Aklog Birara (Dr)
I have consistently opined that if Ethiopians wish to create a just and prosperous society, the current elite-based and dictated Constitutional system of ethnic-federalism that is based on the old colonial system of divide and rule and that creates enclaves of false-self-governance, autonomy and growth must be addressed honestly and boldly. Practice shows that ethnic elites perpetuate a culture of “my territory, my land, my water, my mimineral (የኔ መሬት፤ የኔ ኃብት፤ የኔ! ክልል! የኔ! የኔ! የኔ! ” at an enormous cost to the rest of the society. I can find no plausible explanation or best practice from the rest of the world, especially those that are multiethnic and growing fast that any form of divide and rule and exclusion work.
Human rights are, by definition, indivisible. Human rights are citizen rights. Regardless of where she or he lives and irrespective of ethnic or religious affiliation, each and every Ethiopian must enjoy freedom as well as socioeconomic, political and religious rights without restrictions. The current ethnic federal system has essentially failed to create socioeconomic and political cohesion. On the positive side, there is a high correlation between inclusion and sustainability. On the opposite side, there is a high probability that divided societies become poorer, conflict ridden and unsafe.
Ethiopian political elites, intellectuals, civil and spiritual society must, at last, come to grips with or face the incontestable reality that ethnic federalism has proven anathema to peace, harmony, sustainable and equitable development. The recurring and sporadic episodes of elite led, stimulated and financed conflicts in most parts of the country today entail huge human, financial and environmental costs. When these episodes occur, the federal government expends precious resources; but is unable to resolve the problems. The reason is because neither federal or regional or local authorities are willing and ready to deal with the root cause of the problem. The Constitutional system imposed by the TPLF and its allies in the early 1990s was deliberate in crafting and imposing ethnic divide for the political and financial benefit of the few.
The parallel to Ethiopia’s current indefensible system is a similar one of ethnic divide and rule imposed on Sub-Saharan Africa as well as a few nations in the Middle East and Asia that the British and other colonial powers imposed. The adverse developmental impacts of these divisions continue to reverberate.
While I foresee enormous opportunities, the greatest and most formidable governance hurdle Ethiopia faces and will continue to face in the years to come is human and mostly elite made. Among these is the artificial and poorly designed system of ethnic federalism that I argued in 2010/2011 in my book Waves would undermine the country’s rapid sustainable and equitable development. The problem is not federalism at all; rather, it is the type of federalism that undermines citizenship rights and cohesion, collaboration and growth on the basis of individual human rights.
In 1991, ethnic elites led by the TPLF excluded multiethnic parties thereby paving the way for 27 years of plunder, theft, corruption and massive illicit outflow by deploying the tool of ethnic divide and rule. This artful state craftsmanship works by ensuring that new political and financial beneficiaries at all levels of society. So, the problem is not confined to the TPLF; there are numerous pockets of new beneficiaries that defend the defunct system in the name of the people and the Constitution.
In my view, if Ethiopians decide to live together in peace and harmony; they must accept one another; and they must adhere to the rule of law and commit to justice for all. For Ethiopia and its 110 million people to thrive, they must possess a patriotic and inclusive leadership and empowering governance. Not only would these conditions enable citizens to survive; but equally, favorable governance conditions will propel Ethiopian society to thrive. Backwardness and poverty will be history. Dependency on foreign largesse will become unnecessary. In its new role as a manufacturing and technological hub, an innovative, resilient and self-sustaining Ethiopia will also lift the dormant Sub-Saharan Africa and encourage it to form a unified Africa. The old adage a divided, dysfunctional, poor, backward and dependent Africa will be gone. So, Ethiopia’s future matters not only for Ethiopians but also for the rest of Africa.
Ethiopia would have served Africa and all black and brown people everywhere twice: First in its capacity as a free and independent African country; and second as multiethnic, unified and prosperous country.
This is not wishful thinking. Ethiopia served as a beacon of independence when the rest of Africa and in fact the rest of the “Third World” suffered under the yoke of colonialism and imperialism. It supported African liberation movements. Once again, this ancient and historic country is in the process of asserting itself in the 21st century by boosting its productive capacity.
I acknowledge the enormous Constitutional, political, policy, structural, cultural and environmental hurdles Ethiopia’s 110 million people face. Until April last year, Ethiopia was literally a captured state on the verge of Balkanization and ethnic war and conflagration. Thanks largely to its youthful population, the unthinkable occurred. Those who captured state power and converted the country into a piggybank collapsed; and many of them resorted to the only thing they know, resistance against the will of the people. In the process, they have left a society in socioeconomic and political tatters.
Their stolen hidden wealth is now being deployed to strengthen resistance, to force the general public that the old was better than the new with the mean-spirited intent of reversing the unstoppable change. The flawed Constitution that was also abused to punish the innocent for almost three decades is now being defended as a panacea. Anyone who had the courage to watch the ETV broadcast የፍትህ ሰቆቃ (The Degradation of Justice in Ethiopia) must ask the question how the Ethiopian people tolerated the TPLF lead and managed cruel and crude punishment for 27 years. In my assessment, Ethiopians will never go back to a system that punished and impoverished them.
