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A New Paradigm in Ethiopian Politics: A discussion on what Ethiopians can do at this historical juncture to bring about change in Ethiopia

                                     Ghelawdewos Araia    January 14 2008

The purpose of this article is to address the current complex Ethiopian politics in relation to the varied perspectives that have been discussed on various Ethiopian forums and websites. It will further discuss and extrapolate the most recent views entertained by some opposition group and Ato Siye Abraha. The aim of this paper, however, is not simply to regurgitate the ever-recycled ideas that have been circulating among Ethiopians, especially the Diaspora, but to furnish a new paradigm in Ethiopian politics and reinforce an agenda of transforming society for the better. 

I did not go to the Ethiopian gathering of January 5, 2008 in Washington DC and I would not have known about the essence of Ato Siye’s speech had it not been for the succinct reports of Dr. Teodros Kiros and Professor Tecola Hagos. The quick tour that I have attempted to make on the two writers reports suffice to show a new Ethiopian thinking, although that of Teodros Kiros has been challenged by Aiga Forum. While I recognize these challenges and counter challenges as the hallmark of this essay, I like to underscore, on the onset, that the findings of the two Ethiopian intellectuals indicate that the Ethiopian gathering was the most civil ever in recent Diaspora conference. Moreover, as per these reporters, Ato Siye courageously admitted his mistakes and critically assessed the most important issues pertaining to current Ethiopian politics.

Long before the advent of Ato Siye to North America, Ato Gebru Asrat clearly stated the mistakes he made in the past, and he is now the leader of the newly constituted Arena Tigray for Democracy and Sovereignty. By the same token, Ato Siye told the Ethiopian audience in Washington DC that he had committed mistakes and that he will err in the future too. He is of course referring to the philosophical underpinning, ‘to err is human’! I agree, but I like to add, ‘to err is human, but to repeat the same mistake is tragic’. Like Gebru Asrat and Siye Abraha, Weizero Aregash Adane, former secretary of the regional state of Tigray, now one of the leaders of Arena, expressed her views in relation to current politics and put her past mistakes crystal clear in her recent interview with The Reporter. The mistakes committed by these individuals and the party to which they were affiliated to could be egregious, but we should simply forgive them and move on. We can’t afford to trap ourselves in the unforgiving past and act as barricades to otherwise meaningful change and transformation. What should we do then to avoid the repetition of past mistakes?

Fist thing is first! Whether we are engaged in a general common cause or poised to dissect a specific problem, we must first understand that politics is a gregarious business. There is no such thing as individual politics unless a certain psychopath or tyrant lives in a dream of soliloquy governance in a remote, isolated, romantic, and ideal island with no inhabitants. Therefore, the basis for the effective execution of all politics is the collective effort of all members of society; that is why unity is so crucial and it is for this apparent reason that I have repeatedly emphasized the significance of Ethiopian unity in my previous essays. Incidentally, a government that operates without involving the people, or a political party that operates clandestinely for the most part is likely to make huge mistakes. On the contrary, governments or political parties that are open and inclusive could hardly make silly mistakes, transgress rule of law, and steal from the public purse. The logic is simple: time and again, they will be checked and counter-checked by the people who are genuinely empowered.

Once we forge unity, the next and obvious move is to carefully and collectively examine the complex problems that Ethiopia encounters at present. The first step should be to confront the vast multi-dimensional puzzle (I will be more specific later) that we now countenance, by first discovering the puzzle pieces. In due course, recognition, identification, and proper interpretation of the problems are important. In this problem-solving process, as a matter of course, we must apply methodological rigor that can enable us to precisely and concisely assess a given data. However, even after such a tedious process we should not be satisfied with the preliminary outcome. The data gathered vis-à-vis the vast puzzles should be assessed in tandem and must be balanced against each other. It is only through this kind of comparative analysis that we can minimize errors and avoid repeating same mistakes.

