Ethiopia’s “Manufactured Crisis” or Teetering to the Brink
Wardoffa Banti 11-03-19
These past few years in Ethiopia have seen one of the most protracted tumultuous times in its history in recent memory. What has been a country that appeared stable and serene in the region proved that it had always been good at feigning serenity and hiding its time bombs and contradictions in plain sight. In this piece, I am to leave you with more questions than answers as to how to parse the current state of our affairs and what types of scenarios we are up against and the possible ways that these could be dealt with. Hence, this is an attempt on what questions that we should all be asking ourselves as to where we are and where we are heading. My intent is to open up the discourse and for people in better positions and specific areas of thoughts to come up with detailed analysis.
Recent Past and Its Lingering Effect
Let’s be honest – our country is plagued with poverty, unemployment, absence of strong and independent state/public institutions of courts, police and military force, election, tax and, land administration offices, truth-driven and uninterested media, to name the few. If anyone argues that much more could not have been done to make state institutions more democratic, accountable and impartial that would be hard to buy. There could be many who would disagree with my characterization of our history or our recent experience under the TPLF/EPRDF. Or if one argues that in our recent past we had built better institutions, let’s pose that question to Bereket Simon if he had done well with Ethiopian courts while presiding over their administration all these years? Or which former official would come to answer before the courts that they built in the last years? So no question that TPLF/EPRDF had squandered its chance partying like it was 1999 for the past 27 years.
TPLF Waiting to Exhale
TPLF has come to a day of reckoning, but is it acting as an adult in the room or as a sore loser. As in life, the answer depends on who you ask. This question is shrouded in the awe that we all witnessed how such a powerful juggernaut ceded power in an unfathomable and least explained/explainable manner after posturing as strong and invincible. So before we had a chance to come to terms with the possibility that TPLF was in fact losing power, we were faced with analyzing whether all was real or not. To add to this fast train of events, the “attempted assassination of Dr. Abiy Amhed” of 2018 complicated the situation by forcing the TPLF to fall in retreat and putting themselves in perpetual waiting game that would be confidently won only if and when, at any cost, Dr. Abiy falls. This sounds like a very dogmatic stance for an organization of TPLF’s stature but the incrimination of TPLF giants in the assassination attempt became the single publicly known element that put TPLF hands tied only waiting for the fall of Abiy and being at odds with which at every chance. That sounds a very bad stalemate because that will also lead Abiy to remain undermining TPLF because their success, which is his failure, would lead to severe retaliation. This is a fatally vicious circle. This has been TPLF’s history in dealing with Isayas Afeworki which policy is led more by sheer emotion of leaders than the national interests of its constituents and/or peoples on both sides. Waiting for failure of your country’s leader or other country’s leader is not a solution in modern day politics as that would be a zero-sum game even if achieved that would not serve your and/or the interests of others.
Is Federalism a Necessity?
We like it or not, Ethiopia is a country of about 80 ethnic groups who, in their own rights, desire their equal place, share and voice. They all value their languages, cultures and customs and there is no one who would address and tend to such local and individual needs than through their own self-administration by way of self-determination. No one can value or cater to one’s interests better than oneself. That is why the Amharic saying reiterates “Kebalebetu Belay Yaweke Buda Newu” meaning one who claims to know about a person better than him/her is a sorcerer. So, there is no harm in self-governance and nurturing one’s culture and language. And for this, the best power arrangement is federalism or such an arrangement whatever name it is given. So, what is the harm with that? I don’t see one. Once we come to this agreement, we can have a debate as to what more powers the federal power or the federal entities (regions/zones) have other than local rule, which is an open issue. Is this the federal states or the federal government that has enumerated powers in Ethiopia? If it is the federal government, what are and should or should not be its enumerated powers? How disputes between states are fairly and resolutely resolved...? These and similar questions should guide our discussions to tune the better and “more perfect” arrangement than mudslinging on all sides.
