The government must stop violent ethnic and religious demagogues. But only democracy can hold the country together, says the prime minister
Sep 17th 2020
BY ABIY AHMED
This guest commentary is the first in a series on democracy in Africa. Ethiopia committed itself to democratic reforms in 2018. But ethnic and separatist violence, as well as state repression, have resumed. The government postponed this year’s general election, citing covid-19. An unauthorised local election was held in the Tigray region in early September. Read more about Ethiopia’s tense politics here. For other commentaries, visit Economist.com/by-invitation
A STABLE DEMOCRACY is built on the rule of law; if there is no law there is no freedom. With this core belief, Ethiopia is working tirelessly to realise its constitution’s promise of a democratic and pluralistic political order based on the rule of law, respect for fundamental rights and the basic liberties of our citizens.
This commitment remains firm despite the numerous obstacles that the country has faced over the past two-and-a-half years. My administration rejects the false choices of the past, between democracy and development; between compassion and strength. We affirm the importance of a free press, a vibrant civil society, an independent judiciary, a professional civil service, an open political space and political contests based on ideas and clear policy options.
We know this is not an easy task, and managing the complex challenges of transition alongside building democratic institutions takes time and commitment.
Recently Ethiopia has been in the news for the wrong reasons. Individuals and groups, disaffected by the transformations taking place, are using everything at their disposal to derail them. They are harvesting the seeds of inter-ethnic and inter-religious division and hatred. In a country where more than two-thirds of the population are under 30 and most are unemployed, the desperate youths make easy recruits to fuel the tension.
This has caused untold miseries and suffering to so many of our citizens who have been at the receiving end of deliberate attacks by demagogues and by those who peddle hatred, using the ethnic and religious diversity of our nation as a tool of division. The government has taken swift measures to enforce the rule of law by bringing perpetrators and their backers to justice. Some media reports have sensationalised these actions to give the impression that the democratic reforms are being reversed.
Let there be no ambiguity: we remain deeply committed to the vision of building an inclusive, multinational, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia. It is the only way to keep the country together.
Due to the concerted actions of those who are opposed to the democratic transition and who have tried to assume power through violence, the transition is under threat. For those who are accustomed to undue past privileges, equality feels like oppression. They stoke conflict along ethnic and religious lines, they unleash violent ethnic vigilante groups and they use irresponsible media outlets to fan hatred and ethnic divisions. In so doing, these groups imperil the lives and security of millions.
Thankfully, Ethiopians reject the politics of division and hatred. We reject the dangerous demagogues who argue that we cannot be our ethnicity—Oromo, Amhara, Somali, Tigrayan, Sidama—and be an Ethiopian at the same time. We reject the notion that we can’t practise our religion—Christian or Muslim,—and be an Ethiopian at the same time. We can love what we are without hating who we are not. Our destiny lies in our togetherness. Our diversity is the source of our beauty and strength rather than of hatred and weakness.
Our destiny lies in our togetherness. Our diversity is the source of our beauty and strength rather than of hatred and weakness.
A country that is regarded as the birthplace of humanity with the earliest Homo sapiens, and whose collective identity, history and culture have been shaped by the intermingling of major religions and civilisations, must not let that honourable heritage fall prey to the ideology of ethno-religious conflict and massacre.
In these circumstances, it is imperative that Ethiopia restore the rule of law and maintain order. Robust measures are needed to protect citizens and ensure an environment that is conducive to democratic politics. Given the institutions we have inherited, we realise that law-enforcement activities entail a risk of human-rights violations and abuse. The mindset and tactics of the past are not so easy to unlearn. Security and judicial reforms take time.
When individuals and groups of people are targeted in violent attacks by those bent on wreaking havoc in the country, the government has the inherent duty to take the necessary measures to bring both the perpetrators and the instigators to justice. Law-enforcement activities are necessary to alleviate the symptoms of what ails our polity. But we are under no illusion that these measures will solve the many problems we confront.
We are rolling out a substantial, ten-year national-development plan to strengthen and diversify the drivers of economic growth. We will revitalise the processes of national reconciliation and dialogue to foster national consensus and cohesion. We will also work towards having a free and fair election in 2021, while aggressively responding to covid-19.
Progress is never linear nor is it guaranteed. But as long as we remain committed as a nation, with the support of the international community, we are still on course to build an Ethiopia that is a beacon of African prosperity. Our national resolve is unshakeable: no provocation will knock us off the course of democracy and the principles of equality that are the will of the people.
Abiy Ahmed is the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for his contribution in ending a decades-long conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Spurce: The Economist