural disaster or situations where the security of the public is threatened. But I will leave it to the constitutional pundits to interpret the relevant articles of the constitution and ascertain the legality of Election Day deferment.
The United States, a juggernaut of democratic culture, have never postponed presidential elections even during the First World War when the whole country was under the spell of the Spanish Flu pandemic. In the current Covid-19 pandemic , though, a number of states had postponed their primary elections to sometime in the coming Summer. It is speculated that another wave of the Corona pandemic will hit the country in the fall, if it does, it will be interesting to see if the November presidential election will be held. Already, experts on the constitution have started scrutinizing articles of the constitution related to elections to try and see if it is legally possible to postpone the presidential election to a day that is free from the risk of the Corona pandemic.
We are at a historic juncture where the incumbent government is being challenged by the pandemic situation, the economic fall down as a result of that, the geo-political controversy over the millennium dam, the expiration of the term of members of parliament on 5th of October, and the postponement of the election to an indefinite date. Dr Abiye’s government has so far been transparent and responsible in its actions to solve those problems. It has been doing a good job at confronting the challenges of the pandemic; it has done its best to identify,
quarantine, and treat infected individuals. It has also been carrying out an effective campaign of educating the public on preventive measures such as the need for social-distancing , washing hands, general hygiene, and wearing masks in crowded places.
As to the issues revolving around the Emergency laws, postponement of the election date, and whether parliament’s term can be extended beyond October 5th due to the emergency situation, all these issues have been vigorously debated in the different forums organized and facilitated by Dr Abiye’s government. Dr Abiye has shown a tendency to delve into issues deeply , solicit opinion from diversified groups , including expert opinion before he makes a decision. His approach is exemplary and admirable, considering the governments of the past where decisions on issues were made behind doors.
In light of the crucial problems facing Ethiopia, it is doubly important for all political stakeholders to put front and center the needs of the public before their individual needs for political power and self-enrichment. The public is eager to see leaders who truly represent them , leaders who are public servants and not self servants. People are longing for a democratic government, democratic in the real sense and not like the pseudo-democracy of past governments. Let’s give the prime minister the chance to usher us into democratic governance.