The irony of the Zenawi foundation On political taboos and woos

By Teklu Abate / May 21, 2013

Let the new march start afresh "Let the incoherent activities end. Let the petty bickering stop. And let Ethiopians unite against poverty, hunger, corruption, injustice, discrimination, humiliation…in their own country. Let the new march start afresh"Abebe Gellaw
The regime in Ethiopia and the opposition in the Diaspora and at home appear to live in totally different ‘worlds’. Each is a typical alien to the other. The governing party sees the opposition as powerless, incompetent, disorganized, delusional, visionless, and remnants of the past regime. The opposition, on the other hand, tend to characterize the reign of the current regime as a complete failure. Metaphorically speaking, the gap between the opposition and the regime is, with no exaggeration, as deep and long as the Great East African rift valley which dissects Ethiopia into two. This political rift must be one of the major obstacles that stands on our way to genuine or adequate democracy.

In his papers Breaking Political Barriers and Political Taboos and Better to Light a Candle than Curse the Darkness(both published in different times at EthioMedia), Professor Tecola Hagos (henceforth Tecola, just for simplicity) makes a passionate call to all interested to enter into some sort of discourse on several seminal issues related to Ethiopian politics. The themes raised are comprehensive, significant, and timely. The overall message of the papers that the opposition/Diaspora and the regime in power should enter into discourse seems theoretically intelligible and appealing to everybody concerned about politics in Ethiopia.

To me, the call is extremely important and significant, as I believe in the potential power of civilized discourse to turn around life and living in Ethiopia for the good. I believe that through discourses, we could be able to narrow down the rift created between the regime and the opposition if each one of us believes in reason, logic, and evidence, and if we hold ourselves accountable to what we are doing. Obviously, discourses could and might not make everybody turn in easily. But if they are made in a systematic and sustained way, many could carve out a common ground from where to fight for democratic governance. The top EPRDF leadership or some groups of the opposition may not have the interest and readiness to converse or to change in certain ways after discourses. Through rationale discourses, we could for sure positively influence ordinary EPRDF supporters and members, middle and lower-level officials and most importantly the general public.

I am not arguing that Tecola’s call is typically original though. In fact, media used to and still do arrange conversations between government-affiliated and opposition experts. The VOA Amharic service, for instance, did and does host expert-level discussions where both government and opposition people were/are involved. The ESAT is also doing a bit of this type of dicussions (albeit in a one-on-one basis), of which the latest one was the extremely critical and realistic discussions held by Sisay Agena of ESAT and Abba Mella of Ethio- Civility discussion forum. Although some sort of discourse has been conducted by such broadcast media, the topic Tecola raised is, however, more explicit and direct.

I, however, have several difficulties in relation to the content and methods of Tecola’s papers. Evenif one could argue that call papers themselves need not be criticized, I see several inadequacies in logic, evidence, and conclusions thereof. My take is that initial discussion ideas must be provided in a more compelling, consistent, reflective, and unbiased way. Otherwise, if things are exaggerated, misrepresented, or overlooked from the very start, many would have difficulty seeing the real motive behind the call.

In this paper, I raised key issues which appear to me inadequately or misleadingly discussed in Tecola’s papers. This commentary in no way belittles or dismisses Tecola’s noble idea/call; it is rather intended to ‘break the ice’ by highlighting my take of the issues raised, with a goal of contributing my part to creating fruitful discussions and then bringing common basis of understanding about Ethiopian politics. Major issues selected for my commentary include the trajectory the Hailemariam administration is taking, the Abay dam project, human rights, and Diaspora politics. To completely understand my ideas, readers are encouraged to read Tecola’s papers first.

Profoundly changed circumstance?

