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Looking Back and Looking Forward: Beyond the Politics of Ethiopian Election 2010
Ghelawdewos Araia
June 3, 2010

Almost one year to the day, I wrote a manuscript on contemporary Ethiopian politics and raised important points in regards to democracy, devolution of power, and the developmental state, and anticipated that Ethiopia would most likely head toward a one-party dictatorship. However, the scholarly journal that accepted the original draft of the manuscript did not want to publish it. Now, the moment of truth has arrived and we all have witnessed the initial anchoring of a one-party state and the road to a full-fledged dictatorship. The symptoms for the one-party dictatorship are abundantly clear: The ruling party, the EPRDF, have usurped power once again through intimidation and violence, and most importantly it claimed that it won 545 seats out of total 547 seats in the Parliament. This, of course, is foolhardy politics, but it also anticipates the annulment of the constitution and the installment of decree government. Eventually, the parliament is going to be not only a rubber stamp legislature but also a non-functioning branch of government. Therefore, we will not be caught off guard if Meles declares, Le etat e moi (the state is me)! 

A careful examination of the causes for the Ethiopian phenomenon is called upon and it is time to look back beyond the election and look forward and entertain important policy-related issues that could meaningfully shape the future of Ethiopia.

In order to have a good grasp of the politics of election complicated by the ruling party, the EPRDF, and fathom the underpinnings of the political climate in Ethiopia, it is crucial that we first discuss the nature and characteristics of the current regime and its party. It is also equally important to systematically analyze the larger Ethiopian society, the role of the opposition, the role of masked politicians, the role of the government and the EPRDF in patronage politics, and the role of foreign powers (U.S., EU etc) in Ethiopian politics. 

It is only through a comprehensive and interdisciplinary package that we can really begin to understand the complexity of the Ethiopian situation. Understanding Ethiopian politics alone, however, is not enough unless policies are formulated to enhance change for the better. In this spirit, thus, I will discuss the various contributing factors in Ethiopian politics under relatively independent subheadings.

The Nature and Characteristics of the EPRDF: Without delving into the origins and background of the Party and how it managed to capture state power (which is fairly understood by Ethiopians and Ethiopian observers), in this part of the paper I am interested in exploring the many facets of the core leadership of the EPRDF and its role in Ethiopian politics vis-à-vis other forces in the context of the recent (the last four decades) political history of Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is a consortium of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF), the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), and the Oromo National Democratic Movement (ONDM). The dominant party in this cluster is the TPLF, but the ANDM and OPDO are not mere satellites and their leaders are not mere lackeys of the TPLF, as some Ethiopians generally assume. Moreover, some Ethiopian observers thought that the ANDM and OPDO leaders are coward servants whose prime interest is political and economic power. This kind of elucidation is most certainly erroneous. Although the TPLF is the dominant party within the trio of the EPRDF, and to be sure the sole powerful figure in Ethiopian politics is still the Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who happen to be the chair of the TPLF, the leaders of the other parties are powerful and influential as well, and without them the TPLF could have not governed Ethiopia and managed to control the reigns of power for two decades. 

On top of the above hard facts, dismissing the ANDM and OPDO, as mere benefactors in return for their services to the TPLF is simplistic and naïve politics. The three parties have a vested interest in political power and economic power, irrespective of their diverse background and ethnicity and if we examine this reality in a socioeconomic context, we begin to understand class interests and ideological affiliations that gradually evolve and culminate in a neat circle of power mongers, as it happened in the making of the EPRDF.

We should also reckon with the hard fact of a new EPRDF that was reconstituted after the split within the TPLF following the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict and the subsequent Algiers Agreement of 2000. The TPLF itself have gone through several metamorphoses: from a nationality front dominated by regional elements to its present form run by kinship politics. At the same time, it transformed itself from a narrow nationality political program of secession to a seemingly (by default and not necessarily by design) pan-Ethiopian agenda. Even if we doubt the sincerity of the TPLF in regards to safeguarding Ethiopian national interest (and this kind of attitude could be precipitated by the treasonous Algiers Agreement), we can at least safely assume that it has dual nature that are mutually conflicting, i.e. a Tigrayan agenda in contradistinction to an Ethiopian agenda. It goes the same to the other two parties of the EPRDF that find themselves between Kilil (regional) politics and an inclusive all Ethiopia agenda. In the final analysis, the EPRDF, except for its name, could hardly be called a genuine Ethiopian party that sincerely promotes Ethiopian interests. 

For the sake of discussion, lets say the above analysis on the nature of the EPRDF is controversial and subject to criticism. That is just fine! What could not be controversial is the fact that the EPRDF is neither revolutionary nor democratic, as I have argued in Why Ethiopians Must Support Medrek and Aspire for A Democratic and Peaceful Transition (www.africanidea.org/Why_Ethiopians_must.html) 

It does not require a genius to figure out the anti-democratic nature of the EPRDF. Suffocating political maneuvers mars its governance, and the Party is clearly unwilling to permit basic democratic rights, let alone find democratic institutions. Above all, the ruling party has been intolerant to innovative ideas especially initiated by the opposition. Beyond ideas, opposition performances and protestations were countered by police brutality, including incarceration of prominent opposition leaders and killings of opposition supporters. For all intents and purposes, democracy is dead in Ethiopia under the EPRDF.

