Ethiopians can indeed unite if they are willing, Part Six (e) of Six

Aklog Birara, PhD

In Part Six (d) of this last of thirteen commentaries and viewpoints, I suggested that the cry of the young woman at a large meeting of Ethiopian domestic workers in the Middle with a TPLF/EPRDF delegation is a watershed event to which we all need to respond in a purposeful, coordinated and sustained manner. I continue to be struck by the question she posed not only to TPLF/EPRDF officials who were there to solicit monies; but to the rest of us as well. This question is, “Where is the Ethiopian flag?” A country’s flag is not just a piece of cloth as claimed by the Ethiopian Prime Minister. It represents the country’s history, national independence and territorial integrity and the unity in diversity of its population and the aspirations of its youth. It also shows the potential of Ethiopia’s females in asserting their rights. The minority ethnic elite that sponsored the secession of Eritrea actively, and made the country land locked; gave its lands to the Sudanese government through secret deals; and that incorporated Article 39 into its Constitution is wedded to a colonial type of divide and rule policy. Unfortunately, numerous ethnic based political elites subscribe to this divide and rule philosophy that works against the interests of the people they contend to represent. The recent declaration of one faction of the Oromo Liberation Front rejecting secession and calling for unity to advance the democratization process is a substantial omen in the right direction.

Whether one accepts it or not, the reality on the ground is this. Ethnic-based political formation and leadership is designed to undermine individual democratic rights, the sovereignty of the Ethiopian people as a whole, and the unity of the country. There is substantial evidence that shows that the system of divide and rule operates effectively thorough the merger of state, party and ethnicity. The most visible and direct material manifestation of this merger is the capture and rental form of extraction of national resources through foreign aid, banking and finance, urban and rural lands, trade and the rest. One needs to ask who benefits the most from the concentration of policy and decision making power in the country today. In light of this reality, the fundamental rights and accesses to opportunities for most Ethiopians are not recognized let alone realized. If a governing system does not recognize the country as indivisible and one; and the population as worthy of fair treatment and of equitable access to opportunities, the symbolic power of the flag as a unifier and equalizer is further diminished in all walks of life.

As critical, ethnic orientation and organization of political elites in the opposition camp within and outside the country reinforce this divide and rule strategy in political and economic management to the detriment of the population these elites pretend to represent. The loud cry from the young Ethiopian female who demanded service from her government is unlikely to receive positive response from officials. The defense of human rights expressed as individual rights is not within their value system. If the government violates human, economic and social rights within the country, it is a certainty that it will not defend the rights of Ethiopians anywhere in the world. It is only after their resources. This is why Ethiopia’s future and the future of its diverse population will depend on politics beyond ethnicity. There are things we can do to mitigate the ongoing damage emanating from ethnic politics.

We can advance social formation in the right direction beyond ethnicity if we set aside our differences and focus on two critical drivers of the democratic cause: the future of Ethiopia and the welfare and democratic rights of the Ethiopian people as a whole. The young woman questioned the legitimacy of a regime that cares less for its people; but has the audacity to send delegations around the globe to mobilize foreign exchange from the Diaspora. At the root of the question posed by this brave female is the contradiction between a ruling party leadership at the top that does not defend or protect the human rights of Ethiopians abroad; but dares to persuade them to buy government bonds and to invest in a country where there is no level playing. The opposite is true. The governing party that has been in power for almost 21 years runs one of the un-freest economies and most ethnic-oriented political systems in the world. If it denies fundamental freedoms and rights at home; it is unlikely to stand on the side of Ethiopians regardless of their ethnic, religious and or gender affiliation. An ethnicized system is always a discriminatory and exclusionary system. People need to wake up to the reality that socioeconomic and political systems that are based on ethnic governance produce societies full of cronyism, corruption, illicit outflow, income and social inequity and uneven development. These facts are well researched and documented by world renowned economists such as Paul Collier and Bill Easterly (Paul Collier and Nicholas Sambanis in Understanding Civil War and Bill Easterly in the White Man’s Burden, among others). For a thorough analysis of merger of state, party and ethnicity and its corrupting role, read my 2010 book, Waves, which devotes several chapters on the subject.

