Ethiopians can Indeed Unite if they Choose

Ethiopians Can Indeed Unite if they Choose, Six (a) of Six

Aklog Birara, PhD

The road ahead calls for sea changes in mindset

I should like to set the framework for the set of specific suggestions promised in Part Five (b) of Six. Unity does not occur by chance. It takes commitment, hard work, a sense of belonging; and cooperation from each of us. We cannot hate the ‘other’ and expect unity. The core principle in a multiethnic society is that one cannot possibly love one’s country without recognizing, accepting and welcoming the interests of others as part of the whole. The missing link in advancing national unity and cohesion is finding common ground and moving from rhetoric to action. What do I mean by that? I will be specific and give this a human dimension.

A child in the Afar, Somali or Gambella area should have the same rights and privileges of access to economic, social and political opportunities as a child in the so-called Tigray, Amhara or Oromia Region.

Good governance enables each to succeed. Discriminatory and tribal governance offers special privileges to its ethnic group disproportionately and steals from every Ethiopian child. It thus invites disaster for itself and its beneficiaries in the long-run. It cannot advance equity or unity. On the contrary, it makes everyone vulnerable and insecure. Ethiopians who wish to reverse this disaster that comes from political and economic capture by narrow ethnic-based elite no longer need additional material evidence.

These narrow elites have become enormously affluent by capturing the state and its institutions to advance and protect their interests. The governing party designs and shapes public policies, laws, rules and regulations to its narrow advantage. It selects who wins and who loses systematically. Parliament, political parties, the executive branch, security, police, defense, the judiciary and ministries all operate in tandem at the exclusion of the vast majority. It bars civil society from influencing policies and investments. For growth to be meaningful, it must be accompanied by public policies that reduce poverty, eliminate hunger, reduce inequality, raise individual incomes and raise individual capabilities to enhance wellbeing. What does the current system do?

The TPLF/EPRDF developmental state’s growth and eventual fair distribution of individual incomes and capabilities after–hundreds of thousands of children and females have perished; thousands have immigrated; and billions of American dollars stolen and taken out of the country illegally will not help the vast majority. By definition, it is discriminatory and inequitable.

The December 5, 2011 Financial Integrity and Economic Development press release says it all. “Illicit outflow (that I had highlighted in Waves last year,” from Ethiopia “nearly doubled in 2009 to US$3.26 billion” from 2008. This “African nation lost US$11.7 billion in illegal capital flight from 2000 to 2009” alone. How did this happen? It happened through “corruption, kickbacks, bribery and trade mispricing.” Remember that Ethiopia is one of the “hungriest, unhealthiest and un-freest” countries in the world, with GDP per capita of US$365. What is really lost? And why should we care?

What are lost are scarce resources that should go to education, health, sanitation, factories, agriculture, private sector development, infrastructure, youth employment and so on. The illicit outflow in 2009 exceeds all export earnings of US$2 billion and net Official Development Assistance of US$829 million combined. This is what led to the conclusion by the co-leader of the investigation, Sarah Freitas, that “The people of Ethiopia are being bled dry.” You dry resources; you deny opportunities to this and the coming generation of Ethiopians. The system is so corrupt that only direct participation and engagement by the vast majority of the Ethiopian people will reverse this morally bankrupt downward spiral for decades to come. Civic engagement is thus urgent and a matter of survival.

The country and its resources must be shared fairly, equitably and justly. This is why, for unity to take deep roots,” humanity is more powerful than ethnicity.” Unity without justice and equity is only a wish. Those of us in the Diaspora should ask simple questions and answer them ourselves. Why are Ethiopians forced to immigrate in droves? Why so much corruption and illicit outflow? There are two principal causes: poverty and repression.

In my view, the destiny of any Ethiopian should not be forced immigration because of lack of opportunities at home and because of government repression, period. No one should accept this verdict of the TPLF/EPRDF core as an acceptable and normal fate. The leadership and its supporters demean, brutalize and character assassinate each of us–even abroad–for a strategic reason: they are the lead beneficiaries of an oppressive system that steals billions. They like the way things are. Look at Burma and how long it took for the Burmese to gain a modicum of freedom that compelled the Obama administration to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Burma for the first time in half a century. It is freedom. It is common Burmese people and their political and civic leaders who did it; and no one else. Activists were jailed, murdered and forced to leave their homeland for decades.

By the same token, Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin must reject imprisonment and forced immigration as a fate and challenge the system that causes it. They must be bold enough to say that no child should go hungry and no one who advocates social justice should be arrested and jailed or forced to leave his/her country. Getting upset and reacting only when a relative is hungry or arrested does not advance unity. This is why empathy for and sustained support to those who fight for social justice and civil liberties, and for unity that embraces diversity in Ethiopia is critical. This is why it would make enormous sense to set aside differences and focus on commonalities. Those differences can be ironed out in public space once democratic change becomes real.

