“Communities need leaders who create a better place to live. Children need leaders who help them reach their potential. Family and friends need leaders who model purpose-driven lives.” — John Maxwell, Leadership for Every Day
By Aklog Birara (Ph.D.)
Have you ever wondered, as I have, why Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people are caught in a vicious cycle of disillusionment, dispossession and disempowerment? Have you pondered, as I have, the simple truth that the vast majority of the Ethiopian people have less say and thus less power over their political and economic affairs in their own country compared to a few ethnic elites and foreign investors such as Saudi Star and Karuturi? Have you taken a few minutes of your time to reflect why Ethiopian Christians working in Saudi Arabia find themselves in a predicament for praying in a Muslim State while Saudis are free to build mosques and to pray as they wish anywhere in Ethiopia?
Anywhere one looks, Ethiopians within and outside the country cry for a government leadership to protect theirs and their country’s national interests. These and other core policy related questions on Ethiopia and Ethiopians suggest an enormous gap in organization and leadership that is purpose-driven. I would argue that the urgent gap in responsive governance is ethnicity, religious and demography neutral. All Ethiopians feel it in some form or another. All Ethiopians have a stake; and are thus responsible in filling the vacuum. In light of this, it is time that we expand and embrace the definition and action steps that will lead the entire society to a better and more promising alternative than the current one. We cannot do this as long as we are guided by the ethnic and divisive script imposed on us by TPLF Inc. We need to consider the higher moral ground that the same way “families and friends need leaders who model purpose-driven lives,” Ethiopian society and communities anywhere and everywhere should expect to defend their human rights; improve their lot; and chart a more promising future for their children. Can this really be done? Can Ethiopian political, civic and faith leaders and intellectuals surmount their own narrow interests and prejudices for the sake of the country and its diverse population? The simple answer is that there is no other choice. Otherwise, we should stop the entire business of protest politics and politics as a business enterprise: the model TPLF Inc. has imposed on each of us.
I suggest in this piece that Ethiopians who wish to be treated with respect and dignity anywhere in the world and who wish a better future for this and the coming generation stop the none sense of ethnic and religious or demographic divisions. They can start with baby steps: stop demeaning and undermining one another. Reach-out to and talk to one another as adults. Work with and collaborate with one another. Campaign against all forms of injustice collaboratively. Accept our diversity as a source of strength and celebrate one another. Demand and promote innovative, inclusive, smart and wiser alternative organization and leadership–with demonstrated capability of grasping what is at stake and with commitment to set aside minor differences; and the discipline and consistency to forge a unity of purpose among all ethnic, religious and demographic groups. If we fail to do this fast, we have no one to blame but ourselves. These baby steps will not be easy.
In the Ethiopian context, a unity of purpose must affirm failures of the past without being trapped in it. It must affirm commitment to justice, the rule of law, unfettered and equitable access to economic and social opportunities, and representative governance based on free and fair elections. A child in Gambella must believe that he/she is an Ethiopian and deserves the same rights as a child in Tigray or Oromia or Addis Ababa and so on. Creating favorable conditions that embrace each child regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation would have the best chance of safeguarding past gains while advancing a more promising future for the vast majority of Ethiopians that the current system is unable to deliver. This will not happen unless adults show commitment that transcends ethnicity.
The acid test of alternative organization and leadership is readiness and ability of political, civic, religious and other elites to mobilize the country’s mosaic and establish a brighter and more inclusive alternative that restores faith and confidence in the political process of the future. This will not be as easy as it seems. If it were; it would have been achieved by now. I will give you a simple example on hypocrisy. A group of activists tried to mobilize the Ethiopian Diaspora in the Washington Metropolitan Area for a protest against Saudi Government mistreatment and human rights violations of Ethiopian Christians. Religious leaders failed to participate and give moral support.
Given the formidable forces we face as people , any alternative organization and leadership would have little chance of success unless and until we unlearn the debilitating impacts of ethnic politics: the ‘silent killer.’ How can we do this? Why not embrace and practice such fundamental principles as integrity, purity of heart, spirit of cooperation with one another, commitment to serve the entire population and the country in our day to day lives? Why not show capacity to reject all forms of ethnic, religious, gender and age based prejudice, corruption, nepotism and discrimination ourselves? Why not subordinate narrow, personal and group agendas to the common good? How difficult are these to do? How would we triumph over TPLF Inc. without dramatic changes in our own mindset, values and how we treat one another as Ethiopians? I suggest that discussing alternatives without demonstrating real change in our own dealings with one another will not be credible in the eyes of the Ethiopian people or the global community. This is a real challenge for all activists.
