NES COMMENTARY. No.16: Ideas for Ending the ENDEMIC Governance Crises in Ethiopia – Network of Ethiopian Scholars (NES)

March 21st, 2008 Print Print Email Email


“Ethiopia: the name was used by the Greeks for the people of Africa in general who, to them, were Ethiopians, meaning ‘people with burned faces’. They are mentioned in both Homer & Herodotus. In the 11th century B.C., there arose a kingdom of Ethiopia and early in the Christian era the state was set up” (more…)


“Ethiopia: the name was used by the Greeks for the people of Africa in general who, to them, were Ethiopians, meaning ‘people with burned faces’. They are mentioned in both Homer & Herodotus. In the 11th century B.C., there arose a kingdom of Ethiopia and early in the Christian era the state was set up”

Source: The New Standard Encyclopaedia & World Atlas,
Rev. C.A. Arlington, D.D. Oldhams Press Ltd. London, 1932 Great Britain, p.461


Any Ethiopian who loves ones people, country and nation must feel huge discomfort listening to successive shocking stories coming out of that far too much abused land. Once more we heard that 9 million people still need food aid handout despite the fact there is absolutely no justifiable reason for the country to remain in this humiliating condition for such a long and protracted time now. It has enough arable land were it not in recent times the regime is leasing out good arable land to the flower and rose- producing unscrupulous syndicate of foreign and local business persons that have chosen to impose and infect the land with water thirsty rose growing for cheap export. When countries like Portugal and Spain ban the production of roses in their farmland owing to the recognition that this crop not only dries the land where it grows from but also dries water in lands widely adjacent to the flower farms, poor African countries are trying to out-compete each other by giving incentives to attract what will make them remain in a permanent state of food shortage, hunger and humiliation. Bad economics combined with bad governance is a recipe for prolonged crises rather than opportunity!

2. Governance Crises is at the Root of the Persistence of the Food Problem

As a people, as a nation, and as a country, by putting all our heads, hearts, soul and ingenuities together, Ethiopians both inside and outside scattered around the world must solve the food problem as a matter of priority without any delay. This regime seems comfortable with the humiliation of begging food aid not being able to solve the most important problem of the country: feeding the people to create a strong nation. It has not been able to lead the agricultural revolution, the white revolution (milk) and the blue revolution (fresh water in every home which is not a matter of privilege but a right!)

But perhaps we are used to the idea that those who govern Ethiopia do not have it within them to solve the food, milk, and water problem. We do not have an Indra Ghandi, who, faced with the humiliation of famine invited all her scientists and told them that we have come out of colonial humiliation; we cannot allow ourselves a second one- this time the humiliation that we cannot feed ourselves. She demanded of her scientists that the country must solve the hunger problem and she said since you are scientists, come up with a solution she demanded of the learned women and men of India. And India went through a biotechnology revolution or green revolution that made it a food and milk surplus country rather than a chronically food deficit and hunger prone country. That is what leadership means.

In Africa the people with knowledge fear power, and those in power fear knowledge. How are the power-men going to invite knowledge to solve the real problem of real people? Sycophancy to power rather than a strong willingness to use distilled knowledge that passed the withering criticism of those who are best in their fields still govern the research, higher education and knowledge production practice in much of Africa, sad to admit it, in the 21st century!

3. The Gold Scandal: Ransacking the National Treasure

The media from South Africa to Denmark has reported that Ethiopia may be in a situation where much of the national gold treasure may be unreal. One wonders where the real gold disappeared and even more how the governance of such an important sector of the national economic grid failed? It is indeed very shocking and unexpected to hear such abominable news. Such robbery of any national treasure has a huge implication in destabilising the monetary and economic balance of any country that happens to be confronted with such a treacherous action. We ask the question: how come that such a colossal treachery against the nation, the people and the country has been allowed to go on until South Africans discovered it when the traders had the audacity to de-fraud outsiders having milked the nation? We heard the news that some of the perpetrators have moved out of the country apparently some of whom after having won prizes for business leadership from the regime in power? Any self-respecting regime must do all in its power to find the culprits, make them pay back the nation they pillaged and punish all the wrong doers including the possible Government and para-government liaisons that facilitated this treachery.

What does this fraud show? What is the relationship between the prevailing ethnic governance and such grand theft committed against the nation? Is this colossal theft related to ethnic de-valorisation of Ethiopianess and Ethiopian patriotic belonging where those who steal prefer to privilege their private pockets to the decent matter of allegiance to the national well being? How can they imagine they can rob the national treasury for so long undetected, unless they have powerful official and intelligence people backing them? Where did the real gold go? These are indeed trying questions at trying times where this unfortunate nation seems to continue to lurch from one disastrous episode to another? How much has ethnic politics to do with this colossal treachery against the nation? This question cannot be ignored anymore, as there can be no doubt that more of these sorts of scandals in more grotesque forms are likely yet to transpire!