For the person who wrote a rejoinder to my series instead of the usual insult and innuendo that is typical of the TPLF and its kind (to which I am used), I say that Ethiopia must belong to all of Ethiopians. We must be courageous enough to say that plunder, illicit outflow, discrimination, corruption, and repression is not the way to advance national unity, sustainable and equitable development that will put a brake on forced immigration. Sustained, coordinated and unified peaceful resistance is the key. What do I suggest?

The best strategy to save this and the coming generation for every Ethiopian child in the country is to do the unthinkable: to accept one another; to listen to one another; to cooperate and collaborate with one another; to work with one another as citizens. How hard is this to do if we are open and willing? There is another reason why cooperation is vital. The strongest guarantee for peace, stability, security and unity for all ethnic and religious groups in Ethiopia– that has many traditional enemies that wish to keep it divided, poor and weak–is internal unity and sustainable and equitable development. Every Ethiopian child deserves a chance to succeed within his/her country. No government can afford to leave any child or group out, as is the case with the TPLF/EPRDF ethnic policy.

What can the Diaspora do?

I am fully aware that those of us within the opposition camp agree on one thing and one thing only. That is, we oppose the TPLF/EPRDF. This is not enough. Do we agree on the alternatives going forward except on generalities? I am not convinced we do. Those of us who lived through the Imperial and Socialist Military Dictatorship should know. We opposed; we helped depose. Where did we end up? Ethiopia lost its entire sea cost and became land-locked for the first time in its long history. This is the reason for my thesis that there is yet no shared understanding of the problem among opposition groups. This leads me directly to my first suggestion to the Diaspora community that, in large measure, enjoys freedom. This community has no excuse not to appreciate, promote and nurture life beyond ethnicity and parochialism. In other words, it has no reason not to cooperate across ethnic, religious, professional, gender and demographic lines. Yet, behaviors and actions counter cooperation and collaboration. Narrow mindedness reduces the effectiveness of the community in advancing social justice and freedom back home. It undermines social cohesion as Ethiopians, and deters human potential. It makes us less credible globally.

It goes without saying that as individuals and families, Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin are highly successful. In my own extended family, I counted six medical doctors and two PhDs in one event alone. We can build on our successes and advance social justice; and leave a legacy for this and the coming generation.

This success is not the same thing as community and country social capital formation and mindset. We are largely aliens to one another, if we diagnose how we relate to one another as people from different language and religious groups. We go to the extent of establishing different churches within the same religious group; and seem to be proud of it. We tend to exclude. This kind of division is exactly what the TPLF/EPRDF strategists want us to do. We do it for them for free, at a cost to the country. We play political theatrics on the country and its hungry and poor population and do not even acknowledge it.

Division that undermines cooperation is selfish. We can do the division debate once the country is free from repression and oppression. I am not convinced we can afford such luxury now. We need to pull together and advance the democratization cause first and provide sustained and coordinated support to those who struggle for peaceful democratic transformation within the country as the Burmese are doing. It goes without saying that support should be based on clarity of alternatives.

Within the above context, below are a set of twelve suggestions for all Ethiopians in general and political and civic groups in the Diaspora in particular. All are action and results oriented.

1. Let us stop demonizing and name-calling one another:

All opponents of the TPLF/EPRDF agree that its governance must go. I am not convinced that they recognize that their own divisions are agreeing are among the lead causes of why it survives. They spend as much time demonizing, demeaning and undermining one another as they do condemning the governing party. The first priority is therefore to look at one self in the mirror and stop insulting, undermining and badmouthing one another. I suggest strongly that we stop this disastrous behavior and practice now. It only helps the governing party. We should listen to one another; work with one another; and focus on the bigger picture of saving the country and supporting its diverse population. The struggle for Ethiopia’s future is not in the Diaspora. It is in Ethiopia. Singular focus on Ethiopia and all of the Ethiopian people strengthens mutual trust and confidence; and contributes to national unity.

There are numerous practical things activists and others in the Diaspora can do. Websites and radio stations can collaborate with one another; civic groups can pull their talent and financial resources and advance the common cause; political groups can set their feuds aside and move in the same direction, urging their supporters to do the same. The rest will follow; and those who struggle back home and the Ethiopian people will have confidence in the Diaspora. TPLF/EPRDF’s agents and paid detractors will have no place to go. They can no longer divide us. It is our division that offers them space to operate abroad as they do at home. Each of us can say no to badmouthing, character assassinations and undermining within the opposition camp if we are willing and daring. Say no to division now and you will see a dramatic shift both abroad and at home.

