Ethiopia: Where do we go from here?

Teshome Abebe (Ph.D)

By Teshome Abebe (PhD)

The following text of the speech was presented at Vision Ethiopia Conference on March 27, 2016. Because of time limitations, some paragraphs may not have been presented. I attended the conference as an academic only representing myself, and not as a member of a political party or any other group. As a result, the views expressed are mine alone. No financial support was requested or received from any individual or group, and my assignment was to respond to the following questions:

Quo Vadis? Where Do We Go From Here? Who Should Do What to Guarantee Democracy, Transition, and Unity in Post Conflict Ethiopia?

1. Background

Where We Have Been

There is no need to dwell too long on this part of my presentations, as all of you know so well where we have been over the past many decades. Suffice it to state that part of the failures in our past have to do with the excessive need to maintain and exercise power by the Atse Haile Selassie regime as well as by the Derg. In both cases, we have witnessed that they stayed in power too long; refused to listen to the citizenry; and never prepared the country for a peaceful transition of power in any meaningful manner. The result has been very familiar: assume power by force; get chased out of office by force.  The price the nation has had to pay for this state of affairs or dysfunction has been enormous. We have lost too many and too much both in lives and treasury; we have lost enormously in opportunity cost; and for all intents and purposes, the nation is still backward: we still can’t feed ourselves; and we have taught the young an incredibly bad lesson: that disordered force is the norm in Ethiopia. In my opinion, this is a truly sad state of affairs. On this, I am certain that there is general agreement on all sides.

B) Where We Are Now

As I leave where we have been and transition to where we are now, I am afraid that I don’t have too many things that are encouraging either.  Talking about where we are now requires one to take a sort of a survey – kind of a meta-study of the events and then conditions in which we find our country today. Let me first state that when we talk about the conditions in our homeland, we are not waging a vendetta or a personal campaign against anyone; rather it is simply an examination of the unflattering facts.

Though you are all students of Ethiopian affairs, let me try to summarize the situation in the following manner. This summary is based on the review of the literature of important studies; a thorough reading of the opinions and positions of people in academics, the professions, and most of all, of people in government; and a personal assessment of events and conditions on the ground in Ethiopia.

The African Development Bank, in a report on economic outlook in Ethiopia, recently stated that, “Ethnic Federalism has heightened and transformed historical territorial conflicts into contemporary inter-regional boundary conflicts. Inter-clan conflicts have begun to inform perceived or real disenfranchisement and inequitable distributions of economic and/or political benefits. Radicalism has also underlain sporadic religious clashes.”

Where we are today, can charitably be described as, what Thomas Hobbes referred to as “the chaos of competing enemies”. This chaos of the competing enemies afflicting the country is a classic strategy manufactured to sow conflict.  When resources are short (the resource here could also be power), people divide, scapegoating one another. What ensues is the turning of one region against another; one culture against another; older people against younger ones; one political party against the others; leaders against members; and one idea against another. Hobbes called this the pre-social pre-political world. For the ruling party, chaos has become power, and an opportunity to remake the world in their preferred configuration.

The ethnic stratification we witness in Ethiopia today, is the result of several factors: the introduction and implementation of the Killil system (a hammer blow to Ethiopian unity) the appearance or perceived appearance of ethnocentrism; the competition along ethnic lines for some common goal, such as power or influence, or a material interest, such as wealth or territory; and the emergence of deferential power. (See Donald Noel).  To make matters worse, there is evidence that the competition is driven by self-interest and hostility, and would result in inevitable further stratification and conflict. (See Lawrence Bobo & Vincent Hutchings).  These conditions, interwoven with what I will call the policy of ambitious domination, have the potential to produce ethno-national conflict.

Where We Have Consensus

Asserting that we have a general agreement on some things is a dangerous proposition among any group much less among Ethiopians who are very passionate about politics, and even more passionate about their country. Over the past quarter of century, we have debated as well as grieved. People are sad about what has happened in Ethiopia, and they have talked and written about all kinds of topics. I have to admit that this ‘grieving’ process continues even today.

