Retooling the 2010 election as a weapon of democracy

By Maimire Mennasemay, Ph.D. / january 21, 2009
  What is sad is that the TPLF Plc. Is engaged in entrenching itself as the next class of Ethiopian capitalist at the catastrophic expense of the poor Ethiopian people in a manner only a colonial conqueror sabotages its subject’s wellbeing and wealth.
"What is sad is that the TPLF Plc. Is engaged in entrenching itself as the next class of Ethiopian capitalist at the catastrophic expense of the poor Ethiopian people in a manner only a colonial conqueror sabotages its subject’s wellbeing and wealth. ." Azmera Tesfaye

Whatever one’s position on the 2010 general election, a number of things are certain. First, the election will take place. Second, the democratic forces are fragmented and at loggerheads with each other, but almost all of them—those who signed the Code of Conduct and those who did not -- are participating in the election. Third, the history of the TPLF/EPRDF makes it certain that it will use fraud, intimidation, arrest, imprisonment, and violence to win the elections.

A cursory examination of the current debate on the 2010 election shows a wide and contradictory range of views. Not surprisingly, those who support the TPLF/EPRDF assert that the 2010 election is as democratic as they come and accuse its detractors of all the political ills one could imagine. Those who support the parties that signed the Code of Conduct seem to have divergent but overlapping answers. Some seem to imply that democracy will emerge only if they work within the system. Others seem to believe, rather faintly, that the democratic victory of 2005, crushed by the TPLF/EPRDF, could be re-enacted. Still others argue that even if it is certain that the TPLF/EPDRF will win the election, the electoral exercise will have pedagogical benefits for the democratic struggle against the current authoritarian regime. Finally, those who are opposed to the signing of the Code of Conduct consider the 2010 election a sham. For the latter, participating in the election will do nothing else but misleadingly legitimize the TPLF/EPDRF dictatorship as a democratic regime.

Though these answers express contradictory sentiments and values, there is a grain of truth in most of them. Since the democratic forces seem unable to coalesce into a single democratic movement for the purpose of the election, the challenge for them now is to allow their divergent approaches to converge, without formal cooperation, so that a tapestry of political actions emerges that point in the same direction; to wit, the goal of de-legitimizing the current authoritarian ethnic state. Such an approach will not require the various democratic parties to change their specific political commitments. However, it requires that they look at their specific programs from the perspective of the alternative Ethiopia -- democratic, prosperous, and just -- that all Ethiopians yearn for. By eschewing the practice of denigrating each other, and by committing their intelligence, courage and effort to a relentless critique of the disastrous policies and actions of the regime, they could open a new political horizon that could make the victory of the TPLF/EPDRF a defeat in victory, thus paving the way for its eventual exit. The question then is how to transform the 2010 election into a weapon for making the forecasted TPLF/EPDRF’s electoral victory the womb of its own defeat.

“Every tool is a weapon, if you hold it right”

An idea from our own culture suggests an approach that could help the pro-democratic parties to achieve this end. A Gurage /Chaha saying runs: “The cure for the evil eye is in the evil eye”. This profoundly dialectical Guarge saying draws our attention to the important fact that we could find the answers to our questions in the errors we make and have made in the past as well as in the evils we combat. Such quests for answers that will help us overcome the adversities we confront require changes in the way we see and use the opportunities at hand. In other words, as Angela Marie Difranco puts it,

for every lie I unlearn I learn something new I sing sometimes for the war that I fight 'cause every tool is a weapon - if you hold it right

First, elections are political tools, and like any tool, every election could become a tool for democracy if we “hold it right”, which means that if we hold the 2010 election right, it could become a powerful weapon for effectively de-legitimating the TPLF/EPDRF regime. Second, as the poem suggests, to “learn something new” is the payoff of “every lie I unlearn”. That is, we could transform the 2010 election into a weapon for democracy only if we “unlearn” a certain number of values and habits that have doomed the Ethiopian struggle for democracy since its beginning. The most destructive lie that the democratic forces have to unlearn—one that has plagued the Ethiopian democratic struggle for almost a century -- is the lie of “purism”: the belief that only my party, only my leader, or only I have the only true answer to the question of how democracy could be achieved in Ethiopia. Since the 1960s, such purism has cost Ethiopians untold opportunities, efforts and lives. Many political organizations and individuals—despite the fact that they were sincerely committed to democracy in Ethiopia—resorted to destructive confrontations, character assassinations, self-defeating divisions, and even violence rather than pursue the goal of democracy in their own way without ostracizing those who have a different approach to the same goal. Purism is still the political beast that is wrecking havoc within the Ethiopian democratic family. Purism also gives an excellent opportunity to the TPLF/EPRDF regime to infiltrate and sow discord among the democratic forces. Laying purism to rest will undoubtedly facilitate the retooling of the 2010 election into a weapon for democracy; it will increase the likelihood of the eviction of the current authoritarian regime and make brighter the prospects of democracy in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was not build in a day, nor through a single method. From the Kingdom of Axum to that of Lalibela, from Ahmad Gragn to the Zemene Mesafint, from Twedros to the present, Ethiopia was built through diverse and contradictory means, drawing on the labours, talents, courage and cultures of the Tigreans, Amharas, Oromos, Somalis, the peoples of the South, East and West, Moslems and Christians, peasants, pastoralists and workers. The complexity of Ethiopian history suggests that there will always be differences on how to build democracy and that no single perspective on democracy could ever adequately mobilize all the Ethiopian social forces. However, all the diverse perspectives could contribute to it. Like the many streams that flow into the Abay to form the formidable and life-giving Blue Nile, the various democratic approaches, if allowed to pursue their path, could eventually conjoin and form a powerful democratic current as irresistible as the Abay river when it receives the full complements of its tributaries. In other words, to render the Ethiopian democratic forces irresistible, it is imperative to recognize the right to exist and act of organizations such as MEDREK, AEUP, EDP, GINBOT 7, and other members of the Ethiopian opposition, provided that they pursue the goal of a democratic alternative to the present ethnicized and exploitative regime. As long as political organizations espouse this goal, they should be able to follow their own path without being crucified for entertaining a different perspective. Signing or not signing the Code of Conduct, working within or outside the country, participating or not participating in the election, being a former member or supporter of the TPLF/EPDRF, should not be used to discredit and destroy members of the Ethiopian democratic family. If this kind of political tolerance were to become the code of conduct among members of the Ethiopian democratic family, the possibility of making the 2010 election an effective weapon for subverting the current authoritarian ethnic regime and for laying the foundations for a democratic regime in Ethiopia will be enhanced. The question then is: What issues could contribute to retooling the 2010 election into a weapon for democracy?

