The last forty years have been a tumultuous time for Ethiopia. The country has been a witness to a series of violent changes in its political and economic landscape. With the change of regimes, from monarchy through a socialist-oriented military dictatorship to ethnic-based revolutionary democracy, Ethiopia has experienced different economic regimes, a feudal based economy with signs of incipient capitalism, a socialist economy with diminished and discouraged private enterprise, and a precarious marriage between socialism and controlled capitalism respectively.
After bouts of success and disaster, hope and despair, promise and tragedy, Ethiopia has reached a level where its survival as a nation, a nation proud of itself and reliant on its own abilities, can only be achieved and sustained by building a system that unleashes the energies of its citizens for a greater good. This is a system that should be inclusive, democratic, and locally grounded and that respects collective rights while promoting individual enterprise. Ethiopia is at a critical juncture in its recent history, an era filled with opportunities for renewal and progress or one with possibilities for a descent to repression and dictatorship. There are signs of both and it is the task of true Ethiopians to make the former work and the latter fail.
Ethiopia’s recent history is replete with opportunities that arose but recklessly squandered. A short digression to the recent past will provide us with a painful memory and, even more, a lesson about numerous missed chances that could have changed the face of the nation and its people for the better. Painful as it may be, Ethiopia’s history over the last forty years should serve the main purpose of making its citizens reflect, think again and move on with lessons learnt to bring about viable changes.
While the project of uniting and modernizing Ethiopia goes back to at least the era of Emperor Tewodros II (1855-1868) and started to be realized during Emperor Menilik II (1889-1913), the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I (1930-1974) stands out as a formative period in the modern history of the country. It held sway for half a century and laid the foundations of a modernizing country. The institutions he built in the fields of education, bureaucracy, government, and military have shaped the face of modern Ethiopia. The laws legislated in his time-criminal, civil, and commercial- have, for instance, been kept intact except for some minor changes. Ethiopia has achieved a respected place in the community of nations as Africa’s diplomatic capital and the seat of many international organizations.
The “misfortune” of the Imperial regime was its inability or lack of will to restructure the political and economic foundations of Ethiopia in a way that would bring equality and justice to all its citizens. It failed to liberalize administration, reform the land tenure system, guarantee democratic rights and a genuinely legislative parliament or introduce a form of constitutional monarchy. The peasant, the backbone of Ethiopia, remained pauperized, and at times famished, being denied of control of the product of his/her toil. Discontents and grievances started to be openly expressed with regards to the failure of the system to ensure the equality of all ethnic and religious groups. Educated Ethiopians felt betrayed by their patron whose government could not transform itself or remained pre-modern, autocratic and repressive. The exclusionary practices of the government left them without any hope of actively participating in government or influencing its policies.
One would have hoped that the coup of 1960 or the massive student movement of the 1960s and early 1970s demanding changes in the policies of the government and in the direction of the country would have served as a wake up call on the government. These were real moments that begged for serious government intervention to turn around the situation in the interest of the nation. The changes that were introduced in the form of cabinet reshuffle, scrapping of unpopular legislations or salary increases were, however, too little and too late. The possibility for a smooth, non-violent change of leadership or policies was lost and thus the stage was set for a bloody and forceful military intervention in politics.
The military take over in 1974 represented the hijacking of a popular uprising and consequently a harbinger of more difficult times ahead. Nevertheless, the military government had every opportunity to liberate the country and its people from a vicious cycle of poverty, injustice, despair and violence. It, in fact, started with great promises and a massive popular support. The proclamation that nationalized rural land was a significant achievement of the military regime. It broke the economic base of the imperial regime and its exploitative land tenure system and at the same time marked, at least on the surface, a double liberation, class as well as national, for the toiling Ethiopians. The regime went some distance in the direction of bringing redistributive justice that was so lacking in the country, such as peasants’ owning their own plots of land or groups exercising their religious and cultural rights. It also performed well in the literacy campaign. The regime’s effort toward promoting the history, culture and languages of various ethnic groups was a positive albeit insufficient development.
