Ethiopia as an Anchor for Peace and Stability in the Horn of Africa
The Need for a Broad-based Transitional Political Order
by Berhanu Nega
Honorable chair, and distinguished members of the European parliament
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Allow me to first express my sincere condolences to the families of the victims, to the People of France and the European Community in general for the most recent senseless and barbaric terrorist crime committed against innocent people in Paris on the evening of November 6. In my view, such acts are not only contrary to the basic norms of civilized behavior and devoid of rudimentary moral principles, they can never be an acceptable instrument to achieve any objective, no matter how noble the cause.
Let me also thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts about the current situation in Ethiopia and its potential implications for the stability of the Horn of Africa.
Currently, the livelihood and peace of the people in the horn of Africa and its surrounding region are in a very precarious condition. This situation is caused by long simmering conflicts and crises. Among the openly known major crises are:
- The havoc being created by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab
- The conflict in Southern Sudan
- The Ethio-Eritrean no-war, no-peace stand off
- The increasing and incessant migration of the youth
- The exposure of people to recurrent famine
Even as the international community and the people of the region make efforts to manage some of these crises, close observers of the situation see more latent internal dynamics in some of the major countries of the region that can perpetuate and worsen these crises.
The current situation in Syria and Libya demonstrates the consequences of ignoring the underlying causes and drivers of instability for a long time while only focusing on the symptoms as episodes of bursts of crises in societies that are dominated by dictatorial and sectarian regimes. Crises in such situations can easily degenerate into a conflict between narrow-based repressive regimes and simmering extreme societal forces that harbor uncompromising religious or ethnic dispositions. We all know now in conflicts like this, the search for a durable solution becomes extremely difficult as the internal middle ground and moderate forces would be supplanted by extreme forces. As an Ethiopian, I would like to focus the attention of this audience and the international community in general on the internal conditions of Ethiopia which are the sources of instability and civil strife with impending grave consequences to the peace and stability of the country and the region.
Ethiopia was a Monarchy until 1974. The inability of the monarchy to effect desperately needed reforms led to the 1974 popular apprising. From 1974 to 1991 the country was ruled by a military junta called Dergue that refused to find a peaceful negotiated solution to the country’s various problems and conflicts choosing instead brute force to deal with essentially manageable political problems. As a result the country went through a traumatic experience of civil wars in different parts of the country. The single minority ethnic-based Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) that later took power after the Dergue has been in power for the past 24 years. Since 1991, the country is ruled as a one-party state under a facade of multi-party system. Ethiopians are once again faced with a regime that is led by a group of people who deny them basic human and political rights and who are determined to block a democratic process. In addition to denying people their fundamental freedoms, the regime is determined to perpetuate it’s monopoly of political power in order to transfer the country’s economic resources to a handful of people from a minority ethnic group and those politically connected to the ruling party. For illustration purposes I will enumerate below only five of the major manifestations of the tyrannical rule of the narrow-based TPLF/EPDRF regime in order to help you appreciate why the people of Ethiopia from all major ethnic and religious groups have started to resist it in an open rebellion:
- Ethiopians are suffering under an entrenched ethnic minority rule: The TPLF ethnocratic regime, under the guise of a coalition known as the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), controls all aspects of life in the country by installing its ethnic representatives as heads of major institutions across the entire state apparatus. Ethiopians and international observers including those who bend backwards to “apologize” for the regime know very well that ethnic Tigrayans who are members of the TPLF control the army, security apparatus, telecoms , foreign affairs, and other nerve centers of the Ethiopian state machinery. The TPLF party pits different ethnic and religious groups against one another simply to perpetuate its minority rule and monopoly on resources. The regime has no respect for religious freedom. It has created havoc in both the Orthodox Christian church and the Muslim mosques by interfering in the internal administration of purely religious institutions through its political cadres. Religious leaders who resist this interference are exiled (as the Orthodox Christian leaders) and imprisoned (as the Muslim community leaders). Ethnic minority domination is damaging the harmony of the people. In a diverse multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Ethiopia, the harmony of the people is essential for their peaceful co-existence. When a handful of elites from a single minority ethnic group control political power, economic resources and social institutions of a country; it’s a sure thing that a disenfranchised and powerless majority will use all means at its disposal to be free. In the case of my country, Ethiopia, unless something is done by all stakeholders, and very soon, the struggle for freedom may take the country and the region to civil strife, instability, and even worse scenarios.
