Pandemic is blessing for Abiy but curse for Ethiopian democracy

by Mebratu Kelecha

Democracy has been the driving force of political movements in Ethiopia since the 1960s, but its protagonists have, all-too-often, indulged in violence and bloodshed. The political forces that emerged from the Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party and the All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON) called for democracy but engaged in mutual assassination in its name before the military regime decimated both parties.

The military regime also claimed to have pursuing “socialist democracy” in a later period of its rule. The TPLF-engineered EPRDF regime which came to power in 1991 introduced “electoral democracy,” but remained a minority ethnic dictatorship, expelling potential rivals and regularly accusing  any critics and opposition parties of being anti-democratic.

In the end, the TPLF was confronted with Frankenstein moment, as resurgent groups within the ruling coalition it has created in the 1990s captured the centre and caused the creator’s trouble, aided by street protests that helped propel Abiy Ahmed to power. Political differences among those claiming to be fighting for democracy, both in and out of elections, frequently, almost normally, embraced violence rather than votes, reinforcing what they claimed to be irreconcilable differences between good and evil. Demonization, harassment, imprisonment, torture, and physical elimination have continued as major mechanisms to resolve differences. Hence, the struggle for it has done little to develop or maintain the reality of democracy since a democratically elected government remains the deprioritized goal of political leaders.

When Abiy took office in April 2018 he promised to build a democratic Ethiopian state, and his early reforms were promising, though the political transition he launched, while largely nonviolent in origin, involved  hostile  rhetoric against the TPLF.  From the outset, Abiy faced significant challenge of governing and implementing changes in conditions of continuing instability, testing his capacity, and his intent, to govern effectively and carry out democratic reforms simultaneously. A successful response required significant mobilization of support needed to consolidate the achievements of his early reforms to guarantee a successful transition. The country’s recent experience of nonviolent resistance, which brought Abiy to power, has made it clear that repression is no longer an option as it will not create a submissive population, and any return to dictatorship can only intensify protests.

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