By Rafiq Raji, PhD
About mid-January, hitherto incarcerated opposition leader of the Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC), Merera Gudina, was released by the Ethiopian authorities. More than five hundred dissidents involved in unrests in 2015 and 2016 have also been earmarked for release. The imprisoned ones could be said to be the lucky ones. Others died on the streets at the hands of the oft-brutish security forces. Considering the antecedents of the ruling Tigray-dominated Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) party, Dr Gudina likely never reckoned his release would be so soon or so easy. Mind you, he had already spent more than a year in prison. His fellow comrades who took on the authorities in the more distant past could not have dared hope to be so lucky. Much earlier detainees essentially resigned to their fates. The EPRDF’s sudden magnanimity has pundits wondering what the catch is. Ordinarily, it makes sense that the government finally decided to extend an olive branch to the opposition. There have been perennial agitations by the Oromo and Amhara ethnic groups, who together constitute about two-thirds of the population, over myriad issues from land to the odd marginalisation here and there. To douse the tensions, the authorities certainly needed to do more than a cosmetic fix. A more inclusive cabinet in the aftermath of one of the now many protests by the Oromos and others did not seem to be satisfactory or adequate to placate the agitators. And unlike Meles Zenawi, the former legendary leader of the EPRDF, prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn’s clout in the party structures is weak. Thus, his consensual style is more forced than voluntary. While this would have been a disadvantage in a quasi-communist regime, it is informative when decisions such as the recent amnesty granted opposition leaders are reached. It was likely decided as a collective. Still Mr Hailemariam must be given some credit. He is leader, after all. In my column of 11 Oct 2016 (“Time for Hailemariam to lead”), I did urge Mr Hailemariam to be bolder and allow more room for dissent and political expression and for world powers to take a tougher stance towards a country that still remains dependent on their beneficence. Because even as Mr Hailemariam could not hope to grow in stature to match Mr Meles, the responsibility was now his to ensure that Ethiopia continued to be a trailblazer on many fronts on the African continent. It does seem like he came to that realisation himself. So if anyone should get credit for this recent positive move, it is Mr Hailemariam. There is only one little problem. Many are sceptical about the genuineness of the EPRDF’s reconciliation move. The EPRDF is well-known for its utter dislike of opposition of any kind. Students of politics also know that power is rarely ceded voluntarily. Nor are political moves ever altruistic. Thus, the opposition, as well as pundits, believe the EPRDF has something up its sleeve. A likely explanation for this recent move may simply be self-interest, though; on the part of most of the EPRDF apparatchiks, at least. Something significant needed to be done to stem the tide of increasingly popular antagonism towards the ruling EPRDF elite. But if the motivation is indeed noble, then the onus is on the EPRDF, and Mr Hailemariam specifically, to prove they are genuinely seeking to reconcile with other political groups in the country.
Despite the scepticism, the authorities’ reconciliation move adds to what remains a largely positive narrative; on the economic front, at least. Ethiopia continues to churn out good growth figures and it is making significant strides in logistics, infrastructure, and manufacturing. Most recently, economic growth was more than 8 percent; and is expected to remain so for another two years, thereafter slowing to above 7 percent. And when the 6,450 mega watts (MW) Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is completed, Ethiopia would not only have abundant power to fire its industrial ambitions, it would have some left to aid its neighbours achieve theirs as well. In this regard, though, the authorities have had to contend with what have now become incessant disagreements with other countries dependent on the River Nile which feeds the GERD. Egypt and Sudan are currently at loggerheads, with speculations that should calm nerves not prevail, an armed conflict might be imminent. Egypt and Ethiopia have, however, demonstrated remarkable maturity despite their differences. They recently entered into development agreements, vowing to not let their differences over the GERD stop them from engaging in friendly and mutually beneficial relations. Credit for the amity must clearly go to Ethiopia, though, in light of the converse situation between Egypt and Sudan. It is thus not unlikely that Mr Hailemariam genuinely desires to smooth relations internally and externally. With outsiders, it is not so difficult to demonstrate the truth of his intentions; as there are markers by which both sides can measure progress. With distrustful compatriots, however, it would take more than the release of prisoners to build trust.
So how should Mr Hailemariam prove he really means business? He could promise genuine elections when the next ones are due, for one. That is, all parties would be able to participate and campaign freely without the typical strong-arm tactics of bans, intimidation, imprisonment and result manipulation. There is not a single member of the opposition in the current parliamentary cohort. In the 2015 parliamentary elections, the EPRDF won 500 of the 547 seats. The remaining 47? It went to parties allied with the EPRDF. Surely, it is not because of a lack of interest or a shortage of candidates from the other side. It is by design. Until the EPRDF lets go of its fears and allows plural, free and fair elections, it should not entertain the hope that it could succeed in winning the hearts and minds of its opponents. Thing is, there is yet to be proof that it genuinely gives a darn.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/ethiopia-hailemariam-must-build-trust/