Why Ethiopians Must Unite, Part Five (b) of Six

Aklog Birara, PhD

In Part Five (a) of this series, I presented what I believe is a compelling case why the current political and socioeconomic system is inimical to the vast majority of the Ethiopian people. Among other things, the system has literally disempowered and disenfranchised them. It arrests, jails and persecutes those who stand for human dignity and honor, for peace, justice, fairness, equality and the rule of law and for political pluralism without let up. Let us not be naïve. A governing party that concocts data and information and arrests, charges and sentences those who advance the cause of freedom and political pluralism one by one has something to fear. A confident system does not do this. Fear comes only from one source: mistrust of the population and popular uprising, especially the country’s youthful population that constitutes the majority. It comes from the young and restless that stands firmly for the fundamental principles of fair and equitable treatment under the law, justice, individual freedom and political pluralism that will usher in a new era expressed through institutionalized supremacy of the electorate.

As a backdrop and before making a set of concrete recommendations for consideration in Part Six , I suggest that hunger, destitution and poverty will not be removed from Ethiopian soil; and a promising future of sustainable and equitable institutionalized and rooted unless and until the Ethiopian people exercise their free will and elect their leaders and representatives. It is only then that they can hold them accountable for economic and social outcomes. The TPLF/EPRDF core knows this very well and will do everything in its power to continue minority-ethnic elite based political governance. The democratic camouflage of an assortment of ethnic-elite parties that consist of the EPRDF is a clever arrangement to give it a semblance of democracy and inclusion. Only ethnic elites benefit from this arrangement.

There are some who still believe that the TPLF/EPRDF core can reform itself and accommodate the hopes and aspirations of the vast majority. The probability of radical reform toward genuine freedom and democracy is close to zero. Why and what is the evidence? The governing party continues to violate its own Constitutional provisions on human rights and freedoms. It persecutes and arrests, sentences and jails human rights advocates and democratic activists routinely. Here is why. The best political, social and economic space for the TPLF/EPRDF core is one that is devoid of national leaning and educated talent, opposition and civil society in the country. The contrary is also true. A country that consists of weak, poor, ‘mindless’, hungry, poor, divided, dispirited and disempowered populace is good for dictatorial governance. In this environment, it is fairly easy for the top leadership to use any excuse, including “anti-terrorism” to terrorize and oppress a peace loving population; and advocates who struggle for peaceful change.

Anyone and everyone who stands for country, unity in diversity, human honor and dignity, justice, equitable treatment and access to economic and social opportunities, freedom and political pluralism is ultimately subject to the “terrorist” doctrine. An increasingly ‘terrorist like’ state is in a position to reverse the table and accuse those who advocate peace, freedom and political pluralism of plots against the state and the constitution. Defense of the Constitution is now used to reinforce Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s almost state of siege like method of command and control in all areas of public life. The fact that the country that his party leads ranked 174th out of 185 countries in the latest UN Human Development Index does not bother him or the rest of the governing elite. Only 11 countries in the world are ranked worse than Ethiopia, the largest aid recipient in Africa. Here is the cruel fact. The effect of this repressive, oppressive and discriminatory governance is singularly felt by Ethiopia’s youth, who constitute the vast majority of the population. Youth that UNFPA defines as those between 10 and 24 years of age constitute 35 % of the population; 60 % of Ethiopians are under 30 years. This youthful population needs millions of jobs and other economic opportunities to survive. Those surveyed say that they see no future in their country; and leave the country in thousands.

Between January and October 2011, 52,000 young Ethiopians, most of them girls, left their country through Yemen. Others travel through Sudan via the Sinai to Israel and other destinations. Many die en-route. One think-tank on global diaspora populations and the brain-drain estimates that 75 percent of Ethiopian professionals—medical doctors, nurses, pilots, mechanics, teachers, business women and men and others—left the country over the past decade alone. If you think Ethiopia is not hemorrhaging from this brain-drain think again and again. It suits the governing party. After all, those of us in the Diaspora remit more than US$3.5 billion per year and support at least 5 million Ethiopians through direct remittances. We leave the political, social, economic and cultural space to the governing party and its allies. The brain-drain is one of the costliest occurrences under the Military-Socialist Dictatorship and under the TPLF/EPRDF. It just got worse.

