Ethiopia After Meles
I know my Diaspora compatriots join me in conveying good wishes to Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn. Haile Mariam – simply known by his profession as the water engineer – is a hard-working and decent man, well-liked by Ethiopians. He will follow the footsteps of Meles Zenawi to lead the Ethiopian masses to development. We stand behind him, as much as our capacities permit, in support of Ethiopia’s development.
I was on vacation in Ethiopia when Meles died. I witnessed people of all ages and classes grieving in public and private spaces for the death of this great man. I returned to Canada to hear some individuals and groups spreading information that the Ethiopian people were forced to cry. It disgusted me. People cried for Meles because he worked hard, not because he was good at manufacturing deception and political mischief (like these groups and individuals).
One of the legacies of Meles is the restoration of Ethiopia’s image in Africa and at international level through his intellect in articulating ideas and strong leadership for effective diplomacy. Ethiopians always felt good about themselves with this achievement. As well, for our generation of Ethiopians, state funeral for a national leader has always been something that we hear or see in foreign countries. On September 2, 2012, Ethiopians for the first time saw and experienced the ritual of state funeral with well-staged processions, ceremonies, display of military might, international dignitaries, and so on. It was therefore expected to feel a sense of jubilation and national pride in the days following the state funeral. Just as Robert F. Kennedy, Meles died after reaching the highest pick of his career in public office, ending his era as one of the greatest leaders of Ethiopia and Africa. There will be places and institutions named after him.
I always liked Meles and my own personal regret is that I did not thank him for his hard work. We in the Diaspora stood by the side for decades doing nothing while the Ethiopian people continued to struggle against poverty, claiming that we have political disagreements with EPRDF. Our generation has developed a culture of “agreeing to disagree”, so that we always end up disagreeing amongst ourselves on almost everything. We focus on criticizing the Ethiopian government and denouncing national leaders, instead of reinforcing achievements and proposing constructive ideas. It is time that we start to agree on common values and goals and work together to support the struggle of the Ethiopian people to develop. It is also time that we start recognizing and appreciating political and civic leaders who are working hard to develop the country.
As I continued to experience the emotional upheaval across the country following Meles' death, I kept thinking whether this phenomenon signified a political revolution of some sort. We often understand political revolutions as mass uprisings led by political and social activists to dethrone governments of power. This, however, overlooks the revolutionary role of historical events, national ideologies, religious holidays, memorial days and other shared national sentiments in transforming society by deepening government legitimacy and reframing state-society relations in positive ways. Maybe talking about a political revolution can be an exaggeration or even irrelevant. Clearly, Ethiopians from every corner of the country had come together to express their grief for the death of their leader in different cultures and traditions. This was a true affirmation that the federation has worked in promoting a sense of belonging of all Ethiopians to a national family. Meles has left a strong and united country. The Ethiopian government should continue to strengthen this achievement by ensuring the protection of the right of poor and marginalized households and nationalities, and above all, by directing public investments where real needs are (in rural areas). Unless rural people (80% of the population) do well, Ethiopia cannot achieve a middle income country status.
Meles left a country that is developing socially and economically. On one street block in Kebele 18, Gondar city, I counted 29 enterprises including retail shops (kiosks), hair salons, an electronic repair shop, cafeterias, restaurants, workshops (furniture), a clinic, pharmacies, internet cafes, a hotel and other enterprises – all evidence of the flourishing of enterprises and a sign of the start of economic takeoff. In rural areas, income is steadily on the rise. Mobile phones have penetrated deep into the hinterlands. Roads and state services are expanding. Street crime is at historic low. The growing number of entrants into the market economy and bureaucracy – the new middle class – are young people from rural areas. Public institutions - whether it is the Ethiopian Airlines, police or bureaucracy -have increasing represented the face of the Ethiopian population (diversity). National moral is high. As one writer noted, one of Meles’ legacies is that he convinced the Ethiopians that development was possible. Today, despite hardships that they face daily, Ethiopians strongly believe that they can get out of poverty. Prime Minister Haile Mariam has an opportunity to make history by providing effective leadership to make Ethiopia a middle income country.
