Summer Commentary 2009




1. Where are human rights organizations?


I still recall reading reports by international organizations containing graphic descriptions of misconduct by Ethiopian soldiers in Somalia. There were also analysts and commentaries that had little positive to say about the Ethiopian intervention, arguing how the presence of Ethiopian soldiers aggravated the situation. That might have been true. But did things change after the Ethiopian withdrawal? Correct me if I am wrong, once the Ethiopian soldiers left Somalia, these organizations and groups became less vocal. One would expect them to continue going public to show their outrage of the situation in Somalia and the neglect by the international community. The Ethiopian government always alleged that the reports by international organizations were biased, as they were influenced by informants belonging to political interest groups. Either way, the Somali situation is one of the tragedies of our time and it is regrettable that the international community did not learn from the Rwandan genocide.


2. Political prediction


Many foreign analysts have already concluded that EPRDF can easily win the next election. We are talking about a powerful and innovative ruling party that plans five or ten years ahead, while opposition groups butcher and destroyed one another. Would I be surprised if EPRDF also wins easily in 2015? The most realistic time for a regime change could be 2020 at which time economic growth would have expanded, the state’s capacity strengthened and democratic political habits developed. This is assuming that the old folk and opportunist elites will have vacated the political arena and a new generation of opposition elites have emerged to talk about public policies dealing with poverty, social services, economic growth, national security and so on. In the meantime, the revolutionary democrats should continue to shake up things in the state, foreign aid private sectors to ensure the equal distribution of opportunities in Ethiopian society. 


3. Why support EPRDF?


If we were to prescribe a political party membership, it certainly won’t be with EPRDF.  We simply support this party because we want it to fight poverty and protect the rights of children, women and men. We also want EPRDF to play a fair political game with opposition parties. But, when opposition groups do not talk about poverty and development, what are we supposed to do? Be their geles (foot soldiers)?  Even the geles in ancient times had a purpose, which was to go to battlefields, pick up fighting weapons when accredited soldiers died and join the fight.




4. The Provincial geles


One of the popular Canadian journalists Pamela Wallin got appointed to the Canadian Senate. A reporter asked her,  “what do you think of your appointment?” She replied, “well, coming from Western Canada….”. She said she would represent her region. In democratic countries, this is what people do. In fact, you will find hundreds of legal frameworks in Canada applied by each and every province and territory to ensure that provincial autonomy and local interests are protected. In Ethiopia, greedy reactionary elites used to control everything from Addis Ababa and their generation still wants to do the same. Today`s elites have also got provincial geles who provide them with a variety of services ranging from dancing and singing and raising money to writing  “political analysis”  and carrying their no-developmental political agenda to each and every community.  Not Tecola Hagos. Of course, these geles are often discarded and orphanized as those central elites switch political sides here and there. 


5. Ginbot 7 group


I am surprised by the level of interest generated by that alleged Ginbot 7 plot to assassin high-ranking government officials. This group consist of people who first served EPRDF and became losers and then joined the opposition and became losers also. If my memory is correct, some Western media have quoted Birhanu Nega considering the idea of overthrowing a government “by any means necessary”.  Let us then advise Birhanu et al that they should use the resources of immigrant host countries for the purpose of promoting peace and development. Nobody should rule out the possibility of being held accountable under national or international laws should any Diaspora-based Ethiopian group stage an action that disrupts public order and peace.


6. Elias Kifle has gone wild


His recent return from Asmara with material to promote Issayas Afewerki might have even angered the segment of the Eritrean Diaspora. Politics has limits and Elias have not realized this. Yet, you must also realize that we represent a generation that went through horrific experiences of imprisonment, torture, murder and displacement. If we can live with the people who committed these crimes or were associated with them, we should try to live with Elias. In the meantime, let us pray that Brother Elias comes back to his senses.


7. Intellectual thugs


I am not talking about genuine critics of EPRDF who may be more patriotic than many Ethiopians. I am talking about those thugs who have dedicated their profession for talking negative about Ethiopia. Are they narrow ethnic and tribal thugs? Or former ideological priest of Derge who still remain angry that they lost power to EPRDF?  These intellectual thugs should know that the trick to removing EPRDF from power is to empower the Ethiopian population with knowledge and skills. Instead, they poison the environment to create a culture of negativity and frustration. And the victims so far have been opposition parties themselves.


8. Opposition parties should work harder


One of the major constrained for the Ethiopian opposition is that they are formed in Addis Ababa and controlled by people from Addis Ababa who have no experience of a complex country. They may think that donor officials would pressure Prime Minister Meles who would in turn order local officials to tolerate the opposition. Wrong idea!  Those local officials are too powerful. Opposition parties should instead give up the luxury of talking politics sipping hot and cold drinks in the cities and start communicating with Woreda and Kebele officials who govern 85% of the Ethiopian population. When opposition people appear in the Woredas during elections, they would be seen as strangers to the extent of local residents wondering why they are there.  


9. Talk about EDP political rebounding


 I have to admit that I remain not fully convinced of EDP’s Aristotle-version of middle class democracy which may turn attention away from rural areas to urban development in the name of market economy. But, when you observe a leadership gathering its energy and politically rebound, you get inspired. Whether EDP has created a political capital to draw support from the Ethiopian public is an important question (given public disenchantment with the opposition), but this party has shown us that politics is flexible, adaptable and workable. 


10. How much is too much (on retirement pension)


When former President of Zambia Kenneth Kaunda left office, his party had to find him a modest house to live in. He had nothing.  In one BBC interview, Kaunda told how the new ruling elites, who rose to power by the help of unions and civil society, humiliated him including planning the assassination of his son. They also looted the state with the President (Kaunda’s successor) Frederick Chiluba earning a name for wearing Swiss-made expensive suits (costing thousands of dollars) and stealing about US $35 million. The analogy here is not only that the revolutionary democrats should take care of themselves, but also what can happen if reactionary thugs use democracy to seize state power. Nonetheless, I think the benefit and salary packages may be too much for a poor country like Ethiopia. I have not read the details of the legislation, but we should expect to include benefits for hard working local officials who are responsible for implementing government policies and programs. 


