THESE DESPERATE TIMES OF OURS By Imru Zelleke
First of all I would like to state that I am not a sociologist or an economist, nor a political guru. But I am an ordinary citizen concerned with his own welfare and that of the people that make up his world in general. Most especially, because of my origins, my concern is about Ethiopia and the multitude of problems that are arrayed against her future survival.
I ponder over the issues that have torn us apart, and over those that could foster our reunion. I thought first that we should have to divest our history from all the fanfare and glory with which, individually and collectively, we tend to decorate and obfuscate our recent past. Prior to 1935 life in Ethiopia could be likened to that of the seventeenth century with some few new factors added in, like the railway, the telephone and an embryonic modern education system introduced by Emperor Menelik. The nineteenth century British invasion that ended up with Emperor Theodros’ suicide, and later the Italian defeat in Adwa, did not leave much of an imprint on Ethiopia’s governance and social behavior. Rather, the Adwa victory gave worldwide recognition to its national image, and boosted further Ethiopian nationalism instead of transforming its feudal governance.
For Ethiopia, the real harbinger into modernity occurred during the short occupation by the Italians from 1935 to 1940. It caused a tremendous loss of lives, in particular the decimation of most of the modern educated and trained Ethiopians. The Italians introduced a colonial administration system that radically changed all aspects of the traditional way of life. For the first time Ethiopia had faced a vastly superior enemy and a total occupation of its national territory. Primarily to consolidate the occupation and colonization processes, the Italians built a large network of roads and other infrastructures which necessitated a large monetary infusion into the economy. The presence of a large number of foreigners with their own language and life style also brought radical transformations in the social structure and behavioral pattern of the society. At the same time, their cruelty and racism versus the local population galvanized a strong patriotic resistance movement against the Italian occupying forces.
Thus, the accelerated modernization of the country began after the liberation from the Fascist occupation. While he was in exile and in the wake of the bitter disappointment with the League of Nations, Emperor Haile Selassie had recognized more than ever the absolute necessity of expanding modern education to develop the country and defend it against future enemies with superior technology and know-how. Therefore, during his reign, education was expanded domestically and scores of students were also sent abroad to be exposed to new ideas and cultures very different from their own. Returning students were immediately absorbed by the administration, with rapid career advancements. By 1974, the average age of cabinet ministers was forty-two years old. The same applied to the command echelons of the armed forces.
However, the modernization of the country did not follow an evolutionary mode. Rather it happened in abrupt shock waves starting with the Italian invasion and continuing with the difficult political and economic conditions that Ethiopia had to surmount after the liberation. Actually, the impact of modernization was more apparent than real, and did not affect much the national psyche. It did not change the living conditions of the great majority of citizens nor the social pattern, but for a small elite which had more or less cut itself from its roots; due to it’s newly gained political and socio-economic status. The new education system did not give relevance to the teaching of Ethiopian history. Thus, our own cultural heritage was relegated to survive on its own. Although the Neway brothers attempted coup d’état in 1960 should have served as a sign of things to come, the government did not learn much from it. In fact the failed coup introduced a new criminal precedent to contemporary Ethiopian politics, the political murder of a group of officials without any judicial process, thereby transgressing a fundamental axiom of Ethiopian social foundation. In the innocent eyes of the older generation, modern education meant an acquisition of all knowledge and wisdom concurrent at the time. They were also highly impressed by the efficient and glittering aspects of the advanced societies into which they wanted to transform Ethiopia. Thus they adopted many new systems and methods without sizing them properly, and without educating the public of these new changes of which they did not comprehend the implications themselves.
The new educated class did not take into account the increasing political and socio-economic disparity that grew between them and the people. Having come to power by appointment, rather than by an elective political process, they were hopelessly counting on the continuation of a system that was already disintegrating. Stimulated by internal and external factors, the country was changing in ways that needed well conceived and timely reforms. Unfortunately, there was no national dialogue to rationally accommodate these new notions. With the aging of the Emperor and an uncertain succession to the Crown, the political structure had become dysfunctional. The political body from the right or left was fragmented into small groups with no political program or a viable constituency. Therefore, in spite the existence of a decent bureaucracy at the center, by 1970, the overall governance had become inadequate for the needs of the country. The imperial system had run its course and was reaching its end. Soldiers were asking for pay raises; students, teachers, labor unions and other professional groups were also claiming for their rights, the political space had become a free arena for all opinions and demands.
It is at this point that the foreign influence that had permeated through the student movement became the ideological spearhead of the new revolutionary movement. Marxist-Leninist ideology was adopted without any concern about what the Ethiopian people thought or wanted. After a massive fratricide in which thousands were massacred, the leftist revolution collapsed ignominiously to fall into the hands of an ignorant gang of soldiers. After seventeen years of misrule and mayhem, the military regime collapsed shamefully having murdered thousands of people and destroyed the very fabric of society, leaving the country bare of any viable institutions. The power vacuum left by the debacle of the Derg was filled by a minority ethnic liberation group, the TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front), supported by major international patrons.
The TPLF-led EPRDF coalition that came to power shed its Albanian Marxist colors and adopted a pseudo-democratic Fascist platform somehow acceptable to the US and Western powers. Domestically it introduced an ethnic-based federal structure, maintaining its dominant role of the military, security units and the control of the federal apparatus. Moreover, it monopolized the major sectors of the economy via state-owned businesses and party-owned NGO’s and affiliated business enterprises.
