As Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed collects this year’s Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, his country is at a crossroads.
In one direction lies a democratic transition, via a successful general election scheduled for May 2020. The other path would lead the country to instability, ethnic violence, and possibly a return to repressive authoritarianism.
For the last decade, Ethiopia has experienced strong, broad-based economic growth. The government has built on those gains, investing in infrastructure development and expanding social services, such as health care and education.
Moreover, since April 2018, when Ahmed peacefully took power following the unexpected resignation of his predecessor, the government has been restoring political and economic freedoms.
Ahmed lifted the country’s state of emergency, ordered the release of thousands of political prisoners, allowed exiled dissidents to return, removed bans on political parties, and unblocked previously censored media.
He also reached an agreement with Eritrea to end a 20-year military stalemate following their 1998-2000 border war – the reason for his Nobel Prize.
Yet, as these reforms have taken hold, Ethiopia has faced an uptick in ethnic violence. Most recently, 86 people were killed when protests erupted after a prominent activist alleged in a social media post that the government was attempting to withdraw his security detail in a plot to silence him.
This unrest is the result of an economic and political chain reaction much like those seen in Chile, Hong Kong, and Lebanon, and to some extent, even in places like the United States and the United Kingdom.
A large share of the population feels economically excluded and politically invisible, so they attempt to assert their status in society by throwing their support behind nationalist or sectarian causes.
In Ethiopia, economic growth occurred against a backdrop of intense social and political repression. Civil society was hollowed out, and unscrupulous interest groups hijacked the state’s development agenda. Young people often lacked the skills or connections to secure decent employment.
At the same time, however, young people were educated enough to recognize the imbalances and to mobilize on social media.
And with their newfound freedoms – restored faster than effective institutions could be built – they could turn the organization into action.
With state power eroded and the ruling coalition fragmented, the government was unprepared to handle the groundswell of discontent, fueled by unresolved issues with deep historic and emotional roots.
In recent years, polarization has severely strained the mature institutions of Western democracies. Imagine the damage it can wreak in a country that lacks autonomous law enforcement or a functioning civil society.
Despite ongoing reforms, Ethiopia still has not completed a transition from the rule of the party to the rule of law.
Of course, social mobilization is a feature of a healthy democracy. But, after decades under an authoritarian government, most Ethiopians are not protesting for a particular cause or economic-policy change.
From their perspective, securing political power for their group is the only way to protect their social and economic interests, so each group is manoeuvring to restructure the political order to its advantage ahead of next year’s election – Ethiopia’s first since the transition to democracy began. In anticipation of a winner-take-all election, mistrust is rampant.
Nationalism tends to weaponize nuanced policy arguments. Instead of speaking clearly on today’s economic issues – say, identifying the successes and failures of the last few decades – nationalist leaders often blend them into narratives about longstanding cultural and historical grievances, thereby creating the illusion that their camp’s interests are aligned across all spheres.
This ham-fisted approach can also be seen in attempts by some parties to make the upcoming election all about Ethiopia’s contentious federal system, which is constituted along ethnic lines.
But an election is no way to decide fundamental questions of institutional structure, especially in a country with weak rule of law and rampant ethnic tensions.
Even in more developed democracies, from Hungary to Venezuela, the ballot box has proved capable of producing outcomes that leave societies more polarized and volatile.
But when, say, the United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union, there is little doubt that its democracy will survive, even if the country takes a beating.
The UK Supreme Court’s decision that Prime Minister Boris Johnson had acted unlawfully in suspending Parliament – a move designed to push through a no-deal Brexit – exemplifies the resilience of the country’s institutions.
Ethiopian democracy could not survive a US President Donald Trump any more than it could survive a Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
That is why Ethiopian political leaders must urgently negotiate an agreement on the basic rules of the game for the post-election order.
Parties should then focus their campaigns on concrete policies that might address the economic and social issues at the root of the unrest. Once the new government is in place, fundamental institutional issues should be addressed transparently and cooperatively, in a deliberative forum.
Voting is critical to a democracy, but it is no panacea. Sometimes, what is needed is consensus-building. Only by recognizing this can Ethiopia’s political elites avoid wasting this historic opportunity to consolidate democracy.
Biniam Bedasso is a researcher and public-finance specialist at the Collaborative Africa Budget Reform Initiative (CABRI).
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.