By Addis Alem
July 03, 2013
It has been a while since I read Dr. Berhanu Nega’s book - Yenetsanet Goh Siked: Lekelebes Yetemokerew Ye’Ethiopia Democracy – but I still fondly remember the passages where he describes, with moving innocence and optimism, what motivated him and his party (kinejit) to run for the 1997 Ethiopian election. Innocence and optimism are instantly attractive traits in a person, even in the absence of substance; but in the case of Dr. Berhanu, these traits, as expressed in those passages, were also packed full of substance. The core of this substance stressed that democratization was not a favor E.P.R.D.F. does to his party, but to itself and the nation at large. The idea is E.P.R.D.F. had not subjected the nation to the devastating violence of the Civil War only to prepare it for a new round of violence, rather to make violence obsolete in the practice of Ethiopian politics through democratization. Alas! I never thought that Dr. Berhanu’s philosophizing to take violence out of Ethiopian politics had been just that - empty philosophizing; and it’s deeply disappointing.
Now, I am not by any means condoning the Ethiopian government’s actions during that election, or its heartbreaking aftermath. After all, innocent blood had been spilled; dreams shattered; and after only taking a quick glimpse of its future, the nation stepped back in a shudder. I am absolutely convinced that Dr. Berhanu was correct when he stressed that there could be no sustainable prosperity or stability without a serious democratization effort in Ethiopia. If the Ethiopian government wants to make its argument convincing that any misgivings with the current democratization process in Ethiopia could be directly and sufficiently traced back to institutional inefficiency, then it should take tangible steps to make that clear. The Free Press and the Court System should be accorded special guidance and encouragement to grow truly independent. Since these two institutions are critical to protect citizen’s human rights, which are the building blocks of democratic rights, there can’t be any justifiable reason to keep them subservient to the will of government officials for a day longer. These are simply two wrong tools in the hands of the government that is supposed to be busy working to widen democratic rights to its citizens; and any insistence to claim otherwise would be perceived by the public as a pretext to get away with economic corruption. By unleashing these two institutions to hold its own officials accountable, the government can buy itself valuable credibility as a champion of honest winners - a convincing opening act for an aspiring democratic state.
What I found disappointing about Dr. Berhanu was not his dream of creating a prosperous and democratic Ethiopian state; of course, that is the dream we all share as fellow country men. What I could not follow, or even comprehend, was his willingness to shoot at the nation to supposedly bring it out of its democratic slumber. Now, this is a bad enough transgression; however, to receive the gun from Cairo and Asmara, our nation’s mortal enemies, opens Dr. Berhanu to a whole new level of ridicule. This just can’t be dismissed as a clumsy attempt on his part to atone for the guilt of abandoning the electorate that almost propelled his party, Kinijit, into the cusp of power before his group decided to boycott Parliament. It goes further to show that his deeply flawed “cold calculations” are far more detrimental to the democratization effort in Ethiopia than anything the government can do. Why? Aren’t oppressive governments known to manufacture the threat of war out of thin air exactly to drawn out legitimate calls for democracy and other grievances? How could Dr. Berhanu not see that the very regime in Asmara that is trying to push his own little war machinery is using the threat of war with Ethiopia to oppress its “independent” people?
Only a fool would agitate to jump into war in search of a quick outlet for democracy; the fact of the matter is that war has no outlet for democracy; especially in a poor country like ours which suffers from persistent foreign interference, war can only promise a vicious circle of carnage and destruction. War is also a brutally corrupting beast; it is not a contract you can get in and out of with predetermined outcomes; war has a way of feasting on people’s good intentions and grand ideals, leaving them a hollowed shell of themselves, completely subjugated to its ever changing whims. In other words, war doesn’t indulge you to stick to your principles - whatever they may be; it just wants you to do what it demands until you forget why you got into it in the first place. War is often colossal in scale, terribly messy, and protracted in nature - all of these reasons insure that, even if you are lucky enough to win it, you can no longer remember who the heck you are at the end of it.
The other important aspect of war Dr. Berhanu fails to appreciate is its corrosive effect on the nature and meaning of sacrifice. The original meaning of sacrifice as unconditional self-offering for a higher cause resists corrosion only for martyrs of war; for the living victors of war, sacrifice quickly morphs to assume the meaning of entitlement. Victors of war are quick to sanctify all the pain and suffering of their struggle for a higher cause as a sacrifice only to quickly defile it - to use one of the favorite phrases of the late Prime Minister Meles - to seek rent. You can tell victors of war that “they can’t have their cake and eat it too” all you want – but at the end of the day, nothing can stop them from brandishing their sacrifice to seek rent. It’s human nature. To be honest, I was convinced this was exactly what I thought Dr. Berhanu hated most about E.P.R.D.F. Any claim by Dr. Behnau that he would be any different as a victor of war is simply criminally naïve.
What compounds Dr. Berhanu’s wrong headedness on the question of war is his readiness to let the Egyptians bankroll it for him through the gang they created to do their bid in Asmara. It’s really beyond me to decipher how he could delude himself into believing that the same money Cairo spends to divide and weaken Ethiopia can also be expected to make it prosperous and democratic. Only a delusional person who lives in a crazed fantasy world fails to see that these two realities are mutually exclusive – for one to prevail, the other must fail. Of course, the real threat here is as always Cairo; Asmara is simply its partner in crime. But we all know that Asmara is not Cairo’s final project; its very existence is predicated on breaking Ethiopia apart so that it can dominate it using the Red Sea as an instrument of exploitation. Remove this calculus and Asmara is reduced to taxing its Diaspora population to stay afloat. These are the facts Dr. Behanu is willfully turning a blind eye to. The good news is that if his recent faltering on his fancy war project is any indication, Ethiopians know better than to follow him into his willful blindness.