Jawar the Wild Card
Jawar had repeatedly stated that TPLF leaders had been given the best chance to run away with their “golden parachutes” and that the Abiy administration is heading some sort of a “transition”. This whole change came with popular social movements by Oromo people (or what was at the tail end named as the querro revolt) and the defiance by Amhara and the Ethiopian peoples. There was an unspoken (or at least undeclared) agreement that the tentative leaders of such movements (especially of Oromo and Jawar) that the OPDO/ANDM forces were part of the revolt against the TPLF and that they stay at the helm. But it was not clear whether the movement’s leaders and the OPDO/ANDM administrations were on the same page as to how much haircut TPLF be given or how and if those in actual power were accountable to those who claim or are leaders of the movement.
There has not been any roadmap or any information shared with the public as to any understanding between the forces that led the movements and those in actual power. Hence, in the absence of a spelled-out roadmap or blueprint it is impossible to dictate how those in power are to lead, the timeline and scopes of power of what this seemingly transitional arrangement looks like. However, under the circumstances, the view from Jawar’s standpoint has been and remains to be that the current Ethiopian government is a form of a “transition” or “caretaker” in the absence of any such political arrangement. Even if the parties have such undeclared or unspoken agreements, no one seems to have described the current arrangement as a “transition” in the strict sense of the word except Jawar. For Jawar and some, the characterization of the current government as a transitional caretaker seems to be the root cause of breakdown of communication with the government and the intense position of authority with which he confronts the regime. One such example is Jawar’s insistence that the EPRDF’s should not (cannot) evolve into a united political party and should remain a coalition of ethnic parties. His was not just an opinion. He was saying it from the position that his movement left EPRDF intact only to guide through the transition questioning who EPRDF thinks it is to change its form without his permission. This position emanates from a sense of part ownership in the current governing arrangement and a position that EPRDF is no more an organization of the founders and members, but a hollow transitional instrument left at the mercy of Jawar and company. But the reality on the ground seems to be dictating otherwise and Jawar is more and more being hit by this realization of the sense of loss of actual power that could only be exercised by being part of a governing arrangement. Couple this realization by Jawar and those who deem themselves as owners of the revolution is the disillusionment and sense of betrayal they sense when they see people who have differing views and takes on ethnic federalism being part of the ruling arrangement while Jawar and company feel left out in the rain. This sense of loss and feeling of being abandoned, especially at the federal power structure, created a cold-feet scenario that festered accusations that Abiy has abandoned the transitional arrangement and has fallen in bed with forces who toil to work against the federal arrangement. But is that true? Are all Amharas to be equated as anti-federalism? Or is questioning the federal condition such a taboo that anyone who have a differing view be considered as a threat? Is the federal arrangement made any less effective because such officials advise the government or the prime minister? Is all this accusation being used a good rallying cry to political power and control? If there are some group or sections of society who feel like they have special duty as keepers of federalism, then is the arrangement honestly owned by all stakeholders or do some feel not heard and imposed upon? If a certain section feels special keeper of a ruling arrangement, then there is a problem?
Is Federalism in Danger
On top of this, the country’s experiment of ethnic and language-based federalism has come to a real test after the TPLF/EPRDF led democratic centralism and heavy-handed authoritarianism gave way for even more autonomous and quasi-independent regions who seem to be coming of age. However, this shift in power exercise from the federal government to more self-governing regions and the paradigm shift that this power distribution has brought about in the country has shown how the Ethiopian psyche’s love-hate-relationship to power and authority is being reversed in this rapid devolvement and decentralization of power.
Ethiopians are used to a strong central government and the shift of power that makes the central government sharing more of its authority to regions automatically defines it as weak. This is one reason that paints a picture of docility for the Abiy administration because people are viewing that more actual power - to some degree in defiance of the federal laws as in Tigray - is being exercised by regions and localities than the federal government is willing to exercise and make its presence felt as in the old ways. Now the sentiment is that regions are getting away with more and unprecedented power than the hollow cries of “federalism is being undermined.” Federalism is a system of law and political arrangements, not the ethnicity or personal political views of people who work in the prime minister’s office. There has been no federal interference in regional government’s or any law or action that has been made to reverse the federal arrangement that those who want to use this rallying cry would show for it.
