Will the protests of Gondar and Oromia help EPRDF quickly transform itself?

Except for the willful blindness and deafness of the EPRDF, the causes of the growing discontent in Gondar, Amhara Region, and the now over eight months old Oromo Protests (#OromoProtests) are mere signs of long unaddressed and deeply seated major political and economic grievances.

Any close and keen observer of Ethiopian politics could tell off-the-cuff that the EPRDF government has failed itself and the Ethiopian people by abandoning and nullifying all of its governing theories that brought it to power 25 years ago, and now survives on the vigilante power of its security and military apparatus.

In the absence of governing theories that set the expectation of citizens from their government, as the Oromo Protests and the developing situation in Gondar indicates, there are limits to the government’s use of force against grieved civilian population by breaching the social contract of trust with the people which might force citizens to resort to collective self-defense, defense of their family members, and their property by taking the laws into their hands. That is very dangerous and puts the country on slippery slope risking serious instability and maybe even descending into conflict.

It is no less than political tragedy to see the EPRDF government waste all of its political capital and benefits of the doubt it got from the Ethiopian people 25 years ago, even from those on the fence. The demands of Oromo Protests and the larger Oromo self-administration questions as well as the identity question being raised by the Amhara ethnic group could have been easily addressed within the Ethiopian constitutional framework winning over important and lasting political allies for the EPRDF. Unfortunately, the EPRDF exchanged its political fortune with the proverbial thirty dinar in the hope of enriching few and appeasing shortsighted political power mongers.

Photo - Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn [Credit: Addis Standard, Oct. 2015]
Photo – Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn [Credit: Addis Standard, Oct. 2015]

Now, 25 years later, the governing theories introduced during the 1990s are all in disarray because of the EPRDF’s own making. The EPRDF government has abandoned answering the questions of nations and nationalism through genuine federalism. The talk of building democratic and representative governance under the rule of law are just that: talk. Instead, the EPRDF opted to merely give lips services to these critical questions by establishing satellite “ethnic organizations” whose real power emanates not from the people they claim to represent but from the TPLF led EPRDF Executive Committee.

The EPRDF government also abolished the “land to the tiller” policy of the Derg era by replacing it with “development by dispossession theory” where Ethiopian farmers and urban poor’s lands will be given to party officials, local affiliates and rent seekers, and its international financers– all in the name of “development.”

As the June 7, 2016 interview the Ethiopian Prime Minister gave to Greg Mills of Daily Maverick made it bare, the EPRDF economic policies, in spite of the empty rhetoric, are all geared toward enriching and serving the greedy global multinationals and the interests of local rent seekers instead of the Ethiopian people.

In this context, the EPRDF’s economic policies raises serious legitimacy questions. The primary purpose and objectives of any government is to pursue and serve its citizens’ economic welfare. The EPRDF government blinded by internal greed and the economic and political agendas that comes from Washington DC, New York, Brussels, and maybe Beijing, appears to have forgotten that there are 100 million Ethiopian citizens at home waiting on it. Add to that ethnic favoritism, nepotism, and ethnic disparity in economic and political power sharing: Ethiopia is waiting for grand firework.

The situation gets even direr when one looks at the EPRDF’s ability to handle popular discontent and grievances. It looks like all that the EPRDF government got in its tool boxes to address popular grievances and policy reform demands are only guns and more guns.

Over the last 25 years, the EPRDF government failed to establish institutions of governance and rule of law. Instead, it replaced the concept of “the rule of law” by “administrative discretions” empowering individual EPRDF cadres and the security apparatus which now operates with complete impunity. The EPRDF is harvesting what it sowed.

In the absence of the rule of law and the court of law, the life, liberty and property of Ethiopian citizens are at the mercy of the “vigilante justice” of the EPRDF military and security apparatus which acts with complete and absolute impunity. No one was held accountable for the cold bloodied killings of over 400 Oromo peaceful protesters over the last seven months of Oromo Protests according to Human Rights Watch. The Gondar protests are opening entirely new chapter.

Although the Ethiopian public are at the receiving end of the brunt of brutality now, the ultimate victims will be the victimizers. The EPRDF government’s repeated use of its security and military forces to contain political and policies grievances of the population across the country have largely discredited the country’s military and security institutions in the sight of the Ethiopian public.

