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After Meles Zenawi, Whither Should the EPRDF Go?

By Tesfaye Habisso, Oct. 09, 2012


It is now one month and a half since the sudden and unexpected demise of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who, as the strong and visionary leader of the EPRDF Party and Government for so many years, has played such a magnificent role in the political and economic renaissance of modern-day Ethiopia in particular and his immense contributions to the cause of Africa in general, leaving behind him a legacy of national and continental pride and admiration as well as an unflinching patriotism amongst all Ethiopians at home and abroad to pursue the objectives and goals, visions and missions, and policies and strategies formulated by the great leader while in office in order to realize an Ethiopia that could achieve a middle-income status among the world nations around the year 2025 and that could drastically eradicate poverty from the country by the year 2015. Now that the strong, dominant and world-renowned leader of the party and government is dead [may his soul rest in peace], there are many pundits and critical observers who doubt the continuity of Meles Zenawi’s and his party’s political ambitions and economic policies and who predict that most of these would stall, at best, or even face reversals, at the worst, due to several exogenous and endogenous factors. Above all, they forcefully contend that unless the succeeding regime—the ruling party and government—effect fundamental political reforms that would accommodate all contending Ethiopian social and political forces at home and abroad, the situation could get out of control and hurl the country and nation into irreversible catastrophe, chaos and civil war. Though some of these views may be wayward, ludicrous and too simplistic, it is appropriate, I believe, to throw one’s opinion on this vexing and vexed issue with the purpose of provoking further inputs by our citizens at home and abroad. It is with this aim that I decided to say a few words about the future of the EPRDF party and government, devoid of its mentor, its alpha and omega of sort, and its visionary and effective leader, Meles Zenawi. The pertinent questions at this juncture are: Who would be in Meles’ shoes and guide as well as steer the political and economic machine of the country as effectively as the late Meles Zenawi? Who could equally command the respect, awe, obedience, and authority that the late PM enjoyed during his reign from the state bureaucracy, the public and private sector, the civil society associations, the youth, the academic community, the armed forces, the police, and the security apparatus, and the citizenry at large as well as from the IGAD, ADB, NEPAD, AU, IMF, World Bank, and other international, continental, regional an sub-regional organizations and leaders? Who else could equally articulate, defend and implement the national policies of the country under the ever changing global environment and circumstances? It is easier to ask these questions than trying to answer them satisfactorily. Wait and see would be the safest option for the moment. Yes, only time will tell.

The Emergence of the EPRDF and Its Heretofore Political and Economic Achievements

The EPRDF emerged as a victorious liberation movement by ousting the military dictatorship of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam by armed force and groundswell support from the people in May, 1991. Its legitimacy was mainly derived from this spectacular feat and successful toppling of the brutal junta and not the outcome of democratic processes, as there was no semblance of democracy or democratic dispensation to talk about during the military rule. Thus, despite its de facto legitimacy in the wake of the demise of the junta (‘Derg’), its de jure and true political legitimacy depended on whether or not the EPRDF could make a complete break with the era of coming to power through violence, ruling by force and state terror, and eventually being removed via violence and bloodshed by another more powerful group; in short, introducing a democratic political system where the will of the people is supreme and state power is held through periodic free, peaceful, fair and credible elections instead of political power changing hands through the barrel of the gun as in the past. Toward this end, the EPRDF played a decisive role in the transition to a multi-party political system and a constitutional federal democratic order to create political institutions which would give all the various groups the opportunity to participate in the decision-making affairs of their country. The EPRDF consolidated itself as a broad-based coalition of four ethno-regional based parties as fully-fledged members and co-opting five other regionally based ethnic-based parties from the peripheral areas as ‘allied partners’ thus bringing together all the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia as equal members of one large family with the aim of creating one political and economic community eradicating group hostility and putting a full stop to the traditional domination of one or two groups over the others as well as ending political warfare once and for all; and, in their place to create an atmosphere of mutual toleration, interdependence and compromise amongst all groups in the country.

