By Desta Heliso
There are some people who think that perfect peace, justice, freedom and democracy will usher in Ethiopia if EPRDF is toppled through violence. I have heard some confident assertions along this line, but I am not sure such confidence corresponds to the complex reality on the ground. On the one hand, our country has multiple problems such as increasingly endemic corruption, maladministration, curtailed freedom of expression, tightly controlled media, lack of free and fair elections, non-EPRDF members being regarded as second-class citizens, relative absence of level-playing field in politics and business, and politically driven educational system. On the other hand, over the last decade or so, the country has seen positive things that we would only have dreamed of years ago. Freedom of religion, increased number of universities, infrastructural development (roads, railways and bridges), growing manufacturing industry, growing hotel and tourism sector, banking industry, mega dams such as Gilgel Gibe and Great Renaissance Dam (GRD), aviation industry, growth of the middle class, higher life expectancy and relative economic growth are some of the examples. All these signs of progress have their own particular flaws and failings, but they have enabled many Ethiopians to cope and hope. And if these changes could be achieved in the face of all the deficiencies of systems of administration coupled with human frailties, how much more could be achieved if we managed to resolve even some of the above mentioned problems? We are divided over the means through which these problems can be addressed.
Many of us, including myself, believe that Ethiopia will achieve a better future characterised by better freedom, justice, democracy, equal opportunity and development can only if we safeguard the imperfect peace and stability and limited freedoms and developments we currently have. The terms ‘safeguard’ should not be understood in terms of maintaining the status quo in its entirety, but rather it should be understood in terms of working patiently within the status quo in order to build on that which is good and change that which is bad. There is no question that any serious instability in our country would be a hindrance for this. It could also potentially jeopardise the integrity of the country we love so very much and plunge the entire region into absolute chaos. This is not an apocalyptic prophecy based on mere imagination. This is a genuine view based on reality and held by a very large number of people up and down the country. Many reasons or justifications could be enumerated but let me mention only a few.
First, an attempt to change the current system through public unrest and violence could stir up historical antagonisms. Human history is never tidy and Ethiopia is not an exception. Over the last millennium and half, political power in Ethiopia has been shifting from one region to another, the process of which was often bloody. That inevitably has left a scar (to a lesser or greater degree) in the psyche of each region, hence creating what I call a historical volcano. The last theocratic regime kept this historical volcano from constantly erupting by employing shrewd diplomacy and politically arranged marital structures. The military-communist regime kept it under control by brute force and an insidious focus on the ‘Mother Land’. The EPRDF has tried to bring the threat posed by this historical volcano to an end by introducing political administrative structures along ethnic lines (with some exceptions). Despite some positive results, this has not worked as well as expected. Indeed, the philosophy underlying EPRDF’s political and administrative system may need to be rethought. But any attempt to remove the current regime by force could potentially lead to dangerous disintegration of the country. Think, for example, of Somali, Gambela, Afar and Oromia regions, which have their own governments. There are also rebel groups in relation to each of these regions: Oromo Liberation Front, Afar Liberation Front, Gambela People’s Liberation Movement, Ogaden National Liberation Front. Imagine what could happen in these regions if the current imperfect administrative arrangements are violently dismantled. Imagine what could happen to our country if the current toxic political rhetoric that targets a certain people group bears fruit. One might say that setting up an all-inclusive transitional government in the event of removing the EPRDF government by force will prevent this from happening.
However, second, the last 25 years have shown us that so long as ideological values are driven by ethnically orientated and regionally framed programmes, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a common agenda. This is precisely why opposition parties have struggled to succeed. Let alone at the national level, it is sometimes difficult to bring people around a common purpose and goal in an ethnically homogenous region with strong clan-structures. One might say that if EPRDF could achieve commonality of purpose and political programme, anyone can achieve it. I would say that EPRDF has not achieved it. The dream of unity-in-diversity still remains a dream. The desire in the 1990s was to achieve stronger national consciousness through affirming (rather than denying) ethnic identity. But at the moment, our sense of diversity does not match our sense of unity. The journey towards finding a healthy, inclusive and affirmative sense of identity is not yet achieved. This is not an easy journey, of course. Countries like England, Scotland and Wales still struggle with finding a balanced sense of identity. Our situation is even much more delicate and volatile than theirs. Any violent attempt to achieve what they have achieved over centuries could take us back to where they were 400 years ago. Violence does not always breed peace; violence often breeds violence.
Third, internal conflicts within Ethiopia will make the security situation in the country extremely vulnerable. External forces such as the current Eritrean government, Al-Shabbab in Somalia, Islamic State, rogue and radical military and religious elements in Egypt and Sudan could easily capitalise on internal instabilities in Ethiopia. This could result in an attempt to spread religious extremism, which could lead to religious conflicts. It could also result in the destruction of some of the projects such as GRD, for which the people of Ethiopia have paid a huge price. Furthermore, instability in Ethiopia could worsen conflicts in neighbouring states such as South Sudan and Somalia (both of which benefit from Ethiopian military support), potentially destabilise Kenya, strengthen the brutal regime in Eritrea, and terminally endanger the country’s territorial integrity.
Fourth, the Ethiopian army is made up of diverse people groups. While protecting and defending the security of our country with great pride and sense of nationalism, military personnel have their own ethnic identity, of which they are also proud. If the current military structure is dismantled, God forbid, there is a real possibility of ethnically based militia groups propping up here and there. Comrades could become enemies and turn their guns against each other to protect or expand newly created territories. This will take us back to the situation our country was in centuries ago. The level of loss of life and destruction of properties in all this could be unimaginable as well. We don’t want this to happen. Nor do we want the creation of Somalia-style territories with their own militias.
Finally, many poorest people in the countryside have benefited from various schemes such as, for example, the safety net scheme, which puts cash in their pockets and enables them to feed their families. There are also various agricultural, health and small-scale business initiatives, which have helped improve the lives of many of the poorest in our country. People dislike EPRDF’s party-centred approach that seeks to benefit party members more than others, and yet many believe that the schemes are useful in terms of creating jobs, reducing poverty, improving general health of the population and lessening mother-infant mortality. Violence could disrupt all these and take the country many steps backwards.
From all this, I would argue that the disadvantages of changing the current government through violent means far outweigh the advantages, if any. So I would plead, in the name of God, with all parties who are engaging in violent activities to stop and engage in peaceful political undertakings, difficult though that may be. I would equally plead with the ruling party and the government of Prime Minister Haile Mariam Desalegn to fully appreciate that use of force alone would not solve our problems. No one, not even the government, possesses universal panacea for Ethiopia’s problems. National problems require collective effort in an open, inclusive and patient manner. No superficial effort with party political goals will bring lasting solutions. Indeed, any course of action, whether it be establishing the root causes of current civil unrests and coming up with solutions or determining the future direction of our nation, must include opposition groups and people of good will. A nation-wide process of peace building, forgiveness and reconciliation needs to be initiated. In this process, the role of prominent community elders and religious leaders should be central. National healing must be the goal of all efforts. And all of us – who believe in the survival of Ethiopia as a nation in all her wonders and beauties – ought to help each other to realise that we are all wounded beings and must see ourselves as wounded healers.
Desta Heliso (PhD)
The writer lives and work in Ethiopia but currently in London on academic sabbatical