Alemayheu G. Mariam
Reinventing Ethiopian Politics
Aristotle wrote that “man is a political animal” to suggest that the defining characteristic of human beings is involvement in the civic life of their communities. Today, many Ethiopians across the board are strangely disengaged and alienated from Ethiopian politics. For the “alienated majority”, the disengagement is justified. They liken Ethiopian politics to a driverless bus, a pilotless plane or a freight train careening down a steep gorge without an engineer. People are starving. The economy is in shambles. Human rights violations are widespread. There is no rule of law. Corruption is endemic; and misery is a fact of daily life. Many have given up on politics believing that the country is in the iron clutches of “evil forces”, and pray for rescue through divine intervention. The average person in Ethiopia is a walking tale of woe and misery. A good segment of the civically active and potentially active community in exile is turned off by what they perceive to be the politics of endless recriminations, accusations, labeling, name-calling and finger-pointing. Ethiopian “Diaspora” politics is viewed by some as an exercise in self-indulgence at best, and not infrequently cannibalistic.
The discourse in contemporary Ethiopian politics undoubtedly has a sharp edge to it. It tends to be confrontational and adversarial, which serves its own purposes. It is also preoccupied by exertion of moral outrage over the general decline of the country. Rightly so, the moral bankruptcy, criminality, ineptitude, abuse of power, corruption and decadence of the current dictatorial regime has been laid out for the world to see. Much is written and said about the palace intrigues and behind-the-scenes maneuvers in the dictator’s lair. But the political discourse has yet to produce a clear, convincing and coherent alternative to the total and unmitigated mess created by the current dictatorship. In short, no one has stepped forward to articulate and define a brave new vision of a better future for the people of Ethiopia.
The current state of affairs in Ethiopia calls for the reinvention of politics in the democratic opposition by disconnecting from the self-destructive politics of the past and overwrought politics of the present, and connecting to a new politics of the future which transcends partisanship, ethnicity, ideology, language, region and so on. This reinvention requires several things: a paradigm shift in political thought and behavior, a radical change in perspective, a new approach and lexicon for political communication and a redefinition of the issues within a broader national agenda. It calls for politics that is “compassion-centered” and pragmatically oriented to creatively solving the entrenched problems of governance.
What is needed to begin the “reinvention” of Ethiopian politics? The “reinvention” is a multi-step process whose ultimate aim is to cultivate a true democratic civic culture shared by all Ethiopians. Step 1 begins with a clear understanding of the current situation so that we need not spend any more time trying to convert a one-man, one-party dictatorship into a genuine multiparty system, or even wasting time talking about it. As one can not change copper into gold, neither can one change dictators into democrats. What is it that we need to clearly understand about the current dictatorship before we begin the task of reinventing the Ethiopian politics of the future?
The answer is not complicated. The dictators of Ethiopia are trapped in a historical time warp. They have clutched the reigns of state for two decades and ostentatiously display the trappings of political power and wealth. But they have not been able to transform “bushcraft” into statecraft as recent scholarship by one of the original founders of the party-in-dictatorship today has shown. In their armed campaign against the Derg junta, decision-making was left in the hands of the few. The few leaders exercised raw, brute power over their followers and the communities they controlled. They silenced dissent and criticism ruthlessly, and leaders who disagreed were marginalized, labeled as traitors and removed. Everything was done in secrecy. Power was understood not as a public duty but as a means of self-enrichment, political patronage and intimidation. Leadership meant the cult of personality. The best they have been able to do is to transform the “politics of the bush” fighting the Derg into a one-man, one-party state, whose guiding motto is, “What is good for the TPLF/EPDRF is good for Ethiopia!”
The transition from “bushcraft” to statecraft requires tectonic transformations. Democratic statecraft requires an appreciation, understanding and application of basic democratic principles such as the rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances and constitutionalism in the governance process. The dictators have little experience with or practical understanding of such principles. It is illogical for anyone to expect them to institutionalize accountability which they never had or experienced in their political lives. They never had free elections in the bush; and it is no wonder that they were totally surprised when they got thumped in the 2005 elections. Upholding the rule of law is absurd to them because they believe themselves to be THE LAW. The idea of an independent judiciary and impartial administration of justice is alien to them because they have no understanding or practical experience with due process. They scoff at civil liberties and civil rights as Western luxuries because they never lived in a system where the powers of government are constitutionally subordinated to the rights of the individual. In short, it is wishful thinking to expect from them the kind of statecraft necessary for democratic governance.
Reinventing politics means learning the lessons of the past and present and transforming the current political culture of oppression and corruption into a genuine future democratic civic culture. It means finding creative ways of replacing the climate of silence and fear with a culture of free expression, deliberation and debate and tolerance of dissent and divergent viewpoints.
There are many ways of reinventing Ethiopian politics. One approach is to adapt the model of the American civil rights movement. That movement was not aimed at seizing political power; rather it sought to organize, mobilize and channel basic popular disaffection on fundamental issues of civil and human rights. It was a movement guided by the idea of empowering ordinary people. From the outset, it was an inclusive movement. The maids, street cleaners, clergymen, doctors, lawyers and bankers participated equally in the movement and took ownership of their collective destiny. The religious institutions were the centers of “civic democracy” as they mobilized the community to be involved in the struggle for civil rights. Young people got involved in large numbers and became the vanguard of the movement. The NAACP led the legal battles in the courts.
There is a special burden on all Ethiopians, and particularly the exiled intellectual community to lend assistance in getting the process off the ground. It is to be acknowledged that there are the “old” and “new” generation of Ethiopian intellectuals in exile. Many in the “old” generation have bit their tongues in public. They have withdrawn from public debate turned off by what they perceive to be uncivil dialogue. There are also the “new” generation of intellectuals who circulate their brilliant scholarly papers, research studies and analysis on various facets of Ethiopian society for review but do not necessarily see the need to share it with the wider public in a manner accessible to those without a technical background. It is vital that both generations be involved and directly engage the public in envisioning the future of the future country. They must come out of self-imposed censorship and share their extraordinary knowledge and innovative ideas with the rest of us.
Without the involvement of progressive Ethiopian intellectuals, it would be difficult to nurture and cultivate a vigorous civic culture that will enable us to envision a dynamic, pluralistic and inclusive society of the future. Most importantly, they can be sources of creative and innovative ideas that will be needed to make the transition from ethnic-building to nation-building and help empower each Ethiopian to forego ethnic identity for a new national democratic identity based on a shared history of suffering oppression and a common conviction for a shared destiny. In the meantime, their participation is needed to inform and elevate the contemporary debate and in speaking truth to power.
In the final analysis, reinventing Ethiopian politics is about redefining the problem of politics not merely as competition for political power but as a process of developing a democratic civic culture and strengthening the moral fiber of ordinary citizens to take collective responsibility and perform their individual civic duties. None of these seem strange to the shameless idealist and audacious optimist who thinks everything is possible and nothing is impossible, and believes with every fiber in his body that Ethiopia can be a utopia!
“The Future of the Future Country” is serialized set of special commentaries written by the author in honor of Ethiopia’s foremost political prisoner Birtukan Midekssa. Birtukan, the first woman leader of a political party in Ethiopia’s history, is an individual of extraordinary intelligence, integrity, courage and fortitude. Her favorite aphorism is, “Ethiopia is the country of the future.”
Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media.