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A Short Commentary on the Current Situation and Related Issues in Ethiopia

A Short Commentary on the Current Situation and Related Issues in Ethiopia

Getachew Mequanent

Ottawa, Canada

February 22, 2018


The ongoing violent protests and communal conflict in some part of Ethiopia have been a subject of criticism on the way EPRDF is governing the country. The critics are not only opponents of EPRDF who usually take up any mishap in Ethiopian society as a cause to advance their own political agenda, or EPRDF detractors who remain clinging to their own world views. They include EPRDF supporters, sympathizes, and independent thinkers. Despite the tragic outcomes, these incidents have awakened the ruling party to renew efforts for strengthening effective mechanism of governance including reshuffling its leadership. Theseefforts should be appreciated as important steps towards fostering Ethiopia’s democratization and political development, and nurtured through a positive discourse accordingly. In this commentary, I am pleased to share few perspectives on the current situation and related issues, which are outlined belowin no line of order or importance.

Political transition.We celebrate the resignation of Haile Mariam Desalegn as a progress in political development and a hallmark in Ethiopian history. Haile Mariam will be rememberedas the first leader who rose to power through a democratic process and the first leader leaving power also through a democratic process.His six years in office as prime minister helped to create a more civic (as opposed to militaristic) image of EPRDF. Under his rule, different generations of Ethiopians built confidencein demandingtheir constitutional rights.  The economy grew further and industrialization took off. His approachable personality suited foreigners who previously derided EPRDF leaders for their powerful ideological arguments. Haile Mariam always conducted the affairs of Ethiopian government in his own ways. His legacies are important.

The current power transition should be appreciated as an important step towards strengthening democratization and deepening political development. To this end, the EPRDF party should create an open and transparent platform that allows the selection of a competent prime minister who takes Ethiopia to the next decade of development. In the best interest of the party and country, the selection of the prime minister should be based on his or her capabilities, and not ethnicity. We understand this may be easier said than done in the current political climate, but it is doable. Here in the West, we normally see leadership election proceedings being broadcasted live to inform the wider public. Ethiopians are not yet ready for this, but official briefings should at least clearly explain the details of section processes and procedures used to choose the next prime minister.

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The release of prisoners is a welcome relief for Ethiopians and a sign that political bitterness is giving way for peace and reconciliation in the political arena. We applaud those who gotreleased from prison for speaking in support of peace, stability and civic engagement in the political process. The time is then right for opposition groups to engagein more serious constructivedialogue with EPRDF in order to secure wider political space for them; add value to ongoing development efforts; and contribute to peace and stability in the country.All the ideas that the different opposition groups espouse (re-structuring government, removing Article 39 of the Constitution, changing the color of the national flag, redrawing regional boundaries, privatization of land, extra, extra)can be legitimate policy considerations in their own right, but, to get elected, they must convince the Ethiopian population that these policies do not violate the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution. It is no secret that many of the nationalities of Ethiopia are terrified with the thought that some of the opposition groups might have hidden agenda of re-instituting the policies and practices of previous regimes that had subjugated them as second class citizens for generations.

The movement within. Much has been talked about the violent political protests, deadly communal conflicts, internal party divisions, public political discord, inefficiencies in public administration and other governance issues as driving forces sparkling the “renewal movement” within EPRDF.  Remaining true to its tradition of gemgame (self-evaluation), EPRDF was quick to admit that the unfolding governance crisis wasthe result of weaknesses in its party machinery and governance apparatus.To this end, the party has been reshuffling leadership at the top level and (we hear) all the way to Woreda levels in areas affected by crises. Whether or not Haile Mariam Desalegnhad fallen victim to this exercise is hard to tell. It also seems (from what we heard) that there has been differencesbetween the old guard and new generation of party elites within EPRDF, perhaps more apparent within TPLF. The new generation might have wantedto take EPRDF to a new level doing things in its own ways, yet it would have seen the existing organizational culture (based on field comradeship, personal ties, strict ideological conformity and other factors) as detrimental to party democracy and effective decision making. The measures considered by the party to address these and other issues would help it to propel forward and regain its reputation as a disciplined and innovative organization. We hope the reform measures will also benefit the common people of Ethiopia by improving service delivery, curtailing corruption, protecting legal rights and widening democratic space.

The federation is working.Ethiopia’s continuing challenge is overcoming the negative perception of “ethnic-based federalism”. After more than two decades of federalism, Ethiopians are still being told that ethnicity embedded in decentralized federation or vice versa is a recipe for disaster, even though the 1995 Constitution identifies regional states demarcated along areas inhabited by different ethnic and linguist groups, and also says little or nothing about promoting the rights and entitlements of a particular ethnic group. The only exception would be the clause allowing “Oromia’s special interests in Addis Ababa”.  Since the creation of the federation, we have come to know regions and their inhabitants that we never knew existed before. These new regions now command political power and, given their rich resource endowments, they hold potential for driving Ethiopia’s economic growth and development.

