Kilil system is an instrument of Ethiopian disenfrachisement – Part 4

Aklog Birara, PhD

“…the present regime’s ethnic based federal setup, which is designed along a liberal democracy trajectory, appears to be failing to produce the desired result” of “equitable share of power and resources.” In effect, it is a policy of “decentralization on paper and centralization in practice.”

Professor Merera Gudina

“There is increasing recognition that institutional and political economy factors are central to economic development. Many problems of development result from barriers to the adoption of new technologies, lack of property rights over land, labor and business, and policies distorting prices and incentives.”

Raj Nallari, Development Outreach, April 2011

In the previous commentary–ethnic governance and the mockery of free and fair elections in Ethiopia–I made direct correlation between minority ethnic governance and disenfranchisement for the rest of the population. The TPLF will never allow free and fair elections that will offer the Ethiopian people options and choices in policy and decision making for a fundamental reason: self-preservation and self or group economic interest. Changes in economic policies such as new urban land proclamations are always introduced to strengthen the reach of the governing party and to “enrich politically powerful elites who oppose rivals.” Denial of property rights in the form of urban and rural land is part of the process. These fundamental values that favor top members of the governing party and its allies force the government to use scarce resources at its disposal to build and shore-up a security and defense system that has no parallel in Ethiopia’s history. The spy ring at the lowest levels of societal life in urban and rural areas and almost all institutions including schools and in the Diaspora attests to the party’s determination to stay in power at any cost. The Diaspora demobilization strategy of the TPLF core is part of an integrated network of disenfranchisement and dispossession. Why would a governing party do this unless it is shackled by a fear factor?

In light of the above, potential options and choices that emanate from open multiparty competition may or could inevitably lead to the prospect of “equitable share in power and resources.” If and when this occurs, there is the prospect of reversals in policy and decision making that will undermine the political and economic hegemony of the Tigrean minority ethnic elite. In turn, this may lead to accountability, for example, of the billions of dollars stolen. Political governance is intricately and organically linked to the protection of a vast network of business interests and control of natural resources for the top leadership, the party’s endowments and the regime’s domestic and foreign allies. The facts speak for themselves.

The top leadership of the governing party knows what it is doing. It is the opposition camp that is unable to move forward with innovative ideas and pioneering organization and leadership and challenge it head on. The first step in the process is to recognize that the inherited mindset among political and social elites that justice, a semblance of democracy and equitable access to economic and social opportunities could be achieved through the lens of ethnic divide and not through national politics has failed the vast majority regardless of ethnic affiliation. I contend that the root ideology of this toxic inheritance emanated from external powers such as Arab governments inimical to Ethiopia and their surrogates such as the EPLF, the TPLF and OLF. Intellectual supporters of the EPLF and later the TPLF were masters at crafting theoretical arguments why Ethiopia should be kept weak, divided and devoid of national leaders at any level. The kilil system is an outcome of the process of divide and rule.

The EPLF core leadership was singularly determined to wipe out Ethiopian nationalists by pitying one group against another, often using the rational of ethnic or nationality oppression. Some fell into its trap and did its dirty work. The military junta led by Mengistu Haile Mariam preoccupied itself with naked power; made the arrogant assumption that military response can solve social and justifiable causes. In the process, it made the country more vulnerable, weaker and void of nationalist social capital. Hundreds of innocent lives were lost in the process. This enormous loss and flight of intellectual capital gave the EPLF, TPLF and others an edge to weaken the country even further.

The Military Dictatorship approved and or sanctioned the wholesale “murder” of an entire generation of the most experienced; and most seasoned Ethiopian leaders of the 20th century. It contributed to the de-institutionalization of Ethiopia in the name of a failed revolution. Further, this same junta played an instrumental role by sponsoring; supporting; and or condoning the mutual destruction of the country’s best and brightest through the “Red and White Terror” schemes that should have been and could have been avoided through wise political leadership at the top. Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose book generated curiosity recently, failed to display personal courage. He refused to accept responsibility for the atrocities he sponsored as head of government. His failure reinforces the arrogant position taken by Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian Prime Minister, who continues to violate the fundamental rights of Ethiopians regardless of ethnic affiliation.

