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Rulers in Ethiopia have always been democratic paper-tigers

Rulers in Ethiopia have always been democratic paper-tigers

Yohannes Aberra, PhD 11-4-19

The foundation of democracy for people is the freedom they are entitled to choose how to be ruled. This implies that democracy is rule by consent. Rulers in the past have violated this principle and were installed in power by descent rather than by consent. Ethiopia was ruled for thousand years by the Solomonic Dynasty which traced its origin not to Ethiopia but to a ruler in a far away land (Israel). Monarch Haile Selassie was a “Lion of Judha” not a Lion of Ethiopia! Claiming to have their ancestry from outside Ethiopia ensured them that they are not as ordinary as the people they rule. The rule by the “blue-blooded” was inculcated in the minds of ordinary people by some religious institutions that command respect among them. They brainwash their followers in such a way that the rule by descent would feel like a rule by consent. There have been hundreds of myths fabricated and intermingled with religious doctrines to convince people that the dynastic monarchs were ordained by God. Charging a King for a criminal offense and plowing the sky were equated as impossible. In national anthems the kings became central themes; in wars of National defense the martyrdoms were often dedicated to the Kings.

The Military took over the seat of government and claimed it did so by the consent of the people, who were brutalized by the ages old Monarchial rule. The Disillusionment of the people with the rule by Kings and “noble bugs” was considered by the coup leaders to be a sufficient proof of the approval of the people to their ascent to power. They considered any opposition to their claim of power as “reactionary” (favoring the defunct Monarchy) and “anti-people” (considering themselves as genuine representatives of the people). The difference between the Monarchy and the Military was that the former was honest enough to say they had God’s not people’s consent to rule; whereas the latter claimed to have had people’s consent where in reality that was absent. Either by ignorance or by insincerity those who snatch power by means of the barrel of the gun, later justifying it by rigged elections, try to assure themselves and the entire world that they are the voices of the people. Any opposition to their “people’s rule” is dealt with severely.

However noble the cause of the people an individual or a political group claims to uphold that does not guarantee the consent of the people to rule. The intentional or unintentional mistake Military rule in Ethiopia committed was almost repeated by the EPRDF. TPLF, the most senior party of the coalition, led the formulation of the narratives forming the foundations of the selection of the kind of social, political and economic system that had to be established in Ethiopia. In a similar way to what the former Military rulers felt after they overthrew the hated Monarchial rule, the EPRDF thought that they were readily accepted by the people as true representatives because they overthrew the hated Military rule. It was syllogism with the right premise but wrong conclusion: “The people hated military rule, so they wanted somebody to remove it for them; the EPRDF removed Military rule for them; so, they would certainly accept the one who did this for them: the EPRDF”. That was the reason why the EPRDF assured itself of the consent of the people to rule and went ahead deciding everything in its meeting/congress/conference halls and doing everything in all spheres of life without sufficiently consulting the people of Ethiopia. EPRDF was so confident about the people’s consent to its decisions and actions that any sign of opposition was considered as “Monarchial or Pro-Derg or even terrorist”. They could not believe that much of the opposition is genuine and coming from the people, who they think are “beneficiaries” of EPRDF’s decisions and actions (policies, strategies, programmes, projects).

From another more important angle, the linguistic-federal arrangement, however appropriate as a solution to Ethiopia’s political and social problems it may be, was not based on the consent of the people of Ethiopia. The entire scheme was based on the analysis of social and political contradictions in Ethiopia by 1991. Class-contradictions dominated the Monarchial era. Land–tenure based landlord and tenant relationships drew the social and economic boundaries between individuals and groups. The Land Proclamation in February, 1975 marked the end of class distinction based on land ownership. Everyone became tenants of the state as land became the property of the state. With the end of the land-based class society and the advent of socialist doctrines that promoted the self determination of nations and nationalities, the latter became a major motivation for political grouping.

During the entire time of Military rule national liberation movements proliferated in Ethiopia shifting the dominance of contradictions from class to nationalism. When the political analysts in the liberation movements determined that the key social and political contradiction was/is nation and nationality-based not class-based, it was taken for granted that it reflected the fundamental contradictions in the Ethiopian societies. During the messy rule of the Military, the liberation movements had ample time and freedom of action to rally the respective societies behind nationalist identities and related organizational structures. Parties that remained stuck in the country-level class-struggle, like EPRP and Meison, became irrelevant in the face of nationalist fervor.

Who were the liberation movements fighting against? Technically, they were fighting against Military rule which did not constitute as single oppressive nation or nationality. Of the liberation movements at least TPLF was a socialist party fighting against the socialist Military government. It was neither an ideological nor a national liberation war. Implicitly, it was a national liberation war of assumption: “Military rule is dominated by the defunct but still alive former national oppressor”. There was some truth in this point of argument. Most of those who felt that they had no reason to establish liberation movements, notably the Amhara, had little choice but to stick to the ideology of one Ethiopia which was consistent with the ideology of Military rule. The EPRP was hoped to attain this very goal without alliance with Military rule. By the way, it was that very Military rule that crushed the political, economic and social prominence of the Amhara ruling elite.

