Opinion: Can Ethiopia overcome its crisis and be a normal country?


Nahome Freda, for Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, February 22/2018 – A week has gone by since Prime Minister Hailemriam Desalegn unexpectedly resigned from his postion as party chairman and prime minister of the country. No question that the Prime Minister’s resignation was a cumulative result of persistent ant-government protests by Ethiopians over the last three years. Ethiopia’s grassroots uprising has transformed into a broad and deep popular resistance that cannot be reversed by empty gestures or repressive means. As much as the resistance seemed fractured and without a common national theme, it is rooted in EPRDF’s suppression of basic rights and economic exclusion and exploitation. The humiliation of living as a second-class citizen in one’s own country under a repressive system and the collective anguish it inflicts on all is feeding the resistance and driving the desire for change. The ethnic divide foisted and exploited by the ruling party for so long has been bridged by this shared anguish and the realization that standing together benefits all. Make no mistake that the young people of Ethiopia have internalized their resistance against the regime the same way their ancestors did against the Italian occupation of the 1930s. Nothing short of a genuine and fundamental change that addresses their yearning for freedom, justice, opportunity and equality will extinguish this internalized fervor for freedom.

The opposition bloc has a historic duty to usher in this change by building broad consensus on the modalities and mechanisms of a transition to a democratic future. The TPLF/EPRDF must realize that its divide-and-concur policy has largely been defeated, the people of Ethiopia have internalized their resistance against its divisive rule, global and internal politics are not on its side, and the economy is too sick to continue business as usual. It should negotiate in good faith and quickly.

Leadership matters 

As EPRDF embarks on the search for the next leader, it is important to recognize that enlightened leaders are emerging from its own bosom  and extending olive branches across ethnic lines. Oromia’s Regional President Lemma Magerssa and his vice Dr. Abiy Ahmed come to mind. Who thought such leaders capable of giving and accepting compromises (at least going by their rhetoric so far) would emerge within a fleeting period since the death of the former prime minister Meles Zenawi, the purveyor of the opposite. By the force of their positive vision and reconciliatory tone, people from all ethnic backgrounds are beginning to perceive the two men as a core part of their future national leaders.

These leaders and their partners must now quickly deploy systemic and decisive actions to bring needed change. To do so, they will need our collective encouragement and support. As much as we admire the two and many other unsung heroes like them, let’s not forget that Ethiopia’s movement for equality and justice attained this height because of the countless sacrifice past and present generations have paid and are paying. Think of the thousands that have been killed and the thousands of who are still languishing in prisons  for simply exercising their basic and democratic rights. Like Lemma and his team, any one who claims to be a reformer should acknowledge that the confidence to articulate and champion a positive vision without fear was attained because of the enabling environment made possible by the sacrifice of many across the country.

Most importantly, it is essential to remember that the time now is for thoughtful and determined action that will bring the country back from the brink. Unless the reformers act quickly, this golden window of opportunity could shutter and the country could descend into chaos. As a matter of priority, regional governments, including Lemma’s Oromia, should exercise their constitutional authority and introduce meaningful institutional reforms within their own jurisdictions. In the case of Oromia for example, the leadership should give priority to reforming the judiciary, the police, and local government; release all remaining political prisoners; start an independent and transparent inquiry into the atrocities that took place in Ethiopia’s Somalia region; instruct their representatives in the federal parliament to work across regional party lines and enact a consultative process to find a negotiated solution to the national crisis. Embark on a political dialogue with the true opposition within their own region and beyond (inside and outside of the country) with the aim of developing regional and national consensus.

They should also focus on strengthening and empowering the civil society and promoting freedom of the press and assembly; strengthen and expand people-to-people and inter-regional relations they have so astutely started; implement similar youth-to-youth, labor union-to-labor union, women-to-women, and business-to-business exchanges; and ensure academic freedom in universities and enhance academic exchange programs with universities in other regions.  As such, they should strive to make the region a model for future Ethiopia, where people want to live, work, and contribute in freedom, equality, and harmony under the equal protection of the law. A democratized and accommodating Oromia could set a national tone; other regions could do the same and contribute their own share in building the national infrastructure, resources, and leadership needed for a democratic transition.