At the risk of repeating, those of us who wish to pursue a more promising future for all Ethiopians must appreciate that our own division is the single most important contributor to the strength of TPLF Inc. By all accounts, less than a quarter of Ethiopians accept the legitimacy of the current governing party (Gallop). It is thus an understatement to say that regardless of ethnic, religious or demographic affiliation, 75 to 80 percent of the Ethiopian people want change. The root causes of disillusionment, disempowerment, dispossession, abject poverty, hunger and intellectual and financial capital flight out of Ethiopia is deliberate ethnicization of politics and economics by TPLF Inc., a monopoly. Almost everyone is reduced to subservient status. Almost everyone is forced to fear the system that keeps them entrapped. People know but cannot contest that the primary motive of ethnicization is to run the country purely as a business monopoly. The formation of political parties on the basis of ethnic affiliation serves the ultimate purpose of command and control over local, regional and national politics, resources and markets. This is by no means to suggest that there are no second class type beneficiaries. Some prefer second class status because they have not experienced a better system; and are suspicious of change. TPLF Inc. is smart enough to remind secondary beneficiaries that they should guard against restoration of the old system. The hidden message is specific to one so called dominant ethnic group. The tragedy is not so much that this camouflage persists; but that the rest of us fall into the trap. The result is a reinforcement of ethnic division that serves TPLF Inc.
Duality of ‘silent violence or killing’
Ethnicization of politics and economics serves two strategic objectives: divide and rule and extract as much rent as possible from the national economy. The greater the division among Ethiopians; the larger is the opportunity to extract rents in different forms. Extraction is hard to do in a multiethnic society unless some of the benefits go to supporters and ethnic elites who serve as intermediaries. Foreign Direct Investment operates within this environment and serves TPLF Inc. best. Whether we accept it or not, it is, largely intermediaries who facilitate the policy and decision-making authority of TPLF Inc. When you are a subordinate, the likelihood of dissenting against the dictates of the merged state is negligible. The Constitution, laws and regulations are bendable and changeable in accordance with the demands of TPLF Inc. Anyone who threatens TPLF Inc. risks the possibility of losing his or her private property or citizenship at any time. There is nowhere to hide except fleeing the country. More intellectual flight, especially those who are national leaning means more domestic vacuum that can compete and safeguard national resources and markets.
Under this system, regulations, laws, banks and other financial intermediaries serve political purposes: the staying power of TPLF Inc. They are therefore not value neutral. How else would you explain the phenomenon that generals and high officers–paid modest salaries to defend the country–are among the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country? Their powerful and wealth status resembles corrupt governance in Egypt and Pakistan than Ghana, Mauritius or Brazil. These generals and high officials are coopted through financial and economic incentives the same way as ethnic elites who belong to the EPRDF and who serve as intermediaries. Both are among the lead proponents of TPLF Inc. This phenomenon leads me to assert that the business of ethnic politics in Ethiopia today is financial and economic reward. It is the notion of “what is in it for me” that seems to prevail throughout the entire system. Some in the Diaspora reflect the same values. This is why the Diaspora’s role in prolonging the system that divides and disempowers is coming under increasing scrutiny by activists. In any case, it is fair to conclude that the system does not encourage commitment to and service to ordinary citizens, communities and the country. In this sense, the Ethiopian Prime Minister is absolutely right when he said to business leaders last year that if people are not careful they will more or less lose their country. Why did he say this? Increasingly, foreign firms are assuming the pillars of the economy while Ethiopians with wealth are either investing in consumption oriented ventures or taking their monies out of the country at an alarming rate.
