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A Reply to Gen. Tsadkan’s Reply: Narrowing the Gap – Prof. Messay Kebede

Below is my response to Gen. Tsadkan’s reply to my review of his article. The reply is posted at:

Mesay Kebede
Mesay Kebede

I thank you for sending me your reactions to my review of your article on the political difficulties of Ethiopia and of the solution you suggest to overcome them. Your response constitutes a very welcome clarification, not only for me, but also for the many more readers who have questions about your article. I have received many emails from various circles. Some of them agree with my assessment of your article; others reflect the opinion that my review was unnecessarily harsh and missed the core of your argument, which is the necessity of taking the constitution as a framework of a broad agreement to avoid chaos and conflicts. Still others consider your article as a misleading attempt to prolong the life of the existing ruling clique.

Let me affirm from the outset and in the most categorical terms that I do not share the view of those who maintain that your article is an exercise of deception. Your article reflects a genuine concern for the future of Ethiopia and suggests solutions that appeared to you most realistic and feasible. As to the view of those who accuse me of missing the main point of your argumentation, my reply is that I did not miss it. On the contrary, as I will try to show, my criticism was setting the conditions for the constitution to become a framework for all parties concerned to work together.

Your clarification begins by stating the basic agreement that I share with you, namely, that Ethiopia is going through a deep crisis that threatens its very existence and that the only way to counter the danger is by implementing democracy. There is no other solution than the democratic one, given that the use of force will only aggravate the crisis to the point of making it unsolvable through peaceful means. Where we disagree is that the implementation of democracy means for you the unrestricted application of the constitution.
Here I need to specify what I mean by “disagreement.” For me, the problem pertains not so much to the core features of the constitution as the people who are supposed to implement it. If the present ruling clique is the implementer, 25 years of experience tell me that it is not going to happen. Those who are ruling the country went to the extent of claiming a parliamentary electoral score of 100 percent even as deep frustration was looming everywhere and flared up in Oromia after only a few months. I have used the term “naivety” to express this reality. Yes, our solution must be realistic, but equally realistic must be the possibility of implementing it.

What does “realistic” mean? No more no less than the imperative necessity of cleansing the ruling clique of all those elements opposing the implementation of democratic principles. Without this prior measure, no rapprochement between the government and the opposition is thinkable. In particular, your call for a “structure where all political forces and the populace at large through various forms of organization, shall participate and reach consensus on the way forward including revising some of the laws and reorganize some of the institutions, especially those related to elections,” cannot see the light of day unless the TPLF undertakes the purge of die-hard ethnicists and anti-democratic forces from its ranks. In addition to an internal reshuffling, measures to build up confidence must be taken, like the unconditional release of all political prisoners, the lifting of the ban on demonstrations, free speech, etc., as well as the unambiguous abrogation of the infamous anti-terrorist law.

My understanding is that the cleansing of the EPRDF can be undertaken legally if enough members wish to do so. Be that as it may and whatever means are used, there is no possibility to organize fair elections so long as the present ruling clique remains in power. Better yet, things would move decidedly in the right direction if a transitional government of national reconciliation in which all parties, community leaders, and important civic organizations would participate, is established. This would dismiss the present parliament, a move that simply acknowledges that the total electoral victory of the EPRDF was illegal because it was obtained by undemocratic means.

At this stage, I would like to deal with your major argument, which is the necessity of taking the constitution as a basic framework if the country is to change peacefully. I have already acknowledged that you do not reject the alteration of the constitution provided that it is supported by the majority of the Ethiopian people. I agree with you on both accounts. However, given the undemocratic nature of the EPRDF government since it came to power, it is untenable to state that the constitution was approved by the Ethiopian people. It is not an exaggeration to say that the constitution was fundamentally the work of the TPLF and OLF. This is so true that many groups were deliberately excluded and, most of all, there was no open, public debates on the spirit and content of the constitution. Without open debates, there is no democracy. Rather than being democratically established, the constitution was an imposition by the victors on the vanquished.

How can this breach be corrected? The agreement to take the constitution as a framework, a point of departure must be accompanied by the understanding that one of the major tasks of the transitional government or the forum, as you suggest, is to organize official and public discussions on the constitution and gather suggestions and amendments, be they structural or functional. The second step is to put the suggestions and amendments to the test of popular verdict. If a majority of the Ethiopian people decides that the major provisions of the constitution as they are now are acceptable, then this ends the debate once and for all. However, if the majority decides to include amendments, the amended constitution will be the final one.

