By Aklog Birara, PhD
It will be an understatement to state that, regardless of ethnic, religious, gender, age or ideological affinity, Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin discuss their country of origin with passion and genuine interest. Broadly, they share a common set of principles. This is the good news. However, there is another side to the story that generates animated conversation within and outside the country. This short article reflects my own assessment and conclusions with regard to the two schools of thought that have more or less raged for more than forty years.
What is the area of consensus?
All of us wish to see good governance based on the rule of law, equality and justice, commitment to human rights and human dignity, freedom and political pluralism otherwise known as democracy. Clearly and by any socioeconomic and political measurement, the world in which ordinary Ethiopians live is as inhospitable as anyone could imagine. It is this in- hospitability that drives those of us who hope for a better tomorrow for all Ethiopians that dictate these generally shared values. They are fundamental and critical enough to force each activist to soul search so that we can contribute to the realization of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the Ethiopian people as individuals and as communities.
What then is the hurdle or problem?
For more than forty years, political parties, groups and their supporters focused less on the commonalities that bind them as people and drove their thinking and their actions through the prism of ‘irreconcilable differences.’ This is a trap implanted by the current governing party. The experiences of people across the globe in general and the recent people-anchored revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East inform that there is no contradiction between the essence and meaning of one or unified Ethiopia that embraces all of its citizens, and freedom and democracy. Divisions along ethnic, religious or rigid ideological lines and the contention that Ethiopia is an artificial creation of the ‘colonial type’ continue to act as barriers in pursuing and achieving the hopes and aspirations of all of the Ethiopian people. What best describes Ethiopia and Ethiopians is that they are the sole creators of a mosaic of nations and nationalities that defended the national independence and territorial integrity of the country for thousands of years. This Ethiopian made multi-nation building was not imposed by colonial powers. At various times in history, all Ethiopians contributed to the formation of this mosaic. I suggest that no single nationality group has preponderance over this, recognizably, tumultuous history through which other countries had to pass. Ethiopia deserves the same treatment as other countries that have gone through rough waters in which an untold millions were killed in what most experts believe is the natural evolution of both homogenous and heterogeneous or multi-ethnic nations. Belaboring the agony of the past that comes from each successive system of governance detracts from singular focus on the future.
I should like to illustrate the enormous economic, social, political and security costs for all members of Ethiopian society of past and current preoccupation with ‘irreconcilable types of differences’ by citing five examples:
• The so-called developmental state led by the TPLF/EPRDF has induced one of the worst income inequalities in the world. The gap between the small super rich whose incomes, wealth and assets originate directly or indirectly from a discriminatory and exclusive system has reached a dangerous level. This pronounced inequality in wealth and assets deprives better livelihood for the vast majority of the Ethiopian people. It undermines fairness and equity and retards the development process. Inequality takes a toll on the national economy in that those with low incomes and the poor cannot afford to purchase even domestically produced goods and services. In the end, inequality that comes from discriminatory and exclusionary policies and programs will threaten the very fabric of the society and will lead it to instability and fragility. The regime is able to get away with gross inequality because there is no political competition. It is not accountable to the public but to itself. Opponents can and should mobilize and work in unison to bring gross inequality to the attention of the world community.
• In a succession of reactions to poor and repressive governance, my generation opposed and revolted against the Imperial regime, the Socialist Military Dictatorship and now the TPLF/EPRDF dictatorship without a clear vision of the future and the alternative political and socioeconomic order that will govern the country.
• Ethiopia and its diverse population lost their legitimate access to the sea. Therefore, the Ethiopian and Eritrean people that share a great deal in common lost economic and comparative advantages that would benefit both. Political elites in both regions who exploit divisions and tensions have put them at risk.
• The TPLF/EPRDF exploited the void in unified political and civic opposition and granted millions of hectares of Ethiopian fertile farmlands and waters to more than 1,000 licensees from 36 countries, and to favored supporters of the regime. Yemeret neteka ena kirimit affects sovereignty, dignity, citizenship, security and wellbeing, long-term national interest, the environment and ordinary lives of people.
• The same void in political wisdom, organization and national leadership within the opposition exposes individuals and groups within the country for constant and relentless assault by the governing party and state. The Failed States Index for 2011 and Wiki leaks reveal shocking information concerning the brutality of the one party state on Ethiopian society: group grievances not addressed, human flight in thousands, uneven development and income emanating from discrimination, economic decline and relentless inflation, increasing de-legitimization of the state and gross human rights violations almost on a daily basis. The regime has compromised the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Wiki leaks reveal that the governing party cost Ethiopia “a large chunk of territory” that the regime transferred to the Sudan in a secret deal. The single party state is “the judge, jury and executioner” with no end in sight.
All of these and more present a dire picture that cannot be resolved unless all opposition parties, groups and civil society close ranks and place the interests of all of the Ethiopian people at the center of their struggle.
What then is the alternative?
In my assessment, a firm and determined commitment for the unity of the Ethiopian people and for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country is the surest path to freedom and political pluralism. I have no doubt in my mind that unfettered unity will lead the Ethiopian people to freedom and political pluralism. The country is large and potentially rich enough to accommodate the hopes and aspirations of all of its diverse population. The ills, misinterpretations of history, ‘brutalities’ and other transgressions of the past can and should be addressed by a democratically elected government rather than used as a precondition for transformation. In Australia, South Africa and other democratic countries, legitimate representatives of the people set-up institutional mechanisms to investigate and address past grievances. Ethiopia can achieve the same goal.
