The hazards of merging party, state and ethnicity

By Aklog Birara, PhD

“The promises of ethnic-federalism were short-lived, and soon betrayed TPLF/EPRDF’s “divide and rule” strategy aiming at securing Tigreans’ political supremacy resulting notably in a pro-Tigrean public good allocation due to an excessive financial dependence of the federal regions on the central government”.

See, Y. Ghazi. Autonomy and Ethnicity: negotiating competing claims in a multi-ethnic state and M.A. Valfort, Ethical Altruism in a multi-ethnic developing country.

The hottest conversation in Ethiopia today is land: who owns it; and who does not? Who prospers from it and who becomes destitute? Who will have power and who will remain dependent? Who will have power and who will remain powerless and voiceless? In the realm of political economy, no public policy issue is more telling about governance than the land question for which hundreds and perhaps, millions of Ethiopians had sacrificed their lives. It was the most important driver of the 1974 popular revolution.

The right to own a piece of land in one’s own homeland — within the boundaries of the law–that can be developed, sold, exchanged, collateralized and passed on to children and so on is a fundamental human right. It gives meaning to citizenship and freedom. Its alienation undermines many rights, including the fundamental right to own private property that occupies physical space. Whatever its size or shape and whatever investment has been made on this physical space to improve it, alienating the roof and walls (the investment) from the physical space is an abrogation of public trust.

Contrast the land proclamation of the Socialist regime, 47/67 and the TPLF/EPRDF 721/2004 and examine the distinctions. The former erased tenancy. The later reinstates it big time. The former legalizes private ownership of a piece of urban land up 500 cm of physical space and ensures that the owner can develop, collateralize, sell, exchange and pass on the property to heirs. At minimum, Ethiopians felt that they had a stake in their natural resources: they had a home that they could call their own. In contrast, the TPLF/EPRDF transfers and legitimizes absolute ownership of urban lands by the ethnic-minority party. Under the former, a young Ethiopian would aspire to save, borrow and build a home of her or his own. Under the new law, this hope is dashed forever unless it is reversed or put for a referendum so that the Ethiopian people can make an informed decision.

The TPLF/EPRDF argues that it is translating the law so that there is standardization. Here is my question. Who is the standardization for and why? What is the social and economic motive behind a draconian law that does not make the Ethiopian people central to the development process? This leads me to the meaning of lease. By any definition, lease means rent. If there is rent; there must be a land lord that rents it. It means that the government is now de facto the new land lord that the Ethiopian people rejected in 1974. Below are the direct implications of the new proclamation however it is sugar coated:

a) The Ethiopian public is left out of the debate and the discussion.
b) The TPLF/EPRDF assumes all legal and economic responsibilities for the disposition of all lands in the country: values, market rates and decisions as to who can do what on land anywhere in the country.
c) The government decides how many houses, buildings; condos and so on can be built in the country. Only those in power, with connections can and will own real property. The regulatory environment will not be friendly or conducive for young people to own real property unless they belong to the selected club of new land lords. The cost of leased land will skyrocket to the point of making it virtually impossible to attain one’s dream. This will also be true for most of the hard working Diaspora that has no political connection to the TPLF. A home cannot be built in the air?
d) In light of the above, there is a direct connection between the alienation of ordinary Ethiopians from urban land ownership and violation of fundamental human and economic rights.
e) The new lease policy and massive land giveaways to foreign firms such as Karuturi and Saudi Star and Tigrean elites are directly interrelated. They emanate from the same ethnic political and social system.
The new urban land lease policy and rural land giveaways are intended to prolong the life of the regime and to make a selected few richer and power powerful. The consequences are potentially devastating. I will cite a few:

a) Ordinary Ethiopians are increasingly forced to be more dependent, more vulnerable and more subservient to the governing party than ever before.
b) Fundamental freedoms, a sense of justice and equity and a sense of belonging and citizenship are severely undermined.
c) The Ethiopian family, a key foundation of the society is degraded.
d) Private ownership of a home, an aspiration of all Ethiopians, especially those with education, will be less tenable.
e) Alienating Ethiopians from their homes erodes patriotism and a sense of belonging to the country; and is thus a security risk.
f) Ethiopian sense of citizenship is potentially eroded.

