September 15, 2015.
In the epic BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell, the English lawyer and statesman who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII of England, tells Henry, “ You have become a king. Now, be one”.
Adapting Cromwell’s illustrative implorations of a hesitant and uncertain king, I wish to suggest to the TPLF/EPRDF now that you have declared election victory, concluded your congress, and have become a government, go be one. A government for all of the people of Ethiopia, that is!
For those who would wish to question the wisdom in this, even if momentarily, and are already itching to take me to task for daring to give counsel to a government that has been in power for nearly a quarter of a century, I say hear me out.
In the first place, I am not being sarcastic or agitative. I am merely capturing the sense of both optimism as well as disappointment in pointing out the obvious. Secondly, when society is under a lot of pressure, orthodoxy takes front stage and becomes more important than the adjustment of attitudes and institutions. Similarly, when a political party is under strain or stress, and both internal and external pressures mount, political orthodoxy takes center stage. I argue here that the next handful of years are a watershed in the country’s history, and that it is time to throw away political orthodoxy and do what is good for all of the people of Ethiopia.
Some of my readers, including those who might be inclined to agree with me, might conclude that I am not the least qualified to write a piece like this one. And they might just be correct. But my generation is not known for keeping quiet when we suspect that there is something useful to be said. Having been raised during a period of constant change and enormous uncertainty, we tend to speak our minds. And what we lack in language or resources, or are forbidden by circumstances, we make up for in enthusiasm and an enduring love for a place we call Ethiopia. As such, I would prefer this piece to be read not as a counsel, but as a letter to members of a very large family.
I also wish to state outright that there are no villains in this piece, just misguided heroes and heroines who may have tragically forgotten their inspirational beginnings, and may have been taken for a ride by an ever-present, ethnic-baiting, narrow extremists, whose main goals were not developmental but self-serving narrow interests. If for any reason they feel villainous, it will be by choice, and not by any deliberate attribution on my part as they, too, have a significant role to play if Ethiopia is to be a country for all of her sons and daughters. The remarks contained herein are, therefore, remarks based upon the public duties of individuals or groups and not based upon who they are either as individuals or members of a particular group.
Rain Does Not Fall On One Roof Alone
The clearest and simplest way to begin this article is to first acknowledge the visual progress one witnesses in the main cities and towns of Ethiopia. Roads are being built to connect towns and rural areas that were previously cut off from the rest of the country. In all candor, it would be a surprise if such were not the case! Cities, like Addis, are getting a total makeover. City streets are wider and numerous, albeit with little drainage, if any; the skyline of the city has changed significantly even if there is a slew of concrete carcasses all over the place. There is the promised tramway—an elevated train to transport the masses—, which has yet to be operational due to lack of electric power and a few other excuses. Yet the loans that made such progress possible are going to come due, and the Ethiopian public would have to pony up soon. We have witnessed the completion of several dams, and others are under construction—including the national symbol, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. A railway line connecting the heart of the country to the port of Djibouti is said to be near completion with service expected to commence in early 2016 (promised).
Ethiopia has built many new institutions, including, educational, administrative, logistical, operational, communications facilitating, capacity enhancing, investment enabling, health improving, governance enhancing, as well as those connected to national security and defense. There are numerous shortcomings in every sector, but efforts have actually been made to recognize the need as well as act on such needs. Of all the efforts that deserve great praise is the fact that the country has managed to keep the scourge of terrorism and extremism to non-existent or at a very minimum level so far. Samuel Johnson in Rasselas observed, “Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must first be overcome”. Indeed, the main symbol of the government in the past has been the enormous undertaking of infrastructure development and pro-poor initiatives that are beginning to show initial results. If one were to isolate the rhetoric and symbolism to a broader examination of the subtle but crucial changes taking place in the country, the narrative would include acknowledgment and even modest accommodation.
Should we be surprised by the progress that has been made in the aforementioned sectors? We should give credit but not be surprised. Today, the standard for what is considered to be an acceptable level of infrastructure as well as governance is markedly different than it was 20 or even 10 years ago. The international community expects of its members a certain degree of response to the needs of the citizens residing in member countries. As a result, these hallmarks of progress are to be expected. Even more so, the ruling party in Ethiopia has been in power for an incredible quarter of a century. More was hoped for and is expected.
