Ethiopian Elites are Responsible for the Country’s Failures

20 mins read

Aklog Birara (Dr)

Deeply concerned about targeted and recurring ethnic and faith-based atrocities beyond the Tigray region, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) wrote a compelling letter to Ambassador Jeffrey Feltman, U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. They urged him to approach his arduous task in a comprehensive and holistic manner. More specifically, they recommended that he leverages his role and advance national reconciliation, peace, accountable governance, and stability in Ethiopia. This request is in the interest of America’s long-term geopolitical, strategic, and national security interest.

They opined “The spate of violence has devastated communities…. The destabilizing potential of these trends should not be underestimated, especially in light of the national elections planned for June 5, 2021. … We worry that, if elections move forward without the reforms required to earn the trust of the Ethiopian public, growing ethnic and political tensions across the country will boil over into even greater violence.”

Like me and numerous others, they did not dispute the importance of free and fair elections in Ethiopia. Ethiopia deserves such an election. The question is whether the current personal safety and security environment allows such an election.

Defenders of the status quo argue with passion that fundamental reforms are neither a prerequisite nor feasible in Ethiopia currently.  The coming election, they argue, is a panacea for Ethiopia’s deep rooted institutional hurdles, including the Constitution the administrative structure that pits on ethnic group against another.

Ethiopians deserve to realize the age of consent

Defenders of the status quo do not provide us with a roadmap when Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people together would achieve the age of consent? I defend elections if they enable the voting population to achieve consent and engender accountable governance. Consent emanates from citizens eligible to vote without fear and harassment by anyone. If citizens are assured of the probability that they can hold those elected accountable for outcomes. People who are frightened for their lives cannot vote. There is no basis to argue that they can hold culprits accountable for crimes against humanity or graft and corruption.

Ethiopia is in pain

Ethiopian society is in pain due to lawlessness, a cycle of ethnicity and faith-based violence, lack of accountability at all levels of government, dire unemployment conditions for the country’s youth, hyper inflation etc.

Ethiopian political elites, civil society, academics, and scholars at home and abroad spend more time vilifying and demeaning one another. When was the last time these elites reached out to one another and came up with viable solutions?

The ethnicity and language-based Constitution and the administrative structure that was crafted and imposed on the Ethiopian people by the TPLF, the OLF and Western backers without their consent remain intact. In all countries, the Constitution sets the policies and programs of governments. An ethnic elite constitution perpetuates ethnic polarization. It reinforces a culture of bias, favoritism, and corruption. In turn, this phenomenon erodes the common good.

A flawed Constitution results in flawed outcomes. By flawed outcomes, I mean the devastating economic, social, psychological, environmental, and political impacts of recurring wars and civil conflicts, especially ethnicity and faith-based massacres on innocent civilians regardless of ethnicity or where they live in Ethiopia.

I understand fully that a “flawed and conflict-ridden” Constitution is better than nothing. The problem is this. Even if we argue that retention for now serves the common good, for example, national security, the constitution is unable to protect innocent civilians. They remain defenseless and helpless. Personal insecurity creates a porous environment and empowers external enemies to wage proxy wars. How is it that Sudan now claims the entire Beni=Shangul Gumuz region where the Grand Renaissance Dam is located as its sovereign land?

Look at the core issue from the human side. How many innocent civilians must die or how many millions must become homeless for change to occur without delay?

How do you restore faith and confidence in government if poor farmers, mothers, girls, businesswomen and men become targets of attack? How do you restore faith and confidence when government leaders do not have the moral courage to condemn atrocities regardless of their origin or motive? It does not really matter whether those being slaughtered or demeaned or evicted forcibly are Oromo, Annuak, Somali, Afar, Gurage or Amhara. It matters that they are HUMAN BEINGS AND THEY ARE ALL Ethiopians. The loss is our dignity and our humanity.

The Ethiopian Constitution and the administrative structure are conflict and war prone. The war and the resultant humanitarian devastation in Tigray alone must compel Ethiopian political and social elites regardless of ethnicity to change course. The fact that the Government of the United States has designated a Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa sends a powerful signal that we, Ethiopians, have failed; and that we are failing the people of Ethiopia.

Change the paradigm of thinking before it is too late.

