Why Ethiopians must unite? (Part two of five)* By Aklog Birara, PhD
In part one, I provided basic socioeconomic arguments of why unity of purpose and action among opponents of the TPLF/EPRDF is no longer an option for those who wish to see a unified, diverse and prosperous Ethiopia whose institutional foundation is grounded in fundamental principles of human dignity and freedom for the individual to choose, speak, associate and move; in the rule of law and a level playing field for each and all; in genuine equality, justice, fairness, inclusion and participation; and in political pluralism that allows and encourages peaceful competition.
For the above to take roots, the struggle for justice and freedom must be anchored in Ethiopian society, and especially youth, taxi-drivers, shop owners and the rest of the middle class of professionals, bureaucrats and the poor in rural and urban areas. It is these social forces that brought dictatorial regimes to their knees. Those on the outside can provide material, financial, technical and diplomatic support.
These and other lofty principles assume that ultimate power and the authority to determine legitimacy to govern reside with Ethiopian citizens and not with political elites. It is only when the institutional and leadership architecture that empowers ordinary citizens takes solid roots that there would be a respectful relationship between ordinary people, the state and government and the leadership that administer it on their behalf. In this sense, future change must be dramatically different from the past. Ordinary citizens will exercise this potential power through free, fair, transparent, open and competitive elections. This is why it is important to remember that opposition to the governing party is only one and necessary component of change; but not the only component.
Equally important is the ability to envision an appropriate transition toward meaningful and people centered change and to frame the alternative system that will replace the old order. Both the transition and the alternative must reflect the interests of the Ethiopian people as a whole and neither can be an afterthought.
Why people revolt
The ongoing Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East exploded because dictatorial and or authoritarian regimes refused to give-up their privileged political and economic positions peacefully. It is the pursuit of economic power and better social status that motivated them to assume political power by any means necessary in the first place. Once they assumed political power that offered them wealth beyond their imagination, they cling to it regardless of costs to any person or to any group. The tolerate greed, nepotism, corruption and exclusion because they created them. It is this that leads experts to conclude that dictatorial regimes encourage and rationalize income inequality and wealth concentration directly or indirectly. It is part of the architecture of running the state as a business enterprise. At most, those with political and economy power are likely to persecute and jail only small fish to appease the public and donors. The big fish at the top are always protected from the regulatory and legal system. It is they created the very system that benefits them and their core allies whether foreign or domestic. It is they that must protect ‘the goose that lays the golden egg,’ so to speak.
Reflect on what social and political forces drove Ethiopia’s Emperor and the dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam out of power in disgrace? What forces compelled Ben Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his family to flee with an estimated 1.5 tons of gold that belongs to the people of Tunisia? What compelled Mubarak and his cohorts to cause massive carnage and to face the humiliation of court proceedings in the country he ruled for crimes against humanity and for stealing billions of money that belongs to the Egyptian people? Why did Gadhafi and his die-hards refuse to submit to the will of the Libyan people peacefully and get caught, hauled from a sewage pipe, humiliated and killed by liberation fighters as young as 19 years old that he had called “rats”? The manner and brutality and ‘savagery’ of his death will be a subject that will haunt millions of people for decades to come. For Libyans and other people who seek and deserve freedom and justice, saving Gadhafi’s life and subjecting him to the meaning of the rule of law would have sent a better omen. Instead, it sent chills accusations of the opposition itself is “lawless.” This may or may not be unfair. Only the future evolution of governance will tell.
Would other dictators in the rest of Africa including Ethiopia draw lessons from these shameful experiences and allow peaceful change through genuine free, fair, open and competitive elections? Listening to the Ethiopian Prime Minister in the aftermath of what happened in Libya; one concludes that dictators have no ear for human dignity, justice, freedom, equality, the rule of law and accountability. They feel invincible. In light of this, simple indignation will not be adequate.
I highlighted the major similarities and differences that characterize these diverse regimes in previous articles on the Arab Spring. In each case, and in today’s Ethiopia, those who govern failed and still fail to open up opportunities for the vast majority of the population, especially youth. For example, the TPLF/EPRDF regime runs an economic empire that has made a few individuals super rich, and is leading the vast majority to greater depths of poverty. The governing party failed to level the playing field in the economy. Party owned and endowed enterprises such as EFFORT, GUNA and others dominate the national economy. Believe it or not EFFORT owns at least 30 diverse and dominant companies. It started with little or no capital and now serves the economic and social interests of the top leadership of the TPLF and their extended families.
The top leadership of the TPLF/EPRDF is one of the most rigid and dismissal of any in the world. It really believes that its assault on human rights is to protect the public from all forms of “terrorism.” It continues to get away with violations in part because it has powerful Western backers; and in part the opposition is divided and weak. In light of this, the regime failed to hold anyone accountable for atrocities following the 2005 elections; for massacres in Gambella, and in the Ogaden; and jailing and killing an untold number of Ethiopians under the pretext of defending the state and the Constitution. The regime is the judge, jury and executioner. Do not expect it to change any time soon.
