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June 13, 2021
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It’s too early to call Prosperity Party bad news to Ethiopia (A rejoinder to Awol Allo)

Ephrem Madebo (emadebo@gmail.com)

Ephrem Madebo

On November 30, 2019, Awol Allo tweeted the following: “Lemma is not alone. In fact, there are very few Oromos beneath the ornament of the sky who do not see that the Prosperity Party is a highly problematic, unnecessarily risky, and untimely initiative” The following day, I responded to his tweet challenging him to substantiate his claim. Here is my reply to his tweet: “Risky and Problematic? You’ve said this so many times. Anyone can say the PP is risky, I don’t except this from you. I want you to spell out what the problems are, and especially what the risks of the new party to the Ethiopian people are. May be this can convince many of us” Awol stood up to the challenge and wrote an article on the Al Jazeera website. But, instead of substantiating his claims with facts and evidences, he came with more hearsays and stereotypical stories that the ethnic lords have been telling us for the past 40 years.

Awol Allo

In his article to Al Jazeera, for some odd reason Awol argues that ethnic interests are represented only by ethnic parties, and according to him, multiethnic national parties cannot directly represent ethnic interest. To me, this is one of the weakest argument of Awol that vividly displays his intellectual blatancy of mixing facts with conformist beliefs and of course his hasty generalization. What is ethnic interest and what do ethnic groups want? Is there ethnic interest that doesn’t include economic and social interest, or put in another way, is there a group that enjoys economic and social freedom in the framework of self-administration and yet suffers from other types of oppression? These are questions that Awol should have asked himself before uttering his unsubstantiated assumptions as facts.

I do understand that some group rights need special protection, and there are group rights which are held by the group as a group rather than by its individual members severally (aka Group- differentiated rights). One of the most compelling example of group-differentiated right is the right to self-determination without which other group rights such as the right to speak one’s mother tongue and the right to free cultural exercise and preservation become meaningless. The Ethiopian constitution has already granted nations and nationalities the right to self-determination, and there are nine regional governments in Ethiopia with Sidama joining the federation as the 10th region and some more regions in the pipeline. I think it’s up to these self-administering units to take care of their cultural, religious and language rights.  So even if Awol is right, what is the ethnic interest that only ethnic parties can represent that national parties don’t or can’t? What does the history of other countries tell us?

India and Nigeria have 2000 and 250 ethnic groups respectively. There are 36 parties in the current Indian parliament, but only three parties assumed power in India since independence representing the interest of over two thousand ethnic groups and numerous religious and cultural ensembles. The Nigerian experience is not that different. There are 10 parties in the current Nigerian House of Representatives. Since 1999, the 4th Republic, Nigerian politics is dominated by People’s Democratic Party (PDP) though currently All Progressives Congress (APC) is in power. Both PDP and APC are multiethnic national parties that represent the interest of Nigeria’s Muslims, Protestants, Catholics and 250 ethnic groups. Dear Awol, why can’t multiethnic national parties represent the economic and social interests of Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups once the most important aspect of group rights (Self-determination) is taken care of, which it is? What is it that India and Nigeria with far more population and extremely larger number of ethnic groups are capable of doing that we Ethiopians can’t?

There is another speculative and fictitious statement of Awol where he makes three outrageously wrong claims in a paragraph of just 90 words: 1-The “Ethiopian nationalists” block is a fast diminishing political bloc.  2- The “Ethiopian nationalists” block sees self-governance as the source of Ethiopia’s troubles. 3- The “Ethiopian nationalists” support for the PP is driven less by a careful assessment of Ethiopia’s social cleavages and political fault lines and more by their fixation on a homogenizing conception of “unity”.

I’m not sure if this is a researched fact or his own statement of wish, but Awol says that the Ethiopian nationalist political block is a fast diminishing block. Awol believes that there are many Ethiopians to whom their ethnic identity is primary. Just like he does, I also believe that there are a good number of Ethiopians, including myself, to whom ethnicity is important, but not primary. I think both of us are correct in our own way, but I don’t know why Awol thinks my block, the Ethiopian Nationalist block is fast diminishing while his is flourishing. In fact, the Ethiopian Nationalist block is a group the ethnic lords led by the late Meles Zenawi wanted to burry alive, but it’s a block flourishing and shining after 27 years of forced hibernation.