 Furthermore, the EPRDF was well aware from the very beginning that Ethiopian society was a plural, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society like any African country and not a class society akin to the societies of the developed democracies of the Western world and that there was no possibility of class-based credible political parties arising in the country for decades to come and also for the broad masses to effectively participate in the political process except through creating ethnic-based organizations that would come together in broad-based coalitions to, first, determine their affairs by themselves (‘self-rule’) and, second, to participate in the central government on an equitable and fair manner (‘shared rule’). This awareness or political consciousness led the EPRDF to reconfigure the long-persisting empire-state of the Menelikian era to a multi-national federal state through crafting a constitution that recognized the various nations, nationalities and peoples as the ultimate owners or holders of the sovereignty of their country and granted equal and inseparable status to group rights and individual human rights in the FDRE’s Constitution which symbolizes a covenant of the federal democratic union of the “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia. The EPRDF also transformed itself into a dominant political party in the process, composed of four political parties: Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) and Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SEPDM), and five more ‘allied’ regional political groups from the heretofore disadvantaged peripheral regions. The EPRDF, however, has not been, and is not a monolithic party but a broad-based multi-ethnic coalition of four ethnic/regional-based political organizations (TPLF, ANDM, OPDO, SEPDM) carrying in its wombs the probable perils of unpredictable disintegration where and when any one or two or more members of the coalition may get disenchanted with the partnership because of the denial of benefits, real or imagined, that they rightly or wrongly expect from the coalition arrangement.

Be this as it may, the EPRDF's hitherto legitimacy has been firmly affirmed not only in removing the brutal military regime but also by radically transforming the command economy of the Derg era to a free market oriented capitalist system and by its spectacular achievements in the areas of building massive transport infrastructure, health centres, universities, primary educational institutions, hydro-power dams and generation of electricity; by accelerating agricultural development-led industrialization and insuring the nation’s food security; by reconfiguring the once centralized and hegemonic imperial/military state to a federal democratic republic based on the sovereignty of its 80 or more nations, nationalities and peoples, and by "bringing for the first time democracy to the nation of many nations" and in subsequently institutionalising periodic elections for selecting political leaders and introducing political pluralism to accommodate opposition politics in the country. Sadly, though the effective implementation and protection of these lofty ideals, values and constitutional guarantees still remains a lot to be desired; the long-established traditions of authoritarianism, violence and lack of tolerant political culture, in short, the democratic deficit prevailing for so long amongst the Ethiopian society do play a significant debilitating role for the emergence of functioning democracy and constitutionalism in the country.

Reasons for the Perpetuation of EPRDF Rule So Far and the Opposition Bloc’s Inconsequential Existence

It is now almost two decades since the assumption of state power by the EPRDF and many citizens wonder how and why this political party is able to hold on to its power pinnacle. Yes, we may ask: Why is the EPRDF still in power? And, why don’t we observe the presence of strong and credible opposition parties that could checkmate the policies of the ruling party or facilitate the alternation of state power amongst the contending political forces in the nation’s political arena?

Some pundits assert that strong and credible opposition parties cannot emerge under an “omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent” dominant ruling front or party like the EPRDF which has assured itself a full grip of state power and the bureaucracy, and virtual control over all the economic and political resources of the country. Yes, the EPRDF will perpetuate itself as a dominant ruling party and persist in power, the pundits argue, because of its authoritarian grip and repressive rule; after all, it first christened itself as a democratic developmental (DD) state and then suddenly changed gear to an authoritarian developmental (AD) state of the East Asian type of the 1960s and 1980s such as South Korea and Taiwan, as its practices on the ground amply prove. Other commentators contend that the incumbent party is still in power because of its incumbency advantages and its firm control of public resources towards partisan use by the ruling party and its supporters. Still others claim that the EPRDF persists in power because of its spectacular achievements in the political, economic and social spheres over the last 21 years or so, and no other opposition party can dislodge it from the political leadership role due to the incumbent's achievements, so they reason out. Finally, there are a few but critical minds that strongly believe that the EPRDF's persistence in power is attributable mainly to Ethiopians' political apathy, and it is this aspect of the contention that I seek to delve into in some detail here below.

