Ethiopia is the hub of the Nile
By Aklog Birara, PhD / July 23, 2013
Part one of this series presented the Egyptian position on the Nile in a manner suggesting that, on its part, Ethiopian society must, equally, overcomes its internal governance gridlock that emanates from a cruel and repressive government leadership. This dictatorial governance refuses to reform itself or to allow other stakeholders to offer alternatives. I start with the premise based on conversations with a cross section of Ethiopians within and outside the country and from various documents and writings that the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians defend Ethiopians rightful ownership and use of the Abay River and other rivers within national boundaries and those shared with riparian states. Here there is no ambiguity. On the other hand and as a Gallop Poll suggests, the vast majority of Ethiopians reject the current ethnic-coalition based and elite run socioeconomic and political system that denies them a semblance of freedom and legitimate demand for the rule of law, a level playing field and fair play.
For Ethiopian society to win, it must achieve unfettered political and socioeconomic pluralism. Participatory governance will usher a nationalist leaning spirit and advance and protect national and societal interests for generations to come. Among the hurdles that are apparent is narrow ethnic elite governance that has made ethnic thinking and ethnic geopolitical configuration central tenets in managing the country, its national resources and its diverse society. If people begin to give primacy to ethnic and religious affiliation over national affiliation, the seeds of vulnerability are sown, with the unintended consequence of external powers exploiting these vulnerabilities for their own end games. This narrowly and emotionally tilted thinking and management system may seem attractive in the political theater of the day. Observers tell us that the thinking has undermined the fabric of Ethiopian society and must be reversed before it is too late. The governing party’s ideology of ethnic divide seems to have worked successfully for political ends. We react to it and are governed by its agenda rather than by ours. For example, it is now more fashionable to think of identity as a member of a tribe or a religious group rather than a country. The regime has forced youth and others to think as disconnected individuals and groups that belong to ethnic and religious enclaves rather than to Ethiopia as Ethiopians who need to advance a foundation for the formation of a stronger, fair, just and equitable society in which none is left behind. This gives the sense that each group must fend for itself and not for the common good.
Simply put, Ethiopia’s primary dilemma is not size, lack of resources or potential. It is repression and oppression by ethnic elites. It is the governing party’s inability to advance genuine multiethnic cohesion, access to opportunities and genuine democracy based on the equality of individuals as Ethiopian citizens, on inclusion and equal treatment of Ethiopians under the law. The system is not open to fair and merit based social, economic and political competition. Anyone who stands for justice and fair play is accused of ‘terrorism.’ I suggest that the overarching principle that lacks is freedom and political and socioeconomic justice. This hurdle incapacitates the productive capacity of the entire system and undermines national determination to survive and thrive. In light of this hurdle, Ethiopia’s vulnerability is much more internal than external. This leads us to the critical point that Ethiopians support the country’s right to build dams and other major infrastructure. However, it is self-evident that those left out from the development process resent and abhor repression and oppression. They want their voices to be heard and their rights respected. Accordingly, if Ethiopia wishes to defend its national interests in a sustainable manner, it must, by any criteria, be internally fair, inclusive, prosperous and unified. It must be perceived as fair and equitable. This is the reason for the sub-title “rightful ownership with rightful governance.”
In a July 11, 2013 video, Al-Jazeera—that has been barred from reporting on Ethiopian political and religious issues—and that reports only with the permission of the Ethiopian government, presented a graphic video of the agonizing life of most of Ethiopia’s youth. In June and early July, Ethiopian youth in Addis Ababa, Dessie and Gondar showed their dissatisfaction with the current government and protested peacefully. This is an indicator of things to come. I had suggested in my new book, Organized Plunder (Dirjitawi mizbera) that youth unemployment is one of the greatest threats to stability. More than 70 percent of Ethiopian youth are unemployed. In its recent budget submission, the Ethiopian government said that unemployment and inflation have gone down significantly. This is utterly and blatantly false. Such rhetoric is purely political and does not converge with the reality on the ground. The Al-Jazeera article, “Ethiopia’s 50 percent unemployment pushes youth to desperation,” is a sharp critique of a failed economic and social policy that serves the financial and political interests of a narrow band of ethnic elites and their families and leaves out millions from the development process entirely.
