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Critical Reflection on Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa Conference

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
Tigrai Online, May 30, 2015

This critical reflection aims to systematically appraise the papers presented by some panelists in ‘Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa Conference’ (May 9-10, 2015, Arlington, Virgina) and furnish constructive ideas for the sole purpose of provoking discussion among Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora. I have seen some of the videos of the conference, but the one that I watched with some focus and interest was the panel of Ermias Legesse Waqjira, Drs Getachew Begashaw, Messai Kebedde, and Berhanu Nega.


First and foremost, I like to make crystal clear to the reader that I very much respect the political stances, views, and propositions of the panelists. However, I will critique their ideas to which I have disagreements with and endorse some of their positions and proposals that are palatable to my senses. Of the four panelists, it is only Ato Ermias that I don’t know personally; the other three, I have either met them in person in a conference and exchanged ideas with (e.g. Messai) or they were my college mates or comrades (Getachew and Berhanu). Without any bias to any of the four panelists, I will discuss their presentations in right order.

Ermias was once an EPRDF deputy minister in the Ministry of Communications and he seems to know well the inner networking and operations of the ruling party. His presentation was focused on the systematic design and forging of permanent governance by the one party rule, that is, the EPRDF; and in order to reinforce his thesis, he discusses the mission and objectives of the EPRDF in general and the top echelon officials in particular. For instance, he said, Meles characterized the opposition as “negligible anti-democratic forces” and argued that “parties cannot replace each other.” In order to further support his thesis, Ermias quotes some phrases from Bereket Simon’s book Gedle Ehadig (The Struggle of the EPRDF).

I personally have not read Bereket’s book and I can’t rate the book, but according to Ermias, Bereket portrays the rural Ethiopians as friends and urban Ethiopians as foes. Ermias, however, did not substantiate this bizarre classification of rural/urban Ethiopians which is dichotomous and nonsensical, and his thesis could be dubious or out of context.

With respect to Ethiopian elections that Ermias discussed in detail, he seems to conclude that ‘insofar the House of Federation (one chamber of the Ethiopian parliament) is in place there could not be a genuine election process in Ethiopia’. He also quotes Negasso Gidada’s argument that the Ethiopian constitution is indeed an EPRDF constitution and not a national constitution. I found this argument quite simplistic because Ermias falters in due course of his presentation and did not clarify his position in regards to the constitution. There is in fact a national constitution that serves, at least in theory, as the highest law of the country, but one could argue whether this constitution is manipulated by the EPRDF or not and whether it is implemented and enforced or not. Ermias, of course, is not a scholar in the strict sense of the word (save his higher education) and I don’t expect him to come up with persuasive and logical arguments and I would not be surprised by his characterization of some EPRDF officials like Abay Tsehaye as Marlon Brando (he repeatedly said ‘Brandy’) and that, by implication, means the EPRDF is a “Mafia” organization. It would have been better for him to simply criticize the EPRDF and its policies rather than portraying it as a Mafia and what he did not realize is the fact that Ethiopians would doubt his claims and his new anti-EPRDF positions because he himself was an EPRDF official. Moreover, some even could sarcastically denounce Ermias as an “ex-Mafia” because, logically it follows, that his former EPRDF affiliation could not be eradicated easily by his new vistas and his honeymoon in the Diaspora. Ermias needs to make a thorough confession before Ethiopians could begin to trust him as a credible new political actor.

Dr. Getachew Begasahw was the second speaker in the panel. I have known Getachew since the days of USUAA at Haile Selassie University (now Addis Ababa University) in the early 1970s. He is by all measure a friend and a comrade irrespective of his current political stance, which I found it to be antidote to that of mine but I still respect his views and ideas that he entertains. Getachew has made great contributions to the revolutionary struggle and the struggle of Ehapa, but over the years he has made several shifts and it was difficult to follow his stances. At any rate, my interest here is to critically examine his presentation at the Ethiopia and Horn of Africa Conference.

Getachew defines the current EPRDF regime as ‘ethnocracy’ and attempted to draw parallel with the Iranian theocracy to the characterization of the Government of the EPRDF, which I found it unpalatable. Apparently, Getachew dismisses the EPRDF as TPLF (Woynae) and he does not even give concession to Ermias’ depiction of the EPRDF regime as “a ruling class originating from Tigray”. Also by his conceptualization of Ethnocracy, Getachew, by his own admission, said, ‘he could not find an Amharic equivalent’ until somebody in the audience said Gosa (Amharic for ethnic group or tribe), but he preferred to call the regime Zeregna (Amharic for racist). The latter characterization, it seems to me, creates unfortunate theoretical collision and paradigmatic confusion in Getachew’s presentation. To begin with, there is no racial politics (as in Apartheid South Africa and Jim Crow United States) in Ethiopia, but there is no doubt that the Ethiopian experience amply manifests ethnocentric politics and this is not unique to the EPRDF-led government; in point of fact, the previous two regimes were also tainted with ethnocentric politics in the form of hegemony on the various Ethiopian nationalities. It was for this apparent reason that the Ethiopian Student Movement seriously considered the plight of Ethiopian oppressed nationalities without losing sight of class-driven poverty.