For the young woman and the rest of us who believe in Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people, the Ethiopian flag represents our individual and collective identity. Diplomatic missions show this flag because it represents the country and its people. However, it is clear that Ethiopia’s diplomatic missions are now totally subjected to serving a minority ethnic party rather than the entire population and the country’s vital interests. These missions are as politicized as education and urban and rural lands. They have become the exclusive property of the ruling party and propagate and do what it says. One of the vital interests of any country and diplomatic missions that represents it is to stand for and defend the fundamental human rights of Ethiopian citizens wherever they are; and whenever they are abused and degraded. The government of the Philippines does that in the Middle East; as do others. A government that is unrepresentative at home cannot be representative abroad. Diplomatic representation is a mirror of domestic politics and power. Shouldn’t this incident in the Middle East brought to us by an insightful young woman, and similar incidents within the country and abroad that are cited numerous times in this series compel us to cooperate and collaborate? My answer is an unequivocally yes.

Our diversity is our strength; so is our unity

Ethiopia needs political and socioeconomic governance that meets the hopes, aspirations and needs of all its citizens. All representations ought to reflect the diversity of its people; none should be left out. The governing party uses our diversity to divide us. Many foreign observers are often amazed by the vastness and diversity of talent of the Ethiopian immigrant population everywhere on this planet. This globalized talent pool has a wealth of expertise to staff and lead countries. It has played a pivotal role in ensuring that Ethiopia and or the identity of being Ethiopian in not a mirage. In her and or his own way, each person contributes that it lives on. This is significant and cannot be understated. At the same time, it has not translated itself into a cohesive community of people and into a formidable global social force. This globalized Ethiopian identity and the talent embedded is certainly large and rich enough to meet Ethiopia’s demands. It possesses the potential to transform the country into an inclusive, humane, fair, democratic and prosperous society. Equally, observers are baffled by the dysfunction manifested within this community of talent. Despite its enormous potential to leverage itself by—raising monies, synergizing its expertise and knowledge to influence public policy and global public opinion, providing communication tools to those who struggle for a better society at home, building its own and the capacities of others, mentoring, coaching and guiding a new generation of social activists at home and abroad and promoting and nurturing social and community cohesion–a great deal of time, energy and money is spent gauging, assessing, monitoring and second guessing one another’s motives and promoting hidden agendas. The minority ethnic governing party uses this dysfunction to prolong its life and to extract more wealth for its core and for its allies. It is hard for many foreign observers and to some of us to think that divisions extend even to institutions of worship. Many fail to see that our divisions minimize our cohesion and effectiveness by the widest margin possible.

There are substantial behavioral tendencies that prevent us from using our substantial size and hidden potential to contribute much more than we have in the past. We need the determination, will and discipline to respond to the cry and demand of the young woman and to millions of others like her within the country. Clearly, the minority ethnic-party led government in power lacks legitimacy, commitment to all of the Ethiopian people, and the will to accept the sovereignty of the Ethiopian people. By design, it cannot give priority to Ethiopia and to the welfare of the Ethiopian people as a whole. It is therefore hard for anyone who is fair minded to accept the notion that it will reform itself. It has not for almost 21 years and shows the opposite tendencies. The rest of us need to appreciate this reality and focus on at least two critical common causes: the long term DURABILITY and unity with diversity of the country; and the welfare and democratic right of each individual within Ethiopia’s varied population. Here is the problem in a nutshell. We continue to think as members of ethnic groups rather than as Ethiopians. This is the trap imposed on us by the minority ethnic elite in power. It pretends to stand for the liberation of all ethnic groups while vesting policy and decision making authority in a small band of Tigrean elites and allied beneficiaries. How do we help it? We operate in silos. This silo mentality strengthens the governing party. As a result, we continue to diminish our ability to influence events both abroad and within the country. This is why the global community does not take us seriously. However and, if there is will, we can resolve this impasse. We cannot allow making unity among Ethiopians illusive because of our behaviors, attitudes, cynicism and actions. What do I propose?