In all cases perpetrated by the Military Junta, the beneficiaries were not the Ethiopian people; but the EPLF, TPLF and Ethiopia’s foreign adversaries. This tradition of anti-Ethiopian nationalism and nationally oriented human capital formation is now a core strategy deployed by the TPLF core. The TPLF core has retained the worst features of the regime it replaced. The governing party issues visas to nationalists, patriots and democratic activists to leave the country or sends them to jail. Unlike the regime it replaced, the TPLF government does not condone open killings in the streets. It is a silent killer. It does it in more “civilized ways.” Continuous exodus of the country’s human capital illustrates the fact that there are only two major options for those who dissent: stay and fight and go to jail and or leave the country peacefully.

During the height of the Eritrean conflict, many of us played into the machinations of the EPLF and later the TPLF and fought their proxy wars. We are now paying a huge price. Some of this unfortunate tradition persists. Whatever form of democracy we may wish for the country, we are unlikely to achieve it without rejecting this inheritance or implant from the past. Here is my concern. Many of us within the opposition camp continue to play to the same tune as the country’s rulers while expecting a different outcome. The TPLF core plays us against one another to do its dirty work the same way that the EPLF pitied us against one another. The demobilization of the Diaspora in churches, mosques, eating places, sports, schools and so on is in large part an indicator of our weakness and not a reflection of the strength and wisdom of the governing party and its advocates. It is unfortunate that those of us who live in freedom are silent, afraid or reluctant to challenge this continuous ethnic divide, demobilization and disillusionment? We seem to be gripped with fear the same way as those who live under the watch of a repressive system that spy on them daily. At least, they have reason. Why do we allow this to occur?

What makes us vulnerable abroad is that we are divided along ethnic, religious and ideological lines. It is as if we spy on one another and do not even know it. We surely know that, at the moment, ethnic-federalism bestows on the Ethiopian people the notion that they are a collection of ‘independent states’ and that they enjoy a modicum of freedom and autonomy that will lead them to eventual prosperity. Is this true? There as some folks who believe this; and we need to convince them why they should not. Here is the problem. By any definition, the kilil concept is separatist, retarding, adversarial and corruption-ridden and conflict prone. This is the essence of ethnic-federalism. If the kilil system is a collection of fragmented and separate states any one of which has the right to secede, it is more akin to Apartheid Bantustans than to the 50 states of the United States or to Tanzania or Indonesia or to Mauritius or to Ghana or to Malaysia or to India. The Bantustan system in South Africa accepted skewed distribution of wealth and incomes as a norm. In turn, this resulted in uneven development that is still persistent. The TPLF survives by making kilil an instrument of division rather than national cohesion and democratization for a smart reason. The kilil system weakens collective resistance while allowing the core ethnic elite and its allies to control natural resources and to make insane wealth on the back of the Ethiopian poor. It does this through fear and division.

Resistance to this retarding ideology can and should come from those of us who live in freedom. Lessons from the past suggest that it is only when we reach-out to one another; promote and build trust with one another; and cooperate with one another that we can resist our own demobilization; and serve as catalysts of change in the country we left behind. We live in countries that allow freedom of thought and encourage private ownership of property. Yet, we fail to challenge a system that violates both principles. The kilil system the TPLF core pursues is not only anti-national human capital; it is also anti-private property for the vast majority of Ethiopians.