Given the history and objective reality of Ethiopia, thus, Getachew would have been better off to cling to his “ethnocracy”, which, in one form or another, depicts contemporary Ethiopian politics rather than upholding a racialist connotation. The challenge to Getachew and his colleagues in the Diaspora would be to come up with some additional parallel of inquiry and answer this simple question: What is the ethnic composition of the Ethiopian opposition at home and the Diaspora? Presently, none of the Ethiopian parties, including those that bear ‘Ethiopian’ prefix, are an all-Ethiopia organizations in terms of multi-ethnic composition. Moreover, it has now become fashionable among Ethiopian Diaspora communities to organize along ethnic lines. So, why blame the EPRDF as ethnocentric when the opposition is ethnocentric itself. Gone are the days of all-Ethiopia inclusive organizations like the Ethiopian Student Movement and parties like the EPRP of the 1970s and 1980s.

Getachew concluded by providing a suggestive model, so to speak, of employing armed struggle against the current regime in Ethiopia and argues, “One that ascends to power by force must be dislodged by force.” But the question remains: How is it going to be dislodged? Via coup d’etat, via guerrilla warfare, via insurrection! I don’t think the above tactics are going to be feasible given the current global post-cold war changed political climate and he branding of ‘terrorist’ to any armed group by the powers that be, which has now become a vogue.   

As an alternative to armed struggle, the best strategy is to reinvigorate the democratic and peaceful process, in spite of the fact that elections are rigged or even the opposition systematically eliminated from the political platform. The Ethiopian people have been going to the polls five times in the last two decades and half and the end result could be frustrating, but we should be able to envisage that at one point genuine and formidable democratic forces will emerge and the Ethiopian people will gather momentum.

The third speaker was Messai Kebedde and his presentation was by far the most comprehensive, sensible, and substantive compared to all the panel speakers combined. However, at the outset, I was perplexed when Messai, in his introductory speech, stated “ESAT has become the center stage of struggle and we should be rallied around ESAT.” Really, is that what Messai sincerely believes or is he bluffing? Apart from this strange accolade to ESAT, as indicated above, Messai came up with a more matured and persuasive arguments in regards to certain strategies that would combine peaceful struggle and armed struggle without forgetting his earlier proposal of national reconciliation that I too have scribble on and seriously underscored. Messai also came up with interesting class analysis in relation to the Ethiopian reality that his colleagues were unable (or unwilling) to see.      

I am not sure whether Messai has read my article entitled “Ethiopia is too big to fail” that was posted on my website and elsewhere on February 21, 2015. In that article, in an effort to provoke Ethiopian scholars in order to rethink their ethnocentrism methodology and consider class perspectives instead, this is how I put it then: “There is no doubt that the TPLF is the dominant party in the EPRDF, but unless we completely abandon class analysis and the sociological methodology of stratification in the critical examination of the nature and characteristics of the political system in Ethiopia, we can still observe the cohesiveness of a political group (or groups). This methodology is universally applicable for all hitherto societies and also for prevailing contemporary political systems. The EPRDF cannot be viewed outside this conceptual framework.” To the article in its entirety, you may simply google the title or open the following link: www.africanidea.org/Ethiopia_too_big.html

In his overall presentation of class methodology, Messai came very close to that of mine, although he seems to stagger vis-à-vis his unique hybrid of peaceful and armed struggles. One problem I have with Messai is his eclectic position in which his class synthesis seems to join chorus with the “ethno-centrists” when he characterizes the regime in power as “Woyane” (TPLF) instead of EPRDF. To me, this kind of political stance is a form of intellectual detachment accompanied by lack of methodological rigor. Irrespective of his shortcomings, however, Messai tried to bring a unified synthesis to the method of struggle.

The fourth speaker was Dr. Berhanu Nega and he started out by saying that he would present his own views and not necessarily the views of his organization (Ginbot 7), although he ended up talking more about the political program of his party. In fact, at the outset, he told the audience that he felt Messai read the program of Ginbot 7 because what Messai said in regards to all-round (or multi-faceted) struggle is identical with Gibot 7 agenda, according to Berhanu.

