By Teshome Abebe*
On September 16, 2015, after EPRDF declared election victory and with the ensuing affirmation of Ato Hailemariam Dessalegne as the premier, I wrote the following:
In the epic BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell, the English lawyer and statesman who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII of England, tells Henry, “ You have become a king. Now, be one”.
Adapting Cromwell’s illustrative implorations of a hesitant and uncertain king, I wish to suggest to the TPLF/EPRDF now that you have declared election victory, concluded your congress, and have become a government, go be one. A government for all of the people of Ethiopia, that is!
For those who would wish to question the wisdom in this, even if momentarily, and are already itching to take me to task for daring to give counsel to a government that has been in power for nearly a quarter of a century, I say hear me out.
Recalling the Conversation We Had
In that article, I identified the numerous challenges Ethiopia faced, the visible progress that has been made, and ambitiously, albeit correctly, implored the authorities that three important issues be addressed without hesitation. I have titled this piece exactly as I did three years ago because of two reasons: the first reason is that conditions in Ethiopia have gotten worse than they were in 2015, and that the governing party has proven that it can not govern even by its own standards; and the second is based on the belief that those called to serve the nation deserve a modicum of graciousness from those individuals like me who have attempted to influence change through reason. For purposes of consistency and accuracy, I have reproduced here what I wrote in that piece almost three years ago.
The apparent decaying process of the TPLF/EPRDF began rooting itself when the party ignored or paid lip service to three very important issues. The first of these has been written about since the fall of the Derg, and continues to be the Achilles’ heel of the party: the division of the country along ethnic lines. I hold the view that no properly educated person would support the division of a people based on ethnicity. It is the cancer that should never have been fed and allowed to fester. Smarter persons have written eloquently on this, nothing further will be stated here.
The second critical issue the governing party should have dealt with is corruption. True, it has talked about rendering a sever blow to corruption, and has even thrown a few wolves into the cage. But corruption, rent seeking, and what I will call entitlement harvesting are more endemic and most corrosive in the country now than they have ever been before. To be fair, corruption is not as bad as in some other African states. But that is no comfort of a high standard, and it certainly is of no comfort to the poor.
Corruption and rent seeking are activities that are anti-poor. And for a ruling party that prides itself for having pro-poor policies and having significantly reduced the level of absolute poverty in the country, abolishing the culture of corruption should have been an urgent and continuing task. Corruption has become so rampant that even the Ethiopian Orthodox church claims to have lost billions of birr over the years to corrupt practices. What riles up residents of the country the most is the practice of entitlement harvesting. Based upon the claim of having made most of the sacrifices in throwing out the Derg, or by virtue of their position, some have resorted to demanding special treatment: entitlement to the best plots of land; waiver of policies and rules; issuance of business permits; priorities to import and/or export licenses; and laying claim to, invariably, all the top positions in virtually all government offices and agencies, for example.
By allowing such practices to fester and thus poisoning the well, the ruling party has brought about the decaying of the principle that it had fought for: the equality of all persons under the law. Worse, some in Ethiopia have spawned a culture where others are considered as just hired hands. This is the pinnacle of all corrupt practices and the ultimate crown in rent seeking behavior and culture.
The third area of failure is good governance. While there has been considerable growth of sectors of the economy, particularly over the past ten years, the overall economy, including the public sector, is riddled with clientelism and/or cronyism (to gain votes and to gain favors). As a matter of precision, there appears to be no distinction between government (public) business and party operations, leading some to compare this to a kleptocracy, which in reality is a hallmark of all totalitarian systems.
The party in power created further uncertainty this past election cycle when it declared that it has won all available seats (including those of its birthed allies). This is very problematic as there must be some opposition in a free country. Just as you cannot have a free government without elections, you cannot have a free country without some opposition. Is this, then, a free country? True, we are a diverse society and the party in power has used this as a rallying cry for its causes. But we are also a diverse society with a common root—a free Ethiopia. As has been said before, diversity is an indivisible concept. If the ruling party truly believes in a diverse Ethiopia and wishes to fight for it, it must also be prepared to extend it to everyone and to every facet of government as well as institutions, and not just in the sense of and within the conception of kilills.
It is counterproductive and supremely silly to demonize all opposition and deny everyone else political space. The state of the opposition—such as it is—is not the business of the ruling party. That role belongs to the public, which should render judgment on all parties, including the TPLF/EPRDF. If the public decides to punish the opposition for lacking the most simple of organizational skills—as it seemed to do so during the just concluded election—that role belongs to it and to it alone. And the opposition needs to realize that no ruling party anywhere in the universe makes it easy for an opposition to win a properly contested seat. For the rest of us who are merely spectators, I would like to restate what others had already stated: “To believe everything is to be an imbecile. To deny everything is to be a fool”.
In an effort to appeal to reasonable minds, I further argued that the cosmetic changes being made around that time were not truly reflective of genuine and fundamental changes essential to bringing peace, development, inclusion and democracy in the country. I argued that ushering in these changes requires owning up to the failures, and changing the entire system. Here is what I stated at the time:
Hasn’t the ruling party admitted to and acknowledged these shortcomings in its most recent congress, you might ask? To its credit, yes, it has. However, the acknowledgement of these shortcomings is merely tactical, and is based upon at least three considerations: first, the party sought to get in front of the political demands that are being forced on it by the public—it wanted to show a response. As such, the public acknowledgement of failures is an act of political expediency rather than an acknowledgement driven by a reassessment of the party’s underlying beliefs. For me, it is not sufficient when someone merely acknowledges, regrets, or apologizes for something they have done rather than for the view they hold and the belief that caused the offense in the first place.
