By Nagessa Dube
Ethiopia has been hit by waves of protests since November 2015. The protests, which have morphed into a popular movement, have as their goal the quest for real democracy and greater political freedom. Starting in Oromia with ethnic Oromos demonstrating against long-standing political, economic, and social marginalization, the protests have spread among other ethnic groups, such as the Amhara. Initially, the government tried to crush the movement by force. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn vowed several times to take serious measures to quell the protests. Despite the Ethiopian government killing thousands and detaining tens of thousands, the movement persisted. The popular movement forced the regime in power to promise reforms “in order to address the grievances of the people.” When it became obvious that he couldn’t control it, he reshuffled his cabinet of ministers and restructured it. He appointed ethnic Oromos to serve as Foreign Minister and Communications Minister. But this too did not stop the movement. Then the prime minister himself resigned on February 15, 2018. Following the resignation of Mr. Hailemariam, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) elected a new chairman and prime minister from the Oromo ethnic group in order to accommodate the movement’s demands.
I challenge the widely argued and discussed view, shared by many activists and political analysts, that EPRDF is the only viable choice for Ethiopia. This point of view argues that whatever change comes should be from within EPRDF itself. Recently, I came across several fellow expatriates who point out that it is EPRDF and OPDO (the Oromo party in the EPRDF coalition) that have control over the military police force and bureaucracy. Behind this argument lies the belief that there is no strong, well-organized opposition group that could take power and lead the nation. This argument considers EPRDF to be the sole medicine for Ethiopia’s political and social illnesses and the only force that can address the current national crisis. The proponents of this view further assert that only EPRDF can save Ethiopia from disintegration.
In order to check the validity of the above argument, I want to pose the following questions: Can the cause of an illness be a cure? Is it possible for EPRDF to meet the demands of the people? How have we failed to show “strong opposition”? What makes our opposition “strong” or “weak”? First of all, I would like the readers to know that I am not writing in favor of any specific political group or with an intention to attack one. Since 2004, when I was a student at Addis Ababa University, I have protested against EPRDF policies and I have been detained and tortured as a result. Despite that personal history, even now I am willing to give the benefit of doubt to EPRDF. I still think it is possible for EPRDF to change and respect people’s rights, as well as undertake a meaningful democratic transition. What I don’t agree with is the view that EPRDF is the sole alternative for Ethiopia. For me, such a view is like a slave saying: “Even if I gain my freedom, I should always live under my slave-master.” As I mentioned earlier, I would welcome it if EPRDF undergoes real reform, and fosters real freedom and democracy. If the party can meet the demands of the people and continue in power after free and fair elections, I would be happy.
To determine whether EPRDF is likely to change, it is crucial to look back at the past 27 years of EPRDF rule. In the early 1990s, EPRDF promised the Ethiopian people peace, democracy, and economic development. But it did not keep its promises. There has been relative economic development, but in its current form, it is not sustainable. The promise of democracy was only on paper in the constitution. The freedoms guaranteed by the constitution have not been put into practice. Under EPRDF rule, the government has committed grave human rights abuses throughout the last 27 years. Elections are rigged, with the ruling party most recently winning 100% of parliamentary seats. This did not happen by chance, nor did it happen because of problems of “capacity to implement” or democratization being “in process,” as EPRDF has claimed. Elections in Ethiopia have foregone conclusions because EPRDF is rooted in a Leninist-Maoist ideology of the “revolutionary democracy” that, in reality, monopolizes power under the ruling party. EPRDF continues to teach and train its cadres according to this framework. Its political models are China and other Asian countries that have achieved economic growth under single-party leadership. Therefore, EPRDF does not have the political will to democratize Ethiopia. It has never declared that it would no more be led by ‘revolutionary democracy.’ Every cosmetic change EPRDF is making is to appease the protest movement in the hopes that it will fade away.
The cause of Ethiopia’s political illness is ‘revolutionary democracy.’ With its promotion of exclusive ruling party control of state power, it necessarily opposes multi-party democracy. It considers opposition parties to be enemies of the state who can be detained and killed. In this framework, the only correct political ideology is that of EPRDF; any group with a different view should be kept away from state power. Every expectation we may have for real reform is in vain while this ideology continues to drive EPRDF’s modus operandi. Changing individual cabinet members would not help much. It is contradictory to expect a cure from the very cause of a disease. To use another metaphor, EPRDF has been running Ethiopia with software called “revolutionary democracy.” It is foolish to expect change from EPRDF while it continues using the same software simply because the hardware changed. In my view, it can’t change the software because, if it were to change, its exclusive hold on power would come to an end. I don’t believe that EPRDF is ready to accept the possibility of losing in a free and fair election. This points to the likelihood that EPRDF cannot be an alternative for Ethiopia. It can only be an option if, and only if, the Ethiopian people elected it with free and fair elections. And that can only happen if it calls for an all-inclusive dialogue that leads to a transition to democracy.
The other argument is that it is the EPRDF that have control over the military, police force and bureaucracy, making it our only viable option. Yes, it is true that EPRDF made the military a party military instead of making it an impartial and defensive force for the entire state. However, that should be a reason why it has to go, not a reason why we should support it to stay. That is the reason why we push the regime to reform government institutions for democracy, to reform the national election board, to guarantee free and fair elections, to make the army a non-partisan force which is loyal to the Ethiopian constitution and not to any one political party, and to allow true freedom of expression, through the media and other outlets. It is of paramount importance that the struggle should continue until the government repeals laws enacted to stifle dissent, releases all the political prisoners and holds an all-inclusive dialogue with opposition parties. It is crucial to make sure that the government holds criminally accountable those officials who were involved in the killings of innocent people.
It is only after the playing field is made fair for all that we can criticize the opposition if they fail to organize and lead the nation. Otherwise our argument is one of appreciating the criminal and accusing the victim. Given how far the EPRDF remains from possessing the will to level the playing field, the real question is whether the EPRDF can be considered an option at all.
The protest movement put significant pressure on the EPRDF, ultimately causing it to change its prime minister and cabinet. It also forced it to declare reform within itself and release some political prisoners. These are positive first steps, but we need to go further. We are missing the point of a democratic reform movement if we are satisfied only because an Oromo prime minister came to power from the OPDO within the EPRDF. The Oromo wing of the EPRDF is just that. It is part and parcel of EPRDF, not an opposition party. They share the same ideology and have not rejected ‘revolutionary democracy.’ The goal of the Oromo Protests and the Amhara Resistance is to establish government of the people, by the people, and for the people. That can only be realized if sovereignty of the people is achieved through a truly democratic government. Sovereign people are empowered to elect their representatives in free and fair elections; hence, their sovereignty can be reflected through their representatives. Let’s not miss our target: our goal is not an Oromo prime minister, but rather greater freedom and democracy.