Part I of III
“If something is not done, this Constitution will not hold the country together”
Dr. Negasso Gidada, the late President of Ethiopia to whom I dedicate this commentary
I decided to dedicate this commentary and the set of recommendations in the summary to Dr. Negasso. This is because, he is among the few Ethiopian political and thought leaders who leaves an enduring legacy for this and coming generations. Among other things, he imparted critical values that often is missed in current Ethiopian political discourse. Most notable of these is his honesty, integrity and courage; and his willingness and courage to admit that he made a mistake in championing the current Constitution. He recognized the dangers of ethnic federalism; and changed his views. I had the opportunity to discuss the pitfalls with Dr.Negasso during his visit to the USA. In fact, I had offered him a huge study on demographic and geographic changes that are shaping the globe making narrow ethnic enclaves irrelevant to rapid modernization. Development can’t take place without social mobility.
Dr. Negasso said “የእኔ አቋም በኢትዮጵያ አንድነትና ማዕቀፍ ውስጥ የኦሮሞም ሆነ የሌሎች ሕዝቦች መብቶች ይከበር፤ የመገንጠል ጥያቄ ይቅር ነው።” His position that heartened me is this. “The human and democratic rights of the Oromo and other people must and can be respected while embracing Ethiopian unity. Secession must stop.”
This leads me to my lead hypothesis. Prime Minster Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s inspirational and aspirational goals notwithstanding, Ethiopia faces policy log jams in almost every sector. Implementation capacity is stretched to the limit. So are federal budgetary resources. The government is in a fire fighting and reactive proactive mode. The federal government and the regional states are at logger heads in resolving ethnic conflicts. The Prime Minister emboldens some ethno-nationalists by either being opaque or by not telling them like it is.
Rightly or wrongly, many Ethiopians argue that the Prime Minister is incapable of pulling the society together; and must therefore resign.
I disagree. No single person no matter how inspiring and dedicated can and should be expected to cleanse Ethiopia of the ethnic elite poison, germ, hate, vitriolic and institutional corruption that has been inflicted on the entire society.
I do not believe that there is any single Ethiopian on the horizon to replace Abiy at this time. The Moses like idolization should, however, be tempered and subjected to a set of criteria that make sense.
If Ethiopians wish to see a unified and prosperous country, they must set aside ethnic and other differences and focus on the singular issues of tackling poverty and backwardness by harnessing their natural and human resources together.
Foreign and other independent experts are right in asking why we, Ethiopians, are incapable of accepting our differences as assets; and why we are not forging ahead with the society’s sustainable and equitable development agenda.
I think of a child in Gedeo and Guji, in Gambella and Beni-Shangul Gumuz, in Tigray and Oromia, in Afar and the Ogaden etc. and always wonder why the country’s political and intellectual elites cannot even sit together around a conference table and come-up with a road map that will serve the entire society.
Like the rest of the globe, Ethiopia possesses ample naturel resources: rain, waters, rivers, arable lands, minerals, human capital with a bulging youth group that is being wasted, cultural assets and sits in a strategic location. Yet decades after the Great Famine that brought down the imperial regime, it is home to 3 million internally displaced peoples (IDPs); and 8.3 million souls who depend on humanitarian aid.
Ethiopia is unable to conduct a credible census. Against this, the governing party and members of Ethiopia’s opposition plan to hold an election in about a year.
I should like to draw your attention to a child who begs for alms to underscore the priority of fighting poverty and backwardness rather killing one another in perpetuity.
Fight Poverty and not one another
(Think of the starving child as your own)
The challenge for the Prime Minister, his government and each one of us who care deeply about Ethiopia’s future is to diagnose problems; and to offer doable and meaningful alternatives. On his part, the Prime Minster needs to reach out to and seek a menu of alternatives from a cross-section of Ethiopians. In terms of policy he cannot afford to be inward looking.
