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TPLF and Federalism in the Age of Anxiety


TPLF and Federalism in the Age of Anxiety

 By Aynalem Sebhatu  01-01-18

  On the global stage, the proliferation of social media across poor and rich countries of the world has attracted the attention of countless nationalist movements, political extremists and fringe groups as their blunt instrument for advancing their projects. Indeed, I feel that Trump’s victory of the American election, the withdrawal of the British from the EU (Brexit), the surging of Scottish and Catalans’ nationalism (just to mention a few) are calamities not just for these countries, but an affront for universalism everywhere. One looks up the corners and centers of the political globe; led by the marching bands of the ubiquitous social media nationalism is gaining momentum. In effect one enters a different world, a world literally standing on its head. 

  On the national stage, ethnic nationalist and extremists are gathering speed and creating havoc to the budding foundation of federalism. Although Ethiopians pride themselves on their patriotism, the average Ethiopian is nonetheless caught up in a state of mental anxiety with regard to the essence of being Ethiopian and the meaning of Ethiopian nationalism. Living in an atmosphere of menacing social media; with its perpetual screams of ethnic hatred and ethnic nationalists marching on the verge of regional power, it is becoming virtually difficult for the new generation of Ethiopians to escape some exposure of hopelessness and the dark forces of tribalism.

 It is hard enough to find solutions for all these intractable problems of the county and add hatred jammed social media into the mix, the situation increasingly becomes combustible. Day in day out, the social media shamelessly proceed on the assumption that if one could only throw out the ethnic devils in Ethiopia, the remainder would dwell in peace and harmony. Instead of appealing to our better angles and preach pluralism and tolerance, they stress our ethnic, religious and tribal differences as the final destiny of humanity.

   These ongoing ethnic frictions and the continuation of polarization are politically and socially corrosive and demoralizing.  These polarizations are worrisome not just because of the frictions are taking place in the continued absence or weakness of the mediating institutions of civil society to address these hazardous developments, but because of the political and social consequences of these ethnic tensions’ might take deeper roots to permanently undermine the unity of Ethiopians under the Federal Democratic Republic. Thus making the ideology of ethnicity more rampant and fundamentally prolonging the curtain of darkness and poverty in the country.

Understandably the current crisis is very difficult to resolve in a short period of time and has reached formidable political proportions.  But approaching ethnic tensions and nationalism as though nothing like it had never before occurred inside the country and on this planet is like resetting the scales of Ethiopian history to zero. The notion that these ethnic conflicts end up being some kind of magical forces that float above history is really misleading.  The dogmatic forces of ethnicity or its ugly forms of expressions; intolerance, dehumanization and violence have been with us like Injera and Wat in our dietary history.  However we tried to deny it, our political history was/is woven together with the ideology of ethnicity.  It has been embedded in our political DNA for a long time and it will be with us for the foreseeable future. There is no silver bullet or a wonder drug which withers away ethnic nationalist feeling that easy.

  What we all hope is that these ethnic frictions lead us to a broader reckoning with what Ethiopia means for all nations and nationalities of the country and how to expand the democratic space and achieve equality for all under federalism. Resolving these conflicts is not for the faintedheart or a political cakewalk. Addressing such conflicts and restoring trust on each other require hard work, political compromises and sacrifices with persistent engagements at all levels of the government and an attentive participation of citizens of the country.  Otherwise we all will be deluding ourselves if we think the Federal government alone will resolve the problem for us.

  Many political observers have long noted that the existing federalism can be a double-edge sword for a poor county with multi nations and nationalities.  One of the major problems of the current state of federalism, as practiced in the country, is that the problem of determining the appropriate blend between the forces of decentralization and centralization in demarcating the zones separating those interests that should be left in the hands of individual, the family, the ethnic group, and the federal government.  Excessive federal boot, in the name Ethiopian unity, is an imposition of unnecessary coercion on a wide color of ethnic groups that are freely participating in the making of a new and a strong federal democratic republic.

  On the other hand, excessive decentralization can involve anarchy and can lead to tribalism. Such kind of tribalism fails to capture some of the gains from common national purpose and wider collective enterprise and eventually ripping apart Ethiopia into pieces. The work life of Ethiopians, living in their poverty-ridden ethnic enclaves for long time, may have given a more powerful “meaning” to otherwise trivial traits, such as, being a member of a clan or a tribe or ethnic group. This poses innumerable problems for the normal functioning of federalism and requires either compromise or the exercise of authority at the federal level of the government.

