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Balkanization or something worse?

May 23,2013

What the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi insinuated, in one of his interviews with local journalists towards the end of the campaign in the last Federal “election”, was that Ethiopia could only exist if and only if his party is in power. Political development in the Balkan in the early 90’s was mentioned as something, not just possible but as something likely to happen in Ethiopia, for the late prime minister.

He made the story in the context of the election campaign and in reference to, apparently, registered opposition parties in Ethiopia. Projected image was that if opposition parties were to win an election, Balkanization of Ethiopia is sure to happen. Ironically, the leading opposition party running in the election at the time was a coalition of parties more or less organized on the basis of ethnicity- which is a good fit to the ideology of the ruling party.

The interview, which was televised, appeared crucially important for the ruling TPLF/EPRDF party. One clear indication that the case was so is that the interview was extensively announced ahead of time. Whether the ruling party achieved intended political purpose is doubtful. What is not doubtful is that it brought about an even more clarity of imagination as to what TPLF could do should its supremacy of power, its configuration of ethnic politics and Federal and regional structural adjustments, which are meant to support TPLF political supremacy, happen to be in jeopardy or dysfunctional altogether. Meles’ interview signaled that the time the power of TPLF minority regime is defied in a meaningful way, TPLF would throw away its “liberator” political mask, and swing to the suicidal mission while triggering off one political explosive after another. In fact, the interview was not an eye opener. If any thing, it confirmed dominant theory about the political agenda of TPLF. More distrust. More Suspicion. As a result, it has become customary to interpret developments –political, social or otherwise – from the trajectory of perceived TPLF political goals and on grounds of mistrust and suspicion.

The tendency to interpret developments that unfold in Ethiopian political landscape along the ethnic line has little to do with political inexperience or ethnic sentiment as far as many Ethiopians are concerned. It has more to do with resistance to imposed ethnic politics.The ruling party took ethnic politics very far under the guise of “respecting languages and cultures of Ethiopian people” for the purpose of making political points – a point that helped TPLF build unrivaled political power in the country by way of building ethnic-based state apparatus in the regions. Ethiopia is divided into regions on the basis of ethnicity and TPLF and its ethnic base emerged as most powerful among divided Ethiopia in terms of military power and the rest of the country was systematically disarmed. In turn, the military power helped transform the political and economic power of TPLF.

The constitution itself is drafted in a way to foster ethnic sentiment rather than national feelings so much so that “respecting languages and cultures” of different language speaking groups in the country and the issue of national unity are made to appear as opposing values. In effect, the dominant entity in the ruling coalition, TPLF, gained firm ground to misappropriate political power, wealth and inflicted unprecedented repression in the history of the country. The arrangement complicated political resistance and criticism towards the ruling party. When one criticizes the ruling party, it would seem, for the regime, as if one is criticizing a particular ethnic group.

Nowhere to point a finger to other than government whenever failure, be it administrative or political, happens and the government, in the real sense of authority, happened to be TPLF, and in turn, TPLF happened to be an ethnic-based political entity with a strong desire for ethnic supremacy which manifested itself in different forms.

Last week, series of a disaster like situations unfolded in Bahir Dar, capital of one of the Federal regions in the country. First, news of random killings by a member of Federal police deployed in Bahir Dar which claimed the lives of at least 13 people, then came news of capsized boat in Lake Tana, Bahir Dar with  4 confirmed deaths and many more missing, and then came news of blazed warehouse in the same city.These stories brought about maze for some and embitterment for many others.Undeniably, the tragic incidents renewed and even added impetus to mistrust and suspicion towards TPLF. If one wants to criticize the government, the political entity that looks like a government in the real sense of the term is TPLF. The rest of members of the ruling coalition are too weak and indecisive. Given the point that TPLF is known for Political shrewdness and is viewed as a party with a deadly political agenda, it is no surprise that the series of tragic incidents in Bahir Dar were related to TPLF political workings, for many.

The question is is it practically possible to view these incidents from a different angle? If there was a different angle from which to view the incident, would it be crystal clear that the incidents had nothing to do with the ruling party? If these assumptions were wrong, TPLF as a party is still responsible for creating a political atmosphere where people are pushed to the point of choosing an ethnic political framework, as it relates to TPLF, as a unit of political analysis. Who can conveniently forget the fact that TPLF as an ethnic-based party and through its political actions shaped not only the tendency of people to view political events and political processes in light of ethnicity but also demonstrated a desire for ethnic supremacy? Forget everything else in the past two decades. Who is going to forget the politically motivated incidents of forced eviction of settlers from their settlements, which affected thousands, allegedly on the basis of ethnicity a couple of months ago in South, Southwest and west Ethiopia? Is it possible to deny the fact that the “legal” repression on opposition party leaders and journalists is not merely an act of dictatorship but an extension of policy measure that springs from ethnic supremacy agenda?

Not to say that viewing government failures in terms of demonstrated ethnic affiliation of the governing party represents political wisdom. Nor there is strategic significance for the political struggle recognizing the ruling party’s political desire. It is viewed that way simply because it is the reality and that there appears to be no significance in the state of denial that TPLF sees Ethiopian politics in black and white: either TPLF will retain absolute power in defiance of equitable distribution of power or TPLF could pull strings of perceived political strengths to balkanize Ethiopia. Moreover, not taking and depicting TPLF for what it is may conceal the potential danger it poses whenever its absolute power is in question. if ignored, the effect could be less of Balkan and more of Rwandan experience.

It seems the case that TPLF has now reached the point of swinging to scorched earth policy. Contrary to the deeds of TPLF, there is a report of a call for transforming TPLF. During the 9th TPLF/EPRDF convention, Seyoum Mesfin, former TPLF leadership, and foreign minister are said to have raised the issue of transforming the ruling “coalition” to a unity party. Presupposing the news is true, whether it could be a reality without major structural changes in the way the federal regions are organized is questionable, to say the least. Perhaps, no one than Seyoum himself could understand that.

Tewodros Adhanome, the current minister of Foreign Affairs, in his own right seems to have kicked off his own version of rapprochement and glasnost which he is demonstrating in social media by way of opening up for discussion with some “emerging leaders.” There is no indication if this move has a political support within TPLF. There is no indication if he meant it, too.If it is genuine, it can not still be an indicator if TPLF has a plan for a paradigm shift in ethnic politics. Unlikely.

What is wise is to admit that TPLF could easily swing to suicidal mode whenever it feels that its firm grip on power is in danger. Accordingly, entities, political or otherwise, which claim to have interest in a peaceful Ethiopia and an interest in avoiding political turmoil, the likes of which Ethiopia has never seen, need to pressure the TPLF to stop its scorched earth policy and recognize the legitimate question for a change.

Little steps like releasing political prisoners, opening up for negotiation with the opposition parties, and respecting constitutional rights related to freedom of expression and the press could go a long way a long way in terms of reversing an otherwise unnecessary and devastating violence.

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