Youth led protests and forums indicate that the ultimate purpose of the popular uprising is not cosmetic but fundamental change. These social forces openly critique the well-entrenched rent seeking, corrupt and crony system that still affects ordinary citizens. The financial and monetary system of the country is dysfunctional and requires surgical remedy. Ethiopia’s private sector is still crowded out by highly entrenched state and party enterprises. Forex is in short supply and prices continue to rise. The old guard of the TPLF has effectively garrisoned itself in Mekele. Sadly and despite the enormous harms it caused to Ethiopian society, its founders and new adherents see themselves as “saviors.” and as the “guardians of the Constitutional order.” They drum up for war in a country where any form of conflict is a non-starter. They are unable to lift themselves out of a paradigm of thinking that has outlived its time. Among other things, the old leadership that had captured the Ethiopian state and national economy lacks a new vision and new leadership with the foresight to forge alliances with the rest of Ethiopia’s progressive forces. Instead of pushing for dialogue, peace and reconciliation, the old guard subverts peace, undermines people to people relationships and genuine political pluralism.
Against these and other formidable odds, the political, social, spiritual, economic and geopolitical indicators, including relations with Eritrea and the rest of the Horn of Africa, are promising and compelling for Ethiopia’s future. For the first time in Ethiopia’s modern political history, there is no single journalist in jail. Ethiopians are free to move into and out of the country with ease.
Credit goes to the new and energetic Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed. Frida Ghitis of the Washington Post provided a succinct commentary on why Abiy stood stands tall in a continent marred by ‘BIG AND CORRUPT MEN’ whose grip to political power and the wealth that comes from this power is legendary.
In a piece on December 17, 2018, Ghitis wrote. ”By almost any measure, 2018 has been a disastrous year for democracy. Authoritarian leaders have made decisive moves to tighten their grip on power by eroding practices indispensable to a functioning democracy, such as the rule of law and a free press, and blithely ignoring or violently suppressing mass protests in places such as Hungary, Nicaragua, the Philippines and elsewhere.
And yet, there are parts of the world where, quite unexpectedly, the struggle for democratic reform made giant strides — a reminder that the right mix of activism, leadership and circumstances can suddenly change the course of history. The good news came from starkly different countries, where undemocratic practices had been playing out in unique ways. Remarkably, whether toppling autocrats or reversing corrosive practices, the bold leaders and committed activists that shocked the system managed to achieve their goals without violence.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year came in Ethiopia, a country of 100 million people and a solidly authoritarian past. Its jails teemed with political prisoners and journalists, and regime critics knew that the safest place was in exile. Since overthrowing a military regime in 1991, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) monopolized power, profited from corruption, crushed its critics and blatantly favored the privileged ethnic Tigray minority.”
What is the real surprise that the Ethiopian people and the rest of the world has come to note and admire? It is the selection of Dr. Abiy Ahmed first as the Chairman of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Party (EPRDF), in power for 27 years and always dominated by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF); and later as Prime Minister. This change is unlike any other in Ethiopia’s tumultuous political history. “His appointment ushered in changes that Ethiopians at home and abroad could hardly believe….Abiy freed thousands of political prisoners. He released jailed journalists — not a single one remains in prison, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists — and ended a decades-old war with neighboring Eritrea. The euphoria that gripped Ethiopia, as opposition leaders started returning home, spread to the diaspora. Abiy met with a hero’s welcome during his travels to exiled Ethiopian communities. In a meeting with Ethiopian dissidents in the United States he explained his vision: The next step, he declared, is a ‘democratic’ election.”
As mentioned earlier and in my commentaries issued in Ethiopia, Abiy and his government face enormous real challenges, among them the ethnic Constitution. These challenges are natural in a country that had not witnessed a semblance of freedom for almost half a century.
The good news is this. The vast majority of Ethiopians, most of them under the age of 45, welcome and support fundamental changes. Projecting ahead, this huge social or human capital requires a dose of massive investment in new factories, modern farming and other sectors. This too is achievable with good and sound macro-economic, sector policies; among other things by designing and implementing an industrialization policy and program (specially manufacturing) and that takes advantage of both Ethiopia’s natural resources and its youthful population (the youth dividend).
The first priority is getting the political narrative and national institutions right. Other countries have done it and we can learn from them.
When I first visited China in 1977 in my capacity as Economic Advisor of the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE), the country was relatively backward and poor. It had an estimated GDP of $200 billion. Its young people left China in droves. In 1978, China initiated a new path of rapid and integrated modernization. It opened up its economy and soon became the manufacturing hub of the globe. Young and educated women and men found lucrative jobs in the new China.
The Chinese used the right mix of policies and programs in empowering citizens and in establishing a resilient and self-sustaining economy.
Today, with a GDP in excess of $11 billion, China’s economy is the second largest in the world. Poverty and destitution have become history.
Ethiopia has the potential to become a manufacturing hub; and a real food granary. I therefor continue to support the change led by Prime Minister Dr. Abiy because it provides a compelling alternative to a shameful and harmful past.