Ethnic federalism undermines national cohesion: commentary

Aklog Birara, PhD

“They gave the land and we took it. This is green gold.”
Karuturi on land grab in Gambella

“The government is killing our people through starvation and hunger…We are dying here with our children. Government workers get their salary, but we are just waiting to for death.”

An Anuak Elder to Human Rights Watch

Anyone who has read the latest Human Rights Watch investigative report on land grab (yemeret neteka ena kirimit) in Gambella under the title “Waiting for Death” should have no doubt that the governing party is callous and does not place value on human life. The people of Gambella who are being moved or relocated “forcibly” are citizens and humans who deserve fair treatment like any human being on this planet. It is their citizenship that is being robbed from them and from their children by repressive ethnic elite that has aligned itself with loyal domestic and foreign investors such as Saudi Star and Karuturi. Shouldn’t this latest report on social, economic, cultural, political and psychological violations of citizens in Gambella and other regions where similar occurrences are taking place enrage and mobilize us? If such violations do not lead to convergence, what would? My plea to the reader is this. Land and water resource transfers to domestic allies and foreign investors in the name of development that do not show immediate and long-term benefits to the people of Ethiopia, and especially to so called indigenous or local inhabitants and at an immense cost to citizens is a travesty. This, in itself, should compel us to close ranks and cooperate and collaborate for justice and freedom.

I want to start this commentary with a rationale of why I am doing a series on ethnic based political organization and governance—the current well-crafted geopolitical architecture of the TPLF/EPRDF. It seems to me that each and every one of us who believes in the enormous potential of our country of origin and its diverse population has a moral obligation to identify and articulate the reasons why Ethiopia is still one the five poorest countries in the world with a per capita income in 2011 of US$350 compared to the Sub-Saharan African average of US$1,070. As important, we are obligated to reflect on why and what type of change we would like to see in Ethiopia that will serve and benefit all Ethiopians left out by the so-called economic boom since the thwarted elections of 2005. I have suggested that if we want to see change, we must overcome minor differences, agree on a minimum agenda and deliver for the Ethiopian people. The time for action is now and not tomorrow. Eshie nege (yes tomorrow) will not advance the cause of peace, national reconciliation, justice and the rule of law and the sovereignty of the Ethiopian people. It will prolong the agony that ordinary Ethiopians face: hyperinflation, unemployment, human flight, human rights violations. In short, it will perpetuate disenfranchisement.

Those of us outside the country possess the knowledge, diversity of experience, financial and material resources and technical tools to advance change if we are committed, willing and ready. I am not at all convinced that we are there. If we were, we would have contributed immensely in advancing the process of change by supporting grassroots and home-based individual activists, civic organizations and political parties that advance a common national agenda and or force others to do the same. These series of articles are intended to provide conceptual underpinnings or reasons behind the current disenfranchisement and powerlessness felt by the majority of the Ethiopian people regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation, gender or age.

Powerlessness and resource mismanagement

Have you ever asked yourself or your friend or anyone why the TPLF/EPRDF led government gives away millions of hectares of the most fertile farmlands and waters basins for literally nothing and for up to 100 years to domestic allies and foreign investors? Have you ever posed for one second to reflect on the long-term implications of these national resource transfers for this and coming generations? If land is “green gold,” why would any government grant it for almost nothing as if it has no social, economic, psychological, security and political value? What system allows for this to occur and why? Let me summarize a few fact contained in my latest book, “The Great land giveaway: yemeret neteka ena kirimit” and link it to the ethnic elite architecture that allows this to happen without challenge. Why is there no challenge? It is because ordinary people are denied their fundamental right to vote for and elect their representatives and leaders.