The changing trajectory of western politics and its implications 

Since assuming power in 1991, the TPLF/EPRDF drew its legitimacy not from the sovereign people of Ethiopia but its dedicated Western backers in exchange for its insincere allegiance for championing the west’s causes, particularly in the fight against terrorism. This allegiance has enabled the government, despite its awful human rights and economic mismanagement records, to receive close to $3 billion in foreign aid annually and other crucial diplomatic and military support. The regime also immensely benefited from its longtime alliance with key figures in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama U.S. foreign policy circles. But the trajectory of politics has made an unexpected turn with the election of Trump in the United States. Longtime and unquestioning allies within the Clinton, Bush and Obama foreign policy circles are gone and the new decision-makers in town are less wedded to legacy relations that may not be exactly in America’s interest. The strongly worded press statement opposing Ethiopia’s new state of emergency could be taken as an indication here.  This means the unencumbered foreign aid that helped sustain the TPLF/EPRDF for the past 26 years is unlikely to continue under the Trump administration while the former maintains the status quo. Even closer allies such as Pakistan and Egypt have seen their unchecked U.S. largesse evaporate quickly because the aid investment was deemed contrary to U.S. interest. Diaspora Ethiopians are encouraging the U.S. and the EU to leverage their assistance and help bring positive change in Ethiopia.

A sick economy without a billionaire cheerleader

Ethiopia’s economy is seriously sick, characterized by rising political uncertainty and instability, cronyism and insidious corruption, capital flight, foreign currency shortage and inflation. Reports by international financial institutions also indicate dwindling  foreign direct investment. The ruling EPRDF, through its party-owned businesses, is crowding out the private sector and killing the latter’s ability to create jobs. It has enfeebled the private sector by overregulation, excessive and arbitrary taxation, and by sucking capital from the banks. In a country that is experiencing significant youth bulge, the private sector’s ability to create enough jobs is crucial and should be encouraged. But in Ethiopia the opposite is happening. The government’s misguided politics and economic policy stifled competition and creativity, scared away talent, and inhibited inter-regional commerce and optimal allocation of resources. The government’s total control of all land has also deprived Ethiopians the most basic capital and the incentive to create and spread wealth. Only those connected to the government or have its blessings can partake in significant economic activity.

Ethiopia’s largest private sector employer and the regime’s billionaire cheerleader, Mohammed Al-Amoudi, is in prison in Saudi Arabia under allegation of corruption. Al-Amoudi’s business transactions in Ethiopia are shrouded in secrets. He has intimate and deep ties with the political leaders and seems to operate under special privileges unavailable to others, save perhaps the TPLF’s business empire, EFFORT. Al-Amoudi helped the EPRDF buy influence in Western capitals and gain access to foreign businesses circles, actions that at minimum raise issues of conflict of interest. Now his fate is unknown as he is entangled in a serious corruption dragnet and perhaps political infighting in the country that catapulted him to wealth and influence in the first place.

His prolonged absence leaves his businesses rudderless and shaky, with implications for thousands of employees and their families and several projects at various stages of development. Any judgment against him could have serious implications on his vast business empire in Ethiopia. Even if he comes out from jail, the clouds of corruption and collusion will significantly impede his access to and influence in business and political circles in the Middle East and beyond. In the short-term, losing such an influential investor is a huge blow to the national economy.

Can the EPRDF reform itself and be part of the future?

The EPRDF has admitted that the country is mired in an unprecedented crisis and that it is facing widespread popular resistance. Because people are fed up, spontaneous explosions of anger are becoming more frequent and widespread. These episodes are multiplying outside of the capital, where ironically the EPRDF claims a widespread support. As the resistance swells and spreads in the faces of a changing geopolitical environment, weakening economy, and a myriad of social and environmental ills, the EPRDF’s ability to govern dwindles, and with it, its hold on power becomes precarious. We are already witnessing this. Unless addressed quickly, sooner or later the anger against the government will ignite and explode in the capital. That could be the turning point for an undetermined and chaotic outcome that benefits no one. But for now, the regime is settling to a state of emergency rule; but its protagonists should know that such measures are counterproductive in both the short and long terms.