11. The other group of retirees


They are going to hang around and continue to do what they were doing. Perhaps it is time that Ethiopians speak out to let these ex-politicians and opportunist elites know that, when they are politically finished, they are finished. Have some self-respect! Especially those old folks who continue to stir up trouble. Colonel Goshu Wolde is an example of an individual who retreated to private life when his time was up. 


12. አንጋፋው  ጥላሁን ገሰሰ Legendary Tilahun Gessesse


Why did people including Meles Zenawi write “Dr Artist Tilahun Gessesse”?  Please stop anglicizing Ethiopian traditions.  ያገሩን ሰርዶ  ባገሩ  በሬ። 


13. Birtukan Mediksa


I have been criticized for voicing a concern for Birtukan Mediksa, particularly how I overlook “rule of law” issues. I go political to lobby.  As a descent people, we think the government has made a mistake and we raise this issue to have it rectified. Wouldn’t the Prime Minister have talked about important development issues with the BBC (during his interview) instead of defending himself against a criticism? Wouldn’t Foreign Ministry officials focus on other issue of national importance instead of spending time and resources to explain why the government arrested Birtukan? It is these kinds of questions that Ethiopian government advisors do not see.  At a personal level, I also feel that her arrest has nothing to do with the interest of the Ethiopian public.  It is an issue specific to EPRDF.  No one in the right mind would think that Birtukan will continue to languish in prison because of “he said, she said” pardon affair. That is why the Prime Minister should summon his legal advisors and do something about this issue.


14. Return of Eritreans


This is a positive development for which the Ethiopian government should get the praise. The government should also adopt a hand-off policy towards Eritrea. This entertaining of disgruntled Eritrean elites and encouraging them to wage war against Issayas Afewerki can be counterproductive. Many of the members of the so-called Eritrean opposition could be the same people who have been preaching against Ethiopia for decades. They have little experience of governing a country and could turn Eritrea into a failed state like Somalia. Shabia is actually a well-disciplined political organization. When the game is over (Issayas is gone), everybody in Shabia would get in line to accept a new political order. Ethiopia should have no problem of working with post-Issayas Shabia.


15. Recession impact


One survey cited by Canadian media showed that businesses for bars, coffee shops, movie stores, and other leisure activities were booming during this time of recession. The reason is that people (who have been laid off by their employers) have more time to relax, thanks to public safety net programs like Canada’s employment insurance. If this means that the demand for flowers, cereal, coffee and other Ethiopian export products will be steady in the next year or so, the Ethiopian economy will get less stress from the current recession. Wishful thinking, of course.  Ethiopian government officials remain worried about the impact of global recession. What more can they do?  


16.  Towards equitable economic development


It appears that most of the industrial development initiatives are concentrated in Addis Ababa and vicinities. Does this have any logic?  For the past 100 years, all the resources of the country have been flowing to Addis Ababa. This trend should not continue.


 17. Dambisa Moyo on foreign aid


I have been following media reports and reviews of the work of this Zambian native who did her studies by the help of a scholarship (financial assistance from a foreign organization - foreign aid).  The fact that Moyo got a sort of celebrity status in a short period of time shows how much the Western public has been puzzled by questions about foreign aid effectiveness. I have not read the book and this commentary would not the place for discussion. Yet, from what I gathered, Moyo appears to have downplayed the importance of aid.  As the Canadian Stephen Lewis always argues, foreign aid is much more about saving the lives of children, men and women. One thing that we can agree with Moyo is that Africans must be able to put the right people on the job. We may or may not politically agree with EPRDF, but the leadership has taken the aid business seriously, making Ethiopia one of the favoured countries by donor agencies.


18. Doing something about EPRP


EPRP commands respect and sympathy not because it had not slaughtered the children of Ethiopia or not because it had not sent its own most capable members to a shooting squad. It is because this party was an organization of young people who took the self-initiative to resist oppression.  Despite the ups and downs, politics in (Diaspora) EPRP has always been comfortable, at least for some of us, and its cadres have increasingly shown decency (though some look like evangelical preachers). The problem with EPRP is that you have few people at the top (includes known intellectuals), vacant at the middle (thinkers and technocrats) and labouring cadres at the bottom. The vacancy at the middle of the organization’s hierarchy means that there is no critical thinking necessary for refreshing political directions, strategies, and organizational design. So, as the people at the top age, EPRP is decaying.  In fact, these leaders have been clinging to power for over three decades that they no longer tell the difference between the issues of the past, present and future. For example, you can longer talk about “the nationalities’ question” sitting in the Diaspora, while the leaders of nationalities are using a federal constitution to claim the share of the national budget and use the resources to deliver goods and services to their people). You cannot make Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution a burning issue in a country where children die of poverty everyday. You cannot claim to stand for our poor relatives while ignoring poverty and development issues and instead contesting with Diaspora Derge and the rich middle class on how best to narrate the wrongdoings of EPRDF or how to remove and replace EPRDF. Forming an alliance with a former Derge cabinet Hailu Shawel was a mistake that seriously compromised EPRP’s principles, as was creating a splitter group to call it EPRP-Democrat (without explaining why it became a democrat or more democrat than the other EPRP group). In short, EPRP needs a new leadership which should pose a set of questions to determine whether the party should continue to occupy a public space or whether it should end its long political journey to be transformed into some kind of a social organization open to everybody.




Getachew Mequanent

Ottawa, Canada

June 2009