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Ethiopia: only acceptance, readiness to disagree and de-legitimized ethnicity can take us forward

Addis ZeybeDecember 25, 2020
Ethiopia: only acceptance, readiness to disagree and de-legitimized ethnicity can take us forward

Opening of the Pandora’s box:

Ethiopia had always been a symbol of unity, patriotism and black people pride until the 1960s and 70s revolution overthrew its monarchy and the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF) opened the Pandora’s box of ethnic enclaves.

The process of ethnic mobilization was kick-started in the 1960s by a sense of economic and social grievances and by allegations of discriminatory treatment by state authorities. This phase was characterized by a demand for equality of all citizens: for individual rights, resting on an assumption of a fundamental identity of all humans. The question of land ownership with the then infamous catchphrase “land tenure (መሬት ላራሹ)” ignited the movement. However, as time went by most questions started to be complemented by the stigmatization of the “Amhara ruling class,” whose ethnic lineage was later extrapolated to represent the entire Amhara people and used as a term of abuse and with sub-human characteristics.

After the Derg regime came to power in 1974, some groups were happy with the gains made by overthrowing the monarchy; for others, however, the agenda shifted to a new set of demands and TPLF, the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), that were established during the students’ movement period, opted to go to the jungle and began armed struggle with secessionist objectives; and for others political mobilization began at that point. The elite base from Eritrea, Oromo and Tigre ethnic groups began to publicly advocate for recognition of their separateness in terms of culture, language and history. In principle, those demands were based on a premise incompatible with that of equality: they rested on the claim that members of the ethnic group are different, and that this difference should receive institutional recognition. 

The demand for individual rights had been followed by a demand for ethnic group rights. The demands kept on expanding and scaled up to various ranges from asking symbolic use of the minority language in public and in the educational system to the right to transact business with all public institutions through the medium of the minority language and the right to receive an education at all levels through its medium; followed by demand for institutional political recognition, ranging from symbolic autonomy in local government or symbolic representation in state institutions to fully-fledged confederalism; a demand for secession, ranging from frontier adjustment to allow the minority to be incorporated to independence as a separate state.

TPLF’s political system that basess itself on the evilest form of racism was the product of the aborted May 1989 coup on Mengistu; the fall of socialism ideology worldwide; and a peace agreement that the international community concluded in a two-day conference in London, on May 27 and 28, 1991. The significant role of the international community, especially then US Assistant Secretary Herman Cohen, has made Ethiopia a fickle federation that operates on ethnic enclaves with a brutal central government. With nine regional governments and two city administrations, the political system of Ethiopia under TPLF was both inherently complex and asymmetrical. Ultimately, this unusually convoluted structure of governance has rendered the country unstable and dysfunctional.

The TPLF system has significantly undermined humanity and turned Ethiopia into agony, calamity, chaos and figurative hub of ethnic conflict. Even though nearly three decades went by since such a system was officially made the law of the land, TPLF’s hegemony was never gone unchecked from the get-go. However, the intensity and consistency of grassroots movement from youths in the Amhara and Oromia regions between November 2015 and April 2018 was the greatest challenge that the system was not able to withstand.

Abiy’s government sour relationship with TPLF and war:

The youth revolution in Amhara and Oromia regions forced TPLF’s hegemony to buckle and Abiy took the oath of office in early April 2018 as reformist. His televised inaugural speech gained him wide popularity; his briefings on parliamentary sessions mushroomed his win and the now famous quote “the Ethiopian government itself has been terrorizing its own citizens” gave many people hope and even seen it as an informal contract that the government offered to the people. Abiy continued to win the hearts of millions of Ethiopians by unsubstantiated rhetoric of love, forgiveness and hope which were obviously enough for people neglected by leaders for nearly three decades and with accumulation of multitudes of pain and suffering. In the first few months of Abiy’s premiership, political prisoners and journalists were released; exiled politicians and political parties that was in armed struggle were welcomed home; and peace was made with neighboring Eritrea after two decades of ‘no peace no war’ position, for which he won a Nobel peace prize a year later. Even though Abiy was successful in terms of expanding his social base both inside and outside Ethiopia, he had not laid out his clear political plan until June 2020.

