Ethiopians can indeed Unite if they are Willing

Ethiopians Can Indeed Unite if they are Willing, Part Six (b) of Six—continuation

Aklog Birara, PhD

In Part Six (a), I offered a set of suggestions about our individual and group behaviors that must change in order to advance the human condition in Ethiopia. The tendency of my own generation to see issues in “black and white” and the inability to separate the person from the issue led to unfortunate consequences. Wisdom would have suggested that we reflected on unintended consequences (the concept of thorough diagnosis) before we made declarations. This tendency persists among Ethiopia’s elites today.

Ethiopian political and civic opposition groups do not lack talent and concepts. There is a plethora of both. What we lack is the will, determination, discipline, flexibility, organization and leadership to translate concepts and recommendations into concrete actions. In this continuation, I shall offer a series of additional suggestions for further debate, and more important, for action. The items are identified because they are within our control and can be done. If we do them in a strategic and persistent manner, these steps will further undermine the legitimacy of an illegitimate regime that thrives on our division more than on its strength.

4. Let us all campaign against corruption and nepotism

I and others have provided ample evidence that show the economic, social and political costs of tribalism and ethnic based discrimination and exclusion. The governing party’s claim that its developmental state advances the common good is totally misleading and false. In fact, it has strengthened administrative and state capture based corruption to the tune of between US$8.345 and US$11 billion since the TPLF/EPRDF took power. The latest from Global Financial Integrity reveals that the Ethiopian people are being “milked dry.” In other words, the country’s resources are being plundered by members of the governing elites.

In 2011, Ethiopia ranked 116th from 60th in 2000, a substantial decline. The country is more corrupt; and increases in aid flow aggravate the situation. Corruption is so rampant that nothing is done without greasing someone in the hierarchy and at all levels of government. Moral decay that reached an alarming level is a consequence of corrupt practices. The cost to the society is incalculable.

Compounding corruption is concentration of incomes and wealth in a few hands; and a monopolistic economy that is dominated by the party, its endowments and favored individuals including foreigners. One of TPLF’s creations is EFFORT, a dominant player in all sectors of the economy. It epitomizes ethnic affliction and undermines confidence and trust in the economic system of the country. It curtails fair and open competition.

Therefore, political and civic activists in the Diaspora as well as ordinary persons who care about their country and its starving poor can and should come together and campaign against corruption and illicit outflow. If they agree on a common cause, there is nothing to prevent them from working together against a suffocating system that affects most Ethiopians. They have the human, financial, material and diplomatic potential within their hands to shame the regime. Here is where, good will, determination, discipline, commitment, cooperation, collaboration and a unity of purpose to do something good and concrete will go a long way to show the world that Ethiopians in the Diaspora do really care about their home country and its poor and hungry millions. Those who support the governing party should recognize that the ethnicization and concentration of income and wealth, and the monopoly over the pillars of the economy will undermine national unity and cohesion. Foreign organizations and governments that support the governing party will be much more sympathetic to the causes of justice, the rule of law, political pluralism and governance that is accountable if opponents show wisdom by cooperating and collaborating rather than fighting and undermining one another.

This recommendation to the Ethiopian Diaspora in general and to activists in particular is not done in a vacuum. Anti-corruption campaigns have gone global. This “globalized spring” that began in North Africa and the Middle East has spread to India, 900 cities and towns in the USA, Europe and Africa. Ethiopian activists should exploit this trend that has gone ballistic. The key is to understand the trend and act and not just react and moan. Greed, income and wealth concentration and inequality drive these spontaneous uprisings. What seems to be leaderless and virtual indignations and popular uprisings can be unstoppable force that will change Ethiopia too. Even in the authoritarian state of China, there were 87,000 incidents of popular unrest in 2005 alone. What are common among these protests are social and economic, injustice, greed and corruption.

5. Let us insist on aid that meets human needs.

The TPLF/EPRDF regime has received more aid than any in the country’s history. The question is whether or not this massive aid flow estimated in excess of US$40 billion, US$3.5 billion this past year, has made a dent in boosting incomes, reducing poverty and in creating domestic capabilities that will create the foundation for sustainable and equitable development. By all accounts, the answer is no. Sustainable and equitable development will not take place as long as billions of American dollars are stolen each year. Aid and Diaspora transfers are fairly easy monies to steal and to divert.

There is no independent institution to stop this mismanagement of national resources. The 2011 UN Human Development Index ranked Ethiopia 174th out of 185 countries. This alone suggests that the primary beneficiaries from aid and growth are party favored individuals and families, the governing party and its endowments. Aid has, often, been used to punish opponents and to reward loyalists.