- Ethiopians are subjected to oppression with impunity: In the last twenty four years, the people have been appealing to the regime to respect the fundamental political and civil liberties of the citizenry. The response by the government has been more repression and more violence. Today, there is no independent media and freedom of expression to speak of in the country due to the wide spread practice of jailing and forcing publishers and reporters in to exile. Today, there are no functioning independent political parties due to the practice of systematic disruption of their normal day-to-day activities, jailing of opposition leaders or forcing them out of their country. Currently, major prisons in Ethiopia are filled with hundreds of well-known political, civic organization and religious leaders as well as journalists under trumped-up terrorism charges. These prisoners are tortured to falsely confess and incriminate themselves and their colleagues. Victims of the regime have no recourse to justice since the judiciary is made subservient to the political manipulation of the ruling TPLF/EPRDF Coalition.
Independent media is not tolerated in Ethiopia. The International Federation of Journalists has declared the regime to be one of the worst offenders of press freedom. Television, Internet, and major print media are owned and operated by the government. The state is the only Internet Service Provider and uses Chinese, Italian and British Internet hacking and intercepting technology vendors that are contracted to spy, trap and intimidate the regime’s critics and opponents not only at home but abroad including in Europe and the US. The regime also spends precious resources on signal jamming technology to stop the free flow of satellite and short wave radio broadcasts from abroad. Foreign based and independently operated radio and TV broadcasts by the Ethiopian Diaspora such as Ethiopian Satellite Television and Radio are jammed on regular basis as are broadcasts in Ethiopian languages by Voice of America and Deutsche Welle Radio.
- The livelihood of Ethiopians is at the mercy of the corrupt economic grip of the regime: Like in all totalitarian regimes, the Ethiopian government owns all land in the country, including urban land, and thus through land allocation determines who builds residential and commercial real estate in towns and cities. The industrial and service sector of the economy is also heavily controlled by the state. What is left of the state’s economic holdings is dominated by the Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), a conglomerate serving as a front economic organization for the ruling TPLF party while other allied parties engage in relatively smaller but equally corrupt and disruptive activities in their domain regions. Key beneficiaries from this economy are the well placed military and political leaders and their cronies while the millions of ruling party members and the alarmingly expanding security personnel get the crumbs left from the ruling elites. Urban poverty as well as income inequality has been increasing dramatically and the relatively small “middle class” is all but wiped out through a policy induced inflation. What we have in urban Ethiopia now is a small fabulously wealthy and corrupt class of government and ruling party officials along with their crony “business partners” on the one hand, and the great majority of the destitute urban population on the other. While these corrupt elites send roughly 3 billion dollars a year in the form of capital flight (partly money sent from western taxpayers in the form of foreign aid) the honest and unconnected business people see their businesses slowly die for lack of capital and foreign exchange as well as corruption induced red tape. The inability to generate jobs for the urban population including those who supposedly graduate from universities along with the suffocating political environment is one of the main reasons for the massive influx of migrants from Ethiopia to all corners of the world including Europe.
- Despite the regime’s claims to political legitimacy through its “developmental” achievements, particularly in the rural economy where over 80% of the population reside (which by the way has always been supported by dubious and manufactured statistics, and unfortunately uncritically endorsed by western governments and institutions), the economy’s deep structural weaknesses and the failed economic policies pursued by the regime over the past 24 years are now exposed for all to see by the tragic ongoing famine in the country. An economic policy centered around a suffocating land and agrarian policy whose primary objective is control of the peasantry and leaves no room for human creativity and imagination, combined with drought has led to the potential starvation of over 15 million Ethiopians unless the west urgently delivers massive food aid. According to recent media reports, (of course denied by the regime) children have already started dying in some of the affected regions.
As you well know, drought does not kill people, bad policy and unaccountable governance does. As the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in his study of famines around the world amply demonstrated, people die of starvation in periods of drought in countries that are not free, where there is no free media and where there is no government accountable to the public. During the 2005 elections, the only period where there was a meaningful political debate in the country, the party I belonged to then, the CUD, warned against the futility of the ADLI policy pursued by the ruling party. Our argument was that the rural population, whose means of livelihood stems from an increasingly unsustainable traditional small holder farming whose land size and fertility of land is diminishing every year owing to a suffocating land policy that provides no security of tenure along with demographic pressure and environmentally unsustainable practices cannot support the population in periods of environmental distress. We argued instead for a revision of the land policy as well as a deliberate policy to transform the agricultural economy. We also suggested that no government that sees its people starve to death on its watch deserve to be in power even for a day. Of course, this ruling party never listens to anything that it feels would loosen its stranglehold over political power. What is sickening to watch in this most tragic period in our country is the total incompetence and irresponsible nature of the regime in its response to this tragedy. More interested in saving face rather than saving lives, the regime is still in denial about the human suffering that is caused by the famine declaring that they have everything under control and don’t even need outside help to avert an incoming disaster. “We are food self-sufficient” declared the Prime Minister only a few months ago. Even worse, it is forcing people to contribute money to the tune of 300 million birr to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the founding of one of the parties in the ruling coalition after spending an inordinate amount of money earlier in the year to celebrate the birth day of the real ruling party the TPLF. The sheer obliviousness of the regime and their complete detachment from reality is manifested in a recent interview by an official who proudly informs its subjects on local radio that the government is now building a number of luxury villas (with swimming pools and all) costing an average of 25 million birr per villa to house retiring government officials. This, Madam chair, is happening in a country where 15 million of its citizens are facing death from starvation and in one of the supposed miracle economies of the continent!
