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Brave Ethiopia!

Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn’s New Year (September 11) speech sounded like a government decree to do everything possible ranging from sustaining economic growth and improving governance to restoring Ethiopia’s proud tradition of independence.  Echoing the pan-Africanist sentiments of the past, the Prime Minister declared that “Ethiopia will emerge as an example for black people around the world by eradicating poverty”.  Not many would have rebuked such a nationalist sentiment at a time when there are praises for the performance of Ethiopia’s macro-economic policy.

All was indeed going well until a series of events start to unfold and send a stress signal across the EPRDF party and government apparatus. First is the El Niño weather effect. While the government’s early warning system saw the drought coming, it certainly underestimated the magnitude of unfolding food security crisis with 10 million pastoral and subsistence farmers affected. The drought may not necessarily impact Ethiopia’s positive economic growth forecast (given that the contribution of the affected areas to GDP growth is negligible), but the fiscal and psychological stress is unavoidable.  Things can turn into a nightmarish scenario if the El Niño weather effect continues to the next farming season to affect more areas. El Niño itself is part of a wider system that appears to have influenced global weather patterns with some regions experiencing unusually warm and wet conditions. For instance, last year on Christmas Eve in Ottawa, Canada, the weather was five degrees below zero with a lot of snow on the ground. This year on Christmas Eve, the land is still green (no snow at all) and the temperature feels like Fall or Spring with 16 degrees. Should this unusual weather pattern in cold climates repeat itself across the globe, Ethiopia and other drought-prone countries in Africa can be in trouble again next year.

Second, the United Arab Emirate and Saudi Arab leased a military base in the Eritrean Port of Assab. The oil wealth has enabled these countries to acquire the latest military hardware from industrialized countries and the military intervention in the Yemen crisis is providing them with an opportunity to flex their military muscle and assert regional hegemony.  The military presence of Arab countries in the Red Sea Coast will create a foreign policy frustration for Ethiopian government. Time will tell if this will tilt the balance of regional power in the Middle East-Horn of Africa relations and how it plays out to Ethiopia’s favour. Ethiopia may be forced to enter into regional arms race in response to emerging Arab hegemony in the region.

Third, the political crisis in Gondar got out of control. At the same time that the new and old guard revolutionary democrats had gathered in Bahir Dar to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the formation of ANDM, the Amhara regional state’s “leyu hayle” (special force) and local militia were engaged in deadly armed confrontation with Kemants.  According to different sources, the violence claimed dozens of lives including security personnel, women and children.  It remains a mystery how what had once been a peaceful political dialogue for recognition of identity and administrative autonomy culminated into violence.  Many have blamed chauvinist Zonal officials and local militia leaders for adopting confrontational approaches including extra-judicial killings. There are unconfirmed reports that state-armed local militia still continue to harass and intimidate ordinary Kemant villagers in remote areas of Chilga, Quara and Metema. Meanwhile, as the Kemants claim heroism (much to the sympathy from other nationalities across the country), the whole affair has put the national and international reputation of ANDM at risk. The claim that the Kemant movement is the making of TPLF (as some in the opposition camp allege) is ludicrous. The younger EPRDF generation of Kemants in particular has become too self-conscious of its identity and the rights accorded to it under the federal constitution. Some have started teaching their children the Kemantegna language while few have converted to their ancestors’ religion (an archaic form of Judaism).

Fourth, the protests in Oromia region were supposed to be an opposition to an urban development process gone astray. As Addis Ababa grows and expands, farmers in communities surrounding the city are gravely concerned about losing their land and ending up working as servants, guards and other provider of services to rich and middle class families who come to settle in newly built luxury suburbs. But this should not have justified the violence that we witnessed in many areas of the Oromia region, to the delight of political interest groups that wasted no time in using internet media to publicize the protests along with their usual predictions of political doomsday scenarios. Perhaps we also need to talk about decentralizing industrial development to other regions, especially in the North where depleted natural resources are not recovering fast enough to accommodate the needs of a growing population. The city of Addis Ababa is hungry for resources because real estate and industrial development remains excessively concentrated in its vicinities. Ethiopians from every corner of the country are flocking to Addis in search of employment. This shifts the demographic balance and creates social tensions.  In future planning, government decision-makers, academics and advocacy groups should work together to ensure that scientific and participatory approaches are applied in decision-making processes to minimize the negative impact of urban development on rural areas surrounding Addis Ababa.

Finally, there has been a public outcry over governance problems.  Overall Ethiopians believe that the EPRDF’s leadership can address governance issues and it has in fact built a reputation for punishing corrupt officials. But the EPRDF has been unable to detect and rectify problems before they damage the public interest. The party leadership relies on bottom-up/upward flow of performance information, which means that performance is reported by the same officials at different levels of government who abuse the system.  EPRDF’s own signature “gimgema” (performance evaluation) approach has become characterized by office politics and in-fighting, achieving nothing more than forced or voluntary resignations and rewarding those who are able to manipulate and out-debate others in gimgema processes. Ethiopia needs unbiased media and civil society that can gather independent intelligence to inform higher levels of Ethiopian government of societal issues. 

There are other issues that are currently affecting Ethiopian society. Suffice it to say that a society like Ethiopia’s should be brave and ready to meet many challenges in the development process. Unlike those who want to celebrate any crisis situation in Ethiopian society, we appreciate every experience as a result of democratization process and a building block of an effective public administration and political development.  Therefore the important thing is to be resilient by re-emerging with fresh ideas and energy. To this end, the federal government should set up an independent commission to investigate whose behaviour was responsible for the destruction of property and loses of lives in Oromia and Gondar areas. Those chauvinist Zonal officials and militia leaders in Gondar should be held accountable. Ethiopia also needs a national program of civic education that builds a strong culture of peaceful conflict resolution. The fact that members of the security forces got killed in Gondar and Oromia areas show how political defiance against a government can quickly turn into deadly violence.

Democracy creates divisions in society and settles them peacefully. Some allege a state of declining of democracy in America as reflected in the ever continuing political polarization in Washington, DC. In fact, for ordinary Americans political stalemate is nothing more than a normal ritual of resolving conflicting interests and aspirations in society. The Kemants came up with a new discourse of politics, history and identity. In advanced democracies, this would have been welcomed as an alternative social discourse and subjected to intellectual and civic debate. In Gondar, it became interpreted as a deliberate act of dividing Amhara society as far as going to accuse others of using the Kemants to further reduce the political power and influence of Amharas.  We (as beginners) wrongly assume that democracy harmonizes the interest and aspirations of a national society composed of different ethnic, linguistic and class interests. Democracy actually encourages the generation of converging and diverging demands in a public arena. Stability does not mean the absence of divisions and conflicts. It means that state institutions have the capacity to mediate conflicts and repair broken relations. To this effect, we very much appreciate that senior federal and regional officials have gone to visit the affected areas in Gondar and Oromia region to restore calm and rule of law. The next steps will be important, especially in Gondar where federal and regional governments must combine their efforts to find a permanent solution to the Kemant issue.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Getachew Mequanent

Ottawa, Canada

December 25, 2016



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