The pyramid like concentration of wealth and assets at the top has cornered youth, the poor and the middle class. It has barred or restricted them from participating fully in the development process. In turn, this reduces Ethiopia’s capacity to generate employment opportunities, to create wealth, expand the middle class at a pace that befits a large population and restore dignity and to produce and become self-reliant. This July video and the demonstrations that took place are indicators of things to come. These demands would not stop until and unless fundamental reforms take place.
The Ethiopian governing party is its own worst enemy
The search for social justice and equity is a universal phenomenon that cannot be stopped. Whether in Brazil, Egypt or Turkey where democratic leaning governments allow citizens and especially youth to protest and demand accountability from their governments, the future is most likely to be bleak for societies that do not allow the establishment of enabling environments and empowering institutions so that people achieve their dreams for themselves and for their families. Glitter does not do this. The complexities that trigger unrest and rebellion differ from county to country. Differences aside, Ethiopian society will not remain static. We witness this in the growing demand for the rule of law, justice and accountability from those who wield political power and amass illegitimate wealth via various instruments including rent. The bottom line is that a stronger, inclusive, just and pluralist system of governance will enable Ethiopia to negotiate with Egypt and others from a position of internal strength and cohesion. These attributes are practically non-existent today. In light of this, I contend that no amount of investment in infrastructure, including dams, will ease the pain youth and others feel each and every day. For this reason, justice and freedom are essential for Ethiopians as much as they are for Brazilians, Egyptians, Syrians, Turks and others. Demands for fundamental rights will play prominent roles in the years ahead. On the positive side, Ethiopia has enormous potential to grow and prosper. Harnessing full productive potential that is now suffocated by repressive governance has relevance for Ethiopia’s capacity to respond to the war-like push from Egyptian authorities.
Constructive options exist
Of all the recommendations Egyptian scholars, technical experts and others have made that make sense, staggering the fill of the GERD reservoir over a longer period of time is the most reasonable. However, what seems reasonable to me, to a number of Ethiopians and fair minded foreign experts may not be equally shared by Egyptian authorities and civil society. Egyptian authorities are not used to fair play with regard to the Nile. In my estimation, staggering the fill will be fair as long as it does not undermine the value of Ethiopia’s investment and as long as it does not dilute the country’s sovereignty. It is highly likely that upstream riparian countries would support staggering but not Egyptian demand for the status quo (continued hegemony). President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda’s sentiment is shared by other black African nations who support the Ethiopian position. In his own words, “Egypt cannot continue to hurt black Africa and the countries of the tropics.” He was responding to the war-like rhetoric of the former President of Egypt, Morsi, now in detention. By comparison to his vitriolic and boastful pronouncement that “all options are open,” the Ethiopian government reaction and position has been relatively calm and measured. When Morsi said this, he had in mind specific opposition groups within Ethiopia, sabotage and support using North Sudan, Eritrea and Al-Shabab in Somalia as proxies. Similar to his predecessors, Morsi did not offer negotiated settlement that all black African countries including Ethiopia would accept. On the other hand, the option some Egyptian scholars and experts identified of staggering the fill may, in the long-run, allow a win-win solution.
Organizing principles to anchor Ethiopian policy
Whatever option is entertained, Ethiopian government policy must be anchored in fundamental principles, most notably, what serves Ethiopia’s national interests and the aspirations of its huge population. For this reason, I present four intertwined principles. First and foremost building a massive dam will not serve as a substitute for a free; fair; just; inclusive and democratic Ethiopian society. Nothing is more worthwhile for Ethiopian society, especially youth, than to feel that they enjoy freedom of expression, thought, association, movement, work, ownership and security to life and property, equal treatment under the law etc. Ethnic cleansing and displacement of indigenous people from their lands and property defies this fundamental principle of solidarity, fair play and national cohesion. It undermines the country’s capacity to withstand external pressures. Second, in the long-term, an all-inclusive, stable, unified, prosperous, diverse, independent and well-respected Ethiopia is in the interest of all Ethiopians and all African countries including Egypt. Third, Egypt should not see a prosperous Ethiopia as inimical to its vital interests; and a weak, conflict-ridden, divided and poor Ethiopia as critical for its survival. For example, Egyptian government policy to encircle Ethiopia via North Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia and to finance and arm opposition groups is no longer acceptable. It is a disservice to Ethiopians and Egyptians alike. Fourth, in my estimation, a weak, conflict-ridden, non-cohesive, famine prone, fragile, dependent, undemocratic, ethnically, ideologically and religiously divided Ethiopia that is governed by any form of dictatorship will not guarantee a good and meaningful future for its population. On the contrary, this form of governance diminishes national strength and productive capacity. In short, the dam will not serve as a substitute to the void in good governance. Ethiopia is repressed and divided. It is not because Ethiopians choose to be divided; but because the system is designed to “divide and rule.”
