Ethiopia: No to “Grand Coalition” with EPRDF By Eskinder Nega

June 24th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

There is bitter irony to the story of the large Ethiopian Diaspora in the US. No more is it only large in sheer numbers but it’s also progressively more and more successful, impishly enticing the nation’s best and brightest to leave their native land. Two cases illustrate this unfolding saga of immigrants’ hard work and reward as they lay claim to their share of the fabled American dream.

An Ethiopian owned business in DC, which generated more than 700 million dollars in sales last year, is now large enough, in a rare feat for immigrants from Africa, to attract the attention of anti-trust regulators. And on the west coast, a brilliant Ethiopian bridal designer, Amsale Aberra, has crowned her phenomenal success with a new reality show, Amsale Girls. No blue-blooded American in the designer world could aim higher.

The presence of Ethiopian Professors on the numerous campuses of American universities is no less impressive. There are far more PhD professors in the US than Ethiopia; many of them in the challenging fields of the hard sciences. And they are nothing like the archetypal species of redundant immigrants. America can not do without them; even in this time of the Great Recession.

Many of them have gone to the US in search of greener pastures— respectable wages; reasonable career prospects; decent schools for their children and, no less, pursuit of political and social stability. A significant minority, many of them in the social sciences, however, are there for political reasons. And perhaps no one represents this genre better than renowned Professor Messay Kebede, whose thoughtful commentaries have long been important contributions to public discourse.

Twenty years ago, Messay, who has a PhD from the University of Grenoble in France, was chairman of the department of philosophy at Addis Ababa University. Two years after the advent of the EPRDF to power, however, he was callously dismissed from his position for political reasons. But the dismissal inevitably turned out to be more a loss to the AAU than Messay, who went on to thrive at the University of Dayton in the US.

But like all reluctant exiles his passion for his home country, the forbidden fruit, so to speak, has increased with distance. Like millions of his fellow citizens he most probably patiently harbored hopes for revolution against Ethiopia’s new tyrants for years, but was then unexpectedly inspired by the magical possibility of peaceful transformation in 2005, and was then suddenly beset by the collective plunge to despair and disappointment after 2007. Meanwhile, twenty years come to pass.

And after some reflection Messay sees an entrenched stalemate for all sides. Thus his latest piece, a manifesto, as he calls it, Meles’s Political Dilemma and the Developmental State: Dead-Ends and Exit, is “not only (an analysis of) the problems of Ethiopia, but also ( an attempt ) to approach them from the perspective of the best way out for everybody.” And a sincere and predictably brilliant treatise ensues.

The gist of his manifesto, however, hinges perilously on the premise that, “the birth of democratic states from an evolution of authoritarian regimes is no less a historical trend than the establishment of democracies as a result of the violent overthrow of authoritarianism.” And as examples, he cites, “Asian countries that applied the formula of the developmental state, but also of other countries, such as Turkey, Spain, Brazil, Chile, etc.”

However, not a single example is in Africa, where the more relevant examples for Ethiopia are and, as Hillary Clinton noted in her recent speech to the AU, more than half the countries have become successful multi-party constitutional democracies over the past two decades.

But most importantly, have the countries mentioned by Messay indeed evolved organically into democratic societies from an authoritarian past?

The Asian countries alluded to by Messay are obviously the Tiger countries, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, and perhaps the Tiger Cub countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand.

The first democratic revolution was not in the most advanced Tiger country, as any organic evolution would have entailed, but in the least developed Tiger Cub country, the Philippines. Serious demonstrations in support of democracy took place as early as 1983, well before the economic malaise that was to grip the Philippines after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. The initial impetus was not economic hardship but democratic aspiration. There was no evolution here. This was a popular revolution that was to eventually inspire not only Asia but also, in a stroke of luck to humanity, Eastern Europeans. The rest, as they say, is history.

The most advanced Tiger country, Singapore, is still classified as “partly free” by Freedom House, and “hybrid regime,” which roughly means the same thing, by the Economist magazine. Even with a 43,117 dollars annual Per Capita income, which is higher than those of even most west European countries, the evolution to democracy has yet to show any sign of life. The reason, if there is any, begs an explanation from evolutionary theorists. The middle income threshold passed decades ago.

If there was ever any correlation between development and evolution to democracy, Hong Kong, the second richest Tiger, would have been a hotbed of democratic activism in China after 1997. Not so in reality, though. The dominant sentiment is submission to mainland norms rather than a push to expand freedoms to the hinterland.