In April 2011, the Reporter newspaper presented an investigative piece on land grab and validated that the Federal Government has slated, promised or granted “3,638, 415 ha” of the most fertile farmlands and water basins, primarily to foreign investors from 36 countries. The same article noted that regions had turned over another 2,000,000 ha of lands to the Federal Government to allocate as it sees fit. A break down by Ato Wudineh of the Reporter showed that 1,149,000 ha of these giveaways are in Beni-Shangul Gumuz and 1,800,000 ha in Gambella, among the poorest regions in the country. Experts estimate that by 2015, the amount of lands given away will reach at least 7,000,000 ha. Smallholders farm less than half an acre and support a family of at least 6 persons. Ethiopian smallholders are the backbone of the national economy. Studies show that 4/5 (75 percent) of smallholders manage to produce and feed the bulk of Ethiopia’s population from 12,000,000 ha. In other words, smallholders are the ones that feed millions; and not large foreign owned commercial farms. Imagine what smallholders could do if there was a deliberate policy to help them modernize their farms; if they had security to the lands they farm and so on. Karuturi of India and Saudi Star of Saudi Arabia and other Middle East sponsored countries are the lead beneficiaries of the largesse. This is why Karuturi calls Ethiopia’s fertile farmlands “Green gold.” Access to land defines power. In current Ethiopia, it firms such as Karuturi and Saudi Star and loyalists to the TPLF and its allies that have power.

Here, I will not dwell on the pros and cons of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in commercial farms in Ethiopia except to provide two examples showing that the policy is utterly flawed. First, the government argument that these transfers will generate substantial employment for Ethiopians does not hold. Research by the Oakland Institute, Grain and others shows that each ha of land grant or sale or lease generates 0.005 employments. It means that the government would have to grant millions of ha to generate employment opportunities for thousands. Making matters even worse, Karuturi wishes to bring in and employ Indians to farm Ethiopian lands. Second, the government’s rationale that giveaway—that lacks preconditions or favorable conditions for Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people will bring in new technologies is not based on facts. Here is the problem. The country’s domestic investors with monies are doing everything within their power to take their capital out of the country as do officials with money. The indicator is massive illicit outflow that I have discussed in detail in earlier commentaries.

Why is there massive capital outflow from one of the poorest and capital starved or deficient countries in the world? I suggest that national investors do not trust their own government. They do not have confidence in the future. They are essentially voting with their monies against the regime. In other words, they do not trust or have confidence in the future of the economy. If they did, they will invest domestically and boost employment and productivity. On the other hand, large-scale commercial farming for Karuturi, Saudi Star and others is lucrative. Profits can me made relatively quickly and proceeds taken out of the country. Foreign investors have little incentive to spread technology, modern management practices and know-how to Ethiopian smallholders or the domestic private sector. Why would they create national competitors when they can dominate the large commercial farming sector for up to 99 years? Capitalism does not work that way whether it comes from China, India or Saudi Arabia. Third, the government argument that Ethiopia will achieve food self-sufficiency and food security through FDI is not borne by facts. Karuturi said over and over again that his firm is under no obligation to set aside sizeable quantities of the produce for the domestic market. This will not change unless the government changes the conditions in favor of the country and its starving millions.

These three examples lead me to pose a question to the reader. How is it possible for these flaws in government policy that undermine potential ownership of the means of production by Ethiopians and national productivity for Ethiopians to occur? Let us ignore my own research and findings that are documented in my latest book and look at what foreign observers say how this happens. In her “The Great land grab,” Rene Lefort highlights the following themes on the subject.

• Land defines citizenship
• Land is a source of power, wealth and corruption
• Land is used as a diplomatic leverage

These are among the reasons why the TPLF/EPRDF led government is the “world’s champion of land grab.” Have you ever wondered how a regime that claims to adhere to Revolutionary Democracy becomes a prime champion of unfettered capitalism? Have you ever wondered why a government leadership that accuses the private sector of rent seeking behaviors becomes the largest rent seeker in the country’s history or of any forward looking government in the 21st century? “They gave the land and we took it. This is green gold” did not happen by chance. It happened by invitation. Political elite does not invite a foreign guest to take away prime property without a motive. Here is one irony the reader needs to consider.