I can safely state, however, that there is an amicable consensus on a number of fronts among the commenting class, and those who are engaged with the issue. The debates we have had over the past 25 years—and they were intensive debates–have rendered some arguments moot, and yielded consensus on others. What are the areas in which we have general consensus?

There is general consensus that we wish to see a Democratic Ethiopia. We have experimented enough with other forms of government, and that the future for Ethiopia must clearly, unambiguously and unalterably be Democratic.  An Ethiopia in which democratic institutions thrive; an Ethiopia whose leaders have an unflinching commitment to democratic values; and a country whose leaders have purged themselves of all forms of non-democratic impulses. Of this much, we agree.

There is consensus that we wish to see a united Ethiopia. By this we also mean one country, one people, with differentiated cultures but a common root. Diversity with a common root!

There is consensus that we wish to have an Ethiopia whose sovereignty is not questioned (not left to interpretations): not questioned by outsiders; and certainly not questioned by its children.

There is consensus that we wish to have an Ethiopia whose integrity is not violated. By this, we mean that the assurance of sovereignty is necessary but not sufficient: it must also be respected.

There is consensus that we wish to see a developed Ethiopia. What we wish to have is an Ethiopia that is socially, economically, technologically and scientifically developed.

There is no consensus on the issue of how to deal with the ruling party—the TPLF/EPRDF. I hold the very controversial view that when it comes to engaging the government; we might do better to focus on replacing, reforming, influencing and/or humanizing the TPLF/EPRDF rather than its complete eradication as some would wish to have it. The realistic choice that I think we face isn’t really a choice between an Ethiopia without TPLF/EPRDF and an Ethiopia with only TPLF/EPRDF. The realistic choice we face is between an Ethiopia where Democratic values, buttressed with democratic institutions, are supreme; where human rights are respected and upheld; and where the development process is all-inclusive versus an Ethiopia where these are lacking. Given that choice, the former sounds more appealing to me regardless of who rules the country. This, I believe, is an expansionist (as opposed to a reductionist) view that is not only proper, but also consistent with the principles of inclusion as well as that of true democracy.

Furthermore, I hold the view that the more serious and long-term threats to Ethiopia are not the TPLF/EPRDF or nationalist forces by themselves. Rather it is the coalescing threat on the horizon, that which might emerge from the Arab World. The petro dollar enabled alliance between Egypt, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti is likely to become an existential threat, with religion as the driving force, but the desire to weaken Ethiopia as the primary thrust.

III. What is Lacking Or What Must Be Done?

For a variety of reasons, Ethiopians have lacked unity in their responses to the ruling party’s policy of ambitious domination. This has been true of all segments of society. We espouse too many divisions; too many plans; too many groups; too much duplication of effort; and too many personal agendas. It seems to be natural to us, that in an instant, we fall back on an almost tribal urge to defend our side. And as you know, sometimes, one choice precludes another. As a consequence, we are ineffective in our efforts even if we were to come together temporarily.  It seems to me that what it is called for here is the Latin imploration  ‘in things important, unity’. Remember our own adage ‘Dirr Biabir, Anbesa Yasir’. Yet, it seems that when it comes to meaningful action, the adage gets thrown out the window. There are economic and non-economic explanations for that state of affairs.  But regardless of the explanations, what is undeniably true is that we remain intangible to those in power if we are not united. We remain intangible to those that might wish to assist us if we are not united; and we remain intangible to those that wish to dominate us if we are not united. The first duty we should have to each other on the matter of the motherland is unity! Unity based on ‘citizenship’ or some other super-ordinate goal.

The second thing we must have is reconciliation. One might ask, who is to be reconciled and with whom? Well, there is plenty of reconciliation that must take place before we unite for a purpose. To be sure, reconciliation is not just about receiving or just about corrective action. It is about the future. It is a means of addressing how we are going to live together; it is a means of taking constructive action; it is a means of sorting through choices; and it is a means through which we take responsibility for past mistakes, and pledge to never ever repeat the offense again.

As such, we should have true and genuine reconciliation between political parties. This requires that the transgressions, real or imagined, of the past must be buried for good, and new efforts must be made to start anew. And I am happy to report that there are groups gearing up and ready to assist with this.