In more specific terms, one of the puzzles central in Ethiopian student politics was the question of nationalities. Long before the Ethiopian revolution of 1974 and the advent of the military junta (Derg), followed by the EPRDF ascendance to power, the question of nationalities was the prime agenda of the Ethiopian student movement (ESM). However, now in retrospect I have considerable misgivings on the plethora of resolutions made by the students with respect to Ethiopian nationalities. Supporting the nationalities for self-determination is essentially democratic and must be upheld even today; but the troubling clause ‘up to and including secession’ to me is unpalatable given the enormous advantages of a unified and big state, especially now (the heyday of globalization) when the very existence of the latter is in question. This standpoint of mine, on the surface, would seem to punch a hole in the old Marxian theory of self-determination of nations. In actual fact, it is a departure point from that tradition and a reaffirmation of a new paradigm; the peaceful conflict resolution of nationalities within a unified nation-state. My prescription would be self-determination and autonomy for regions without resorting to fragmentation via the right of secession. If regional states enjoy democratic freedom and broader autonomy, there is no need for them to secede.

The original sin for the dogmatic assertion of ‘up to and including secession’, of course, is the ESM of the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s in which I participated. And because the EPRDF (the current ruling party) is arguably a by-product of the Ethiopian revolution and presided over at least by some former members of the ESM, it is not surprising to witness the secession clause (article 39) enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution. Nevertheless, reality dictates that the right to secede (or the application of voluntary disintegration) is neither plausible nor acceptable, and the Ethiopian people have shown, time and again, that they wanted to live side by side in a unitary state.

I personally do not have a problem with the principle of federalism, except that the regions that constitute the federation should not be restructured along ethnic or linguistic lines. To begin with, as implied above, the various ethnic groups that make up Ethiopia have not only lived side by side for millennia, but they have also undergone miscegenation via marriage; shared cultures and professed same religions, and in some instances they have spoken same languages. But even if the above argument is not persuasive enough for the justification of a unified whole, it seems to me it is technically impossible to create a neat demarcation between ethnic groups. It may be possible to artificially forge a new Amhara state by juxtaposing the traditional Amhara areas of Gonder, Gojjam, Amhara Saint (Wello), and northern Shewa. The ethnic logic falters, however, when Ethiopians of Amhara origin scattered throughout Ethiopia are not part of this grand scheme of ethnic politics. What do you do to the Amharas in the Chercher area of Harar or to the second and third generation of this nationality who were born and raised in Wellega, Illubabor, Arsi, Sidamo, Gomu Gofa, and Gambella etc.?

By the same token, it would be impossible, if not nonsensical, (again following the logic of ethnic federation) to create an Agow mini-state within Ethiopia, simply because the Agows reside in Agowmidir (Gojjam), Lasta (Wello), and Abergle (Tigray) which are not contiguous zones unless one foolishly attempts to connect these areas by some bizarre corridor. Under the current arrangement, the one regional state that reflects the aspiration of the Ethiopian people and the reality of the modern nation states is Debub (the Southern Ethiopian Peoples Regional State). Imagine the Debub fragmenting itself into its constituent parts! You would have a plethora of tiny and unviable states, a recipe for disaster. The question that we can raise in this context is, why was the Debub experiment not implemented in Wello, for instance, a former province of Ethiopia where, by virtue of its geographical location, an organic unity of the major Ethiopian nationalities was witnessed?

Before the implementation of the present federal arrangement in Ethiopia, Tigray was a multi-ethnic region with Tigrayans, Afars, Sahos, Agows, and Kunamas, living side by side in harmony. This kind of unity or integration, which also applies to other regions in Ethiopia, evolved historically and was not accomplished by an act of cosmetic surgery. Incidentally, the various ethnic groups that constituted the former Tigray had used Tigrigna as their lingua franca for purposes of communication, trade, schooling, and governance. I don’t see any wrong with this kind of unified entity. Because the Emperor Yohannes was visionary and integrationist, he was married to a woman from Afar, arranged marriage for his son Arayaselassie with Zewditu (daughter of Emperor Menelik), and proclaimed Amharic to be the official language of Ethiopia.

Therefore, Ethiopia could be reconstituted under a federal structure, but each regional state could or may constitute various ethnic or linguistic groups. The nullification process for ethnic regions, thus, begins in earnest, and with this new paradigm in Ethiopian politics Article 39 of the Ethiopian constitution will be erased.