Ethiopians have been thought for decades on their constitutional rights and entitlements.  Demanding by any ethnic and linguistic group or social class in today’s Ethiopia that those rights and entitlements be protected or promoted sooner rather than later,is not the same as opposition or resistance to the federal system; or, competitive claims of rights (which is normal under a democratic order) is not the same as fragmentation or conflict.Critics should overcome their fears and instead contribute to the nurturing of positive federalism discourse.

The Americans, Swiss, French, Canadians, British, Germans and othersin older democracies live under federal systems that reflect the history and demographic make-up of their countries. As their experiences show, political development is an ongoing dynamic process allowing for addressing long-standing (historical) and emerging generational issues. In America or England, to talk about political mayhem or state failure in periods of political transition can be simply brushed off as a nonsense. But, in countries like Ethiopia, where (for example) politics is less developed, institutions still lack strength and common people are easily misled by unfolding events, such a rhetoric would have dangerous consequences. It is therefore important to ensure peace and public order across the country. There would be no democracy, economic growth or a cohesive national community if the current violent protests and communal conflicts go on.  We implore the youth who are protesting and their agitators to stand with the Ethiopian people to build an inclusive and equitable national society through peaceful means, instead of embracing violent approaches that result in loses of lives and disruptions of economic activities and public services.

Weaponizing ethnicity. The use of ethnicity as a political weapon is not new in Ethiopian history. Amharas were being targeted in the 1970, 1980s and 1990s, only because a small reactionary Mahal Sefari clique (read Tecola Hagos) had ruled the countrysince the start of the Minilik era, using the agencies of modern state to exploit and oppress Ethiopians including the Amhara masses. What is new today is the effective use of electronic media to target certain ethnic groups and the large number of actors involved. The burden on Tigreans has reached unacceptable levels, in large part because TPLF is blamed almost for every mishaps in Ethiopian society.  Communal conflicts and youth protests;physical fighting between individuals of different ethnic backgrounds outside bars, on the street corners or university corridors; or other incidents involving ethnicity are simply attributed to ethnic divisions perpetuated by the policies of TPLF. The rhetoric of some of the groups has now gone beyond agitating for an end to “TPLF minority rule” to “advocating open resistance to Tigrean ethnic supremacy”. 

The attack of Tigreansin Gondar and other areas of Amhara region might have been a cause for celebration forthose who still hope to mobilize Amara masses behind them in pursuit of political power. We hope our Tigrean brothers and sisters understand that these incidents are perpetrated by misguided youth groups that represent a tiny minority, and their agitators who could bestationed in Washington DC, Minnesota, Los Angeles, London, Amsterdam, Asmara or Cairo. Otherwise nobody needs a reminder that the Amaras and other Afro-Asiatic groups that inhabit the country generallytrace their roots to ancient clansthat once in lived Northern Ethiopia (today’s Tigrean and Eritrea), and still share many forms of culture, social traditions and histories with theTigreans and Eritreans. In our time, many Gondaries used to swear dying for what they believed in like Emperor Yohanesse (ende yohanesse angetene esetalehu). The legendary Emperor died fighting like an ordinary soldier in Metema along with thousands of brave Tigreans in 1889 avenging the destruction of Gondar by the Sudanese.The Gondaries who are aware of this history would not take the uprooting of Tigreans from the region lightly. The emotional sentiments expressed during the people-to-people summits in Gondar and Mekele are sincere and heart-felt. We hope family, lineage and cultural ties between these two peoples will be repaired and continue to flourish for many more generations to come.

Under the leadership of the late Meles Zenawi and other national leaders, EPRDF picked up the pieces left behind by the previous regimes and transformed Ethiopia into another successful story of economic growth. The different nations and nationalities of Ethiopia recognize how much the Tigreans have contributed to the establishment of the current federal system that has given them respect, dignity and self-rule, including the lives of tens of thousands of their children during the struggle to overthrow Dergue.Greed for material and political power being in human nature, perhaps some Tigrean elites might have taken advantage of their positions to obtain benefits (public opinion in Mekele may in fact agree with this assumption).  But to translate such elite privileges into a propaganda promoting resentment and even hatred against the entire Tigrean population -millions of whom still eking out subsistence living in rural areas - is so reactionary and disgusting.  Groups who espouse this kind of political approach will go nowhere and eventually self-decay.

Social media. Many governments around the world are rushing to pass laws that regulate the flow of malicious information through social media. French President Francois Macron recently proclaimed that social media has become a serious threat to liberal democracy.  The USA just indicted a number of Russians for launching an “information warfare” on America. As a result, we may see the emergence of strong regulatory regimes everywhere to reduce perceived national security risks from information transmitted through social media. But, all this becomes tricky for countries like Ethiopia, where new electronic media are proving to be a force of empowerment for ordinary citizens by facilitatingparticipation in modern economy, foster social and cultural changes and other benefits. I am able to follow what is happening on the development front across Gondar, because each Woreda in the region has a face book page where officials post events, field-level activities and public discussions. If you ask us, we would not be in favour of a policy that restricts social media. Then, the issues becomes what to do to prevent misguided groups that want to use social media as a tool to advance their political goals while disseminatinginformation that creates divisions and conflicts society. There are always trade-offs. Experts in this area are well placed to advise Ethiopian policy-makers.

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