Out of the confluence of factors that I believe engender political apathy, it is hard to pick one out as the main culprit. The first reason that comes to my mind is a lack of credible opposition, as clearly and ably described by THE REPORTER (“In Search of opposition parties worth their salt”, June 30, 2012, p. 2). How else could the EPRDF hegemony, now reaching almost 21 years, be achieved if not for the absence of a rival group that could pose a threat? Every Ethiopian knows that the opposition does exist:  Hailu Shawel (AEUP), Beyene Petros (MEDREK), Merera Gudina (MEDREK), Lidetu Ayalew, Mushe Semu (EDP); Hailu Araya, Girma Seifu, Temesgen Zewde and Andualem Arage[UDJ], Ayele Chamisso and Sassahulih Kebede (CUD), and Gebru Asrat, Dr. Negasso Gidada (MEDREK) are household names of sorts. Yet beyond these and a few other figures, the term "opposition" draws a blank. When one considers that only 1 or 2 seats out of 547 in national parliament are held by opposition MPs, it is easy to imagine of two scenarios: Either (1) the political space for opposition parties is seriously and severely curtailed or absolutely closed, or (2) that political opposition in Ethiopia is still in a rather embryonic phase, as it is of a recent creation in the political system.

The other thing we should consider, though, is why the opposition's performance is so lacklustre. Certainly the opposition parties can be faulted for not recruiting new blood, and for causing the occasional media fracas a la Mesfin Wolde Mariam. But then again, it is possible that the EPRDF has erected such high barriers to entry for other political organisations that it has become almost impossible to compete. The EPRDF has the manpower, grassroots penetration and, most importantly, sufficient funding to effectively campaign and recruit new members. There is also seemingly no separation of powers between the EPRDF as party and government, and other institutions such as the National Electoral Board, Judiciary, Police and Defence Forces, etc. are perceived to be undeniably working towards its advantages. It is also difficult to shake off the impression or perception that local media are controlled or monitored by the incumbent party and regime, and stories about members of the opposition rarely show them in a good light. All this contributes to a generally poor or pitying impression of the opposition among the populace, leading to a dearth of new members as people avoid the 'dead end' of opposition politics, which in turn further weakens the already anaemic opposition.

The end result is that no matter what platform the opposition campaigns on or how many fresh faces they recruit, they will always remain in opposition to the EPRDF behemoth. It may be likened to a case of David versus Goliath, and while Ethiopians may sympathise with David, they are resigned to Goliath winning.

Simple resignation is amplified in an Ethiopian context because of our unique psyche. Our "politikana korenti keruqu", "feri lenatu" ['electricity and politics from afar', 'a coward lives for his mother''] mentality--literally, 'scared to face the crushing hand of the state or to face death'--kicks in when we see the David versus Goliath battle: even if David won, we would still be afraid of the spectre of Goliath, looming over us with thinly veiled threats that we would not be able to enjoy the fruits of growth or even upgraded lifts. It is safer, and easier, to root for Goliath. Even if we cannot stand the end situation, our stoic temperament prevents us from doing much more than just complaining about it.

Apathy can also be traced to the mind-set that there is no point fighting the prevailing authoritarian and repressive political system. The EPRDF has penetrated every level of government and the civil service, from ministries down to neighbourhood residents' associations and village (kebele) committees, boastfully claiming of recruiting more than five million fully-fledged card-carrying members presently. Awareness of this far-reaching bureaucracy, mixed with the fear that the bureaucracy might bite back, dissuades citizens from voicing their grievances, even if nowadays the government is more open to receiving feedbacks and complaints of citizens than ever before.

Regardless of how much they may rail, rant and rave against the EPRDF, the prevailing mind-set amongst many Ethiopians is ultimately that the EPRDF does know how to govern--the proof is in the 21 years since liberation from military tyranny, when Ethiopia jumped from absolute economic shambles of negative growth to a double-digit economic miracle due to its sound pro-growth, pro-poor economic policies and strategies, all under EPRDF governance, and now aiming to double the national gross domestic product (GDP) and the agricultural production within the coming five years via a revolutionary Growth and Transformation Plan [ GTP] formulated by the EPRDF party and government. For this feat many Ethiopians are, willy-nilly, ‘loyal’ to the EPRDF and hence, despite its shortcomings such as heavy-handed approach to governance reflecting in human rights violations and lack of press freedom, and the prevalence of rampant corruption, nepotism, patronage, inefficiency in the provision of basic necessities, and ineffectiveness in controlling the ever-rising prices of consumable goods and services, the EPRDF is still widely regarded as the best possible choice to govern the country, especially in times of the prevailing food, energy and socio-economic crises looming over the nations across the globe. In the minds of much of the population, it is a reliable choice that they can fall back on. As long as it exists, they do not see much reason to worry or even to care, for the EPRDF will get on with its usual business of winning elections and governing.