Rather than learning from its past mistakes and seeking a viable and negotiated solution to the deep-rooted resistance, the current leadership continues to pursue policies designed to buy time and crush the resistance. Even without the state of emergency, the regime  is using brute force in many parts of Oromia and Amhara to suppress dissent or trying to fuel inter-ethnic infighting to divert attention. The killings of dozens and the displacement of hundreds of thousands in Oromia by the the well trained, regime-funded and armed Somalia Liyu Force, is one example. This horrendous crime smells of ethnic cleansing and no one has been held accountable up to this point. More than one million civilians were displaced and they are now yearning for an independent and transparent investigation and justice. In a functioning parliamentary system, a crisis of this magnitude is one that would have required a state of emergency; and the government’s ineffective response to date would have required an extraordinary session of parliament and a no-confidence motion and vote, holding the prime minster and his government to account.

But in an unlucky nation where the governing party and the state are one and the same, this atrocity and the country’s pressing national crisis were debated in lengthy closed-door party sessions, reminiscent of the defunct Soviet Union. The outcome of this farce was later brought to the parliament for a stamp of approval, basically a cover-up. TPLF/EPRDF reformers should distance themselves from this charade and push for an independent and transparent investigation and legal recourse. Otherwise they too will be held accountable.

Reformers within should also make an honest personal assessment of the country’s situation (outside of the party’s debilitating Stalinist gimgema –evaluation) and their own individual fate and find the courage to push their party to do the right thing. They should weed out ethnic chauvinists and radicals and reach out to the opposition for a negotiated outcome or abandon the ship before it sinks with them under its own weight. There is no honor or rational in sustaining a dying, repressive, discriminatory, and backward system. They should dig deep into their souls, seek redemption through penitence, and align their fate with a better future for all Ethiopians.

More than any ethnic group in Ethiopia, the vast majority of Tigraians, thanks to the dominant TPLF’s wrong deeds, find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Regionally, TPLF has worked so hard for over 40 years to ensure that alternative political views do not gain foothold in the region. It unabashedly portrays itself as the only guarantor of security and prosperity for the people of Tigray. It has repeatedly demonstrated that it has no compunction in using the people of Tigray as pawns in its insatiable desire to dominate and pillage Ethiopia. It’s incumbent on all Ethiopians to understand and defeat this sinister  ploy and work together to break the TPLF’s vice-grip on their Tigraian brethren. Tigraian elites, particularly those living in other regions of Ethiopia and in the diaspora, have especial duties and responsibilities to lead this effort and strengthen and deepen bridges between Tigraians and the rest of Ethiopians. Non-Tigraian organizations have also similar duties to reach out to the people of Tigray and to ensure that the latter’s struggle for freedom is part and parcel of the national resistance for a new democratic Ethiopia. They should guarantee the safety of all Tigraians in their jurisdictions.

The political tumult that started in Oromia in 2015 has gradually swept almost the whole country – culminating in the resignation of the Prime Minister and ushering in a period of uncertainty. Fueled by ongoing injustice and resentment, the tumult convulsing Ethiopia is getting stronger and more frequent and pushing the country into deeper and deeper turmoil. The federal government, itself controlled by ethnic chauvinists and muddled in internal infighting and incompetence, is prevaricating instead of finding a negotiated and lasting solution. Finding a negotiated and peaceful exist from this crisis is the ultimate question of the moment.

Can Ethiopia overcome this crisis and be a normal country governed by the rule of law? Where people can live and work in freedom, peace, equality, and harmony in their place of choice, practicing their religion and upholding their cherished and diverse ethnic heritage? Can they turn their country into a place of opportunity and prosperity for all, where their children are judged by their merits and character, not their ethnicity or dissent? The answer to these and many more fundamental questions lie in the popular resistance’s ability to forge a broad national consensus, force the EPRDF to go beyond a change of guard and other cosmetic changes and force it to come to the negotiating table; anything short of this is a short lived relief. AS

Ed’s Note: Nahome Freda is a consultant on economic and international issues and resides in the Washington, DC area

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