Economic and social injustice is widespread and there is nothing the public or dissenters can do about it. Donors and others are stunned of corruption and illicit outflow in excess of US$11 billion from one of the poorest and emergency food aid dependent countries in the world. They will not do anything unless opponents in the Diaspora close ranks and work collaboratively against corruption and illicit outflow in donor capitals everywhere. Corruption is an economic crime against the poor and the future of Ethiopian youth. In North Africa and the Middle East, we note corruption, cronyism, illicit outflow, and other economic and social ills constituted the material reasons of why people continue to die for justice, human dignity and freedom.
Here is the bottom line. People do not revolt out of hate for their fellow man or woman. They revolt out of desperation that the system in which they live is totally broken and that those who govern are not or will not be accountable to them. Escalating food prices, income inequality, corruption, nepotism and massive unemployment were among the material reasons why hundreds of thousands of youth and others revolted against repression, economic and social injustice and inequality. When a system is impervious to change, they have no option. Tunisian youth, professionals and the middle class arrived at the conclusion that the system under which they lived was intolerant of reform. This is similar to Ethiopia but took a more peaceful route. Citizens, especially youth, took matters into their own hands and gave real meaning to citizen voice, participation and popular revolt. The rest is history. Today, 110 political parties are in the process of competing in what is projected to be the freest and fairest election in Tunisia.
For Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, Syrian and Yemeni youth, the battle cry could be termed as ‘inequality and corruption stupid.’ Gross inequality in incomes and wealth arise when a system allows economic and social preponderance for one group over the rest, and discriminates deliberately and systematically. Tunisia was and still is more market friendly than Ethiopia. Yet, inequality was pronounced as was corruption. Egypt was worse. Gadhafi and his large family run the country as a family business. He lost his life and perhaps all his wealth and the wealth of his family. Freedom leads to the inevitable demand for accountability. But who in the top echelons of the Ethiopian government party is listening?
In Ethiopia, the economic and social system tends to emulate the worst features of crony capitalism and dictatorial ‘socialism.’ I say the worst features of capitalism because cronyism is rampant. Greed and corruption are widespread and punishing for the society. Humanitarian and other forms of aid are politicized and skew the allocation of resources along ethnic and party lines. If aid that saves lives is distorted, one will have little confidence that the rest of the economy and financial system is not distorted either. Ethiopia is neither farmland nor water resource poor. Yet, it is one of the ‘hungriest and unhealthiest” countries in the world. Take food self-sufficiency and security and investments in agriculture under the so-called Agriculture Development-led Industrialization (ADLI) approach–a strategy intended to boost the capabilities of smallholders and other rural folk–and assess outcomes.
Why did the regime fail to boost the capabilities of smallholders by providing them tenure security? As I document in my latest book, “The Great Land Giveaway: yemeret neteka ena kirmit in Ethiopia,” the country is not able to achieve a level of agricultural productivity per hectare that it had attained in 1973 or 38 years ago? Believe it or not, the governing party no longer believes that Ethiopian smallholders and other domestic entrepreneurs can modernize and commercialize agriculture or anything else for that matter. In 2009, 22 percent of Ethiopia’s rural poor depended on some form of international emergency foreign aid to survive. I conclude from these facts and from skyrocketing food prices that the governing party’s strategy was not to release the productive potential of Ethiopian smallholders and to make the country food self-sufficient. Rather, it was to control the ‘peasantry’ and to make the rural population dependent and an appendage. A pro poor economic and social policy would have resulted in a smallholder Green Revolution in Ethiopia. Generous donors such as USAID, the World Bank and others share the blame in that they did not invest in smallholder commercial farming. Some donors perpetuate dependency by focusing on relief rather than on sustainable and participatory development.
It is a fact that twenty years ago, people could afford to buy food. Today, millions survive on one meal a day. Forty years ago, the educated and others aspired to join the middle class and expected to build and own their own home. Today US$50,000 cannot buy you a decent home in Addis Ababa or other major urban areas. The façade of villas, apartment and office buildings and other construction in Ethiopia’s capital and other urban centers is glitz at its worst. Rent seeking and corrupt culture produced the glitz. Who owns major buildings anyway? Who rents them to foreigners? It certainly is not the Ethiopian middle class. They worry about their next meal. These investments are owned by few powerful individuals, families and monopolies. The direct link between business monopolies and political power is a firm indicator of the merger of party, state and ethnicity. It is this merger that enables the governing party to misallocate national resources; and to transfer waters and farmlands and other pillars of the economy from the Ethiopian people to a selected few domestic allies and to foreign governments and businesses.
These economic and social distortions and adverse impacts on ordinary Ethiopians are essential to grasp in promoting a culture of collaboration and unity among opposition groups whether civic or political; and whether within the country or abroad.
Part three of this series will highlight the dangers that emanate from massive transfers of water basins and farmlands and other pillars of the economy to foreign governments and businesses. The piece will continue to reinforce why unity of purpose and action is critical, urgent and everyone’s business.
*Please note that this series has five and not three parts.