Tecola’s papers conclude that Ethiopia under PM Hailemariam is taking the right socio- economic and political trajectory. To describe the extent of changes taking place, the writer used such beguiling expressions as “Qualitatively new political brew”, “Profoundly changed circumstances”, “Very serious and quite impressive events”, and “Excellent indicators of a solid starting point”. These expressions raise eyebrows of an average reader. They incorrectly send a signal/message that Ethiopia is really changing for the better. The sorts of changes mentioned in the papers are not actually changes at all; they are, I could argue, mere articulations and re-articulations of the status quo. Moreover, the changes the writer refers to have little or no significance when it comes to socio-economic development and protection of human rights in Ethiopia. They are too tiny to be felt. Let us see some of the arguments and evidences provided by the writer (Tecola) to support his conclusion: encouraging change is taking place in Ethiopia.

Constitutional right versus party might

According to Tecola, a change of policy relating to regional governance model is taking place. The writer is fascinated by ETV’s report of how PM Hailemariam Dessalegn and Redwan Hussein responded to questions related to the inhuman eviction of the Amharas from Benishangul. Both officials explained that some “antipeople” officials forcefully evicted citizens and that is against the victims’ Constitutional right to work and live anywhere in Ethiopia. To Tecola, “What Hailemariam stated was a direct repudiation of Meles Zenawi’s core policy and work of twenty years of ethnic cleansing and Killilization (bantustanization) of Ethiopia”. This conclusion is hardly grounded and does not consider pre-Hailemariam state of affairs.

The late Meles used to talk the same talk, oftentimes by reverting to the Constitution. He, I perfectly recall, once talked that everyone has that right to work anywhere as long as they are registered by local governments. He, of course, contrary to reality, claimed that some people were evicted because of their mistreatment of the environment and because they were not legally registered residents. And he made it clear that those officials who displaced legal residents could be held accountable. Although his reason for their eviction was out of touch with reality, the basic principle that people could live anywhere was repeatedly talked about by him. If so, what new ground/s does Hailemariam break? Or, is Hailemariam’s reference to the Constitution considered a big deal?

Moreover, talk alone does not solve real social problems. People are still being displaced, killed, and persecuted. If Hailemariam were true to his words and to the Constitution, he could have ensured the effective and safe re-settlement of thousands of evictees. Rather, the poor are dying of hunger, disease, and systematic attacks on a daily basis. The might of the ruling party overweighs the ideals of the Constitution: cold-blooded cadres and officials are playing with the lives of thousands while Hailemariam is talking rhetoric and defending the status quo.

Hailemariam and SEPDM as game changers?

To Tecola, Hailemariam and his party, the SEPDM, are the game changers in today’s Ethiopian politics. According to Tecola, the party has a multiethnic composition and that their ‘clean’ past gives them a competitive edge. That they are so far able to peacefully lead the many ethnic groups is testimony to the good performance of its leadership, argued Tecola. In fact, the writer dubbed Hailemariam and Redwan as “Very different personalities” and “Intelligent”. And “That they “survived the untamed power and antiques of Meles Zenawi and his entourage… is no small fete”.

Several counter-arguments could be made based on these quotations. One, the ethnic groups who are supposed to associate themselves with the SEPDM are not led in a democratic way. In fact, we used to witness conflicts after conflicts for several years. Several ethic groups wanted to have a different kind of administration, which the SEPDM could not allow. They are put at gun point anytime they start rioting. Two, yes, Hailemariam and his likes are for sure very different personalities. This is what we learn from psychology- everyone is unique. But leaving the implicit assumption that these folks are real good when it comes to leading a country is misleading. That they did not have a Banda background does not mean they could play politics well.

Three, Hailemariam and et al. might be intelligent, at least in their own professions. I have no doubt the PM was academically competitive but that is not our point. An accomplished engineer might not turn to be an accomplished leader. I do not see the intelligence of Hailemariam when it comes to leading us. An average person could easily talk his talks if given the opportunity. His speeches made so far appeared too referential, conformist, tiresome, and predictable. Four that Hailemariam escapes Meles’ sticks and tricks does not necessarily indicate his intelligence. In fact, those who talked their minds are killed, persecuted, jailed, and/or demoted. Those who echoed Meles’ words and actions further climbed the power ladders. Hailemariam made it to the premiership not because of his intelligence but because of his gullible acceptance of authority above him. In sum, the new premier does not show us that he is a real game changer. What he clearly and repeatedly told us is that he will implement the visions of the “great leader” with no editions/changes.

