Lencho Leta: Individual and group rights: a dichotomy or a duality?

Whether the relationship prevailing between individual and group rights is a dichotomy or a duality centrally figures in the ongoing pre-election inter-party debates in Ethiopia.

This would strike other democracies as rather strange because the settlement of this issue is normally part of the constitutional process that necessarily precedes scheduling and conducting periodic elections.

The fact that such a basic principle is the subject of debate clearly demonstrates that the incumbent and some of the opposition parties hold differing opinions about the present Ethiopian constitution. Hence, those critical of the present constitution aim not only to unseat the incumbent party if they win the upcoming elections but to restructure the country once again to fit their imagination about Ethiopia. This in turn drives the incumbent to equate its remaining in power with the preservation of the current political order. It is a quintessential zero-sum game.

In ordinary democracies, the opposition and ruling parties hold in common the constitution under which they are competing. Under this sort of dispensation, the political order remains in place even as parties come to power or are unseated by winning or losing elections. The loser in one round of elections does not panic because it remains confident of winning the next one or the one after that so long as the rules of the game are not changed in order to fit only the vision of the winner. This sentiment is what is missing in Ethiopia with quite worrying implications.

Political developments in Ethiopia have the habit of getting off on the wrong footing at every historical juncture. And this applies to the framing and ratifying of its several constitutions. The process got off in 1931 when Emperor Haile-Selassie granted the first constitution ever in Ethiopia’s supposedly long history, “unasked and of Our free will” as he then stated. This act of granting occasioned the birth of a ‘monarchic constitution’ instead of laying the foundation for a constitutional monarchy.

That Constitution was formally consigned to the dust bin of history, without any rancor, when Emperor Haile-Selassie was overthrown in September 1974 by the military. And it took the military regime more than a decade to frame and ratify a new constitution fitting its particular vision about Ethiopia. When the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) came to power in 1991 by unseating the military regime, issuing a formal declaration voiding that constitution was evidently not even found necessary. And no group came to its defense when it was dismissed without even publicly declaring it null and void.

Hence, both of the previous regime changes in Ethiopia have occasioned also the dismissal of the constitution associated with the incumbent. The fact that no group came to the defense of either constitution evidences that its ownership did not extend outside the top echelon of both regimes. Only time will tell whether the same fate awaits also the present constitution or not.
Whether the present constitution deserves to be radically overhauled or not, however, is currently being publicly debated, something unthinkable under previous regimes. And whether the relationship between individual and group rights is a dichotomy or a duality is part of this ongoing debate. This debate should be welcomed and enriched by perhaps conducting it in a more responsible, dispassionate, constructive and protracted manner.

Before delving into the relationship between individual and group rights another troubling habit of Ethiopia’s political development getting off on the wrong footing needs to be discussed. That is the habit of the political class latching onto a panacea for solving all the problems facing the country. Towards the end of the Imperial era, for example, “scientific socialism” was embraced as such a panacea without sufficient critical reflection or understanding.

Scientific socialism was then considered eminently appropriate for according primacy to class struggle over the then mushrooming national liberation struggles. Getting organized as advocates of exploited classes was then considered legitimate while getting organized as advocates of national rights was summarily castigated as practicing ‘narrow nationalism’. Whether class and national oppression could overlap in some cases was not even contemplated.

Some of the views expressed in the ongoing debates regarding individual and group rights hint that liberal democracy is, either explicitly or implicitly, being embraced by some parties as the new panacea for solving at least the political problems facing the country. The proponents of this line of argument simply proceed on the presumption that upholding individual rights would suffice to fulfill group rights as well.

There was a time when this presumption about the virtues of liberal democracy was uncritically accepted. This acceptance stemmed from imaging the conventional liberal democratic nation-state as being culturally and linguistically homogeneous.
This homogeneous nation-state is supposedly populated by rationally calculating individuals that are considered largely interchangeable. Whether the individual imagined in the realm of the mind actually matches the person on the streets remained moot so long as liberal democracy stayed dominant.

This way of imagining about “Ethiopians” is popular among those groups that are convinced that Ethiopia is a single nation. The homogeneity of the “Ethiopians” imagined by this sector stems from the presumption that they share in common the following convictions: (1) Ethiopia as a single nation with a common culture and language; (2) They subscribe to the history of Ethiopia that uninterruptedly stretches back for at least three millennia; (3) And they dismiss the contention by some that the process that culminated in the birth of contemporary Ethiopia in the late Nineteenth Century is not different from that which led to the birth of Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria or Ghana except the agent being a local African power instead of a European one, etc.

Undoubtedly, there are communities in Ethiopia that subscribe to these convictions as there are those who do not. Hence, this imagination of “Ethiopians” includes some by excluding others, which drove the self-assertion of those excluded from the very outset. Reviving this policy of inclusion by exclusion does not really bode well for peace and stability in the country.
Those subscribing to this policy of inclusion by exclusion by drawing on liberal democratic principles should be aware of the shortcomings and failures of liberal democracy in its birthplace – Western Europe and other areas of the globe settled by Western Europeans. There are ample empirical evidences attesting to the failure of the liberal democratic presumption that respecting individual rights can automatically result in upholding group rights.

There is no question whatsoever that the individual rights of the Scottish and Welsh in the United Kingdom, of Quebeckers in Canada and of the Catalans in Spain are fully respected. However, this did not deter these communities from tabling demands for their group rights ranging from self-government to even independence.

Liberal democracy has traditionally been faulted on three grounds: (1) it promotes egotism by undermining the common interests of the wider community; (2) by prioritizing political equality, it tends to make possible inequality in social and economic life; (3) by reducing democracy merely to voting, it undermines the importance of more active citizenly participation. Since the end of the Cold War and with growing intensity with each passing decade, liberal democracy started drawing a fourth criticism that it functions by ignoring or trying to erase differences on the basis of gender, race, religion, language and culture. This criticism is prompting the search for a version of democracy that accommodates diversity on the basis of these attributes.

Members of the Ethiopian political class need to avoid repeating the habit of taking an either/or stand regarding political principles, including liberal democracy. Any political principle, as any human invention, has a positive and a negative side. As the result, liberal democracy has many constructive features which should be embraced and practiced. On the other hand, overlooking some of its shortcomings would amount to reviving the absolutist position we once took regarding “scientific socialism” with disastrous implications.

There are a couple of simple theoretical reasons why group and individual rights do not constitute a dichotomy but a duality. First, social and political aggregations are composed of individuals. Second, although there could be a specific individual political opinion, there cannot exist an individual politics. Individuals need to aggregate on one basis or another in order to participate in politics. Consequently, violating or suppressing group rights amounts to violating the rights of the individuals composing the group and vice versa.

What is elementally still missing in Ethiopia is constituting a political community through a process culminating in the ratification of a more widely owned constitution than has been the case to date. And the ongoing debates regarding group and individual rights could lead to such an end only if we are willing to compromise. And such a compromise will continue to elude us so long as we insist to frame a constitution fitting strictly the vision of a particular sector of the political class.

When we succeed to strike a compromise about a commonly acceptable constitutional order we will all be forced to uneasily live with it despite its failure to perfectly match our differing imaginations of Ethiopia. It would be the willingness to live under such a constitutional order that would be the more acceptable foundation of the country’s unity instead of language, culture, or history all of which would tend to divide us.

Ed.’s Note: Leenco Lata is a prominent Ethiopian politician and President of Oromo Democratic Front (ODF).  He can be reached at leenco.lata@yahoo.com