Now, going back to what Ethiopians can do at this historical juncture, I first like to discuss the stance of Arena Tigray with respect to question of nationalities in Ethiopia. Quite frankly, I was astounded when I learned that the leaders of Arena including Ato Gebru are still in favor of Article 39 of the present constitution. If indeed one admits his/her mistakes and genuinely wants to rectify past errors, the test and challenge would be Article 39. The Arena group have not learned from their past mistakes and they continue to uphold the secession clause. I have read their political program and I did not come across anything new when I tried to read between lines. An opposition party is expected to come up with fresh ideas or paradigms in order to be able to lead and mobilize the people. If, on the contrary, it recycles the same political agenda, the latter would not only be viewed as redundant and monotonous but it will altogether be dismissed as a re-enactment of a frivolous blue print.

If the Arena group and other opposition sincerely love Ethiopia and are in favor of a harmonious integration of the Ethiopian people, they must support the new Ethiopian paradigm that negates and revokes the principle of secession. Moreover, this opposition in particular must understand that a departure from old-fashioned thinking is a precondition to genuine Ethiopian transformation.  

Another paradigmatic shift must take place in areas surrounding ideas and change. Ideas and/or theories are preconditions to change. In the ongoing American primaries, ‘change’ has now become a buzzword or slogan of virtually all the presidential candidates. While Mrs. Clinton argues change with action and not words, Mr. Obama is of the opinion that words (ideas) can inspire. Contextually speaking, Mr. Obama is on the right track. In Ethiopia too, ideas (what I call new paradigm) must, as a matter of course, precede social change. The new paradigm will serve dual purposes: 1) as a guide to action that would, in turn, transform the Ethiopian society for the better; 2) as a tool that enhances and elevates the political consciousness of Ethiopians and liberates them from the shackles of a lingering feudal mode of thinking and from the sectarian, narrow, and altogether reactionary ethnic affinity.

The new paradigm for the above two categories is the break from the present ethnic-dominated politics (at governmental and societal levels) and embracing the principle of unity and integration. In the new paradigm, political unity in the sense of common cause and common heritage is important. There is no doubt that the Ethiopian society is highly diverse as many other societies are, but the emphasis should be made on our commonality rather than on our differences. Ethiopians must view their society very much like the five fingers in one hand. The five fingers are not only different in their sizes, but they also have different functions. Just for a minute contemplate about the organic unity of the fingers and hands! The former symbolize different ideas and perspectives and the latter represents the collective will and action of the people. I have borrowed the metaphor of the oneness and diversity of the hand from one of Nigeria’s leaders during independence, a man by the name Nnamdi Azikiwi Pili. These ideas and epistemological bases are very important in shaping the mindset and in contributing immensely to the transformation of a given society for the better.

How can this paradigm of epistemology be attained though? The advanced segment of Ethiopian learned men and women (intellectuals and professionals) could make enormous contribution if they are willing to do so and if conditions in Ethiopia are favorable and permissive. These educators must be open and receptive as well as focused and hard driven, and they can’t afford to exhibit non-committal silence in the middle of their endeavor.

Similarly, the target audience should be open and receptive. In relation to this concern, there is one major problem that continually bewitches the Ethiopian society. It is the lingering feudal mode of thinking mentioned above that practically ensnares the Ethiopian mind and precludes the target audience from being open and receptive. Let me substantiate this with a hard fact. In most encounters that I have had with fellow Ethiopians, formally or informally if a discussion forum is initiated the majority of Ethiopians present themselves as knowledgeable and erudite. Therefore, whether one is a Ph.D. or a high school drop out does not matter. The high school drop out argues in absolute terms and portrays himself/herself as if s/he is all knowing. In fact, for a stranger who accidentally joins Ethiopian discussion forums s/he would conclude that it is a gathering of charlatans. Despite this pretence, of course, s/he is suspended between the extremes of educational levels, but has the audacity not to exhibit the decency characteristic of the Ethiopian peasant and worker. S/he suffers from a lingering feudal psychological makeup. The new paradigm, thus, must incorporate massive educational programs, although, I am afraid, the implementation and realization of the latter may take relatively long time.