But the measures were more cosmetic and did not aim at real transformation of the political culture and economic situation obtained in the country. There was no multiparty democracy and real political discourse. All alternative opinions were deemed reactionary and crushed ruthlessly. The terror that the regime unleashed on the nation liquidated so many lives, dashed all hopes for a free and democratic Ethiopia and disfigured the face of the nation. The culture of extremism, which pervaded Ethiopian politics, enabled the elimination of not just individuals and groups with differing political alternatives but the possibility for an inclusive political system and political discourse. The infamous “red terror” left thousands of young Ethiopians brutally murdered for belonging to or supporting a clandestine opposition party known as the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party (EPRP).
The radical land reform proclamation of 1975, as it turned out, did not liberate the Ethiopian peasantry. There was no legal ownership of land and no real security of tenure. It was the regime through its peasant associations who were the final arbiters of land ownership and the process of production and distribution. The extent, rampancy and severity of famine, its increase to vicious proportions as witnessed in the 1984/85 tragedy rather than its decrease, on the watch of the military government was a painful gauge to the disaster that befell Ethiopia and its people. The peasant touted to support the nation was increasingly unable to feed him/herself. To make matters even worse, rural poverty, that phenomenal ‘badge’ of rural Ethiopia, spread its destructive and humiliating tentacles to the towns and cities of the country. The nation and its people were unified by their collective experience of gnawing poverty and invariable reliance on international food aid. Beggary, the child of visionless economic and political governance, humiliated its proud people and mutilated the independence of one of Africa’s oldest nations. The abyss seemed to know no bounds.
Loss of support from the people, a debilitating civil war and the demise of the Communist bloc, the Derg’s major benefactors, combined to bring the end of Ethiopia’s conventionally designated ‘murderous’ regime. In 1991, TPLF forces entered Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital while EPLF fighters ‘liberated’ Eritrea. It seemed to many the end of a seemingly endless reign of fear and tribulation and the ushering in of a period of peace, democracy and development. Ethiopia’s leaders once again were given a new opportunity.
THE REGIME OF REVOLUTIONARY DEMOCRACY
The EPRDF was presented with many opportunities to spearhead the nation in a direction of viable democracy, peace and development. It did introduce commendable changes. It liberalized the economy considerably unleashing in the process free enterprise on a scale not seen before, at least in the time of the military government. It widened the political space, allowing the existence and expansion, if not flourishing, of an independent media, NGOs and CSOs, and multiparty politics. It legislated laws to address the question of justice and equality, guaranteeing the rights of religious and ethnic groups and enabling them to enjoy and enrich their language and culture.
The government promised time and again, and went some distance in that direction, to bring the hopes for democracy and development to fruition. Unfortunately, event after event have proved beyond doubt that the government in power would only allow changes as long as it could manage them and only if they did not threaten its monopoly on power. Besides, some of the policies it introduced produced more problems than solutions.
Politically, the experiment with democracy is not viewed as a response to popular demand or as a viable solution to Ethiopia’s age-old problems. It rather seems a half-hearted change to dilute the tensions of poverty and authoritarianism and to give the impression to the world that this is a democratizing government. In extreme cases, the government sees the whole process as resulting from its benevolence, a price Ethiopians have to pay for being liberated from the clutches of the Derg. Just like previous constitutions (four in total: two during the imperial regime, one during the first months of the revolution, and one during the Derg) EPRDF’s constitution, the fifth one (which replaced a transitional charter effective for over three years), was imposed from above rather than emanated from below and respected by both the public and the leaders. Hence it is a “charter of the victor rather than a covenant between the people and the government.”
What has become increasingly clear to many Ethiopians over the last two decades, thus, is a replacement of a weakened military dictatorship by a fresh, vicious single party authoritarianism disguised as a burgeoning democracy. Frequent reports of human right violations, harassment of the private media and non-governmental actors are cited as conclusive evidence to a deliberate and systematic derailment of the democratization process. The policies and practices emphasizing ethnicity were considered by many as mere tools of appeasement and “divide and conquer.”
