Ethiopia at the Edge: What Next?

After over 30 years of hands-on management of various horrific outcomes of conflict-induced displacement, in various parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, I find myself confronted by the prospect of yet another disaster in the making closer to my heart.

I thus join many nationals and friends of Ethiopia in expressing grave concerns about the recent political developments in the country and dare to venture and share my humble thoughts as a contribution to the ongoing discussion on a possible way out of the current crisis.

The declaration of yet another State of Emergency (SoE) and the pursuing violence is nothing more than a manifestation of the impasse that has been reached between the government and the opposition. It is no exaggeration to state that the country finds itself at the edge of an abyss with seemingly irretraceable and contradictory demands shoving it forward to its demise. Activist-led agitation targeting the youth and relying on social media is contributing to the rise in ethnic tension and polarisation reminiscent of the so-called Arab Spring.

The Government appears to have run out of options and continues to lean on the security apparatus of the state to quell the uprising. It also keeps echoing slogans of change and “renaissance” from within as being the only option out. The much talked about reform, within each grouping of the EPRDF, appears to have also bogged down. The four principal coalition members of the EPRDF seem to have realised that the changes flagged by members, and widely shared with the public, could amount to the dissolution of the alliance.

Some of the change being flagged could further destabilise the principle of governance based on the implementation of the decisions of the lead party through the process of democratic centralism. The tension between national and regional interests, coupled with trans regional coalition formations against one or another party, continues to undermine the EPRDF.

Discussions within the EPRDF, and amongst its supports, vacillate between centralisation and federalism putting into question the current power relationship and balance within the ruling party. Some regional leaders’ recent populist and trans-regional pronouncements continue to undermine the prevailing ethnic arrangements of governance and the political status-quo.

A pronouncement, mainly by some OPDO and ANDM leaders, has introduced a pan-Ethiopian dimension to the debate. The prevailing confusion within the EPRDF, if not addressed soon, could trigger a call for the exercise of self-determination and secession by one or two parties. These parties could argue that the federal arrangement has failed and that their nationality and people, who have the constitutional right to secede, have opted for such an action.

The naming of a new prime minister in its self cannot radically change the situation, as the immerging contradictions appear to be irreversible and detrimental to the current status quo.

Undertaking cosmetic repairs cannot fix cracks that have appeared within the EPRDF. It should consider examining the validity of some of its constitutional assumptions and being willing to undertake corrective revisions in consultation with the opposition and the general public.

It is also apparent that none of the opposition forces, in their current shape or form, are organised enough to take over power and run the country. The resulting stalemate breed’s anxiety across the board and exasperates the situation further into confusion, helplessness and desperation. If such a stalemate is not addressed soon enough, the possibility of ethnic violence culminating in further chaos and ultimate collapse of the unitary state cannot be ruled out.

Contradictory claims concerning the content of the agreed-upon reforms from within the existing federal political establishment, and its regional level administration, is further complicated by the opposition’s call for a transitional government to be set up immediately to draw up a new constitution. The advocates of the interim government have presented various suggestions for a broad-based consultative process to reach a consensus on a democratic Ethiopia void of regional ethnic identification.

However, even though various groups and individuals call for a platform for a dialogue and exchange of ideas about the best option for the country, non appear to have developed a coherent political or economic programme on how it was to be achieved and what the expected outcome is to be. A lot of work appears to be pending with the implementation modalities of the transitional option.

The military coup and military rule are discussed in some circles as being yet another option. Some even suggest that the declaration of the State of Emergency is simply a precursor to that eventuality. Such a move by the military would indeed be tragic and disastrous.

It is very significant that we all realise that many Ethiopian politicians and intellectuals, within and outside the EPRDF, continue to suffer from the past years’ hangover of the Marxist-Leninist world outlook defining, in a simplistic way, concepts such as the rights of nationalities to self-determination and the perils of Feudalism.

My generations of Ethiopian students have all engaged in that fashionable debate and diatribe that has contributed to the current impasse. The fallacy of the “politically correct and revolutionary” notion of equating Feudalism to one language group continues to hinder dialogue and progress based on facts and realities on the ground.

These superficial Marxist slogans and concepts, which were never adapted to the current Ethiopian reality soberly, have been used to saw discourse, draw national state boundaries and set up regional state governance structures that have resulted in territorial disputes, conflict and forced displacements. Given the leadership role played by the TPLF in the establishment of the EPRDF and the overthrowing of the Dergue, it is widely perceived that as all had been orchestrated for the benefit of its party, and its core membership, to retain power through a divide and rule system.