As the saying goes, “divided we (all) fall.” A poverty and conflict ridden Ethiopia will not be a bulwark against all forms of extremism and terrorism in Africa. For this reason alone, Egyptian encouragement of and intervention and support to so-called liberation groups, dissidents, secessionists and others goes against the interests of a growing, emerging and influential Africa. This interventionist approach by Egypt will, on the contrary, strengthen authoritarian measures and gives ammunition to the repressive regime in Addis. The regime will divert limited resources from development to defense. While understandable in light of Egyptian declarations, a 15 percent increase in the defense budget is ominous. Continued dictatorship in Ethiopia will make it unbearable for Ethiopians and for Egypt. In other words, a call for war and a destabilization strategy against Ethiopia is most likely to strengthen dictatorships in both countries by mobilizing nationalist sentiment. As I write this article, Egypt is in turmoil and there is no end in sight. Morsi’s followers have declared their intentions to restore his presidency. One wonders whether or not another military dictatorship in Egypt won’t ensue to avert a civil war and or to restore public order and or to wage war against Ethiopia. We do not really know where things would end. What we know is this. Egyptians believe that, at the end of the day, the military establishment plays a ‘national guardian role,’ and this notion includes Egypt’s hegemony over the Nile. On the other side of the equation, it is not at all clear how an ethnicized Ethiopian military command would ultimately respond to the Egyptian threat without the benefit of changing its ethnic composition at the top of the leadership. What we can say is this. In any scenario; dictatorships thrive on chaos whether in Egypt or in Ethiopia. Both countries will arm themselves to the teeth to defend their interests regardless of costs.
As a Washington Post editorial put it on June 28, 2013, under the title, Egypt on the Brink, “After a year of misrule by its democratically elected government, Egypt is hurtling toward a potentially catastrophic political conflict ….Breaking promises to seek consensus with secular and opposition forces, it (the Morsi led-government) forced through a new constitution and has been trying to impose its control over the judiciary, media and civil society.” In a similar vein, anti-terrorism laws are used to suffocate dissent and to jail justice and freedom seeking Ethiopians. Ironically, these are parallels the governing parties and or government leaders in Ethiopia and Egypt share. Neither one is trusted by the vast majority of its respective populations. The distinction is that, Egyptian dissidents, opposition parties, government employees, academics, professionals and civil society are unified with regard to the Nile; and against the interests of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people. For them, Egypt’s national interests are primary and political struggle and religious differences are secondary. The same cannot be said about Ethiopian elites and opposition groups. There is no indication whatsoever that they speak with one voice and for one national purpose on any substantive national policy issue including Abay. This void in consensus entails future costs for the country. While I acknowledge the solid arguments opponents suggest, I suggest that we all need to explore why this is the case; and dig deeper of the unintended consequences that may ensue.