Political parties, civic groups, followers of different faiths, academics, professional groups and the rest can play a prominent role by campaigning actively and systematically in donor capitals, in front of foundations, Non-governmental organizations, human and economic rights groups, churches, state capitals, tax payers and so on that donor monies should go directly to the poor and should no longer be used to enrich the few; to reward friends and to punish opponents. They should insist on independent oversight either by donors themselves or by neutral groups. They should be guided by the tested principle that equitable access to social and economic opportunities is one of the most powerful tools toward national unity, cohesion, peace and stability.

I will provide a simple human example why this is doable, practical and essential. Think of a child in Gambella who is forced to work on an Indian commercial farm for less than US$1 per day; below the poverty wage. Imagine if aid money was channeled to the poor in his community. This child would go to school and will have the possibility of becoming an engineer, a lawyer, a medical doctor, a teacher, a mechanic and so on.

The Diaspora must appreciate the devastating impact of hunger on millions of children, hundreds of thousands of who are stunted. UNICEF reports that “a child in Ethiopia that is stunted is less able to fulfill its potential. Its ability to learn at school and later earn a living and contribute to the nation’s wealth is forever held back.” The TPLF/EPRDF regime has no empathy for these children. We should make it our business to care. Corruption that diverts aid monies and illicit outflow of funds deprives the child from Gambella and millions of others of opportunities.

The developmental state’s claim that the benefits of growth will, ultimately trickle down to this child and to millions of other children is sheer madness. I wonder how many of us in the Diaspora give credence to the popular phrase “Ediget kale dabo yet ale?” (If there is growth, where is the bread?) Growth is about enough food to eat. If most of the aid money is stolen, it is this and other children who will pay a price for decades.

The pursuit of an uneven development strategy in a country where a single party dominates politics and economics does not at all advance fair and equitable investments. The chance of the child escaping poverty is almost zero. Born poor; he will die poor. The national outcome of the model is alarming disparity in development, incomes and wealth. Aid that is not governed by an independent oversight tends to aggravate inequality and uneven development. More aid means more corruption and more illicit outflow. In turn, this will lead to insecurity and instability. The business of aid should not be to perpetuate dependency and to enrich a few. It is to make the aid business obsolete by boosting domestic capabilities, including the domestic private sector and smallholders. Aid that does not advance human potential and freedom is dependency.

Here is another dilemma the society will face if the current trend continues. Uneven investment, income and wealth concentration in a few hands and in selected ethnic regions will lead to civil unrest and conflict that no one can contain. For this reason, each of us in the Diaspora: business women and men, teachers, medical professionals, taxi drivers, artists and so on has an obligation to let our voice heard as the opportunity arises. What is required is good will to cooperate. If we speak with a single voice, we can change minds. Look at the brave women and men, girls and boys in the “Occupy Wall Street Movement.”

Ethiopia is in worse shape than the USA; but here young people fight for a cause. The Diaspora has all the freedom in the world to do the right same thing. Is it not reasonable for those who are in the forefront of the struggle within the country to expect that those of us who live in freedom sacrifice time, money and labor to advance their cause? Is it not time for us to be bold enough to question one another how hundreds and sometimes thousands would go to a musical concert for hours but cannot spare time for a common social and humanitarian cause: Human and economic rights? Love of country and the diversity of people for which it is home require that we devote some time and spare some monies and expend know-how to advance the need of a child regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation. Unity and national cohesion does not just happen; it takes people to make it happen. It takes collaboration.

6. Let us promote freedom of the press in Ethiopia.

A quote from Ralph Barton Perry is most appropriate for this recommendation. “Ignorance deprives men of freedom because they do not know what alternatives there are. It is impossible to choose what one has never heard of.” The governing party arrests, sentences and jails journalists because it does not want the Ethiopian public to know alternatives to repression and oppression. Those of us who enjoy freedom know that a free press is the cornerstone of civil society. This fundamental right contained in the Ethiopian Constitution does not exist in practice. The governing party knows well that an informed public, especially youth, demands transparency, the rule of law, fair treatment, a level playing field in accessing opportunities and accountability. Ethiopia today is “one of the un-freest societies in the world.”