2. Let us leave a legacy and support the home front:

All Ethiopian activists who struggle for national unity of a diverse population, inclusive social justice and the rule of law–and suffer as a consequence–deserve our undivided attention, financial, moral, technical, diplomatic and intellectual support. If we stop demeaning one another and cooperate in these and other areas, we can leverage our resources and make a huge difference in advancing a peaceful democratic transition. Is it not conceivable for as few as 200,000 members of the Diaspora to contribute just one American dollar per month and channel it to those who advance the democratization process peacefully? It is then that they can influence vision and direction. This will help build capacity and capability.

3. Let us debunk ethnic antagonism:

Priority number one in my book is to debunk the TPLF/EPRDF alien philosophy and debilitating (incapacitating) strategy of irreconcilable differences among Ethiopia’s 80 nationality groups. Ethnic-based political formation, and organization works against national cohesion, optimal economic performance and sustainable and equitable development. Among other things, it deters capital and labor mobility and raises the cost of doing business. It nurtures elite based corruption and nepotism. It undermines national unity and keeps the country in constant suspense. It serves political elites at the cost of constituents. Ethnic-based thinking, political formation and economic mismanagement, civil conflict and wars are among the most devastating episodes in African history: Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo illustrate the human and economic costs. Yugoslavia fractured into tiny states.

In light of these and more, let us start with what each one of us can do; instead of blaming the regime for all our ills. That the regime is corrupt and repressive is well documented. It is what we each can do that is not. We each can take baby steps and reach-out to one another as Ethiopians and agree to disagree in a civil manner. We can stop demonizing other ethnic groups including Tigrean nationals. Why would we, for instance, suspect those who reject TPLF governance? There is evidence to suggest that some of us in the Diaspora who oppose the regime manifest such behaviors. We can stop the toxic like transmission of information to our children and urge them to accept one another as people of Ethiopian origin (humans and individual citizens). We can tell them that we speak different languages and dialects but have something much stronger in common: we hail from one country, Ethiopia, and we are all Ethiopians. We want to save Ethiopia. How hard is this to do?

The Ethiopian Diaspora is a model in some areas and a disaster in others. As individuals and families, we excel. We are almost all educated and owe this education and individual and family success to Ethiopian society, especially the poor. With a tiny exception, a majority of us in the Diaspora who enjoy freedom are cynical and are detached from the agonies of the people we left behind. Political actors are among the causes of this detachment and cynicism. Those who can afford to travel to the country as the ‘new tourists’ return and report the glitz they see as development. They do not engage themselves in a conversation with unemployed youth, beggars in the streets, the homeless next to the Sheraton, the farmer outside Addis Ababa whose land is too small to support a family, the small business person whose shop was just demolished to make room for a high rise owned by a member of the new elite. Some are not conscious of the fact that the mansion they build as a retirement home may contribute to escalating prices. Someone put this paradox of a Diaspora that is detached from the agonizing reality of the Ethiopian people not too long ago thus. “It is a great day in paradise in hell,” so to speak. All these and more are within our control to change. It takes will and determination. We can stop being part of the problem.

2. Let us embrace Ethiopia’s diversity as a national asset.

The premium I place on national unity of thinking as Ethiopians over ethnic-political and economic formation should not be interpreted as a proposal for homogeneity or the supremacy of one ethnic group over others. What I have in mind is the principle and value that my compatriot, Obang Metho lives by: “Humanity over ethnicity.” Ethiopia’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths. Those of us who believe in national unity must recognize, defend, preserve, strengthen and promote the institutionalization of genuine diversity of the unique cultural heritage, identity and interests of each and every nationality group in the country.

If we wish for the country to be strong and prosperous and for all Ethiopians to move out of hunger and poverty, we must safeguard the economic, cultural, social and political interests of all ethnic groups; and make a compelling case of the ultimate benefits of national cohesion over ethnic-fragmentation. Each of us can build on the positive traditions of the country’s diverse culture.

Here is the good news that debunks “irreconcilability of nationality groups.” Ordinary Ethiopians are not inimical to one another. If they were the country would have experienced social turmoil by now. Those who are hungry will go house to house and rob their neighbors. Those angry with repression would go out and kill or murder members of the governing party and ethnic elites who benefit from their misery. Those whose lands are given out to foreigners would go out and destroy large commercial farms and make the lives of the new landlords untenable and so on. Their refrain comes from a strong culture of peaceful coexistence; despite the seeds of animosity the regime tries to sow. I find no substantial evidence of major ethnic hatred or conflict among the country’s mosaic. It is ethnic elites who form ethnic based parties that cause mutual suspicion, mistrust and antagonism. It serves their narrow interests.

