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“Unsafe at Any Speed”

“Unsafe at Any Speed” 

Aynalem Sebhatu 07-12-18

 For all who are curious, the title of this article is taken from Ralph Nader’s famous book of 1965. The author gave a timely heads-up warning to all Americans about how the automakers of America were reluctant to build cars with basic safety features, such as; airbags, seatbelts and antilock brakes, for reasons of  competitive disadvantages. By all accounts today, Mr. Nader’s book had seminal effect on the behavior of American car manufacturers in particular and the car industry across the word in general.

  Now that I have wrapped up my six week visit in Ethiopia, I would like to share my observations on the current political situations in the country.  To be sure it is important to note that I did not get a chance to visit all regions. But I have made an effort to meet with old friends from different regions and discussed with many young people of different political persuasions and various perspectives. All in all, it would be worthwhile to make some simple generalizations about the overall picture. For the sake of clarity and brevity, let me wrap up my six weeks long adventures of understanding events inside Ethiopia and submit two brief observational notes.

  The first note is easy to understand and widely recognized by almost everyone I chatted with.  I therefore see no point in elaborating it further except to note that it is one of the main political challenges in addressing conflicts and finding its potential resolutions. That is; the role of the flourishing social media (not all but significant number of it) in playing havoc in the political discourse of the country.  The roles of these socially irresponsible media outlets in shaping, characterizing and casting the nature of the political discourse are unimaginable in fostering and magnifying the day to day frictions created in normal circumstances and further lubricating ethnic conflicts.  Sociologically, it is erecting ethnic and religious barriers and restricts interethnic/religious relationships, particularly intermarriage.  The existing inter-ethnic marriages barely cope up with this phenomenon.

 Increasingly these outlets are producing and disseminating sophisticate fake news and falsehoods with impunity.  The sensational and the sleek nature of the products give these social media outlets’ competitive advantages and are very attractiveness to young people and unsuspecting consumers in general. Furthermore, the other media outlets are imitating these social media outlets. What this means is that “the bad media is driving out the good media.” This is similar to the idea of a monetary principle called the Greshaw’s law in economics.  The political, economic and social ramifications of such developments in the gathering and distribution of news items, facts and figures are anybody’s educated guess. But it is fair to say that, in a country of shaky media institutional traditions and its nascent legal frameworks, such developments are “unsafe at any speed.”

  My second note is much complicated and it requires me to spell out details to give someone a sense of comprehensive political narrative.   In the simplest expression I could command: the country is not “out of the woods” yet.  Despite the rise of a very popular and dynamic new Prime Minister to power, the country’s federal, regional and local political structures are bogged down by so many difficult and untraceable issues that are not easily sortable in a few years if not decades. Unless the people of Ethiopia, at least the majority, disciplined themselves, support and create enough political space for the new leadership, the political mud-slinging will crippled the nation to its disintegration.

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  With the ascent of Dr. Abiy Ahmed to the highest office of the land, no man in his right sense doubts that what this charming young politician brought to the political scene of the country.  The sense of hope and optimism for the new Prime Minister is very high.  Indeed, there is high expectation associated into his philosophy of “Medemer” and into his love train.  At a time when the country is undergoing the most serious political and ethnic conflicts that has threatened its unity; in the absences of mediating institutions, it is useful to think how a significant number of Ethiopians see the ascent of Dr. Abiy as a divine intervention.  In fact, he may have initiated such a belief and he is well known for “wearing his faith and his gospel of love and peace in his sleeves.”  His love and peace train of thought, informed by his religious and spiritual beliefs, is well received by all well-meaning Ethiopians.  The old generations of politicians, informed by their left leaning political aptitudes, may not like this fact, but like it or not, there it is, and no politician can hide his/her head in the sand. Religion, in addition to ethnicity, is becoming increasingly crucial in our political scheme, and we must strive to understand the dimensions of this reality without prejudice.