As stated above, the sense by Jawar and others is not to go one’s way and get organized and win elections but to maneuver OPDO to such a way as to use it to control power. Is there a social and economic disenfranchisement the Oromo people are living under currently that could be stoked up by Jawar to such a level as to sustain a political revolution? Or will it be a call for the dark forces of ethnic prejudice as a rallying cry to ride to power? A federal arrangement cannot be reversed by political officials without the proper procedures and constitutional mandate. I do think that those in power would have neither the interest nor the need to reverse Ethiopia into a union of yester years. In actual terms, the federal arrangement is in more vitality and at work now than under TPLF - if you fear otherwise, go ask those in Mekelle, Jigjiga, Hawassa, Assosa, Gambella which powers the federal government has usurped from them or if the federal government had campaigned to crush them into provinces. If federalism is undermined, the first cries would have come from Jigjiga, Hawassa, Assosa, and Gambella than from the strong elitists of Oromia and Tigray who using this as a rallying cry only thinking that they are being left out of power or because a few of the prime minister’s advisers are Amharas. I do not agree that anyone has better right or position to be in power than anyone else, but when we frame narratives, they should be fact based and not as vehicles to certain self-serving goals.
Is having Differing Opinion on Federalism a Taboo?
Do people have rights to criticize federalism? Yes, they can! But when you are in positions of soft or hard power, you should not just drop the cliché “federalism is the problem” without coming up with concrete explanations and workable solutions. It is not constrictive to say it is a problem without any detailed explanation. As in personal relationships, regional relationships also require time to grow and evolve to come to fruition, resilience, balance and accommodation. Most countries have taken far longer to achieve that. If people examined what they hate about the current constitution and really see it in a different eye, they would realize that it is not as bad as they think of it. It is about the tone. Ethiopia’s federal arrangement is in its infancy and there is more to be worked out and much more to be tuned to betterment.
And it is always better to calmly discuss scenarios than hushing them away or pushing them under the carpet. We can agree to disagree because it is impossible to agree on everything. What if things fail? What if the much feared and dreaded dissolution of Ethiopia comes? Does that have to be violent or devastating to all? Can we not make it a win-win for both or all of us? Do Oromos living in Amhara region or Amharas in Oromia or other regions to have less or equal rights as others? Does the future Oromia pay tax to Amhara region to reach Assab port? Would there be free trade zones? Will Tigray have security cooperation with Amhara region if Sudan or Eritrea attacks it? How do we deal with people who have various ethnic citizenship? Who is an Amhara? Who is an Oromo? Do we not care about people of South Region in their need to reach the ports? Do Somali region have the right to block Oromia from reaching ports?
No people deserve violence, hatred or denigration. Let’s not live and walk in darkness. Let’s discuss the scenarios if such must be dealt with. There is nothing far worse than being caught off guard without a plan for people or nations. This is the single most important discussion that would avert catastrophe and upheavals. I am personally of the belief that Ethiopia will continue and its political elites would evolve with their better angels dominating their minds and spirits. But I am not afraid of exploring everything and evaluating all scenarios because, through these discussions, we would carve out what is possible, workable and beneficial than being guided by prejudice and demagoguery.
To recite what I said at the beginning, I am to leave you with more questions than answers as to how to parse the current state of our affairs and what types of scenarios we are up against and the possible ways that these could be dealt with. Hence, this is an attempt on what questions that we should all be asking ourselves as to where we are and where we are heading. My intent is to open up the discourse and for people in better positions and specific areas of thoughts to come up with detailed analysis.
Thanks for reading!
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