A Reply to Gen. Tsadkan’s Reply: Narrowing the Gap

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Mesay Kebede
Mesay Kebede

Messay Kebede
Dear Lt. General Tsadkan Gebre Tensay:
I thank you for sending me your reactions to my review of your article on the political difficulties of Ethiopia and of the solution you suggest to overcome them. Your response constitutes a very welcome clarification, not only for me, but also for the many more readers who have questions about your article. I have received many emails from various circles. Some of them agree with my assessment of your article; others reflect the opinion that my review was unnecessarily harsh and missed the core of your argument, which is the necessity of taking the constitution as a framework of a broad agreement to avoid chaos and conflicts. Still others consider your article as a misleading attempt to prolong the life of the existing ruling clique.
Tsadkan Gebretnesae
Let me affirm from the outset and in the most categorical terms that I do not share the view of those who maintain that your article is an exercise of deception. Your article reflects a genuine concern for the future of Ethiopia and suggests solutions that appeared to you most realistic and feasible. As to the view of those who accuse me of missing the main point of your argumentation, my reply is that I did not miss it. On the contrary, as I will try to show, my criticism was setting the conditions for the constitution to become a framework for all parties concerned to work together.
Your clarification begins by stating the basic agreement that I share with you, namely, that Ethiopia is going through a deep crisis that threatens its very existence and that the only way to counter the danger is by implementing democracy. There is no other solution than the democratic one, given that the use of force will only aggravate the crisis to the point of making it unsolvable through peaceful means. Where we disagree is that the implementation of democracy means for you the unrestricted application of the constitution.
Here I need to specify what I mean by “disagreement.” For me, the problem pertains not so much to the core features of the constitution as the people who are supposed to implement it. If the present ruling clique is the implementer, 25 years of experience tell me that it is not going to happen. Those who are ruling the country went to the extent of claiming a parliamentary electoral score of 100 percent even as deep frustration was looming everywhere and flared up in Oromia after only a few months. I have used the term “naivety” to express this reality. Yes, our solution must be realistic, but equally realistic must be the possibility of implementing it.
What does “realistic” mean? No more no less than the imperative necessity of cleansing the ruling clique of all those elements opposing the implementation of democratic principles. Without this prior measure, no rapprochement between the government and the opposition is thinkable. In particular, your call for a “structure where all political forces and the populace at large through various forms of organization, shall participate and reach consensus on the way forward including revising some of the laws and reorganize some of the institutions, especially those related to elections,” cannot see the light of day unless the TPLF undertakes the purge of die-hard ethnicists and anti-democratic forces from its ranks. In addition to an internal reshuffling, measures to build up confidence must be taken, like the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the lifting of the ban on demonstrations, free speech, etc., as well as the unambiguous abrogation of the infamous anti-terrorist law.
My understanding is that the cleansing of the EPRDF can be undertaken legally if enough members wish to do so. Be that as it may and whatever means are used, there is no possibility to organize fair elections so long as the present ruling clique remains in power. Better yet, things would move decidedly in the right direction if a transitional government of national reconciliation in which all parties, community leaders, and important civic organizations would participate, is established. This would dismiss the present parliament, a move that simply acknowledges that the total electoral victory of the EPRDF was illegal because it was obtained by undemocratic means.
At this stage, I would like to deal with your major argument, which is the necessity of taking the constitution as a basic framework if the country is to change peacefully. I have already acknowledged that you do not reject the alteration of the constitution provided that it is supported by the majority of the Ethiopian people. I agree with you on both accounts. However, given the undemocratic nature of the EPRDF government since it came to power, it is untenable to state that the constitution was approved by the Ethiopian people. It is not an exaggeration to say that the constitution was fundamentally the work of the TPLF and OLF. This is so true that many groups were deliberately excluded and, most of all, there was no open, public debates on the spirit and content of the constitution. Without open debates, there is no democracy. Rather than being democratically established, the constitution was an imposition by the victors on the vanquished.
How can this breach be corrected? The agreement to take the constitution as a framework, a point of departure must be accompanied by the understanding that one of the major tasks of the transitional government or the forum, as you suggest, is to organize official and public discussions on the constitution and gather suggestions and amendments, be they structural or functional. The second step is to put the suggestions and amendments to the test of popular verdict. If a majority of the Ethiopian people decides that the major provisions of the constitution as they are now are acceptable, then this ends the debate once and for all. However, if the majority decides to include amendments, the amended constitution will be the final one.
A crucially important note is that the main condition for this kind of open debate and democratic procedure is the removal of article 39. The threat of secession will polarize and radicalize various groups, thereby preventing any move toward mutual concessions. For pro-unity forces, article 39 amounts to negotiating with a gun to one’s head. By contrast, my belief is that a clear majority will support the principle of decentralization and self-rule if the threat of secession is removed. The deletion of the article will also open the possibility of changing the structure of the government so that any hegemony of one ethnic group over other groups is definitively excluded. Moreover, alongside the fortification of self-rule, measures that integrate all ethnic groups into a national unity could be designed and given the necessary political tools.
These amendments should facilitate mutual concessions and the formation of a representative government. If both national unity and self-rule are protected, only extremists on both sides will find a reason to oppose the proposal. In a democratic system, one cannot eliminate by force extremist positions, but precisely the effectiveness of a true democracy is to isolate them and turn them into a negligible minority.
I hear you when you argue that perfect democracy cannot be established given the conditions of our country. I also admit that the TPLF’s option of armed struggle against the Derg was not conducive for the development of democratic culture and methods of work. My issue is not TPLF’s inability to establish a perfect democracy, but its abysmal failure to put democracy, however limited it may have been, on the path of growth and expansion. Worse yet, it rolled back on its declared democratic intent by effectively moving toward a dictatorial system of government.
The failure and the betrayal are no accidents. You recognize it, the TPLF has followed Leninist principles from its inception. Allow me to add that it never got rid of those principles. Leninism is an anti-democracy ideology based on the goal of establishing a hegemonic party in all political, ideological, and economic spheres of social life. A party cannot be governed by Leninist principles and be as the same time democratic, any more than a square can be a circle at the same time. I really have trouble agreeing with you when, after admitting that the TPLF was a Leninist party, you write: “This is why I say the TPLF was democratic and revolutionary. But it was not without defects and challenges.” The essence of Leninism is not to limit democracy; it is to exclude it by the practice of “democratic centralism,” the addition of “democratic” being nothing more than a deceptive adjustment. The truth is that the TPLF must be demystified for Ethiopia to advance in light of the fact that it rejected the content of Leninism but retained its spirit. My criticism was a call for self-criticism, which is the primary condition for renewal. Needless to say, renewal is also highly dependent on a complete critical assessment of Meles’s rise, methods of government, and actual outcomes.
I welcome your clarification about the issue of developmental state versus liberalism. You bring out the “dilemma” between restricting freedom and leaving the whole economy to the forces of the free market. I applaud that you reject the use of coercive methods while not turning a blind eye to the danger inherent in the principles of the free market when they are applied to an undeveloped economy. Agreed, the debate is raging and the final truth on the question of knowing which one is best for developing countries is not yet in sight. However, it is clear that Ethiopia under Meles has taken the path of the developmental state. The intention of my criticism was not to take side for or against developmental state: I was merely pointing out that Meles used the ideology partially, that is, to justify authoritarian methods while ruling out and neglecting the other conditions, without which the model of development cannot work. Hence my suspicion that he did not choose the path to accelerate development, but to justify authoritarianism. In the end, Ethiopia ended up with nothing, that is, with neither development nor freedom.
Wishing you success in your endeavors
Yours truly
Messay Kebede

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