Despite this, I suggest that Egyptian government leaders, the opposition and civil society begin to appreciate the notion that Ethiopians have the right to create and sustain a prosperous and strong Ethiopia using their natural resources as they choose. Such a society is most likely to be amenable to sustainable and equitable use of the Nile than a conflict and poverty ridden Ethiopia ruled by a dictatorship. Equally, they need to recognize the emerging reality in Sub-Saharan Africa that Egypt can no longer exercise its hegemony over the Nile on the back of poor black Africans. Despite chronic poverty, Ethiopian society is in the process of evolving faster than Egyptians and others realize. Assuming good, inclusive, just and equitable governance (a bold and plausibly unrealistic assumption), I estimate that Ethiopia’s economy will be one of the largest in Africa in the next 20 years; and will exceed Egypt’s in the next 50. I say this on the basis of natural resources endowments. Ethiopia has enormous and diverse natural resources, a huge bulging youthful population and a growing middle class that resides mostly abroad. However, Ethiopia’s Diaspora is among the most well connected with its home base. Given good governance, a large pool of the Diaspora will return and invest and enlarge the productive capacity of the economy. Despite repression and oppression, most Ethiopians are firm in their beliefs that the country has been sidelined with regard to the Abay River and its potential contribution. In other words, the Ethiopian people feel strongly that they have as much right to aspire a better life for themselves and for future generations as Egyptians and others do. This aspiration is directly linked to using the country’s natural resources to improve lives. This does not mean that the TPLF led government is dedicated to a fair distribution of incomes and wealth. The argument is one based on fundamental national interest and the possibilities that exist for the future. In this connection, I suggest that Emperor Haile Selassie was right when he noted that the waters of the Abay River or Blue Nile are Ethiopian endowments and must serve Ethiopia’s increasing population and its growing economy. He reiterated over and over again that Ethiopia will harness its waters for its own modernization. The obstacle his government and the Dergue faced was not lack of a national zeal and commitment to develop the Abay River. The limitation was lack of the financial means to do it; and the military strength to defend it. Today, international conventions and laws support this vision and legitimacy.
Historical claim by successive Ethiopian governments and international conventions suggest that changes in favor of Ethiopia and the rest of SSA stakeholders are inevitable. Egypt must recognize International Conventions adopted by the majority of UN member countries; and respect the fundamental principles that govern equitable use of the waters of the Nile River articulated under the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework that a majority of Sub-Saharan African riparian states have signed. These conventions and principles suggest that Ethiopia has a legitimate right to use its watercourses in support of its modernization and to secure food self-sufficiency for its growing population. Accordingly, Ethiopia’s potential economic and social rise from its slumber of thousands of years is inevitable. This should not frighten Egypt or any other country.
This leads me to a self or governance made constraint Ethiopia faces. Regardless of massive investment in the Renaissance Dam, Ethiopian public trust and confidence in the current Ethiopian political leadership is unlikely to change for the better. The reason is because of the governing party’s inability to carry-out meaningful political, social and economic reform that would empower the vast majority of the population, especially youth; and that would make the country strong. It is generally true that the majority of Ethiopians support the new dam. It is equally true according to sources that most are weary and suspicious of the governing party’s motives and the ultimate social benefits of producing and exporting hydroelectric. The reason for mistrust and lack of confidence in the governing party is this. The current regime is an ethnic elite dictatorship that discriminates on the basis of ethnic affiliation. For example, in the past, hydroelectric power was transported to the Tigray region bypassing villages, towns and communities in between as if these did not deserve to come out of the ‘dark ages.’ Therefore, there is little evidence to show that indigenous people and Ethiopian citizens that have no access to electricity would benefit from power generated by the GERD. There is no evidence to suggest that the foreign exchange earned from export and sale of power would be ploughed back to improve the lives of the population and or to expand irrigated farming. Ethiopia’s ability to feed itself or to become food secure and self-sufficient would depend to a large extent on its ability to expand irrigated farming for millions of smallholders. Whatever foreign exchange is earned from the GERD should be ploughed back to communities and to change the structure of the economy at a fast rate. The governing party operates in a non-transparent manner. It has not offered Ethiopians with a clear picture of how the GERD and earnings from the GERD would be used. On the contrary, suspicion is strong that foreign exchange would provide additional means to strengthen the dictatorship and to enrich ethnic elites, families, friends and their allies, including the military establishment. This is not hearsay.