On the economic field, the government has not been able to live up to its self-declared commitment: as a pro-peasant force dedicated to transforming the lot of the Ethiopian peasantry. While acknowledging significant achievements in the areas of increased food production and improved lives for many peasant families, the Ethiopian peasant remains a hostage to a government, who owns all land and rations fertilizer. The government keeps itself in power and enriches its coffers by pauperizing its citizens, peasants of all. It has become a government, which collects ransom tax (and loyalty) from the Ethiopian public and the donor community in the name of development and democracy and, now, the war on terrorism which it overplays and for which it demands a price and Western silence to its unchecked excesses. As for foreign powers especially Western governments such as the US and Britain, its principal benefactors, their reaction has been mostly to refuse to act and only mumble for moderation.
In addition, serious disagreements have arisen over the government formula to resolve the national question enshrined, in the most direct of terms, in article 39 of the Constitution: “self-determination up to and including secession.” Although some argue that the provision and the constitution in general have definitively solved the national question, it has become clear that except for some regions the right to self-government, let alone independence, has only been little exercised and dependence on and control from the central government still remains strong. The artificiality of the new regional administrative structure is visible in almost all the regions. There is no plausible rational for lumping so disparate a region like the south into a ‘homogenous’ Southern Nations and Nationalities. There had never been any historical or geo-economic precedent or even administrative reason for forming regions like Amhara or Oromiya.
Many more maintain the conviction that the experiment with ethnic based regionalism could result in the dismemberment of Ethiopia. Instances of strained relations between Ethiopia’s many nationalities and periodic ethnic clashes have become common over the last 20 years. Eritrea that some 20 years ago was part of Ethiopia and Eritreans who once were proud of their Ethiopian identity engaged in one of the bloody battles the entire region has seen in the recent past. The dubious nature of their separation from Ethiopia and the record of hostility that they have allegedly harbored or threat that they have represented has not contributed to allay the fear and suspicions of Ethiopians in the region. Many Ethiopians have been accused of being overly nationalist or rewarded for being more ethnic. The government has become dumbfounded over the strong sense of Ethiopian-ness that people of the south, neglected and marginalized for many decades, have demonstrated over the years. The Amhara have been specially targeted for discrimination and attacks. Conversely, Tigrean elites, who come from an ethnic group which is considered which is considered one of the core founders of Ethiopia, have come to be regarded by many with suspicion as unfairly privileged and one bent on weakening or even dismembering Ethiopia. The various Oromo nationalists, who claim to represent Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, have been divided between the idea and vision of remaining within a democratic Ethiopia and seceding from it.
All said, Ethiopia’s inability to successfully democratize and develop couldn’t be explained by the failings of one regime or one period or another. It rather results from a complex interplay of factors. To begin with Ethiopians have to question their role in the making and unmaking of what happened in their country over the last thirty years. The problem of governance, both political and economic, especially one that lacks vision and thrives on exclusion and repression has a fundamental significance to unlocking or understanding the tragedy that has befallen Ethiopia in the recent past. The culture of extremism and intolerance that pervades our political fabric and is invading our social order has further compounded the problem. It contributes to concealing the crises, clouding our investigation and distorting our ‘prescriptions.’ But that is not all.
Ethiopia’s failure to democratize and develop is entangled with events and interests beyond its borders. The destabilizing role of some of Ethiopia’s neighbors, otherwise called ‘historic’ enemies, should not go unnoticed. They had and some still have a hand in the birthing and nurturing of movements that bent on wrecking the unity and peace of Ethiopians. They have provided overt and clandestine support of all types, material, financial, logistic and diplomatic. Another culprit is big power politics that inevitably tramples on the national interest of weak and poor nations such as Ethiopia. One can just mention the support provided to insurgents and liberation movements by the powers of the day. One might argue that the collapse of the Ancien regime and its successor, the Derg, would have delayed had it not been for the withdrawal of US support and the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc respectively. Conversely, the tragedy of a nation or the reign of brutal dictatorships is prolonged because of the actions of foreign governments and their partners. How then can one explain the continued support by some powers to the current regime in Ethiopia despite its flagrant violations of human rights and civil liberties?