Have you ever wondered if the rest of the world knows the shameful and tragic conditions of Ethiopian girls and women? In a country where human life has been degraded and devalued, girls and women fare far worse than boys and men. Thousands are shipped to the Middle East each month to work as domestic workers. As someone put it in an Ethiopian newspaper, “They move from one form of death (poverty) to another (servitude).” When and if they die (as is too often the case) from physical and mental abuse, their government does not protest. Prime Minister Meles was asked about the deteriorating and humiliating condition of girls and women under his watch. He was told of the unprecedented case of five and six year old girls putting acid on their bodies and dying. He said that he did not know. Clearly, the Prime Minister cares only about his own and his extended family and not for the rest of Ethiopians. If your own government does not care about you, why would a Saudi or any other master care? It is the same thing that he said about hunger. “There is drought but not hunger” in a country that is home to “one of the hungriest populations on the planet.”

The bottom line is this. Ethiopian life, especially those of females, has become cheap at home and abroad. Increasingly, foreigners with resources get away with any human rights violation on commercial farms and in factories. Ethiopians cannot command respect in their own homeland. Those who hire and abuse Ethiopian girls and women in the Middle East, North Africa and other places know the priorities of the Ethiopian government: it is not to defend the rights of its citizens. This is why a free and independent press is so vital. This is why the rest of us should care and defend freedom of the press and human rights with vigor and consistency. If we do not value ourselves, no one in the world will respect or value us. How hard is it to collaborate and cooperate on press freedom and human rights?

Opposition groups, civil organizations, academics and youth in the Diaspora can and should take the lead and shame the regime by championing these themes. There are numerous specific social and economic cases one can cite. For example, they can use the shameful and degrading situation of girls and women who are brutalized at home and abroad to rally supporters across the globe. Their situation is underreported because there is no independent and free press in the country.

There is a second area of opportunity for the Diaspora as a whole and activists to cooperate and scale up communication to Ethiopia. I propose that advocates of freedom and democracy and the rest pool their talent, monies and know-how together and support all forms of media including satellite television and short wave radio transmissions to Ethiopia relentlessly. ESAT is an excellent model. The Diaspora can boost the capacities of other modern communication technologies such as websites, Internet penetration and social media through Facebook and others by providing funds and knowledge. This too takes good will to collaborate and cooperate.

I admire the efforts of activists around the globe who spend their scarce resources and time to keep the Diaspora informed about the home country. It shows an indomitable spirit to keep connected with the home country. This collective know-how and experience should, equally, zero in singularly on the home front. This is where the greatest gap for information and knowledge resides. It is time that we fill this gap. We cannot fill this gap until and unless we are willing to set aside minor differences and focus on the bigger picture of saving the country and supporting its vast and diverse population.

7. Let us empower the youthful generation to lead.

We still accept the traditional model of leadership that is totally hierarchical and top down. The struggle for democratization requires that we mentor, coach and prepare a new generation of leaders that live and breathe democratic values. These values place premium on cooperation rather than rivalry and personality cult. Roles and responsibilities rather than personalities are critical today than they have ever been. The Arab Spring teaches us that it is young people with passion, technological savvy and commitment to country, people and cause that brought down dictators. In Syria, at least 5,000 died for the cause of justice. Ethiopians are pace setters. Ethiopian youth possess these attributes and more. Youth in North Africa and the Middle East worked closely with all sectors of society and attracted millions to their side. They died in the streets fighting for a better day; and a promising future for themselves and for their society. Ethiopian youth have the same potential as we see among those the regime arrests and jails in droves. However, there is a gap. I am not convinced that my generation has done much that is meaningful to transfer knowledge and experience; and to equip the young generation with leadership and management skills. My generation has been totally insular and preoccupied with individual and parochial interests. This is the reason why we have failed in creating sustainable grassroots movements of any kind. We cannot create a democratic society without civil engagement and without creating and a strong and robust civil society.

Ethiopia’s demographic composition suggests that the social wave of the future resides in its youth age population. It is this social group within the country that receives no quality education that will lead to jobs or the ability to set up new enterprises that poses challenge and opportunity. It must have a promising future. Otherwise, it is a potential time-bomb waiting to explode any time, as in North Africa and the Middle East. It is this same age group that triggered and led peaceful and popular uprisings in Indonesia, the Philippines and Central Europe. These young ‘Turks’ did not lead revolts without training and preparation.

The older generation in the Diaspora has a wealth of knowledge and experience to transmit to the new generation within and outside the country. Among other things, it can launch a systematic and well-designed program of leadership training and mentoring in public service, civic engagement and other leadership skills. Political and civic organizations have the capability and capacity to integrate youth, especially females, in leadership roles. This is within their control and is cost effective. In turn, youth must reach out to and learn from their elders. They must appreciate the need to anchor their efforts in their peers within Ethiopia. Leadership training I have in mind must serve a social common purpose. It is a partnership between youth and their elders that has enormous promise; and we cannot afford to squander it.

To be continued.