October 27, 2020
by Jack Bryan
A politics focused on rights or rules will be destructive without a sense of responsibility.
The Ethiopian state has had a fragmented history. Whether you take a long view of the country’s existence or short—three millennia or 130 years— conflicting principles have governed this vast and varied land. Thus far, two key principles have provided the foundation for political life in this country: rule and rights.
Rule of a Person
During the reign of Haile Selassie and his imperial predecessors, the principle of rule held sway. That is, sovereign political power lay in the hands of a single individual, passed down on the basis of ancestry. The guiding condition was the authority belonging to the individual who possessed the right blood, the land, military might, and fealty. On religious grounds too, the emperors’ rule was ultimate, as the Orthodox Church encouraged the view that the monarch was the elect of God. Executive, judicial, and legislative powers were vested in a single person.
Rule of ‘the People’
Surprisingly, this central principle of rule remained even after the violent overthrow of the emperor in 1974. Despite removing the former feudal hierarchy, its equalizing philosophy of “land to the tiller,” and proclaimed disapproval of one-man rule, the communist Derg regime remained characterized by authoritarian rule.
Through a massive military, the central government wielded ultimate control that was progressively concentrated in the volatile figure of Mengistu Haile Mariam. Deliberate propaganda, the expansion of military might, and an elaborate surveillance apparatus all bolstered the unyielding underlying concept of rule.
Rule of a People
When the Derg toppled to an end in 1991, many people expected the confederation of liberation groups—headed by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)—to instantiate a different mode of political existence. At first, the collaborative grassroots nature of the rebel movement seemed to indicate a shift away from previous rule-based models of governance.
And by appearance, the 1995 constitution of the newly-established Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia did appear to follow the global post-communist liberal democratic trend. Radically different than the Derg and the empire before it, the new system was founded on a far more voluntary and social contractarian conception of statehood.
This new system appeared to be focused on the rights of the people rather than the rule of a single person. By this view, individuals and groups possessed moral and legal entitlements to certain goods through the rule of law embodied in the constitution, including the “Right of Thought, Opinion, and Expression” and the right for all nations, nationalities, and peoples to self-administration up to and including secession.
And yet the EPRDF democratic experiment displayed a marked difference from its contemporaries. In this new system, group rights took precedence over those of the individual. According to Article 8 of the Constitution, sovereignty resides in groups: nations, nationalities, and peoples. In the Ethiopian context, rights are prioritized at a group level rather than at the level of citizens. In fact, citizenship is predicated on membership of an ethnic group.
Though individual and group rights were envisioned under the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government, the practical scope of those rights as experienced by the Ethiopian people was definitively limited. Rights given in name by the constitution slipped progressively towards the rule that had previously characterized politics. This was particularly true after 2005, where EPRDF’s “one-to-five” technique of mobilization became a formidable mechanism of surveilling the public.
After the hotly contested 2005 elections culminated in bloodshed, mass arrests, and harsh crackdowns on a burgeoning democratic civil society, Ethiopia emerged as a one-party state where EPRDF ruled with almost total control of the parliament. The right to a genuine representational government remained unrealized.
Thus, despite rights offered in the constitution, the principle of rule remained dominant throughout. Ultimately, this led to unrest and the ascent of Abiy Ahmed in 2018. For many people, that moment marked a spark of hope—perhaps now the promised rights would materialize. Perhaps now the press would be truly free, groups would be allowed to administer themselves, and the government’s ability to rule with an iron fist would be curbed.
In the months following Abiy’s ascension to the Prime Minister role, the Ethiopian political landscape has been characterized by the quest for the materialization of those promised rights. The right to free speech and a free press has since been realized to levels unseen since the brief period of freedom following the downfall of the Derg, with journalists and members of the media able to criticize the government more than ever before.
The right to political representation is also within reach, with a more independent Electoral Board managing the electoral process for the first time. Furthermore, opposition parties, classified as terrorists and many exiled under the previous doctrine of rule, were allowed to return to the country once more.
And yet recent months have revealed the actualization of those rights to be fraught, complicated, and inadequate as a principal means of governing society, and some of the returned political leaders are now in jail. Intercommunal violence and internally displaced peoples have increased alongside the opening of political space and the liberalization process. The paradigm of top-down, government-versus-people violence has now changed to a more horizontal one. The government no longer has a monopoly on violence.
Many have abused the rights gained following Abiy’s ascension to power. For instance, Jawar Mohammed and others are currently on trial for, among other charges, allegedly inciting ethnic violence and encouraging riots, destruction, and unrest in which 167 people were killed following the assassination of Hachalu Hundessa, a popular Oromo singer, on June 29.
The right to self-determination too has caused upheaval and bloodshed. In the course of seeking regional status and self-administration, Sidama Zone was the stage for the burning of businesses, churches and homes, ethnically-motivated killing, and the displacement of thousands of non-Sidama people from the capital Hawassa. Government security forces killed an unknown number of protesters in response. Tensions remain high in Southern Nations region as the Wolayta and other smaller groups call for similar autonomy.
Furthermore, Tigray capitalized on the right to self-rule stipulated in the constitution, proceeding with regional election in defiance of rulings by the House of Federation to delay preparations for nationwide elections due to COVID-19. According to the TPLF spokesperson, any attempt to prevent their acting upon these perceived rights would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
Following the absolute victory of TPLF in the federally unsanctioned regional polls in September, the speaker of the upper house of the Ethiopian parliament called for the federal government to cut federal budget subsidies to Tigray, a move that would further escalate the situation.
