Ethiopia: Political Debates Lack Substance, Understanding, Insight

National electoral board of Ethiopia (NEBE)
National electoral board of Ethiopia (NEBE)
National electoral board of Ethiopia (NEBE)
National electoral board of Ethiopia (NEBE)

Ethiopia is indeed a land of paradox. Look at, for instance, how its political parties are waging the electoral battle. Where the Revolutionary Democrats were thought to have prevailed, for having a policy upper hand on the issue of federalism, they were seen losing the debate a few weeks ago.

Those whom they had deployed to prevail on the ideological battlefront did not master the political choreography to explain, even to their own constituencies, that 40pc of the global population lives under various forms of governance under federal structures built in 24 countries.

Two weeks ago, members of the voting public were exposed to the opposite of this. Despite the Revolutionary Democrats’ apparent poor record on the issue of human rights, depressing performance on the rule of law, and their weak position on good governance, the people they entrusted to shoulder the responsibility of defending their vulnerable position managed to survive what could have become an opposition onslaught.

Alas, members of the opposition camp let them slip away from their grip, only after a debacle of sorts on micro incidents here and there. They failed to take those from the incumbent to task on the institutional shortcomings in all three fronts – ensuring the rule of law, maintaining respect for human rights, and providing public goods in a form of good governance.

To their credit, the Revolutionary Democrats appeared to have done their homework this time around. Demeke Mekonnen and Redwan Hussein have divided their assignments, as it were. Demeke, with impressive calm and character, appeared to have taken the job of focusing on what the party had to say about its own policies rather than dolling himself in the murky records of his party and the government it controls. He reiterated his party’s longstanding position that all three issues are not matters of convenience but of “existence.”

He claimed substantive gains by his party on all fronts, particularly comparing the first phase of recognition and legislation of these values, as opposed to the regime it replaced. He was wisely candid to admit weaknesses of his party during what he termed as a “second phase,” where he said the party went through a phase of “renewal.” Demeke also tried to capitalise on the formation of the office of Ombudsman as well as the commissioning of the Human Rights and Ethics and Anticorruption Office as illustrations of the party’s resolve to institutionalise good governance and rule of law.

He highlighted the post 2005 electoral debacle as a period where his party reflected upon itself, after taking stock and barrel of the protest vote it had suffered. He admitted that the electoral episode forced the party’s leadership to dialogue with members of the public and prompted it to a launch massive reform agenda in order to provide good governance.

Demeke tried to neutralise his critics by accepting breaches and violations but emphasising the existence of a system of redress as well as his party’s desire to respond promptly.

Nonetheless, practice has a glaring gap with rhetoric. And that is the disadvantage of being an incumbent party, as opposed to the opposition bloc, which has the benefit of being sheltered away from voters’ scrutiny on the scale of its records. The truth is, not too many people perceive the ruling party as having as much of a positive record in the areas of human rights and rule of law as it may enjoy on the economic front.

Defending the position of the Revolutionary Democrats on these issues would indeed take some political maverick, who would rather juggle in the technical world of slipperiness, instead of concede to the countless allegations of violations of human rights, executive intervention in the functions of the justice system, and the onerous business of administering good governance.

In Redwan, a star of the week, the Revolutionary Democrats seem to have found such a maverick. He has indeed proven to be their powerful arsenal, unleashed on rival politicians such as Lidetu Ayalew, the dark horse of contemporary Ethiopian politics. Bringing him to the fore, the Revolutionary Democrats certainly found a match in Redwan to the rhetorical prowess of Lidetu, leader of the self-proclaimed Liberal Democratic Party.

It was evident from the televised debate, contested by Andualem Aragie from the Forum for Democracy and Justice, that Redwan was combative, and thus distracted his political opponents from focusing on the real issues, if not sent them to a defensive position, as Lidetu did onto his comrades a few weeks ago.

Echoing his comrade’s assertion, Redwan argued that there was a lot to be improved, despite gains in all the three fronts within two decades, which took others centuries.