It is time to wake up and stop defending the indefensible. Throughout history, civil and other wars have forced elites to change the paradigm of thinking in their societies. You cannot craft a roadmap that guides the future for any country without diagnosing the core problem that necessitates change.

The renowned scholar Edmund Burke noted ages ago that “A state without the means of some changes is without the means of its conservation.”  Ethiopia’s core problem is internal. It is political governance gone mad. It is cyclical economic and political capture gone berserk.

The means of change is equally within our own hands. But that cannot happen if we continue to devalue our differences; if we continue to attack one another; and if we do not invite innovative ideas for change without questioning motives. I have no other motive. The motive is saving Ethiopia from total collapse.

In my assessment, the current constitution and the ethnic-elite capture that dominates life in Ethiopia cannot support a unified Ethiopia or induce sustainable and equitable development for all Ethiopians. Cyclical ethic capture is a recipe for one disaster followed by another disaster. Today it is the TPLF; and tomorrow it is the OLF etc. in this vicious cycle one ethnic elite dominance followed by another, it is Ethiopia’s mortal external enemies that will emerge victorious.

A recent assessment by American Senators who seem to care about all Ethiopians is timely. Among other things, it encourages us to debate and propose a meaningful alternative for Ethiopia.

Why did the U.S. appoint a Special Envoy?

In a commentary, “Five Ways to Set Up a Special Envoy for Success in the Horn of Africa”, February 9, 2021, Judd Devermont, Director, Africa, Center for Strategic and International Studies proposed the following.

“When in doubt, dispatch an envoy. That has become an old diplomatic standby, and it is currently under consideration for the Horn of Africa, where a civil war rages in Ethiopia and has ensnared neighboring Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. The conflict, which broke out in November 2020, has left millions in dire need of lifesaving humanitarian assistance. The UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide recently warned that “the risk of atrocity crimes in Ethiopia remains high and likely to get worse.” If the crisis continues to fester, it will have grave consequences for U.S. interests in a region situated on the crossroads between Africa, Europe, and the Middle East.”

It is in line with Jedd Devermont’s diagnosis and suggestions that the Biden Administration decided to establish this special office; and selected Jefferey Feltman as Special Envoy.

What is the lead role of this Special Envoy? Would Ethiopia benefit or not?

Mr. Devermont identified five critical factors that will impact success. They include a (“Access to Power b) Solid working relationships at the State Department and USAID c) Ownership of the policy within the interagency d) Robust staffing: Coordinating and executing U.S. policy toward the range of crises—political, security, and humanitarian and e) Control over resources.”

Mr. Devermont concludes that “Only an empowered individual with strong relationships at the highest levels in D.C. and the region and a clear mandate with corresponding staff and resources will succeed in addressing the interconnected crises that threaten to plunge the Horn of Africa into a full-blown regional conflagration.”

Given the set of criteria, the strategic importance of the Horn of Africa in general and of Ethiopia for the United States, Jeffrey Feltman is likely to play a huge role in the coming months.

I recognize that, like each one of us, the “Special Envoy” has his own personal history, background, and biases. It is up to us to speak up in unison and offer viable alternatives.

Five U.S. Senators speak up 

This leads me to the importance of the letter Senators sent to Mr. Feltman. What did they identify as priorities?

In their letter dated April 29, 2021, five distinguished U.S. Senators acknowledged that Jefferey Feltman possesses the requisite “experience and leadership” skills that will enable him on behalf of Government of the United States to “respond in a strategic, coordinated manner.”

The Senators felt that America’s Special Envoy must address the humanitarian crisis in a holistic manner, while expressing the consensus in Western nations that the international community is “deeply disturbed by the humanitarian and human rights consequences of the conflict occurring in the Tigray region since early November 2020. In addition to the estimated 1.7 million internally displaced, 62,000 forced to flee as refugees, and 4.5 million in need of urgent food aid, numerous credible reports have emerged of serious human rights abuses committed by security forces against civilians, including the widespread use of sexual and gender-based violence.”

What makes it holistic is the inclusion of the following that has thus far lacked coverage in Western media or by specialized UN agencies. “At the same time, we are also very concerned about the increase of ethnic violence in other parts of Ethiopia. For example, in December 2020, in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, at least 200 Amhara, Oromo, Shinasa, Agaw, and other ethnic minorities were killed by assailants.”