A crucially important note is that the main condition for this kind of open debate and democratic procedure is the removal of article 39. The threat of secession will polarize and radicalize various groups, thereby preventing any move toward mutual concessions. For pro-unity forces, article 39 amounts to negotiating with a gun to one’s head. By contrast, my belief is that a clear majority will support the principle of decentralization and self-rule if the threat of secession is removed. The deletion of the article will also open the possibility of changing the structure of the government so that any hegemony of one ethnic group over other groups is definitively excluded. Moreover, alongside the fortification of self-rule, measures that integrate all ethnic groups into a national unity could be designed and given the necessary political tools.

These amendments should facilitate mutual concessions and the formation of a representative government. If both national unity and self-rule are protected, only extremists on both sides will find a reason to oppose the proposal. In a democratic system, one cannot eliminate by force extremist positions, but precisely the effectiveness of a true democracy is to isolate them and turn them into a negligible minority.
I hear you when you argue that perfect democracy cannot be established given the conditions of our country. I also admit that the TPLF’s option of armed struggle against the Derg was not conducive for the development of democratic culture and methods of work. My issue is not TPLF’s inability to establish a perfect democracy, but its abysmal failure to put democracy, however limited it may have been, on the path of growth and expansion. Worse yet, it rolled back on its declared democratic intent by effectively moving toward a dictatorial system of government.

The failure and the betrayal are no accidents. You recognize it, the TPLF has followed Leninist principles from its inception. Allow me to add that it never got rid of those principles. Leninism is an anti-democracy ideology based on the goal of establishing a hegemonic party in all political, ideological, and economic spheres of social life. A party cannot be governed by Leninist principles and be as the same time democratic, any more than a square can be a circle at the same time. I really have trouble agreeing with you when, after admitting that the TPLF was a Leninist party, you write: “This is why I say the TPLF was democratic and revolutionary. But it was not without defects and challenges.” The essence of Leninism is not to limit democracy; it is to exclude it by the practice of “democratic centralism,” the addition of “democratic” being nothing more than a deceptive adjustment. The truth is that the TPLF must be demystified for Ethiopia to advance in light of the fact that it rejected the content of Leninism but retained its spirit. My criticism was a call for self-criticism, which is the primary condition for renewal. Needless to say, renewal is also highly dependent on a complete critical assessment of Meles’s rise, methods of government, and actual outcomes.

I welcome your clarification about the issue of developmental state versus liberalism. You bring out the “dilemma” between restricting freedom and leaving the whole economy to the forces of the free market. I applaud that you reject the use of coercive methods while not turning a blind eye to the danger inherent in the principles of the free market when they are applied to an undeveloped economy. Agreed, the debate is raging and the final truth on the question of knowing which one is best for developing countries is not yet in sight. However, it is clear that Ethiopia under Meles has taken the path of the developmental state. The intention of my criticism was not to take side for or against developmental state: I was merely pointing out that Meles used the ideology partially, that is, to justify authoritarian methods while ruling out and neglecting the other conditions, without which the model of development cannot work. Hence my suspicion that he did not choose the path to accelerate development, but to justify authoritarianism. In the end, Ethiopia ended up with nothing, that is, with neither development nor freedom.

Wishing you success in your endeavors
Yours truly
Messay Kebede


  1. What you sckolars always miss the point is that at any time of tplf crisis are not political,they are economical,as much us they are free forever with their economic monopolly ,they are free to give up the political power with out any anga or granga .

  2. Prof. Messay keep the dialogue going toward; you doing a good job. Don’t listen to the hard liners; we saw them the last 25, 40 years with no possitive out come.

  3. To be frank with everybody, I am not impressed by Dr. Mesay’s response to Gen. Tsadkan’s explanation. Compared to Dr. Mesay’s Gen. Tsadkan’s points appear well thought out and difficult to refute. My conclusion from their discussions is that Dr. Mesay is anchored in a political position he held for décades and is not ready for new views and approach to address problems back home. He is not the only one in this; many in the diaspora are also anchored in the same political position not to budge.

    Dr. Mesay’s criticism is ” . . . the constitution to become a framework for all parties concerned to work together.” To exclude the constitution from this role, he argues that the government in power will not allow its implementation; it has been seen in the last 25 years. He appears not to have realized the past year or so have brought in new political actors (the people of Oromia, Amhara and many others) that demand new political order. Given what we are witnessing right now, wasting time in talking about what happened in tha past 25 years will not help. The speed with which things are changing in the country are almost maknig it history. Now, what can be achieved with least human and material cost and how are the questions.

