A Sincere Call for Attention to Serious Issues in Ethiopian: Speech Made at the Ethiopian National Movement (ENM) Meeting held in Oslo, Norway on June 17, 2017
By Lencho Leta
In the name of the leadership of the Ethiopian National Movement (ENM) and also in my own name I would like to thank you all for accepting the organizers’ call and attending this meeting. Let me begin my speech by asking worrisome questions:- What can possibly happen next in Ethiopia? Does that worry you?
I am very worried about what could happen next in Ethiopia because of one reason: conditions have gone from bad to worse after every regime change in that country.
I started thinking about politics during the era of Emperor Haile Selassie. Many members of my generation hated the Emperor’s regime. We were convinced that a worse regime is inconceivable. But history proved us wrong for the Dergue became more oppressive and murderous.
Then we started thinking that anything would be better than the Dergue. We were proven wrong once again because the TPLF/EPRDF proved more oppressive and murderous. The Dergue committed its crimes openly and righteously. Under the TPLF/EPRDF, however, crimes are committed in secrecy. So figuring out the number of people killed or tortured is impossible. But we can state one fact with confidence. More people have been imprisoned for political reasons under the TPLF/EPRDF than before. Similarly, the number of people summarily executed may also exceed that of the Dergue era.
So once again we are tempted to think that a regime worse than the present one is inconceivable. We should be careful lest we repeat our previous mistakes for there is one condition that would be worse than TPLF/EPRDF dictatorship. And that is the breakdown of order. A breakdown of order could be what would happen next in Ethiopia. And this is what worries me most.
Some of us have witnessed first-hand the descent of countries into disorder in the Horn of Africa one after the other. And we have come to identify one important factor leading to the breakdown of order. When political contestants agree only on opposing the incumbent and nothing else, then a breakdown of order becomes inevitable.
This is what we witnessed in Somali’s descent into the chaos from which they are yet to emerge. Somalia’s very powerful national consensus was based on opposing Ethiopia. They were united in hating and working to defeat Ethiopia.
I walked through the Issa settlement to Djibouti in 1978 right after the end of the Ethio-Somali war. And all the Issa Somalis we met expressed deep-seated hatred of what they called the “Habash.” Even illiterate nomadic old women raved and ranted against the “Habash”.
This outward directed hatred of the “other” started turning inward after the coup attempt of 1978. Thereafter, Somali national consensus started unravelling at fast rate. Ultimately, numerous clan-based opposition forces started working to defeat the Siad Bare dictatorship. Once again they all agreed on unseating Siad Bare and nothing else. When Siad was driven out of power in 1991, these groups turned on each other for they had nothing in common other than hating and desiring the unseat the Siad dictatorship.
South Sudan became the second country to descend into chaos in the Horn of Africa. Here again agreeing on whom to hate and oppose was the only factor uniting South Sudanese during their struggle against Northern domination. South Sudanese communities were always severely divided but were united in hating Northern domination. Once that common sentiment disappeared after independence nothing remained to hold them together.
There are certain things that we have learned from the cases of state collapse in our immediate neighbourhood. First, there is an intimate relationship between dictatorship and state collapse. One is the precondition of the other. Second, it is hard to identify the point of no return in the progression to state collapse. Third, it is easy to find oneself in the situation of state collapse and monumentally difficult to emerge from it.
Hence, there is no point in wailing and complaining after experiencing state collapse. Instead all stakeholders should pool their energies, voices and influences in order to avoid it. One way to do so is to agree on the political values that bind together all stakeholders. The birth of ENM is a good starting point for such a project but much more needs to be done.
As all are aware the issues of consensus underpinning the ENM are quite limited. In fact, member organisation disagree on more issues than they hold in common. We have to accept this fact and jointly work to build ever increasing areas of consensus. And in order to do this we have to conduct open, civil and responsible debate.
One obvious area of difference concerns the so-called “ethnic politics”. Positions for or against this issue are rock solid. Defenders of “Ethiopian unity” identify “ethnic politics” as the greatest danger to the country. And we nationalists fear the rhetoric of “Ethiopian unity” as a pretext to revive the kind of political order that we spent the best part of our life fighting against. And neither side bothers to define what it means by “Ethiopian unity”.
The same thing applies to Ethiopian national identity or Ethiopiawinnet. We can only get out of this apparent impasse by agreeing on a couple of premises. First, there should be nothing unconditional in our political discourse. For me, I am not unconditionally opposed to Ethiopia remaining a united country and I do not accept unconditional unity.
I take this stand because Ethiopian unity to date is based only on force, on coercion. I will resist unity based on coercion to the end of my life. Instead I welcome unity drawing on solidarity. And this trend has encouragingly started to emerge back home. This is exemplified by the solidarity between Oromos and the Amharas of the north during the last popular uprising in the homelands of both communities. We need to recognize and build on and deepen this promising trend.
