As a result of the protest campaign that started in 2015, political change is at last underway in Ethiopia, and a feeling of optimism is beginning to pervade the country. The new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, deserves much credit, but it was the actions of thousands of people who took to the streets calling for change that has forced the government to act. All those who marched in defiance of the ruling party displayed great courage and relentless determination. They risked their lives and liberty in standing up to tyranny; they are the heroes of the day, and we should salute them all.
Despite the government’s repeated claims to the contrary, Ethiopia has never known democracy. Under the ruling EPRDF a democratic farce took place every five years when the pretence of a general election was staged, primarily for the benefit of the regime’s main donors, America, Britain and the European Union. The ruling party has been in office for 27 painful years; they control the judiciary as well as the media and the Internet, and have virtually outlawed political dissent; the regime has murdered, intimidated and tortured, ruling the country through fear.
There are positive signs that those dark days are now coming to an end and that the changes longed for by so many, for so long, are now a real possibility. The time of tyrants is over, and despite the fact that repressive regimes continue to exist, their days are numbered. A new energy is sweeping the world engendering Principles of Goodness and strengthening the will of the people. The values of the time are unifying ideals: cooperation, tolerance and understanding, sharing, freedom and justice, and with every day that passes these values grow in strength.
Over the last 40 years of so an unprecedented worldwide protest movement has evolved; throughout the world people have been taking to the streets demanding freedom and an end to injustice and suppression. The people of Ethiopia have responded whole-heartedly to this global movement and the country now stands at the beginning of a new chapter in its history.
The seed of democracy is being firmly planted; justice and the observation of universally enshrined freedoms are the cry of the people: Freedom from fear, freedom of expression, freedom of the media and freedom of assembly. Political and cultural pluralism, a politically independent judiciary, police and security services that protect the people rather than terrorizing them, and the repealing of unjust laws, such as The Anti Terrorism Proclamation and the Charities and Societies Proclamation. These steps are fundamental and, if the government is serious about initiating reforms, should be taken without delay.
Democracy, though, is not simply a means of governance and the observance of universally agreed human rights; democracy is a social contract of action between the people and their elected representatives. At the heart of democracy sits participation and social responsibility: participation in how the place in which we live, work and study functions; participation founded on a recognition that we are all responsible for society and the stewardship of the natural environment. Social justice, tolerance and mutual understanding are also inherent in the democratic ideal and constitute its primary colours.
The responsibility of the politicians is to create an environment in which people can freely express their views and aspirations. To listen to those voices, and work in collaboration with community representatives to initiate policies and design systems that work for the population as a whole, not simply a privileged few (something politicians in many countries fail to recognize) or those belonging to certain ethnic groups, as was the case with the ruling TPLF, who favoured people from Tigray, discriminated against others and initiated policies designed to inflame historical differences and divide ethnic groups.
Without the vibrant expression of these ideals, the efficacy of democracy is reduced; likewise, without a well-educated, engaged population that demands their rights and holds politicians to account, democracy remains little more than an ideological construct of the elite.
The way towards lasting social cohesion and harmony in Ethiopia is the way of unity, this is so for the world as a whole, but is particularly the case in Ethiopia, which is such a diverse nation with many tribal groups and ancient feuds. Under the EPRDF, ethnic anger and frustration was inflamed, leading to some within the Ogaden region and Oromia to call for self-determination. Perhaps such demands can now be laid aside, and a rallying call for national unity issued.
Expressions of unity nourish the dual principles of social responsibility and participation, and with every action rooted in these democratic principles the communal sense of unity is strengthened. This in turn gives rise to wider acts of responsibility and participation and so the spiral of brotherhood expands and deepens, giving rise to the recognition of humanities essential unity.
A strong and vibrant civil society is a cornerstone of democracy, and this will need to be built in Ethiopia. Civil society is an organized form of social responsibility, offering opportunities for community participation. Within the new dispensation existing institutions need to be strengthened and new forms allowed to come into being to support those in need and to champion human rights.
All this is new to Ethiopia and all will need to be lovingly nurtured. As the country begins to move forward, those working for change need to be encouraged and supported in their efforts. To this end Ethiopia’s principal benefactors (America, Britain and the European Union), who to their utter shame have remained largely silent in the face of regime brutality and the widespread abuse of human rights, should offer assistance to the Ethiopian government during this transitional time.
In the months ahead there will inevitably be those who try to delay change and hinder progress, some within the TPLF faction of the ruling party will no doubt try to foment division and conflict. Any such actions and words should be met with calm resolve and not allowed to have any impact on the extraordinary movement that has gripped the nation and is carrying the people of Ethiopia out of the shadow of fear into the clear light of unity and freedom.