Today, the state or shall I say, the governing party is the dominant land lord in the country. Recent changes in urban land legislation indicate that the leadership is determined to alienate Ethiopians from private ownership of wealth and wealth making assets such as urban and rural lands. It does this while granting millions of ha to domestic allies and foreign investors.

These transfers and ownerships are effective forms of privatization for a selected few; and deprivation for the vast majority of Ethiopians. This is why Lefort argues that land “defines citizenship and is a source of power and wealth.” She explains rightly that the reason why land grab is so easy in Ethiopia is because of the preponderance of the TPLF ethnic core elite over politics and economics. “Ethiopia is de facto ruled by a “monolithic party-state.” This “monolithic party-state” is the TPLF core ethnic elite. It is these elite that make land farm colonization by invitation possible and doable. Land is the single most important source of political, financial and economic power in Ethiopia today. “Most of what was left over (after graft, corruption and giveaway) has been pocketed by little oligarchy under the protection of the merged party state.” This “oligarchy” is now pronounced and pervasive throughout the country, consuming billions of birr in administrative expenses through the Federal system.

Alarmed by the dispossession of Ethiopians, an Indian Economist told Al Jazeera that “foreigners have more power than Ethiopians” in their own home country. Ordinary Ethiopians are both “powerless” in terms of policy and decision making; and are helpless in terms of access to economic and social opportunities. Power has shifted dramatically to both ethnic elites and to firms such as such as Karuturi and Saudi Star.

I suggest then that the ethnic based political and administrative system that divides and pities Ethiopians among one another facilitates these national resource transfers with unprecedented ease; to powerlessness; and to the transfer and ownership of other pillars of the economy by small ethnic elite and foreign investors. In the 21st century, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) does not operate by itself. It requires the support and protection of government officials. The reader would have to question the tiny ethnic elite that rule the country by force whether it has an appreciation of the long-term implications of these giveaways that emanate from poor, repressive and discriminatory governance. What is clear to me and many detached foreign and domestic observers is this.

By any definition, governance under “monolithic” ethnic elite is exclusionary in its political, social and economic manifestations. The TPLF has virtually merged party, state ethnicity into one. Its economic policies and programs lean toward monopolistic practices and group and individual interests with affinity to the ruling-party.

As a result, this type of governance has prevented and will continue to impede fair and democratic competition. In assessing ethno-nationalism and the alliances that helped it to succeed, the ruling party’s current cohort of non-Tigrean elite and foreign supporters may not care deeply enough to leverage their considerable financial, material and diplomatic powers to break monopolistic practices. It is largely stability they want. This is especially true for foreign governments and investors.

The reality of existing strong relations between the leadership of the ruling party and its cohort of global supporters has placed the burden of peaceful change toward pluralist politics and genuine devolution or decentralization of power to civil society, communities, ordinary Ethiopians, domestic opposition groups and the Ethiopian people a whole. Those of us outside the country can do a great deal to build the capacities of these grassroots groups within the country. In the long-term, the nurturing and strengthening of a pluralist, inclusive and indigenous political culture could only come from the experiences and contributions of the Ethiopian people and their supporters. This view is hardened by the fact that, ethno-nationalism and ethnic federalism have survived for 21 years with no end in sight leaving no room for being lax in pursuing multiethnic and unified politics.

Despite this need for convergence among opponents to the regime, there are still two opposing and contrasting schools of thought: those who do not see much hope in peaceful change argue that the only option the ruling-party understands is armed struggle or violent change; and the second school that argues that peaceful and nationwide struggle has not been explored, developed and used fully. I believe in the latter; but see the merit of why some argue and defend the former. They key is to arrive at a shared understanding of the problem; come up with a national agenda for change; and initiate actions.

Simultaneously, those of us on the outside can do much more than we are doing on the diplomatic front.
Almost all foreign development experts agree that Ethiopia needs structural and policy reforms if it wishes to accelerate economic productivity, increase employment and incomes and reduce poverty. None that I am aware of suggests that Ethiopian can advance its reform agenda through continued civil unrest, polarization, dissension and civil wars. Experts believe that the non-peaceful route to policy and structural reforms will be a costly option in multiple ways. One does not have to dwell on the subject and contribute to the tradition of quarreling elites.

