Current Tensions in Ethopia: Looking Inward
By the Strathink Editorial Team
The scale and scope of Ethiopia’s political unrest during the past year has alarmed officials of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and with good reason. In Oromia, home to Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, simmering tensions have erupted over, ostensibly, the Addis Ababa Master Plan and later into a much broader discontent with governance The political unrest in the Amhara region over, ostensibly again, boundaries reflect similar frustrations with governance..
Poor governance is working to erode the trust between the people and their government. The perception is that the government is being run by incompetent and corrupt EPRDF officials who see public institutions as their personal ATM machines. The problem becomes more serious as you move down from the region, the zone, the wereda, and kebele level administration. Poor governance at the regional levels on down is setting back the remarkable achievements made by the government—and the people—in the last 25 years.
These problems are not unsurmountable if directly confronted by the government and by the people—peacefully, within the context of civil discourse. Government leaders need to clean house and opposition leaders need to make sure they use constitutional means to represent the interests of the people. For the government, corruption is like a stinger in the body. If it was pulled out quickly when it entered the body, it would have been relatively painless. Unfortunately, as time went on, the stinger has released its poison throughout the body and excising it will be extremely painful. This is the nature of corruption.
Opposition leaders, without seats in the legislature, must find ways to challenge the government without resorting to violence. It is easy to call people to the streets to vent their frustration by destroying property and inciting violence. However, the gains are short-term and ephemeral. Lasting change can only come about through a genuine dialogue that ends up, ultimately, at the ballot box.
How did this happen, what does this mean, and how can the government fix this unhealthy state of affairs?
Election 2005: Delaying Democracy for a Generation
The refusal of the opposition to take their uncontested seats in the parliament following the 2005 election has set back democracy 25 years—a generation in time. Rather than fulfilling their obligation to their electorate to govern, the opposition chose to take to the streets in a violent push to assume control outside the ballot box.
The opposition leaders were arrested, tried and convicted—with many choosing not to mount a defense in a contemptuous display of hostility to the judicial system—in a trial deemed fair by a report made by Lawyers Without Borders. The leadership was granted amnesty after spending 20 months in jail.
Following the amnesty, where opposition leaders had signed a document admitting guilt and apologizing to the Ethiopian people, the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP), imploded. The disgraced leadership slunk away to build a flourishing business empire, like Hailu Shawal, or form a 200-man personal army in Asmara poised to overthrow the Ethiopian government, like Berhanu Nega. At least one of them has fulfilled his dreams.
The stunning loss of parliamentary seats by the EPRDF led the party to put their mobilization machine into overdrive, and by 2016 there were an estimated 8 million party members. However, the speed of party recruitment created a different kind of party member than those veterans of the struggle. The new membership differs significantly from the old guard. They didn’t live through Haile Selassie or Mengistu. Red Terror is is written about in their history books. Their worldview is driven by mobile technology, not by the suffering experience by the older generation under two repressive regimes.
In a different context, swelling the ranks of the party is not prima facie bad. Political parties should expand their membership as a means of inclusiveness.
However, the absence of a credible and viable alternative to the party does just the opposite—anyone excluded from membership is marginalized and subsequently alienated from the political process. This, in turn, leads to political demands outside the political process; hence, people take to the streets, or worse, to express their mistrust and dissatisfaction.
Finding Real Meaning in the Protests
It is easy to say that recent unrest means that the people are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. We can say, for example, that ethnic federalism has given rise to questions about identity and a heightened ethnic identity, but is that what we are really saying? Ethnic identity is a social construct that differentiates one group from another. Ethnic identity, in situations where identity is perceived to determine access to tangible and intangible resources (e.g. land and power), becomes a “we versus them” construct.
In Ethiopia’s ethnic federal system, the underlying principle of ethnic federalism is self-governance of ethnic groups by their own elites. On the face of it, we could conclude that in Oromia, for example, recent protests are aimed at poor governance by Oromo elites as manifested in their party, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO).
However, in the case of Ethiopia and within the context of ethnic federalism, the OPDO and EPRDF are conflated—the same is true for the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). Dissatisfaction with the “the government” is dissatisfaction with the EPRDF, despite the fact that each region is governed by its own party.
The real danger, however, is the conflation of the EPRDF and the Tigrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF). The widespread perception in Ethiopia, and externally, is that the TPLF, through the long arm of the EPRDF, controls all of Ethiopia. This is a deliberate campaign by the elites who have failed to effectively govern their people along with remnants of the old regime.
Tigray, despite significant progress made in the last 25 years, remains the poorest region in Ethiopia. It is a drought-prone and food insecure. An estimated 58% of all Tigreans live below the poverty line on less than one dollar per day. These are facts.
Yet, opposition leaders in Ethiopia and abroad demonize Tigreans in exactly the same way Hutus demonized Tutsis, Germans demonized Jews and Turks demonized Armenians. We all know the unspeakable outcome.
The relentless pursuit of power by opposition elites leave no holds barred in inciting their followers—who have legitimate grievances—to violence. The hate speech of many opposition leaders ignored by the international community and opposition leaders meet with U.S. Congressmen and mid-level State Department people. The EU only hears the loud and strident voice of Ana Gomes, condemning the Ethiopiapian government and celebrating terrorists like Berhanu Nega and Eritrean President Isayas Afewerki.
Yet, the smallholder farmer in Tigray, struggling to feed his family on less than a dollar a day, is held accountable for the crimes of the very few.