The signals and narratives federal and regional authorities offer the Ethiopian public are inconsistent and contradictory. Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed, arguably one of the most inspiring and forward looking leaders in the world, believes genuinely in Ethiopia’s unity, territorial integrity, sovereignty and the prosperity of all Ethiopians. He has demonstrated resolve in numerous areas including respect for fundamental civil liberties, press and political freedom and the formation of pluralist democracy. He has positioned Ethiopia’s regional and global position strategically by reaching out to Eritrea, the rest of the Horn and global investors.
However, Ethiopia is awash with internal ethnic conflicts, theft, graft, corruption, illicit outflow of scarce capital, unemployment, hyperinflation, massive internal displacements of ordinary citizens estimated at 3 million and a humanitarian emergency crisis that requires safety net for 8.3 million Ethiopians. Ironically, Ethiopia hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world.
The government of Ethiopia is keen in advancing modernization. Among other things, it has opened up the country’s womb to foreign direct investment (FDI) without a clear and transparent regulatory regime that enhances the country’s interests, sovereignty and resiliency; protects workers, boosts domestic private and state owned enterprises such as banks, telecommunications and preserves intact profitable state enterprises such as Ethiopian Airlines.
I have shared my suggestions with the Prime Minister during his visit to the USA concerning the need for caution in privatization under the title of “Why the Rush Now?” I stand by my recommendation that unguided FDI is counterproductive for Ethiopia. The private sector is critical for Ethiopia. I shall come back to this topic in greater detail at a future date.
Ethiopia cannot build a strong and prosperous middle class with paltry wages. As a country, it should dictate policy and not succumb to the temptation of gaining foreign exchange and generating employment for millions of youth. Youth must be paid good wages to prosper.
A recent study by the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights disclosed in early May 2019 an alarming situation. “Ethiopian factory workers are now, on average, the lowest paid in any major garment-producing company worldwide.” Understandably, Ethiopia must be aggressive in ensuring that its industrial parks built with domestic capital are productive and sustainable. “The government’s eagerness to attract foreign investment led it to promote the lowest base wage in any garment-producing country — now set at the equivalent of $26 a month.”
It behooves us to compare these paltry monthly wages that are equivalent to about 780 Birr (using a lower black market exchange rate per dollar of 30 Birr) to what workers are paid in Kenya next door and China, the most important and powerful investor in Ethiopia. The Center reported that Kenyan garment workers are paid $207 per month; and Chinese garment workers are paid $340 per month, more than ten times what Ethiopian garment workers are paid.
In my professional opinion, development is about improving the human condition. The most critical variable in accelerating modernization is enhancing and empowering human development. To put it differently, human development is the single most important variable in advancing sustainable and equitable development. In turn, this requires public policy that is national, competitive, productive, equitable and non-discriminatory. Ethnic federalism is a barrier to this fundamental principle; and must be addressed.
The only ethnic party that has called on Ethiopia’s ethnic elites, civil society, the federal government and others to review the current Constitution that I believe is a barrier to equity and sustainability is the Amhara Democratic Party (ADP). I commend this initiative and urge the Prime Minister, constituent parties and the opposition to make this call a national priority. The call is essential because it is virtually impossible to make Ethiopia the next global hub for textile and other manufacturing and industrialization unless there is universal peace and stability throughout the country; and unless social capital is treasured.
Pull and Push
The current debate concerning the future fate of Ethiopia and its 110 million peace-loving people is between those who believe that ethnic federalism and the constitution must prevail and those who contend that the constitution and revolutionary democracy (RD) are conflict prone must change. Lines are drawn between these two forces; and no one really knows where the country would end up in the coming two to three years. Recently, the founders of the OLF and three ex-generals of the TPLF argued vehemently that dismantling ethnic federalism, the developmental state and RD would result in the Balkanization of Ethiopia. They believe that the next election ought to be the preservation of the status quo.
