Prof. Mesay Kebede
This is a response to Prof. Messay’s recent commentary titled as “MEDREK or the End of a Political Masquerade?” In his commentary, he calls for radicalization of Ethiopian politics by saying “the inevitable conclusion is that unitary parties must no longer waste their time, energy, and credibility in trying to form an inclusive party with ethnicized elites”. In this piece, I will try to shed light upon the fallacies and enigmas in Prof. Messay’s assumptions, premises and conclusions. (N.B. This commentary is not by any means in defence of MEDERK nor ethnic-based political parties, nor ethno-national elites.)
For Prof. Messay, the ongoing political saga between UDJ and Mederk is a result of the irreconcilable political interests of unitary and ethno-nationalist elites. Accordingly, “the right to self-determination up to secession” and ethnically defined “campaign for political support and vote” are the main causes for, according to him, the “collapse of the project”, i.e. Mederk, which is earlier considered as, as he notes, a “very promising beginning reconciling the imperative need for national unity with the legitimate demands for ethnic recognition and equality”. I still believe that “unitary parties” and “ethnic-based parties” should come to the common ground to create the common agenda upon which they could mobilize millions of Ethiopian people to establish a genuine federal democratic political system in Ethiopia.
My argument is that a critical reading of the development of the political saga between UDJ and Mederk shows the causes of Mederk’s internal instability are neither “the right to self-determination up to secession” nor ethnically defined “campaign for political support and vote”. The main causes of conflict between UDJ and other ethnic-based Mederk members parties emanate from endogenous (i.e. UDJ elites’ political calculus and the modus operandi of Mederk) and exogenous (i.e. Semayawi party’s, diasporas’ and All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP)’s pressure) factors which, for the last few years, cause either the centrifugal or centripetal political trends.
The political calculus of UDJ to enter Mederk was to blend gradually Mederk into a unified party in order to be not only a dominant opposing party against EPRDF but also to create balance between ethno-nationalists and Ethiopianist elites. This was the main political objective for the-then UDJ leaders to enter Mederk through a painful process. When Mederk announced its transition from a coalition to a front in June 2012, it seemed that UDJ leaders’ calculus is working. Despite Mederk’s moves to form a front, its member parties have policy-oriented differences when it comes to key questions like land ownership, the bases of federal structure and group Vs individual rights. Having these basic differences, it should be less expected from Mederk to move further to be a unified party.
Notwithstanding these key differences, UDJ leaders call for Mederk to transform from a front to a unified party. This frustrated call for a unified party emanates from UDJ leaders’ wish to maintain their own party internal solidarity. It is difficult now to grasp for what UDJ really stands for. Some of its leaders want to merge with AEUP, some want to work closely, if possible merge, with Semayawi Party, still some want to main the status-quo with Mederk. After all, Eng. Gizachew and his like-minded were/are the one who defend UDJ’s entrance into and exit from Mederk. In practical terms, UDJ’s call for Mederk to be a unified party is unrealistic and it is merely not less that using Mederk as a scapegoat by UDJ elites to maintain their own party cohesion.
Any conclusion without identifying the main causes of the political crisis between UDJ and Mederk will lead to further polarization in Ethiopian political discourse. Therefore, attributing all these internal dynamics within UDJ and Mederk to ethicized elites does not only give any sense, but also it does not help anybody by any means in the long run.
Prof. Messay’s call for radicalization of Ethiopian politics is not a new thing. We have been in acute power struggle between ethno-nationalists and Ethiopianist elites for the last five decades. Putting Ethiopian politics into a dichotomous context like “unitary Party” Vs “ethnic-based parties” does not serve any purpose more than a further polarization of Ethiopian politics. This, basically, is the continuation of either with us or against us principle which hinders any positive dialogue among Ethiopian political elites. Nor does this political culture benefit anything for the cause of the people.
Moreover, it is not clear why Prof. Messay uses the term “unitary parties”. Actually, in real terms there is no a single “unitary” party in Ethiopia, neither by its structure, nor by its members, nor by its political program. If Prof. Messay calls the nation-wide political parties as the “unitary parties”, then, they are by design not national-wide both in their composition and support base (check the revised political parties registration proclamation). In reality, Ethiopian political parties are organized either implicitly in line with ethnicization of politics where elites use political ideology, objectives and narration to cover their own ethnically-defined interest or explicitly in line with politicalization of ethnic identities where elites use ethnic identity to mobilize the masse to assume the state power and benefit disproportionally from the national cake.
The unity of Ethiopia shall prevail when only the seemingly mutual exclusive political forces come together to the common ground to create the common agenda, which benefits the people of Ethiopia regardless of ethnicity, religion, and gender. Polarization does benefit neither the cause of the people nor individualistic/ group interest. The only way out from the trajectories of past injustices is to establish a genuine federal democratic political system, where by the unity of Ethiopia- in terms of territorial integrity and the people’s right- is protected. Secession is not by and in itself the end result, nor merely associated with success-stories in nation building. Being against secession does not mean being in favor of the injustices that give life for pro-secessionist movements. The greater danger lies for Ethiopian unity, as a State, is not from any secessionist movements/parties but from how pro-unitary parties handle the case and portray ethnic-based parties. Some unitary parties and elites put the territorial integrity of Ethiopia as the main political quest for the unity of Ethiopia as if it is 19th or 20th century that territorial integrity is above and beyond anything else. People’s right should be given due attention for the genuine unity of Ethiopia. So, the struggle ahead is not between “democratic unity” Vs “sectarian politics”, as Prof. Messay portrays it, rather it is between centripetal politics (federal democratic system) Vs centrifugal politics (in its both scenario, extreme ethno-nationalist and/or extreme Ethiopian unitarists).