4. Even More Alarming is the Concentration of Economic and Political Power!

There is something truly scary when a whole nation of 80 million people’s economy are dominated by two highly colluding syndicates, the business organisations that have political backing from the regime and the rich billionaire Sheikh Al Amoundin.. The problem with poor countries like Ethiopia is that wealth concentrated under private capitalists is even worse than those put under the custody of the state. Under the imperial system, many of the commanding heights of the economy were nationally owned, now it looks a disproportionate portion of the national economy is under unscrupulous traders and business persons loyal to two overweening masters: the TPLF/EPDRF and those working for the business empire being built assiduously by the said billionaire!

One wonders how much these two syndicates between them control the proportion of size of the national economy. Our guess is that a disproportionate share of the nation’s GDP is probably owned by them. Research is highly needed to find out the real picture. We would not be surprised with a guess-estimate, if between them, they may not be controlling something like over half the size of the nation’s GDP!

Wealth concentration goes hand in hand with gross social and regional inequalities. This is very worrying indeed. How come the people live in more and more hardship whilst the obscene wealthy persons try to fantasise helicopter landing on the rooftops of their new flash buildings? What kind of society is being manufactured under the bizarre ethnic fractured society of this historic and indeed potentially great and viable nation dominated by two major economic houses- one that controls the politics to build its own economy, and the other the billionaire who uses his economic advantage and political connections to muscle in and crowd others out, and control the politics of the country? This state of affairs cannot be ignored anymore. Neither can it be condoned. The economy and the politics of the land must serve to promote the infinite well being of the people, the nation and the country. The people must be united to achieve food self- sufficiency without delay. The nation needs liberation from those that want to privatise it through ethnicism and the private economic monopoly of a few billionaires, and the country needs to be independent from those that use donorisation and foreign aid to pursue anti-Ethiopian purposes.

5. The ethnic framed rule system is destructive!

Ethnic division is very corrosive. It can destroy the national glue. Ethnic solidarity becomes like the solidarity of the Masonic order and the illumnati.The purchase of ethnic social capital comes with the loss of national social capital. In poor country contexts where there is resource deficit and all sorts of problems and conflicts, the sum of individual ethnic based social capitals does not add up to a national social capital. Nor are the parts put together or adjacent to each other greater than or near enough the social capital of the whole. Our country is at high risk blackmailed willy-nilly with the politics of ethnic fracturing that often spreads deceptions, lies, treachery, theft and all sorts of ugly characteristics such as the discourse and narratives of bigotry, narrow mindedness and hypocrisy. A large portion of the ethnic politicians are more often than not tainted and contaminated by their commerce of identity, existing and occupying very often a de contextualised, spiritless and hopelessly superficial selfish world running around to fill in their pockets and belly by diluting Ethiopia’s national identity, forgetting that the national identity has been shaped by tears, blood and sweat, sacrifices and struggles of successive generations. The nation was earned and made. To undo it is a crime. It has been shaped by long historical communication and a will to forge a shared destiny to build a future with justice and opportunity to all starting from the least advantaged.

There is a very strong need to counter ethnicism with Ethiopian patriotic nationalism. There is a strong need for individuals who wish to express high citizenship by wishing to live not only their own lives but also to stand and be counted in wishing to sacrifice for helping to improve the livelihood of people and the prioritisation of civic sense and expression and engagement with citizenship in social action, solidarity and belief. For the people, nation and Ethiopia, there is no better cause to die for, though some of us are not convinced it is worth killing anybody for.

If the reason for dividing the country along ethnic frames was supposed to stem the tide of ethnic based grievances, it has miserably failed. How are we going to explain the fact that there are as many ethnic based grievances expressed now even by sections of the Tigrayan elite that constituted the formation of TPLF in the first place? We hear them accusing the regime not serving Tigrayan interests but the interests of the Eritrean front led by Isias with whom there exists still a belligerent stalemate where all are concerned that people may be slaughtered as they were in hundreds and thousands as in 1998-2000. Grievances manifest everywhere from the North, South, Central, West and Easter part of this ancient country.

6. The Ethnic System is Anathema to Fair Governance!

We all have commented a number of times on the negative implication of imposing a radically new agenda by founding the ethnic principle for organising the politics, economics, society and state system in the country. (See Berhanu Balcha, Divide and Rule, NES, Ethiomedia, Nazret, Ethiopian Review and others!)) In spite of the ethnic restructuring of the Ethiopian state and territory, the opposition from Eritrea, from Ogaden, the Oromos and the urban based disaffections have not gone to sleep. There seems to be a variety of dissatisfactions with the way the current power holders- the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and their loyal supporters from other ethnically concept-framed or circumferenced groups they like to describe as a coalition despite the fact these are largely controlled under the umbrella of the so-called Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPDRF) – are managing or mismanaging Ethiopian public life. Both armed and non-armed opposition has continued and a national will to convert opposition from its current manifestations into a legitimate and integrated factor in public life, as played within a system shared by all, is still far off the agenda.