The Code of Conduct as a Code of Exclusion

Each pro-democratic party has probably ideas on how to convert the 2001 election into an arsenal for democracy. Nevertheless, one could elicit some crucial answers to the above question by applying the spirit of the Gurage saying and the idea that “every tool is a weapon if you hold it right”. To do so, one could start with the Code of Conduct (COC) that the EPRDF and three opposition parties -- the Ethiopian Democratic Party, All Ethiopia Unity Organization, and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy Party -- signed recently but that organizations such as the UDJ and MEDREK have rejected.

The COC is made up of innocuous sounding but deeply insidious statements governing the conduct of political parties during the election. One should not consider the COC as a document that floats above the existing Ethiopian conditions. Its very existence is proof that the present Ethiopian conditions are not democratic, for such a document would not have been necessary if there were democracy in Ethiopia. The very existence of the document expresses the need for the TPLF/EPRDF to mask its oppressive nature and thus demands that the context that called for the document’s elaboration be injected into the electoral process. Using the COC as a political boomerang that comes back to its originating context and knocks it open to expose what it tries to hide— the anti-democratic and exploitative nature of the TPLF/EPDRF regime—is an action that those who signed and did not sign the COC, and those who participate and do not participate in the election, could take. Though each pro-democracy organization could choose to emphasize the issues that it considers important, there are a number of crucial elements that are part of the context of the COC, and that the COC tries to occlude, that need to be exposed. In reality, the COC functions as a Code of Exclusion of issues that are crucial for democracy in Ethiopia. Injecting these issues into the 2010 election could transform it into a transgressive event that effectively subverts the legitimacy and political power of the TPLF/EPDRF. Let me then identify at least five of these issues.

First, the COC masks a lie that needs to be exposed. History shows that for democracy the route we follow is infinitely more important than the roots we claim. It is thus universally recognized that democratic sovereignty is founded on the separation of powers and not on the separation of ethnies. And yet, this universal principle is scotomized in the 1994 Constitution and is replaced by the lie that democratic sovereignty is based on the separation of ethnies. This lie allows the regime to claim democratic legitimacy while in practice Meles (and the TPLF politburo) control the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. It is to cover up this lack of the separation of powers that the COC presupposes as a given the existence of the separation of powers (article 18). Since there cannot be democracy without separation of powers, all transgressions of this principle such as the subordination of parliament and the subjection of the judiciary to the interests and whims of the TPLF/EPRDF ruling clique, and other practices that flout the democratic principle of the separation of powers, need to be brought to the fore. These are crucial issues for all Ethiopians irrespective of their ethnic origin and faith.

Second, the TPLF/EPDRF regime claims that Ethiopia’s GDP real growth rate is above 11% . It may well be true. And yet, according to the World Food Programme, hunger threatens currently more than six million Ethiopians. In other words, in light of the government’s claim of high GDP growth rate, it follows that the hunger and the malnutrition that currently afflicts Ethiopians cannot but be man-made; it cannot be the result of the absence of economic growth. The main reason for the poverty-ridden living conditions of the vast majority of Ethiopians is the obscene concentration of wealth in the hands of the TPLF/EPRDF elites. Banking, import-export, manufacturing, mining, construction, transport and communication, publishing and entertainment industries are all concentrated in the hands of these elites. Possessed by an insatiable greed, these elites are investing heavily in cash-crop production and are leasing away millions of hectares of fertile land to foreign countries and companies for the purpose of exporting food. In the meantime, millions of Ethiopians are reduced to the humiliating life of being recipients of international food charity. According to the Save the Children report (September 22, 2009), “Three million children in Ethiopia urgently need food amid [the] worst crisis in decades.” In the mean time, the ruling elites enjoy living conditions that would make many a rich American green with envy. The COC masks three fundamental issues related to this situation. First, it hides the fact that the regime has instrumentalized hunger for buying political support from peasants by denying food aid to those who do not submit to its political will. Second, it masks the present economic injustice that calls urgently for the liberation of the economy form the iron-grip of the TPLF/EPRDF elites. Third, it tries to hide the glaring absence of social justice that allows the existence of wide-spread grinding poverty side-by-side with the opulent life-style of the ruling elites, an injustice that demands to be exposed during the election. These are issues about which the great majority of Ethiopians care, irrespective of their ethnic identity.

