Ethiopia at the Eleventh Hour of Peaceful Change – Messay Kebede

Logically, one would hope that the Oromo uprising and the undeniable general discontent and frustration in the country call for a serious movement toward a reformist dissent within the TPLF and perhaps the army. In whichever way the present situation is analyzed, it cannot avoid the conclusion that the path so far followed is an impasse and that a change of course is a must. In case some TPLFites are confused about the situation, I remind them that the new occurrence is that the Oromo people have finally overcome their fear. History repeatedly shows that people who have defeated fear cannot be stopped, with the added fact that the recovery of courage is a contagious phenomenon. Such a movement can be temporarily blocked, but it cannot be crushed.

I am not talking about reform because I hope that the TPLF can become democratic and more committed to a policy that protects the interests of Ethiopia and its peoples. That ship has sailed a long time ago. Rather, I expect the TPLF to think of its own interests in a consistently selfish manner, which selfishness points out that the best bet in the mounting uncertainties is to admit, albeit reluctantly, the necessity of reform.

Reason advises the following: lose absolute power to keep some of it! Indeed, the situation contains two choices and two choices only. Either you think that you can protect your interests by pursuing the path of absolute power and repression and run the risk of losing everything by generating a situation of generalized uprising, itself made inevitable by the refusal to concede anything, or you make concessions aimed at sharing power, and you compensate your loss with security and assurance that your interests will be protected. In other words, lose a bit to safeguard what is important, or keep the exclusive control of power and face the danger of losing everything.

Again, be voraciously avid, think only of your interests, and the logic of greed will show you the right way, that is, the way that has a future and provides guarantee. By contrast, the ill option of blind bravado and repression inspired by arrogance and short-sightedness is actually a disguised fear that can only lead to a lose-lose situation for everybody. Make no mistake about it: nobody will win by triggering a civil war in Ethiopia. What awaits us all is a situation comparable to Syria or Libya. Your stubbornness does no more than activate all the ingredients of terrible conflicts that favor nobody.

I understand that some members of the ruling political class are quite aware of the severe shortcomings and dangers of their present policy. That is why we hear them talk here and there of the need for good governance. Unfortunately, to frame the problem in this term is to engage in the path of illusion and postponement. There is no good governance without power sharing and accountability. What you need is not some administrative measures; what you need is political reforms, for the latter are necessary even to apply administrative decisions. And by power sharing I means nothing but the formation of a transitional government representative of all political parties whose main working motto would be the forging of concessions necessary to move forward.

A piece of history lesson: as a rule, history shows that successful and lasting social changes have been initiated and implemented by elites with reformist agendas. The prospect of losing power as a result of a social uprising, guerrilla insurgencies, or war against a more powerful country has led them to see in reforms the best way to stay in power and protect their interests. The other related positive outcome was that their decision to reform avoided wrecking their societies by radical measures and favored a progressive, step by step advancement.

Opposed to this progressive course are movements led by disgruntled and aspiring elites, usually called revolutions, and whose main characteristic is that societies must be put upside down for these elites to find a new legitimacy and model their county in accordance with their sectarian interests. Unsurprisingly, such movements end in dictatorial and often partisan rule, by which alone societies can be made conformable to exclusive elites. While established ruling elites reform societies by opening up and welcoming new strata of people, revolutionary elites have to exclude and close up in order to establish their power. In other words, while the one moves toward the opening of the system to receive newcomers, the other is the newcomer that has to exclude to establish itself.

Ethiopia is the perfect illustration of the destructive process cause by new comers. Because Haile Selassie’s regime was totally unresponsive to repeated calls for reforms, it was wiped out by a revolutionary movement that ended by instituting the dictatorial rule of a military elite inspired by the sectarian ideology of Leninism. Its own reluctance to reform in the face of military defeats and economic failures strengthened guerrilla insurgencies that resulted in its overthrow. Unsurprisingly, instead of following the path of reform by opening the power system, the new comers closed it even more through an ethnic system of selection favoring a policy of divide-and-rule, by which alone the narrow elite claiming to represent Tigrean interests could have the exclusive control of power.

Both the Oromo uprising and the deep discontent of the country clearly demonstrate the failure of the sectarian system established by the TPLF. The moment of decision has come: is the TPLF committed to making the same mistake as Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam or will it finally realize that the system is untenable and that reforms are, willy-nilly, necessary for its own survival?  Of course, it is never expected that all those who are influential in the decision-making of the TPLF will admit the necessity of reform. Rather, the question is whether those who are aware of the need can prevail over the conservatives.

I admit my pessimism, but with a touch of uncertainty inspired by the long and almost miraculous survival of Ethiopia against all odds, in particular by its power to resurrect each time it faces existential threat. Indeed, nothing applies better to Ethiopia than what the poet Holderlin said: “Where the danger grows, there also grows the power of salvation.” To give some examples from recent history, when the Era of the Princes threatened the very existence of Ethiopia, there rose Tewodros; when colonialism encircled and threated to draw Ethiopia into the scramble for Africa, there rose Yohannes and Menelik. Will the endurance continue so that it will be said when ethnic exclusion threatened, there rose . . . ?

The writer can be reached at [email protected]