When the TPLF/EPRDF came to power almost a quarter century ago, it did so with the help of the Ethiopian people who were by then fed up with the cumulative injustices committed upon them by the Derg regime. Finding nothing in the Derg that is a source of hope, the public soon came to the conclusion that there was nothing worth defending. With the support of the United States and the British government—who installed the TPLF/EPRDF in power—the ruling party consolidated its position ever so tightly by narrowing the initial broad based support. It eventually announced a development model with few or no alternatives.
As a result, and in an effort to create its own reality, it turned itself into a party that had to forge authority through means that appeared to be dictatorial to many. Though elections were routinely held, for example, there were no meaningful contests. “Wining” an election became a hollow victory not worth celebrating. The party made even the judicial process more laughable because it resorted to throwing people in jails just because it could, and releasing them when it deemed useful--an example of otherwise intelligent people invariably fooling themselves.
Three Key Issues
The apparent decaying process of the TPLF/EPRDF began rooting itself when the party ignored or paid lip service to three very important issues. The first of these has been written about since the fall of the Derg, and continues to be the Achilles’ heel of the party: the division of the country along ethnic lines. I hold the view that no properly educated person would support the division of a people based on ethnicity. It is the cancer that should never have been fed and allowed to fester. Smarter persons have written eloquently on this, nothing further will be stated here.
The second critical issue the governing party should have dealt with is corruption. True, it has talked about rendering a sever blow to corruption, and has even thrown a few wolves into the cage. But corruption, rent seeking, and what I will call entitlement harvesting are more endemic and most corrosive in the country now than they have ever been before. To be fair, corruption is not as bad as in some other African states. But that is no comfort of a high standard, and it certainly is of no comfort to the poor.
Corruption and rent seeking are activities that are anti-poor. And for a ruling party that prides itself for having pro-poor policies and having significantly reduced the level of absolute poverty in the country, abolishing the culture of corruption should have been an urgent and continuing task. Corruption has become so rampant that even the Ethiopian Orthodox church claims to have lost billions of birr over the years to corrupt practices. What riles up residents of the country the most is the practice of entitlement harvesting. Based upon the claim of having made most of the sacrifices in throwing out the Derg, or by virtue of their position, some have resorted to demanding special treatment: entitlement to the best plots of land; waiver of policies and rules; issuance of business permits; priorities to import and/or export licenses; and laying claim to, invariably, all the top positions in virtually all government offices and agencies, for example.
By allowing such practices to fester and thus poisoning the well, the ruling party has brought about the decaying of the principle that it had fought for: the equality of all persons under the law. Worse, some in Ethiopia have spawned a culture where others are considered as just hired hands. This is the pinnacle of all corrupt practices and the ultimate crown in rent seeking behavior and culture.
The third area of failure is good governance. While there has been considerable growth of sectors of the economy, particularly over the past ten years, the overall economy, including the public sector, is riddled with clientelism and/or cronyism (to gain votes and to gain favors). As a matter of precision, there appears to be no distinction between government (public) business and party operations, leading some to compare this to a kleptocracy, which in reality is a hallmark of all totalitarian systems.
The party in power created further uncertainty this past election cycle when it declared that it has won all available seats (including those of its birthed allies). This is very problematic as there must be some opposition in a free country. Just as you cannot have a free government without elections, you cannot have a free country without some opposition. Is this, then, a free country? True, we are a diverse society and the party in power has used this as a rallying cry for its causes. But we are also a diverse society with a common root—a free Ethiopia. As has been said before, diversity is an indivisible concept. If the ruling party truly believes in a diverse Ethiopia and wishes to fight for it, it must also be prepared to extend it to everyone and to every facet of government as well as institutions, and not just in the sense of and within the conception of kilills.
It is counterproductive and supremely silly to demonize all opposition and deny everyone else political space. The state of the opposition—such as it is—is not the business of the ruling party. That role belongs to the public, which should render judgment on all parties, including the TPLF/EPRDF. If the public decides to punish the opposition for lacking the most simple of organizational skills—as it seemed to do so during the just concluded election—that role belongs to it and to it alone. And the opposition needs to realize that no ruling party anywhere in the universe makes it easy for an opposition to win a properly contested seat. For the rest of us who are merely spectators, I would like to restate what others had already stated: “To believe everything is to be an imbecile. To deny everything is to be a fool”.