The Larger Ethiopian Society: Critical appraisal of the EPRDF without the larger Ethiopian society would be meaningless. The Ethiopian society, like all other societies, breeds’ good and bad elements, and it is not without reason that we have the inductive and deductive reasoning, methodologies that allow us understand the particular and the general. By studying the general, we can better figure out the nature and characteristics of the particular. A good example of this would be the prevalence of the feudal mode of thinking among Ethiopians in spite of the death of the feudal mode of production during the course of the Ethiopian revolution (1974-1991). 

The feudal intrigue and deceit is very much a part of the EPRDF sub-culture, but the Party, in turn, is a by-product of the larger Ethiopian society. Instead of trying to transform the latter and thereby change the mode of thinking, the EPRDF seems to find a comfort zone within this archaic and medieval conceptual framework. To my surprise and chagrin, I recently learned that feudal titles are still being conferred in Tigray by some scion elements that happen to get the blessings from remnants of the late Emperor Haile Selassie. This is happening under the watch of the EPRDF. 

Some societies were transformed through gradual capitalist evolution as in Europe; others were radically transformed via revolution and enlightened leadership as in France, the United States, and Japan; or through reform and industrial development as in England; or via socialist revolution and later market economy as in China; or through democratic and peaceful transition as in Botswana and Seychelles. The EPRDF was unable to emulate none of the above, and it is for this reason, thus, that I have argued, the Party is neither revolutionary nor democratic, because it could neither totally transform the larger Ethiopian society nor install democratic governance. 

The transformation of the Ethiopian society, however, should not be left to the governing elite only. Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals (including myself) have not done enough to bring about positive change. On the contrary, a significant number of Ethiopian intellectuals were engaged in political bickering. Some indeed genuinely struggled for a better Ethiopia and others exhibited a non-committal silence. I can understand the fatigue experienced by Ethiopians after the Derg onslaught and the fratricidal conflict between the contending parties such as Meisone and the EPRP. These parties too were neither revolutionary nor democratic, but to be fair they did not capture state power and could not be evaluated in the same vein as we have done to the EPRDF. 

As indicated above, the larger Ethiopian society still harbors the feudal mode of thinking and a substantial continuity of the latter could mean a huge stumbling block to the eagerly awaited progress in development. In order to overcome such lethal problems, thus, we need to rely heavily on sociological and anthropological studies, which, for now, is beyond the scope of this paper. In studying the Ethiopian society, one does not only encounter the negative aspects of feudal legacy, but also the positive factors that contributed to the civilization of antiquity. After all, Ethiopia contributed phonetic alphabets (Geez), high rise buildings, monolithic structures, rock-hewn churches, currency, and terrace agriculture to world civilization. Ethiopia is also home to the sophisticated literature of Semna Work (Wax and Gold), walled city-state of Harar, and the republican-democratic politico-military system of the Gada.

It is based on the above facts that we must look backwards and fuse the past with the present, and initiate cultural regeneration. Once we make a vibrant and in-depth synthesis of the larger society, coupled by massive educational programs, we can successfully change the mindset of Ethiopians, and that is a precondition for development and progress. It is only when we make a thorough and sound study of the Ethiopian society that we can formulate policies, innovate programs, and undertake change from below. Any artificially imposed formula from above is rigid, redundant, and a formula for disaster.

The Role of the Opposition: The tenacity and temerity of the Ethiopian opposition from 1974 to present is to be admired. Ethiopians don’t easily compromise and give up especially when it comes to an oppressive political system. However, the opposition has also exhibited weaknesses that need to be carefully diagnosed and then sort out solutions. Without identifying the problems and seeking appropriate solutions, Ethiopia will suffer from a long term, if not permanent, debilitating quagmire. Therefore, the role of the opposition should be to look back and identify the major problems before it ventures in mobilizing, educating, and organizing the people. 

What seems to be the problem? It seems to me the following are some of the major problems: 

1) Lack of unity: The Ethiopian opposition is marred by a constellation of parties that ironically preclude the founding of a single party. Medrek (Forum) is the only party that came close to finding a united front, but it too lacked the necessary infrastructure for a viable and strong party. It is a coalition of eight parties that formed a common front based on a minimum program and ideological commonality. However, unless it creates a unified single party, it could further weaken itself and unable to mitigate EPRDF’s offensive.