Unless the new proclamation is reversed and a serious study on urban and rural land initiated and offered to the Ethiopian people for discussion and consideration, large numbers of Ethiopians will be disenfranchised.

The further politicization of urban and rural lands for the benefit of the governing party and its domestic and foreign supporters is most likely to lead to public outrage that the governing party can only try to contain by force. It is hard for me to imagine that any party or any government anywhere in the world can claim that it can contain the anger and disenfranchisement of millions of citizens through the use of force. The TPLF generals and other high officials who build multimillion dollar homes in Bole or in Mekele or anywhere cannot hide from public scrutiny. The ordinary soldiers they command will never be in the same privileged position as the generals whose primary responsibility is to defend the country from external enemies and not to be part of a corrupt and repressive system that denies the Ethiopian people fundamental rights and freedoms. How long can such a system last?

Abrogation of fairness, justice and equitable access to the benefits of natural resources including urban and rural lands leads me to persistent and recurring violations of fundamental human rights by the TPLF/EPRDF. One needs to look at all violations in tandem. In its January 4, 2010 report on human rights, civil liberties and democratic freedoms in Ethiopia, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) identified a menu of policy issues and made 99 recommendations on human rights, civil liberties, the rights of children and women, gender equality, economic injustice, reduction in child and maternal mortality rates, hunger and malnutrition, the rights of marginalized communities, including minorities, the role of human rights organizations, poverty reduction, economic and social inclusion, political pluralism and competition, fair and equitable representation in decision- making, de-ethnicization of the political process and greater national integration to the Ethiopian government. A number of representatives emphasized the need for national integration, with a representative from an African country posing a query to the Ethiopian delegation to explain the “notion of nations, nationalities and peoples” contained in the Ethiopian constitution. Proclamation 721/2004 presents the law in the name of “nations, nationalities and peoples,” the façade of democracy. While the Ethiopian government acknowledged addressing many of the recommendations, there were 32 on which it disagreed. Top officials of the ruling-party are that much obstinate and rigid. The same attitude will prevail with regard to the new urban land lease.

One is struck and dismayed by the fact that officials rejected the most critical recommendations: elimination and de-politicization of ethnicity and a move toward socioeconomic and political inclusion, multiracialism, greater national integration and increased emphasis on national-oriented political parties and organizations that will give greater weight to the voices and rights of the Ethiopian people. The reluctance on the part of the Ethiopian government to de-politicize the political process and move from the fracturing, divisions, polarization and inequities associated with ethnic-governance and ethnic-federalism make the other agreements meaningless. The government cherry-picks only non-controversial and non-contested recommendations in order to appease the international community; and rejects substantial policy recommendations. It rarely chooses options that will make substantial difference to the Ethiopian people and the country in the short, medium and long-term. This cherry-picking in political culture has the ultimate effect of prolonging hard-core political, structural and policy issues that will keep the society in a constant state of friction and suspense. The new land lease does the same thing.

The setting-up of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) led by the ruling-party did not change the fundamentals facing the country. It is an appeasement strategy that downplays the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation which puts the burden of proof on the accused; and the civil society proclamation passed in January, 2009, characterized as one of the most “draconian” in the world. The implementation plan of the new urban land proclamation will end up the same. There will not be substantial changes that will, for example, grandfather those whose ownership rights were recognized under 47/67 (Dergue).