As for the ruling party, it needs to concern itself with the urgent question: for whom is it helping build up the country? Certainly not for the past and what happened then. The country is being built for the future, and the future is more uncertain and more complex. There are more actors and participants, and the issues the country will face are going to be complex and require the abilities and talents of everyone. Justice and freedom, the final imprimatur to a free country, cannot be subordinated to a cry of just economic growth and order; and they cannot be relegated to entitlement harvesting or vote buying. One should have a commitment to justice as well as order. You can’t have one without the other. What, after all, would be the purpose of economic growth without the prevalence of justice and freedom? Is the ruling party content to base its legitimacy on just inflated economic growth prospects? What happens when economic growth slows or even stops, as surely it will at some point? It appears to me that the party has forgotten that it is unimportant in and of itself. It is important only to the extent that it represents the people. That is the single most important duty it will ever have.
The war with the Derg is over, and it has been over for decades. The only war that remains from the past is the war on poverty. To trample injustice, and to unceasingly wage war against despair and poverty should be at the forefront of all efforts. The wars of the past, whatever form they took, have been fought by every one and not just by a few. It is time to make Ethiopia inclusive. Even the Chinese—after all these years—have decided to acknowledge and include the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek as proper heroes and heroines for the liberation of China from Japan!
A strong hint at the fact that the party’s thinking has calcified and is turning stale can be seen at public gatherings, sanctioned or otherwise, and careful observers cannot escape it. While the drafters of the Ethiopian constitution opted for and moved toward “kilill” nationalism, overtime and paradoxically, the public is becoming more nationally minded. The public has also become a bit more vocal or even more symbolic in its rejection of any notion of splitting up the country along ethnic lines. Even the TPLF/EPRDF recognizes that. A look at how the indignant public displays its national colors might be a good clue of a stern rebuke even the TPLF/EPRDF could not have escaped noticing.
Some would like us to believe that we have never really been a nation. Those chosen to draft the country’s constitution in fact told us so. In their eyes, we were only a collection of communities pulled together by force and ready to fall at the slightest push. But that would be contrary to the historical witness—an entirely different piece for another time.
Hasn’t the ruling party admitted to and acknowledged these shortcomings in its most recent congress, you might ask? To its credit, yes, it has. However, the acknowledgement of these shortcomings is merely tactical, and is based upon at least three considerations: first, the party sought to get in front of the political demands that are being forced on it by the public—it wanted to show a response. As such, the public acknowledgement of failures is an act of political expediency rather than an acknowledgement driven by a reassessment of the party’s underlying beliefs. For me, it is not sufficient when someone merely acknowledges, regrets, or apologizes for something they have done rather than for the view they hold and the belief that caused the offense in the first place.
Second, I contend that this is an acknowledgement of shortcomings intended only to persuade themselves and the supporting public that the party does not have other bigger shortcomings. In this sense, it is an act intended to mask other possibly odious shortcomings and failures. Whatever the motive, it is essential that the adjustment to changing circumstances is genuine, and that the nation’s continued growth and improvement is not stunted because of a lack of creativity or a re-evaluation of policies where it is needed or warranted.
Third, given the nature of TPLF/EPRDF—a revolutionary entity, the party may be signaling a course correction that may not be fully embraced by some of its members. As a result, the public admission of shortcomings could be a warning to all members that no one is safe in a revolutionary movement, and by implication, in times of revolutionary impulses. Whether this is the intended message or not, it remains to be seen. But one cannot escape noticing the awkward subtlety of revolutionary movements and how they bring about change!
I wish to conclude this essay by acknowledging that everybody has an “instinctive desire to do good things…but the desire to do good things is sterile as long as we have no experience of what it means to be good”. We hear speeches, we listen to promises, and we even hold hopes for a future that is definitely different than the past—even the very distant past--only to be let down by the sheer weight of their emptiness. These have the effect of only entertaining us like the streetlights of Addis after midnight, by hopes they cannot fulfill. It would be so impressive if today’s Ethiopia were more inclusive and more prepared and ready to take advantage of the prevailing opportunities available to it. As in any other good society, what is required is a society that is held together by justice and not by a coercive and abusive authority; as well as a society defined and held together by freedom whose absence only helps breed servility, resentment and hate. Continued Peace!
Professor Abebe is a former Provost and Vice President, and may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.