Why Ethiopians Must Unite

(Part one of three)
By Aklog Birara, PhD

As people, Ethiopians do not lack a history of courage and resiliency or a culture of collaboration and mutual tolerance. This is how generations of Ethiopians fought side by side, sacrificed their lives and properties, and preserved a remarkable country with extraordinary values, traditions and diverse people. This is how Ethiopia became a beacon of independence for all people of African origin and beyond while most of the so called third world was under the yoke of colonialism. Just take a look at the flags of numerous African countries and reflect on the meaning of independence and the heritage Ethiopians passed on to their African sisters and brothers. The flag had meaning then and now.

This proud heritage does not belong to one or two ethnic or nationality groups. It belongs to all Ethiopians. Our willingness and readiness to set aside differences and accept our individual and collective identity as Ethiopians are fundamental for the advancement of freedom, equality of opportunity, unity in diversity, political pluralism and shared prosperity. If we do not bury our political and ideological or tribal differences and move and support the Ethiopian people, we have no one to blame but ourselves, both as individuals and as groups, especially as elites. Accordingly, we must reject any and all political orientations that divide us, and our diverse population who share a common future and shared destiny. Our division is the lead source of our weakness.

In this connection, I believe that the now and the future are more critical than the gyrations and tribulations of history through which other peoples around the globe have gone through. Ethiopia and Ethiopians must not be treated differently. There is no country in the world that has not gone through ‘bloody’ national formations. Those of us who live in the United States ought to know this. America was not formed through a bloodless coup. Nor was Italy, Germany, China, Russia, Ghana or the rest.

As a country, Ethiopia is not poor. It is potentially rich; but has been ruled by a succession of brutal dictatorships, the current one being the most exclusive, greediest, discriminatory and oppressive. Just take a look at the statistics concerning the gaps in incomes and wealth and you will see that uneven development and inequality are among the worst in the country’s history. Ethiopia possesses all of the prerequisites to make poverty history: ample arable lands and water resources, minerals, human capital and knowledge, strategic location, even financial resources. Yet, it is among the poorest countries in the world. It cannot feed itself. It is heavily dependent on foreign aid and the provisions of humanitarian aid to feed millions. Hyperinflation is among the worst in the world. The educated and uneducated, the middle class and students, the poor and the unemployed are unable to feed themselves. Those who were able to purchase food and feed their families 30 to 40 years ago are unable to cope with scarcity and daily price escalation today. Inflated growth rates have yet to make substantial dents on people’s lives. Ethiopia is still poor.

The governing party’s economic policy is heavily politicized and defines who eats and who does not; who purchases homes and who does not; who gets health care and who does not and so on. The one party state is the judge, jury and executioner in all aspects of social, economic and political life. This reality calls for a substantial paradigm shift in our individual and collective thinking towards greater collaboration and unity of purpose. Not next year; but today.

The country’s most recent history is not void of popular determination to change for the better, and to establish a firm foundation to achieve human dignity, political pluralism and sustainable and equitable development. In 2005, millions of Ethiopians showed national-level determination in asserting their inalienable democratic rights as people, in defining and controlling their destiny, and in shaping the future of their country. That year established the equivalent of an Ethiopian “Arab Spring” whose promises were not fulfilled. We saw that other countries that were not anywhere close are now on the verge of establishing durable institutions that guarantee human freedom as well as sustainable and equitable development in the decades to come.

At the start of October 2011, President Obama welcomed the rapid transformation in Tunisia and vowed to assist this evolving democracy in North Africa. “Tunisia has been an inspiration to all of us who believe that each individual man and woman has certain inalienable rights, and those rights must be recognized by a government that is responsible and democratic.” Tunisians would not have achieved this remarkable transition to democracy if they did not place singular emphasis on a unity of purpose.

Opposition groups know that the TPLF/EPRDF government does not recognize fundamental democratic provisions contained in its own Constitution. “Inalienable rights” of men and women, children and youth are alien to its political, social and economic dogma. Why do opposition parties remain as divided as ever then? What is the lead reason? It is lack of wisdom in leadership that fails to place the greater or common good above partisan, individual and group interest. The outdated political culture of ‘worshiping’ organizations over commitment to the interests of the Ethiopian people, and of the country must end. Organizations are irrelevant if they do not respond to real human needs.

The political organizational and leadership gap at the national level that persists since 2005 haunts the society, including the two million members of the Diaspora. Part of this trauma revolves around the Ethiopian elite tendency to ‘worship’ organizations and individual heroes over country and unity of purpose; individualism over community and team work; personal ego over the willingness and capacity to resolve issues in a detached manner. Why? Self and group interest is among the reasons why. The other is fear.

As a consequence, ordinary people at home and especially Ethiopian youth wonder whether the fractured political and civil opposition within and outside the country is not now a barrier to change. In June 2011, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) produced a thought provoking assessment of “risks and stability” in Ethiopia. Its findings and general conclusions should force each one of us to do deep soul searching, not tomorrow but today. Repression and authoritarianism have worsened since 2005. There is little indication that the situation will be any better over the coming decade or two.

Is the regime alone to blame? I do not believe so. As I suggested in Waves last year, a narrowly based ethnic elite has little choice but to divide and rule; to repress and close political and economic space; and to engender fear consistently and persistently. Permanent suspense is its formulae for command and control. Does this mean that the regime is popular? It is feared; but it is not popular. It rules by forcing loyalty through membership drives and through the provision of financial and other incentives. 1/

This forced ‘conscription’ of party membership to ensure regime longevity makes it shallow and highly vulnerable. Forced conscription is not the same as consent. People have to work in order to feed themselves and their families. It is a matter of survival in a hostile environment where ethnic and party loyalty is at a premium. “Authoritarian regimes without significant constituencies are not stable in the long-run. Longevity should not be mistaken for resilience.” 2/

Most fair-minded foreign and domestic experts acknowledge the fact that the regime is narrowly-based and rules through division, deceit and fear. This fear culture is widespread and affects the Diaspora. The Guardian quotes a senior official of the German broadcasting company DW who says, “The present climate of fear leads many of our prospective partners in Ethiopia, and even in the Diaspora, to decline our interview requests… In Ethiopia, the threat of imprisonment for political journalists is constant,” as it is for all freedom seekers and democratic activists. Repression is thus total. The regime identifies, arrests and jails individuals it considers to be a threat one by one. Fractured and weak opposition groups within and outside the country are unable to wage sustained and well-coordinated civil resistance against this onslaught. Filling this critical gap in organization and wisdom-based leadrship is the order of the day.

Part two of this series will discuss the pitfalls and impact of fractured and weak opposition groups on Ethiopian activists and their families, and on the moral and determination of the Ethiopian people. It concludes by stating the obvious namely, the urgency for genuine coalition-building and for a unity of purpose and actions among opposition political and civic groups within and outside the country. Part three will present practical suggestions on the path forward that is anchored in the social and political realities within Ethiopia.

I suggest that social and political activism that is not anchored within Ethiopian society may have emotonal benefits but cannot advance the democratization process in the home-front.