If the country is ranked 174th out of 185 countries under Prime Meles Zenawi’s watch for almost 21 years, and if the country is losing thousands of its highly trained and experienced talent each year, and if Ethiopians girls and women are treated like 21st century slaves and victimized by their masters in the Middle East and North Africa, what evidence is there that the future will be better than the past under the same system? The core leadership of the governing party is unwilling and unable to give-up power or open up the system and share power with others for one simple reason: economic and financial interest. If Ethiopia today is identified-not by the opposition but rather by global independent and global institutions–as “one of the hungriest, unhealthiest and un-freest” countries in the world,” why is the governing elite unwilling to compromise?

As important, if opposition parties and civic groups accept the notion that the country is in a dire state, why are they unwilling to cooperate and collaborate with one another and save the country from ruin?

Albert Einstein is quoted saying that he “would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.” It is amazing to me that most political and civic actors in the opposition camp, especially those outside the country, assume that they have diagnosed and have established a shared understanding of Ethiopia’s problems. Have they? If yes, how come they have not yet arrived at a solution that places a higher premium on love of country and its diverse population over ego and party; and cooperation and collaboration over constant friction and rivalry? It is these basic requirements in organization and leadership that prompted me to write the series “Why Ethiopians Must Unite.” Only a high degree of cooperation would lead to a clear definition and shared understanding of the problem the country and its 90 million people, especially youth face today and will face in the decades to come. The tendency to arrive at simple and readymade solutions before arriving at a shared understanding of the problem leads to never-never land and prolongs the life of the governing party. The core leadership of the TPLF/EPRDF knows this strategic weakness on the part of opposition groups; and thrives on its ethos of divide and rule. A divided opposition allows the longevity of the governing party. This is why it can afford to be brutal. This is why it is unwilling to reform peacefully. The burden is on opposition groups and civil society.

I argued in a series on the “Ethiopian fascination with the Arab Spring” that Prime Minister Meles and his government are more like leaders in Libya, Yemen and Syria than Tunisia or Egypt. Gadhafi, Salah and Assad never appreciated the power of social forces, especially youth, which galvanized the population. Gadhafi never learned from Ben Ali of Tunisia and died in disgrace. Assad of Syria turned his weaponry against his own people and forced members of the defense forces to side with the popular uprising. The core value of dictators is to hold on to power at any human and societal cost. They rarely spend time diagnosing the social, economic and political ills of the society that despises them and rejects them. Their solution is more repression.

I have given the material reasons why the TPLF/EPRDF core leadership resorts to instruments of repression rather than to national reconciliation and peaceful transformation for the sake of the country and its diverse population. In short, it has everything to lose. The rest of us must grasp the reality that dictatorships rarely give up power. This is why they are dictatorships. They are relentless in making sure that the full force of the state machinery is deployed to silence opponents no matter where they reside. None is safe unless and until everyone is secure. This is why unity of purpose within the opposition is so vital.

There are so many baby steps opposition groups, including civil societies could take that one wonders where the priority lies. Creating organizations is easy. Giving them relevance, renewing them, sustaining them and connecting them to one another is the hardest part. This is why many belong to the museum of ideas. This is why the Ethiopian people lose confidence and trust in them. It is not enough to blame the governing party for divisions, conflicts and hijackings. Those in the opposition camp do as much damage to themselves as the governing party does to them. It is within their power to change this now.