  This is a terrible decade, one of acute ethnic and social dislocation and violent conflict.  Given this scene as backdrop, Dr. Abyi’s key speeches and his oratory filled with peace and love has captured the country’s political mood.  His speeches and his actions so far, have given him a huge political support from all corners of the country. Let alone in Ethiopia, his disarming charm has smashed the militarized Ethio-Eritrea’s borders and left the citizens of Eritrea dizzy with happiness.  The images coming out of Asmara are stunning and one could see President Isaias (PIA) to be seen overtaken by joy and his usual stoned face public appearances have disappeared and replaced by overwhelming ecstasy. Given the nature of the man, I suspect that, partly, President Isaias is sticking it to the TPLF. As you could imagine, I have vigorous reservations about PIA’s ability in keeping his promises and allowing sustainable peace in place. But these are in no way based on the assumption of that the people of Eritrea have “bad intensions” toward Ethiopians.  I only hope, for the sake of the Eritrean people, this is the first step and the beginning of the downfall of the Eritrean dictator.  For sure, sanctions did not knack-out this dictator.  Perhaps this peace deal will play its tricks on him.

 Forecasting the future journey of these sisterly countries is difficult, but no matter what the peoples of Eritrea and Ethiopia deserve durable peace.  In these regards, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PMAA) has displayed unusual political courage and deserves credit.  Even though the peace deal was too slow and too late to roll out, the EPRDF’s resolve to breakdown the standoff is the right thing to do for the people of the two sisterly countries.

 Obviously, I cannot here examine the dynamics of the peace deal coming out of Asmara in its totality. Here I could only add an old adage; “the devil is in the details.” But I should like to submit my speculation (based on people who knew him in person)   on the PMAA’s love and peace train of thought.  As far as I can tell, the PM is genuinely concerned on how to transform the country from a nation sunk in poverty and devastating conflicts, to a country governed by the rule of law, the principles of justice and equality. He also seems to have an active and keen appreciation of the political history of the country. This line of thinking might not be new for the EPRDFites. But what makes PMAA a different and unique politician is that he has a firm belief in love and peace as a moral good and seems to draw a red line against the deployment of force in political affairs. The recent act of releasing political prisoners and lifting the state of emergency are prime exhibits. Of course, one should note that it is too early to make a final call and these propositions are matters to be tested in the future. This is precisely because when a new comer is elevated to the top rung of political power he is expected to release political prisoners in order to solidify his political capital.  This is not a new political discovery by PMAA. It is an old political wisdom.  To say this is not to suggest that the freeing of prisoners rested on a foundation of impure motives of the new PM. At this point in time, I have no reason to doubt his sincerity.  It is rather to argue that in politics motives of all sorts always play a part. As they say, there are no immaculate conceptions in politics.

 With the ascent of PMAA, the EPRDF for the first time in its history became conscious about human rights and civil liberties. This is not to say that no former member of EPRDF believed in civil liberties, nor is it to assert that all Dr. Abiy’s government officials today are enthusiastic about civil liberties. It is rather to suggest that more government officials today, following Dr. Abiy’s vision, accept it as their primary principle than the previous officials.  During the years of EPRDF, it has been fairly successful in building the basic infrastructures of the economy. But the establishment of democratic institutions and the upholding of and the respect of human rights issues have been moving at snail’s pace. Consequently, an immense loss of public confidence set in on the governing party.

Coming to the inner functioning of the EPRDF, one should note that major executive actions, in the current political system in place, are an outgrowth of party decisions. In such political environment, one of the functions of the EPRDF, viewed from its practicing traditions, is to design and enforce policies by discussions and consultations and to prevent the PM from breaching the contract of party consensus when necessary.  This function of the EPRDF, as a governing party, can be a great value to the building of democratic culture and tradition at least within the party itself.  I also think this is a significant defense of the sustainability of government by consultations and discussions. Otherwise, any PM can claim potentially dangerous authority as the elected PM of a presumed “people’s will” and become a king or an emperor.  This is at the heart of the current political frictions within the governing party.  Dr. Abyi’s political opponents within EPRDF are raising their voices against his tendencies to rush political pronouncements without adequate consultations with party members thereby destroying “party democracy.” I think this issue and other issues will play out in their highly anticipated EPRDF meeting which is coming very soon and perhaps in a manner of mending or breaking EPRDF as we know it.

 If there is one thing which abhors me to the depth of my political soul, there is nothing close to someone who wants to revise a recent political history of the country in order to deny or minimize the sacrifices and contributions made by the people of Tigrai in erecting the current system in place. It is verifiable fact that TPLF has played a leading role and has been a very successful organization in destroying (of course with the support its partners) the brutal Derg regime and has also played it role in erecting the new federalism.  How can we account for this curious refusal to confront historical reality on its own terms? Perhaps the time has come to give them credit and honor them for their ultimate sacrifice.  Anything less than that is unacceptable.