People talk about the constitutional provisions that protect land and other natural resource ownership by the government on behalf of the Ethiopian people. This is a paper exercise only. In reality, the single party state that has practically merged ethnicity, party and state functions as the sole owner of natural resources. It has assumed the meaning of “people.” Writing a law is not the same as implementing it. The governing party is the judge and jury: what is says goes. Look at provisions on human rights and the opposite actions in real life. Conceptually, one-third of the Ethiopian constitution is dedicated to civil liberties, human and democratic rights, social and economic justice and gender equality. These are all symbolic to appease public opinion. They have not been put into practice. The governing party introduced a constitution with promising features and has ignored to implement the core of its human and civil rights provisions. The EHRC has ended up serving the ruling-party than civil society. This is among the reasons why merger of party, state and ethnicity becomes most dangerous and the lead reason why political pluralism is critical. Dissent and political competition will challenge both a narrower power base and the possibilities of extracting or “raping the national economy and transferring the proceeds” to party-owned and endowed enterprises that the ruling-party believes belong to those that contribute to the so-called developmental state that the Prime Minister created. Political and economic competition and political pluralism pose a risk to this narrow power base to the economic monopoly which it supports and perpetuates. Depending on contestants, competitive elections are more likely to offer voters newer and better options. Economic competition would boost domestic competition and offer youth alternatives they desperately needs. It is in the absence of political competition and a strong civil society that the new urban land lease and rural land giveaways are taking place.

With better political and policy alternatives, citizens may have improved access to public goods and services such as education, health, shelter, sanitation, safe drinking water, tools, credits, markets, Internet, infrastructure and information. Without access to these and other public goods, the struggle to escape the poverty trap will be much harder to overcome and will take longer. For youth, access to education, training and employment and a home, is fundamental in order to improve their lives. For business women and men, access to urban lands, credits, information, licenses and permits to set up new enterprises, security to land to set-up a business or to expand an existing one, raw materials, and network of domestic and international markets are critical as is access to information. Effective merger of party, state and ethnicity (hereafter referred to as merger) has substantial adverse impacts in both the political and economic arenas. Merger allows a single minority ethnic party to issue a new urban land policy that, potentially, disenfranchises most Ethiopians from urban lands; as it has done all of the rural poor from security to farmlands.

Merger restrains free accesses to the social, economic and political processes in the country. Regardless of the endeavor, merger shuts or at least restricts citizens from opportunities and fulfilling their potential. Merger restricts mobility. Lack of opportunity for anyone or group would mean life trapped in endemic poverty, lower productivity, incomes and employment opportunities. For skilled and semi-skilled Ethiopians, it means leaving the country.

When merger deters political pluralism and a level playing field for all, it limits chances to improve political and social conditions that enhance freedom and capability. It arrests freedom and fair economic competition. Narrow interests tend to be single party-oriented and monopolistic. If and, when merger allows and reinforces single party rule and nepotism, favoritism, cronyism, and corruption at the cost of government impartiality, it becomes a burden for the entire society. It is an oppressor rather than a facilitator or enhancer of socioeconomic and political inclusion and fair play. Merger means minority ethnic single party rule and rewards for some and penalization for others. People lose confidence, give up hope and resign to a condition that things will not change no matter how hard they try. One must have grasped the inevitability that ethno-nationalism, minority ethnic-based political governance and ethnic-federalism perform best for the few as long as the society is devoid of institution-based separation of powers or checks and balances. At the political and economic levels the merger has had the adverse effect of government favoritism and lack of impartiality that erode the social fabric. The phenomenon puts in question the federal state’s credibility to play an impartial role in inducing social change equality. I suggest that it cannot.

The TPLF/EPRDF initiated political architecture of Revolutionary Democracy (RD) and ethnic-federalism has outlived their initial utility value. Initially designed to offer a political alternative to oppressed nations, nationalities and people (s) as defined by its architects, it has nether improved social or economic conditions. The ideology itself does not offer much insight into the creative genius of its founding fathers as the tenets were borrowed from Marxist ideology: the right of nations to self-determination, including secession incorporated into article 39 of the Federal Constitution. Equally, the values and principles that govern Revolutionary Democracy are residues of leftist ideology with limited relevance to the demands of the 21st century and building a modern multiethnic and unified national state. In order to accelerate growth and development, a multiethnic country requires greater social and economic integration, while allowing local autonomy. The current government has failed to act as legislator and regulator because it is a business owner (monopoly) which has lost moral claim to serve the common good.

