Medrek’s Path to Unity and Charisma

By Messay Kebede

Since the fall of the Derg and the capture of state power by the EPRDF, there has been a consensus on the need for a strong opposition party to counter the hegemony of the ruling party. The consensus includes the understanding that the basic condition for a strong rival party is unity over policy matters and organizational strength and that its viability depends not only on criticizing the ruling party, but also on proposing a better alternative policy. Though the alternative force need not be monolithic, the consensus admits that there must be an agreement on the major issues of economic development, state organization, the rights and duties of the people, and the separation of state powers.

Despite the obvious nature of the stated conditions, it proved particularly difficult to engineer a strong united opposition party, mainly because the opposition originated from various groups which, on top of having disparate interests and ethnic affiliations, were little prone to trust each other. Even so, Kinijit, a semblance of united party, emerged in 2005 and competed successfully against the ruling party. Unfortunately, both the repressive reaction of the ruling party and internal dissensions fractured the unity and brought about its end.

Soon after the debacle of Kinijit, another attempt to create a united opposition was undertaken and resulted in the creation of Medrek. The latter promised to learn from the mistakes of Kinijit by moving toward unity gradually and on the basis of explicit agreements reached through democratic compromises. One basic agreement was the rejection of the clause of the EPRDF constitution granting ethnic groups the right to secede. The removal of the clause meant that Medrek cemented its unitary goal by a clear commitment to Ethiopian unity.

Besides denouncing the anti-democratic, corrupt, and repressive nature of the ruling party, Medrek proposed the institutional protection of the rights of citizens and, in the hope of countering dictatorial tendency, even suggested that the leader of the nation must not serve more than two terms. Another policy change concerned Eritrea: Medrek rejected the Algiers agreement, reaffirmed the port of Assab as an Ethiopian territory, and pledged to explore all available peaceful means to recover the port.

Yet, despite all these noticeable achievements, we all knew that Medrek was far from being a strong and united party. In effect, its performance in the 2010 election was abysmally poor. While much of its failure is rightly attributable to the repressive policy of the EPRDF, its inability to include all opposition parties, notably the relatively powerful All Ethiopian Unity Party, the perceived fragility of its unity, and its incapacity to force the regime to guarantee a level playing field were not negligible contributions to its electoral fiasco.

The good news is that we are told that Medrek has transited from coalition to the higher stage of front and is now targeting the final stage of complete unification. However, faithful to its prudent policy, it wants to accomplish its ultimate goal without precipitation and is working hard to resolve the remaining important but contentious issues. Sadly, a glance at the remaining issues shows that Medrek is still far away from becoming a strong and united party. Some such lag calls for nothing else than a review of the method and principle of unification in view of the fact that unification alone can lift Medrek to the level of a serious rival to the EPRDF, assuming that the latter has any lasting future after the demise of Meles. In the case that the EPRDF explodes, the unification is all the more necessary to stand up to the disintegration forces that the implosion would certainly unleash.

According to Gebru Asrat’s recent speech to the Ethiopian community in Atlanta, the contentious points are the following: (1) the issue of land ownership: even if Medrek affirms that land belongs to the people, as opposed to the EPRDF’s position defending state ownership of land, there is as yet no agreement on the right to sell land; (2) whereas federal structure with autonomous regions is a shared idea, the criteria for the demarcation of regions remain litigious. In other words, some members of Medrek defend the present ethnic delineation of regions while others advocate the use of different criteria.

There is no denying that these contentions are serious: one does not see how Medrek can unify if genuine and wholeheartedly accepted solutions are not provided. More importantly, the contradictory nature of the contentions throws doubt on the sincerity of the agreement already reached. Indeed, it is inconsistent to say that land is owned by the people without these same people having the right to do whatever they like with the land, including the right to sell it. What is ownership if it is not the right to sell, exchange, mortgage, and pass on? As to ethnic federalism, once the principle of national unity is unconditionally endorsed, it is contradictory to argue in favor of regional arrangements that weaken the unity. On the contrary, regional organization must be such that it enforces unity while at the same time ensuring autonomy to regions. It must be decentralization without however nurturing separate identities and exclusiveness.