    I feel that the General Tsadkan has rightly identified a document – the constitution – on which Ethiopians – irrespective of their ethnicity and political leanings – can work on together to address the political and other complex problems the country is facing. There is no political document of concensus we know of. There is no cultural, religious or national political norm or principle one can invoke. Or a general understandig ( written or unwritten) on which there is a reasonable degree of agreement. Unless all stakeholders in the political game come together to draw a new document which seems unlkely as things stand now, the constitution provides a way out to the impasse. Both the government and the opposition (including the armed and violent ones) invoke some important articles of the constitution when it serves their purpose. That is to say – article related to law and order by the government and democratic and human rights by the opposition. As General Tsadkan suggested, respect of the constitution and rights enshrined in it will surely change the situation in Ethiopia.

    One worrying point in Dr. Mesay’s reply is reducing the the uprising in the country to a problem of “rapprochement (or lack thereof) between the government and the opposition.” For this top happen, the government should clense itself from anti-democratic elements from its ranks. I do not oppose to this idea, but question the place Dr. Mesay gives to the opposition. I feel that it is irrelevant if the opposition in and out of the country rejects the constitution since it is not leading or make part of the struggle of the people. Whenever the opposition see the people confront the government on a certain issue it makes statements (typical to the OLF and Arb-Gen 7) as if they are leading the people in the struggle. In fact, let alone lead they have not shown they are following what’s going on. This confirms the observation that over the past fifty years organized opposition politics in the country (from Meison to Eprp to Seded, etc.) have miserably failed to lead. One other confirmation is that the uprisings in Oromia and Amara are by the people themselves and never recognized local or diaspora organizations as their leaders. The diaspora media might confuse the situation by giving the impression that the opposition is on top of the uprising in the country, but the reality is they have nothing to do with it. Furthermore, they have not called for the governments (federal and local) to leave office. So, the confrontation is between the people and the governments which makes it easy to address issues whithout chaos.

    One justification for the relevance of the constitution is that a sizable portion of the population in the régions supports the constitution because of article 39. From his writings and speeches, one can easily understand that Dr. Mesay is opposed to Article 39. It is sad that he wanted to make Article 39 an issue before democracy since democracy might make the implementation of Article 39 irrelevant. Dr. Mesay will be shocked if he knows firsthand how people feel about ethnicity in the country and oppose people who want to reduce it to simple self-government. The other point is only the constitution restrics the army from contention for power and ensures its peaceful transfer from one party to another. Should one oppose this? Not in his right mind.

    Honestly speaking, does it matter matter who drafted and adopted the constitution or what its weaknesses are at this juncture if it can be used as a workng document in the absence of any other? I don’t think so. Again, given the urgent situation we are in, discussion on these issues only opens old wounds and compound the pain. There is no need to open a constitutional debate which is a highly divisve issue in an already divided country at the verge of collapse. If such a debate is opened, we’re sure the kind of unitary state Dr. Mesay wants will not come into existence. His idea of a transitional government is equally unhelpful to deal with the urgent situation. The kind of transitional government we’ll have now will be the same (if not worse) to the one we had Under the exisitng government. There will be a thousand or so ethnic organizations to muddy the political climate. So, why repeat the same thing. Instead, why not build on what we have right now?

    I agree that accepting the constitution as a working document presupposes certain things the opposition including Dr. Mesay might not like. If the constitution is upheld, the government stays because the constitution states power is not to be taken by a means other than election. Should this be an issue if democratic rights are respected? I don’t think so. And that’s what the General seems to have said. To me, his concern is that the risk to the country and its people is enormous if the government including regional governments fall. His concern is founded. He called the government to respect democratic rights including free and fair elections and live by its outcome which means orderly transfer of power without chaos.

    The way things go in the country right now might precipitate military takeover – invited by the government or without invitation. Given our history, military rule will not be a pleasant experience. The military is capable to stop mass uprisings anywhere in the country and rule by a decree for a decade or so without a risk of overthrow. If the government falls and military takeover is avoided miraculously, it is fair to assume the chaos in the country will only compare to that of Somalia. For someone with open eyes and ears, the recipe for mutual destruction is already in palce. The suggestion that the diaspora oppostion which has started talking to each other lately will reign on the chaos in the country is simply a hope that will never materlize. As I said above, the uprising in the country is a popular one without organized leadership on which the opposition has little or no leverage. Time might be the essence here. If the uprising drags for long, the opposition may enter through the cracks and force people to ask or do what they are not asking or doing now.