One other thing that I have observed, on top of the suspended and pretentious elements, is the lack of intellectual property rights and/or copyright in the Ethiopian community. Nowadays, we find it increasingly difficult to trace back the originality of a given song or piece of music; virtually, five or more singers sing the same music with the same lyric and publish it in the form of CD, DVD, or tape and ironically print their names with a copyright label.

In the same manner, some pretentious Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals replicate this pathology of copyright transgression. A good example of this intellectual property theft is the copycat of my own phraseology (“one cannot chose to be born in one ethnic group…”) by some individuals who never showed the stamina to quote and acknowledge but on the contrary put it verbatim as if it is theirs. I am not saying I deserve due recognition because of what I write. I am arguing, however, that it is altogether humbling to tell the tale as is as I have done with respect to Azikiwi Pili. Although I have reservations and misgivings to the actions of such hypocrites, I am also gratified when I see my ideas permeating in the overall mode of thought of Ethiopians, as testified for instance by the beautiful Ethiopian actress in the drama movie, Kebre Nek, where she says “one cannot chose to be born…” to her own father who happen to be a leper.

The new paradigm, thus, must consider as part of its target the few and far in between elites who are unable to liberate themselves from the shackles of hypocrisy. There is a trajectory of understanding that the educated also needs some sort of schooling in order to meaningfully address the complex problems of Ethiopia.

I strongly believe that one important factor that the education curricula must seriously consider is the injunction of know thyself. The suspended elements and the hypocrite elites don’t seem to know themselves. The new paradigm, thus, should give them a head start by orientations that include, among other things, maxims such as ‘ignorance is bliss’, ‘it is ok not to know; it is bad not to wish to know’, ‘respect intellectual property rights’ etc. The orientations in these paradigmatic mini-schools will eventually create new ideas, new facts, new patterns, and a new dynamic society. The new ideas will necessarily filter and permeate into the larger society, and the people must grasp it not only cognitively, but also at their gut level, emotionally. Once this kind of cornerstone of ideas is laid for the process of cultural transformation, committed and visionary leaders at all levels and sectors of society will be able to comfortably propel the change process and perhaps enjoy for the first time real freedom of expression. These leaders are intuitively receptive and rationally critical and their influence would have a far-reaching impact on the larger society. Then, we will witness not only a forward-moving edge of cultural evolution, but also a more tolerant and hence peaceful society.

Interestingly, these days there is so much talk about tolerance, especially to divergent ideas or to people of different ethnic background. I myself have written on this topic several times. A poignant reminder I like to make here, however, is the fact that the ancient Ethiopian civilization was much more tolerant compared to the present elite-dominated and ideologically tainted society. A long time ago, in the first quarter of the seventh century AD, king Armah of Aksum have not only tolerated the new religion of Islam, but he also welcomed the victims of persecution who escaped (hegira) from Arabia and gave them the permission to preach their religion. In the seventeenth century, when Armenians came to visit Ethiopia they were welcomed by king John I. Upon their arrival they have enjoyed hospitality beyond their expectation, but when they declared that they profess same Orthodox Christianity like Ethiopians, the advisor to the king, Kostantinos, an erudite theologian and statesman, was assigned to interrogate the guests. On equal terms and with respect, Kostantinos engaged the Armenians on a lengthy question and answer session in relation to the doctrine and dogma of the Orthodox Church and the nature of Christ. At the end of the session, both sides were satisfied. The Armenians were impressed by the broad knowledge and remarkable degree of tolerance of Kostantinos and the latter openly acknowledged, and indeed reported to the king, that the guests truly belong to the same Church. And throughout the medieval and modern times, the Ethiopian society, by and large, was tolerant to immigrant residents such as Arabs and Indians.

The present Ethiopian society, especially, in the last thirty-three years, far from tolerance and cooperative politics, have witnessed the pernicious effect of cutthroat competition. These encounters are best exemplified by the mutual destruction of Meisone and EPRP; the Red Terror campaign of the Derg directed against the larger society in general and EPRP in particular; the contradiction within EPRP and the Anja (faction) phenomenon; the contradiction and conflict within the TPLF (the Henfenfish faction factor); the conflict between TPLF and EPRP; the second contradiction within TPLF after the Ethio-Eritrean war of 1998 and the Algiers Agreement; the conflict between Kinijit (CUD) and EPRDF; the recent splits within Kinijit and within EPRP.

