By Nahom M Freda
Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn’s unexpected statements regarding the negative impacts of ethnic politics and religious extremism at a meeting on the 2nd Growth and Transformation Plan was dramatic and earthshattering, for the simple reason that this is the first time ever the EPRDF echelon publicly admitted the dangers of ethnic politics. He also made comments about the dangers of religious extremism. (I will limit my comments to the former in this writing). Add to the PM’s earthshattering salvo the conviction with which he made his points and the reciprocal affirmation he received from his bigwig EPRDF comrades (the interspersed applause was sustained and boisterous), one can’t help but wonder if this is a cautious sign of changing times in Ethiopia. If not, the EPRDF is now on record of acknowledging the disastrous impacts of its ethnic politics. Regardless, I want to give the PM due credit, if not for the substance of his comments, for the conviction and emotion with which he delivered the message. I am saying this because it is unimaginable he will make such a profound statement out of his own volition and without the go-ahead from the true holders of power in Ethiopia – the TPLF politburo. While his comments might not have gone far enough to the extent of repudiating the cancerous ethnic politics from Ethiopia’s body politics, it nonetheless was unmistakable in its clarity – that after almost a quarter of century in power the TPLF is having second thoughts about divisive politics. The question is why now, how serious are they, and what are the next steps?
TPLF’s Endless Contradictions
To put this in perspectives, one needs to delve a bit into the history of the TPLF and examine its nature. Since its days in the bush, the TPLF unashamedly defied all historical records, and declared that Ethiopia is only 100-years old and embarked to remake the country in its contorted image by dividing the nation along linguistic kilils (euphemism for ethnic enclaves). A decade or so later, it claimed to have embarked on a renaissance – to restore the country’s centuries-old glory. Renaissance by definition is the “rebirth” of a nation, the very nation the TPLF capriciously reduced to 100-years of history just a few years past. Moreover, from day one it forged a narrative that didn’t differentiate between the good and bad in history and launched a wholesale condemnation and assault on Ethiopian history. It demonized potential allies who stood for equality in unity. The contempt and hatred the TPLF leaders harbor for the country they inherited blinded them into an irrational rampage and self-flogging that resulted in fostering suspicion and hatred among the many ethnic groups that make up the Ethiopian mosaic. By taking such a self-defeating and belligerent stand, the TPLF has not only repulsed potential allies but most importantly denied current generation of Ethiopians the opportunity to learn from history and build a better future and country. Rather than cultivating peace and harmony through positive and constructive messages while at the same time launching genuine legislative and programmatic remedies for addressing legitimate grievances, the TPLF erected walls among ethnic groups and infused the country with hate propaganda, widening rifts and severely curtailing cohesion and harmony between the various ethnic groups.
It is not an accident that after almost 25 years of hate mongering you now have a generation of Ethiopians who are as alien to each other as they are to foreigners. Without a forward looking national forgiveness and reconciliation strategy and a shared history built on interaction and common experience, ethnic groups are wider apart today than before, and as a result, the very fabric of the nation is withering away. You can’t cultivate suspicion and hate at the primary and secondary school levels and suddenly expect harmony to swell at the university level. Moreover, you can’t aspire to achieve peace, stability, and sustainable economic progress in such a poisonous environment. No amount of “renaissance” or “growth and transformation plan” would get you there. Any progress made in such a divisive environment can only be fleeting. First you need to shrink the yawning and ever-expanding gap among ethnic groups. In fact, if not corrected quickly, the divide and discord will eventually lead to assured conflict and disintegration. Ethiopians need to heed Obama’s July 26th message to Kenyans – “that a politics that is solely based on tribe and ethnicity is a politics that’s doomed to tear a country apart. It is a failure – a failure of imagination.”
The problem is that because of its myopic and jaundiced view of Ethiopian history, the TPLF has been unable to construct and launch a fitting and responsive vision to address the myriad challenges of Ethiopia. This lack of vision is reflected in the inherent contradictions the TPLF finds itself time and again in governing the country. For example, it recently declared 100 percent election victory. How can you hold an election in a diverse and huge country such as Ethiopia and come out winning 100 percent? This defies elementary logic, decency, and self-respect. You can’t have it both ways. You either declare no elections and rule by fiat or conduct elections and accept the verdict of the people (no contradiction in both instances). Perhaps the best example of the TPLF’s inherent contradiction is demonstrated in its 1998-2000 war with Eritrea. In that unfortunate war, the TPLF sacrificed an estimated 70,000 Ethiopians and hundreds of millions of dollars and achieved a decisive victory over its foe, and later on negotiated a settlement that surrendered Ethiopia’s victory to its vanquished enemy. Sadly, no one has been held accountable for this disastrous outcome. One can make a long list of such contradictions in the modus operandi of the TPLF.