There was no evolution in South Korea either. The South Koreans were inspired by the Filipino people’s revolution in 1986, much as Egyptians were by Tunisians, and months later hundreds of thousands of them ever whelmed the streets. The military had to meekly submit to popular will. There was no, to use Messay’s words, natural “transition from authoritarianism to democracy.” This was a domino effect from the Filipino revolution.

In Taiwan, the poorest Tiger country, it was also the Filipino revolution that tipped the balance in favor of democracy. Months after the Filipino evolution and at about the same time as protests were shaking South Korea, martial law was preemptively revoked by the authorities. This was about hope being suddenly ignited in Asia,thanks to the Filipinos. Three decades later, this time squarely in the age of Satellite television, the same hope was triggered in the Middle East by Tunisia.

Indonesia, the biggest Tiger cub country, has become democratic long before the tenets of the developmental state were ever realized. But Malaysia, the most advanced Tiger cub country and whose per capita income is more than 2 times that of Indonesia, is still only “partly free.” Thailand, whose per capita income is about half of that of Malaysia, is as free as Indonesia.

Even granted that there was no revolution in Spain, there was neither evolution, too. The fascist state was dismantled wholesale after the death of Franco. It was a thoroughly new beginning for Spain. Brazil and Chile had military governments, as did many countries in South America. The collapse of the Soviet Union explains the transition to democracy in that part of the world, not evolution.

Only Turkey remains. And admittedly there is continuity and evolution in the Turkish case. But given the unique history and experiences of Turkey, the relevance for Ethiopia would be far-fetched. Perhaps it is the Middle East that has more to learn from Turkey than Africa. The “historical evolution” is simply not as widespread as Messay has implied. Where it exists the relevance to Africa is at best contentious.

But this is not the most serious flaw in Messay’s proposition. Rather, the error lies in the presumption that the demand for democracy from the grassroots is weak enough to be tempered by a “grand coalition of elites.” It is not. There is real pressure for democracy from the public, in Ethiopia and elsewhere. This is why democracy is a realty in more than half of the countries in Africa. This is why there was revolution in Egypt and protests refuse to die out in Syria. A reductionist view of politics as a dialogue between elites is at best wrong. The relevance of any elite, to use Messay’s own words, which is “firmly anchored in the opposition camp,” is only to the extent that it is able to articulate the needs and aspiration of the people.

And the message from the grassroots is that the EPRDF must go. No party must be in power for twenty years. There is no room for a “grand coalition of elites”, however well intentioned the suggestion may be. Ethiopia needs a clean, peaceful break from the past. And if this could somehow be negotiated as it was in South Africa, so be it. It must in fact be given precedence. The alternative is at best frightening, and despite apearances, given the un-sustainability of the status-quo, inevitable.

  1. Molla
    | #1

    So, you are telling me Eskindir is in Ethiopia?

  2. kejila
    | #2

    Do another work man, almost all ethiopians are passive for your articles and politics right now . Back up your mind and then help your country by erasing zemene mesafint type of thinking.

    stop claiming ethiopian people to save Eritrea’s reigme and the like.

  3. astra
    | #3

    A well articulated article, Congratulations. The argument of Messay Kebede has a fundamental flow which one does not expected from a well versed intellectual like him. What the devil caught him to argue for the supremacy of the elites of the Third World in stead of their enduring asset- the PEOPLE.
    As Eskinder has amply demonstrated, the reading of history by Messay Kebede is very poor indeed!

  4. Eritrean
    | #4

    Wow!You have written a very concise and enlightening article Mr. Nega. It makes its point without unnecessary rambling of an academic. You are at your best when you discuss ideas. I am not often on the same side of your writings, but this article is complete and perfect in content and style. Bravo, for educating us because your article is just as useful in other countries besides Ethiopia.

  5. Amare
    | #5

    Thank you Eskinder- Your single piece is much much [150 times] better than the useless rejoinders we saw in different places.

  6. astrology
    | #6

    Eskinder Nega is contradicting himself when he dismisses the elites’ role. for isntance Eskinder Nega is one of the brave guys who struggle for democracy. but i do not think whether the ordinary people have a say in the choice of the topic of his article and its content. Eskinder Nega never received the public’s mandate to speak on their behalf. it took his own motivation to fight Meles Zenawi.

    i find all this pretentious talk about people’s power very sickening. ordinary people have never had power in history be it in america or europe or africa.