[Side note: One has to wonder if the EPRDF does not actually mind Ethiopians being politically apathetic, if that can keep it in power for long?].

The Growing Disaffection Within and Without the EPRDF Ruling Party and Government

After all that, there is a caveat: the rumblings of dissent are growing louder. Even many erstwhile supporters and members of the ruling party are disenchanted with their own political party, as we witness signs of growing disaffection among party members and hear their increasing dissatisfaction with the performance of their own party as soon as they come out of party meetings and discussion forums, and their monotonous and boring evaluation rituals (‘gimgema’) that have now seen ever diminishing marginal utility, and unfortunately lost its usefulness to the improvement of service delivery to the public and instead being used, as alleged, to ruin the fate of critical minds and unwanted individuals in the bureaucracy. In addition, there is intense dissatisfaction growing among intellectuals, teachers, local businessmen, media professionals, urban and rural populations, and Ethiopians in the Diaspora regarding some of the policies and laws being imposed upon the population (e.g. forced villagization and resettlement programmes in Gambella; very high prices of fertilizers; unjust laws on: anti-terrorism, urban land lease policy, NGOs, charities and societies, and press/media, etc.; and random actions of the ruling party and government such as displacements of urban dwellers and demolitions of private houses against the owners’ will in the name of modernizing cities and building modern condominiums for the urban poor. Although some of the above allegations are concocted and not real, these dissenting voices should be carefully examined and carefully handled, and their concerns addressed in time to the satisfaction of all or most of the target groups; they better not be side-lined as trivial and inconsequential, for they would explode sooner or later resulting in tremendous costs to the country as a whole.

Recent news like sky-rocketing prices of basic consumption items, fertilizers and fuel; very low salaries, travel allowances and wages of civil servants, and the influx of Chinese workers and their engagement in business ventures legally reserved for local investors, have not gone down well with Ethiopians, and they are getting bolder in their criticisms of government handling of these issues. There is also a corresponding growing realisation of flaws in governance and the glaring tendency of the ‘democratic developmental state’ slowly and sadly turning to an ‘authoritarian predatory state’, and gradually moving away from populism to despotism/absolutism by not heeding the grievances of the populace and disregarding the needs and aspirations of the masses. In particular, the perception among the people these days, rightly or wrongly, is that, whether the issue is the recently promulgated urban land lease proclamation or the laws, rules, regulations and directives that deal with salary/travel allowance increment for civil servants, establishment of sugar processing plants, building of hydro-power dams, leasing of rural agricultural lands to foreign companies, displacement of urban dwellers from their landholdings and building of condominiums for the urban poor, etc., the incumbent government and party make their own unilateral decisions without any meaningful consultations with and in utter disregard of the sections of population directly and detrimentally affected by these one-sided and top-down administrative decisions. This political enlightenment of sorts can be explained partly by the rise of new media outlets such as blogs, twitter, Facebook, Internet and other online forums that provide alternative viewpoints on current affairs such as the North African social and political revolutions. Such news media have awakened Ethiopian citizens' social consciousness especially of those in the urban centres, resulting in a growing tide of politically aware voices.

Which Way Forward for the EPRDF Party and Government?