The deeper question to ponder relates to the very concept and practice of organising politics, society, space, economy and state with ethnicity which often defines and classifies a population in a given territory with those who belong and those that do not belong to the ethnic group. For a country as old as Ethiopia, the politics unleashed by the TPLF is the politics based on the primordial prejudice that blood is thicker than water. Is ethnicity fixed and permanent related to defining characteristics of biology, physical attributes and characteristics or is it a historical and social phenomenon subject to the workings of history shaped by the concatenation of global and local social forces? The defining concept of ethnicity often associates its meaning with a barrier to cross-ethnic solidarity and the politics of this conception often invokes opposition to it. The new power holders converted this barrier into a positive attribute where the recognition of ethnic rights is supposed to be synonymous with the construction of ‘national solidarity’, and even more the latter’s possible entrenchment. To sell this politics the current power holders claimed that unless they re- classify the provinces into vernacular re-cast sub-regional nation-states, the country will disintegrate. They thus try to forestall disintegration by inviting and welcoming vernacularly circumferenced and grouped states that prioritised vernacular-ethnic citizenship over civic Ethiopian citizenship for distributing entitlements to services, economy, education and health. Thus instead of unity of citizenship based on the idea of the Ethiopian nation, the fracturing of citizenship along ethnic-vernacular lines was entrenched… Instead of national solidarity, the ill-thought out logic of ‘othering’ took centre stage with divisions of one country Ethiopia literally into a number of mini-states or ‘mini-nations.’

The risk of many min-nations is that loyalty to the one nation of Ethiopia is most likely to be sacrificed, if not killed altogether. The sign that nationalism is diluted is, for example, when we see persons that ransacked the treasury are not restrained by any feeling that this will hurt the country, the people and the nation. They simply do not care. They may be thinking they are pillaging a regime which is as foreign to them as the various divisions have made an’ abroad’ from the ’inside’ one country! Ethiopia is now many and those who do not pay allegiance to it can sanitise their conscience to pillage it. This robbery of the national treasury is thus no ordinary crime committed by mere criminals. This episode demonstrates a deeper malaise of a country whose politics has been ethnicised, the country has been divided into many nations, its patriotism has been corrosively sullied and the moral restraint of doing harm to country has been weakened. Ethiopians should have been feeling strongly African in order to be even stronger Ethiopians; instead we have the opposite logic where feeling and flaunting vernacular and ethnic identity is given primacy for political and economic primitive accumulation more than anything else. The argument that with these ethnic-based political and economic accumulations and loyalties first a derivative and even stronger loyalty to Ethiopia will be attained is an argument in sophistry lacking context, history, commonsense and reason combined together.

How can loyalty to Ethiopia be forged when society is fractured by a series of in-group and out-group identities that communicate mainly inside the group and with very often mistrust and suspicion of the centre and not necessarily with each other? How can those inside a group and those outside a group give in to communication and solidarity when’ selfing’ and the ‘othering’ becomes the foundation for entitlement of political and economic rights well and above the legitimate social and cultural entitlements groups deserve to have, and no one has a right to deprive them of?

In the Ethiopian context, ethnicity comes also with the hazard of whether it is possible to clearly distinguish one ethnic group from another based on the assumed common features differentially held by a group. It also will not prevent the query of how such common distinguishing features provide primary and foundational significance to identify and classify group from group with a neat sense of clarity. Moreover, there may be people belonging to certain ethnic groups that wish to claim rights on other grounds other than ethnicity without rejecting cultural and social entitlement also due to their belonging to specific ethnic groups.

Governance crises are endemic when the rights of the many are under the rights of the few. Such a system is inherently unstable. The ethnic based rule in Ethiopia, no matter how anyone wishes to embellish it, puts not only the governance but also the country’s future in doubt. It is the enemy of building social capital, networks of interactions and relationships based on citizenship concepts, norms, rules, institutions and principles at a national level. Mico-level social capitals would not add up or be greater than the macro-level national social capital which is critically needed to be built to construct in turn and assure the country coming out of both its governance crises and attaining a sustainable future.

7. Reversing the Long Governance Crises

During and after the Scramble for Africa, Ethiopian leaders from Aste Twedros, Aste Yohannes, Aste Menelik and Aste Haile Selassie followed a cautious modernisation and national unification strategy. It was slow and replete with immense difficulties and internal oppositions, but on the whole we know they followed an Ethiopian national strategy to unite and modernise the country. The modernisation and unification project of tradition did not embrace democratisation and social justice. Force was the means not democracy to undertake unification. Justice for the people was not the principle but preserving feudal prerogatives and serfdom in the introduction of modern schools, telephones, telegraph, post offices and other technical-economic symbols of modernity.