We need reconciliation between the governed and the governing. This is so because the ruling party has so much to explain.

Reconciliation between the government and the opposition parties is also critical if the country is to deploy all available talent to overcome the multitude of challenges.

Reconciliation between Ethiopians and their history is another must. Though this requires time as well as patience, there is a general feeling that many in Ethiopia and some outside of it are revising the country’s history to fit current needs. It may be possible to embellish history, but unnatural to edit it without molesting the truth. As a consequence, our historians have their work cut out for them in this regard.

We also need reconciliation on the issue of ‘ethnic federalism’. There are essentially two recognized methods of dealing with this important issue.

The first method is for the government not to acknowledge ethnic, national or social identities but rather instead enforce political and legal equality of all individuals. (See Jurgen Habermas & Bruce Barry).

It appears to me that this might be unworkable at the moment.  For one thing, the current generation and the one just before it primarily see themselves as belonging to an ethnic group first, and the prominence of ‘citizenship’ is not as strong as we might wish to see it. I have to concede here that while I can only judge my contemporaries, I can only make educated guesses about those before or after me.

Second, ethnic groups in general, and ethnic cultures in Ethiopia in particular, have moved up and down the ethnic ‘diacritic’ overtime. And which ‘diacritic’ of ethnicity is salient depends on whether people are scaling ethnic boundaries up or down, and whether they are scaling them up or down depends generally on the political situation. (See Ronald Cohen & Joan Vincent). Furthermore, ethnicity emerges when it is relevant as a means of furthering emergent collective interests and changes according to political changes in the society. (See Barth & Seidner for more on this). Unless the political system changes, people will cling to what appears to them to be safe, comfortable, or even expected.

The second method is for the government to recognize ethnic identities and develop a process through which the particular needs of ethnic groups can be accommodated within the boundaries and/or sovereignty of the country. ( See Charles Taylor & Will Kymlicka). The Ethiopian government attempted to do the later but with provisions that have had disastrous consequences. These two points of view must be reconciled, and, I believe it is possible to do so.

The third thing that must be done is to provide a unified response to the three questions of: Land Ownership; Religion; and Ethnic Federalism.

Before the TPLF ascended to power and thereafter, it identified these three factors as wounds of the Ethiopian polity, and decided to turn them into weapons. Initially, the three issues resonated with the general population that had already been emotionally decimated by the Derg. While there will be disagreements on the efficacy, policy wise, of the particular factor, it is safe to say that the ruling party has used these three factors as a wedge issue between and among the populous. It is also safe to state that the initial euphoria generated among the population may have started to ebb as the public began to weigh and assess the benefits and costs associated with the particular issue. I am going out on a limb and suggest that the Ethiopian people have not embraced the ‘ethnic’ issue in a way that could make the ruling party claim success. In fact the opposite might just be true as Ethiopians began to view the ‘ethnicity’ issues as very divisive and threatening national unity and security.  Indeed, an honest and correct assessment of the issue, notwithstanding what the high priests of ‘ethnic federation’ might think, would lead us to conclude that the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that took place in parts of the country had repulsed Ethiopians and offended their senses.

In all cases, however, there have not yet been clearly articulated positions or alternatives provided by either opposition political parties or academe to the vexing issues of land ownership (as you know, ownership is the prerogative to control); the role of religion, if any; and viable alternatives to ethnic federalism acceptable to all.

The fourth thing that must be done is an identification of a new form of ambition. Simply stated, we need to formulate a new agenda, if you will. The ruling party had promised Ethiopians the freedom from hunger. That concept has sold well overseas where outsiders, having tired of watching little hungry kids on their television sets, had given the government the benefit of doubt. Now that we know the result of that promise, I will refrain from restating it here again. But I think that Ethiopians—both inside and outside of the country—wish to articulate a new form of freedom: the freedom not to have to consider ethnicity in their daily lives. Simply stated, we need to have a new ambition. Because all ambitions require forward thrust, perhaps, this will provide the forward momentum that we desperately lacked.