Yet for the large part, even if they are angry at the government, Ethiopians cannot envision it without the EPRDF at the moment. At the very least, however, many Ethiopians are beginning to realise that their government is not perfect, and since truth, dissent and dissatisfaction breed awareness, that is the surest first step towards greater political participation. Then again, Ethiopians' misgivings about the opposition and belief in the still credible governance of the EPRDF should keep the EPRDF in power, even if by a much smaller margin than in the past. Yes, the EPRDF is undoubtedly a political party torn between virtues and vices, and so long as its virtues outweigh its vices, it is destined to perpetuate its rule. But what will happen once the ruling party and government fail to: (1) achieve rapid and sustainable economic development, and control the ever rising cancer of corruption, nepotism, predatory practices and patronage; and address massive unemployment gradually growing in leaps and bounds among the rural and urban youth populations; (2) keep the four ethnic-based coalition partners in political power in a cohesive and unified manner; (3) insure fair and equitable sharing of the political and economic resources among all regions and peoples; (4) arrest the ever-worsening costs of living and deteriorating living standards of the populace; (5) provide the required goods and services of sufficient quality and quantity to the general public, and avert the hovering dangers of food and energy crises; 6) ease the repressive hand of the state on dissent and free press, and also set free all journalists and political prisoners in jail; open up a national dialogue with all disgruntled opposition groups/ethnic communities at home and in the Diaspora to forge national consensus around the nation’s interest  and common agenda; (7) insure the multi-ethnic/multi-national composition of the ruling cabinet and state bureaucracy, the civil service, army, police and security institutions; (8) insure free, fair and credible periodic elections and the impartiality, integrity, credibility and non-partisan role of the National Electoral Board, Judiciary, the Security Forces (army, police, security and para-military contingents, etc.); (9) remove the family fools and incompetent recruits of the EPRDF member organizations from the public service in general and replace them with meritorious civil servants that possess skills, integrity and modesty in dealing with the public; and, above all, (10) dispel the overwhelming perception amongst the public at large that the incumbent regime is a Tigrean-led and dominated government favouring Tigreans over all others in most political and economic spheres so far; (11) predict what would transpire when the number of politically aware Ethiopians reaches a critical mass, remains to be seen. Will there be a parallel correlation between decreased political apathy and a reduction of EPRDF power. Only time will tell.

In addition to addressing the aforementioned basic questions, needs and wishes of the Ethiopian public effectively and efficiently, the ruling party and government must, first and foremost, desist from its hitherto practised “dichotomy of polarised perceptions along the “we-they” divide; the ball is, mainly, in the ruling party’s court, so to speak. The intolerant attitude pursued so far that, “if you are not with the liberators (as represented by the liberation movement now party and state) you are considered to be an enemy” [‘forces of evil’], or that, “we fought and died in the liberation struggle and brought liberation from the oppressive military regime and thus we cannot hand over power to any group that was not part of the liberation struggle even if we are defeated in an election”, [literally and figuratively saying that ‘we cannot afford losing any elections and we should win them all via fair or foul means’] etc. must cease once and for all. Wittingly or unwittingly, this will be like adopting a wrong-headed policy of encouraging opposition political groups to die their natural death or to try to seize political power by violent and unconstitutional means. Ultimately, this will lead us all to an endless cycle of low intensity war or even the situation would degenerate to civil war and internecine conflicts, and not peace and democracy. This must be avoided at all costs.

Most of all, considering opposition or dissent as an enemy to the people and the national interest must stop now. If we don’t put a full stop to this misguided thinking now, the succeeding generation will also do it over and over again. What legacy to pass to our children and the future generations, my fellow comrades: An endless cycle of regime change by force, and thus back to the old and brutal method of snatching political power through the ‘barrel of the gun’?  Where shall this lead us all in the end, except toward brutal dictatorships, instability and conflict, death and destruction? Yes, the ruling party must unambiguously show its deep commitment to building true democracy and democratic governance in our country, as it often trumpets loudly and publicly on every forum and occasion at home and abroad. Toward this end, it must first and foremost transform itself from a militant liberation front or movement and an authoritarian regime to a democratic political party and government, and open up the political space further for the opposition parties to operate freely and without any hindrances and impediments to their peaceful activities, such as opening party offices, campaigning, fundraising, holding political rallies and meetings, and similar constitutionally allowed activities etc. especially in the rural areas; seek for elite settlements on a number of political issues; seek the advice and opinion of opposition leaders on major policy issues; show utmost magnanimity towards the opposition in general and reciprocate in sincere and positive gestures towards the latter so that opposition parties would eventually evolve into a constructive and responsible bloc becoming genuine partners in the process of nation building, and not be forced to the seemingly weird position of opposing any idea or bill tabled in parliament by the ruling party and government, at best, or pushed to pursuing the path of violence, belligerence or insurgency, at the very worst.

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