Another problem is the TPLF’s shortsighted and vengeful nature. For example, it fought tooth and nail to deny the erection of a commemorative statute for Ethiopia’s last monarch, Emperor Haile Selassie, along with Kwame Nkrumah’s in the premises of the new AU building in Addis Ababa. No doubt the king was a despot, but nonetheless, he was instrumental when it comes to the independence and unity of Africa. This fact cannot be denied. In fact, the emperor did the TPLF and future Ethiopians immense favor by bringing the AU to Addis Ababa and opening the door for membership at the United Nations. Africa wanted to honor this Ethiopian “father” of Africa, but the TPLF would have none of that. What the TPLF is not realizing is that by denying Haile Selassie his rightful place at the AU, it is also denying the historic contributions of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians of all ethnicities in defending themselves from colonial enslavement and their inspirational role in ushering freedom for millions of Africans the world over. The TPLF’s inability to liberate itself from hate and accept history “as is” causes it to muddle in constant and murky contradictions. On one side, it likes to enjoy the benefits and bask in the prestige of leading the country that is host to the AU, and on the other, it is vengeful that this was made possible by the works of elders it doesn’t identify with. Here again many more example can be given to demonstrate the TPLF’s vengeful nature. Such hatred is what shackles the TPLF to the past and constantly impedes it from playing a positive role in shaping a more tolerant, civilized and prosperous Ethiopia. More importantly, this ailment alienates it from the people and prevents it from enjoying wider acceptance. Given all this, it is safe to assume that the TPLF recognizes that there is no love lost between them and the people of Ethiopia.
One needs to also remember that the TPLF and its lackeys, after nearly 25 years of unaccountable leadership, have amassed considerable wealth and influence that they want to protect. But in an environment of ethnic disharmony, ethnic favoritism (discrimination), growing income inequality and poverty, and lack of freedom and liberty, sustaining the status quo is increasingly becoming difficult. Such is the state of the TPLF today that something has to change; otherwise the cancer of ethnic politics could have a Frankenstein ending, consuming its very creator, the TPLF. The dilemma for the TPLF is that how do you accept historical mistakes and reform the system without losing face and tarnishing the images of its grossly aggrandized late “visionary leader,” who is remembered as the chief architect of ethnic apartheid in Ethiopia?
Let there be no doubt that ethnic politics is an existential threat to all Ethiopians, including to the TPLF. Addressing the threat is going to be a daunting task that demands genuine courage and commitment and the involvement of all. However, it can’t be addressed in isolation and in the current moribund and undemocratic climate. Eliminating the cancer of ethnic politics requires going beyond the symptoms and conducting bold surgical interventions. In the PM’s remarks you can sense his agony to come up with plausible explanations for the ethnic discord prevailing in the country. He brazenly blames university teachers for poisoning their students with ethnic hatred. The fact of the matter is that ethnic politics is enshrined in the Ethiopian Constitution and given effect through various policy pronouncements, decisions, and actions, starting from the highest echelons of government. Accepting this fact is the starting point for any genuine reform, not scapegoating this or that sector of society.
Granted the PM urged dialogue on the symptoms of ethnic politics and the need to arrive at a consensus among his colleagues. However, this at best is a halfhearted and deficient response to the humongous problem facing the country. Ethiopia is where it is now after sustained propaganda, misguided decisions and actions made by those in power for nearly the past 25 years. It will take time, effort and resources to reverse the damage already inflicted. Let there be no doubt however that it can be accomplished. But we have to be cognizant that addressing the threat takes nothing short of a structural reform. There are proven reconciliation models from South Africa to Ireland that can be adopted to fit the Ethiopian situation. Whatever model you choose (or make your own), at minimum there are three crucial steps you have to take for genuine reconciliation to take place: taking stock of the harm to human life, property, and national interest that took place as a direct result of the government’s ethnic policy to date; identifying the perpetrators and the victims of the policies; and facilitating dialogue and eventual acceptance and forgiveness between the offenders and the aggrieved. Crucial to this undertaking is an independent and impartial judiciary and law enforcement and a vibrant free press and civil society to carefully usher the country through the painful but necessary cathartic process.
Is the TPLF prepared to allow this to happen and be part of the process? Can we be optimistic and say that PM Hailemariam has taken the first bold step in hinting the need for a solution? Time will tell, but Ethiopians, particularly the youth need to sustain the pressure on the government for genuine reform. There is no question that mitigating and eventually eliminating the insidious threat of ethnic politics is this generation’s ultimate calling in our country’s centuries-old quest to form a fair and equitable system. It is this generation’s historic calling to devise a more promising and brighter future based on love and respect for each other and individual freedom and liberty for all. They should break artificial barriers hoisted by visionless agents of hate and reach out to each other, as their future is inextricably intertwined by blood, destiny and centuries of history, good and bad. The Future is indeed in our collective hands!
God Bless Ethiopia and Ethiopians!
Nahom M Freda
By Nahom M Freda