Awol seems to be on a mission to denigrate the Ethio-nationalist block. He harshly accuses this block and presents it as a threat to self-governance in Ethiopia. This is an out-and-out flagrant accusation because this group knows more than anyone that the real danger to Ethiopia is denying people their God given right of administering themselves. In fact, it is the only group that currently is advocating slef-adminstration at zone, city and district level. I don’t think there is a political party or politician that would on purpose or without dares to take the self- administration right of people in Ethiopia. Why would Ethio-nationalists see the right to self-determination of nations and nationalities as the source of Ethiopia’s troubles, the very right that they’ve been fighting for since the heydays of Wallegn Mekonnen? I consider myself as Ethio-nationalist, and of course I have a serious issue the way federalism is structured in Ethiopia, but not with federalism itself and the right to self-determination of nations and nationalities. To be honest, I wouldn’t have been working with a group I worked for 11 years had we had even a remote disagreement on self-rule and shared-rule. I’ve no doubt that Awol understands very well the difference between questioning the structuring of federalism in Ethiopia and disrespecting peoples’ right to self-determination. I expect such unjustifiable accusations from the loud-mouthed Mekele outlaws, not from a respected college law professor.

There is nothing repugnant and dishonesty like when the very person that blames others for “poor assessment” turns around and writes an article full of mythical stories. Does Awol know who is responsible for bringing down Emperor Haile Selassie’s homogenizing regime? Does he know who brought the question of nations and nationalities to light in Ethiopia for the first time and paid his life for it? Who were in the forefront of the famous slogan “Land to the Tiller”? At the center of each of the above questions are many names from the very class of people whom Awol Allo unashamedly framed as mere elements of “homogenizing unity”. There is no reason that a person of Awol’s caliber fails to understand that reasonable people don’t fight to bring a homogenizing system that they fought hard and died for its disappearance.

Awol is very clear that he doesn’t like the whole idea of the birth of PP as a political party because PP doesn’t represent ethnic interest, and it is a threat to the multinational federation. But, he still doesn’t want it to lose the election to the opposition because to him PP losing the election and handing power to the opposition is tantamount to throwing the country to uncharted territories because there is no capable political party that can take the responsibility of leadership. Imagine this is the same guy who didn’t utter a word when Obo Dawud Ibsa, a vocal advocate of ethnic interest, proudly said policy is not important to the Oromo people, but still his party OLF is ready for the upcoming election (though I really don’t know the actual things the OLF is getting ready for). Awol also has a warning for us that the government will signal the end of democracy in Ethiopia if it decides to stay in power after losing the election.

This is really fun and here is the fun part. Awol starts his article by telling us that the whole idea of the EPRDF merging into a national party platform is wrong. Then he comes up with two premises. According to his first premise, Ethiopia will be thrown into uncharted territories if Prosperity Party loses and hands power to the opposition; and according to his second premise, if a losing PP doesn’t hand power to the opposition that will be the end of democracy in Ethiopia. Awol doesn’t like the existence of PP, but he also doesn’t want it to lose the election and hand power to the opposition. Awol doesn’t also want PP to stay in power after losing the election. The conclusion of the two premises of Awol is that, the very opposition that may take Ethiopia to uncharted territory if PP loses the election, will also enhance the prospects of a democratic transition and mark the beginning of a new era in Ethiopia if it wins the election. The game of words or the riddle here is PP losing or opposition wining the election. This is where Awol loses coherence and gets lost in the emotional world of ethnic politics, and this is precisely the very spot where ethnic politicians throw reason out of the room and start galloping their emotional horse.

With the merging of the EPRDF into a new national party, Awol somehow sees a risk to the multinational federation. I’m not quite sure if this is analysis or paralysis; but to me, it’s not even something worth commenting for it’s absolutely nothing more than the usual boogeyman game the TPLF has been playing ever since it bought a one way ticket to its final dugout in Mekele. Talking about a unitary state in the current political environment of Ethiopia is a grave sin that throws you directly to hell, let alone undoing the multinational federation. Besides, the federal form of government seems to be a unanimous agreement among all political stakeholders of Ethiopia. So how and where is the risk to the multinational federation coming from? My other issue here is that the so called “Federalist” forces call Ethiopia’s federal system “Multinational Federation”. Is Ethiopia a multinational federation? The answer is a big no! Ethiopia is a class room example of Ethnic Federalism. If there is anything that resembles multinational federation in Ethiopia, it is only the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region, and with the Sidamas already out and many more following route, even the SNNPR is crumbling making Ethiopia a perfectly ethnic federal state.

According to Awol, the most immediate challenges to PP is to win a competitive election as a pan-Ethiopian party where ethnicity remains the predominant political cleavage. So what? Winning election and forming a government is a challenge to every political party including to parties in your own backyard such as the Tories, Labor and the Liberal Party who have been in politics for over a century. Not winning the election may be a problem to PP, but does this say anything that PP itself is a problem? How many parties are in UK and how many of them won election and assumed power in the last 75 years? I leave the answer to you, but I want to let you know that political parties are unavoidable propellants of democracy whose existence is crucial whether they win elections or not.