Berhanu raised a number of issues including the practicality of a multi-faceted struggle; that the future government should be democratic; that there should be a common ground among the opposition; that there is lack of trust amongst the opposition and confidence building during the transition period; and that a transition ad hoc committee must be established etc.

Following his outline of issues, Berhanu proceeded to discussing power sharing in the context of presidential as opposed to parliamentary system and he preferred the former, because, he reasoned that it offers power sharing at national level and by contrast, the parliamentary system provide  power to parties and/or regional states.

On top of the above issues, Berhanu also discussed what he calls the necessity of a common figure (e.g. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela etc) that could unite the Ethiopian people. I don’t mind that idea, but from whence is that charismatic leader going to come? Is it going to evolve historically or fabricated by the elite who supposedly are going to bring about permutations or fundamental change.

Another point that Berhanu presented was the significance of a third party country to act as care-taker and build institutions for Ethiopia. Several questions could emanate out of this idea: why would Ethiopia be dependent on a third party country for its fate? Should Ethiopia not enjoy self-determination? What will happen to Ethiopian sovereignty if a care-taker (a neo-colonial regime) decides for Ethiopia and Ethiopians? Berhanu gave a pre-emptive answer for this dilemma and unequivocally stated, “Ethiopian sovereignty is already dead.” I don’t think Ethiopian sovereignty is dead and what Berhanu attempts to do is bring flawed pieces of puzzle that don’t fit together. The fallacy of his argument lies in his inability to see the relativity of ‘sovereignty’. Put otherwise, all African countries, for instance, are now sovereign but their sovereignty is relative because neocolonialism still persists. Ethiopia’s sovereignty is also relative because the country, like most developing countries, could not escape the pressures of globalization and western hegemony. By contrast to other African countries, however, Ethiopia was the sole African country that managed to withstand the onslaught of European colonialism and for this reason alone it was the beacon of hope and symbol of independence for Africans in Africa and the Diaspora. The unique history of Ethiopia gives Ethiopians a unique sense of pride and throughout their history they have jealously guarded their sovereignty and a care-taker third party country would be offensive for Ethiopians.

In conclusion, I like to make a brief commentary and also furnish my two penny advice in relation to the current trend exhibited by some Diaspora Ethiopians, including the panelists mentioned in this essay. My advice to Diaspora Ethiopian opposition is: 1) to recuperate from a state of denial and objectively analyze the Ethiopian reality on the ground. I have no objection to their opposition of the current government in Ethiopia, and if they want to view the latter as “the worst government ever in Ethiopian history” (Berhanu’s contention), they are entitled to that judgmental opinion as well. But, they should also have the courage to see what progress Ethiopia made in the last decade and half irrespective of the nature of government in power. I, for instance, have criticized the EPRDF Government with respect to the delay of democracy in Ethiopia, but I also have given it credit for its contributions in infrastructure, expansion of schools, and economic growth in my new book (2013). I did the same for the Derg (the most brutal regime ever in Ethiopian history), criticized it for being fascistic and for unleashing Red Terror against its own people, but gave it credit for building major projects like the Melka Wekena, for land reform, and for literacy. This is what a scholar should do and ought to do.

Getachew, Messai, and Berhanu are scholars and academe and they are expected to fulfill their historical duty; otherwise, they will suffer from inherent biases and subjectivity implicit in political and cultural deprivation. 2) The Ethiopian Diaspora opposition should rethink its unholy alliance with the regime in Eritrea and recall or revisit Diodorus Siculus’ (90 BCE) testimony on Ethiopia: “Too many enemies have attempted to attack and conquer Ethiopia but none of them was successful.” To attack Ethiopia by cooperating with anti-Ethiopia forces is outright treason and betrayal of the motherland. Here, I have an obligation to clarify a side issue on Eritrea. I still have wonderful Eritrean friends and I have supported the Eritrean cause, particularly the struggle for independence led by the EPLF (PFDJ), but after the Badme incident and all-out war between Ethiopia and Eritrea (1998-2000), I found myself in defending Ethiopian sovereignty, a sacred virtue that I will never compromise. 3) The Diaspora Ethiopian opposition should emancipate itself from ethnocentric politics and rally around a new and revitalized pan-Ethiopian agenda instead of immersing in Tigray bashing. 4) Ethiopia should be better off only if national reconciliation is implemented in which the opposition (Home and Diaspora) and the EPRDF sit in a round table and peacefully resolve major political issues for the sake of Ethiopia and the welfare of the Ethiopian people.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2015. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational & constructive feedback via dr..garaia@africanidea.org

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