11. Let us approach a diverse group of Ethiopians, with the highest level of integrity and neutrality; trusted by the global Ethiopian community; and with capabilities to diagnose the problems we face

It does not matter who takes the initiative on the above. People who care about the country and its diverse population must conduct soul searching and carryout candid conversation that will lead to a road map. It is important though to recognize that ethnic political formation and organization and our division are now the principal causes for the longevity of the TPLF/EPRDF regime. At minimum, we have a collective moral responsibility to fill a social gap in civil society that is broken. None of us can deny–whether we identify with a civic or political organization or something else–that the following ingredients for cooperation and collaboration are missing: trust, honesty, integrity, neutrality, a sense of common purpose as well as confidence in one another. These missing values are so critical to transformation that they need thorough analysis by a trusted and competent group that stands for the country and its diverse population as a whole.

The process in the formation of this diverse group to diagnose the problem and produce a viable and doable framework (road map) going forward must itself show democratic content. It cannot just be top down. I should like to offer a preliminary thought in this direction. Given the diversity and global nature of the Ethiopian talent pool—as foreign based stakeholders—and in light of the need to focus on critical issues common to all; and the criticality of focusing on the country and its diverse population, I suggest a process that is solidly community and grassroots based. Folks need to do this as a project with outcomes and measurements. The variety of civic groups across the globe implies that it would be best and viable to involve these groups to work toward cooperation and solidarity at a country level: for example, the USA, Canada, the UK, Germany and so on. In turn, these grassroots groups may want to consider establishing themselves at continental or regional levels, for example, North America, Europe, and Africa and so on. Representatives of these continental and or regional groups would then nominate a global Ethiopian steering or leadership group. Such formation would have a better chance of success than a top down process. Why? It strengthens sustainable ownership and accountability.

It seems to me that the diagnosis phase should focus on behaviors, values and attitudes that deter social networking and cooperation on a few critical issues that the country and the population face and need today. Why are the behavioral problems so prevalent? Why is such a potentially potent group of talent that stretches across the globe incapable of creating and sustaining a social force that will stand up for Ethiopia and for the Ethiopian people? It is these types of questions that the suggested global Ethiopian task team above should address first; and communicate to the larger community of Ethiopians. In my estimation, 90 percent of the problem resides in not recognizing, and in fact, in perpetuating self-made behavioral problems that deter cooperation and collaboration on what is important to Ethiopia and to the Ethiopian people. We can do these without being personal. We can focus on issues and not persons.

12. Let us provide sustainable and effective support to national leaning political parties and civil societies in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s current problem centers on minority ethnic political and economic capture. Sad but true; It is the Ethiopian people who bear the burden of this oppressive governance. I am aware that the vast majority of the Ethiopian people do not subscribe to the man-made, divisive and retarding political formulation of irreconcilability of ethnic and religious groups. This formula has been designed by external powers and used by internal ethnic elites to keep the Ethiopian people in permanent suspense of hatred, mutual suspicion, mistrust, antagonism and control. The so called “Abyssinian colonial rule” for which millions paid with their lives is at the heart of this strategy of suspense and plunders by minority ethnic elites and foreign and domestic allies. The Amhara and Oromo population constitutes the largest mass of the Ethiopian population. By any definition, this mathematical or numeric strength alone should work against ethnic minority rule. It is division that makes political superiority of determined minority elite at the top of the policy and decision making pyramid possible. The two groups along with others including Tigrean nationals have made enormous contributions to the formation and durability of Ethiopia as a diverse and independent multiethnic and multi-religion state. The vast influence and integrating role of the Oromo population in the formation, civilization and defense of Ethiopia is well recorded and cannot be denied by any observer. Ethnic political elites cannot turn this remarkable history upside down and conclude that–this immense social force with substantial spread across Ethiopia—is not part and parcel of the country and its rich population. The recent decision by one faction of the Oromo Liberation Front rejecting ethnic division and secession is a most welcome development. It advances the causes of Ethiopian unity and diversity; and accelerates the democratization process.

