By Addissu Admas
November 9, 2019
Just a little over a year and a half ago, it appeared that Ethiopia was finally heading in the right direction, i.e., towards democracy, peace and, presumably, prosperity. Getting rid of TPLF led regime felt as if a new dawn was about to break. After nearly half a century of oppressive regimes, Ethiopians felt that there would not be a turning back to the “old ways”. Yet, today we are staring at the possibility of a country heading again towards chaos and probably civil unrest that could very well lead to the complete disintegration of the Ethiopian state.
Many blame Dr. Abiy for nearly everything that has gone wrong so far. Many more accuse him of having a secret agenda of his own, or worse, of his coalition partners. Others still accuse him of working only for his own prestige and glory; and that he is more of a showman than a truly effective leader. I do not subscribe to any of these accusations or assessments. I still believe that Dr. Abiy is a man of goodwill and good intentions who wishes only what is best not for his particular ethnic group only, but for all Ethiopians. The fact of the matter is that he is confronted with all the problems that are inherent to governing a multiethnic country that were made worse by 27 years of Woyane rule. Undoing a whole generation of divisive and rancorous system of governance is neither easy nor temporary. The upsurge of enthusiasm, nay euphoria, which we witnessed following Dr. Abiy’s rise to power, was short lived because the underlying problems were too great; and no amount of charisma on his part could have resolved them.
What we Ethiopians must come to realize is that we cannot expect that Dr. Abiy alone resolve all our problems, and turn Ethiopia into a model state. These expectations, besides being naïve, they can be dangerous. Ethiopia’s multifarious problems can only be resolved by the will of all Ethiopians. There is no one Ethiopian, or group of Ethiopians, that holds the key to all of Ethiopia’s problems. This has always been a misconception that we have nurtured for too long, and that we must rid ourselves from. All Ethiopians must come to accept the following fundamental truths as self-evident and unnegotiable if they desire to solve their fundamental problems permanently.
No ethnic war will resolve any of the problems we have; it will only exacerbate them. There are Ethiopians who appear to harbor the perverse hope that Ethiopia go the way of the former Yugoslavia. The presumed goal is to end all ethnic animus and conflict by carving out as many completely independent states as is feasible. This way, each state will be free to govern itself as it wishes; its language and culture being protected and cultivated to everyone’s heart delight. I am not quite sure if proponents of such a solution want to achieve their goal through the existing constitutional process, or by the barrel of the gun. My sense is that these individuals are not averse to choosing force over persuasion. Moreover, they seem to be moved more by rancor than reason. My hope is that they are and remain fringe elements.
Carving out as many individual and independent states can never be a viable solution for Ethiopia, because none of the states to be formed would have sufficient economic, educational and material resources to become wholly autonomous. The fact that Ethiopia has been able to achieve a modicum of economic growth in the past decade and a half is due to the contributions of all her people. If every ethnic group intends to have its own state it must also accept that it will be condemned to perennial poverty. The unity of Ethiopia, either in its current form or otherwise, is the condition sine qua non for building an economically and democratically viable country.
The current federal system should not be dismantled wholesale. However, it can and should be reformed through constitutional amendments. There are those who simply wish away the current federal constitutional arrangements and dream of returning to pre-EPRDF centralized system of governance. Even if they do not articulate it in these terms, it is in essence what they are hoping for. To these I say that the era of unitary state as it was under the imperial and the Derg regimes is over, and should not be even considered as an option. Our goal should aim more at “perfecting” the current system in place rather than wishing for a grand return to the old ways. It may appear a viable solution only to those who benefited from it, and not to those who suffered under it. In fact, it is what led ultimately to the current state of affairs.
The ethnic animus that is fanned constantly cannot and will not solve any of our problems. In fact, it will worsen them to the point where Ethiopia could become a failed state for decades to come. What Ethiopians of all ethnic groups need to learn from nations that have suffered ethnic strife and genocide is that a little compromise goes a very long way to ensuring lasting peace and cooperation. I believe that all demands made by the contending parties should be discussed openly with equanimity and fairness. It must be given also that certain demands, being detrimental to adopt or impossible to accommodate, must be taken off the table. For example, I do not think, as I have stated in the past, that adopting Oromiffa as a federal language is an outlandish demand; it is in fact a reasonable demand given the fact that it is spoken by nearly 40% of the Ethiopian population. In fact, every Ethiopian should be required to learn either Amharic or Oromiffa if they are not speakers of these languages. And if they are, they should endeavor to learn each other’s language. This can only lead to better understanding and peaceful co-existence. We have to look only to Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland how this kind of accommodation has worked quite well.
