Last Sunday, Lt. General Tsadkan Gebretensae published a commentary on Ethiopia’s current political challenges and solutions on HornAffairs Amharic. In response, Prof. Messay Kebede presented the following article on EthioMedia on Thursday. [Given readers’ interest on the matter, we will publish an English translation of Gen. Tsadkan’s article tomorrow]
(Prof. Messay Kebede)
I read with great attention and interest a recently posted article in which Lt. General Tsadkan Gebretensae analyzes with a sharp critical eye the ruling government and party of present-day Ethiopia and gives us a blueprint of the various scenarios awaiting the country. Let me begin by admitting my surprise and admiration to see a top member of the leadership of the ruling party and a former Chief of Staff of the Ethiopian Armed Forces undertake such a critical review of a regime that he had served for a long time. One cannot but wonder how deep the level of the deterioration of the political edifice has become for a top veteran and servant of the regime to feel the need to speak up openly in so alarming terms. Be that as it may, my review has two parts: in the first one, I present the undeniable virtues of the article and, in the second part, I proceed to some critical remarks, the objective of which is to encourage Gen. Tsadkan to go further in the critical assessment so as to get to the root of the problem bogging down the TPLF itself.
Without doubt, the article gives a candid, almost thorough and straight criticism of the regime. Almost nothing of what is detestable and faulty is left out: the absolute control of all the branches of government, the calamitous identification of the government with the ruling party, the heavy-handed involvement of government in the economy, the proliferation of corruption and clientelism, etc., are severely denounced. Gen. Tsadkan is not even nice to his former colleagues: he is highly disparaging of the involvement of army generals in the running of key sectors of the economy instead of focusing on their true job, which is to protect the integrity and sovereignty of the country. In a word, the entire regime is put on trial and condemned without any reservation. One admires the courage and honesty of Gen. Tsadkan, given that his position will certainly ostracize him, perhaps even arouse the animosity of the leaders of the ruling party.
This much is undeniable: Gen. Tsadkan wants genuine solutions for the numerous and serious problems besieging Ethiopia. For him, the stake is none other than the survival of Ethiopia so that the solutions must be far-reaching enough to stop the dangerous trends toward which the country is moving. His proposal is clear and simple: the implementation of democracy and the rise of a political system based on the verdict of the people are the only means to tackle the deep problems of the country. The use of force repeats the mistakes of previous regimes and can only yield the same outcomes, but this time in a context that is much more explosive. Clearly, the author is genuinely concerned about the fate of Ethiopia. True, he does not hide his high concern for the people of Tigray and the TPLF, but one of the virtues of the article is that it understands that the fate of the TPLF is tied up with good things happening in Ethiopia.
According to Gen. Tsadkan, the regime has come to the point of recognizing the seriousness of the problems facing Ethiopia and is looking for a solution. Unfortunately, says Gen. Tsadkan, it is looking for easy and self-serving solutions, which are all doomed to failure because they all miss, deliberately or not, the core of the problem, which is the restriction of democracy and democratic rights. The restriction is all the more inexcusable as it violates the constitution, the very constitution that the TPLF and all its allies have sworn to respect and serve. All the problems of Ethiopia have one, and only one, source, namely, illegality, transgression of the constitution.
One admires the author for admitting that the case of Kinijit was not well handled in the 2005 election disputes. A similar mistake was committed earlier when a conflict broke out with the OLF. In both cases, force was used to settle disputes instead of the democratic means made available by the constitution. Similarly, I commend the author for spelling out the true interest of the Tigrean people, which is to work in concert with other people of Ethiopia to protect and advance democracy, as opposed to some leaders who orchestrate the scenario of Tigray versus the rest of Ethiopia. Last but not least, I applaud Gen. Tsadkan for being the first top member of the TPLF (to my knowledge) to acknowledge that the Ethiopians who fought under the leadership of the Derg lost, not because they were coward and Tigreans distinctly brave, but because their leaders betrayed the cause for which they were fighting and used them for a totalitarian and self-serving purpose.
Granted this positive side of the article, there remains the question of knowing whether Gen. Tsadkan’s explanation of the causes of the derailment of the regime away from the democratic path are equally pertinent. The analyses of the paper rest on one major premise, namely, the contention that the TPLF had a solid, deeply-engrained tradition of democratic methods prior to the seizure of state power, a tradition that was also free of secessionist agenda and the pursuit of ethnic hegemony. This is so true that Gen. Tsadkan ascribes the alleged derailment of the TPLF to the war against Eritrea whose major consequence was a deep split within the party and the rise of a non-democratic clique led by Meles who, by the way, is mentioned only once.
Without denying the importance of the split, one fails to understand how a party based on such solid and embedded democratic commitment and practices would go suddenly so off course as to empower Meles and his openly undemocratic clique. Is it not fair to say that the split and the outcome prove that democracy was just a façade, a hidden device of manipulation, something similar to the “democracy” that existed in the Soviet camp or, for that matter, in Ethiopia under the Derg? I can easily explain the rise of Meles to dictatorial power if I see it as a consolidation of a trend already existing in the party. By contrast, his rise becomes a complete mystery if I base my analysis on the assumption that the TPLF had a long tradition of democratic workings.