2) Ideological and Political Misconceptions: One of the roles of the opposition should be to garner ideological clarity both for its leaders and its rank and file. Moreover, the opposition must understand the intricacy of politics and the nature and characteristics of the regime. For instance, the opposition knows that the current government pursues an openly declared determination to eliminate the opposition by all means, including imprisonment (e.g. Birtukan Medeksa) and cold-blooded murder (e.g. Aregawi Gebreyohannes). Given this reality, the opposition should not entertain pacifist tactics in absolute terms. I personally love to pursue the peaceful method, but subjective wish does not always correspond to objective reality. The world famous pacifists, namely, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were shot and killed while pursuing peaceful struggle. In the long haul, thus, the Ethiopian opposition must reconsider its position on peaceful transition without resorting to an all out violence. 

3) The Problem of Mistrust and Ego: one major problem that the opposition must tackle is the problem of mistrust that is almost genetic in the psyche of Ethiopians, especially in highlander Abyssinians. The opposition must be able to overcome inherent mistrust within the core leadership. On top of this, it must also deal with the pervasive ego problem that could compromise the integrity of the leadership by paralyzing its operations and diminishing its transparency and accountability. In any organization, a group dynamic or even a single leader could emerge, but if the opposition were unable to overcome egotistic tendencies, it would be unable to carry out its political program and as a result become viable and successful. As a matter of course, the opposition needs to transcend the mistrust-ego nexus and focus on how to iron out its differences. 

The Role of the Masked Politicians: these are essentially two groups that masquerade within the larger Ethiopian society: 1) a) Politicians who pretend as part of the opposition but in actual fact are partners of the EPRDF. On many occasions, their political stances, in terms of rhetoric, are anti status quo or the incumbent regime but they also vehemently attack the opposition; b) dark horses that claim to be in the opposition but in real life they act as objective allies of the regime in power. 2) Clandestine politicians, who in turn are divided into two: a) academicians and researchers who pose as independent thinkers; b) policy making professionals behind the iron curtain of the government. The two groups may or may not work in tandem, but it is obvious that they both serve the interest of the government.

The Role of the Government and the EPRDF in Patronage Politics: The government and its party have recruited close to four million cadres (members of the party) to date. The majority of these new recruits and the old guards became members by means of political graft. On top of the individual party members and affiliates, the role of the government in administering the regional states clearly manifest patronage politics. The Tigray regional state, for instance, has turned into the sole dominion of the TPLF/EPRDF, although Arena/Medrek challenged the latter in its own turf during the last election.

The other relatively weak states like Afar, Benishangul Gumuz, and Somalia are also governed by officials who are part of the patrimony political structure, and the Ministry of Federal Affairs (MoFedA) plays a crucial role in ensuring that these states meet the need of the central government (the EPRDF). In some cases, as in Somalia, for instance, the MoFedA favors political clients of the EPRDF and hunts down members of the opposition as terrorists. In the Amhara and Oromia regions, both the ANDM and the OPDO have created a vast network of patron-client relations in their respective states.

In the final analysis, thus, devolution of power becomes a cover up for patronage politics, and the developmental state a justification for one-party state and a full-fledged dictatorship. The idea of the developmental state was not hatched during the course of the last election. It was, in fact, clearly stated by Meles Zenawi in his thesis entitled ‘African Development: Dead Ends and New Beginnings’ in 2006 that I have reviewed and critiqued.

The Role of Foreign Powers: The United States and the European Union (EU) are the major donors that have closely followed (and in the latter case, monitored) the last Ethiopian election, and both of them have expressed their misgivings. They reported that the election was not free and fair and “did not meet international standards.” Their responses, however, are more of lip service than actual policy deliberation. It is mere talk and they won’t take any action. The Ethiopian Government also knows that both the US and the EU are bluffing and that Medrek’s request for a re-run of the election is initiated from a weak vantage point. After all, the ruling party’s role and the role of foreign powers in determining the fate of Africa are concatenated by a common vested interest. Both the US and the EU have repeatedly told the world that the Ethiopian government is their best ally in the fight against terrorism, real or imagined. They are interested in their respective national interests and the due concern for democracy, rule of law, and human rights, in fact, are secondary. But, why do these foreign powers monitor elections when they know that they are going to be fraudulent and sham? I don’t think it matters! They know it and they could careless! That is their role and their policy, and they truly believe that it is part of manifest destiny: It was predetermined that they would monitor Africa’s affairs and the latter is destined to accept Europe’s sinister legacy. 

Concluding remark: Ethiopians have no choice but to look back and look forward. The opposition, in particular, must reevaluate its political program in light of the objective conditions of Ethiopia and reassess its tactics and strategies. The opposition also must win the hearts and minds of the US and the EU despite the latter’s cynical role in global politics. The Ethiopian opposition must understand that the US and the EU have now hegemonic control and it must recalibrate its performance in relation to the foreign powers’ international status and the dialectical engagement with world histories and global processes. The opposition and the Ethiopian people as a whole must delineate the foundations of new history for their country and identify the discursive construction of modern Ethiopia. They must look back and revisit their proud past, strategize accordingly and look forward.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2009. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org