The kilil system makes private property virtually unattainable

Most people establish the legal right to private property by acquiring or inheriting or leasing or buying urban land within established parameters and by building homes that he or she can afford to build on this land. Everyone has aspirations to own a home. This fundamental right of ownership is being undone by the governing elite that are determined to allow private property only for its elite members and foreigners and disallow same for the majority. Private property that is increasingly common in socialist market economies such as China is an anathema to the minority ethnic governing elite in Ethiopia for a good reason. People with private property and private assets are more likely to challenge it than people who are destitute. Here is the contradiction for everyone to see. None of today’s high income and high asset members and supporters of the governing elite can make rightful claim that they worked hard and produced goods to earn their riches. They are where they are because they control politics and economics. They became wealthy through redistributive power that bestows rent without productivity. It is within this context that one should consider the recent proclamation on urban land. It disenfranchises Ethiopians from owning private property in their own country. At the same time, it makes the governing party stronger than ever before. It denies ordinary Ethiopians the right to own, transfer and collateralize any personal property that is built on the land for good; while strengthening the prospect of more wealth and incomes for the few.

The minority ethnic elite that rules the country argues that all land and natural resources belong to the Ethiopian people. The party defines itself as representing, and in fact, being the Ethiopian people. The party is now the people. I suggested in previous works that the TPLF has effectively merged ethnicity, party and state into one. Its action now suggests that it has assumed the status of people. Merger of ethnicity, party and state suggests that Tigrean ethno-nationalism requires super-ordinate loyalty to a tribe (Tigrean) rather than to Ethiopia or to all nationality and ethnic groups in the country. The government and state operate on behalf of a minority ethnic elite. It is this merged state that the ruling party says represents the entire country and its 90 million people.

There is no contest that ethnicity, party, state and people are practically merged into one. What does it mean in practical terms? It means that the governing elite defines the term people as it wishes; decides on who belongs and who does not as it wishes; legislates who owns private property and who does not as it wishes; facilitates who leaves the country and who stays as it wishes; and regulates who becomes rich and who remains poor as it wishes; and condones who steals and get away with it as it wishes. There is no challenge to its verdict even when the lives millions are at stake. It is this draconian.

The governing elite alienate land from private investments on the land. Here is the implication for this and the coming generation. A young woman or man, who goes to school and works hard, saves and plans to build a home, cannot aspire to do so under the new system. When the new proclamation takes effect, only the rich and super rich can and will build homes, villas and mansions. If you wish to look at it from an ethnic lens, an ordinary Tigrean who is poor or even works as a soldier or small bureaucrat can only gaze at a mansion in Mekele and wonder who owns it and how. The same is true in Gondar or Bahir Dar or Awassa or Jima or Harrar and so on. The rich will have the right to transfer and collateralize. The poor would have the right to gaze at the glitz and ask how? The Ethiopian people have no say or stake in their national resources including urban and rural lands. This is what experts call alienation and disenfranchisement. In summary, the minority ethnic government and state it leads has become the new landlord. Everyone is reduced to serfdom.

The parallel to the urban land crisis is yemeret neteka ena kirimit in rural areas where the new landlords are Indians, Saudis, Chinese, Egyptians and others from outside; and the few chosen Tigreans from the inside. The government says that it is standardizing land leases. In my estimation, standardization is a cover. The real motive is to make sure that Ethiopians do not own substantial property. Why? Ownership of private property and economic independence enhances freedom. Freedom advances accountability. The well to do and the less dependent would be in a position to challenge the current system. It is far easier to order and rule the poor than the prosperous. Just think of the reality the poor face on the ground that compounds the problem even further. The glitz of villas, condos and mansions that dot the country should never mask the dire situation the vast majority endures each day. The glitz in construction that employed thousands is now completely stalled. This has led to more unemployment and homelessness in cities and towns. Take a look at the statistics and ask whether or not the current system would solve a looming national social crisis. The fact that some ethnic elite members at regional levels are better off under the current regime misses the point entirely. Has the wellbeing of the majority in kilils where allies thrive changed substantially? The data says no.