    This is not fear mongering, but a call for the government to come to its senses, listen to the people and avoid an impending disaster. If the popular uprising is hijacked by the opposition particularly by the violent diaspora opposition, the disaster will be enormous. Don’t create and feed that situation.

    The General called the government to respond to the demands of the people openly expressed in the recent uprisings and demands of other millions which have not taken it to the streets. The General does not seem tobe worried about diaspora opposition or the weak opposition in the country; his concerns are lack of respect of democratic rights and free and fair elections. Would the government listen? Let’s cross our fingures.

    As to Dr. Mesay’s opinion, his criticism of the General’s essay is off the mark. He goes into what all of us have known for decades: what TPLF was and actually is, why the constitution was put in place and its shortcomings such as Article 39 and land issues, etc. If he disapproves the General’s suggestion that the government respects the constitution which means it also respects democratic rights including free and fair elections, it is fair to expect from him to put forward a better alternative. Did he suggest any alternative? No. Not at least openly on his present opinion. From his previous speeches and writings, it is clear that he is for toppling the government no matter what comes in the aftermath.

  4. “Be that as it may and whatever means are used, there is no possibility to organize fair elections so long as the present ruling clique remains in power.”

  5. It is unfortunate moment for Ethiopia while the country is in a total disarray the two-Lenninists comforting each other: Prof Messay and the General as if the country’s future depends on them. The modern Ethiopia belongs to the new generation who are at home NO to the Prof.who has outdated mindset by lack of 21st vision. Both are playing a ping-pong only to give time for TPLF regime

  6. Dr. Messay Dillema is very understandable given the rigid nature of TPLF. I would negate his argument because he has TPLF background of about 44 years to prove his argument.

    My doubt is that Professor Messay even accepts there is constitution? That is bizzare. There is no constitution in Ethiopia. Why I says there is no constitution? Because a constitution is constituted by the popular discussion of its development. But this so called constitution was drafted, approved by TPLF and olf excluding all Ethiopians intellectuals and ordinary ciitizens. If there was really any constitution that the society at gross level knows and recognizes, we would not have any of the problems we have today. The reason we have so much factions of all kind is because there is a constitution that has been organically emanated from the society. So what we have is a narrow belief of people put as constitution and forced on the people by gun.

    Even if we agree there is constitution that merits implementation? what does the constitution say? Every Killel can form an independent country? Assume we implement this constitution? are we willing to give secession to every Killel? Therefore what we have is deconstitutiion designed to dismantle the country. There is nothing to be implemented in it.

    My suggestion however is not to erase that so called constitution overnight. My suggestion is let there be a progressive Ethiopians National Civil movement. This PENCM must be non-ethnic, non-tribal, no racial, and form an ideological political frame work that can galvanize all Ethiopians regardless ethnic, tribe, origin, history, birth place. The PENCM must form a model government frame work that can be implemented at civil movement level. Then this PENCM must mobilize all Ethiopians from Massawa to Ogaden to get the vote of all Ethiopians. After winning the next election fully or party or it can remove some of the bad divisive or racistic, ethnical or tribal constitutional frame works. In this way, our country will not be destabilized. you can not just destroy the whole structure and form a new government and waste another 20 years to establish a new brand government. This will not also affect the country externally and internally. What I mean by externally? Eritrea, Egypt will not exploit our instabilities and internally projects that are being in the process of construction such as GERD, and others will not be affected and also we will not have anarchy, or interethnic conflict that cost us many innocent souls and waste of human lives, time, energy.

    According to my view, if we are united, TPLF will not have power. Power belongs to the people. What is needed is PENCM that has an over-ridding and popular appealing political, economic, cultural, social ideologies.

    Otherwise, this Oromo protest, Amhara protest is yekaeka cheweta, lov level politics. This protests are within the frame of the TPLF and OLF constitution and will not affectt the government and if they do affect the regime, they will also destroy Ethiopia because there is no framae work which they are based on because they are ethnically motivated and inspired.

