Last January, a week or two after the announcement of the price ceilings on a dozen of food and other commodities, the State Minister of Trade, Ahmed Shide, said – in a meeting with businessmen: ‘we should not wait until the Tunisian case(revolt) repeats here. In Tunisia, inflation caused a riot that forced the president fled the country.’

Upon reading his comment on the Amharic weekly, Ethiopian-reporter, I said to myself ‘what a convenient summary of events.’

Since I couldn’t write and post a thorough comment on it, I made the following comment a week later on one of my posts concerning the Egyptian revolt.

“We[Ethiopians] may be in line. If you subscribe to the line that price hike is the cause [ of the Egyptian revolt], then global prices are expected to rise in 2011. However, inflation is only a triggering factor.

The root cause is: the perception that the government has become irresponsive and its officials become unaccountable. Plus, the sense of powerlessness. Thus, once the people start protesting and feel empowered, they become ‘uncompromising’ as we are seeing in the Egyptian case.

Not only do they fear reprisals from the unaccountable officials (should they quit the protest and go home), but also because they start to believe this is the only way they can get things done – riot. It will be unfair to blame them for the repercussions of the political unrest on the nation.

Thus, I shall add, it would be folly to count on price control measures, while overlooking issues of good governance. Again, it is futile to urge the people, whom we left at the mercy of unaccountable officials, to ‘think of’ the implications of political unrest on development and stability.”

I was also hopping EPRDF will take the Tunisian and Egyptian events as a reminder and start making good on its election promises to improve governance. Something that that I hoped would start soon after the election but had been ignored since. (See: EPRDF – Overhaul or Just another Revamp?)

However, Minister Berket Simon’s statement to the English weekly Capital on Feb 21, coupled with the absence of any serious any new efforts on the part of the party in the past two months, confirmed what I suspected.

EPRDF have started to believe – economic growth is a magic bullet.

The statement by Bereket, Head of the Gov’t Communication Bureau,  covers a number of theoretical and factual issues that I don’t intend to deal in detail. Yet, the following sentences from that paper summarizes his main argument:

* ‘the predominately factor for such uprising in Egypt and Tunisia were middle income states that no longer could drive through economic growth, and failed to provide enough jobs and equitable wealth distribution creating desperation among the public which hardly resembles Ethiopia.’

* ‘there is a higher rate of growth ….and we are succeeding both in creation of wealth and distributing it equitably across the public’.

* ‘we have embraced democracy, freedom of expression is widely exercised and the public can put in power whomever it wants through elections,’ Bereket elaborates explaining that without a need to go to the streets, Ethiopians enjoy freedom and rights to express themselves and bring about changes they desire.

* ‘It is not only that EPRDF isn’t concerned with this, let alone now, even in 2005 where there hasn’t been an economic growth of the current scale, there wasn’t an uprising. There was violence because the opposition incited it and there was desperation to some extent, but now there is a higher rate of growth and the public is fully aware of it.’

Of course, Ethiopia is registering an astounding economic progress, though the rate of wealth distribution, measured by Gini Coefficient, is probably not much better than Egypt and Tunisia.

Again, we don’t have the Egyptian kind of emergency rule that give the police a license to kill and torture, yet in practice our police officers enjoy the privilege to harass citizens, and detain for a couple of days, with little repercussion.

Our electoral system may not impose an outright bar on opposition parties and candidates, as the Egyptian law did, yet political grouping is impaired by the government’s failure to implement the laws entitling opposition parties access to public media and finance.

A 2010 survey by PEW Research Center, posted in this blog, corroborates Bereket’s claim that Ethiopians are optimist about economic conditions and feel they have a have a say in government. Yet, street demonstrations are rare – which is not a good sign. There is a concerning level of non-transparent internet filtering and political appointee enjoy wide discretion but little legal and financial accountability.

These are not minor differences, though. And, it may justify Bereket’s assertion that there are lesser inputs for a full-scale revolt. Yet, Bereket appears to rule out the possibility of riot of any scale, since ‘there is a higher rate of growth and the public is fully aware of it’.

