Watching a playwright making a
confession on a hidden camera recording in a recent documentary on
the national television was like watching a car wreck with a drunk
driver. Pity, sadness, and embarrassment were elicited all at the
It was evident that the actor-turned
politician was double-dipping in successive regimes without a hint
of consciousness. It was a typical example of the unlearned man’s
idea of what a smart man should look like.
What is the value of growing old if
one cannot learn from the past?
Perhaps courage has lost its meaning
in Ethiopia, even at that man’s age. However, the ethics of the
recording was eventually judged by the viewing public.
Unlike the protracted and
unpredictable challenge of building a new political order visible
across the world, an emerging confrontation between those who want
to maintain an iron grip under the status quo and those who dream of
a more tolerant and free society is evident in Ethiopia. Change has
always proved to inflict unbearable costs in lives and resources, as
the successive regimes in the country’s recent past attest.
Surely, creating new institutions, a
new political order and rules that may not be transgressed by others
is immensely challenging. These changes have, in the past, created
winners and losers and will continue to do so if politics is
considered as a zero sum game where the winner-takes-all.
Change is inevitable, and, hence, a
viable question can only be raised about the kind of change, and
whether it is incremental or radical.
Ethiopia has a constitution that
devolves power to the different regions of the country. Although
there is a clear provision on how to deal with separatist movements,
the nation still has fronts that are fighting the constitutional
Could it be that the centre is still
too strong and meddlesome in the affairs of the regions? Or is it
because the interest of the losers in the new political order was
undermined by the winners who do not want to share the spoils of
power and privilege? Is there a space for diverse opinions in the
political stage that reflects the diversity of the nation?
If development is to be sustained,
the political actors in the field have to answer those questions
It was only recently that
ideological purity caused the death of those whose thought was
different from the declared ideology of the state. The undue
suffering of their families is a recent memory for most Ethiopians.
The state was like a blank canvas, and the intellectuals of the day,
who were mostly leftist ideologues, spray-painted the state with
many strands of socialism.
One of the then-favorite slogans
was, “We shall control not only the bourgeoisie but also nature.” As
was evident, autocrats are often so out of touch that they think
they can control the rain that pours and the wind that blows.
Even today, there are unhinged
ideologues that are like used car salesmen, who try to sell old
vehicles that are barely moving as though they were brand new.
In the current political
circumstances of Ethiopia, the governing party is in a bind. The
revolutionary democrats cannot claim absolute control of the
political stage and expect the losers to just evaporate into thin
air. In a troubled and complex society like Ethiopia’s, those whose
interests are undermined by the new political and economic order are
not only going to question the new rules and institutions but will
also try to undermine their success in every possible way.
If there is no political restraint
from the winners, marginalising the losers will have an
unpredictable cost. This is just a fact of politics. A political
system that is inclusive of those who lose influence can sustain a
more comprehensive political reform that can be insulated from
It is important to ensure that
people are not trapped into believing that the solution to existing
political problems lies in creating the havoc that destroys civil
discourse. It is also clear that foreign enemies of the state might
use any appearance of internal fracture to destabilise the state.
It is also vivid that the dominant
party has intentionally narrowed the political space for peaceful
dissent. Spill over effects are showing up in those who can be
exploited for purposes other than the love of country.
The Revolutionary Democrats used to
be considered subversive revolutionaries at one time. It is not
clear why they should be offended if a new generation of idealists
criticises and questions their intents. Neither is it justifiable if
they end up being the only players in town.
In principle, reason and tolerance
are the hallmarks of a decent society. They diminish when those in
power try to strong-arm their critics.
In the end, arrogance may be better
than ignorance, and one may prefer overconfidence over incompetence,
but the folly of the former may be worse than the later. An
uninformed public may be easy to manipulate, but the day that they
figure out the game, their intuition will be up. Surely, those who
think that people never wake up to solve the jigsaw puzzle often
have a bad surprise coming.