I have clear reasons why I oppose the revival of Ethiopian unity as promoted by previous regimes. It was premised on fanning the disunity of some communities and not others. Unity demanding the disunity of some and not others is not only unfair but also futile. For example, this type of Ethiopian unity was predicated on the disunity of Oromos, Afars, Sidamas and many others. Unity drawing on the disunity of some hinders the expression of solidarity among those experiencing disunity while encouraging and celebrating the solidarity of those whose unity is unaffected. And this is clearly unfair.
A more fair and robust Ethiopian unity is one based on solidarity within and among Ethiopia’s diverse communities. The building blocks of this type of Ethiopian unity are communities united in the shared opposition to domination of any kind.
There is a version of Ethiopian identity (Ethiopiawinnet) that goes along with this type of Ethiopian unity. The Ethiopiawinnet of the past was envisaged to be founded and blossom on the graves of Oromonnet, Sidamannet, Afarinnet, and the identities of other communities. I totally reject this type of Ethiopiawinnet. On the other hand, I work for a kind of Ethiopiawinnet that embraces and reflects Oromonnet, Afarinnet, Sidamannet and the identities of all communities. This is a more colourful Ethiopiawinnet that does not negatively impact the self-respect and dignity of anyone.
There are, of course, those who are not in the position to identify themselves as Oromos, Amharas, Gurages, etc. We should not impose on these types of individuals some other identity than calling themselves Ethiopian. They should not also demand those of us who prefer to identify ourselves as Oromos and Ethiopians to drop our Oromonness.
The version of Ethiopiawinnet that I am talking about is different from the one promoted by previous regimes. The previous version of Ethiopiawinnet did not include all sectors of the population. So some could recognize themselves in it while others could not. The excluded ones ultimately tabled demands for self-determination. The only way to reconcile this demand with the continuation of Ethiopia as a united country would be by rearticulating Ethiopiawinnet as a composite of the identities of all its communities.
I believe simultaneously being an Oromo and an Ethiopian is possible and does not hurt anybody. Making this simultaneous invocation of both identities impossible would force some of us to make a choice between the two. Many nationalist would very likely drop the Ethiopian identity and stick to their national identity. And this does not augur well for Ethiopia remaining a united country.
The other controversial issue concerns the use of languages in administration, justice and primary education. And this is a fundamental question of democracy. One prominent feature of a democratic order is the accessibility of institutions and administrators to all citizens. Which means communication between state officials and service seekers should be direct and unhindered. Introducing a translator between them would undermine this direct communication.
There was a time in Ethiopia when communication between state officials and service seekers had to be through a translator. It is called “simaa balaw”. In my childhood I attended a court case being translated into Amharic by somebody whose command of afaan Oromo was either limited or he was deliberately distorting what he was supposed to translate. It was a travesty that I could not forget to this day.
Who gets hurt if Oromos get administrative, judicial and educational service in their mother tongue? Did anybody benefit from Oromos going through the “simaa balaw” process in the past? The only limiting factor in exercising any right should be whether it negatively affects the rights of others or not.
There are many problems that the present rulers of Ethiopia inherited and exacerbated instead of resolving. There are others that they deliberately introduced in order to stay in power. But there is one over which they have very limited influence. And that is the galloping population growth rate.
When the present rulers came to power over a quarter of a century ago, Ethiopia’s population was a little over 50 million. Today it is close to a hundred million. This poses a tremendous burden on the country’s carrying capacity. And it is a problem that whoever comes to power next would inevitably inherit.
What is surprising is the fact that this matter hardly figures in the discourse of opposition groups. It is this silence on a very critical matter that worries me most as an indicator that Ethiopia is on the verge of state collapse. How can we be silent about a matter that is so glaringly threatening?
People who have been in the Ethiopian capital would tell you how noticeable population density has become. Just the street scenes testify to a fast rising congestion. But there is one factor that does not go with this image. Crime is very limited. Gangs do not exist to a noticeable extent.
How can abject poverty and congestion not lead to armed robbery and other sorts of violent crimes? The answer lies in the behaviour of the peoples. Ethiopian peoples are truly noble. They uphold the law by their very nature. They are also God-fearing. These are the factors that holding Ethiopia together much more than coercion by the state authorities.
But these noble values can be lost. And they are not likely to be retrieved once lost. Hence, it is incumbent on political leaders to do everything possible to avert such a scenario. We have much work to do. And let us get down to it under the directions laid down by the Ethiopian National Movement (ENM).
Last but not least, I would like to take this historical forum to request all Ethiopian organizations, groups and individuals to put aside their minor differences and join ENM in order to practically support the all-round efforts of the Movement through all possible ways.