Ethiopia: Where Do We Go (or not go) From Here?
On the road to democracy and unity?
For some time now, I have been heralding Ethiopia’s irreversible march from dictatorship to democracy. In April 2011, I wrote a commentary entitled, “The Bridge on the Road(map) to Democracy”. I suggested,
We can conceive of the transition from dictatorship to democracy as a metaphorical journey on the road to progress, freedom and human enlightenment (democracy) or a regression to tyranny, subjugation and bondage (dictatorship). Societies and nations move along this road in either direction. Dictatorships can be transformed into democracies and vice versa. But the transition takes place on a bridge that connects the road from dictatorship to democracy. It is on this bridge that the destinies of nations and societies, great and small, are made and unmade. If the transition on the bridge is orderly, purposeful and skillfully managed, then democracy could become a reality. If it is chaotic, contentious and combative, there will be no crossing the bridge, only pedaling backwards to dictatorship. My concern is what could happen on the bridge linking dictatorship to democracy in Ethiopia when that time comes to pass.
In June 2012, I wrote a commentary entitled, “Ethiopia: On the Road to Constitutional Democracy”. I argued with supporting historical evidence that “Most societies that have sought to make a transition from tyranny and dictatorship to democracy have faced challenging and complex roadblocks.” Focusing on the practical lessons of the “Arab Spring”, I proposed a constitutional pre-dialogue and offered some suggestions:
The search for a democratic constitution and the goal of a constitutional democracy in Ethiopia will be a circuitous, arduous and challenging task. But it can be done… To overcome conflict and effect a peaceful transition, competing factions must work together, which requires the development of consensus on core values. Public civic education on a new constitution must be provided in the transitional period. Ethiopian political parties, organizations, leaders, scholars, human rights advocates and others should undertake a systematic program of public education and mobilization for democratization and transition to a genuine constitutional democracy. To have a successful transition from dictatorship to constitutional democracy, Ethiopians need to practice the arts of civil discourse and negotiations….”
They are pedaling backwards on the low road of dictatorship, but are we marching forward on the highway to democracy?
It is easy for some people to speak truth to power, or the powers that be. Without great difficulty, they can preach to abusers of power why they are wrong, what they are doing wrong, why they should right their wrong and do right by those they have wronged. But it is not so easy to speak truth to powers that could be, particularly when one does not know who “they” are. Instead of speaking truth to the powers that could be, I will simply ask: They are pedaling backwards on the low road of dictatorship, but are we marching forward on the highway to democracy? Where do we go (or not go) from here?
Ordinarily, this question would be put to Ethiopia’s “opposition leaders”. For some time now, I have been wondering who those leaders are and are not. In my commentary last September entitled, “Ethiopia’s Opposition at the Dawn of Democracy?”, I asked out loud (but never got answer), “Who is the Ethiopian ‘opposition’?” I confessed my bewilderment then as I do now: “There is certainly not a monolithic opposition in the form of a well-organized party. There is no strong and functional coalition of political parties that could effectively challenge both the power and ideology of the ruling party. There is not an opposition in the form of an organized vanguard of intellectuals. There is not an opposition composed of an aggregation of civil society institutions including unions and religious institutions, rights advocates and dissident groups. There is not an opposition in the form of popular mass based political or social movements. There is not…”
Stated differently, is the “opposition that amorphous aggregation of weak, divided, squabbling, factionalized and fragmented parties and groups that are constantly at each other’s throats? The grumbling aggregation of human rights advocates, civic society organizers, journalists and other media professionals and academics? The groups committed to armed struggle and toppling the dictatorship by force the opposition? Anyone who thinks or self-proclaims s/he is the opposition?” All or none of the above?
I am willing to bet my bottom dollar that the disciples of the late Meles Zenawi would have no problems explaining where they are going from here. They would state with certainty, “Come hell or high water, we’ll pedal backwards lockstep in Meles’ ‘eternally glorious’ footsteps to the end of the rainbow singing Kumbaya to grab the pot of gold he has left for us under the Grand Renaissance Dam. We will fly high in the sky on the wings of a 10, 12, 15 percent annual economic growth and keep flying higher and higher…” I say it is still better to have a road map to La-La Land than sitting idly by twiddling one’s thumbs about the motherland.