The hollowness of Ethiopia’s democratic experiment and the hypocrisy or duplicity of some members of the international community was definitively unmasked in the May 15 Election.
The May 15, 2005 Election was a turning point in the recent political history of Ethiopia in as much as it demonstrated the power of the people and of their nonviolent struggle in bringing about desired changes in government and policies. For the first time, the possibility for a peaceful political transition was expressed, if not realized, through a massive show of people’s power and the choices they made through the ballot box. The changeability of government through election seemed no longer an illusion.
It is difficult to state the extent of opposition’s victory and the government’s defeat or, vice versa. However, one can be definitive about two things: the people’s quest for controlling their own affairs and their inalienable position as the ultimate legitimate source of authority and the makers and unmakers of government. The election has shown to Ethiopians that they are not objects for manipulation but active agents who can make conscious decisions about their own lives and about the future of their country.
On the other hand, the aftermath of the election (the counting process, in particular) was so full of deliberate engineering that it ended up deforming the whole election and, through it, the entire democratization process. What started as an exemplar experiment with democracy was led astray, brutalized and mutilated. A bloodless democracy was derailed and the consequence was the rejection of the people’s vote and a descent into indiscriminate repression and dictatorship. Once again, people become objects.
The international community, particularly Western powers, has a role as the beacon of democracy. They claim to do this partly out of the conviction that democracy is a universal ideal that should belong to all humanity, a realizer of human aspirations, and a panacea for the ills of society. In practice, however, governments support democratization efforts anywhere anytime if its realization does further their geo-strategic goals or does not conflict with their national interest. Some Western governments have forged alliances with a number of African leaders, including some known dictators, who they considered as partners, an alliance that promotes the former’s strategic interests and sustains the power of the latter. The War on Terrorism, for instance, has been seen to stifle democratization efforts or delay the demise or prolong the survival of dictatorships in several parts of the world. In Ethiopia, a member of the Coalition of the Willing and an important partner in the global theatre of war on terrorism, democracy has become causality. Many Western governments’ tacit preference for political stability to democracy in Ethiopia has meant that outright election rigging or massive repression will be ignored and be seen as nothing but an African case of ‘collateral damage.’ Western duplicity in Ethiopia exemplifies their duplicitous commentary on democracy in areas like Africa. Western governments, some and not all, are thus constrained by the primacy of the pragmatic policy of defending and protecting national interest over the idealist notion of promoting democracy in the world. As always, the task for liberating and democratizing Ethiopia is left to her children, here and there.
Scarred with the experience of 2005 and not daring to face again such a challenge, the regime took all kinds of repressive actions to incapacitate political parties, civic groups and the media. The culmination of such policies and practices was a 99.6% victory by the ruling party in the 2010 election. That further proved the intent and conviction of the regime to remain in power at any cost. Currently, the opposition parties are even more divided and weakened, the media almost completely controlled, the ruling party more paranoid and unpredictable. As such, the hope for nonviolent transition to democracy has been significantly frustrated and the future of the country has become more and more precarious.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE? TO KNOW AND NOT TO ACT IS NOT TO KNOW
The essence of living is determined by the way we live life. A nation paupers or prospers, lives or disappears, is respected or dishonored, all because of the deeds of its people. How do we want to live our life? Which and what Ethiopia does we want to have and our children to inherit? A life with a meaning and a country proud of itself or a life incomplete and a nation debased through seemingly perpetual poverty, war, disease and hopelessness?
We believe that as children of Ethiopia we have a duty to do, a share to contribute. Ethiopia’s problems are varied, complex, and cumulative and the solutions should be comprehensive, transformative rather than therapeutic. As a long journey begins with a single mile, we should start now, little by little as per our abilities and resources. Our strategic vision is the end of the tortured history of war and disease and poverty and frustration and the rise of a new Ethiopia and a new future. Let’s think and act concertedly, inclusively and strategically.
We may not solve all the problems that were created in the past fifty years overnight, but we sure can lay down a strong foundation for the next generation to solve them.