During that fateful year (1991) those forces that sat in a conference to decide on the fate of the people of Ethiopia were the victors in the war against Military rule. At that juncture in history it was assumed, to the highest possible degree of certainty, that the people of Ethiopia do not want to be ruled by a unitary system, which they have associated with oppression and discrimination by a ruling elite which was rendered powerless 17 years ago. Was that political force still potent enough to continue subjugation and discrimination? What was its perceived power base that could enable it to wield sufficient force against so many and so much of nations and nationalities and take them back to the age of subjugation and discrimination? The power-base of the Amhara ruling elite was land. When land became nationalized in 1975 the power base was effectively broken. The Amhara are too poor and powerless to be considered as a potential threat to the rest of Ethiopian nations and nationalities. Many seem to be fighting against a ghost of history. What has remained of the Amhara ruling elite was its pervasive language and culture. By the way, whatever claims the Amhara political elite may have over the rest of Ethiopia does not command significant mass base in the Amhara society now and then. The Amhara people are unjustly branded as oppressive ruling societies to make the case strongly for nationalist movements to convince their respective constituents of the threat of  “resurgence of Amhara rule”. The most beaten-track in any non-consent rule is to keep entire people on the edge by narratives of threat from this or that source.

The transitional council in 1991 that decided on the fate of Ethiopia was not a country-wide conference of elected representatives of the people but self appointed ‘representatives” of the people of Ethiopia. After 30 years we have come back to square one where the wisdom of holding a conference of victors 1991 is being questioned.  Unfortunately, those that are raising such issues are being branded as the losers of 1991. It has become very difficult to distinguish who is honest and who is not. The Amhara political elite complain that their nation, accused of being a ruling nationality, was not represented in the transitional council decisions in 1991. The complaint has no logical ground at all because no other nation and nationality in Ethiopia had true representations in the 1991 conference. I define representation as a result of direct and fair election by the people (nations and nationalities in this case) not of those who claim to represent the people just by virtue of the programmes of their parties. Parties do not automatically become representatives of people simply because the missions in their founding documents reflect the social, economic and political problems of the people and their perceived solutions. The truth is, parties customarily prefer to feel as the hands, eyes and ears of the people.

The Federal Constitution and the resulting Federal system, that was established based on the narratives of the gathering of the dominantly national liberation movements is coming into question not entirely out of hate of the equality of nations and nationalities but out of concern for the nations and nationalities in their respective regional states who have come under another form of elitist rule by ones “own” (regiocracy). A Federal system, regardless of its being based on geography or language should not be a shift of the iron-hand central rule to the regions. Many of the regional ruling parties have become so entrenched in the regional states so much that they have considered their tenure in power as hereditary nearly as much as it was during the Monarchy. They have consolidated too much power than they need to rule as democratic and replaceable governments.

Bad governance, corruption, indiscipline, have become tolerable and waved off as secondary or tertiary problems. Whoever, dares to oppose is branded as the enemy of the people not as the enemy of the parties. Worse still, one could be categorized as a fifth-columnist for external enemies. Artificial threats are created or real threats are exaggerated maintaining a constant vigilance, postponing development and the fight against bad governance and corruption. In this situation it is difficult and in most cases impossible for opposition parties to change anything for the better. The greatest comfort regional ruling parties enjoy is the proliferation of opposition parties too small and too weak to withstand the might of the ruling parties. They are born with a propensity to devour one another for simple differences rather than merge and be viable political force to effectively challenge the ruling parties in favor of the people’s cause.

In the first instance, the opposition parties may be just subsidiaries of the ruling parties to give a semblance of political tolerance in the regions. They help the ruling parties by overcrowding the political space with intangible or similar party programmes with the ruling party and other opposition parties. This may favorably result (for the ruling parties) in apathy and fatigue among the people with the noise pollution created by opposition politics in the media. Secondly, the opposition parties may be too weak, in terms of finance and the number and political skills of their membership, becoming easy prey for the downgrading propaganda of the ruling parties. The people also consider them as power mongers and as nuisances to peace and stability. Others lack direction and a to-do list for the people if they are elected. They are fully engaged in insulting ruling parties and praying for their downfall as soon as possible. They even go to the extent of begging the central government to overthrow the ruling parties in the regions and do the homework for them conveniently. Sometimes when extra-regional threats for all are perceived or fabricated the ruling parties and the opposition parties come into alliance. Recent pacts in Oromia and Amhara are cases in point. The entire rationale of forming opposition parties against regional ruling parties is lost. Who are the opposition parties against if they form alliance with the ruling parties? 