Ethiopians do not deserve continued repression and violation of human rights. The country paid a heavy price in its development efforts as consequences of civil turmoil, insurgencies, terrorism, instability, civil wars and bad governance. The notion of continued conflicts to achieve a democratic transition is debatable at best and reckless at worst. So is continuation of the status quo under a single ethnic-based minority ruling party? Conflicts are not likely to create a democratization culture and the infrastructure that will accommodate competing interests. The option ignores vested interests that have emerged over the past two decades, including members of the TPLF/EPRDF. Ethnic elites allied to the EPRDF have a vested interest in the status quo. They must be persuaded that the current system is not in their best interest long-term. We must reach out to them and suggest that “gursha” or whatever is left over is not the same as the real thing. More critical, we must show that the people they represent are left out of the development process. Leaving them out is trouble.

There is a further point the reader should keep in mind. Conflicts and instability are enormously costly. I will provide one example of using the depletion of human capital as a consequence of ethnic and other forms of conflict in Africa to strengthen the deliberate de-institutionalization by the TPLF core argument I advanced in my latest book. During what is called the era of Dictatorship of all sorts in Africa and the “Lost Decade of the 1980s,” more than 100,000 of the most talented and well trained Africans left their countries and immigrated. Some countries have not recovered from the social capital loss. Ethiopia’s Diaspora started during the Socialist Dictatorship and expanded under the TPLF/EPRDF dictatorship. Today, this dictatorship sees the Diaspora is a potential threat and opportunity. It has a well crafter program to de-mobilize the Diaspora, penetrating faith groups, enticing some to invest in a country full of corruption, nepotism and bureaucratic hurdles where merit and hard work do not count.

In sum, ethnic based governance and conflicts are enormously costly for the country and its people. Continued conflict will not nurture peace and national reconciliation in the medium and long-term. On the contrary, conflicts and ethnic polarization will perpetuate animosities and ethnic based hatreds that the society cannot afford. Conflicts will also strengthen the determination of the ruling-party to prolong a single party state and will make the country more and more vulnerable to external threats. It will keep the country poor.

The question then is whether or not the ruling-party has shown any willingness and readiness to move forward with free, fair, open, transparent and competitive elections and gain the confidence and trust of the Ethiopian people. If one believes in option one–a peaceful election is possible–one needs to assess the preconditions for success. One would also need to define what the election will be about. Elections are not simply about going through the motion of the ballot box and winning. It is about building the infrastructure and institutions that will make the Ethiopian people masters of their own destiny. To have real meaning, any election must allow debate and discussion on fundamental policy concerns, including the type of federalism the country needs. The future must result in real change in culture and attitudes. Here is why opponents need to collaborate much more now than in the past; and leave aside the bitterness and quarrel that be devils them.

I am not aware of the ruling-party’s readiness to allow public debate of policies. Even if it does not, the democratization process must continue and political leaders and supporters must find innovative tools to strengthen institutionalization. Debates and other instruments must debunk the myth that ethnic-federalism is pluralist or democratic. When Ethiopian citizens see democratic alternatives, as was the case in the 2005 elections, they will respond and take charge. This will put the ruling-party on the defensive. The more defensive it is the better for the democratization process. This requires a new and post ethnicity cadre of political and social leaders who believe in a unified and democratic Ethiopia that will accommodate everyone’s interest. Ethiopian centrality will not survive without accommodating the hopes and aspirations of all its diverse citizens. It is political wisdom 101 to accept this notion. A bunker mentality on any side will not help the country. It is being clueless to timeless wisdoms such as one from Charles Darwin who had said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, or the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Political wisdom is readiness and willingness to change. It is political parties and leaders who respond to new requirements and changes who will make a difference.

To be continued.