Ethiopia| EPRDF vs Opportunism: A half-hearted battle?

“Opportunism” is the new enemy. It was declared a “threat” since mid-March, first in a prime space column on the state-owned daily, Addiss Zemen, then at the Congresses of the EPRDF and member parties.

The specific behavior under attack is expressed in several harsh terms found in local languages, in particular, the equivalents of the English words: Chameleon“someone who could be whatever his hosts wanted him to be” or “who changes their opinions or behavior according to the situation” and Charlatan – “a person who usually makes pretenses to knowledge or ability”.

Such prioritization of “threats” by the ruling party and efforting for to grasp the exact meanings is not an abstract intellectual gymnastic. Rather it is indicative of what will dominate EPRDF’s ‘gimgema’ forums (internal meetings of performance evaluation) and, eventually, the grading system of civil servants’ performance.

At first, one gets the impression that the party is eyeing a cultural revolution. As chameleons and charlatans are found virtually in all organizations – be it public or private, CSOs or religious institution.

Indeed, such behavioral tendencies are reinforced by weak personality and the oft-used excuse of “poverty”. However, it is the institutional settings prevalent in the nation that nurtures such personalities.

The modus operandi of educational institutions are invariably designed to nurture yes-men. There is no meaningful effort to make assertiveness a less costly course of action in the civil service and other public service institutions. No surprise, then, that Ethiopian bosses – wherever they are – have a virtually strong yearning for a lord-tenant type of relation and prefer to leave organizational rules open-ended.

Changing that would not be an impossible revolution. It simply requires a leadership bold enough to reform the state of administrative laws which are pretty much in line with the old Ethiopian adage that “it is the landlord at fault, but the tenant should pay fine or compensation”.

But there is no hint of such changes in the oral and printed explanations from the ruling party. Rather the prescribed solutions are extensive ideological training and stronger “internal struggle” amongst members.

Upon a closer look, the rhetoric against opportunism appears a quest for ideological purity with a different name. That is what one observes from the context in which the “problematic behavior” was explained both at the general meeting and group discussions of the ruling party congresses.

It appears the ruling party is warming up for another purge which is a logical corollary its exponential growth in the past few years.

EPRDF’s membership size surged by almost 9 fold since the 2005 post election violence – most of the new members were recruited in the first two-three years. Though such exponential growth can threaten the cohesiveness of any organization, it was deemed useful for tactical and strategic reasons.

Such mass recruitment helped eliminate the negative attitude attached to party membership especially in the urban middle-class and universities where members used to be considered as sort of “informants”. On the other-hand, the mass membership diluted the power of old party members who were deemed to have failed the party either by failing to catch up with changes in their surrounding and by using their membership as immunity from public grievances.

On a strategic level, it was a move towards broadening the party’s mass base to attain hegemonic status, enlarging its pool of technocrats and making the party conducive to be molded in the line with the developmental state teachings Meles Zenawi was introducing at the time.

Truth be told, what expedited the mass recruitment was not the effectiveness of policy trainings forums – as the party would have you believe – nor governmental pressure – as western rights’ groups claim. Rather, it was opportunism and jumping on the bandwagon.

In fact, at the end of one the first round of such trainings in 2005-end, a senior EPRDF official laughed in disbelief when he learnt almost participants of a policy training filled membership forms and instructed his deputies to encourage those who wish to leave to do so. Few participants used the offer.

Unsurprisingly, many of the new entrants didn’t endure the demanding membership obligations of EPRDF which obviously can not provide incentives for each one of them. Nor does it seem to have the flexibility and capacity to follow-up each member.

Thus, little wonder that guesstimates based on the parties annual revenue suggest about a third of its 6.1 million registered members are not paying membership fees. A misconduct which automatically expels one from the party.

That doesn’t necessarily mean those who endured the membership duties are any better.

Opportunism was reinforced by the parties’ decision to recruit & empower “leading elements” of the society which is defined based on the performance score one receives from her institution – a process that favors opportunists often than not. Same can be said about the parties’ gimgema system as it often fails to filter out opportunists.

Of course, the tendency is indirectly reinforced by the ruling party’s attempt to promote being “successful” and values of “entrepreneurship”, while at the same time discouraging using short-cuts to that end.

The outcome of this was diluting the stature and value of party membership especially in the urban middle class, contrary to the primary aim of the mass recruitment. Members hardly feel the duty to set example, nor the public sees them as role models.

To the dismay of the top brass, these members concur with the prevailing political opinion in their vicinity rather than boldly echoing the party line.

Now, the party wants to purge such “fence-sitters” and strengthen its organizational cohesiveness and public standing. Indeed, it is an achievable goal, provided that the party deploys sufficient scale of indoctrination as well as peer pressure and disciplinary measures through gimgema forums.

However, as far as rooting out the incompetents is concerned, there will be slim chance of success if the legal and attitudinal factors that nurture such behaviors are left intact.

That should be a legitimate worry of a party which just replaced about 1/3 rd of its 180 leaders as part of its plan to handover power to a “new generation”.

A senior EPRDF official recently cautioned that opportunist tendencies are widely seen at the lower level, there are signs of it in the mid-level leadership and it will be dangerous if it gains ground in the higher leadership.

Let’s hope that we have not passed that stage already.


* A version of this piece was published on my weekly column at Addis Fortune on April 7, 2013.


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