The solution to the problem requires first of all an ideological change, the very one moving away from the ethnonationalist stand of the TPLF. The attempt to unite groups that see themselves as separate and autonomous entities reduces unity to an agglomeration, a mere sum of disparate elements, which can only be an appearance of unity. Instead, we should begin with unity and see the various groups as internal differentiations, the outcome of which is that unity becomes organic. In so being, the relationship turns into that of parts to the whole and is based on the interdependence of the parts at the expense of their separate selfhood.

The interdependence of the parts means that the whole–in this case the federal state–becomes the common good, that by which all regions benefit, thereby ceasing to be an abstract entity soaring above the component parts. Interdependence means also cooperation between regions yielding mutual benefits. Obviously, the way to obtain this kind of dependence is to adopt a principle of regional organization set on efficiency and practicality. What I want to explain is that in no way does the principle contradicts or negatively affects the purpose of the existing regional demarcations; it just makes them more efficient and democratic. Let me explain.

One of the problems of ethnic federalism, as designed by the TPLF, is the disproportionate nature of the existing ethnic states. The disproportion, essentially caused by the relatively huge size of Oromia and the Amhara region, creates imbalance, which imbalance provokes an unhealthy competition for the capture of the federal power between groups claiming to represent important ethnic groups. Naturally, the competition is perceived as a threat by minority groups. Thus, not only is the imbalance preventing democratic interrelations between various groups, but it is also a constant menace to national unity. The existence of two disproportionally vast and self-sufficient regions is a constant incentive for secessionist or hegemonic tendencies.

Since democracy presupposes equality, no federal arrangement can work democratically so long as there is no parity between the various regions. The breakup of Oromia and Amhara region into smaller units is, therefore, a requirement of democratic federalism. The whole point is to convince well-intentioned leaders from both sides that the breakup is in the best interest of the people they represent.

The ability of ethnic regions to defend their interest will not be diminished if opposition parties reach the consensus that no national leaders will be elected and no law will be enacted unless a majority of regional states support them. The agreement decreases the importance of the bulky regions since it requires their representatives to enlist the support of smaller regions to advance their agenda. Put otherwise, making elections and legislations dependent on the support of regional states, and not on size or the number of people, endows smallness with attractive traits. If size ceases to grant political importance, the common sense choice is to agree to a principle of regional organization that favors efficiency and democratic answerability.

The suggestion does not go against the present principle of linguistic demarcation of ethnic states. Nor does it dispute their right to self-rule. It just asks, in the name of democracy and equality, that regional states be commensurable and that federal power be, not the emanation of regional power, but its transcendence. The organization reproduces the principle of differentiation since regional states become parts of the whole rather than the whole being a sum of disparate and autonomous entities.

Such an organization encourages national unity since those who aspire to become national leaders cannot do so by propagating parochial and sectarian ideologies. On the contrary, their vision must integrate other groups as well, given that they need their support to become national leaders. Moreover, the principle that national leadership and federal laws must rise above ethnic groups stimulates competition within each ethnic group, obvious as it is that those ambitioning to become national leaders must first defeat and marginalize sectarian or secessionist rivals in their own camp. In this way, each state would produce an internal counter force to secessionist or hegemonic groups.

The general ideas is therefore to turn all influential positions at the federal level into incentives for integrative ideology and a disqualification for all views that fail to promote the common interest of all ethnic groups. The idea does no more than institutionalize the irrefutable logic that the best way to advance the interests of all ethnic groups is to erect a federal power that transcends the interests of any particular group. I add that it is the only consistent position: once the commitment to Ethiopian unity is reaffirmed, as did members of Medrek by rejecting the right to secede, it is incongruous to make such a commitment and yet refuse a principle of organization that makes sure that regional entities become component parts of an inclusive whole.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])