EPRDF: A Victim of its Own Success
So here we are. The opposition’s refusal to take their seats left a vacuum for expressing political dissent. The expansion of the EPRDF in mobilizing members created a behemoth that seems to be everywhere, given the absence of a viable and credible opposition. And in the ebb and flow of the developmental state, a “revolution of rising expectations” took hold in a new generation of Ethiopians.
EPRDF’s successes in providing education and health created a new generation of Ethiopian—a generation that knew no other government in power, that was healthier and better educated. This generation—70 percent of Ethiopia’s population who are under 20 years old—is connected peripherally to the global economy and Ethiopia’s massive growth through relatively inexpensive and accessible telecommunications. Although not a participant in this economic growth, Ethiopian youth see the wealth accumulation of other Ethiopians and they want to have a piece of the pie.
The speed in which Ethiopia’s economy has grown in the last decade has exacerbated tensions nationwide. The accumulation of wealth in the country has, unfortunately, rendered the state a mechanism for rent-seeking—defined as when an individual or business attempts to make money from its resources without using those resources to provide a benefit to society or generate wealth for everyone. The rise in affordable mobile technology has brought brought visions of wealth and affluence among Ethiopian youth—creating a gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.” Conspicuous consumption and ostentatiousness among the wealthy can be seen in every regional capital.
Thus, there is a “revolution of rising expectations” among youth that can be manipulated by internal and external forces to serve narrow political interests. Ethiopian young people, as suggested earlier, are different from the current generation of political leadership. Who really knows what they are thinking? Armed with the latest mobile phones and knowledge of social media—and no place to go—Ethiopia’s youth are vulnerable to manipulation. In 2005, the opposition mobilized mobs of young people to go out into the streets to provoke rebellion. However, their technological smarts were not match by any kind of ideological commitment to change. They were pawns in an older generation’s political chess game to grab power.
What can the EPRDF Do?
It is easy to sit at a computer and prescribe broad remedies to avert a potential disaster. The devil, they say, is in the details. What we offer here are some points to begin a dialogue across the country—from the kebele to the federal parliament. The key word here is dialogue. Ethiopia’s entire political culture needs to be transformed into one where people can “agree to disagree” and politics is not a zero-sum gain.
The government alone cannot change the political culture—civil society, as part of the problem—must be part of the solution. However, the government and the parties can set an example to the people by beginning to engage in real dialogue—beginning with their own members and extending outside to the general public, including the opposition.
The party is quite capable of doing so. In 2005, for example, in the months leading up to the election, a genuine dialogue, sometimes heated, took place on television, at universities and where ordinary people can “agree to disagree.” It was a democracy at work and everyone won.
More difficult is to reform the party of the culture of corruption that is eating away at the remarkable gains of the last 25 years. There are ebbs and flows of corruption in every country, including Ethiopia. Today, the vast sums of money invested in infrastructure development and other capital-intensive projects makes accountability a challenge. And indeed, the perception of corruption far exceeds the reality. Prime Minister Hailemariam, like Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, lives a simple life, unlike the flamboyant and pretentious leaders in much of Africa. However, perception is important and the government needs to show that it will not tolerate public theft. It must have been difficult to call out Tamrat Layne—one of heir own—decades ago but it sent a powerful message to the government and the people as well.
The late Prime Minister Meles’ views on public corruption were transparent. He once referred to “thieves within his government” and “robbers within the people” during a question-answer session with the parliament. According to Prime Minister Meles, the locus of public corruption included land administration, taxation, public procurement and import-export—land being the most critical.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn now carries the baton of anti-corruption passed to him by the late Prime Minister. It is not an easy job. Public corruption is a particularly onerous crime—public corruption is theft from the people the party has promised to serve. For the EPRDF, a party based on a legacy of struggle and personal sacrifice on behalf of the Ethiopian people, pointing the finger at comrades who have given so much to make “Ethiopia rising” the dominant narrative, must seem like betrayal. Yet, it is also true that for the party to survive and continue its work for the Ethiopia people, corruption must be rooted out and punished.
A robust response to government corruption by EPRDF across the board and down to the kebele will help diffuse the tension between civil society and the government. EPRDF has a long tradition of gemgemma—criticsm and self-criticism—that held everyone accountable to the party. From the top leadership down to the ordinary party member, no one was above the tradition of gemgemma. This was a highly effective tool during the struggle and later on to impose transparency and accountability on the membership.
The demographic challenges of Ethiopia today are great but must be faced head-on. Youth, as indicated earlier, are healthier, better educated and tapped into the broader global system through telecommunications. Job creation should be a number one priority for the parties and the government. India has become the first choice destination for outsourcing jobs that require both low tech and high tech workers. From data entry to high-end information technology services, young Indians have secured lucrative employment—building their wealth and contributing to the country’s growth. Ethiopia can adapt a similar economic strategy to attract outsourced services, providing employment to youth and making them productive members of society.
The EPRDF needs a re-boot. For the past 25 years, the party has been re-inventing itself to respond to new challenges, new conditions and new realities. The seismic shift in creating the Ethiopia today calls for new thinking. What worked 25 years ago may not work today—precisely because of the significant achievements made in growing the economy and advancing democracy. The government good guys need to band together and get rid of the government bad guys—no exceptions. Additionally, the party needs to loosen its grip on political space to allow differing perspectives to co-exist with the party line. There can never be democracy without an alternative choice. The people have to be trusted to make the right choice.