On June 17, 2018, purported assassination was attempted on Abiy at Masqel Square in the capital. The plan was not successful but at least two people were reported dead and dozens injured from the orchestrated bomb explosion. The then security chief and now fugitive Getachew Assefa is alleged to be behind the calamity in retaliation to Abiy’s reforms of the military and intelligence apparatus, in which Tigreans, who constitute less than 6 percent of the country’s population, had complete dominance. That event marked the beginning of the challenges for Abiy Ahmed’s government in terms of law-and-order enforcement. According to statistics given by the government, between June 17, 2018 and November 3, 2020 there were more than 113 ethnically motivated attacks, mostly targeting ethnic Amharas, that Abiy blames on TPLF. However, the blame comes after the war with TPLF is said to be complete but before that Abiy had chosen to mostly ignore and act as if nothing happened. When situations got tense and he was tricked to speak, Abiy tried to belittle the attacks at times and pressed ethnic statistics supported reports of casualties to make things look arbitrary and to avoid ethnic profiling from public discourse.

Debretsion Gebremichael, who became Tigray’s acting president in early 2018, seemed placating and willing to work with the new administration for a couple of months but soon conspired with his TPLF comrades and started unorthodoxy blaming there was a fishing expedition directed against Tigreans. When Abiy announced merger of the four-party front EPRDF coalition into the Prosperity Party (PP) in November 2019, TPLF boycotted.

Abiy Ahmed’s sour relations with the TPLF that started after June 2018’s explosion continued to deteriorate even more and TPLF used the accusations pointed by Abiy’s government against them, such as abuse of power and corruption (‘የቀን ጅብ’), as a good cause to mobilize the entire Tigray region. TPLF had increasingly self-alienated and distanced itself from the federal Ethiopian economy and politics and started to act as a de facto state.

On March 13, 2019, the first case COVID19 was reported in Ethiopia and a couple of days after that the National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) announced that it would be impossible to organize the election on time because of the pandemic. The issue attracted huge attention and the House of Federation initiated discussion on conditions to delay the election. The Council of Constitutional Inquiry, an advisory body, held public meetings to decide a way forward after the delay. Two days earlier than the official election postponement, Keria Ibrahim, the speaker of the House of Federation, quit as speaker of the house saying she was “not willing to work with a group that violates the constitution and exercises dictatorship” and escaped to Mekelle. The House, however, proceeded with its plan and approved a decision to extend the term of all assemblies until international health institutions have deemed the threat from coronavirus to be over.

As expected, TPLF objected to the delay and late on Monday May 4, 2020, announced that it would proceed with elections in Tigray despite the nationwide postponement of voting. In a statement, the then Tigray regional government emphasized it was preparing to hold regional elections in order to safeguard the rights of “its people” from chaos. TPLF stuck with its word and held regional elections on September 09, 2020. The election presented a further challenge to Abiy’s authority as he was trying to navigate a democratic transition limped by deep political and ethnic divisions and it was a low point in the bitter dispute between the federal government in Addis Ababa and the regional government in Mekelle. Two days prior to TPLF's election day, however, the House of Federation declared the planned vote in the Tigray regional state and its subsequent results as “null and void.”  On October 7, 2020, the House voted to cut ties with “the Tigray region’s executive body and council formed in an unconstitutional manner” following the developments in the region citing article 102 of “the Constitution.” At this point, TPLF was already showing off its military preparedness via parade and other signs that indicate clear war wage.

November 4, 2020 marked another bad day in Ethiopian history in that TPLF finally made the move and attacked the Northern Command of the Ethiopian National Defense Force in a “pre-emptive act of self-defense” as Sekoture Getachew, now fugitive and then high ranking TPLF member, whispered on national Television. On the same day Abiy announced that Ethiopia is officially at war with “TPLF junta” and confirmed that the military base in Tigray was attacked. The narration of the war was later changed to “law-enforcement operation” as the international community, especially US and EU, continued to put pressure on the Ethiopian government to be open for discussion following Debretsion’s phony plea for negotiation. Abiy and his top military chief, Birhanu Julla, claimed victory on November 28, 2020 over TPLF and confirmed the third and the final stage of the military offensive was completed. Nevertheless, Abiy and Birhanu still swear that they did not foresee the recent conflict albeit it has been clear for some time that war was coming. The conventional and long-waged war can now be said to be over but the inherited ancient absolute hell from TPLF altogether with the opened Pandora’s box and other consequences are far from over.