One would be forced to ask:

Is there a scale of development and equity that makes the Ethiopian state immune from street riots? Or, let me rephrase, given the destitution in Ethiopia, could a development of any scale – whatsoever – can preclude violence in the short run?

Is economic desperation the only factor that fueled the 2005 post-electoral violence? Again, is economic betterment the only triggering factor of political unrest?

EPRDF used to answer these questions in the negative.

EPRDF’s policy statements long asserted that bereft of good governance the political system is prone to reversal and threatens the very existence of the Ethiopian state. Moreover, its analyses of the 2005 post-election violence underlined that absence of sufficient progress in good governance played a major role in disillusioning the public. That was why the 2006 EPRDF party-congress was held under the motto: We shall replicate the economic stride in terms of good governance.

However, the 2008 and 2010 EPRDF party congresses were focused on realizing Ethiopia’s renaissance in economic terms. But that was not because the nation achieved much in terms of good governance.

In fact, Premier Meles Zenawi described, in a press conference held three days after the election, that the people voted for his party due to the party’s achievements in economic arena and its attempts to improve governance.

Indeed, the people were not satisfied by the quick-fix approach of the party. But they chose to give it the benefit of the doubt.

The public believed in the resolve of the EPRDF upper leadership to root out the weaklings was impaired by the political uncertainty resulted from election 2005.

EPRDF officials in areas where the party lost in 2005 often defended themselves by alleging that they are being targeted for their unwavering allegiance to the party – with the implied assertion that ‘we are irreplaceable in this locality or institution that is dominated by opposition elements.’

On the other hand, EPRDF officials in areas where the party won in 2005 dismissed public complaints by pointing to the electoral results and arguing ‘the complaints are exaggerated, there is no widespread discontent’.

In the absence of any viable alternative party, the public tried to play its cards right – vote for EPRDF and deprive the local tyrants their excuse. That is why we are seeing, since the election, the public presenting its grievances reminding its voting and allegiance to the party. Statements like ‘we have voted for EPRDF’ and/or ‘this or that official is harming EPRDF’s reputation’ have become a commonplace both at the level of aggrieved individuals and at group level – as observed on the news by local newspapers.

The public hoped to get from EPRDF leadership as much attention as the party gives to the claims of its officials, thus to be in a better position to demand rights.

Dismayingly, there is little move on the party side to make meaningful improvements in the governance area. The much talked about Growth and Transformation plan (GTP) had few pledges and no ambitious targets in this area.

Almost a year after the election, the government had been preoccupied with setting a range of economic targets and putting them to work. If that reflects the low priority given to good governance issues, the recent statement by Ahmed Shide and Bereket Simon confirms what we been suspecting for a while – Economic improvements can offset demands of Good Governance.

This ‘shut up and consume’ attitude is reflected in a number of areas.

The government that strives to build thousands kilometers long railway, quadruple the electric power supply, etc. is cash-strapped when it comes to strengthening institutions of good governance.

That is why 15 years after the adoption of the Constitution, the Human Right Commission do not even have branches at regional capital cities.

Judicial review of the Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) of the Civil Service is precluded by legislation because it would entail a costly load of lawsuits and drag the reform. Yet, the BPR study and re-staffing took several months, idling the whole institution, while the demoted and laid-off civil servants continue to earn their previous salary. The implied assumption: the civil servants, though denied of the right to appeal, are supposed not to hold grudges as long as they keep their salary.

EPRDF brags about increasing Higher Education attendance by fivefold and hopes to be credited for that. Yet, it failed to deliver a system where academic and administrative staff treats students with some level of dignity. On the contrary, the discretion of campus staff reached to a point where they regulate the hair and dressing style of students. A government that failed to make good of its promise of enabling students to see their marked exam papers and meaningful re-grading procedures wishes to be commended for its administrative actions to ease student drop-out rate.

The government would promise, and labor to deliver, access to electricity, telephone service, roads, etc. even to the remotest rural Kebele. Yet, it brings a long list of manpower and financial constraints when it comes to making Kebele social courts a meaningful check against local tyranny.

The list goes on.