  7. Anonymous
    | #7

    Well done Eskindir, Devile Meles has to go back to his bush to goven fox.

  8. yenus
    | #8

    meles has to go to back to jungle to gove his fox

    | #9


    I am sorry to know that Messay was one of the AAU professors who was dismissed. Rember also that NOT only Messay but other heros are intellectual who paid the ultimate price for democracy and human freedom deserve mention of your of pen and praise. It seems to me, however, that you are identifying him as the ONLY “intellectual” in the field of human knowledge by ignoring the rest who fought dictator Meles and his tribalist elements. Don’t worship in him as Fekade Shewakena worshipped the bad man, Mesfin Woldemariam who deny the very existance of Amharas as Ethiopi’s larger, if not largest social fabric.

  10. Observer
    | #10

    Eskinder has got it right.There is no grand coalition with TPLF aka EPRDF.
    Messay and others like him in the Ethiopian Diaspora may wistfully wish it.But TPLF doesn’t.
    From the outset,that is not what TPLF has set out to achieve.It never came out to share power with others. It never envisaged amassing wealth in partnership with others. The last twenty years have witnessed the unflinching monopoly of power by the Tigrayan clique and the ever increasing concentration of wealth and privileged status of the Tigrayan elite.
    Meles might throw a few crumbs of perks and blandishments for a few subservient hands from other ethnic groups in exchange for their loyalty to his rule.With the hope to weaken both the Diaspora oppostion and as means to strengthen the patronage system at home,he might be very eager to buy off some opportunist individuals with city lands and business opportunities. That is OK with him in so far as it solidifies his rule whose reason of existence remains the continued enrichment of the Tigrayan elite and,one should not be muzzled by political correctness from saying it, the long term development of Tigray at the expense of the rest of the country. And this is what the TPLF has set out to achieve. This is its project which, from all the evidence one gathers on the ground, so far shows no sign of abetting. The TPLF does not seem to have any doubt of its success,either.
    Intoxicated by hubris borne of twenty years of unchallenged rule with a significant opposition and the seemingly powerlessness of our people, TPLF,unlike other tyrannies which melted under the heat of popular revolts,still thinks it can go on with the one man-one party show calling such farce, the developmental state.

    In other words, TPLF has not experienced any existential threat to its ossified 20 year old rule.

    Nothing will therefore make a regime entre a genuine dialogue and thereby seek a compromise with an opposition unless it feels existentially threatened and it reckons that the salvation to its shaken rule or power can be gained only through some form of retreat.
    TPLF is not in retreat. TPLF does not see any reason for a retreat or compromise.TPLF is rather consolidating. TPLF thinks it is ascending.

    There is no space for compromise in the cosmology of the TPLF.That word is not in the latter’s dictionary.

    The grand coalition with EPRDF is simply a monologue. Eskinder has got it right. There is no grand coalition with TPLF aka EPRDF.

  11. Sheger
    | #11

    Wether we agree with the bostenian or not, where is Jesuss??? Not that Iam saying I am saying that I am more powerfull either powers wether god or the bostenins or the …….you know who. But, were is God and where is jisess????? Gone loving us?????? May be I should feel the love then.

  12. DAN
    | #12

    What Eskender is missing is some studies done on how democracy works.

    The more equal a society is the less likely for it to democratize fast. Singapore is known as an example of that.

    On the other hand, low level of inequality leads to speedier democratization. This we see clearly in the more developed countries. Democracy is also sustained in this countries because it is not as costly to the elite to make an attempt of overthrowing the government by force.

    The worst kind of inequality as in our case leads to democratization as well but, chances are it will not consolidate because it is very costly to the “elites” and coups are very attractive. It ends up or may become a vicious cycle of coups after coups to take the same pie. Instead of working in expanding the pie.

    Some say Meles’s dilemma is may be he is at a point of no return but I don’t see why anyone would oppose Prof. Messay’s “manifesto” of reconciliation with the Meles Dictatorship to break the “political impasse”?

    Repeating another coup and crossing our fingers to sustain the “democracy” afterwords sounds idiotic to me..