Division is our Achilles heel

Our division in general and the inability of political and civic groups to reflect and think outside the box is the single most important hurdle that allows a repressive regime to rule as it pleases. “In Ethiopia today, political space for electoral competition, the free exchange of ideas, and independent civil society organization is virtually non-existent. Ethiopia is a strong and effective authoritarian state with a ruling party that dominates nearly all aspects of public life,” concluded Terrence Lyons last summer. Economic and social life is the worst it has ever been in the country’s history. Accordingly, the moral authority for democratic change is on the side of the opposition camp—whether political or civic. Who wants his/her mother, father, daughter, son, sister, aunt, uncle or friend to flee the homeland in search of opportunity abroad? It is a matter of honor and dignity that this atrocity that comes from poor and repressive governance is halted. The only potential force that could stop this nightmare is the Ethiopian people themselves. The rest of us can only help in a variety of ways that I will present in Part Six next week.

The Ethiopian youth bulge discussed earlier is among the social forces, perhaps the key that will ultimately transform the country. Youth must struggle peacefully. For this to materialize, it must establish a new and inclusive order that will empower it and is rooted in within the country. Exile must not be the ultimate solution to unemployment, hunger and poverty. For this to happen, youth and the rest of us must have the courage to empower all to be patriots as Ethiopians–beyond ethnicity, religion, gender or age–to believe in the future of the country and its diverse population; to accept the vital role of the rule of law and democratic choices; and to practice these core principles in our daily lives and interactions with one another.

My own generation must accept responsibility that it has done very little to transmit knowledge to; mentor and coach; and prepare this and the coming generation for the difficult journey ahead. Because of division and parochial interests, we fail to recognize that continuity of a bold, courageous and patriotic generation of Ethiopians is at risk. It has no national leadership model to emulate. This gap must be given urgent attention and overcome. A purposeful, well-coordinated and financed grassroots civil society movement will go a long way in countering the assault on Ethiopian democratic activists—whether party, civil society, youth or individuals. The governing party is well financed and tries to penetrate and divide activists outside the same way it does inside.

The governing party does everything in its power to prepare its successors, consistently alienating and separating them from the rest of the society. It invests heavily into a cadre of likeminded individuals whose loyalty is to the party and endowments, self-interest, and to their own narrow ethnic bases. That the party is not trusted by at least 90 percent of the population is documented by various sources, including donors in their internal and confidential documents. It tries to fill the trust gap through a variety of instruments: coercion such as denying fertilizers, seeds and lands to peasant farmers; forcing students to join the party and providing jobs as incentive; using licenses and permits to buy loyalty; using humanitarian aid to reward friends and to punish opponents and so on. Sheer survival forces individuals to join the party and give it support. These are not indicators of free choice. Fear and the need to access sources of livelihood are substantial reasons for joining and supporting the governing party. In light of this, support to the party is narrow and shallow.

The TPLF/EPRDF’s aversion to national activists

The core leadership continues to arrest, sentence and jail or force to flee human rights activists, journalists, politicians, academics, and democratic dissenters for strategic reasons: to deny Ethiopian society of courageous, creative and nationalist leaders. Eskinder Nega and his wife Serkalem Fasil were both accused of treason and jailed following the 2005 elections. Reflect on the fact that Serkalem gave birth to their first child, Nafkote, while in prison. Only a heartless and inhumane political leadership will deny a mother the dignity of giving birth to a child in a more hospitable condition. In a repeat of the same fiasco, Eskinder was again accused of promoting ‘terrorism;’ arrested in September 2011; and sent to prison. His five year old son, Nafkote watched with horror and fear the dehumanizing experience of his father snatched away from him. Imagine the trauma of seeing a father “handcuffed” and dragged away in broad daylight. This is a haunting experience that no child should go through in his or her formative age. Imagine that it could be you or me or our child. I will never ever forget what this child asked with the innocence that only a child would. “Where are you taking my daddy?” How many Eskinder Negas and Nafkote’s can the country and the society afford?