Third, the pro-democracy parties cannot pass in silence the havoc and destruction that the Meles regime has inflicted on the Ethiopians of the Ogaden. The Somalis are massacred and their habitat destroyed because they reject the TPLF/EPDRF definition of “ethnic self-determination” as being the tool of the economic aggrandizement of the TPLF/EPDRF elites. In light of the scorched-earth policy that the regime pursues in the Ogaden, one cannot but conclude that the COC, in its article 10, tries to mask the regime’s abhorrent use of the “Ethiopian defense forces” to implement and defend the interests of the TPLF/EPDRF elites. It is precisely the TPLF self-serving definition of democratic sovereignty in terms of the separation of ethnies rather than in terms of the separation of powers that gave the TPLF/EPDRF regime a free hand to exploit “ethnic self-determination” as a tool for extracting wealth and use in the process the “Ethiopian defense forces” as the private army of the ruling elite. Given this context, no Ethiopian, in any region of Ethiopia, is immune from being subjected one day to the fate of the Ethiopians of the Ogaden, if the interests of the TPLF/EPDRF require it. This is an issue then that is of interest to all Ethiopians, whatever region they hail from.

Fourth, the COC embodies another lie—that Ethiopia belongs to all Ethiopians. Its mention of “the Ethiopian citizens’ centuries struggle” (article 13) masks the fact that the TPLF/EPDRF has blatantly betrayed these “centuries of struggle” by creating a regime where not only the overwhelming wealth of the country is appropriated by the TPLF ruling elite, but also a state whose upper echelons of the armed, police and security forces as well as of the bureaucratic, judiciary and diplomatic offices are almost entirely in the hands of the ethnic group that the TPLF claims to represent. Never in the history of Ethiopia has a single ethnie so thoroughly monopolized the upper ranks of the armed, police and security forces, the commanding heights of the state bureaucracy, the economy and the judiciary as under the TPLF/EPDRF regime. This is an issue that concerns all Ethiopians. In the Ethiopia of TPLF/EPDRF there are two classes of Ethiopian citizens -- the “golden” citizens (to cite Meles’s intentionally divisive epithet) who have access to political, economic, social powers and the commanding heights of the state apparatus, and the “others”, who, though constituting the majority, are recognized as “citizens” only if they submit to the will of the regime. Ethiopians, including those who Meles abusively reduces to being only his ethnic kin and kith, ignoring the historical record that Tigreans are the kin and kith of all Ethiopians, reject this abominable conception of citizenship.

Finally, article 1 of the COC pays lip-service to the “imperative of the realization of the human and democratic rights” of Ethiopians. But the fact of the matter is that Ethiopians are subject to serious human, political and civic rights violations before the signing of the COC, and are still subject to the same indignities and oppressions after the signing of the COC. The shining symbol of the persistence of this repression is the continued incarceration of Judge Burtukan. Her “crime” was to be the authentic voice of the deep yearning of Ethiopians for democracy. The injustice inflicted on the thousands of Ethiopians who are harassed and imprisoned for no other reason than their conviction that Ethiopians have the right to speak and associate with each other freely cannot be elided over in the 2010 election. What the COC tries to do in its cynical assumption that “human and democratic rights” are currently respected is to exclude the violation of these rights as an issue.

There is still Sufficient Time

Bringing to the fore the above issues -- all occluded by the COC through phrasings that assume that these issues do not exist and that bringing them up is tantamount to misconduct—will surely transform the 2010 election into a weapon for democracy that will de-legitimate and thus undermine the TPLF/EPDRF’s hold on power. But this is possible only if the members of the Ethiopian democratic family abide by a democratic code of conduct, implicit or explicit, based on mutual respect and tolerance.

The TPLF/EPDRF penned Code of Conduct is in reality a Code of Exclusion that tries to put out of bounds precisely those issues that are of concern to all the members of the Ethiopian democratic family: to those who signed the COC and those who rejected it, to those who participate in the election and those who do not, and to all those who, whatever their particular political approach may be, share the goal of a democratic Ethiopia. There is still sufficient time left for the democratic opposition forces to successfully convert the 2010 election into an arsenal of powerful causes and retool it into a formidable weapon that could transform TPLF/EPDRF’s predicted victory into a womb that gestates the regime’s defeat, thus facilitating the birth of a democratic Ethiopia. This opportunity should not be wasted.

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