On the other hand, I find it impossible to accommodate the demand that the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa be exclusively under Oromia’s killil. I believe that Addis Ababa’s autonomy should be preserved not only because it is the federal capital, but because every Ethiopian has a stake in it. Every Ethiopian has contributed to the construction and enrichment of this city, demanding that it be simply “returned” to one ethnic group ignoring a hundred and thirty years of history, sounds worse than unreasonable. No capital or major city in the world has hardly ever been exclusively owned and populated by one ethnic or national group alone. In fact, not only every ethnic or national group has been represented in the capital or major cities, but also foreign nationals have found a place to live, work and thrive there.
It is necessary that the election not be postponed, as some have vociferously demanded. We need to be realistic and expect less than perfect elections, but hope for the fairest election to ever be held in Ethiopia’s history. This is not a call for lower expectations out of fear of fraudulent maneuvers on the part of the party in power, but because the resources available to conduct an election on par with more advanced democracies are simply not there. “Waiting for better times to come” can lead to the real possibility that it may never take place. Conversely, looking and planning forward to it will most likely have the effect of giving us hope that something decisive and transformative will take place. Pushing the election indefinitely, without a set date, will undoubtedly have deleterious effect on both the political dynamics and public state of mind. For one, the current instability and disruptions may worsen at a far quicker pace because of the very uncertainties that this will engender. Secondly, it may push the PM to adopt more and more stringent and restrictive measures to “pacify” the nation, and gradually return to where we started.
I strongly believe that two years is a sufficient amount of time for political parties to prepare for an election. It is a given that they will be at a greater disadvantage vis a vis the ruling coalition, but they need to consider that they are not here for one election, but hopefully for many more to come; and to be, in the process, the founders of a truly democratic culture in Ethiopia.
The current competition between regional or ethnic and national or ideological parties is unsustainable. This kind of political arrangement leads only to a debate that uses two different political idioms. Our national objective should be to transition from tribal to political ideology. Ethnic parties are primarily concerned with promoting and defending the rights of their particular constituencies. They are often engaged in recriminatory discourse aimed at vilifying “the old oppressing ethnic group”. This has only the effect of exacerbating the existing animus between the various ethnic groups in the country.
The federal constitution has the goal of primarily addressing virtually all the demands of ethnic or regional parties. Thus, it should render their existence irrelevant or redundant. If indeed the constitution addresses their demands and concerns comprehensively what reason do they have to continue to exist? What Ethiopia needs instead are national or ideological parties, which can produce ideas that all of Ethiopia, without distinction of ethnicity, can benefit from given that all our economic and political needs are essentially identical.
However, the fact of the matter is that not only ethnic parties continue to exist and persist, but they continue to proliferate unabated. This, as we have seen, has only the effect of producing more conflicting and divisive discourse, adding to the general confusion and anxiety of Ethiopians. What we need first is to revise the terms of our co-existence as one nation in order to create a more stable and prosperous commonwealth. Once this is established in clear and unambiguous terms, I believe that we will have more time to focus on what matters to all Ethiopians.
The unwritten, but often talked about power alternation between the major ethnic groups as inevitable must be completely repudiated. There is the presumption, and passive acceptance among many Ethiopians that one major ethnic group will inevitably emerge as hegemonic by turn, and that it is impossible to have all of them standing equal simultaneously. So, the narrative goes, Amharas had their “time” during the imperial era, the Tigreans during the TPLF regime, and the Oromos are just beginning to assert their hegemony presently under PM Dr. Abiy; and they should be governing the nation for the foreseeable future, if the country itself does not disintegrate once and for all. This notion of alternating ethnic hegemonies is not only pernicious, but has the effect of going exactly against the ultimate goal of the federal constitution. Ethiopia’s ethnic groups are not coming together to participate in a country where the “winner takes it all”, but to be valued as equal members of a larger commonwealth that respects their equal citizenship; offers them positions of responsibility and leadership at every level; protects their right to work and reside wherever and whenever they choose; ensures that they are not precluded from certain positions “reserved “only for a certain ethnicity, as the TPLF has notoriously done for a quarter of a century. What I understand by Dr. Abiy’s ideology of Medemer is that all Ethiopians have equal stake in the country’s future, and equal potentials, responsibilities, and say in what direction the country should go.
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