- Ethiopians have given up on elections as they have become meaningless rituals: There have been five national elections under the TPLF. The first election in 1995 resulted in 3 opposition members being elected to a parliament that has a total of 548 MPs. In the second election of 2000, the number for the opposition members rose to 27. In the 2005 general election, the only election that was meaningfully contested, which was monitored by the Carter Center, European Union (led by you, Madam Gomes) and other observers, Ethiopians turned out in a record numbers and voted for their representatives. The results were rigged; and when voters protested the blatant usurpation of their power peacefully, they were gunned down in broad daylight (the government’s official count was 193 dead). Following this election, opposition party leaders, (including myself, as you know) civic society leaders, journalists and ordinary citizens were thrown in jail for almost two years along with some 40,000 young people deemed to be opponents of the regime. The government appointed election commission ruled the ruling party a winner. In 2010, in the fourth national election, only 1 opposition member was able to slip in to the parliament. In the most recent election that was held in May 2015, the regime claimed to have won 100% of the parliamentary seats. No outside observers other than from the African Union were allowed to monitor the election. The paradox here is that, in a nation where a very large majority of the population opposes the government, no single member of the opposition is elected to the parliament. In short, the so-called multi-party system and democracy paraded by the regime to hoodwink the international community is a mockery of a democratic system as we know it. The Obama administration’s cynical and disgraceful attempt to render legitimacy to its temporary military ally against Al Shabaab in Somalia, will not alter the illegitimacy of the regime one bit in the eyes of the Ethiopian people, in the same way as putting a lipstick on a pig will not alter the nature of the pig.
Currently, despite their deep desire to lead a peaceful life, the existence of the Ethiopian people is almost on the verge of total collapse because of the low intensity rebellions and resistance bursting in various parts of the country. These rebellions are caused none other than by the tyrannical rule of the ethnocratic regime that is shattering the social fabric of the country. The predicament the Ethiopian people find themselves today is not unique in history. People in many countries, who were living under similar conditions have rightfully revolted against tyranny and are now living examples of peaceful and stable democracies.
This universal truth and natural response of the Ethiopian people against their oppressors is best captured by the founding fathers of one of the Western democracies; the American Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, it says:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, – That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Unless otherwise one maintains an inherently racist belief that we Ethiopians or Africans in general are less of human to deserve or possess this “natural endowment,” these words ring true today for the people of Ethiopia who are rising against an egregious tyrant as they were over two hundred years ago to the people of the 13 Colonies.
At this critical juncture, to facilitate the Ethiopian people’s struggle with able, responsible and effective leadership, the democratic forces in the country are coalescing under the newly formed United Movement for the Salvation of Ethiopia through Democracy (UMSED) as a beginning towards the formation of a broad movement for democracy in Ethiopia. It is not lost on the part of these democratic forces that one of the potential obstacles on the road to the Ethiopian people’s struggle for freedom and democracy is the international community’s multifaceted collaboration with the TPLF led government with cruel indifference to the prevailing corrupt and repressive political as well as the abysmal economic conditions in the country.
Following their new goal of making inroads into Africa, some countries have become major financiers of the TPLF repressive regime. This may be an expected behavior from these governments, given the nature of their political systems. However, the West’s support for the rogue dictatorial regime in Ethiopia is inconsistent with the values of freedom, justice, and democracy the West practices at home and its vital importance for a stable world order. The West led by the US has understandably declared terrorism as a menace to global peace while in a typical short-term calculus have also decided to consider dictatorial and sectarian regimes like that of Ethiopia to be “allies” in its anti-terrorism effort. As a result, the West has made the Ethiopian regime a beneficiary of its substantial financial, political, diplomatic and even military support directly emboldening it to continue its human rights abuse and repression of its own people with impunity. This policy on the part of the Western countries is short sighted, not constructive and certainly immoral.