Five, considering individuals as units of analysis is itself misleading and limiting. Meles is gone and Hailemariam comes in. And he will for sure go some day. Analysis and discourse need to consider drawing the big picture: characterizing EPRDF as a governing party and conquering new grounds.

On corruption and state-level visits

Another indicator of “profound” changes in Ethiopia is, according to Tecola, the arrest of high-level officials and businessmen on corruption charges. Other indicators include “the visit of high level delegation from wealthy Arab States, the trade delegation from Egypt of industrialists, Hailemariam’s State visit to Kuwait, the business tours of World Bank and African Development Bank executives to Addis Ababa”.

To me, these are again bad indicators of change. One, the anti-corruption commission is established by Meles and he oversaw the prosecution and persecution of several people with whom he has a political feud. Until some weeks prior to his death, he talked about the scale of corruption in government and how much effort needs to be put to contain it. To the extent of giving ultimatums: cutting fingers and tongues. This time around, EPRDF arrests some officials and businessmen. If the move is genuine, to fight corruption, it should keep an eye on the top leadership who took part in giving corruption its structural existence. A study conducted by a fellow at Addis Ababa University revealed that the anti-corruption commission is afraid of the top corrupts. And the study was presented at a forum arranged by the commission itself. My take is that the arrests are not any new new thing at all. But am not rejecting the move of the commission to arrest corrupts, am just trying to add a grain of salt to it.

Two the number of high-level visits does not indicate change either. If one has to count on visits, who in Africa traveled the world the way Meles did? Meles attended countless international/prestigious meetings including those of the G-8, G-20, the EU, UN high-level meetings and etc. In fact, Meles was like a modern-day ‘explorer’ of the world. And countless number of international diplomats, experts, businessmen, and rights groups visited Addis while Meles was behind the wheel. However, all these show ups and gesturings could not add something concrete to the poor, say democratic governance. The same things happen now: Hailemariam’s travels and visits do not indicate change of governance style but a mere orchestration of diplomatic routines. The terrible human right record is testimony to this my conclusion.

Human rights record

Tecola speaks loudest when it comes to human rights in Ethiopia. He recalled how the Meles administration abused Ethiopians and how that ‘legacy’ is being continued by the Hailemariam administration. Both administrations commit “horrendous violation of the human rights”. The writer emphasized that “The immediate release of all political prisoners especially Eskinder, Andualem et cetera is most urgent”. I concur with all these, that the government and the county would benefit a lot if ALL political prisoners are released without preconditions.

In his latest paper, Tecola argues that releasing political prisoners and then pushing them to leave for other countries could be an option if the government is afraid of their impact at home. This is a strange recommendation, which could not solve the problem but could give a new face to it. If illegally jailing people is to be condemned, pushing them to leave their country is equally evil. One, this sort of measure would violate the rights of people to reside in their own country. Two, chasing out activists, and other experts would in the end hurt the national economy. Three, it disrupts families as moving to a new land at a late age is frustrating, psychologically and economically. Four, this sort of measure encourages dictators to reign for years and years. Giving up a certain part of our natural and constitutional right in order to get another is not fulfilling at all. Any struggle and recommendation must call for the enactment of human rights as a package, with no resort to bits and pieces of it. We have to be completely free human beings.

The Abay dam project

Tecola intends to argue that several in the Diaspora should relate the significance of the Abay dam project to national “sovereignty on our natural resources including our rivers”. And the writer tempted to believe that people oppose the project because they associate it with Meles: “Whether the project is started by Meles Zenawi is irrelevant, he could not role up any of the other constructions either and take them with him. … Let us not forget the cardinal truth that almost all technological advancement is tainted with unethical or immoral activities.”