The principal reason for the TPLF/EPRDF divide and rule strategy is its commitment to dominate national economic, financial and land resources by disadvantaging competitors. What appears to be theatrics fueling and feeding into the fears of Ethiopia’s diverse population, including members of the ethnic-minority led party and government, will be best understood if one delves deep into the financial, economic and social gains made by the ruling-party’s core: owners of its party affiliated enterprises and endowments and its ethnic-base. Grants of massive lands and accessed to loans and credits to generals so that they become owners and defenders of the party empire and longevity. Evidence shows that the single party state no longer serves the democratic rights and aspirations of the oppressed in the Afar, Gambella, Ogaden, Oromia and other regions. I am doubtful that it serves the poor of the Tigray region except psychologically. It does, however, offer more opportunities to Tigreans in all segments than to any other ethnic group in the country. It is certain that the ruling-party serves and protects narrow interests of an emerging, wealthy, exclusivist and largely ethnic-based capitalist class that is benefiting from the largesse of an authoritarian federal state. Marxist principles have now been substituted through pursuit of financial, economic and other material wealth. Asset accumulation is the new vogue. The top leadership that claimed moral justification to its power is now morally bankrupt: it is the most corrupt and exclusionary elite in the country’s history.

Dominating urban land is part of the strategy to dominate

In more than two decades, the pendulum has swung and singularly focused from consolidating political power to exercising hegemony over the banking, financial, infrastructural and natural resources of the entire country. Thus far, financial and economic gains by discouraging, pressuring, taxing delegitimizing potential competitors replicates the concept and practice of what is commonly called by experts as a zero-sum game. This is exercised by minority business, intelligence, military and bureaucratic ethnic- elite: the biggest beneficiaries. Some call this political elite capture. In Ethiopia, this political capture has now firmly established economic and financial capture at unprecedented levels.

The ‘you have no place here’ economy

Simply put, in order for a political elite to financial and economic gains from the public good, another or others must lose and must be excluded. Given finite financial, economic, land and other resources, command and control over such scarce goods are indispensable for sourcing wealth and creating assets–manufacturing, trade, land, infrastructural and social service sector enterprises as well as homes, buildings and lands. Merger of party, state and ethnicity strengthens the ability and capacity to possess the means to effect command and control over the commanding heights of the economy.

Changing the law and dictating proclamations that give legal legitimacy to single party command and control is part of the strategy. The fewer competitors there are the better for the party and its business allies and beneficiaries. The institutions of the state become instrumental in providing political legitimacy in merging entirely the party, state and ethnicity and blurring any distinctions between the merged state and endowments; and the commanding heights of the national economy. Any potential or money making asset including girls and babies are tradable commodity. This is the reason why urban land is so lucrative. Greater urbanization and specialization in the economy, makes land a source of both political power and greater wealth. In light of this, the governing elite push competitors out through a variety of instruments, including new laws and regulations.

Merger suffocates and stifles the emergence of a domestic (national) private sector

In order to understand the reason why there is a preponderance of party-owned and endowed enterprises that prove to be deterrents of equitable and rapid development, one needs to examine the nexus between the constitution, national resource acquisition and expropriation, allocation and asset accumulation for the privileged minority ethnic elite. The ruling-party manipulates the constitution, laws, regulations to influence policies and practices in accordance with its vision and goals. Suffocation of the Ethiopian private sector is a consequence of this well designed strategy bolstered by Prime Minister Meles’ thesis of the role of “the developmental state.” Political party-owned and endowed enterprises (PPOEs) receive their legitimacy from this nexus; as do endowments, generals and so on. The theory distinguishes these enterprises whose initial capital is hardly recorded and known from others. The ruling-party supports PPOEs as pro-development and others as corrupt and rent-seekers. PPOEs are never audited. The public k knows that initial capital was acquired by ‘looting the banking system’, through central government money transfers, diversion of foreign aid through contractual arrangements, savings or joint ventures. How is it for a general to own a multimillion birr building in Bole unless he is paid huge sums to defend the corrupt system to which he now belongs? Politics in Ethiopia today is big business. You acquire power by force and keep it by force. This is how you are able to change laws regularly and at will and impose on the Ethiopian people.