I believe that we can draw a critical lesson of what not to do from our own recent political history that division along ethnic lines rather than genuine commitment for the pursuit of freedom for all Ethiopians is a losing proposition. For example, I would hate to imagine that ethnic and other divisions would subject Ethiopians to perpetual civil war in order to satisfy the narrow interests of foreign powers or the needs of political elites. The regime’s relentless attack on individuals and groups in the country is a prime indicator that it will not tolerate any form of dissent. This is the reason why I argued in several articles that the regime is more like Libya, Syria and Yemen than Egypt or Tunisia. This attribute should compel all to work in tandem and energize all Ethiopians within the country to rise against repression and oppression.
The incontestably able and dedicated Ethiopian humanist and political activist Obang Metho, Executive Director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia captures the essence of what I am saying in two themes: “Humanity before Ethnicity” and “No One Will be Free Until All are Free.” Division and fragmentation go exactly in the opposite direction from realizing freedom and political pluralism for each and all. If the ultimate objective is to dislodge the TPLF/EPRDF oppressive system of governance and replace it with a government of national reconciliation, peace, unity in diversity, freedom and equality, justice and equitable participation in social and economic life, human rights and the rule of law, then all aspirants must join forces and aim for the same goal. This is the reason why I suggest that the unity of all of the Ethiopian people is the surest path in achieving freedom and democracy in the country we love. Imagine if all Ethiopian rise against oppression. Who in the world can stop them? There is no force that can.
In my view, the hopes and aspirations of Ethiopia’s 90 million people are constrained by an enormous gap in national political organization and wise leadership. It is response to and filling this gap that will enable them to achieve genuine freedom, political pluralism and participatory and equitable economic and social opportunities. Ultimately, it is realization of this noble goal—that can only come from a unity of national purpose–that will create the foundation to conquer abject poverty, hunger and famine, dependency, unemployment, diseases, corruption and gross income inequality and illegal outflow of billions of dollars from one of the poorest and hungriest countries in the world.
Lack of unity of purpose and recognition that Ethiopians share common values and aspire for a common destiny will prolong the agony of the Ethiopian people. If we defer accepting the principles of Ethiopian sovereignty and territorial integrity and the unity of its diverse population, it will be difficult if not impossible to achieve the kinds of transformative, grassroots and youth-led popular revolutions we are witnessing in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen. In none of these countries is the principle of national unity and the unity of people at risk. The tragedy of not forging ahead with a unity of purpose that comes from accepting these fundamental principles that will serve all Ethiopians in the long-run is that Ethiopia’s economy will be in shambles. Instability and gross violations of human rights will persist. We see evidence of this in hyperinflation, gross inequality and selected and indiscriminate killing, persecutions and jailing of innocent people by the governing party. The regime explains these and other anomalies as the price of growth and development; and ‘anti-terrorism.’ The terror comes from the one party state itself.
Where do we start and where do we end-up?
At the end of the day, political and social actors must believe in and trust the Ethiopian people to do the right thing. I do. The long-term interests of the country and its entire people must guide political and social action. I have no doubt in my mind that peaceful, country anchored and youth led transformation is possible; in fact, inevitable. The rest of us in the Diaspora have a moral obligation to contribute to the democratization process through collaboration rather than division or silence or skepticism or detachment.
If we remain preoccupied with our differences rather than the common bonds that we share as Ethiopians, and the aspirations and hopes we believe in for future this and future generations, we will contribute to the enormous risks that the country and its diverse population face. As some in Addis Ababa said recently, we will simply accept the tragic notion that “Ethiopia is a country that resembles a person who is traveling in a pitch-black dark night.” I know what it means to travel in a “pitch black night. “ In Waves, I depicted my own and my father’s journey in Northern Gondar at night not knowing exactly where we were headed to; but hoping that we will end-up at our destination by some miracle. A country led by an arrogant, cruel, repressive and exclusive ethnic clique is a country that moves in the dark. For those in power and with wealth, nothing can be as good and as bright as staying in power and enjoying the spoils of political capture. For the disenfranchised—the vast majority of the Ethiopian people—the Ethiopian regime is a nightmare. It turns daylight into darkness, hope into misery, aspiration into despair, and hope into hopelessness. The rest of us must reject this situation.
Our person-made and too often, self-serving divisions will postpone the democratization process indefinitely. This artificial division will allow the current repressive regime to single out and decimate persons of conscience, principle and stamina who expose inhumanity and cruelty. It will deny current youth the possibility of closing ranks and standing solidly for freedom and political pluralism in a sustainable way. It will undermine the noble tradition of the Ethiopian people to live side by side. It will give political elites a chance to divide and weaken all of us. It will prolong the life of a divisive, oppressive, inhumane and brutal regime. If the situation continues for too long, the country will continue on a path of eternal darkness, fragility and greater ethnic based fragmentation. This condition will not serve anyone. At minimum, the Diaspora can try to cleanse itself of the culture of egoism, individualism, village-like mentality, elitism, partisanship and division, attributes that sustain the TPLF/EPRDF regime. The current onslaught against civil liberties, individual rights and freedoms is as much a manifestation of a desperate regime that has gone berserk as much as it is a manifestation of weaknesses within the opposition camp whether within the country or in the Diaspora.
The march of history tells us that the brave and principled souls within the country who are sacrificing their lives, their families and their wellbeing are precisely what Ethiopia and Ethiopians need today. At minimum, we can and should stand shoulder to shoulder with them and reject repression and oppression of the one party dictatorial state today and not tomorrow.