The non-traditional actors that self-initiated their movements from the student movement, the Eritrean Fronts, the Derg, the TPLF and all others that have chequered the Ethiopian political landscape after World War II have not followed a modernisation programme that is free from mimicry to either the West or the Soviet Union, China, Albania, North Korea and so on. This mimicry was also partial. It may have mimicked China’s revolutionary strategy but not China’s strong sense of nationhood rooted in that great country’s historical depth. Since most of the movements rejected the past and history, they were prepared to ignore the hard job of extracting lessons from Ethiopia’s own historical depth.

There was a clear rupture and selectivity in the mimicry. The project turned hollow having become flimsy by showing scant concern and regard for the important purpose of building patiently the unity of the people, the country and the nation. With all of these movements there was more ideology and phrase mongering than substance in their project except that they all have, to varied degrees, stood for one variety or another form of democracy and social justice expressed and understood to them in their own ways. Where all these movements were strong is in championing social justice and voice for the voiceless, but where they failed is to pay lip service to forging strong national purpose and unity.

Unfortunately except for the aborted election of 2005 where there appears to be a resurrection of both a unity and modernisation project based on democratisation and social justice, there is still no clear politics coming out of the varied forces that fight against each other with arms and propaganda or make alliances with each other from those who hold power to those who are determined to unseat them. The country still is looking for its children to move beyond the current impasse and provide a project of unification and modernisation where patriotism and strong national sense as Ethiopian-Africans is centrally pursued without any ambiguity by combining these goals with democratisation and social justice. The 19th century project of unification and modernisation must be appropriated. Those who rejected it in order to pursue objectives they thought worthy must be told that they are wrong. The alternative is to learn from the project and combine it with the objectives of fulfilling democratisation and social justice of the post-war era. The past must be used to learn from lessons, the present must deal with real challenges that confront the ordinary people, and the future must open hope, opportunity and possibility. There is no reason why lessons from the 19th century can be added with lessons and objectives of the 20th century to forge a robust society, economy and governance system in the 21st century.

If we come fast forward, ironically enough, under the imperial systems, the Ethiopian citizen was recognised as a primary unit. In fact, under the Haile Selassie imperial system the traditional system was engaged in developing gradually a constitutional system with the Ethiopian citizen as a repository of rights and obligations. Though the citizen was oppressed and cultural rights and languages were unfortunately not recognised, her or his citizenship was considered in the 1930s constitution as the primary unit for allocating rights and obligations.

The military Government imposed violence for solving most contradictions making the citizen lose entitlement though languages and cultural rights were recognised under the military system.

The current ethnic system displaced the citizen and substituted the ethnic category under the guise of restoring vernacular and cultural rights to ethnic nations. A new model or governance arrangement that needs to serve as a mobilising perspective to come out of the endemic governance crises is the following: make the vernacularly and ethnically un-circumferenced and un-fractionalised Ethiopian citizen as the ultimate unit for according political and economic rights and obligations unencumbered with other concerns when establishing the core of the state-society and economy linkages and system. This should be followed by distinguishing clearly cultural and social rights such as ethnic, gender, language and other rights from political and economic rights and constitutionally guarantee their free expressions and use. Given modern technology and information and communication technologies most linguistic problems can be harmonised and should not pause a major obstacle provided people are willing to solve problems rather than make and exacerbate them.

8. Concluding Remark

Ethiopia needs to move on to a post- ethnic federal system where the ideals of national unification, modernisation, democratisation and social justice are the vision, the value, the challenge, the hope, the possibility and the opportunity. These four concepts- unification, modernisation, democratisation and social justice- must constitute the bedrock for a sustainable governance system to end all crises of governance in the country once and for all.

The sate- society and economy must be interlinked in a system with the four concepts to bring about improved governance in the Government, public life and the economy based on the Ethiopian citizen as a primary unit for the bearer of rights and obligations.

The traditional system had ideals that we can only reject at the expense of our national dispersal—we must recognise that modernisation and unification are necessary and something none can dispense with. To say that they are necessary is not to say that they are sufficient. The modern self- initiated movements have brought on the agenda democratisation and social justice and rights but at the expense of national unification and the needed build up of legitimacy to undertake comprehensive modernisation based on self-reliance and national independence.

The time is right to combine tradition with modernity, history with the present to chart a future that is robust and serves without discrimination and prejudice all concerned and involved.

Mammo Muchie, Dphil
Coordinator of DIIPER
Research Centre on Development Innovation and IPER and
NRF/DST SARCHI Professorial Research Chairholder, TUT, Pretoria, South Africa
Aalborg University
Fibigertraede 2
9220-Aalborg East
Aalborg, Denmark 00-45 9940 9813 00-45 9815 3298

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