It is unfathomable why the EPRDF political leadership ventured to take such major strategic risks which will have lasting implication on the future of these two institutions. Just 25 short years ago, the EPRDF abolished at least close to a century old Ethiopian security and military institutions the same ground that it found itself now. [On the issue of who is in charge on the security and military apparatus, I relied on the United States State Department’s assumption that the security and military institutions of the country are still under the civilian administration’s political control, whatever that means.]

Furthermore, in the hope of imposing its total and complete control on the Ethiopian people, the EPRDF government eliminated the Ethiopian society’s bridge builders, opinion makers, critical academics and journalists who could have facilitated vertical communication between the government and the people; and horizontal communications among the people and various sectors of the society.

By eliminating and dismantling the middle, the EPRDF denied the country alternative federalist and pluralistic voices while resurrecting, nurturing and feeding the dead politics of the past with all its poisonous rhetorical flourishes.

The EPRDF government also undermined institutions of knowledge production that traditionally used to enhance the Ethiopian societies social capital, however primitive and nascent they might have been. Now, one barely finds, if any, domestically produced researches and knowledges on current Ethiopian political, economic, social, and even religious issues.

On national, regional and global political and economic issues, Ethiopians literally have zero options to enlarge their understanding and knowledge of Ethiopia’s political, legal and policy choices; and continued to window-shop for ideas from the West through the tightly controlled and limited internet accessibility in Ethiopia. Even on religious matters, Ethiopian Muslims import their literatures from the Middle East while the Christians do the same from the West irrespective of all the cultural and other value discrepancies and other implications.

The Ethiopian security vigilantes, who always are prone to blocking websites and social media pages, considers Ethiopians access to internet and social media not as tools of expanding knowledge, understanding, facilitating trade and commerce in marketplace of ideas, services and building social capitals among citizens but as security threat to the government’s very existence. This is nothing less than an absolute paranoia.

The EPRDF government should also acknowledge that its failure of not nurturing and advancing the Ethiopian society’s values and virtues for truth telling, trust, respect for each other, honoring hard work, patriotism, and appreciation for people with unique talents have substantially contributed to the ongoing predicaments. The EPRDF, instead of appreciating and honoring people with knowledge, understanding and wisdom, favored and glorified thieves, killers, lairs, deceivers, and those who cut corners to get enriched by manipulating or corrupting the system thereby destroying our societies irreplaceable values.

That being said, the EPRDF government has still some viable choices and options if it has the political will to not evolutionarily reform but immediately transform itself, and address the economic, political and social demands of various sectors of the Ethiopian societies.

Let me offer some unsolicited advises of my own to the EPRDF government:

1st, the EPRDF, instead of lying to itself and the Ethiopian people, should immediately democratize itself among its member parties. The viability and credibility of the EPRDF depends upon the viability and the credibility of the OPDO and the ANDM among the Oromo and the Amhara people, respectively. Unless the TPLF political hospital that delivered these two organizations left them with incurable birth defect, the OPDO and the ANDM must act and operate independently to serve the best interests of the Oromo and Amhara peoples be it within or without the EPRDF. The TPLF has no better ally than these two organizations that itself created. Undemocratic EPRDF will neither brings democracy to Ethiopia nor builds democratic Ethiopia.

2nd, free all political prisoners and open up the political space for opposition parties by allowing the constitutionally guaranteed citizens’ rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression so that genuine and true multiparty system will take foothold in Ethiopia within the bound of the rule of law by replacing the current rotten system of administrative discretion of the vigilante security apparatus and swarms of political cadres that acts with complete and total impunity.

3rd, make Afaan Oromo additional federal working language alongside with Amharic to end, at least partially, the economic, political and social exclusion of the Oromo people in Ethiopia. I cannot over emphasis the necessity of making Afaan Oromo federal working language among the Oromo people, particularly the youth who constitutes about 74% of the Oromo population who are completely shut out of the Ethiopian political, economic and social structure mainly because of Ethiopia’s monolingual language policy.

4th, implement genuine federalism where the identity questions of the various nations and nationalities could be answered and respected; and federal economic and political powers are apportioned and shared equitably. The current economic and political power distribution, as the EPRDF leaders themselves privately acknowledge, is a recipe for disaster.

5th, end the ongoing land grab policies and introduce people centered economic policies that will empower the Ethiopian farmers and urban poor instead of political benefactors, rent seekers and greedy global multinationals with no social or moral causes.

Let’s hope that the EPRDF will do the nation and itself good by using the protests in Gondar and the ongoing Oromo Protests to help itself not evolutionarily reform but immediately transform itself into organization that is responsive to the demands of the people.


Birhanemeskel Abebe Segni

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