I do not expect an answer from a regime that torments democratic and national-leaning human rights activists. Our individual and collective response must be to answer the cry and plight of the Nafkotes of Ethiopia through coordinated actions. The struggle is about him and the millions like him. His father’s crime is to stand firm for human rights, justice, fair and equitable treatment, the rule of law and political pluralism. Eskinder Nega is a part of a wave of arrests and persecution that continues unabated. Between 2001 and 2009, 41 journalists were forced into exile and 24 were imprisoned. Mesfin Negash of Addis Neger was jailed in 2009 and his news organization closed. Daniel Kebede of Action Aid and Netsanet Demissie, founder of Social Justice in Ethiopia were both arrested. The governing party knows that an empowered and informed society poses enormous risks; and hence the constant and relentless campaign to terrorize anyone who advocates freedom and democratic governance.

A new generation of activists

Ethiopian youth whose future is at risk, and the rest of us express admiration for the courage and principled positions of Andualem Aragie, Asaminew Birhanu, Bekele Gerba, Nathaniel Mekonnen, Olbana Lelisa, Reeyot Alemu, Woubshet Taye, Zelalem Molla and Eskinder Nega, Yenesew Gebre—who paid the ultimate sacrifice–and the thousands of political prisoners in Ethiopia’s dungeons. We share their vision and the values they stand for: human dignity, justice, freedom and political pluralism for all Ethiopians. The regime can silence these champions of freedom. It can traumatize Nafkote and millions of children who have no home or hope. I predict that it cannot halt the inevitable march for human dignity, honor, justice, the rule of law and political pluralism.

What do Ethiopians really want and wish for?

The above Ethiopian heroes and the many before them want the same thing that millions stood and fought for during the 2005 elections; close to 50, 000 innocent Ethiopians, most of them young were jailed for; 200 lives lost for; and for which an untold number flee their homes and country in search of a better life that comes only from economic and political freedom. When I suggest that Ethiopians must unite across ethnic, religious, gender and demographic lines, I recognize that this will not be easy. There must be a change in the paradigm of thinking. At the same time, I am not aware of any country where human dignity and honor for all; justice and equitable access to economic and social opportunities; the right to vote in a free and fair election process; and the power to hold representatives and government officials accountable comes easily and or is delivered on a silver platter. The supremacy of ordinary citizens (together) over their government and elected leaders comes from people’s will and resolve, organization, patience and perseverance, organization and disciple and their belief in their own future and the future of their children. Ethiopia’s youthful generation and those of us in the Diaspora who support their wishes and aspirations have to cooperate and collaborate if we genuinely choose the fundamental right to speak, associate and move freely and overcome constant fear, disempowerment, disenfranchisement, hunger and poverty. This is why I suggest that division is our Achilles heel.

In a rejoinder to my series that an individual Ethiopian posted on Websites, he more or less endorsed the material and strategic reasoning behind “Why Ethiopians Must Unite;” and questioned how this could be done. This is a fair point; I had planned to suggest alternatives that activists could consider. I shall present them in Part Six next week. I am sure talking heads will counter the recommendations by stating the obvious. By this, I mean, the mindset common among Ethiopians in the Diaspora of “I know it; and what is new?” Keep in mind what ordinary Ethiopians who live under constant fear would ask you. If you know the problem that should take “fifty-five minutes to diagnose; and arrive at a solution that takes only five minutes,” how come you have not resolved it? Those who ask these kinds of questions fail to recognize that establishing any organization with vision, mission and priority goals is not the same as delivering outcomes. The most effective criteria of success are the result that it produces. The judges of success are solely the Ethiopian people and those in the forefront of the struggle.

As an a prelude to next week’s provocative set of recommendations, I would like to suggest that activists in the Diaspora have the requisite talent pool in every conceivable field; the professional, technical and managerial knowledge and experience; the diplomatic leverage; and the financial resources to advance the causes of human rights and civil liberties, freedom and political pluralism in their country of origin, Ethiopia. What is needed is unity of purpose and the will, commitment and responsiveness, strategic thinking and results orientation, steadfastness, agility and flexibility, discipline, a sense of urgency; and the wisdom to appreciate the power and value of cooperation and collaboration in advancing the interests of the Ethiopian people.