There is overwhelming evidence that the governing party has amassed enormous political power, financial and other resources assets. The perception is that, given the history of nepotism, corruption and illicit outflow of funds, the Dam would result in the same phenomenon. This is reinforced by the fact that the governing party continues to violate fundamental rights and freedoms. It does not take public sentiment into account. It does not respond to immediate social and humanitarian needs. All told, in the absence of accountability on the part of the governing party, the cost for Ethiopia is huge. In addition, repressive governance diminishes solidarity among the country’s diverse population and provides a basis for resentment and penetration. This is why Egyptian authorities talked openly and freely about arming opposition groups and dissenters. They know the political weaknesses and the fissures that exist in Ethiopia. The logical policy response for this crisis in governance is therefore to open up the system; to encourage debate, dialogue and national reconciliation and peace; to allow competition, to move from ethnic politics to Pan-Ethiopian solidarity etc. etc.
Dictatorships are efficient in multiple ways
Dictatorships are well known for suppressing dissent and participation. The TPLF led government has institutionalized the choking of an entire country to an art form. The administrative cost of paying for a network of spies is alarming. For this reason, Ethiopians support the Dam and oppose the regime for a valid reason. The lead point is that dictatorships are super-efficient in suffocating dissent. Equally, they are competent and efficient in mobilizing resources and in building massive infrastructure that serves them and serves the public good in the long-run. Ethiopia is not an exception. Nasser built the Aswan High Dam; he was not Jimmy Carter. Stalin built the Soviet Union’s massive industrial and infrastructural foundation. Other dictatorships across the globe built national roads, rails, dams, parks etc. in Brazil, Chile, China, Ghana, Korea, Singapore, Indonesia and others. They were able to do these projects by exploiting nationalist sentiments and by mobilizing resources from ordinary people to do extraordinary stuff. The human costs in these countries were enormous. The dictatorship in Ethiopia has done similar projects while crushing dissent, imprisoning thousands and ‘killing’ an untold numbers of innocent people. Donors keep telling us how fast Ethiopia has grown over the past few years without the benefit of demonstrating the impact of this growth on the population. The human toll of growth “without freedom,” to use a phrase from Human Rights Watch is enormous. At the same time, it is generally true that, the single most important contribution of the current government is infrastructure, especially dams, roads, bridges, schools. We can disagree on social relevance and on quality. However, we cannot dismiss the developmental impact of infrastructure on the country and in shaping the future. My point is this. The more this happens, the more it is likely that ethnic walls will be broken; the private sector boosted and social cohesion strengthened. It is not ‘black and white.’
Evidence suggests that infrastructural projects have singular value in advancing growth and development. However, I suggest that infrastructural projects without justice, equity and social meaning are not sufficient in terms even development, fairness, sustainability and even development. What is reasonable to say is this. Ultimately, these infrastructural investments are implanted like national monuments; they belong to Ethiopia and to the Ethiopian people. At some future point, they will serve as triggers of sustainable development. In the long-term and as Ethiopians begin to assert their fundamental human rights and freedoms; and as the private sector expands and deepens, these investments will contribute to integrated and sustainable development. Wealth will be created. Ethiopian youth would not have to leave their homeland to achieve their dreams. Over time, lives in the rural areas will improve dramatically. So, Ethiopians have a dual task facing them. On the one hand, they have a responsibility to support projects of national interest and importance and make a clear distinction between the party in power and the country’s national interests. On the other hand, they have singular responsibility to demand justice, equity and accountability from their government. However, I acknowledge that, in the immediate future, the social impact, security and viability of the Renaissance Dam on the national economy, on indigenous people and on society will be limited by dictatorial political governance. By this, I mean lack of freedom, the ability to demand services and the provision of information technology, including a free press. The reason for this is because of the fact that people who do not have freedom cannot negotiate ultimate value and use. This is why one can contend that it is poor, exclusionary, repressive and brutal governance that makes the regime untrustworthy even when the dam has singular national importance and Ethiopian character.