Is the question to be or not be in the opposition? What does it mean to be in the “opposition”? What must one do to be in the “opposition”? Is heaping insults, bellyaching, gnashing teeth and criticizing those abusing power the distinctive mark of being in the opposition? Is frothing at the mouth with words of anger and frustration proof of being the opposition? How about opposing the abusers of power for the sake of opposing them and proclaiming moral victory? Is opposing the abusers of power without a vision plan, a plan of action or a strategic plan really opposition?
I have often said that Meles believed he “knew the opposition better than the opposition knew itself.” Meles literally laughed at his opposition. He considered the leaders of his opposition to be his intellectual inferiors. He believed he could outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver them all, save none, any day of the week. He believed them to be dysfunctional, shiftless and inconsequential; he never believed they could pose a challenge to his power. In his speeches and public comments, he ridiculed, scorned and sneered at them. He treated his opposition like wayward children who needed constant supervision, discipline and well-timed spanking to keep them in line. Truth be told, during his two decades in power, Meles was able to outwit, outthink, outsmart, outplay, outfox and outmaneuver, and neutralize his opposition at will. Meles’ disciples today trumpet their determination to walk in his footsteps and do exactly the same thing.
Where is the “opposition” now?
Perhaps it is premature to pose the question, “Where do we go from here?” to Ethiopia’s “opposition”. It may be more appropriate to ask where the “opposition” is (is not) now. From my vantage point, the “opposition” is in a state of resignation, stagnation, negation, frustration and alienation. I see the “opposition” watching with hypnotic fascination the abusers of power chasing after their tails. The “opposition” seems anchorless, agenda less, aimless, directionless, dreamless and feckless. The “opposition”, it seems to me, is in a state of slumber, in crises and in a state of paralysis.
Time was when the “opposition” got together, stood together, put heads together, worked together, campaigned together, negotiated together, compromised together, met the enemy together and even went to jail together. Flashback 2005! The “opposition” set aside ethnic, religious, linguistic, ideological and other differences and came together to pursue a dream of freedom and democracy. That dream bound the opposition and strengthened the bonds of their brotherhood and sisterhood. The “opposition” mobilized together against factionalism and internal conflicts and closed ranks against those who sought to divide and split it. By doing so, the opposition thumped the ruling party in the polls.
In the past seven years, the dream of democracy and freedom among the “opposition” seems to have slowly faded away and the strength of its champions sapped away in mutual distrust and recrimination. Dialogue in the “opposition” has been replaced with monologue and deafening silence; action with inaction; cooperation with obstruction; coalition with partisanship; unity with division; amity with enmity and civility with intolerance.
The “opposition” wants change and rid Ethiopia of tyranny and dictatorship. But as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent. … We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” The Ethiopian “opposition” needs to stand up erect and make demands with steely backbone and stiff upper lip.
There are many ways to stand up and show some backbone. To speak up for human rights and against government wrongs is to stand up. To demand that wrongs be righted is to stand up. To open up one’s eyes and unplug one’s ears in the face of evil is standing up. To simply say “No!” even under one’s breath is standing up. Speaking truth to power is standing up. Dr. King said, “A just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Standing up against an unjust law is standing up for justice.
In January 2011, I wrote a weekly column entitled, “After the Fall of African Dictatorships” and posed three questions: “What happens to Africa after the mud walls of dictatorship come tumbling down and the palaces of illusion behind those walls vanish? Will Africa be like Humpty Dumpty (a proverbial egg) who “had a great fall” and could not be put back together by “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men”? What happens to the dictators?”