The problem is that it is the system that created selfishness, greed, capital flight and unbelievable income inequality. This phenomenon does not surprise me a bit. It takes an enabling social, economic and political environment to encourage saving and investment in productive sectors. It takes national leadership to motivate the private sector to do what is right for the country and its diverse population. Some of the most corrupt nations in the world, Indonesia for one, were and are still led by nationalist groups. At least, what is stolen is invested domestically in factories that generate jobs and raise incomes. This is not the case in Ethiopia. It seems that the system has created a culture of greed, fear of the future and total disregard for this and the coming generation and the overall development of the country. The current motto is “What is in it for me?”
In this reward and punishment type of arrangement that serves TPLF Inc. and its allies well, the real and potential losses for communities, the society and the country are self-evident. They are everywhere for anyone willing to see. Sad but true, some in the Diaspora who run back and forth on a visit to the country as tourists or to manage their assets or to access opportunities fail to reflect on how the vast majority of the population lives. It is glitz of villas, apartments, eating places, hotels, roads and other physical infrastructure– that needs to be maintained and paid for—that catch their fancy and immediate attention. I often wonder whether Diaspora tourists ask the prudent question of how road infrastructure that lasts an average of five years will be maintained. Who will pay the maintenance costs?
A properly and well integrated and planned economy stimulates productivity and raises individual incomes from large numbers of people. Investments in industry, agro-industry, agriculture and so on trigger structural changes in dramatic and sustainable ways. Infrastructure alone will not do that. The Ethiopian economy is import dependent. Industry accounts for about 4 percent of exports. By structural changes I have in mind factories that offer job opportunities to millions. I have in mind a smallholder farming revolution that is supported by low cost inputs such as fertilizers, better seeds, access to credits and markets and so on. A smallholder farming revolution would do wonders for the country and the rural and urban population than land giveaways to Saudi Star to feed rich consumers in the Gulf or to Karuturi to supply cheap foods to Indian consumers. For this to occur, Ethiopian smallholders deserve tenure security and freedom to produce and market and gain higher incomes so that they can send their children to school and so on. I suggest that glitz alone does not contribute to sustainable and equitable growth and development regardless of the number of high-rises, condominiums, hotels, eating places for the few well-to-do, including Diaspora tourists, villas etc. Ask a simple question. Who, among the Ethiopian poor or low level civil servants or soldiers or factory workers or Saudi Star employee can afford to live in a condo in Addis Ababa, Mekele or Gondar?
Portrayal of ‘silent violence or killing’
The Socialist military dictatorship killed innocent people in public and boasted about it. TPLF Inc. learned from this mistake and ‘kills quietly or silently’ than its predecessor. This makes it more dangerous and sinister. We see this vividly in the brutal beating of Andualem Aragie in jail. Given this most recent example, dissidents and reasonable people in the Diaspora cannot afford to forget and neglect enormous losses for the society and the country under TPLF Inc. Loses occur on a recurring basis. The concern I have is that we seem to be in a mode of just accepting loses as normal; and go on as if nothing has happened. Here are clear and harmful examples with devastating impacts. Ethiopia lost its sea ports for which the society pays billions of dollars for services. This loss took place without the consent of the Ethiopian people.
In a secret deal with the now northern Sudanese government led by President Bashir, Prime Minister Meles’ government granted substantial pieces of Ethiopian territory to Bashir’s regime. During the initial period if TPLF Inc. lands from Gondar, Wollo and other regions, were carved out and reconfigured for the benefit of what is commonly known as “Greater Tigray,” a condition that will not serve the greater good. This ethnic based reconfiguration and incorporation will create animosity among the population for generations to come. TPLF Inc. granted millions of ha of the most fertile farmlands and water basins to businesses and individuals from 36 countries and to Tigrean elites. Oakland Institute reported that 75 percent of domestic owners in Gambella are Tigrean. This comes across as internal ‘land colonization.’ Ethiopians suffer silently from a double whammy: foreign large-scale commercial farm colonization by invitation and real natural resource transfers to ethnic allies. Karuturi, Saudi Star and other foreign owned large-scale commercial farms are the new landlords in the country. These new land lords gain profits by dispossessing Ethiopians. How would an Anuak child feel about a condition that displaces and dispossess her/him? What are the rest of us doing about it? Transparency International, Global Financial Integrity and UNDP all confirm that billions of dollars of scarce foreign exchange is stolen from Ethiopian society each year. Corruption is a net cost to this and the coming generation in multiple ways.