With the advent of this regime, foreign influence has increased exponentially to a point that it has become an essential component in every aspect of the country’s life. It has caused a loss of identity in Ethiopians, as well as a dependency complex on foreign aid. In the past two decades more than thirty-five billion US dollars have been poured into Ethiopia in various projects; hundreds of foreign NGO’s and scores of consulting firms operate in the country. It is said that over 10,000 projects have been implemented with foreign aid and charities. In the private sector, over a thousand foreign businesses have been registered as investors. Chinese citizens in Ethiopia are estimated to number over half a million. Indians, Turks, Arabs and other nationalities are likely to raise the number of foreigners to several millions. As such, the dominant economic and political role of these external elements in all aspects of national life has become a pre-eminent factor, causing the hybridization of the society, culture and values. According to the World Development Index, Ethiopia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and it ranks with the lowest category of developing nations. In short, the country is being destroyed from the inside by an inborn ethnic political group, without national consciousness or pride in Ethiopia’s national identity, which serves them only as a trademark for pecuniary wheeling and dealing. Actually, the rapid economic development claimed by the regime benefits only a small minority and foreign investors, rather than the vast majority of people who are left marginalized with the crumbs.
With all their basic human rights having been denied and their properties confiscated by the regime, Ethiopians today are reduced to the status of migrants and second class citizens, cheap labor in their own country. The regime has even set up an agency exporting thousands of young girls to Arab countries to serve as domestic personnel (prostitutes). Since the market value of adopting an Ethiopian child can reach up to thirty thousand US dollars, what they charge for a young domestic must obviously be equal to the demand which appears to be in the thousands. It appears also that with some local arrangements these workers do not need visas for their destinations, hence once there, they disappear without a trace. Off and on we hear that they are beaten, tortured, violated and killed with nobody to care about their fate, especially their own national government. Thus, twenty-first century slave trade, acquiesced and sustained with foreign aid from the foremost civilized democratic nations in the world, has become institutionalized.
With the same verve the TPLF has continued its ethnic polarization policy by promoting the forcible eviction of groups identified by their ethnic origin from areas they have lived in for generation. For instance, causing the massive dislocation of the Amhara population from their ancestral land and incorporating the same areas with its own Tigray region. The same is done to other ethnic groups for political reasons and for investment purposes. In some areas people identified by their ethnic background are prohibited to work or reside, their properties confiscated and are evicted by force from lands and businesses they have toiled and strived for during several generations.
Presently, the regime of coercion and terror of the TPLF continues unabated. Yet, foreign aid and investments flow in with larger quantities than ever, consolidating the regime grab of power. Opposition leaders, journalists, human rights advocates and any other group or individuals advocating for democratic rule are labeled as terrorists, condemned to life time prison if not killed outright, or disappear altogether. Suffice to read the US State Department’s Human Rights Report on Ethiopia. In the eyes of the donor countries a vast economic transformation program, financed from foreign sources and an excessive amount of domestic deficit financing, appears to justify all these misdeeds and abuses.
For the United States in particular, the anti-terrorist role that the TPLF regime is conducting, and its presumed strategic role in the Horn of Africa makes it a valuable ally, in spite of its inexcusable failings and reprehensible governance. In view of what has developed and continues to develop in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and the Middle East in general with the rise of Arab Spring, policies solely focused on sustaining totalitarian “friendly” regimes, ignoring the humiliating and miserable conditions of the ordinary citizens do not seem to bear good fruits. Due to the rise of new global power centers, technology spreading knowledge, and globalization as well as a growing worldwide demand for a better life by new masses of people – the game has changed.
In countries where the democratic political process and the rule of law have taken root – such as Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Turkey, Indonesia, India and others – a sustainable social and economic development is occurring without serious social upheavals, while in others ruled by totalitarian regimes violent revolt has become the alternative. A case in point could be Ethiopia; divided politically into artificially created ethnic enclaves and ruled ruthlessly by a minority illegitimate group, an extremely violent uprising can be foreseen. A growing opposition against foreign interference is also evident, because the people identify these foreign entities with their tormentors and abusers. Excluded and marginalized from any significant development, the vast majority of the population has been dispossessed of any rights and rendered rootless. Our concern is the dominant socio-economic, and thereby political, role that these foreign elements are acquiring in the national life. Moreover, we have serious doubts as to the sustainability and lasting benefits of some of the large investment projects, which have been undertaken by the regime for pecuniary motives rather than their social and economic viability.
For Ethiopians, especially for those in the Diaspora amongst whom human and material resources are not lacking, it is time to stop prevaricating on clearly visible issues and act responsibly towards saving the nation from a debilitating disaster. We should ask ourselves why we have fallen to such lowly conditions? Why have we become prey to political merchants and opportunists of all kinds, inside and outside the country? What happened to our self respect and patriotism? Examples of heroism and sacrifice have never been absent in the spirit of our nation. Hence, why are we failing our own people and ourselves? It is a question that faces all of us who may feel betrayed by our recent past.
The problems that we face presently are huge and complex, but still solvable. Historical legacy has good and bad precedents; it is up to each generation to make its own. Circumstances may change but the basic values that inspire great deeds remain the same, courage and fortitude.
This is a moment when all of us, young and old, should hold hands and march together to free our people from the inept and corrupt rule of a tribal dictatorship. Let’s do it !!!