As political space has opened up under Abiy, the preference given to group rights in the constitution has grown increasingly problematic. An emphasis on group rights, especially given the founding presupposition of “historical injustice” between those groups, sets up an inherently oppositional framework. In this system, a call for rights is zero-sum, necessarily taken at the expense of another group.
At the moment, ethnic groups are increasingly paying attention to their own rights and affairs, largely ignoring the prospects of others. Ethno-nationalism inflates ethnic identity and downplays Ethiopian identity, sometimes leading to the persecution of minorities, or those perceived as ‘other’, within the ethnically allotted areas.
In the wake of these crises, many people have criticized Abiy for his lenience and light touch dealing with this unrest and conflict, calling for a return to the principle of rule over rights. A taxi driver in the capital Addis Ababa, discussing Abiy’s “politics of reconciliation,” recently put it to me this way: “Ethiopia doesn’t need love; she needs love with a stick.”
Strong rule can seem appealing when people seek to actualize their rights at others’ expense. When rights are taken rather than mutually gifted through the social contract, social and political outlooks become zero-sum, embodied in the doomed expression, “It’s our time to eat.” When the achievement of rights is seen as emancipation from instead of enfranchisement for, the granting of rights leads to the individual pursuit of power rather than collective collaboration for societal flourishing. This leads nowhere except fragmentation and collapse.
An emphasis on rights may constrain the power of the State and prevent the government from encroachment. But what is to prevent people from violating the rights of their neighbors once the power of the government has been limited?
Reason: Bridging the gap
The principle of reason is needed to move out of the space of self-destructive rights. Reason is twofold, embodying both a purpose and a process.
In the first place, reason is the rational, neutral judgement needed to look beyond one’s wants or needs. Reason is the logical attention leading to an ability to see the meaning behind unity and the purpose for groups to work together.
The current focus on rights draws attention to the differences between peoples in Ethiopia—as seen in the current fierce debate over historical narratives. This must be balanced with the reason required to recognize all that is shared. Scholars neutral in the historical debate see Ethiopic cultures as belonging together—not because of shared ethnic lineage or political conquest, but because of all that is shared historically and culturally between the diverse array of peoples contained within the current borders.
In the words of the late Donald Levine, “The Ethiopian past can be a source of identifications which are associated with specific virtues of national significance, and which Ethiopian cultural leaders can draw upon to help define for their country its unique composite character.”
More practically, reason is the process of measured, reasonable, and open dialogue that brings together people or groups with their opponents. In the fragmentary space of oppositional rights, conversation is desperately vital. The primary iteration of reason—purpose—is attainable only through the reasoning process by which contesting people and groups come together. The current situation, in which each political and ethnic faction has its own media platform, for example, effectively stunts this reasoning process.
Reason will counter the zero-sum fragmentation promoted by an over-emphasis on rights and reframe collective perceptions towards a motif of responsibility.
Responsibility: The way forward
One needs a balance of values for a functioning state. Rule must be tempered by the rights of the people at large. Simultaneously, rights must be checked by rule to prevent chaos. In excess, rule is cruel and leads to totalitarianism. Unconstrained, rights become zero-sum entitlement, and lead to fragmentation. Self-administration is worthless without self-restraint. Rule and rights must both be met with the principle of responsibility.
Only by espousing a strong sense of responsibility will Ethiopia be able to move away from overwhelming rule and fully realize the rights that are presently the basis for volatility and violence.
Rights are only meaningful when placed in the context of our responsibility to uphold the fundamental rights of others. The Ethiopian constitution was meant to be the means by which we give to others that which we claim for ourselves. In its ideal form, it embodies a responsibility to uphold the rights of others. We cannot withhold from others something we claim for ourselves.
Rights are about what belongs to an individual or a group. Responsibility, on the other hand, is about belonging to a community, to a country, to humanity. Accordingly, rights are about groups taking what they perceive is owed to them, while responsibility is about them giving to other groups what they owe to them based on all that is shared between them. A focus on rights tends to be zero-sum, but responsibility will seek out positive-sum relations that lead to mutual flourishing.
In the first place, this mutual responsibility stems from shared humanity. Persecution, violence, discrimination, and hatred are denials of the sanctity of human life. No matter your interpretation of Ethiopia’s history, a shared belonging to humanity makes one responsible to respect the humanity of the other. Issues in Ethiopian political and social life revolve around areas of difference—ethnic, religious, historic—and their resolution will only be found when involved parties hold themselves responsible to their shared humanity.
Second, responsibility arises from a shared country. Regardless of the political or historical perspective that you hold, this country’s future is intertwined. There is no easy fix, no clean break that can rectify current complexities. The nations, nationalities, and peoples of Ethiopia must begin to uphold others’ wellbeing instead of focusing solely on their own rights.
Third, responsibility arises from the values that are shared between Ethiopians. There is remarkable continuity of values across the diversity of cultures in Ethiopia. Family, community, fellowship, similar food rituals, coffee ceremonies, traditional leadership, and religious tolerance are all stable commonalities.
Choose any two individuals from any region of Ethiopia, and you will see, beyond possible language or religious differences, there is a lot they share in common. Responsibility means working to find commonalities in the face of differences. Responsibility means considering others over self. It also means broadening one’s scope beyond one’s own group or region, keeping the whole in mind.
In a community or country where rights are the highest point of emphasis, the sum of the parts will always be less than the whole.
In a country where rule is exercised above all, the whole will obliterate the parts.
Yet, in a country where responsibility to one another and to the whole is stressed through the practice of reason, the whole, built up over time by the responsibility of individuals, peoples, nationalities, and groups to honor, respect, and give dignity to one another, may become greater than the parts.
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