Given political power, the ruling-party feels justified in arguing that part owned and endowed entities should operate freely nationally while aborting or barring non-privileged firms from competition. Political authority allows the ruling-party to direct the economy as it wishes. This is where crowding-out the private sector and unfair competitive advantage for the privileged come-in. RD defines non-privileged entities as anti-revolutionary and untrustworthy. Given its exclusionary and monopolistic features, the developmental state is another term for party and endowment control. Why do I say this? It primary role now is to strengthen its narrow capacity; to act as agent of wealth for generals, party leaders and bureaucrats who implement policies as well as foreign and domestic allies.

Who does the developmental state develop?

The developmental state led by minority ethnic elite for an emerging and exclusionary largely minority ethnic business class has absolutely nothing to do with the welfare of civil society. The principle has nothing to do with development of communities, increasing productivity and making the country competitive and self-reliant. Why? The Ethiopian people do not feature prominent in the development agenda. It is as if they do not exist or matter. While the developmental state is statist in concept, it supports and defends the formation of a small modern domestic private sector effectively controlled and owned by party dominated and endowed conglomerates. It is the essence of what is commonly known as crony capitalism. This is a form of capitalism that advances growth without fair and transparent competition.

The dire situation of the banking system that is now burdened by at least 60 billion birr of debt without making a dent on the housing, unemployment, hunger, hyperinflation and other social crises while generating insane profits for a few attests to Ethiopia’s tragic economy. Amidst this incapacitating scene, a few reap the benefits of aid, deficit financing and land grab. For this reason, the system is neither sustainable nor equitable. It does not change the structure of the economy in meaningful ways. It disenfranchises the vast majority of the population and punishes future generations. I suggest that there is a great deal that those of us who believe in human dignity and hope can and should do. I have identified several in the series “why Ethiopians must unite and Ethiopians can indeed unite if they are willing.” There is no excuse anymore not do so to counter the assault on human dignity and freedom that we see with our naked eyes.

I leave you with a sobering thought from one of America’s leading thinkers and urge you to act now before it is too late.

What can and should we do?

Simply put, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom, must, like men, undergo the fatigue of supporting it.” Thomas Paine.

It is not hard to conclude from what is happening to Ethiopia and to Ethiopians that the opposition camp is not serving the purpose for which it exists. Regardless of its social, ethnic or ideological base, the opposition camp can no longer afford to dwell on the misdeeds of the governing party. We know more about the repressive party and its top leadership than the opposition camp that is still weak and divided. The former shows us what it does best and for whom. It proves time and time again that it forces us to follow its agenda and react. The urgent call is for those who wish the best for all of the Ethiopian people to set aside minor differences and operationalize the unity of purpose on which there is a general agreement: the pursuit of a just, inclusive, pluralist society in which the sovereignty of the Ethiopian people is central and the unity in diversity of the country is secure. It they do not do it now, history will judge them harshly and mercilessly. This is the reality.

At minimum, the Diaspora can come out of its shell and provide sustainable financial, diplomatic, technical, policy support to those within Ethiopia who struggle daily and “undergo fatigue” with the expectation of “reaping the blessings of freedom.” This goal does not come cheap; and will not be granted by anyone. It is the Ethiopian people who must fight for it. The rest of us who live in freedom can at least say no to division and anger with one another and head in the same direction.