  The government, at all levels of the structure; local, regional and federal, must perform a perpetual juggling act to keep the balance between the forces of decentralizations and the forces of centralizations. Without a sustained effort of cultivation, enforcement and implementation of federalist principles at all levels of the government, a vibrant and sustainable federal democratic republic is not inevitable by itself.  Given the current horrific ethnic based violence in the country, the great gap in protection of citizen’s rights occurred in those cases where the federal government does nothing to prevent violence against an individual who happens to be a member of ethnic minority. With full recognition of the dangerous potentialities of unchecked local and regional negligence of individual’s right, the federal government should have provided a far greater sensitivity to the protection of individuals who are living outside their regional ethnic origin. The consequence of this neglect, at all levels of the government, is a source of civic degeneracy everywhere and the continuation of the devaluation of humanity in general.

  In the wake of the ethnic violence in Somali and Oromo’s regional states, there are disturbing indications that the federal government’s limited role in overseeing the local, regional police forces (and media outlets) has played a significant role in heightening the ethnic tensions and violence. Therefore, it is essential for the federal government to launch an investigation for patterns and practices that violated the rights of citizens and bring the mob to justice.

The least part of this dilemma would be to explain how it is that democratic federal states have developed in precisely those periods and places where industrialization has grown. Could the decade long fast economic growth registered by the country serve as social lubricant that can keep various ethnic groups working together?  No doubt that economic transformation will lead to healthier relation among various ethnic groups. Unfortunately economic transformation by itself will not resolve the problem. Yes, economic growth is a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition for addressing these issues at hand.  As an example, look no further than the ugly ethnic fault-lines buildups around the daily lives (such as churches) of Ethiopian Diaspora who are arguably living in countries with much advanced economies and democratic practices.  

With all the challenges to Ethiopian federalism, I would still theoretically remain unmoved away from the relevance of federalism in shaping the political future of the country. In my humble opinion, federalism played minor role or none in subjecting religious or ethnic minorities to violence by ethnic mob.  It seems to me unfortunate that people devote significant part of their criticism to a superficial discussion of the impact of federalism on the current conflicts rather than a full examination of the framework within which federalism was designed to operate and the function it was planned to fulfill.  At least, we should recognize that federalism in Ethiopia is winning the hearts of many historically marginalized ethnic groups and thereby creating stability around the borders of the country which historically have been the main gates of political instability. For example, the Benishangul-Gumuz, Afar, the Somalis, and the Southern Nations arguably have more rights today that were nonexistent, at best fragmentary, twenty or thirty years ago. Ironically, while historically marginalized ethnic groups are extending their hands for Ethiopian unity, the dominant ethnic groups are showing much reluctance to do the same.  

From the opposition camp at one end of the spectrum we are learning that TPLF is the sources of all ethnic conflicts and that Ethiopian federalism is a fake, a deceptive myth perpetuated by the cunning TPLF for its political power ends.  From the Old Glory waving patriots at the other pole, we hear that Ethiopian unity is and always has been the natural habitat of ethnic harmony. When all is said and done, TPLF and the people of Tigray became a convenient political punching bag of all political groups and a perfect excuse for all corrupt officials at all levels of the government throughout the country. There is a national tendency to make the TPLF and the people of Tigray political scapegoats.  It is my fundamental contention that these ethnic conflicts are not in essence the creations of TPLF let alone the people of Tigray. It should be noted here that many Tigreans lost their precious lives in order to bring unity and a new political order based on democratic federalism and on equality of nations and nationalities.

The question confronting all well-meaning Ethiopians is how could the Federal Republic of Ethiopia be preserved from the twin problems of the excessive forces of federalism and the peril of tribalism? Is there a path forward for all nations and nationalities within the existing political structure through the political system the EPRDF promotes? Or are there alternative solutions that could dismantle the legacy of ethnic conflicts much better than the system in place?  If Ethiopian unity is to survive the age of anxiety, it is imperative that Ethiopians address these questions honestly and gain a sense of perspective, an understanding of the long-term implications of what we do or do not do.

  With these political developments as a background in mind, we can now turn our attention to the political reality inside Tigray. Given these national emergencies and lack of good governance in the region, the leaders of TPLF, anxious as always to buy time as well as face the imminent future, set about a new wave of marathon meetings. Leaders of TPLF came out and announced that TPLF is going to change and seriously reform itself for good. At this particular moment in time a new set of leaders took over. The old-timers who had nursed the movement from its cradle and supplied enough vitality are beginning to drop.