The governing party and allied ethnic-elites fuel ethnic and religious conflicts as part of its strategy of ‘divide and rule.’ Throughout Ethiopia’s long and proud history, different ethnic and religious groups have co-existed side by side peacefully for thousands of years; and will in the future. What they need is good, participatory and inclusive governance. Opposition parties, civic groups and individuals who love the country and its diverse population must resolve not to contribute or be party to ethnic-based political organization, leadership and attitudes. They can build on their commonalties.

The Diaspora can and should play a constructive role by promoting multiethnic and religious harmony. Weddings, holiday celebrations, graduation ceremonies, religious services and other social events can bridge relations; promote mutual confidence and trust; break taboos that come from our individual and group ignorance and so on. Those of us who live in the most diverse country (USA) on this planet but cannot even acknowledge and celebrate events with one another as Ethiopians and as people of Ethiopian origin. How difficult is it for us to sit together and to talk to one another in the same event whether we are Afar, Annuak, Somali, Oromo, Tigrean, Amhara or any other? I do not believe that Prime Minister Meles’ government can dictate to us how we behave toward one another; how we can embrace our diversity while contributing to our collective and individual identity as Ethiopians who speak different languages but belong to the same geopolitical space that is Ethiopia. It is our own choice to include or to exclude. Inclusion is fundamental to sustainable and equitable development. The Diaspora can and should take the higher road of social capital formation beyond ethnic, religious, gender, professional and demographic affiliation. I genuinely believe that such change in mindset will contribute to meaningful national unity; while retaining diversity. It will undermine the regime.

4. Let us be courageous enough to defend national unity.

National unity contributes to national cohesion and is the cornerstone for sustainable and equitable development. It is a matter of survival in a hostile world of competing national and group interests. In my view, national cohesion whose institutional foundation is human freedom and political pluralism is critical for durable peace, stability, sustainable and equitable development and prosperity. A new, promising, all inclusive, just and fair and forward looking society will open up enormous possibilities for everyone, especially for the country’s bulging young generation.

The party in power will not advance sustainable and equitable development. Its model works against national unity and cohesion. This is the reason why I suggest that only national leaning political and civic formation, organization and leadership would pose a challenge to the TPLF formulae of ethnic divide and conquer and establish the foundation for national unity that is based on genuine freedom for each member.

Those of us in the Diaspora who enjoy freedom can and should reject narrow self-interest, elite power grab, egos and hidden agendas wherever they emanate. Success can only come from cooperation and collaboration and not from brutal rivalry. There are no substitutes to cooperation across ethnic, religious, gender, demographic and professional lines. If one rejects fragmentation, it goes without saying that cooperation–while embracing Ethiopia’s diversity–is critical if we wish to preserve the national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and long-term interests of the country and its population. If we all do this, Ethiopians will overcome poverty and hunger.

Here is the first step that we can take. Let us try to imagine that genuine cooperation and collaboration among political and civic groups and the rest will go a long way in understanding the problem we are trying to fix and in arriving at probable solutions. This will not happen if we do not trust one another; if we do not listen to one another; if we do not talk to one another as ‘adults’ with wisdom. Suppose we all agree that national unity is essential for sustainable and equitable development; and to change the current system. Suppose we endorse a vision of a democratic, just, fair, equitable and inclusive and rule of law based Ethiopia.

What would it take to get there? How do we get there without reaching out and talking to one another? The preoccupation with “Only my vision, my program and my party” will lead us nowhere. Independent thinkers and civil society groups and others in the Diaspora can and must insist that political and civic groups–at least in the Diaspora– must break this silo mentality of “my way or the highway” if they wish to be relevant to those who struggle daily in Ethiopia.

I have had the privilege of listening to and conversing with a new generation of Ethiopians, who possess courage and stamina; who believe in advancing the democratization process regardless of the human cost. It is this new generation that is willing to sacrifice; collaborate among one another; learn from and work with their elders that should give all of us hope. This leads me to the question of relevance opposition groups within the Diaspora.

I suggest that, if they wish to contribute as catalysts to the democratization process–that should be anchored within Ethiopia among Ethiopians–political and civic groups and individuals in the Diaspora should dare to be bold and advocate Ethiopian national unity and identity, always embracing diversity and the rights of all citizens. They should all be comfortable with the notion of one country with a diverse population; and one destiny. They must have the courage, wisdom, perseverance, patriotism and discipline to reject nationality or tribe based political formation, as Ghana has done in its constitution. They must have the courage to apply moral and material pressure on all political parties and civil society organizations such that they recognize the notion that the TPLF/EPRDF formula leads only to a dead end in which no one, except the governing party wins. Unity comes when the rights, social and economic interests of every citizen are recognized and protected under the law.

To be continued.