Once again, I would like to emphasize that establishing and entrenching the Ethiopian regime by force on very narrow ethnic and exclusionary line is one of the main causes of instability in the region. Such a regime driven by its constant desire to monopolize the political power and resources of the country for a narrow-group interest and its deep insecurity is internally in continuous conflict with its citizens composed of different ethnic and religious groups. To perpetuate its rule beyond the already intolerably long 24 years, the regime continues to use scorch-earth military expeditions in the Ogaden region to the east and occasional incursions into Kenyan territory pursuing resisters from the Oromia region. Human rights groups have many times reported that ethnic minorities in the Gambella, Omo and Afar regions are being displaced from their fertile farm lands to make way for new landlords from abroad and the regime’s ethnically affiliated retired military officers. This has triggered armed resistance in these regions. The regime has also continued to pit different ethnic groups against the Amharic speaking people in the south and western parts of the country thereby driving them out from places where they have lived for generations. As the recent and ongoing bloody conflict in Northern Gonder shows, the Amhara region is in an almost open and armed rebellion. As we speak Universities in Oromia region are looking like combat zones as the government uses brute force to suppress the peaceful demands of students to stop land grab in Addis Ababa and surrounding regions.
As the international community is well aware, the regime is also externally locked in constant conflict with Eritrea in the north. This is the reason why the TPLF/EPDRF government has one of the biggest standing armies in Sub-Saharan Africa thus spending large portion of the poor country’s budget on the military while the danger of famine and lack of resources for basic needs of its population are always lurking around. While this is the true reason for the TPLF regime to build an army that is beyond the country’s legitimate security needs, it cynically uses a fraction of this army in international peace keeping missions in order to get acquiescence from the West for its nefarious repression at home as well as use these missions as a source of hard currency income for its corrupt highest military brass. Recently, the Ethiopian government is even seen scheming to leverage its security cooperation with the West, hopefully in vain, for extending its repressive hand abroad by invoking the legitimate rebellion and resistance of Ethiopians as a terrorist act. The truth is that the Ethiopian people’s resistance is a very disciplined and well organized struggle that is focused only on a political goal of making Ethiopia a democratic country either by forcing the government to come to the table for a peaceful resolution or removing it if the government persists in blocking the natural right of the Ethiopian people for self-government. The people’s resistance movement is also very much aware of its responsibilities for the Ethiopian people, the people of the region and the international community. It is a resistance movement which is informed from the rich multi-ethnic and multi-religious tradition of Ethiopian history, international laws, morality, and norms.
In conclusion, I strongly believe that the sure and least expensive way to avert a pending crises in the largest country in the Horn of Africa is to change the political situation in Ethiopia from the narrow-based repressive and corrupt regime of TPLF/EPDRF to that of an all-inclusive and broad-based transitional order that can lead towards a truly democratic political dispensation, stability and peace in the country and consequently in the region. The TPLF/EPDRF regime must be pressured to accept this transition, and very soon, unless it wishes to lead the county and itself into unfathomably catastrophic conditions of strife and conflict in Ethiopia.
Towards this goal, I appeal to this august body, the European parliament, and of the international community to stand in solidarity with the Ethiopian people and make all possible efforts to avert the impending conflict in Ethiopia by advocating and working for broad-based and all-inclusive transitional government instead of emboldening the tyrannical and sectarian dictatorship of TPLF/EPDRF for short term gains that is neither durable nor sustainable. If you can’t help our people’s aspirations for liberty and to be ruled by a government of their choice, please, please, don’t support and finance their tormentors!
I am here to tell you in no uncertain terms that the people of Ethiopia are simply tired of this situation and will rather fight for their freedom by whatever means necessary than accept to live under such a brutalizing tyranny in the 21st Century.
It is only by having a broad based national reconciliation process, an all-inclusive transitional process, and a real and meaningful democratization of Ethiopia that the specter of conflict, instability and, yes, terrorism can be averted effectively and durably. It is only through such policy shift on the part of the European, American and other powers that lasting stability can be achieved in one of the most volatile regions of the world. Anything less, will surely serve the destabilization of Ethiopia with catastrophic consequences of turning the Horn of Africa into a hot bed of conflict, terrorism, and a plethora of human suffering and tragedies including massive forced migration.
But, Madam Chair, time is of the essence here. It is much easier to avert a catastrophe if you catch it before it happens. I believe that is the painful lesson we should be learning from Syria!!