 Although one can condemn TPLF’s actions and the consequences of the new system as “undemocratic,” this should not give anyone a license to totally erase its contributions and sacrifices.  This is partly driven by the politics of hate.  It might be worth mentioning the following note. The infamous “getting the TPLF” or “getting the Woyanes” with a vengeance, does not necessarily add one iota to the love train and to the conflict resolutions of the country.  On the contrary, it is exposing the people of Tigrai to mob justice and ethnic vigilante.  Ironically such developments are pushing and forcing Tigreans to join TPLF.  These are people who were reluctant to join TPLF in previous years.

 Given the dog-whistle politics and his political tone towards TPLF, it is my understanding that Dr. Abiy believes that TPLF is undemocratic organization and hence requires a significant reform. This reminds of me the days when the TPLF politically characterized the EPLF of being undemocratic.  The parallel so eerie and sounds bad omen.  Whatever the sources of such frictions, the new PM should be more of high-minded and generous to all members of the governing parties and its partners instead of coming across petty and revengeful. In my humble opinion, it might be a futile attempt to think and believe that political tactics from an era of industrial revolution might work in dismantling TPLF.  Parallel to the use of strikebreakers to destroy the power of labor unions, the attempt to gather and use Tigrean opposition groups and individuals into what I call “Strikebreaker Politicians” is an Orwellian project.  It seems to me both unwise and unnecessary and moreover it is antithetical to the emergence of independent opposing parties and the evolvement of free and open society in general.

 Naturally the TPLF will fight back for its survival.  Although one must be very cautious in reading lessons from history, if one goes by their history, they will go any length to maintain its existence.  The leaders of the TPLF are uncompromising fighters when they feel that the sovereignty or organizational integrity of TPLF is endangered.  I hope the situation does not come to this. But if it comes to it, it is “unsafe at any speed” for the people of Tigrai if not for other Ethiopians. 

Since everything is going well for Dr. Abiy so far, quite frankly I do not get it.  If he is capable of demonstrating his forgiving will and showing tolerance towards the Derg era officials and the Dictator of Eritrea, what is eating him about the TPLF?  I understand that the majority voting TPLF members of the EPRDF did not vote for him.  Given the menu of choice of candidates, I happen to think that their vote against him was unfortunate.  Because he is the best candidate given the dire situations of the country is in. That said, he should not exact political revenge, keep fostering political grudges or shy away from the routine political consultations with his members of the governing party.

 Perhaps the TPLFites were caught in an old political trap: colluding voters during secret ballots. But the TPLFites peacefully transfer whatever was left of their federal political offices and moved away. Such political grace in and of itself is commendable. They played a leading role in politics of the governing party for a long time.  Now the leading role is taken by OPDO under the ambitious leadership of Dr. Abyi.  He led reform oriented wing of the EPRDF and won the majority of the party. Given the apathy of the opposition, this is what is expected of a one party system of governance.  This political episode reveals political maturity of the EPRDF.

 I should also note that whether in government, business, church or mosque, there is significant leadership transition taking place in the country.  The politically stubborn and the old generation from the Marxist era are reluctantly giving way (I would mostly argue due to old age) to the new generation.  Sadly enough, some of them are going into the country itching for power and to exact and settle their political revenge on their political opponents of the past.  It was fascinating for me to see in real times how many political activists, from the streets of North America and Europe, descended into hotel corridors of Addis Ababa to wine and dine and discuss on how to start their future business ventures. Operating as if they had received their guidance from Adam Smith himself, they furiously are grouping and regrouping to position them in leading certain sectors of the economy.  Perhaps this might be considered as a positive development in terms of lowering the number of political talking-heads and possibly creating jobs to the vast reserve of unemployed.

 If I had to summarize my contention in a one sentence or two, I would say that Ethiopia as a country is at cross-roads and it still is in search of the road map towards freedom and prosperity for all citizens of all regions of the country.  I hope the new PM acts like a GPS in finding and directing the shortest route to the country’s stated goal of destiny.  We still have a long way to go, and it will take continued struggle by millions of dedicated citizens to keep the country out of its poverty trap. To say this is not, however, to engage in unsophisticated pessimism about the future of the country. For sure, the country’s economic growth in the last decade has been very impressive and it has been one of the pillars of hope and optimism for the country.  This achievement has been the hard work of all Ethiopians in collaboration of the governing party which gave us our new PM. “Credit where credit is due” to the EPRDF


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