They urged Special Envoy Feltman to consider that “Similar attacks have since taken place in the Oromia region, as well. It is estimated that clashes in March and April 2021 in the North Shewa Zone and Oromia Special Zone of the Amhara region, which prompted the Ethiopian government to declare a local state of emergency, left upwards of 400 people dead. And on April 22, 2021, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission reported that the Sedal Woreda (county), which is home to about 25,000 people and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, was “under near full control” of a non-state armed group.”

The Senators alerted Mr. Feltman “This spate of violence has devastated communities. In addition to the displacement in Tigray, more than 655,000 Ethiopians in other parts of the country have been displaced by violence in 2021 alone.”

More troubling, baffling, and inexcusable for me is the neglect by the Federal Government of Ethiopia of atrocities and displacements in the rest of Ethiopia. “The Ethiopian government has left the victims of these attacks without sufficient support, protection, or justice, triggering mass protests across the Amhara region. We must be unequivocal in stating that violence against civilians anywhere, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or politics, is a threat to Ethiopians everywhere and will not go unanswered.”

In this instance too, we Ethiopians failed to express equal and unequivocal outrage when hundreds are slaughtered in northern Shoa, in Western Wellega of the Oromia region, in Beni-Shangul Gumuz etc.

Should it take external powers to tell us that innocent civilians are being slaughtered like cattle because of their ethnicity and faith? And that, these atrocities must stop? Should it take a Special Envoy to fix a broken system that we with facilitation by Herman Cohn created? Does this not diminish us all as human beings and as Ethiopians? Has this not diminished Ethiopia already?

The U.S. Senators urged Jefferey Feltman to go beyond dealing with the current humanitarian crisis in Tigray as well as in the rest of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia as a country and the Ethiopian people as human beings deserve better. In the medium and long term, they need to fix the broken system. They need to focus on national consensus, on “peace, reconciliation, tolerance” and mutual acceptance of one another as human beings.

It may be time to ask the Ethiopian people and not just elites whether they would choose a United Ethiopia or a fractured and conflict-ridden one. A United Ethiopia cannot be supported by the current Constitution.

Accordingly, Ethiopia’s current Parliament can and must be bold enough and courageous enough to change the constitution and the administrative system that pits one ethnic group against another. The late Dr. Negaso Gidada had recommended to his credit that the Ethiopian Constitution is ill-equipped to respond to Ethiopia’s needs. No one listened. It is time to heed to his call.

Equally, Ethiopia must dissolve all “Special Forces” immediately and absorb them into the National Defense Forces, Federal and local police. Ethiopia deserves a strong national defense system; not “Special Forces.”

In the short term, the Government of Ethiopia has prime and sole responsibility to stop ethnicity and faith violence. Killings must stop now.

Finally, Ethiopia’s Parliament must be bold and patriotic enough and designate the TPLF, OLF/Shinne and the Beni-Shangul Gumuz Liberation Front as well as other extremist groups as terrorists. The Government of Ethiopia must then follow-up and inform the international community of this formal designation.

May 2, 2021

References cited by Senators —whether verified or unverified, U.S. policy and decision-makers cite sources that serve American national interests.

Besheer, M. (2021, April 15). UN: Hunger, Rape Rising in Ethiopia’s Tigray. Voice of America. Retrieved from https://www.voanews.com/ethiopia-tigray/un-hunger-rape-rising-ethiopias-tigray
United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. (2021, April 27). Ethiopia – Tigray Region Humanitarian Update. Retrieved from https://reports.unocha.org/en/country/ethiopia/
Clark, H., & Kyte, R. (2021, April 27). In Tigray, Sexual Violence Has Become a Weapon of War. Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/04/27/in-tigray-sexual-violence-has-become-a-weapon-of-war/
Armed group takes control of county in western Ethiopia – rights commission. (2021, April 22). Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/ethiopia-rights-commission-said-armed-group-has-taken-control-county-2021-04-21/
Amnesty International (2020, November 2). Armed group attacked village killing ethnic Amharas, destroying homes. Retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/11/ethiopia-over-50-ethnic-amhara-killed-in-attack-on-village-by-armed-group/