Sometimes Awol’s argument is not just shallow, it is self-defeating. He sincerely tells us that the EPRDF is dysfunctional, it has a crisis of legitimacy, has a fractured image, tarnished reputation and many more.  But, he still wants the EPRDF back to power as-is than in the current form of Prosperity Party. To him, the political, social and economic vision of eight ethnic organizations that formed the PP and all other stakeholders who have no taste for ethnic politics are nothing more than enemies of federalism because he sees Ethiopia only in the framework of ethnic politics. In fact, to Awol and to all advocates of ethnic politics, those of us who do everything to free Ethiopia from ethnic politics are enemies of ethnicity and federalism. This is a fundamentally wrong assumption used by all kinds of ethnic politicians to emotionally mobilize their gullible base.

According to Awol, once the current EPRDF structure is dismantled and ethnic groups lose direct representation within the PP, their ability to advocate for their specific groups will be diminished, and they could lack influence over policy decisions. Well, whether it is good or bad is subject to public debate, but the only two parties that have publicly come with a wide range of policy options are Prosperity and Ezema. Surprisingly, the party that publicly questioned the purpose of policy and claimed to have no policy is one of the oldest ethnic organization in Ethiopia that claims to represent the largest ethnic group in our nation. So what policy is Awol talking about that ethnic parties themselves don’t know about? In fact, Awol should have been thankful for PP, a party that assembled eight ethnic organizations and drafted political, economic and social policies that the public can look at and have its say.

I’ve followed Awol Allo on tweeter and heard him on Aljazeera for a long time. To me, he is the voice of reason and one of the moderate voices that Ethiopia badly needs.  But, he loses all these good virtues and moves from the center to far right on the issue of Prosperity Party. Here is one of the most thoughtless and unscholarly statement I’ve never heard from him: “The structural vulnerability of the PP means that the risks of anti-federalist forces taking over the party and dismantling the federal structure cannot be ruled out”. Who are these anti-federalist forces and where are they? ODP has already made it public that it would never negotiate on federalism, let alone dismantling it.The regional representatives of Somali, Gambella, Benishangul-Gumuz, Harari and Afar have also made it very clear in their respective general assemblies that, the federal structure that gave them sovereignty over their region is non-negotiable and it is here to stay. So who is this ghost like invisible enemy of the federal structure? Is it PM Abiy, or his deputy Demeke Mekonnen? Whether it’s at the federal level or regional, among opposition parties or activists, no one whatsoever is a risk to the federal system in Ethiopia. This scare tactic used by Awol and many in the ethnic camp is nothing more than trying to control people by making them feel afraid.

I have a message to Awol and ethnic politicians of all sorts. Ethiopia is a country of different ethnic groups, religious communities, cultural ensembles and of course a fast growing population of over 100 million, all with different political, social and economic interest. There is no “One fits all” model of Ormo, Amhara, Somali, etc; economic and social interest. Social and economic interests vary within and between communities and these interests are usually manifested at the individual level. This is why Ethiopia needs large national parties, and this is precisely why EPRDF grew into a national party to represent these diverse interests. Dear fellow country man Awol, if you think there are special ethnic interests that cannot be represented by multiethnic national parties like PP and Ezema, please go ahead and mobilize all those who recently announced their candidacy, forge your own ethnic party and let’s meet in the upcoming election and leave the rest to the Ethiopian electorate. Other than this, please stop playing the boogeyman game that scares people. The federal structure of government, self-rule and shared-rule, the right to speak one’s language, the right to exercise and preserve one’s culture, and the right to worship one’s religion are here to stay regardless of who is at the helm of political power in Ethiopia.

Let me conclude by repeating the infamous quote of Duad Ibsa, the quintessential symbol of ethnic politics in Ethiopia: “The policy issue is very secondary for the Oromo people to our knowledge” Look Awol, this is the most important problem of ethnic politicians. They speak on the behalf of people that they don’t know and never lived with, they promise the impossible, and they make a totally unfounded false and idiosyncratic claims. Tell me how in the hell did Dawud Ibsa know that about 35% of the Ethiopian people (The Oromos) don’t care much for policy?  If the Oromo people don’t care for education, healthcare, agriculture, food security, roads, bridges and transportation, then what else do they care for?  If all these basic life necessities are secondary to them, then what is primary to them?  Why would an ethnic voter or any voter for that matter vote for a candidate that has no policy of any kind? To be honest, the names of political parties or independent candidates that have no economic and social policies should not even be allowed to be on the ballot paper let alone get elected and lead a nation. If all that matters to people is ethnic interest like Awol Allo said, and if policy issues are not important as Dawd Ibsa said, then Ethiopia badly needs national parties that offer a variety of policy options to the electorate. I strongly believe that we have to pull the current toxic ethnic politics to the center where it belongs because ethnic parties are what they say they are. To them, policy issues are very secondary. This scares me to death because I don’t know what is primary to them. Dear reader do you?



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