This pull and push between the federal center and the regional or kilil periphery is not only holding Ethiopia from modernization and scaled up employment generation; it is also sending contradictory and confusing signals to the population. It emboldens sectarianism and ethno-nationalism.
One unintended consequence of this pull and push is that ethnic federalism cherry-picks winners and losers on the basis of ethnic affiliation; and undermines talent, creativity, innovation and productivity. In turn this dwarfs growth and productivity. East Asia and the Pacific is an excellent example in the use of talent beyond ethnicity.
In a conflicted environment, the government of Ethiopia is reactive rather than proactive with regard to public policy. Not surprisingly, Ethiopians are confused what and who to believe. There is no national road map in the political or economic development regimes.
Sadly, Ethiopia’s media continues to cater to ethnic parties and to the governing party. There is limited impartial and independent reporting that bridges and advances common values and common policies. Think tanks and civil society organizations are still weak. Alternative policies that would serve Ethiopia as a country and Ethiopians as citizens are literally absent. When they are offered, it is not uncommon to screen them out.
The global community, including experts and NGOs are still wedded to their own narrow private and national interests. They see the Ethiopian dilemma as a nuisance that Ethiopians themselves must tackle. I agree with them. Ethiopia has the requisite human capital to resolve its national problems. The hurdle is the lack of a shared and common understanding of what is best for Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people as a whole.
I challenge Ethiopia’s disparate, fragmented and competing ethnic and national parties to convene an all-inclusive conference for national consensus, peace, reconciliation and post ethnic politics based solely on citizenship.
Ethiopians and the global community, especially Ethiopia’s Western friends ought to measure and evaluate Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed’s government on the basis of clear and concrete criteria and outcomes. The most critical criteria is accountability for misdeeds at every level and regardless of power and tribe. By misdeeds, I mean, undermining the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ethiopia; past and present targeted and deliberate ethnic cleansing; past and present direct or indirect killings of innocent persons; economic and financial sabotage; the deliberate propagation of ethnic or religious hate and destruction as well as unfettered ultra-ethnic nationalism that stimulates utter chaos and destruction.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
Ethiopia shows all of the ingredients of un-governability and mob rule. African proverbs offer us a rich menu of wisdom if we decide to use them to improve Ethiopia’s conditions. “He who does not seize opportunity today will be unable to seize tomorrow’s opportunity.” We are, in fact, squandering opportunities today. Whether or not they accept it, Ethiopia’s ethnic elites and the intellectuals who champion them are not only squandering the windows of opportunity brought as a consequence of years of sacrifice (2005, 2014-2018 in particular); they are also pushing Ethiopia to break up by championing a broken ethnic and linguistic constitutional system and an administrative structure that strengthens ethnic conflicts, deaths and destruction, separatism and secession. Ethiopia wastes resources it does not even have to preserve peace and stability. Proponents of ethnic federalism want to preserve a system that is literally broken and dysfunctional.
The struggle between two fundamentally contradictory and irreconcilable principles is being fought in Ethiopia’s villages, towns as well as in social media. On the one hand, Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed spoke and still speaks inspirationally of a “strong, unified and prosperous Ethiopia.” On the other hand, the ethnic and linguistic federal system that is buffeted by an ethnic Constitution his party created remains uncontested. Ethnic elites who created the current system have benefitted handsomely from the system they want to preserve at a huge cost, including Ethiopia’s dismemberment. In their vehement advocacy of ethnic federalism, RD and the developmental state that gave them power and wealth, they are also making it impossible for the Prime Minister to keep the country together. The best example of this un-governability is the garrison mentality in Mekele where some of the worst party, state and government criminals and thieves are stationed.