Ironically, foreign owned large-scale commercial farms are protected by branches of Ethiopia’s police, security and defense forces. Those who struggle for alternative organization and leadership ought to ask, “Whose interests do police, security and armed forces protect in Gambella or the Ogaden or anywhere?” It certainly is not the interests of the people who are forced out of their lands or the long-term interests of the country. Opponents have a moral responsibility to educate ordinary soldiers, police and others that their repressive roles on behalf of TPLF Inc. will alienate them from their own extended families and communities. We cannot do this in meaningful ways if we are detached from the Ethiopian reality on the ground.
‘Silent violence or killing’ does not discriminate
Regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation, those who dissent against the above and other social, political and economic injustices are subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment without any let up. Andualem Aragie, an individual who hails from Gondar, was beaten up in his cell by an inmate because he stood for justice, democratic freedom and the rule of law. He did not dare to challenge the system because of his ethnic affiliation. He did this as an Ethiopian. His is a prime example of ‘silent killing’ by TPLF Inc. I do not have any proof to suggest that the inmate was planted by the governing party. However, I challenge the notion that anyone imprisoned by the one party state cannot and should not expect safety and security even in jail. It is a travesty that says more about the cruel and unjust system than about the inmate. The system does not tolerate dissent or symbols of dissent whether in jail, in the Diaspora or within the country.
This takes me back to the formation and acceptability of ethnic-based political parties under TPLF Inc. I argue that this is part of the strategy of divide and rule; and a clever mechanism to coopt and subordinate the majority by using ethnic elite and other self-serving intermediaries. The more division there is; the less challenge to and dissent against TPLF Inc. Aspiring elites are recruited to the club on the basis of their submission, commitment to defend and serve the system while advancing self-interest. The business of ethnic politics is therefore to ensure that narrow band of-largely ethnic elites- are well served. Those of us who want a better future for all Ethiopians need to accept the truth that ethnic division and narrow self-interest entail enormous costs for the majority of people; and for the long-term viability and security of the country. The economic and financial incentives that accrue from this system are so critical for the beneficiaries that they become both pawns and the most avid supporters of ethnicization of politics and economics. At one level, it is hard to blame secondary beneficiaries. It is a matter of survival. What other option do they have? Those of us who oppose the system do not show consistent commitment to come to the aid of those who suffer within the country. Secondary beneficiaries who may resent the system know our weakness, namely, our inability to mobilize resources and aid those who advance justice and fair treatment. The challenge for us is to make distinctions between the top leadership of TPLF Inc. and the rest. We can plant seeds of separation among constituent parts that sustain TPLF Inc.
Focus on the system that sustains ‘silent violence and killing’
I suggest that our singular focus should be less on our division and more on the system that sustains repression through division; and breeds social and economic inequality. I further suggest that the real political and social foundation of the struggle for a better and more inclusive society is in Ethiopia. TPLF Inc. created the EPRDF to mobilize dissatisfied ethnic-based political elites in order to enlarge the party’s narrow political power base. To some, this strategy gave ethnic politics a democratic façade. This façade has no human face. However, it is, ultimately, the Ethiopian people who should judge in a free and fair election. The system now uses this ethnic architecture against those it perceives inimical to its well-designed political, social, financial and economic goals and interests. This is why Andualem and others are paying with their lives. Like other patriotic and nationalist individuals who stand for justice, the rule of law and political pluralism, he represents the hopes and aspirations we all share. He is thus a symbol of a brighter future. TPLF Inc. applies the same methodology of punishing him, his family and friends and his community by making life totally intolerable. The intent is to make sure that others fear the brutality of the regime.
Given this recurring history of gross human rights violations against the innocent and those who stand firm for justice and freedom, I am saddened to note that even Andualem’s dire and deplorable condition does not move and revolt those of us in the Diaspora in meaningful and sustainable ways. I opine that we can no longer see him or others like him just as another individual activist individual in trouble. Rather, we must see him as a symbol of resistance and defiance from a new generation of potential leaders who represent hope and promise: “purpose-driven lives.” It is time that we wake up and reject ‘silent violence and killing’ against any Ethiopian such as Andualem who stands for justice and freedom.