The mud walls of dictatorship in Ethiopia have been exhibiting ever expanding cracks since the death of the arch architect of dictatorship Meles Zenawi sometime last summer. The irony of history is that the question is no longer whether Ethiopia will be like Humpty Dumpty as the “king” and “king’s men” have toiled to make her for two decades. The tables are turned. Despite a wall of impregnable secrecy, the “king’s men and their horses” are in a state of disarray and dissolution. They lost their vision when they lost their visionary. The old saying goes, “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” Well, the king is no more; and the “king’s men and horses” are lost in the wilderness of their own wickedness, intrigue and deception.
The “fierce urgency of now” is upon Ethiopia’s opposition leaders to roll out their plans and visions of democracy. Now is the time for Ethiopia’s human rights advocates to bring forth their vision of a society governed by the rule of law. Now is the time for Ethiopia’s civil society leaders to build networks to connect individuals and communities across ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender and regional lines. Now is the time for Ethiopia’s intellectuals to put forth practical solutions to facilitate the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Now is the time for all freedom loving Ethiopians to come forward and declare and pledge their allegiance to a democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Now is the time to unchain ourselves from the burdens of the past. Now is the time to abandon the politics of identity and ethnicity and come together in unity for the sake of all of Ethiopia’s children. Now is the time to organize and mobilize for national unity. Now is the time for truth and reconciliation. Now is the time to assert our human dignity against tyrannical barbarity.
Now is not the time to for division, accusation and recrimination. Now is not the time for finger pointing, bellyaching and teeth gnashing. Now is not the time to remain silent. Now is not the time to turn a blind eye. Now is not the time to turn a deaf ear.
Where should we go from here?
I will try to answer my own question in brief form for now. The opposition should get on the highway that leads to democratic governance. The opposition should roll out its action plan for a democratic, post-dictatorship Ethiopia. The principal lesson to be learned from the experiences of the past seven years is that the opposition’s role is not simply to “oppose, oppose and oppose” for the sake of opposing. The opposition’s role and duty goes well beyond simply proclaiming opposition to the abusers of power. The opposition’s role goes to the heart of the future democratic evolution and governance of the country. In that role, the opposition must relentlessly demand accountability and transparency of those absuing power. The fact that the abusers of power will pretend to ignore demands of accountability and transparency is of no consequence. The question is not if they will be held to account but when. The opposition should always question and challenge the actions and omissions of those abusing their powers in a principled and honest manner. The opposition must analyze, criticize, dice and slice the policies, ideas and programs of those in power and offer better, different and stronger alternatives. It is not sufficient for the opposition to publicize the failures and of the ruling party and make broad claims that they can do better.
For starters, the opposition should make crystal clear its position on accountability and transparency to the people. For instance, what concrete ideas does the opposition have about ending, or at least effectively controlling, endemic corruption in Ethiopia. In an exhaustive 448-page report, the World Bank recently concluded that the Ethiopian state is among the handful of the most corrupt in the world. I cannot say for sure how many opposition leaders or anyone in the opposition has taken the time to study this exquisitely detailed study of corruption in Ethiopia; but anyone who has read the report will have no illusions about the metastasizing terminal cancer of corruption in the Ethiopia body politics. The opposition should issue a white paper on what it would do to deal with the problem of corruption in Ethiopia.
Speaking truth to the powers that could be
I know that what I have written here will offend some and anger others. Still many could find it refreshing and provocatively audacious. Some critics will wag their tongues and froth at the mouth claiming that I am attacking the “opposition” sitting atop my usual high horse. They will claim that I am weakening and undermining the “opposition” preaching from my soapbox. Others will say I am overdramatizing the situation in the “opposition”. Still others will claim I am not giving enough credit or am discrediting those in the “opposition” who have been in the trenches far longer than I have been involved in human rights advocacy. They will say I am doing to the opposition what the power abusers have done to them. They will say I don’t understand because I have been sitting comfortably in my academic armchair and have not been on the front lines suffering the slings and arrows of an outrageous dictatorship. Be that as it may!
Though I acknowledge such claims could be convenient diversions, there are two essetnial questions all of us who consider ourselves to be in the “opposition” can no longer ignore and must be held to answer: They are pedaling backwards on the low road of dictatorship, are we marching forward on the highway to democracy? Is the “opposition” better off today than it was in 2005?
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
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