Fifty two percent of the population earns less than a dollar a day; just below the poverty threshold of US$1.25. Statistics do not lie. UN estimates put stunting of children at 55 percent. The economic cost to the country from stunting alone is estimated at US$ 2 billion per annum. Malnutrition at 57 percent is one of the highest in Africa. Three percent of Ethiopians are retarded; more than one million are blind; and about one million lives are lost due to vitamin deficiencies. In 2011, close to 7 million Ethiopian children were identified as orphans. Maternal mortality, one of the leading causes for the high orphan rate, is among the highest in the world. Human trafficking and especially of girls has risen at an alarming rate as has adoption. Both are multimillion dollar businesses. The country’s largest export is human capital.

Ninety percent of these and other major diseases and social ills that take away millions of lives are systemic and preventable. These diseases and other social and economic indicators of multidimensional poverty illustrate the dire situation that the vast majority of Ethiopians face whether they live in Addis Ababa, Dire Dawa, Afar, Gambella, Beni-Shangul Gumuz and SNNP, Oromia or any other kilil. It is this reality too that should push all opponents to set aside minor differences and take the regime to task. If opponents cooperate, the regime would have no leg to stand on.

It is against these dreary statistics that Ethiopia’s miraculous growth should be gauged. The same social and economic indicators by the UN system present a troubling picture of the rural economy where 85 percent of the Ethiopian people live and work. Seventy-six percent of the country highland croplands are degraded. Experts estimate that each year, 200,000 ha of farmland are degraded. This too is preventable through extension services, better technology, education and training, land tenure security and so on. I have argued in Waves that Ethiopian farmers including women are among the hardest working people on this planet. With better inputs, adult literacy, improved infrastructure and markets, tenure security, access to more lands, conservation efforts and so on, agriculture offers Ethiopia its singular potential comparative advantage source.

The debatable double digit growth claimed by the Ethiopian government seems to have ignored the rural segment of the population completely. Rural farmers and others have not fared any better under this growth than urban dwellers, government employees, small traders and shopkeepers and other small enterprise owners. In fact, they seem to be in the same boat: just coping each day and barely surviving. I recall a farmer in Harrar who said that he is worse off now than he was before. Why? His family has been reduced to eating one or two meals a day; from three meals a day before the current economic boom. Some experts argue that income for ordinary civil servants, retirees, the middle class, shopkeepers and rural people have in fact declined substantially. At the same time, a few at the top have made a killing from the economic boom. A rental economy allows this anomaly.

If you believe as I do that the rural sector is the backbone of the national economy and possesses substantial potential for further productivity, it behooves us to shed our ethnic garbs and reject the kilil system. Why? It deters social cohesion, mobility, domestic market integration, and sustainable, equitable and integrated development. The country is unable to feed itself and make poverty history not because of lack of natural resources or people; but because of poor economic and natural resource management. The kilil system contributes to this abnormality.

There are a number of reasons for this condition. Land tenure insecurity is among the lead causes for low productivity. Intensification and diversification have not taken hold. Farmers suffer from low inputs. The farming population is clustered or “concentrated” (a term used by a colleague), on 12 million ha of lands. Each farming family consists of an average of 6 persons and farms less than half ha of land. It is predictable that small plots of land cannot support larger numbers of people without substantial technological and cultural innovation. With a few exceptions, smallholders do not receive the kind of input that triggered agricultural revolutions in South and East Asia. Inputs such as better seeds, credits, fertilizers and lands are dictated by loyalty to party rather than merit and national productivity need.

In a country with millions who are either land poor or landless, the governing party’s giveaway of millions of ha of the most fertile farmlands and water basins to Indian, Chinese, Egyptian and Saudi and other foreign firms and governments and domestic allies is, to say the least, unjust and unfair. Given the types of investment agreements made without public discussion and local community consent, it is entirely unclear what benefit the country and local communities gain. For this reason, land giveaway is tantamount to compromising the country’s source of comparative advantage. It undermines citizenship and ownership and degrades the wellbeing and security of rural families. Evidence in the country (in the late 1960s and early 1970s) and other successful economies where smallholder revolutions have taken place shows that Ethiopia’s varied climate and varied crops offer enormous possibilities to scale up and transform agricultural production to unprecedented levels. This can only happen through smart and deliberate government policies and public participation.