So what guarantee do we have that we will indeed witness a more tolerant and relatively sane society? This too, I am afraid, will require massive education, if not a non-violent cultural revolution that can effectively obliterate the ignominy of intolerance. In theory, the idea of tolerance is quite simple to entertain; when measured in practical terms, however, we can find ourselves incapable of quantifying the rigid and intolerant mindset of Ethiopians.

The first requirement in the culture of tolerance is the ability to listen to diametrically opposite ideas forwarded by the one to which one is engaged to, and the second requirement is to embrace these opposing ideas. Tolerance is not when someone accepts ideas that are similar or palatable to his or hers. On the contrary, it is respecting and hosting opposing views. The problem that we have now is total resentment directed against conceptually unpalatable ideas and condemning the person(s) who entertained those ideas. Bush’s simplistic slogan of ‘either you are with us or you are with the enemy’ has now contaminated the Ethiopian social fabric like a festering wound.

I must admit that all of us (the universal human psyche), to some degree, have a tinge of bias and no one is immune to the impressions that impinge on our senses when ideas filter or resonate from outside sources. In relatively democratic societies, however, ideas in general and new ideas (especially innovations) in particular are tolerated, embraced, and sought after. These societies, by dint of political fiat and historical coincidence, have been able to undergo a certain degree of development, both cultural and economic, and managed to build permanent democratic institutions. It is a combination of many factors, therefore, that Ethiopians need to consider if they are willing to transform their country for the better. Ultimately, it is development as a whole and technological advancement in particular that would bring about meaningful and lasting changes. The change of mindset (the psychological makeup of people) via cultural transformation, as indicated above, is very crucial of course. In the end, however, it must be coupled or reinforced by economic overhaul. Japan, for instance, is a technology-driven society but before the country was industrialized the successive political regimes made huge investment in education. England of the mid-18th century too experienced technological explosion (known as the Industrial Revolution in history) and cultural transformation via formal schooling. Now, a few countries in the Third World, generally known as the Newly Industrialized Economies (NIEs) such as Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Brazil have imitated the patterns that occurred in Japan and Britain.

In the Ethiopian context, it is of paramount importance first to unleash ideas and culture of tolerance and then create institutions that can further tolerant behavior; and to be sure, behavioral modification is a necessary precondition to tolerance. In this institution building and behavior modification process, the role of the advanced segment that I mentioned above is extremely crucial. In the formative years of these institutions, ideas and insights may appear slowly in separate disconnected flashes and may take years to coalesce into a formidable and coherent program of action. To expedite the realization of cultural change, thus, we need to simultaneously introduce communication or information technology (IT) in the major institutions and industries in Ethiopia.

All the advanced segment needs is a quality of doggedness, endurance, and perseverance, and in the final analysis its many years of tedious engagement will be vindicated and will be able to bear fruit. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian intellectual and/or professional alone cannot be expected to undertake a mammoth historical task. Transforming society, again, is a collective effort. There is no room for a miracle here. Collective endeavor is the only viable solution and each and every Ethiopian must shoulder his/her responsibility in the making of new Ethiopia. The current generation of Ethiopians, like preceding generations, has a mission to accomplish.

As I have reiterated time and again, I do not of course harbor any illusion with respect to the collective will of the people. In due course of the historical mission, inevitably some forces and interest groups could be diluted and disappear and others could emerge (or reemerge) and flourish, and this has always been the case in history. Also, in the ups and downs or anodes and cathodes during the historical mission, the new paradigm could break down the Byzantine-cum-feudal mode of thinking that is still prevalent among the circles of the political regime and the members of the larger society.

We must unite, gather momentum, and expedite novel solutions to the seemingly intractable and insurmountable, and perhaps compounded Ethiopian problems. We must become part of the energy that creates the future and there is nothing rewarding than to be part of this dynamic force!

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2008. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via Dr.garaia@africanidea.org