    Dr. Messay, are you ready to form Progressive National Ethiopian Civil movement ? Everything what you have said can be put in the programs of the PENCM and that means you do not need to waste time trying to convince or change TPLF. You prepare popular constitution and you give it to the people to discuss on it. TPLF will never change because it is not that to change human mindset and attitude, specially Ethiopian attitude. Ethiopians politicians past, and present they do not operate by reason or discourse. They are rigid, stagnant and never evolve. If you read about Haileslassie, he was rigid, he refused any reform and Derg did the same and do not expect anything different from Woyanes. It is human nature in general it is difficult for people to change their attitude because it is like embarrassment for them because they are in developing country and doing that is considered defeat.

    Do not wait and expect people to change.

    • “But this so called constitution was drafted, approved by TPLF and olf excluding all Ethiopians intellectuals and ordinary ciitizens.”

      I doubt the truth of this historical assertion. Could you please explain more?

  7. The dialogue between the general and the professor is a good beginning. Specially, given the opposition parties’ blocked mentality and blind emotionality, the professor’s bold step to come foreword and give his critique on General Tsadqan’s proposal is really a commendable act. I think it paves the way for rapprochement between the various and usually conflicting viewpoints. At least it paves the way for the enhancement of the democratic culture.
    Regarding Article 39 of the FDRE constitution, I am caught off-guard by the way the professor argues against it. His argument tallies with those iron-grip rulers starting from Emperor Menelik all down to the Dergue. The opposition to Article 39 of the FDRE constitution has been the common and organizing issue of most opposition parties leaning to chauvinistic ideologies. Article 39 is the acid test of the philosophy & ideology of a party whether it stands for the people or it uses the people to achieve its own ends. In post Dergue Ethiopia, all remnants of the defunct regime used opposition to Article 39 as their defining and binding feature. All rogue and delinquent politicians were at the forefront of opposing Article 39 since its inception. The professor’s argument regarding Article 39 is not new & it is also not good. Sorry to say but what I want to know is whether he is following the rogue and gangster politicians or he was behind them (leading them)since the beginning.
    As far as I understand, the basis for formulating Article 39 is
    1. The fact that Ethiopia is composed of many nations & nationalities and that all nations & nationalities should be accepted and acknowledged equally for peaceful coexistence and mutual support.
    2. In the previous governments, prior to EPRDF, all the nations & nationalities were denied their basic group rights such as the right to learn (school), be administered and judged in their own languages; the right to develop their culture; the right to be proud of their history; etc.
    3. The recent history of the country shows that Ethiopia has been a forced union of its constituent nations & nationalities. This can be a fact at the initial stages. But it cannot be allowed to be the modus operandi of the country even in the 21st century. The concept now is that Ethiopia is and should be a voluntary union of its constituent nations & nationalities. That They are forming it on their own free will.
    It is only in our recent memory that Ethiopia had been the prison house of the various nations & nationalities. That’s why there were more than 17 liberation fronts around the end of the Dergue era. It seems that the professor has ‘selective amnesia’ on these facts and he also wants us to forget all about our recent history. I would like to quote a certain diplomat of a newly formed country a couple of decades ago: “It is not how short the period was as compared to the long history of the country, it is how critical that period was.”
    Recognition of the right of nations & nationalities is recognition of human right. It is a human rights issue. Probably it has to have precedence over individual rights. A certain person who does not recognize group rights can by no logic support individual rights. Unless there is a hidden agenda, why should a person oppose group rights while claiming he is ardent supporter of individual rights?
    Without the guarantee of Article 39, nobody was interested in the Ethiopia Union. Thus when EPRDF seized Addis Ababa, Ethiopia was at the verge of disintegration. Thus Article 39 is a savior of the country not the other way round.
    I would like to emphasize that the concept of Ethiopia state is not something mystical. It is a Union of its various nations & nationalities. The new premise is that all its constituent nations & nationalities are forming it on voluntary basis. It is not imposed on them by some external force. They are forming it on their own free will. They are forming it because
    – it is important for them in economic sense
    – the various nations & nationalities have, through the long process of nation formation, developed inter-dependence which cannot be easily untangled. Thus, their inter-dependence necessitates their Union in one country.
    – the Ethiopia Union forms a big political power in East Africa and is a stabilizing force in the sub-region.
    Thus the Ethiopia Union is a logic based on sound reasons, not an emotion and sentiment that exists due to the wishful thinking of some group who think they’re more concerned about Ethiopia and claim that they are the main stake holders of the country….
    May God bless our country!

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