Empowered and equipped with new technologies and inputs and given tenure security, smallholders and the Ethiopian private sector can eliminate hunger altogether. This will not occur as long as land tenure is politicized to serve the governing party. De-politicization would-I am convinced-lead to an Ethiopian smallholder revolution. This is the key to agricultural productivity and to the elimination of abject poverty. Experts estimate that if the current system persists, 50 percent of Ethiopia’s growing population will go hungry by 2020–less than 8 years. Tenure security is therefore a matter of survival. Opponents cannot afford to let this happen. They must champion empowerment.

It is absurd to imagine—unless we let it—that the current repressive and corrupt system would last under these conditions. Everywhere one looks; there are pockets of popular dissent and protest: Oromia, the Ogaden, Gojjam, Gambella, Silte in the Shoa sub-region and others, colleges students and domestic workers in the Middle East. What do they share in common? All of them cry out for justice. They do it in isolation from one another because the kilil system is designed to punish or contain them in isolation from one another. In light of this continuous phenomenon I suggest that any dissident who is not ready and willing to respond to these nation-wide cries cannot blame the governing party and sit back. He or she has a moral duty to respond through concrete action by cooperating with one another. Action requires that we accept the simple notion that, no matter the level of oppression, punishment and disenfranchisement–done in deliberate isolation–the Ethiopian people will not accept their status as tenants and as passive recipients of brutality, punishment and injustice for long. The question then is where we stand on these seemingly isolated protests and dissent?

Socioeconomic data is useful for a sound reason. It is ethnicity and religious or demographic blind. Every Ethiopian wants to own something that she or he can claim as her or his own. A small hut or tukul is as private as a mansion. This takes me back to the recent urban land proclamation that reinforces my plea for greater cooperation among opponents regardless of ethnic affiliation and past history. The regime allows and dismisses localized incidents and people’s calls for justice intentionally and deliberately as simple or as triggered by “terrorist groups and external enemies.” The kilil system and culture are conducive for this to happen. Kilil elites defend the system with a passion that defies reason. Do not blame them. They are part of the system that sustains them. Information and knowledge is not shared. It is natural that people do not react to remote incidents because these do not affect them directly and immediately. The phenomenon suggests that threads of commonality that bind people together as citizens (Ethiopians) rather than as religious and ethnic enclaves are undermined. Restrictions on press freedom make matters worse.

Here is my socioeconomic argument. A home cannot be built in thin air. Ordinary Ethiopians understand fully that their alienation from owning land, transferring land to their children, collateralizing land to borrow, and selling their property to upgrade or downgrade is unjust and unfair. People understand fully that land giveaways to foreign investors and preferred elites will not serve them or the country. Rather, it disenfranchises them; and forces them to move from their ancestral homes. These governing party policies and programs are therefore an abrogation of fundamental economic and social rights of ordinary Ethiopians that will affect all in the long-term. Can you imagine that anything of value can be built without land? A home or any other physical asset that is anchored on this earth does not float in thin air.

The governing elite tell us that in Ethiopia, it does. It forces people to accept this as a norm without public debate. What the party says is literally gospel. It does this in the political arena as much as it does in the economic and social arena. In a country where corruption is endemic, those with wealth are able to transfer out billions illicitly: US$11.7 billion between 2000 and 2008 and US$3.26 billion in 2009 alone. No big thief has been charged and sent to jail. The kilil system is well suited for corruption to take place at a massive scale. It seems to be the only way to gain wealth. Even those who love their country move their money out because they are unsure of the future.

Endemic corruption emanates directly from a system of minority ethnic elite and will not stop unless the kilil system–that gives a semblance of democracy for the elite–changes. Therefore, the key is not what the minority ethnic elite think or do. It is what those who oppose it think and act against this absurdity in government policy and programs that make the vast majority of Ethiopians subservient tenants and poor; and that allows the elite to steal billions from one of the two poorest countries in Africa.