Fortunately for the country and its diverse population, ordinary Ethiopians mirror their commonalities more than elites. They show genuine and consistent commitment to the democratic unity of the country and the sovereignty of its people. They know that the emergence of a new, democratic and prosperous Ethiopia in which all stake holders will enjoy civil liberties and equitable accesses to social and economic opportunities, will depend on their unfettered engagement and participation. Indications are that the foundation for people-centered and peaceful revolt against oppression and for political pluralism is prevalent throughout the country. It seems to me that those of us who live in countries of freedom should advance the democratic cause for which thousands are dying, persecuted, jailed and harassed by doing something relatively simple and cost free. By this, I mean, let us not dwell on past mistakes among opponents of the regime. Instead, let us embrace the notion of forgiving one another, without forgetting gross and strategic mistakes from which each of us can learn. I am not naïve to believe that there are no sinister, self-serving and selfish individuals, groups and governments that are inimical to our country’s long-term interests and to the unity and prosperity of its people. If we stand together and serve the common purpose, we can isolate these forces and overcome the obstacles they throw at us. Given this, I suggest that the road ahead is much more important than the road travelled. The elite culture of mutual suspicion, innuendo and personal attacks of one another will not advance cooperation or democracy. Solidarity comes from recognition of mutual interests, respect, trust and confidence in one another; and more important, confidence in the Ethiopian people. They are the ones who will shape the future.

For this reason, I am convinced that the battle for Ethiopia’s future is being waged and will be waged within the country. Equally, I am persuaded that ethnic-based political parties will not address the fundamental problems of the country. On the contrary, I have taken the position throughout my adult life (principally through the World-Wide Ethiopian Student Movement) that ethnic politics will lead to unintended and catastrophic consequences. This is now self-evident today. Evidence shows that ethnic elites at the top help themselves by extracting enormous resources for themselves, their families and their friends. At the same time, they give the impression that they stand for the poor and marginalized. The economic and social gaps tell us an entirely different story. Accordingly, it is fair to ask ‘Where are regional and local ethnic elites when the lands and waters on which families and communities rely for survival are given away to domestic allies and foreign investors? ‘These are echoed by people in Beni-Shangul Gumuz, Oromia, and Gambella and elsewhere where land grabs are prominent.

In light of this, the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the population are not with the ruling party and its ethnic based affiliates. Less than 21 percent of the voting age population shows trust and confidence in their government and its institutions. Why is this? It is because the vast majority of the population knows that TPLF/EPRDF restricts, and in fact, bars public participation in policy and decision making in all areas of life. Civil society is not in a position to express its voice, to monitor and supervise resource management, and to make government officials accountable. The poor are getting poorer. Citizens are almost resigned to a dysfunctional government that governs through fear rather than through commitment, competence and public service. They cannot expect basic services let alone a chance to prosper. The famous World Bank Safety Net program that was supposed to aid the poor reaches only those that support the governing party. It is a fact that one sixth of Ethiopians depend on a program that does not free them from dependency. At least five million Ethiopians depend on remittances. Wherever one looks, economic and social management is marred by abuse, corruption and incompetence. Administrative services are offered as a matter of privilege and not right. Everyone in official capacity wants a cut and so on. Corruption and illicit outflow are rampant.