Going forward: what shall be done?

A new round of ethnically motivated attacks in the Metekel area of Benishangul-Gumuz and Wollega district of Oromia regions have been reported and scores of innocent ethnic Amharas suffered heinous spells because of the color of their skin, the religion they practice, the language they speak and their identity. This carnage is inspired by a hateful, supremacist, and intolerant ideology inherited from TPLF. However, there is not much Abiy’s government is doing to defend the attacks, the government showed little interest in defeating TPLF’s ideology and seems to have no strategy to specifically address the threat. The local governments in the two regions have also made little to no effort to counter the attacks, and do not care much to provide support to victims as well.

Ethiopians from all walks of life have fought TPLF’s hegemony and its ethnic federalism for nearly three decades and paid heavy prices. Moreover, TPLF dragged the country into senseless war twice: first with Eritrea in 1998 that took lives of over 80,000 citizens, and now to an internal conflict in which many lives have also been lost, even though official figures are yet to be reported, to curb the attack on the national defense force and the country’s sovereignty.  Regardless of all that and after TPLF is buried on the mountains of “Kola-Tenbien,” however, ethnically motivated attacks have continued and political leaders in Addis Ababa and the elites seem to be OK! to work with the very system that has threatened to destabilize Ethiopia, the linchpin of the strategic Horn of Africa, and its neighbors. The problem in Ethiopia is deep rooted in TPLF’s constitution that takes ethnicity as a building block of collective pacts and the enabler of stigmatization. Thus, it is quite astonishing to see why the elites and politicians are not able to push forward on the fight for a pro-human system that works for Ethiopians and opted to keep the very system that the people fought for three decades and that fragmented the country and threatened its integrity. Here is how, I think, the political discourse should be going forward.

  • Avoid ‘Winner-Takes-All’ sentiment:

Ethiopia’s history is full of violent power struggles. A typical feature of the monarchy system was the violent overthrow of noblemen that refused to subdue the King or Queen or obliteration of the whole kingdom and establishment of a brand new one. The invasion of the Oromo tribes since the 16th century was also marked by similar patterns: once a certain tribe forcefully controlled an area it was marching to, it burned that locality to the ground, destroyed civilizations, changed names of places and put new hegemony in place. This is also arguably true in modern senses as well: after the military leaders overthrew the last monarchy, the Derge could not commensurate with the unarmed ministers from the monarchical era that fall into its hands but finished them off brutally; TPLF did the same thing, its dominion was manifested by revenge attack on individuals and groups that the organization listed, on its program, as enemy since its inception. In 2018, there was an unprecedented opportunity to take a new route as a country, but the Oromo forces greedily wasted that opportunity because they wanted to continue the status quo and be seen as the overall winners. Hence, it is almost difficult to find a time in Ethiopia’s history where a noblemen, King or invading tribe, or a modern day “democratic leadership” that has been removed from power and concede or given the chance to be part of the governance next to it. This culture of deep rooted “Winner-Takes-All'' sentiment is in our bloods and has not left us, and the vicious cycle of violence that follows it continues as such.

A public recognition of the right to disagree would have, however, no doubt, helped contain conflicts and would have reduced their likelihood of erupting into violence. Such readiness to disagree assumes a certain willingness, or ability, to put oneself in the position of the ‘other’, to acknowledge that the ‘other’ may have legitimate, though different views and interests. This attitude goes much beyond simple courtesy or polite manners. It rests on the internalization of certain norms that attribute to fellow members of society the same respect and dignity that one attributes to oneself. Such awareness has, of course, to be supplemented by structural devices (from electoral laws to judicial systems protecting inalienable human rights) that would help implement those norms.

Cultural and structural arrangements should be devised so that the losing side in the contest would not think everything is lost at the outcome of the conflict and would retain some stake in the system. If conflict management would be interpreted as ‘winner-takes-all’ (as are, all too often in Ethiopia), it would create acute anxiety among conflicting sides that everything might be lost in the case of failure, that their wealth, status, identity, freedom, self-respect, even life might be endangered. This would push them into more extreme means as they attempt to avoid defeat at any cost, including violence. The conflict would be intensified, the flashpoints would be greater and more frequent, with concomitant effects of dehumanizing the other side, rejecting the basic rights deriving from it and brutalizing the impact of the conflict.

