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The win-win nature of the Alliance for Freedom and Democracy

June 10, 2006

By Messay Kebede

I would like to add my voice to the ongoing debate and exchange over the creation by some opposition parties of a coalition titled “Alliance for Freedom and Democracy.” The initiative has generated a chain of diverse, contradictory, and sometimes heated reactions, ranging from surprise to outright support and rejection. Unsurprisingly, TPLF supporters reject or downplay the alliance, arguing that it is unnatural. For them, the alliance cannot last because it can never overcome the incompatibility between the CUDP’s and OLF’s political agendas. Among the supporters, there are those who show some anxiety: they demand for more clarification as to the political program of the alliance; in particular, they would like to know whether the OLF has abandoned its secessionist goal. Those who fully support the agreement do so because they consider it as a significant advancement on the democratic road. It shows the choice of resolving conflicts, however serious they may be, through the democratic process rather than through imposition. Moreover, they see such an alliance as the best way to shorten Meles’s regime by effectively countering his divide and rule policy.

These are all valid reasons for supporting AFD, but they fall short of indicating the social dynamics that pressured the CUDP and the OLF into reaching such an agreement. When agreements occur between political parties that exhibit great disparity both in terms of ideology and political programs, we must suspect that they are involved in a strategic planning projecting some substantial gains, if not final victory. I maintain that the May election, its results, and the shortsighted crackdown of the Meles regime combined to bring about the new strategic thinking.

In the eyes of the CUDP, if there is one thing that the election results confirmed beyond any doubt is that the party is not only the most powerful force of opposition, but also a national force. The ethnic ideology and political structure of the Meles regime was shaken, not by other ethnic parties, but by a party transcending ethnic organizations and ethnic political agenda. This was nothing short of a renewal of Ethiopian nationalism, the very one that organizations, such as the EPRP, the MEISON, and even the Derg, had represented, it is true inconsistently, after the collapse of the imperial regime. The essential result of the May election is, therefore, the official consecration of a strong national party.

The emergence of a strong national party explains the alliance. So long as the CUDP enjoys the support of a large number of Ethiopians, ethnic parties, including the OLF, which claims to represent the largest ethnic group, need not be excluded. Instead, they should be co-opted into the democratic process, which is unlikely to result in any secessionist outcome, given the unbroken and unbreakable presence of Ethiopian nationalism, henceforth incarnated by a tangible organization. What the alliance expresses is the self-confidence of the CUDP, self-confidence that emerged from the May election.

The overwhelming victory of the CUDP in the Addis Ababa election denotes its national stature, obvious as it is that the composition of the capital city is a sample of Ethiopia’s class and ethnic diversities. Had the CUDP operated in conditions free of the restrictions of the TPLF in the rest of the country, an appreciable number of people would have given their support. The strength of the CUDP came from its economic agenda, which set off nothing less than an alliance between various classes, all equally frustrated by the ethnic oligarchy controlling power and wealth in Ethiopia.

For its part, the OLF agreed to form the alliance because of the understanding that a national force has indeed emerged. To ignore the CUDP would be tantamount to saying that nothing new has happened in Ethiopia. Something great did happen: for the first time, a government was defeated through an electoral process, an event that invited political parties to serious revisions under pain of becoming irrelevant. Not to take account of the outcomes offered no other alternative than the endorsement of the disruption of the democratic process. One such outcome is the CUDP. And the more the TPLF attacked and imprisoned CUDP leaders, the more the party appeared as the true opposition to an increasing number of Ethiopians, including the Oromo. The crackdown only succeeds in expanding the identification of Ethiopians with the CUDP.

Let us go further. The OLF knows that by itself it will never threaten the TPLF regime. The need for alliance is flagrant; so is the fact that the CUDP is the only force that can seriously challenge the TPLF. Herein lies the puzzle. Given the CUDP’s political agenda, people rightly wonder whether the alliance means that the OLF has given up its main goal. If yes, the sacrifice does not seem worthwhile, since the OLF could have obtained a similar arrangement with the TPLP. That is why many Ethiopians suspect that the OLF is not sincere, that the agreement is simply a tactic to get rid of the TPLF so as to realize its secessionist goal.

Again, these interrogations fail to take into account the watershed created by the May election. Because the CUDP represents a large and inclusive movement, it alone is able to play the democratic game, thanks to which the OLF thinks of emerging as a major force. To the extent that the TPLF represents the sectarian interests of a few ethnicized cliques, it cannot play by democratic rules, all the more so now that the May election definitively took away from its leaders the illusion that most peasants and suppressed ethnic groups support their system. In other words, for the first time, the OLF saw the possibility of a genuine democratic process in Ethiopia. With the claim to represent the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the OLF could no longer push aside this unique opportunity. The opportunity does not necessarily mean secession; what it does mean is a concrete possibility for the Oromo to finally gain the real place they deserve in Ethiopia.

For both of them, then, alliance appeared as a win-win solution. If my analysis is correct, that is, if both the CUDP and the OLF agreed because of their respective confidence in the democratic process, then misgivings about the alliance should wither away in favor of support. As I have already indicated in various articles, behind the ethnicization of politics in Ethiopia there is nothing but elite conflicts. A perfect illustration of this is the paradox of the ethnicization of Tigrean educated elite. I say “paradox” because Tigray, the birth place of the Kibre Negast, is the source of Ethiopian nationalism.

For the purpose of dismantling the Showan hegemony and mobilizing popular support, a sector of the Tigrean educated elite baptized Tigray a nation even though no records exist that even remotely allude to a time when Tigray existed outside Ethiopia. Once the defeat of the Derg achieved, we saw the TPLF leadership easing itself into the position of new ruling elite. To give a lasting guarantee to their rule, the new rulers designed and applied the system of ethnic federalism. The system had one defect, but a colossal one: it could assure the persistence of the TPLF rule only by going against democracy, especially by holding down the two largest ethnic groups, namely, the Oromo and the Amhara.

This exclusion was reason enough for both ethnic groups to come together earlier, but mutual suspicion and, especially, the lack of democratic institutions did not create a situation where they could say that an alliance is worth trying. It is imperative to understand that this alliance cannot hurt in any way the Tigrean people without losing its democratic essence. On the other hand, as a minority group, the best way for the Tigrean people to protect their legitimate rights is to fully participate in the democratic process, and they cannot do so unless they champion, once more, Ethiopian nationalism. Otherwise, the attempt to have a special status leads nowhere but to supporting directly Meles’s rhetoric of accusing the CUDP of anti-Tigrean feelings, nay, of genocide.

Once this demonizing stand is adopted, I see no other way out than ethnic confrontations, which will benefit no one, certainly not the Tigrean elite. The fact that Meles’s repressive method seems to prevail should not blind us to the fact that the regime can survive only by developing a system of government akin to the defunct apartheid regime in South Africa. Participation in this malefic design will kill Tigray as we know and admire it. By the way, I don’t exclude the possibility of nationalist and farsighted Tigreans finally coming together and doing what is necessary to resume the interrupted democratic process.

The way out is clear enough: understand ethnicity for what it is, namely, not so much incompatibility between peoples as expression of elite conflicts, and you will see that democracy is its most elegant and final solution. The struggle for and the establishment of a genuine system of power-sharing should announce the decline of ethnicization. Such a decline means the emergence of a win-win situation for everybody, for the Oromo, the Amhara, the Tigreans, the Somali, etc. Only under the protection of unity or Ethiopian nationalism does diversity lend itself to democratic treatment.

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