In vain does one look for the numerous blunders committed by the TPLF from the very start. For instance, the paper does not mention the momentous decision to land-lock Ethiopia. Nor does it denounce the ill-founded justification to disband the Ethiopian army––which resulted in many soldiers becoming beggars––as though it were a mercenary army, all the more so as Gen. Tsadkan, as already mentioned, recognizes that the army as a whole was not against any people. Gen. Tsadkan never questions the prevailing assumption of the ruling circle according to which the foundation of the Ethiopian state is sound and that many good things have been accomplished, even though he does not mention them. In so thinking, he turns the problems into an implementation issue, and so fail to see them as the step-by-step unfolding of a design that was originally very flawed.
As a matter of policy, Gen. Tsadkan opts for the developmental state as opposed to neo-liberal policy. The paper does not present strong arguments in favor of developmental state; nor does it indicate why the developmental state is expected to achieve better results in Ethiopia than liberal policy. Still less does the paper pose the problem of knowing whether the ideological and political setups of ethnic federalism go hand in hand with the requirements of the developmental state. Moreover, as stated previously, Gen. Tsadkan strongly favors democracy in the precise sense of multipartism, respect of human rights, including the rights of free assembly and free speech. Yet, this type of democracy does not square with the notion of developmental state, which precisely advocates the postponement of democratic rights to bring about faster economic growth. Equally noticeable is that the paper does not see that the dismal condition of education in Ethiopia, mostly due to politicization and the preference of quantity over quality, goes against a major requirement of the developmental state, namely, the production of a highly trained and nationalist technocratic and bureaucratic elite.
One key issue is that the author expects the appropriate solutions to come from and be implemented by the ruling party, since one need not look further than the already approved constitution to find the right answers. In Gen. Tsadkan’s view, the remedy lies in the restoration of the suppressed rights and in the development of a mindset approaching opposition parties with a spirit of dialogue and common interests. Not only does such an expectation look utterly utopian, but it is also contradictory. After having made this severe criticism, how does Gen. Tsadkan expect reforms and a change of attitude from such a rotten party? Is it not too late? Is not the party beyond redemption?
The danger of calling for an extremely unlikely change of attitude is that it lends itself to the interpretation that the paper is nothing but an attempt to prolong the life of the TPLF by reviving an already rejected hope. What is more, since the author admits that the difficulties are serious enough to rise to the level of structural impediments, is it not obvious that they require nothing less than structural changes? Evidently, change under the leadership of the ruling party will significantly fall short of being structural. In short, what is necessary in the face of failures of such magnitude is regime change.
As already noted, a leitmotif in the paper is the belief that the constitution provides the appropriate solutions to all the problems of the country. We just have to restore its democratic provisions and respect them. As a matter of fact, the paper criticizes everything, except the constitution and the ideological and democratic credentials of the TPLF prior to the capture of state power. Because of the reluctance of the author to critically examine the constitution, no attempt is made to connect some of the problems to its shortcomings.
For instance, there is no any reconsideration of the infamous article 39 affirming the “unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession,” a provision that an organization like MEDREK has rightly questioned as it carries the threat of the fragmentation of the country. Likewise, no prospect is envisaged for the privatization of land ownership through the removal of the stipulation that “ownership of rural and urban land, as well as of all natural resources, is exclusively vested in the State and in the peoples of Ethiopia,” even though the dictatorial tendency of the regime can be traced back to the exclusive control of land by the state.
To be fair, Gen. Tsadkan does not reject the right to alter the constitution provided that it emanates from the democratic decision of the peoples of Ethiopia. The trouble, however, is that the respect of the constitution is presented as a sine qua non of all dialogue with opposition forces. A repeated injunction is that everybody must work under the provisions stipulated by the constitution. The condition excludes by definition any structural change to the system. Unless the opposition is given the right to organize and mobilize the people with the official intent of changing the constitution, I do not see how the stated condition does not amount to a serious restriction of democratic rights.
I cannot push aside the impression I have of a certain naivety on the part of Gen. Tsadkan. Indeed, for him all the problems of Ethiopia originate from a defective implementation of the constitution. The foundation and the principles of government are good, but they have not been properly implemented. May I remind that dictatorial regimes tend to write constitutions that are perfect? Their problem is in the application, not because they fail to apply them properly, but because they do not intend to apply them in the first place. They are written for two purposes: firstly, for external consumption to fool donor countries, and secondly, to manipulate their own people. Their constitutions are just ideological tools for make-believe, for the purpose of misleading by giving an ideal picture of their regime. What defines them is not the failure of implementation; it is the deliberate gap between stated principles and actual practice. One thing is sure: the leaders of the TPLF who drafted the constitution perfectly knew that the democratic provisions were not meant to be applied.
This is to say that failure in practice does not explain a regime like the one established by the TPLF. Instead, the real intent of the TPLF, as opposed to the fake one, must be given primacy. All what we know about the TPLF points to one overriding intent, to wit, the absolute control of state power to empower a furiously ethnicized elite by excluding other elites or by turning them into clients. Only some such approach makes everything clear: the rampant corruption, the dictatorial methods, the policy of divide and rule, the absolute control of all the branches of government are all means to empower a regional elite and sustain that empowerment through the complete ascendancy over the economic, political, and ideological apparatuses of the country. To paraphrase a famous sentence, in the analysis of Gen. Tsadkan, the TPLF “is standing on its head. It must be inverted, in order to discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”