Second, I contend that this is an acknowledgement of shortcomings intended only to persuade themselves and the supporting public that the party does not have other bigger shortcomings. In this sense, it is an act intended to mask other possibly odious shortcomings and failures. Whatever the motive, it is essential that the adjustment to changing circumstances is genuine, and that the nation’s continued growth and improvement is not stunted because of a lack of creativity or a re-evaluation of policies where it is needed or warranted.
Third, given the nature of TPLF/EPRDF—a revolutionary entity, the party may be signaling a course correction that may not be fully embraced by some of its members. As a result, the public admission of shortcomings could be a warning to all members that no one is safe in a revolutionary movement, and by implication, in times of revolutionary impulses. Whether this is the intended message or not, it remains to be seen. But one cannot escape noticing the awkward subtlety of revolutionary movements and how they bring about change!
Having so argued my case, I concluded with the following summation:
I wish to conclude this essay by acknowledging that everybody has an “instinctive desire to do good things…but the desire to do good things is sterile as long as we have no experience of what it means to be good”. We hear speeches, we listen to promises, and we even hold hopes for a future that is definitely different than the past—even the very distant past–only to be let down by the sheer weight of their emptiness. These have the effect of only entertaining us like the streetlights of Addis after midnight, by hopes they cannot fulfill. It would be so impressive if today’s Ethiopia were more inclusive and more prepared and ready to take advantage of the prevailing opportunities available to it. As in any other good society, what is required is a society that is held together by justice and not by a coercive and abusive authority; as well as a society defined and held together by freedom whose absence only helps breed servility, resentment and hate. Continued Peace!
Deja vu All Over Again!
Having refreshed the reader’s memory, it is only appropriate that I now join many others in congratulating the new Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy, on his elevation to the post, and also to convey my best wishes to his base party (OPDO) in achieving the success it had sought to be elevated within the power-hogging parent party, the EPRDF. Like many others, I welcome the change; welcome it as a first step in meeting the enormous challenges facing the EPRDF itself; and to recognize the additional changes that must be effectuated to overcome the daunting difficulties the country faces.
The failure to deal with the conditions identified in the 2015 article have now brought us full circle—a tumultuous change within the country, the resignation of a prime minister, and the elevation of a new actor to the post. The system is still fully in tact, and to those who subscribe to it, the covenants are still sacred.
So what should we expect now? For starters, let us not overreach and talk of a ‘peaceful transfer of power’, but exercise restraint in the self-congratulatory glee that we seem to witness every time EPRDF changes a prime minister. The current selection of a new prime minister has very little to do with a ‘peaceful transfer of power’. What has occurred is the relieving off duty of one and the elevation of another within the same party—a party that has wielded power for almost three decades. A peaceful transfer of power would be the handing of power, following a competitive election, to another party with different policies and new structures of governing than the party in power. A father promoting one of his children to maintain, at any cost, the family’s failing business when what is surely called for is the acquisition of a new line of products under new management is hardly celebratory!
Second, Ethiopian society has, over the past three decades, witnessed the many existential problems that have been created in part as a consequence of ethnic federalism, corruption, mal-governance, and in some cases, incompetency. Our national story today is one of political dysfunction, emergency rule, of interrupted development, declining influence within the region, and possibly, of stunted economic growth. In areas where there has been growth, it has been concentrated, and has left the majority of the population unimpressed. The past few years have also shown that the party in power has failed at ‘nation’ building. In fact, it can be said that the party in power has succeeded in creating an environment of divergent interests highlighted and amplified by the absence of common strands of values in what it takes to unite a nation.
Third, the new prime minister is expected to be faithful to the system designed by the governing party, and it would require almost nonhuman skills to overcome the obstacles and be successful as a leader under the conditions currently extant within that system.
Fourth, the contradictions between the notion of shared national values and EPRDF’s reverence for a political system based on ethnicity with its exclusive tribal covenants are not going to change because of a change in the person occupying the chairmanship of the party. Without meaningful changes, all that would occur would be the continued contempt for the government, and the failure of yet another leader even if talented. To overcome Ethiopia’s challenges, to get rid of an intrinsically unstable and violent system with potential for ethnic cleansing, new ideas are needed; new thinking is required; and there needs to be an overhaul of the entire system. That overhaul is not going to be initiated by a man promoted from within to maintain and defend the failing family business, the failing family enterprise which was designed to separate Ethiopians instead of uniting them. It is inherently a contradictory system, which undermines individual rights in favor of group rights and interests. No matter how talented, one cannot overcome the system contradictions that are enshrined in the constitution that one is presumed to enforce and uphold.
The core precepts of a democratic system with separation of powers, human rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech and assembly, a pluralistic media, free, fair and competitive elections will continue to be a pipe-dream for Ethiopians under the current arrangement. I concede that, in his past utterances, the new Prime Minister has suggested that these, or at least some of them, are what he values as well. In that spirit, I wish to repeat an old adage: ሜዳውም ይከው ፈረሱም ይከው። Time will tell, and 2020 is just around the corner!
Despite the odds, however, I am eternally optimistic about the future of Ethiopia—a nation with a rich legacy of memories, governed with the consent of the people, and amplified by the desire to live together so as to perpetuate, in undivided form, the value of the heritage endowed to us.
As I conclude this version of my essay, I am also hopeful that it will not be necessary to write a Part III of these series; that Ethiopia and Ethiopians will not have wasted yet another opportunity for change; and that, as in any other model society, what we are building is a nation and a society that is held together by consent and justice, and not by a coercive and abusive authority. Good wishes, Mr. Prime Minister!
*Teshome Abebe, Professor Laureate and Professor of Economics, is a former Provost and Vice President, and may be reached at: email@example.com