He came back with a vengeance, associating some of the opposition parties with global neo-liberal forces, he accused them of being “messengers” of this global neo-liberal agenda in Ethiopia. He bundled his party’s major electoral challengers – the Forum, the EDP, and the AEUO – in this category, in a manner that makes a rather negative campaign. Sadly, those debating on the incumbent’s behalf tended to take as their hallmark the practice of negatively attacking their opponents, accusing them of all sorts of associations and labelling them.

Indeed, he challenged the self claimed liberal credentials of Zelelie Tsegasellasie’s All Ethiopian Democracy Party (AEDP), Lidetu’s Ethiopian Democracy Party (EDP), and Salehuleh Kebede’s Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD), although his assertion of their “deceitfulness” was distasteful. This may appear to be a statement of bad taste, but it seemed to have done its trick. He nailed them tactfully whether they are liberal economically, socially or politically – an issue no opposition party in Ethiopia seems to have clarity of ideology on.

Many voters saw a provoked Lidetu driven to fury, thus observed to have beseeching acknowledgement from his political opponents for what he claimed was a price he and his party paid in order to become a party of “moderation.” He was seen to be rather uncharacteristically defensive, even on issues he was supposed to be on the offensive. Although well organised in his criticisms, he was paradoxically seen generous in his concession of the achievements of his electoral challengers.

His listing of yardsticks on good governance did fail to bare much enthusiasm, for some of them were not accurate (lack of fiscal disclosure), others went as far as bordering admission (efficient services by some federal agencies), and unreasonable assertions (members of the youth are appointed as judges).

Neither were those from the Forum such as, Gebru Asrat, once a powerful figure of the ruling EPRDF reigning in Tigray Regional State as its first president, impressive. He was observed struggling in his bid for self expression, unable to articulate his views, perhaps constrained by the medium of language used during these debates.

Gebru tried to highlight what he argued was a source of the fundamental mistakes of the EPRDF, which compartmentalises society in boxes of friends and foes. He, however, fell short of pursuing the ideological worldview of the Revolutionary Democrats. Instead, he succumbed to subjective remarks of alleged incidents of corruption, mismanagement in the provision of land, allocation of plots to senior government officials, politicisation of education, the collapse of the Gilgel Gibe II tunnel, and even the inefficiencies of the telecom monopoly. Nonetheless, these are cases where the ruling party or its supporters could counter argue case after case.

His comrade, Andualem, secretary general of the Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ), a member of the electoral front that is the Forum, was far from moving. His down-at-heel emotion probably helped him and his party little, for many voters were rather horrified by his display of excessive anger.

As a politician with a background of time spent in the Kaliti Prison Centre, subsequent to the 2005 electoral debacle, Andualem may have thought that his suffering in the hands of this administration warranted putting his rage out in public on issues of human rights. He might have felt morally obliged not to forget his party’s leader, Birtukan Midekssa, who is in jail for life.

Although he later accused the state TV for cutting his 12 remarks out, including the deprivation of visits to Birtukan by any other than her mother and daughter, despite a court ruling to the contrary, as an illustration of the lack of the rule of law, he seemed to have been reluctant to understand how the delivery of messages is equally as important as the substance.

Leaders of the opposition parties present during the debate were sounding rather simplistic in their analysis, grossly accusatory in their assertions, anecdotal in their use of evidence, and shallow in their inferences devoid of the bigger picture. This could have come as the result of a lack of preparation, a weakness that could be addressed during the forthcoming debates.

What has emerged from the series of debates held so far is the incumbent’s resonation of its challenge that the opposition parties suffer from a lack of viable policy alternatives and do not have the competence to lead a country as complex and difficult as Ethiopia is. It is a reasonable challenge. Leaders of opposition parties, too, rightfully challenge the incumbent on its poor records of governance and, hence, policy failures.

Nonetheless, these debates are being held in a climate where research, understanding and insight have become unfortunate collateral damage. Voters would rather benefit from debaters who arrive at the marketplace of ideas armed with substance and restrained by serenity, which would hopefully elevate the level of the debate in the coming few years.

Editor’s Note: Addis Fortune: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Ethiopian Election 2010 Videos: Debate No. 4, 3, 2 & 1

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Ethiopian Election Debate # 4

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Ethiopian Election Debate # 3

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Ethiopian Election Debate # 2

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Ethiopian Election Debate # 1