The Ethiopian government would be wise to open up political space
By its own deeds—violation of human rights and human dignity, suppression of political opposition, degradation of a semblance of civic engagement and freedom of the press, the total absence of the rule of law, the persistence of nepotism, favoritism and corruption, the enormous cost of administering the bureaucracy etc. etc. —the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) dominated and led government has lost legitimacy to govern. It is not trusted by the vast majority of the population (Gallop Poll). More than at any time in its long, difficult, tumultuous and glorious history, Ethiopia needs a genuine and concerted effort toward national reconciliation and peace involving all stakeholders. A better governance alternative that gives all Ethiopians a voice in the affairs of their society would strengthen the country’s claim to harness its natural resources and defend investments from external threat. The Heritage Foundation the Fund for Peace, the US Department of State, the Mo-Ibrahim Index of African governance and others present recurring findings and themes that show degradation of justice and human dignity rather than progress in Ethiopia. It is incontestable that, so far, growth has benefitted a narrow band of elites and marginalized the vast majority of the population, especially youth. The GERD should not be used to bolster inequity.
Egypt is going through another popular revolt involving a cross section of its large middle class, this time against an elected government leadership and president. On the Ethiopian side, the ‘remarkable double digit growth’ that the Ethiopian government reports and donors applaud has done very little to ease the pain of the population. Egyptian society faces similar impediments—no jobs, high cost of living, corruption and lack of confidence in the future. The Ethiopian human development situation is even worse than Egypt’s. The best example is continuous and massive human capital outflow to the rest of the world, including to poor African countries. If we take a minute and review the tragedy, we will find that Africa’s youth do not move to Ethiopia to find jobs. On the other hand, Ethiopians move to a poor country such as Malawi to find work. They serve as domestic servants in numerous countries. I can find no African country where Ethiopians, most of them young, do not live and work. Each month, hundreds of young Ethiopians take enormous risks to escape poverty and repression. Many of them pay thousands of dollars to travel to the US via Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Brazil and Mexico for a good reason, sheer survival. Human trafficking of children and girls is widespread. The country’s largest export is human capital. The condition of Ethiopian girls, women and others in the Middle East is among the most abominable and degrading in the world. All of these and more emanate from poor and disempowering governance and politicized and ethnicized access to opportunities.
At the same time, Ethiopia has millionaires and billionaires mostly earned through government offices and connections. Each year, billions of dollars are stolen and taken out of the country illicitly, with no higher government or party official held accountable. Muslim Ethiopians have been protesting against repression and in defense of religious freedom. Meeting their demands for freedom of religion will mitigate one of the avenues Egypt and other wish to use to destabilize the country. Lack of freedom and participation has adverse consequences.
Other Africans who enjoy freedom, dignity and better lives—Ghana, Mauritius, Namibia, Tanzania, South Africa, etc. often ask how Ethiopians go on tolerating the intolerable for so long. They are right. The rest of Africa is moving forward at a faster rate in terms higher incomes and overall wellbeing than Ethiopia. In light of this, I suggest that justice and legitimacy to govern do not necessarily occur because the TPLF core leadership that dominates the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) decided to mobilize funds and invest more than $4.7 billion precious resources in the Renaissance Dam. I suggest that a) enduring and genuine nationalist public support and b) trust in the government for the dam and others national efforts will only occur when and if the rule of law is respected and the fundamentals of good, just and inclusive governance are institutionalized in Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s future security and ability to defend its interests will depend on an empowered, cohesive and free populace that feels that it is the master of its own destiny. I am totally convinced that a free and well to do society will serve as a bulwark of popular support against any contingency. Such a society will safeguard the national interest better than a society that is fractured and repressed. For this reason, I suggest that building GERD must not be devoid of social meaning and relevance. A dam anchored in a meaningful social purpose (improving ordinary lives in visible and real ways) is most likely to make enormous developmental impacts over time. Void of this social purpose, it will end up serving the economic and social interests of ethnic elites rather than the population at large.
While I accept the values of mega dams, past experience suggests that multibillion dollar investments in mega infrastructure without accountability to the public through an independent and verifiable institutional oversight offer substantial windows of opportunity for repression, corruption, graft, kickbacks, exclusion, discrimination, quick riches and illicit outflows. The reason for this is because there are no checks and balances to make contractors and officials accountable. All these and more are true and must be exposed without let-up.