EPRDF leaders might have been vindicated by the emotional outpours and the rising tide of a new wave of nationalism. After all, didn’t we hear, a year or so ago, dysfunctional opposition groups calling the Ethiopian people to rise up, in an Arab Spring-like political movement, to remove EPRDF from power? Whatever EPRDF leaders felt, they kept it to themselves, or we didn’t see it. This could be an indication of their political competence, yet they should manage higher expectations from society, such as ensuring accountable and transparent bureaucracy, job creation, improved quality of services, protecting the rights of the poor and minorities, public security and effective diplomacy. The Prime Minister, Ministers and senior government officials should go around the country to hold town hall-like meetings to interact with ordinary citizens, discuss the progress of GTP and obtain feedback. In doing so, they show that they have become more humble and caring in response to the emotional outpourings across the country. More importantly, they learn about new trends and issues that ensue from changing social structures and economic relationships as the result of economic growth. To give you an example, while in Gondar, I learned that these days households may find it difficult to get domestic maids/servants. This is not because of a shortage of females in Ethiopian society. This is because poor young girls, who traditionally provided a pool of cheap labour, now have the choice of going to schools or working in restaurants, construction projects and other sectors which pay more (40 birr a month as domestic maid vs. 30 birr a day by cutting cobblestones, for example). The government should help working women by creating support systems, such as children’s nurseries, and technologies that make cooking and washing easier. The morale of the story here, however, is that perhaps many of you and I never knew that a lack of domestic maids can be one of the indicators of economic development in Ethiopian society (as an indicator of the empowerment of poor and destitute young girls). Safe and clean streets, growing youth volunteers, increasing volume of cars on Ethiopia’s regional highways, penetration of electronic products in the countryside and other micro indicators seem so simple and ordinary, but they are important measures of GTP performance.
The party transformation project will be in full swing bringing younger party elites who could infuse fresh blood into the party apparatus and public administration. This could also attract the interest of the Ethiopian youth in EPRDF. But, in my experience in the Amhara region, it appears that people have developed more confidence in veterans EPRDF elites, both field veterans and long-serving ones. Time Magazine once called the Chinese communist leaders, as group, genius. They got down to serious thinking and planning to create equitable social and economic opportunities while incrementally opening up the state for the influence of the growing young rich middle class. Today the Chinese are happy and proud people. I am not saying that the situation in Ethiopia is similar to that of China. Nor do I question EPRDF’s transformation project that has already been marketed politically. I am suggesting that the issue could be approached on case-by-case basis in order to retain “old guard” EPRDFs that command the respect and confidence of the population. It is important that ideological heavyweights stay around a bit playing an advisory role to support Prime Minister Haile Mariam who is likely to have the burden of meeting high expectations. The fact is that, at this critical time of Ethiopian history – when there are golden opportunities for development-, Ethiopia needs a strong and united party and effective government that delivers development results.
The warring opposition groups should start to talk to each other and develop a common agenda for Ethiopia’s development. They need to focus on their domestic constitutes (instead of going around the Diaspora) and identify public policy issues that are relevant to the needs of the great masses of Ethiopia. Playing the ethnic political card (the decades old opposition strategy) is no longer possible, and even if it is possible, this will not be enough to claim legitimacy as a political alternative.
These days, some of the critics of EPRDF appear to have adopted reconciliatory tones. This is a positive trend that creates an opportunity for constructive dialogue. However, there should be no change in the policy of bringing those who harmed or tried to harm Ethiopian society to justice. If rural farmers go to jail for grazing their cattle or cutting trees in enclosed forests, others should not be treated differently. The policy of pardoning prisoners should continue as it is compatible with different judicial traditions of Ethiopian society.
September 29, 2012