By Adugnaw Worku
A year ago this month, I was in Ethiopia enjoying the company of friends and loved ones. And now a year later, I am reliving the experience and wishing that I could still be there. On the flight from Rome to Addis Ababa, I was sitting next to a European married to an Ethiopian citizen. He lives and works in Addis Ababa as a businessman running his own business. During that long flight, this gentleman and I introduced ourselves to each other and began a long conversation about Ethiopia in general and Ethiopian politics and the prevailing economic system in particular. I was returning to Ethiopia after twenty nine years of absence and he has lived in Ethiopia longer than that as a businessman. He willingly assumed the role of an authority on current Ethiopian affairs and I became his interested student eager to learn what I was about to experience upon arrival in Ethiopia. The man was well informed and well connected with both the political establishment and the business community. I was grateful for his valuable information and for answering my questions.
One issue stands out more than any other the gentleman and I talked about. He predicted that government policies in Ethiopia were on the verge of a major shift. The war between Eritrea and Ethiopia was over and the Ethiopian government appeared to be reaching out to the people for better understanding and cooperation. The Ethiopian people had stood with the government in its hour of need during the war and it was reasonable to assume that the government would now be more responsive to the will and desire of the people. He singled out two specific government policy matters as being candidates for major reform. One was the rigid ethnic interpretation of federalism and the other was land ownership.
I was surprised to find exactly the same sentiment among a wide range of Ethiopians I was privileged to associate with for six weeks. There was both a sense of satisfaction that Ethiopia had successfully defended her sovereignty against Eritrea’s aggression and there was also an air of expectation that it was pay back time for the EPRDF regime. After all, the Ethiopian people had put their differences with the government aside and willingly sent their youth to die for the national cause. It was hoped that the EPRDF would finally see the value of national unity and the folly of ethnic politics.
Unfortunately, neither has happened so far. The EPRDF still ignores the will of the people and conducts business as usual. So far, there is no apparent reform on the government’s agenda to do something with the thorny issues of ethnic politics and land tenure. It is interesting to note that modern Ethiopian politics often surprises everyone with the unexpected. For example, no one expected the rise and fall of Mengistu HaileMariam and his regime in the manner that it did and no one expected the rise of the EPRDF to national power. And in more recent times, it caught experts and ordinary people alike by surprise when the honeymoon between the regimes in Addis Ababa and Asmera ended abruptly followed by a senesless and deadly conflict. It is interesting to note that even Haile Selassie’s rise to power had the element of surprise.
Speaking of the unexpected, it is even more astounding that the TPLF would break apart in the manner that it has. And what is next? Who knows! What has been known for sure so far is the fact that the EPRDF government has gone from bad to worse in terms of its power base. For ten years, the TPLF dominated Ethiopian politics with tight control of its power base in Tigray. It has also been able to control the rest of the country through ethnic organizations created after its own image. It is obvious at this point that, like Mengistu Hailemariam before him, Meles Zenawi has managed to neutralize his opponents within the TPLF in very dramatic fashion. For now, Meles Zenawi has outmaneuvered, outsmarted, outvoted, and marginalized his enemies. But his power base is shifting like quick sand and his future and the future of Ethiopia hang in the balance. And once again, the country is holding its breath for the next surprise in its troubled history.
Currently, the warning signs of a troubled regime are there for all to see. For ten years, the Tigrean population at large both in and out of the country blindly supported the TPLF and its regional and national vision with no apparent crack in its ranks. But that is now history. Tegreans in Ethiopia and in the diaspora are busy trying to figure out what to do next and they have joined the rest of the country with their new found confusion and dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, Meles Zenawi’s regime is losing trusted cadres and diplomats through defections and desertions. These are serious signs that all is not well with the EPRDF regime in Ethiopia. Consequently, the country’s future is also uncertain.
Sadly, the opposition is in no more predictable form either. The heavy handed approach of the EPRDF regime toward the opposition parties coupled with the inability of the opposition itself to forge a viable alliance has further complicated the future political landscape. Once again, Ethiopia is between a rock and a hard place. The EPRDF is floundering and so is the opposition. Without national reconciliation followed by a broad based government, Ethiopians are condemned to endure more of the same. And the burning question of the day is this: when will Ethiopian politicians learn the simple lesson that rule by repression has limited political capital and that a just and stable system guaranteeing a peaceful transfer of power from one group to another is in everyone’s best interest?
A week before I left Ethiopia last year, I took a trip to the south to visit my high school in Kuyera, Shashemane, and I was pleasantly surprised by the condition of the highway from Addis Ababa to Shashemane. The highway was freshly paved and it was simply impressive. When I reached my destination, I was able to locate some of my Arsi friends from high school days and we soon began talking about politics. I made the comment that the Ethiopian government has done them a huge favor by building such a beautiful highway. Their response was totally unexpected. They categorically stated that they were sure that the government did not build that road for their benefit. However, they were not exactly sure what the government stands to gain by building it. In other words, my Aris friends were not even willing to entertain the possibility that the government built the road for their benefit despite the fact that the people in that area will be well served by that highway. This tragically illustrates the point that governments that lose the good will of their people lose everything eventually. It is high time to recognize what has not and will not work and give the Ethiopian people what is rightfully theirs.
Adugnaw Worku is Associate Editor of Ethiopian Review. He resides in northern Califnornia.