Those who refuse to obey the center (the federal government) believe that the Constitution itself guarantees them the legal right to rebel and to disobey the rule of law. For all practical purposes, the Tigray region is now de-facto an “independent government.” Dr. Debretsion G/Michael, the leader of the region, defies central authority consistently and arrogantly. On the one hand, he blames the federal government for refusing to avail budgetary largesse to the region that he has sealed off from the rest of Ethiopia. On the other, he holds federal authorities callable and accountable for the abysmal deterioration of human rights that contributes directly to Ethiopia’s balkanization. Certainly, as an ultra-ethnic nationalist party that still refuses to acknowledge Ethiopia and Ethiopian citizenship, the TPLF does not possess the moral authority to demand accountability from Abiy’s government. The TPLF regime committed atrocities.
In his press conference that he holds freely and uses as a vehicle to prolong the agony of the Ethiopian people including Tigreans, Dr. Debretsion claims that national peace, reconciliation, the stability and sovereignty of Ethiopia are being eroded. He contends directly that the Abiy government is not able or competent to manage Ethiopia’s national and security affairs; to protect the safety and security of Ethiopians; and to accelerate development. He has learned absolutely nil from statesmen such as Ambassador Suleiman Dedifo, an Ethiopian who offered a compelling narrative for unity; and diagnosed thievery, theft, graft, undeserved commissions, corruption and massive illicit outflow of foreign exchange from Ethiopia.
Tragically for the Ethiopian people including Tigreans who believe in the sovereignty of the country and for which Tigrean heroes also died, Dr. Debretsion is accountable for making his region a bastion of “criminals and thieves.” Most prominent of these are Getachew Assefa, former intelligence chief and Abay Tsehay, one of TPLF main architects of ethnic plunder who served, among other things, as Director of a sugar conglomerate that lost or bilked away more than 12 billion Ethiopian Birr. Sebhat Nega, who at one time had boasted that “the Ethiopian Orthodox church and the Amhara were destroyed.” It is this system that they want to defend.
These persons are among the most ardent champions of ethno-nationalism in Ethiopia. They are also defenders of the current Constitution and kilil system. Neither the TPLF nor its adherents and supporters seem to care about the arduous work of preparing Tigrean and other youth for the solutions of tomorrow. Instead, they seem to be wedded to the anachronistic notion of fermenting ethnic conflicts everywhere. To do this, they use the tens of billions of Birr they stole from the public purse, especially from the mid-1990s to 2017/2018 to ferment chaos.
The argument that the TPLF and OLF make that they are defending the sovereign rights of nations, nationalities and peoples is absurd and indefensible. The rights of all citizens irrespective of tribe and where they reside are irreconcilable with ethno-nationalism. An Oromo or Amhara or Gurage or Somali or Wolayta national cannot compete in Tigray. A Tigrean cannot compete in politics in the Oromo region etc. Ethiopia is a polarized country.
I want the world community and Ethiopians alike to appreciate the fact that those who were murdered using bows and arrows in Beni-Shangul Gumuz; killed with machine guns and other modern weapons in Northern Shoa; slaughtered like animals with machete like weapons (ገጀራ) in Burayu and most recently hacked to death in Jimma (Kaffa) are innocent children, mothers, the elderly and peace loving farmers. If you murder productive people; you deepen poverty. It is not implementation that it at issue. It is the system itself.
The fate of the Amhara
The Amhara population is a singular target for assaults everywhere. Following the capture of the state and government by the TPLF, EPLF, OLF and other ethnic groups in 1991, Meles Zenawi was asked why the Amhara population was not represented in London and in the transitional government. His response was that the Amhara did not organize themselves on the basis of ethnicity. The Amhara are ardent supporters of a unified Ethiopia as well as defender of citizenship rights (ኢትዮጵያዊነት). Because of this, they were exposed to all forms of human rights abuses including ethnic cleansing.
I find it galling, inhumane and shameful that the target population for ethnic cleansing in all parts of the country is the Amhara nationality. Experts estimate that more than 46 percent of the Amhara live and work outside the Amhara region. The spread of the Amhara population serves as a bulwark for integration and economic vitality. It also strengthens Ethiopia’s territorial integrity, independence and sovereignty. The Amhara population has a proven track record for defending the rights of others. The Amhara region hosts all ethnic groups. The Amhara has a proven track record for resisting foreign aggression and occupation. It should not be punished for these attributes.