  13. Alem
    | #13

    Dear Abugida,
    Here is an excerpt I found in

    “I have serious doubts that the proposed deal between moderates and the ruling minority party will be handled in good faith. A scandal of national proportions may be in the offing. A major point of contention will be on who should take the top job. One could conjecture at least three personality traits for contenders for the post (assuming PM
    Meles will forego his position, though I strongly believe he will retain his power.) The choices will more than likely revolve around a political ape (with no principles whatsoever); an “outsider” (to give an air of impartiality but really intent on disempowering contenders); and a credible and competent individual. The first choice will be hastily rejected; the last, alas, will be sidelined. The second choice will assume power, albeit, as a detached and impotent functionary.

    Democratic practices will continue to elude us as long as an ethnic minority party is in power. In other words, it is futile to think for a moment that TPLF-led government will ever reform itself to accommodate the demands of a democratic society for the same reason that the Derg government by its very design could not entertain an alternative to
    its rule. There are issues of transparency, accountability, rule of law, etc, which incumbents have consistently failed to abide by. Democracy by its very nature upholds majority rule and hence rejects minority rule of every stripe. Public distrust and disdain for the party in power is rampant. Removing these roadblocks will inevitably drive incumbents out of office. I don‟t see that happening in the immediate future short of a
    schism within the ruling party ranks. After all, a lot is at stake for the ruling minority—not least of which is loss of personal and “party” fortune and revelation of secret deals undertaken in the name of a long suffering and unsuspecting Ethiopians.

    Here is what I am getting at: the unreformable Derg had to disband for a new condition to emerge. That episode, sadly, was squandered because foreigners mediated the process, or, perhaps because there was no organized group to oversee the transition. Likewise, the current regime must dissolve before a semblance of democracy takes root. The next
    moment will be salvaged only if Ethiopians take full charge of their nation‟s governance. There may be hope for us this time around. History will judge them harshly if opposition leaders fail to narrow their differences—to the point of sacrificing personal ambition—in order to confront a bigger and more urgent national issue.”

  14. History
    | #14

    Mr. Eskinder writes “An Ethiopian owned business in DC, which generated more than 700 million dollars in sales last year” and raises more questions than he answers, bad journalism.
    He also repeats democracy democracy democracy, when what should concern us more should be that we are ruled by a regime that is unpatriotic and anti-Ethiopian. Our question is not just a question of democracy but that the anti-Ethiopian regime removed be from power because causing even more harm.

  15. DAN
    | #15

    [[...Hillary Clinton noted in her recent speech to the AU, more than half the countries have become successful multi-party constitutional democracies over the past two decades...]]

    What Clinton called democracy on our continent is actually a reference to its processes rather than substance. This way, governments of South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria etc and others are applauded when they constantly go through the motions of democracy even when these rituals serve little democratic function.

    Another big one in Asia is India where it stands with democracies of USA and others with regular elections and changes of government but,when you look at services like access to education, health, clean water it is similar to failing states like Bangladesh.

    Anaother fallacy to look at is assuming a mojority rule automatically means fairness to ordinary people.

    Parties like ANC drawn from a racial majority today largely services elite interests however, it remains in power because they “represent” the majority black. Reports show 60 percent of the black population of South Africa today are worse off than they were under apartheid.

    On the other hand, it is interesting to notice that RFP of Rwanda, a miniority government have acheived and succeeded life changing programs for common folks with 92% medical insurance, 75% access to clean water, 97% prenatal care etc.

    We may ask how come in Rwanda, not a majority-led government unlike ANC of South Africa succeeded in implementing a life-changing programme for common folks?

  16. lilizuma
    | #16

    Everyone knows Zinawians stole more than 8.42 billion US dollars;and it is not a secret that Zinawians are minority rulers and did not enter Ethiopia either as Entrepreneures or as caretakers;rather, they posed as Ethiopians and entered Ethiopia with a lot of guns and bullets and looted and murdered Ethiopians,and built a giant sink called EFFORT.

    The vitims are all Ethiopians.For the last twenty years,Zinawianrobbers stole billions of dollars and channeled through EFFORT into their bank accounts in the banks that are scattered around the world.

    EFFORT has nothing to do with rules or laws.It is like a foureyed flying sucker;it suks money and blood.It is the intestine of all illicit netwrks combined together all the resources of Ethiopia,in the form of cash goes through to a final storage,Zinawinas’ bank account.

    To protect Ethiopians from a hostile exploitation,Ethhiopians must elect representatives of their own;but firtst,the minority rulers must be replaced by a mjority democratic citizens;then,social stability,right of life,liberty,and prosperity will prevail in Ethiopia.

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