In a recent commentary in Addis Fortune (December 19, 2011) former Member of Parliament, Ato Temesgen Zewdie, put administrative dysfunction and ineptitude succinctly. “Too many laws suffocate the public and businesses. If good governance is not providing good services to the public, can it really be called good governance?” One is struck by slippages in every indicator. “No doubt that the future is even bleaker, given the current bureaucratic bottleneck that has pushed the cost of doing business in the country to unimaginable levels for businessmen” and for the rest of the society. It is not just the cost of doing business that has gone haywire; it is also the cost of living. Food self-sufficiency is a prime example. The governing party literally gave up Agriculture Development-led Industrialization in favor of Foreign Direct Investment in commercial agriculture because this strategy did not deliver. Its substitute is FDI in large-scale commercial farming that uproots hundreds thousands from their lands and undermines domestic comparative advantage that resides with improvements in Ethiopian smallholder farming and the domestic private sector. These and other anomalies are discussed thoroughly in my new book, Yemeret neteka ena kirimit (the Great Land Giveaway).

How does the governing party react to this conclusion? The same way it reacts to everything else. It compares to and distinguishes itself from the warlike economy under the socialist dictatorship and to the feudal-capitalist Imperial era but never to its current peers such as Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius or Vietnam. Unfortunately, its diplomatic backers and the donor community reinforce the perception that things are better than before. They do not see anything wrong with hundreds of thousands who forage garbage dumps to find food; hundreds of thousands who purchase bites (gursha) to feed themselves from restaurant left over food. Donors equate growth with improvement in the welfare of the population. They ignore the distributional and equity aspects of this growth and the concentration of incomes and assets in a few hands. They do not say much about the pandemic of corruption that results in massive illicit outflow of funds from the one of the poorest and aid dependent countries in the world, with a per capita income of US$360.

For the above and other reasons that the world ignores to the detriment of the vast majority of the Ethiopian people, an informed and empowered and country based civil society is the single most critical source of challenge to repressive and corrupt governance. It is virtually impossible to create a country based civic culture as long as the political system is ethnic based and or oriented. Ethnic based political parties and cultures entail substantial risks for the vast majority of the population. Among other things, such organization and leadership deters, and often, undermines the formation of national leaning organization of any type—whether within or outside the country. The invisible hands that inflict a toll on the global community of Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin are manifestations of this invisible danger. This is why I have consistently defended the notion that rejection of ethnic-based political formation and defended the embrace of national political formation that draws heavily from the country’s diverse population as the only sensible and promising route to go. Otherwise, the TPLF/EPRDF will continue, in its own words, “to win” every election and to extract more resources.

Opposition political parties and civil societies within and outside the country that combine forces and advance public engagement and participation as Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian origin are more likely to undermine the ethnic elite system in the long-run than those that fight one another perpetually or that continue as extensions of ethnic-based political parties. The literature is replete with the pitfalls of ethnic political formation, organization and leadership. When and if political and civic movements reject ethnic based formation and embrace national based formation, they will win. Eventually, they will shift power from elites to the sovereignty of ordinary men and women. Now is the time to do it.

Those of us in the Diaspora must put our monies, knowledge, technical know-how and diplomatic leverage where these will add value in the home front and in the formation of national political groups and advance civil society organizations. While I am not prepared to provide detailed plans in this venue, the opportunities are out there and opposition groups, individual activists and the rest of us must mobilize resources and transfer them to the home front to those that are ready and willing to break ethnic politics and embrace a national political culture in coordinated and sustainable ways. We can do this to the extent that we set aside the elite invented political and social culture of ethnic divide, hate, acrimony, bitterness and division aside; and focus on the bigger picture of emboldening and empowering the Ethiopian people to be masters of their own destiny. It is then that the global community would begin to respect opponents as credible. We owe it to the Ethiopian people that we defend their rights in every way possible and work cooperatively and collaboratively.