Leaders of conflicting sides and elites may also have a moderating effect on conflicts if they allay their constituencies’ fears, soothe their grievances, transform those into bargaining positions and show their followers the possible beneficial effects of suggested compromises instead of making violence intractable by taking silly actions such as describing the other side in more demonic terms, and dramatized the sense of injustice and grievance. Elites, in Ethiopia, are, indeed, notorious creators of anxiety, not only appeasers of it. They often exaggerate differences in their outbidding for influence and resources. Furthermore, even if popular sentiment is aroused by the political agenda of the leaders once it is unleashed it may easily slip away from their control. The elites may then follow their constituency rather than lead them and toughen their negotiating position in order not to lose their followers’ support.

Whether the political groups would work to raise the level of insecurity and frustration of their followers, thus exacerbating the conflict, or would try to calm them, would, in a large measure, depend on their own perception of what is in store for them as a result of the conflict. The more insecure the leaders and leaders themselves feel of their prospective position at the outcome of the conflict, the more they would be expected to intensify the conflict. To balance such tendencies, mechanisms could be set into motion that would create a stake for the political groups and elites in the system, no matter what the outcome of the struggle. This can be achieved by an ‘elite-pact’ in which representatives of the different conflicting parties would be assured some share of influence and recognition of leadership positions in whatever new order would be established as a result of the conflict. At least some of their aspirations would be fulfilled and some power would be maintained, even if they find themselves on the losing side. Such a consociational system or power-sharing arrangement would harness most factions with some responsibility and promote the notion that even the losers have a stake in the existing order. A ‘winner-takes-all’ situation may thus be avoided, which would facilitate the containment of conflicts.

  • De-legitimize ethnicity as a basis for political participation:

As it stands, Ethiopia is fragmented and ethnic tension is on every corner of the country. The ethnic discourse is evidently the primary threat to the public discourse that is expected to help the building of state institutions. It can be stipulated that political competition, led by ethnic based political parties, would inevitably thrust ethnic differences into the forefront, as a vote-getting measure, and would exacerbate the conflicts affecting the various sectors of society. It is, therefore, critically important to put great efforts to delegitimize ethnicity as a basis for collective demands and political participation. This anti-ethnic political thesis can rest on the idea that the public sphere in Ethiopia is not solid enough to withstand fragmentation into primary group identities; we have witnessed this in the past three decades!

Political contests must focus more on the personal qualities of the candidates, their service records and promise, and the policy platform on which parties run. If, instead, ethnic based political parties are to conduct the contest, it is more likely to be based on more general slogans and broader macro-social differentiation in which issues of collective identity and empowerment would catch the centre stage; under such circumstances, ethnicity is likely to become a dominant factor around which collectivities would be identified, and political fronts would be formed.

The ethnic based political participation avoidance strategy, thus, bears a striking importance to regulate ethnic conflict, according to which, decision makers insulate themselves from ethnic demands in order to restrain direct conflict.

  • Acceptance of culture and identity:

Ethnicity should not be recognized as legitimate in political discourse, and it should not be used as the basic building-block of the government system as it is now. However, every ethnic group, dominant or minority, should be accepted equally and be given the right to nurture its culture and identity, but futile and dangerous expressions of ethnic differences that threatened the delicate social order for the past three decades at the national level must be blocked by law. Citizens must realize their political right as individuals by accepting their identity and culture of preference at individual level. 

  • Preventive Measures:

Once ethnic based political participation is de-legitimized, civilian rule put in place and ethnic diversity is fully accepted, there must be a preventive measure from potential intensification of conflicts through the narrow acceptance window. In order to reduce the influence of undercover ethnic organizations on the polity, clauses must be inserted into electoral laws whereby votes received by political parties in national elections could count only if they reached a certain percentage in all ethnic groups. For example, to win an election, the party or parties must secure not only a general majority of the votes cast but also at least one-third of the votes cast in each of two-thirds of the ethnic groups in each administrative region or state. This will discourage the emergence of regional parties and to force them to transcend ethnic, religious, or regional support and have a cross-regional national appeal. If such a model can be adopted, ethnicity can indirectly be recognized as a political force, but a force that can be fought and countered and not the building block of collective pacts, as represented in the current Ethiopian constitution.