The fallacy of the existence of a territorially defined national region, with demarked boundaries, such as the Amhara, Somali, Afar and Oromia regions, not only negates facts on the ground but continues to fuel conflicts based on ethnic territorial claim and disputes. State land ownership and the role of regional or federal authorities in its dispensation only adds fuel to the fire.

Shortcomings in the regional states, conception and design where further amplified by the negation of the fact that Feudalism in Ethiopia was fundamentally an economic exploitative governance system that safeguarded the interest of the landlords, who were of various ethnic origins.

The Feudal system in Ethiopian, like its counterparts in Europe and Asia, was nothing more than a powerful landlord centred exploitative system over the peasantry. No one ethnic group was spared from exploitation under that system, and no one linguistic group was the sole beneficiary either.

Moreover, the land nationalisation by the Dergue had brought that system to an end long before the ascent to power of the EPRDF. Therefore, there was no validity in the claim by some that the current government set up was primarily actualised to address the alleged evils of one ethnic group vested feudalism.

I would argue that accepting to examine solutions not boxed in by flaws enshrined in the national question debate of past years and the Feudal rule dogma is long overdue. Equating people from the Tigray Regional State with any perceived or actual wrongdoing of the TPLF or EPRDF would be neither factual nor productive to the search for a lasting solution.

We all need to realise that there is no political alternative to an all-inclusive democratic Ethiopia owned by all its citizens as being the only way out of the current impasse.

Ethiopia, designed on the basis of free movement and residence of all its citizens enjoying the same political and economic rights and privileges throughout the country, is the future.

The Ethiopian State has to ensure respect for all fundamental human rights of its citizens irrespective of their ethnic, race, belief, gender or political thought or creed. Accountability and the supremacy of law have to be ensured. Citizens should enjoy the same rights and privileges as citizens and not as members of a specific national, ethnic or linguistic grouping.

Political parties should be encouraged and supported to have a national focus encouraging citizens to engage and participate to prosper as citizens of Ethiopia. Political discussions should be veered away from the language of ethnic identity and ethnic group benefits.

The right of each language group and nationalities to develop and practice every aspect of their cultural heritage within a democratic state has to be ensured. A dogmatic and irrational application of ethnic boundaries in the drawing of administrative units should be avoided. A more rational federal administrative structure should not be ruled out in the redesigns of the new Ethiopia.

The preservation of the current functioning institutions of government, including the National Defense Forces, Police and Civil Service needs to be ensured on the understanding that the removal and prosecution of individuals found to have abused power, committed crimes or benefited inappropriately as members, or leaders, of those institutions, will be affected.

An equitable representation of all nationalities has to be maintained particularly in the armed forces and security establishments. The command and control encumbrances with these establishments have to reflect the national demographic reality. Merit and professionalism should be the guiding principle in the selection and retention of leaders to avoid the demand for “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Opposition groups and individuals have to be magnanimous enough to accept that their call for the immediate removal of the TPLF/EPRDF regime could be justified but is premature. The TPLF/EPRDF has to be part of the solution. I do not see any national opposition group posed to move into Addis Abeba and take over power soon. I do not also see a mature and an all-inclusive national party winning an immediate election to unseat the regime and put in place an alternative government immediately.

The fragmented, ethnic identity and region-focused push for the overthrow of the EPRDF at any cost could usher in further fragmentation and chaos. Instead, it would be prudent, tactical and in the interest of Ethiopia to agree to a transitional arrangement that would see a broad coalition with a reformed EPRDF to oversee the day to day affairs of the state while simultaneously being part of an extensive consultative process involving all political forces. The primary task of the dialogue would be to set in motion the reassertion of common Ethiopian citizenship.

The dialogue has to be all-inclusive and without any precondition. Engagement and consultation with the public at the various stages of the process would be indispensable. The current Constitution could be revised or altered based on the final consensus to be reached. Such an undertaking has to be time bound and needs the endorsement and support of key international partners and donors.

In support of the above, the government has to release all political prisoners and invite all refugees back home by granting total amnesty. The return and inclusion of all political personalities, intellectuals and organisations in exile are critical. Such a bold move would also deny enemies of Ethiopia from a pool of potential recruits to further their sinister objectives.

The outcome of the change process has to be a genuinely meaningful democratic process resulting in free and fair elections. The majority of citizens have to feel ownership and have total confidence in the selection of the new leadership of a multi-party democratic Ethiopia.


By Mengesha Kebede
Mengesha Kebede has served as Inspector General, a top independent oversight official, of the UNHCR from 2011 up to his retirement in January 2016. He continues to advocate for sustainable asylum, migration and displacement management that adheres to international standards and norms.

Published on Apr 06,2018 [ Vol 18 ,No 936]



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