  Perhaps I am unduly skeptical about TPLF’s capacity to seriously reform itself.  I have in my short life been alerted to many of such reform pronouncements that never came off and watched helplessly the conduct of business as usual. My grateful appreciation of the sacrifices made by thousands of Tigreans during the armed struggle in general and my deep appreciation of the sheer complexities of the political, social and economic problems of the county is in, led me to believe that serious reform might be possible within existing political economic structure of the region. After so many trips to Tigray (once every year) I became increasingly disappointed and disillusioned with the system in place. In fact, my political discouragement took place within the last ten years after so many years of giving the benefit of the doubt for TPLF.

  May be I was displaying an attachment bias with the TPLF for long time. I was emotionally attached to TPLF and so I end up focusing on its good traits and deeds and discount its bad ones.  At the end I fail to recognize the bad news about it. Yet I do believe that much has changed in the last twenty years since the ascent of TPLF in the areas of infrastructure developments in rural and urban areas. But the question is should we become content with what is achieved so far or should we shoot for the stars? Could we potentially do better?

     For many years, I grimly applauded my politically astute friends’ assertions of TPLF’s structural incapacity and lack of political will in reforming itself and slowing the pace of widening and deepening of the democratic space.  Meaningful political reforms are increasingly becoming difficult to achieve. Years came and went, and I suspect those of us, who did not have the credentials of the armed struggle, were quite disappointed and disillusioned.  But for the reform oriented veteran fighters, I could only imagine their pain and their growling agony.  For these brave men and women, there is nothing so depressingly demeaning as to harden one-self for martyrdom during armed struggle, and be ignored now or worst enlisted as enemies. Look no further than a public statement by Ato Abay Woldu against General Tsadikan. 

Tigreans have long struggled to find common ground in the political debate. It is natural to have diverse point of views and we should expect diversity of opinions and entertain it.  But the existing political market place for selling and purchasing political ideas only accommodates variations of ideas of the governing party, TPLF.  These ideas are packaged by TPLF and displayed and marketed by people and organizations attached to TPLF.

  Even after a wide spread of public grievances about the lack of good governances and lack of hard-won rights for open democratic spaces, TPLF showed less political determination and consistently dragging its feet to improve the situation in the region. The leaders of TPLF at every level of the political structure assumed wrongly the peoples’ patience and silence for consent, although in practice it most certainly does.

  In Tigray, it is sometimes said, politics is a game played with only two rules.  The first rule states that TPLF always rules. The second rule states to always follow the first rule. The tentacles of the TPLF is everywhere; it is relatively rich; it controls the education system, the media, the government structure, the land, the law enforcement establishments and it is well organized in the rural areas as well as in the urban areas. It has discipline and its policy and advice are propagated and backed by impressive sanctions. This is really formidable.  But the real question is to what end?

Much as the hard-core members of TPLF dislike admitting it, TPLF has generally embrace or have embraced  what I would call combative politics in Tigray. The aim of such politics is dominating the social, economic and political marketplaces and unlikely to be beneficial to the future of Tigreans. The aim of combative politics is to drive the constructive political dialogue out of the agenda rather than to let it survive.   Here is a picture of opposition’s demonstration in Mekelle.  Showing a sad state of our democratic affairs.



Some belief is created by the fact that the armed-struggle generations of Tigreans are different in their commitments for what they stood for compared to the new generation.  No doubt these brave souls have been tested and they stood their grounds for what they believed in.  In part, such belief may be true because the past generation did not necessarily share the new generations’ convictions and political aspirations as to what is important today.

   It is understandable for veterans of the armed struggle to be nostalgic for the old days when the lines were clear in their mission to defeat the military junta. With the new generation, the mission is not clearer enough. But what might be clear is the aspiration of building a prosperous country with a wider democratic space which allows diverse political point of views packaged and marketed by different political parties.  What is clear is that the building of a deeper political space which allows one to exercise ones freedom to choose leaders for various political offices in the region.  The main point is there must be a direct political mechanism whereby the people of Tigray vote to remove unwanted politicians from public offices. How else could one remove a politician who continuously fails to heed to listen to public demand for essential services, such as the adequate provision of clean water in urban areas as well as rural areas?  Given the current political structure and political process, if not impossible, it is a daunting task.  

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