Indeed, the level of attention given to accountability is no more evidenced by the delay in reforming the tort law (which ceils compensation for moral damage at 1,000Birr) and the Criminal Procedure law (which fails to adequately delineate the reach of prosecutors and police officers discretion). On the contrary, the government continues with the legal drafting approach of the previous regimes – inserting provisions that bar or curb compensation claim lawsuits against the government and its officials.

The gamble is dangerous

It is hard to say that the current state of governance, by itself, suffices to cause a riot or not. Again, it is difficult to establish whether the economic growth or socio-cultural factors, probably a combination of the two, is the primary source of the current stability.

More importantly, it is tricky to forecast the exact combination of economic hardship and administrative grievances that may lead the public to counter-productive political choices that amount to ‘throwing the baby with the bathwater’.

These issues are difficult because each country is unique and a range of historic and current variables enter the equation. Otherwise, had administrative justice and living conditions been the sole determining factor, riots would have long been a daily occurrence in Ethiopia.

That is why the government’s choice should have been rushing to deliver as much improvement as quickly as possible both in governance and economic areas.

Even if the government was somewhat able to know the pace of improvement that suffice to prevent political unrest, it would be able to keep that ‘optimal level of good governance’ if only it is able to gauge the level of public discontent and grievance.

That in turn depends on the quality of the feedback it gets through various organs. However, with fewer administrative grievances appearing in Court, given limited public access to Ombudsman and to Human Rights Commission, given a few representative associations and given weak political parties and media, the government’s info depends on the report from its own lower officials.

Of course, the party had long knew the faultiness of that internal channel, thus, especially since 2005, it sought to compensate the informational gaps and grievance handling limitations of lower government officials by setting party offices at various localities and empowering them to review public complaints – a reversal of the party’s decision to separate party and government functions after the 2001/2 reform. The merit and limits of this Chinese approach is a topic I save for another day. (By the way, limiting the party’s interference in governmental functions was one of the major issues in the 2001/2 split in TPLF/EPRDF leadership. Consequently, the party did also decide party members should only be organized in based on residence and not in workplaces. That was also reversed after 2005).

But this is simply a pragmatic consideration of the efficacy of the ‘shut up and consume’ approach – on whether the government would be able to gauge the extent of public discontent and handle it before it triggers a riot.

Yet, the ‘shut up and consume’ logic has got two serious flaws – that I’d like to briefly mention.

To begin with, the mere fact that EPRDF is able to preempt riots doesn’t mean the people are content with it.

The sense of injustice and victim-hood will linger long after the party deployed its quick-fixes – without thoroughly reviewing the matter and holding those responsible to account. Ethiopians, as their ancient saying states, believe a land forfeited by judicial decision is better than an ox taken unjustly.

Moreover, EPRDF is missing the opportunity to enhance the credibility of the system by acting as if nothing went wrong. The public would inevitability be asking – if neither the messages of election 2005 nor that of election 2010 could induce EPRDF, what else would?

Of course, the people know the absence of viable alternative political grouping. But that won’t change the equation. That’s why I said in the previous post that I quoted above:

“The root cause is the perception that the government have become irresponsive and its officials unaccountable. Plus, the sense of powerlessness. Thus, once the people start protesting and feel empowered, they become ‘uncompromising’ as we are seeing in the Egyptian case. Not only do they fear reprisals from the unaccountable officials((should they quit the protest and go home), but also because they start to believe this is the only way they can get things done – riot.”

Moreover, it is imprudent to rest the stability of the system on economic factors, when the much-needed governance reforms entail nothing but hurting the pride of political appointees – a feudalistic mindset for the eradication of which tens of thousands died.

On the contrary, whether the government will be able to scale-up the economic achievements into a transformation depends on creating a sense of ownership in the populace rather than relegating it into a consumer.

The bottom line is the shut up and consume logic runs counter to Ethiopians sense of dignity and justice while there is no much to be consumed.

In fact, EPRDF’s confidence on its ability to predict, preempt and put down street riots is a dangerous gamble that may cost the nation dearly.


[P.S. – this post, despite its scope, is written in one sitting, thus apologize if it lacks some literary qualities and comprehensiveness. After all, I am a blogger.]

Daniel Berhane

more recommended stories