13. Let us persuade all opposition and civic groups outside the country to convene a global all inclusive conference, and come up with a road map in support of the home front

If there is one thing the majority in the Diaspora and the people of Ethiopia detest and reject, it is political brinkmanship, silos, power mongering, opportunism, egos and self-aggrandizement/centeredness and hypocrisy. Fragmentation, narrow group think, personality cults, arrogance, hidden agendas, one group trying to undermine the other and so on will not advance the common cause and or respond to the urgent causes of the Ethiopian people and especially Ethiopia’s youth. This social group is in desperate need of model leadership and guidance from the vast human capital that resides outside the country. It is ordinary Ethiopians at home who die for human, social and economic rights and freedoms. The rest of us can at least stand on their side. For this reason, I suggest that fragmentation must give way to cooperation, collaboration and solidarity in 2012.
In light of the adverse effects of fragmentation that emanates from ethnic, religious and rigid ideological outlooks and hidden agendas, it is reasonable to call on activist youth and civic groups to push for two sets of global conferences: one, consisting of only civic groups and well known community, spiritual and intellectual leaders that will discuss and agree on a shared definition of the problem Ethiopia faces; and to recommend a set of solutions going forward. Second, this civic group should then empower itself to call on all political parties–ideally, those within and outside the country and if not, those outside the country–to convene a global and all inclusive meeting on peace, national reconciliation and a democratic framework or future for the country. This conference should, in my view, invite international observers and extend the same to representatives of the governing party. Youth and women must feature prominent in both conferences. A civil democratic movement cannot be material with half the population (females) left out from the discourse. Those who presented their case vocally on the plight of domestic workers in the Middle East while revealing the lead causes that drove them there in the first place attest to the importance of inclusion of females and youth. This proposal may be taken up by the group identified earlier in section 11 above.

14. Let us resolve to institutionalize a strong global outreach program

As highlighted, the Diaspora possesses enormous intellectual, technical, professional and financial capital that it can deploy across the globe and make all of the above recommendations material and meaningful. At minimum, those of us abroad can leverage our collective resources to take the diplomatic offensive. I have little doubt that: if there is will and determination to serve the country and its diverse population; and if there is the discipline to build capacity at all levels and transfer this into the country, change is inevitable. The external would serve as a pivotal force in influencing the internal. No matter the number of isolated and scattered organizations and activities and no matter how hard individuals work, support to the change process in the country will not translate into results unless there is cooperation on a few common themes. One of these is to establish and implement a strong global outreach program to influence donors, NGOs, institutions of worship, foundations, and key governments that provide financial, material, intelligence and financial support to the Ethiopian government. This cannot be done with the current fragmentation of resources, talent and efforts. Civic groups are especially well suited to advance the cause of diplomatic leverage and to come up with a specific set of doable recommendations for success.

The strategic objective is not only to expose the governing party’s misdeeds. It is also about framing of alternatives going forward. Those within the opposition camp can persuade and shift international public opinion from the governing party to the Ethiopian people and support champions of freedom and democracy through sustained and well- coordinated lobbying. The outreach effort requires a trustworthy, dedicated and credible champion of human rights and individual freedom. I am aware of a couple of such champions with global credibility; and will disclose their names at the appropriate time and to appropriate persons or groups.

15. Let us set up mechanisms to mediate conflicts among civic groups in the Diaspora

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” There is no doubt that Ethiopian activists in the Diaspora spend their times, monies and expertise advancing the causes of the country and its people. They do them in numerous ways. These efforts are admirable but are incomplete.

Activists who agree on common themes and issues such as violation of human rights and the rights of women have no reason not to mobilize their resources and to stand together. Yet, there is ample evidence that shows that they do not. We all need to facilitate that they come together and work together now; and not in 2013 or 2014 or 2015 and so on.

In this connection, I suggest that we identify experts on conflict management and resolution to assist willing parties to come together for the sake of the common good. I know of a number of capable, independent and neutral professionals who can facilitate mediation for these and other groups in any part of the world. Those of us on the outside looking in can assist the process by encouraging activists to meet face to face; and to resolve their differences; to work together; and to speak with one voice. It is only then that they can make meaningful contribution to Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people as a whole. Activists cannot possibly expect civility from Ethiopian society until and unless they can be civil to one another first. It behooves each of us to respond to the cries of domestic workers in the Middle East for whom their government gives only leap service; to the thousands who are in the country’s dungeons; to millions who have died; and to those brave women and women who demand that we unite if we wish the democratization process.

Author can be reached at [email protected]