Keep the bigger picture in mind
At the same time, the bigger picture of national and societal interest should not be lost in the frenzy of “political correctness” and rejection of the governing party. Instead, there should be a healthy and civilized debate in advancing Ethiopia’s long-term interests while applying sustained and coordinated pressure on the governing party to open-up political, social and economic space for all Ethiopians. It is understandable that many Ethiopians are skeptical concerning motives and ultimate value. I understand fully this skepticism, especially the motive of the governing party and its ability and capacity to complete the dam and to use it for the betterment of the Ethiopian people and to transform the structure of the country’s backward economy, especially the irrigation and agro-industry sectors. My contention is that the tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia and the other external threats that Ethiopia faces are real and should not be underestimated. Although there are no simple and clear cut answers, the question of how these tensions would be resolved for the benefit of both societies is one of the most urgent both governments will ever face. Regardless of their ideological, political, religious and ethnic orientation; and not withstanding animosity toward the TPLF dominated government headed by Prime Minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn, opposition groups and dissidents need to make a distinction between Ethiopia’s strategic interests and the transient government’s abominable record on vital governance issues highlighted earlier. I am not naïve to assume that the TPLF dominated government appreciates and defends Ethiopia’s national interests. It abandoned Ethiopia’s legitimate access to the sea. It transferred millions of hectares of farmlands to foreign investors and to Tigrean elites (Gambella). It negotiated and “gave” Ethiopian lands to the Sudan, etc. It created one of the most corrupt systems of government in the world. It degraded religious freedom. It allowed illicit outflow to match net foreign aid receipts.
Nevertheless, I suggest that we recognize the fact that governments come and go; countries and societies remain more or less permanent unless people choose to destabilize them. For this reason, I opine that opponents should not provide Ethiopia’s traditional enemies fodder to serve their own interests as has happened over and over again. It goes without saying that the TPLF dominated EPRDF government has done zero to open-up political, social and economic space for the vast majority of the population. It closed press freedom because it does not want the Ethiopian people and the world to know the truth. Access to unrestricted, unedited and uncensored information is the single most important right Ethiopians demand. The regime must be held accountable for denying it. It must be held accountable for the ethnic and religious divisions it created intentionally. It must be held accountable for ethnic cleansing and for forced displacement of millions from their ancestral homes and lands. Those who wish to see a better future for the Ethiopian people have the right to show that disempowerment, displacement, disengagement, ethnic cleansing, religious and civil repression and the pitying of ethnic and religious groups against one another offer the country’s traditional enemies entry points to destabilize and disintegrate Ethiopia. They have the right to persuade Prime Minister Hailemariam to have the courage and advance political reform while defending Ethiopia’s right to complete the Renaissance Dam and others. On his part, the Prime Minister must recognize that Ethiopia needs a political leadership that is an integrator and not a divider. These are hurdles that must be overcome in order to secure Ethiopia’s future and to develop all its natural resources endowments for the betterment of its people. The bottom line is this. The ruling party and the opposition—both–must recognize that a unified, inclusive, just, prosperous and democratic Ethiopia will guarantee all its citizens a better and meaningful life. With a better life comes the capacity to defend the country’s vital national interests from any threat. Good governance is therefore in everyone’s interest. At the same time, I suggest that Ethiopia’s long-term interests must have primacy. I say this because national interests are not tradable commodities. One does not sell this interest to gain something else including financial reward. If national interest is tradable, I ask myself for what fundamental permanent principle and policy we stand for despite our ethnic, religious and political differences and despite opposition to a dictatorial regime. We do not need to go to any other country to accept this primacy.
I should like to close this piece with Emperor Haile Selassie’s world view and his government’s position on the Abay River, for a strategic reason. Ethiopia’s internal weaknesses and the backwardness of its national economy—due, in part, to constant internal wars, threats and invasions from outside–were among the key ingredients for the lack of exploitation of its rivers for hydroelectric power and for irrigation purposes. At the time, this condition suited Ethiopia’s traditional “enemies,” especially Egypt and the Sudan. Things have changed dramatically. My sense is that we should accept this positive change while strengthening our determination to establish a just, inclusive, fair and democratic Ethiopia. I again reiterate the fundamental principle that it is only the formation and establishment of pluralist Ethiopia that accepts diversity as a source of its strength that will secure the benefits of the Abay and other rivers for succeeding generations.
To be continued