(By Eskinder Nega)
There is bitter irony to the story of the large Ethiopian Diaspora in the US. No more is it only large in sheer numbers but it’s also progressively more and more successful, impishly enticing the nation’s best and brightest to leave their native land. Two cases illustrate this unfolding saga of immigrants’ hard work and reward as they lay claim to their share of the fabled American dream.
An Ethiopian owned business in DC, which generated more than 700 million dollars in sales last year, is now large enough, in a rare feat for immigrants from Africa, to attract the attention of anti-trust regulators. And on the west coast, a brilliant Ethiopian bridal designer, Amsale Aberra, has crowned her phenomenal success with a new reality show, Amsale Girls. No blue-blooded American in the designer world could aim higher.
The presence of Ethiopian Professors on the numerous campuses of American universities is no less impressive. There are far more PhD Professors in the US than Ethiopia; many of them in the challenging fields of the hard sciences. And they are nothing like the archetypal species of redundant immigrants. America can not do without them; even in this time of the Great Recession.
Many of them have gone to the US in search of greener pastures—respectable wages; reasonable career prospects; decent schools for their children and, no less, pursuit of political and social stability. A significant minority, many of them in the social sciences, however, are there for political reasons. And perhaps no one represents this genre better than renowned Professor Messay Kebede, whose thoughtful commentaries have long been important contributions to public discourse.
Twenty years ago, Messay, who has a PhD from the University of Grenoble in France, was chairman of the department of philosophy at Addis Ababa University. Two years after the advent of the EPRDF to power, however, he was callously dismissed from his position for political reasons. But the dismissal inevitably turned out to be more a loss to the AAU than Messay, who went on to thrive at the University of Dayton in the US.
But like all reluctant exiles his passion for his home country, the forbidden fruit, so to speak, has increased with distance. Like millions of his fellow citizens he most probably patiently harbored hopes for revolution against Ethiopia’s new tyrants for years, but was then unexpectedly inspired by the magical possibility of peaceful transformation in 2005, and was then suddenly beset by the collective plunge to despair and disappointment after 2007. Meanwhile, twenty years come to pass.
And after some reflection Messay sees an entrenched stalemate for all sides. Thus his latest piece, a manifesto, as he calls it, Meles’s Political Dilemma and the Developmental State: Dead-Ends and Exit, is “not only (an analysis of) the problems of Ethiopia, but also (an attempt ) to approach them from the perspective of the best way out for everybody.” And a sincere and predictably brilliant treatise ensues.
The gist of his manifesto, however, hinges perilously on the premise that, “the birth of democratic states from an evolution of authoritarian regimes is no less a historical trend than the establishment of democracies as a result of the violent overthrow of authoritarianism.” And as examples, he cites, “Asian countries that applied the formula of the developmental state, but also of other countries, such as Turkey, Spain, Brazil, Chile, etc.”
However, not a single example is in Africa, where the more relevant examples for Ethiopia are and, as Hillary Clinton noted in her recent speech to the AU, more than half the countries have become successful multi-party constitutional democracies over the past two decades.
But most importantly, have the countries mentioned by Messay indeed evolved organically into democratic societies from an authoritarian past?
The Asian countries alluded to by Messay are obviously the Tiger countries, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, and perhaps the Tiger Cub countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand.
The first democratic revolution was not in the most advanced Tiger country, as any organic evolution would have entailed, but in the least developed Tiger Cub country, the Philippines. Serious demonstrations in support of democracy took place as early as 1983, well before the economic malaise that was to grip the Philippines after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. The initial impetus was not economic hardship but democratic aspiration. There was no evolution here. This was a popular revolution that was to eventually inspire not only Asia but also, in a stroke of luck to humanity, Eastern Europeans. The rest, as they say, is history.
The most advanced Tiger country, Singapore, is still classified as “partly free” by Freedom House, and “hybrid regime,” which roughly means the same thing, by the Economist magazine. Even with a 43,117 dollars annual Per Capita income, which is higher than those of even most west European countries, the evolution to democracy has yet to show any sign of life. The reason, if there is any, begs an explanation from evolutionary theorists. The middle income threshold passed decades ago.
If there was ever any correlation between development and evolution to democracy, Hong Kong, the second richest Tiger, would have been a hotbed of democratic activism in China after 1997. Not so in reality, though. The dominant sentiment is submission to mainland norms rather than a push to expand freedoms to the hinterland.
There was no evolution in South Korea either. The South Koreans were inspired by the Filipino people’s revolution in 1986, much as Egyptians were by Tunisians, and months later hundreds of thousands of them overwhelmed the streets. The military had to meekly submit to popular will. There was no, to use Messay’s words, natural “transition from authoritarianism to democracy.” This was a domino effect from the Filipino revolution.
In Taiwan, the poorest Tiger country, it was also the Filipino revolution that tipped the balance in favor of democracy. Months after the Filipino revolution and at about the same time as protests were shaking South Korea, martial law was preemptively revoked by the authorities. This was about hope being suddenly ignited in Asia, thanks to the Filipinos. Three decades later, this time squarely in the age of Satellite television, the same hope was triggered in the Middle East by Tunisia.
Indonesia, the biggest Tiger cub country, has become democratic long before the tenets of the developmental state were ever realized. But Malaysia, the most advanced Tiger cub country and whose per capita income is more than 2 times that of Indonesia, is still only “partly free.” Thailand, whose per capita income is about half of that of Malaysia, is as free as Indonesia.
Even granted that there was no revolution in Spain, there was neither evolution, too. The fascist state was dismantled wholesale after the death of Franco. It was a thoroughly new beginning for Spain. Brazil and Chile had military governments, as did many countries in South America. The collapse of the Soviet Union explains the transition to democracy in that part of the world, not evolution.
Only Turkey remains. And admittedly there is continuity and evolution in the Turkish case. But given the unique history and experiences of Turkey, the relevance for Ethiopia would be far-fetched. Perhaps it is the Middle East that has more to learn from Turkey than Africa. The “historical evolution” is simply not as widespread as Messay has implied. Where it exists the relevance to Africa is at best contentious.
But this is not the most serious flaw in Messay’s proposition. Rather, the error lies in the presumption that the demand for democracy from the grassroots is weak enough to be tempered by a “grand coalition of elites.” It is not. There is real pressure for democracy from the public, in Ethiopia and elsewhere. This is why democracy is a realty in more than half of the countries in Africa. This is why there was revolution in Egypt and protests refuse to die out in Syria. A reductionist view of politics as a dialogue between elites is at best wrong. The relevance of any elite, to use Messay’s own words, which is “firmly anchored in the opposition camp,” is only to the extent that it is able to articulate the needs and aspiration of the people.
And the message from the grassroots is that the EPRDF must go. No party must be in power for twenty years. There is no room for a “grand coalition of elites”, however well intentioned the suggestion may be. Ethiopia needs a clean, peaceful break from the past. And if this could somehow be negotiated as it was in South Africa, so be it. It must in fact be given precedence. The alternative is at best frightening, and despite appearances, given the un-sustainability of the status-quo, inevitable.
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The writer, prominent Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega, has been in and out of prison several times while he was editor of one of several newspapers shut down during the 2005 crackdown. After nearly five years of tug-of-war with the ‘system,’ Eskinder, his award-winning wife Serkalem Fassil, and other colleagues have yet to win government permission to return to their jobs in the publishing industry. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org