The Amhara resolve at last to organize and defend its own very survival is therefore legitimate and right. In fact, I hypothesize further that Ethiopia’s future survival and vitality will depend on the wellbeing of the Amhara; and on the peaceful coexistence of the Amhara with the Oromo, Afar, Tigray, Somali, Wolayta, Gurage and other ethnic groups. It is their unity that preserved Ethiopia. Defending and institutionalizing the rights of all citizens is critical for Ethiopia’s survival; and for the modernization of all Ethiopians. So, why destroy such a valuable human capital national asset; for whose benefit?
It is worth repeating that the TPLF and its ally the OLF as well as other ethnic elites targeted the Amhara population from inception. The economic rationale behind ethnic cleansing of the Amhara is land. Ethiopia has ample land. Ethiopians are wasting it through conflicts and carelessness.
Years before the TPLF and its ethnic allies concocted the current ethnic constitution that granted sovereignty to “nations, nationalities and peoples,” thereby abrogating citizenship rights, the TPLF ethnically cleansed the Amhara in numerous parts of Gondar. It depopulated the Amhara from their lands and replaced indigenous people with Tigreans. Subsequently, it engineered internal divisions within the region along sub-ethnic clusters.
From the period 1991 to the present the Amhara have been subjected to the most cruel and unusual punishment of any nationality group in Ethiopia. In Arba Gugu, Amhara children, girls, boys, women and men were literally thrown over the cliff. Decades later in or near Jimma, one farmer (Mr. Getinet)) was hacked to death and buried in conditions that defy human conscience. This chilling inhumanity in today’s Ethiopia is not any different from the slaying of Ethiopian youth in Libya. An untold number of farming families are now housed in a church, the only sanctuary where they feel safe.
The common expression of “fake news” in Western democracies was deployed successfully and effectively by the TPLF and its cohorts to characterize and demean the Amhara population. “Fake news” and all forms of falsehoods are now deployed by the same group to assert the false and unfounded hysteria that the Amhara wishes to take over political and economic power. There isn’t an iota of evidence to suggest that the Amhara alone and exclusively ruled Ethiopia. In fact, the Amhara genius is the ability and commitment to intermarry and live with other Ethiopians. Are there any other ethnic groups outside the Oromo and Amhara that are predominantly mixed and intermingled to the point where one cannot distinguish an Oromo face from an Amhara face? How in the world would an Amhara farmer who was hacked to death near Jimma aspire power? How does one justify killing an Amhara child with bows and arrows in Beni-Shangul Gumuz? This is savagery that defies humanity.
Ethiopia’s ethnic tragedy does not start and end with the Amhara population. It is now widespread and involves innocent people in the Afar, Beni-Shangul Gumuz, Gambella, Ogaden, SNNP and Oromia regions. Once triggered, ethnic hatred, division and conflicts do not have borders at all. Everyone pays a price at one time.
I can provide numerous facts to dispel the notion that the Amhara are out to assume political power.
I therefore find it hypocritical that the TPLF that engineered the ethnicization of Ethiopian politics would now critique Abiy and his team for the disaster to which Ethiopia and its diverse population are subjected; and in which the Amhara are singularly targeted for ethnic cleansing. The killing and plunderers’ party, state and government that the TPLF and OLF crafted to rule Ethiopia is now shattering at its core. What worries me is not the unraveling of the institutions created by the TPLF and its allies and the EPRDF super and supra infrastructure that still dominates; rather, it is Prime Minister Dr. Abiy’s reluctance to deal with the pitfalls of ethnic federalism and revolutionary democracy.
What worries me further is that, despite compelling and chilling documentary evidence of atrocities on innocent Ethiopians, the culprits are allowed to exercise freedom; and to carry out all sorts of crimes against Ethiopia and Ethiopians. In some cases, the Abiy government hosts leaders of political parties in five star hotels. Among these are persons who are suspect of atrocities. It is natural that they defend the status quo. They are the lead beneficiaries.