I also believe that constructing dams on our rivers should be our business. All Ethiopians do not miss this point, I believe. The point the opposition are making against the dam project is not related to Meles as the initiator. Ethiopians knew the presence of such attempts during the imperial and Derg regimes. Meles just picked the agenda again and tried to claim originality. Even worse, he and his party attached to it a huge political face, which started to scare the public. Much of the opposition/disagreement is related to these and other considerations. The opposition want to ensure that the government has neat and clean hands to collect and manage resources for the construction of the dam. Plus, the government must practice the Constitution it drafted years ago; freedom of all sorts must be guaranteed before damming Abay. Politically-motivated arrests, killings, and persecutions must be dammed first. In sum, the Abay project turns to be a controversy because of the lack of democratic governance at all levels of government and not it is because Meles started it. We need our government to understand that we are much more precious species than mega-hydroelectric dams. If injustices of all sorts are dammed first, we all Ethiopians would join hands and embark on incredible projects. The Ethiopian Diaspora is I believe a sleeping giant who could turn around things easily and voluntarily if democratic governance is realized back home.

Unrealistic Diaspora politics?

Tecola blatantly opposes how the Ethiopian Diaspora do politics. In fact, the writer argues that several in the Diaspora “have been entertaining unrealistic political ambition that they could effect political change by debating in hotel halls and demonstrating in major western capitals. At times I find positions of some of the leaders of such political organizations quite childish, for they aspire to overthrow the Ethiopian Government through mass organization conducted from foreign capitals. This type of thinking is absurd and stupid, for it has not worked at anytime in our recent history”.

I understand that some groups are poised to bring down the regime by some means. Tecolas’ papers preach for and expect “baby-step” kind of moves/changes from the government and curses those who struggle to bring significant change. I found this problematic on several accounts. One, it undermines the power and readiness of the populace to embrace democratic leadership and would have a frustrating effect. Two, it assumes that the government is incompetent to bring meaningful changes anytime soon. Three, if we allow the government to take baby-steps, we all would die without seeing our government taking adult-steps.

Four, it sends to the government a bad signal- they might get satisfied with their moves and would say “Rome was never built over night” afterall. Five, Tecola’s papers are written to stimulate inclusion and then discourse. But this point is missed the very moment the writer sarcastically dismisses those who believe are contributing to bring drastic changes in Ethiopia. Change through revolution or evolution should rather have been part of the discourse which Tecola’s papers call for. Sixth, that revolution did not bring change so far does not mean it could not bring one now or in the future. Of course, it was through revolutions that both the imperial and Derg regimes fell apart. Am not, however, arguing in favor of either approach; am saying that one should not dismiss either approach if we want to have inclusive and holistic discourses on Ethiopian politics.

Final notes

Professor Tecola’s papers already raised several controversial but significant socio-economic and political issues in Ethiopia. The idea of breaking political taboos and engaging the current regime in civic political discourse seems interesting. This is even more appealing to opposition parties and groups who tend to follow the peaceful mode of political struggle. But the devil is always in the details. How is it possible to start and sustain productive discussions between the opposition and the ruling party while each seems to live in a different world? The problem or the challenge is a lot practical as it is a lot rhetorical and ideological.

Trying to discuss how much the regime is governing democratically is a tried and tired approach. We would rather benefit a lot if future discourses/discussions, including those from Professor Tecola, focus on explaining 1) the modus operandi (modi operandi) for bringing such discussion forums, and 2) possible challenges in engaging in political discourse between the government in Ethiopia and the opposition. Trying to touch what appears to be the untouchable, political taboos in Tecola’s usage, should be encouraged by all concerned stakeholders of Ethiopian politics. However, exaggerating minimal and oftentimes irrelevant events (as cursors of improvement) in the process of making discourse is nothing but making political woos which are as incapacitating as political taboos.

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