Finally, we must establish a post-conflict organization to instigate economic, political, social, technological as well as scientific reform, and to make sure that the gains achieved are maintained and advanced; to advance a genuine inclusion agenda that incorporates actors from all stakeholders, and assure that there is no backsliding; and to sustain a conflict containment agenda that is proactive to make sure that the economic costs of violence are contained and managed.

How Would We Accomplish These?

In two recent articles, I have argued that we must have conversation. The conversation we are going to have should be about the solutions to the problems the country faces, and would include conversations about politics, power, authoritarianism and hegemony. If we agree that it is time for solutions, we must also agree that such solutions must be based on a transparent and realistic account of what caused the problems in the first place. Here, I don’t mean to overburden our conversations with a chronology of what took place and when because that won’t help explain it. What we need to do is examine the motivation for the actions taken, and on what basis those actions were taken. In trying to do so, all sides must understand that while the regime in Ethiopia faces considerable opposition, it also enjoys internal support. Most importantly, the government also has powerful allies, notably the U.S and the U.K. just to mention two.

Having framed the issue in this manner, a message has to be framed and delivered, and that message has to be effective.  For a message to be effective, first, it must come from a unified group—a united opposition (just remember that no one in their right mind would wish to bargain with an intangible entity that can not deliver); and second, it must reach and influence those in control—whether they are elected officials, dictators, regulators, or private actors. That means, therefore, the communication would ultimately have to be with the ruling party. This is crucial. Take for instance women’s issues: to bring about change regarding women’s issues, it is not enough to talk to women alone. The conversation has to include men as well. Similarly, if we wish to bring about change in power and hegemony, the conversation would have to be with those that wield it. Peaceful change will only take place in Ethiopia with the positive involvement of the ruling party.

So what will we be the modality of the conversation with the ruling party? The Constitution, of course. I have written before that if there is ever anything we ought to talk about, it is the constitution. Why the constitution? Because, like it or not, accept it or not, the current government of Ethiopia is a ‘lawful’ regime and not an ‘unlawful’ one. It may be unlawful in many of its governing practices, but is recognized as a lawful regime by every country in the world. Hence, the focus on the constitution. It should be the center of our effort, the focus of our energies, and the roadmap to any peaceful change that is likely to bring about solutions to the problems Ethiopia faces to day. I have never advocated throwing away the current constitution in its entirety. I hold the opinion that the current constitution is one of the most liberally worded constitutions out there—it even allows for ethnic groups to cede from the motherland! How more liberal can you get? But like everything else, the devil is in the details. While there are elements of the document that might be useful to retain, there are also elements of the document that could produce disastrous consequences, and are damaging to the country.

Although not directly echoing my call for a constitutional reform, even the Chair of the Constitutional Assembly, Negaso Gidada, has given recent testimony that the drafting, approval and implementation of the constitution was fraught with many errors and problems, and expressed regret at the end product. Of the stunning admissions is his regret that the people of Ethiopia had no say in the final document. (See Teshome Abebe; & Negaso Gidada Interview).

Concluding Remarks

Let me summarize these comments as follows: Our country is distressed, and it needs our attention. Each person has an opportunity to contribute their talents and unleash some of their potential (ሀብት ያለው በሀብቱ፣ ጉልበት ያለው በጉልበቱ፣ እወቅት ያለው በእውቀቱ).

The ruling party borrowed strength from the position it held; and from the emotions created by using ethnicity, the issue of land ownership and religion as weapons. We now know the consequences of this ploy. But like all borrowed assets, borrowed strength eventually diminishes as one loses influence with those that they wish to impress, and the strength turns into weakness. It is at this juncture that we must ask, “what does the situation demand? What strength, what skill, what knowledge, and what attitude?”

To me, the situation demands that there must be unity: unity in goals, unity in purpose, unity in effort, and unity in principles.

The situation demands the strength of empathy: empathy to seek to understand, and then to be understood.

The situation demands the skills to build relationships and build them with consistency and sincerity, based on national imperatives and not personal agendas.

The situation further demands the knowledge to be able to teach, to explain, to organize and to execute.

And finally, the situation demands an attitude of reconciliation, inclusiveness, democratic values, and of a new ambition to a new kind of freedom for Ethiopians: the freedom not to have to consider ethnicity in their daily lives!

Thank you