Many, if not all, regional ruling party leaders are actually more interested in Federal positions in Addis Ababa. The regions have become waiting rooms for a red carpet flight to Addis Ababa. Hence, they don’t want to make long-term and genuine commitments for the people of the regions. Whatever they do is temporary and superficial. They don’t take the complaints of the people, on corruption and bad governance, seriously in order not to disappoint their own corrupt friends in the parties just to please the people. While the crimes they committed are clear to everyone they still remain at the top jobs telling stories, in their designer-suits, luxury cars and mansions, about how much sacrifice was made in the struggle. They unashamedly tell the people that their sons and daughters died to bring them “the prosperity and democracy they are enjoying now”. They are clearly telling a sick joke; but they know they can go away with it as they have always done. They know the people are too weak and too helpless to shake the foundations of their rule. They have systematically weakened them by either making them economically dependent on the ruling parties or brainwashed them to the extent of thinking that the ruling parties are irreplaceable. Many are made to feel endlessly grateful to the parties for saving them from brutal central rule, which is felt to be considerably worse.

Still, whether or not Ethiopia should be unitary, federal on geography, federal on language, etc. is the agenda for debate and conflict of the political elite. After 30 years, the people of Ethiopia are still passive spectators or audiences to the chaotic political drama about what to be and what not to be. Politicians have become disrespectful of people’s right to decide on their own economic, social and political future. Many politicians wake up in the morning with a “bright” idea of forming an independent state as a quick solution to the political stalemate in the Federation. Others choose from the menu of development theories as they choose a meal in a restaurant. Some prefer social democracy, which is losing ground even in the European countries where it prevailed for decades. Others are enthusiastic about neoliberalism unaware that it has immersed many developing nations in deep muddy waters. Ruling parties love the idea of development state because it could ensure long years of tenure in political power. Still others brand revolutionary democracy as a tool for tyrannical rule without having any idea about what its basic tenets are. There are more reasonable others who are not interested in picking from a menu of “Made-in-USA” or “Made-in-Europe” development theories. They prefer customized approaches to development to the peculiarities of Ethiopia.

Politicians who endured several years of hardship to bring about rule by consent lack the stamina and willpower to do the easiest of all jobs: listen to the people. They are not listening to the people because they know what the people may say is uncomfortable to them. Why is political power so jealously guarded even from the people for whom it is meant to serve? Why are people killed and jailed for demanding good governance and ending corruption? Isn’t it the reason why current leaders overthrew previous leaders for? Why should the people’s demand for genuine democracy be a virtue before the change of government and be a vice after that? This is double standards! The same people who were hailed as revolutionaries will be branded as terrorists while upholding the same principles before and after. For instance, whatever they did the Qerros, the Fannos, and the Ejjetos were praised as revolutionaries before; but now many brand them as terrorists for doing the same thing as they have been doing before.

Why do incumbents adhere to political power whatever the cost to them and to the people? It is a conundrum when political power which is in principle a means to bring about an end (serving the people) becomes an end in itself (serving oneself). Every incumbent believes that it is the best ever for the people without waiting for the people to give their verdicts. Its media monopoly (private and public) and its ability to rally benefit seeking human parasites behind it enable it to jam the voices of the people. The difference between taking the seats of political power in poor countries like Ethiopia and in the rich West is the intention of doing so. In the West politicians would stay in power as long as they are doing their jobs accordingly and effectively. They resign even with the slightest of failures in their jobs. For them political power is not a means to end their personal poverty but an opportunity to prove their worth by serving the people. They buy a two-way ticket to and back from power. In poor countries like Ethiopia politicians buy a one-way ticket to power and never look back. They break the steps of the ladder every time they go higher in the political hierarchy. Coming down from that height becomes a death sentence for them. They have already enriched and “royalized” themselves to a point of no return to previous life. That is why they fight to the end to retain their positions against the people they came to power on behalf of.

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This becomes morally degrading when the incumbency’s ascent to power has cost the lives of tens of thousands of people. The difference between Military rule’s and the EPRDF’s ascent to power is how much sacrifice was paid for the same thing: to come to power. Meskerem 2 1967 E.C. did not see the death of even a single person to bring down the long  reigned Monarchy. Bringing down Military rule required more than a hundred thousand casualties. Which of the two should be mindful of sacrifices? The answer is clear; but both behaved in the same way when it comes to retaining incumbency. EPRDF is not feeling like it has borrowed power to pay back the people who paid dearly for it. It acts like as if it has earned it.

How and when is this vicious cycle of deceit and short sighted power mongering going to break? When is the time in which political power will be viewed not as bread with honey but as bread with vinegar? When is altruism going to be the guiding principle of politicians for the good of future generations? Ordinary people and politicians alike are sending their children to the best schools as much as their capacities allow them to do. However, the sick irony is that many are busy destroying the very future of their children for the sake of short-term greed for power. Few are thinking clearly about paying the sacrifices now and preparing a bright future for the generations of Ethiopians to come. They want all the golden eggs from the goose by slaying it now! Let the people decide and Let the people rule! That is the only way Ethiopia can be saved from crumbling and its people get what they deserve. For now, the behavior of politicians in Ethiopia is a non-return visa to hell!

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