What is the role of the federal government?
The primary role of the federal government is to protect civilians from any form of atrocity. The sanctity of human life must be supreme. Abiy’s government must be held accountable and responsible for the personal safety and security of persons, families and entire communities; for the durability of the country; for accelerating national consensus, peace, reconciliation and stability; for Ethiopia’s economic resiliency based on the performance of the economy; and for employment generation for Ethiopia’s youthful population.
Regional fiefdoms cannot cure Ethiopia’s ills. On the contrary, Ethiopia will breakup and ethnic cleansing will deepen unless regional authorities are assembled by the federal government and are compelled in writing to vow publicly that they will subordinate their narrow interests to the national interest and to the welfare and wellbeing of all Ethiopians as citizens. It may not be totally clear of conflict; but Nigeria’s federal constitution compels regional governments and governors to swear loyalty to the federal state of Nigeria.
I pose a critical question that each and every Ethiopian and the global community must ponder. What are Ethiopia’s options based on current socioeconomic and political conditions?
In my estimation, Abiy’s Ethiopia has three choices:
- To continue with its downward spiral to the abyss of “Balkanization,” civil war and potential genocide with far reaching consequences for the country, the entire Horn of Africa and Eastern Africa, North Africa and the Middle East;
- To revert back to the reemergence of a dictatorial regime akin to or worse than that of the TPLF led rulers of the 1991-2018 period; or
- To initiate deep and fundamental policy, structural and institutional changes that would pave the way for the Ethiopian people as a whole to realize genuine pluralist democracy, the rule of law, honest and measurable equality among the country’s ethnic and religious groups and to establish a national model for sustainable and equitable development for all.
I have argued above that the first two options have been tried and failed miserably. In fact, the root causes of the current problem are traceable to the periods of brutal regimes following the removal of the Imperial government that had offered Ethiopians a semblance of peace; and certainly national honor and dignity at the global level. An Ethiopian passport was highly respected then. Ethiopians were able to live and work in any part of the country then. Black people all over the world looked up to Ethiopia and Ethiopians with admiration and respect then. It was uncommon for any Ethiopian to complete higher education and to seek asylum then etc. etc. etc.
The Socialist Military Dictatorship ruled with brutality and cruelty. It disallowed dissent and competition and; and it created a fertile ground for Ethiopia’s internal and external enemies to plot, connive and undermine the fabric of Ethiopian society. Socialism was a carbon copy of an alien ideology that was propagated without taking into account Ethiopia’s vast, untapped and unique indigenous assets, including administrative and legal instruments that work.
The Tigray Liberation Front (TPLF), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and other ethnic fronts exceeded even the Socialist regime in terms of breaking down unifying national assets. Ethiopia as a country and the numerous bonds that pulled Ethiopia’s diverse population together were either relegated to secondary status; and or were intentionally and systemically engineered to fall apart into pieces. How did they do it? Constitutionally!
If you break up socioeconomic, religious and political bonds, isn’t time to revisit the Constitution?
The TPLF, EPLF, OLF and their foreign advisors and backers concocted the current blemished, inconsistent and opportunistic Constitution with the intent of enabling ethnic elites to rule the country for their own narrow personal, family and tribal interests. The culprit or the camouflage deployed as a central galvanizing ideology is the TPLF’s insidious attribution of national oppression of the rest of Ethiopians by the Amhara nationality. This became the basis for massive and continuous ethnic cleansing of the Amhara. You can’t cure the problem unless you deal with the Constitution itself. Continuing the status quo will result in more bloodshed.
The data gathered of these killings, forcible evictions, abductions and expropriation of lands, incorporating them into Greater Tigray began long before the TPLF took power in 1991. Equally chilling is the fact that the TPLF was able to recruit and establish an Amhara political movement that was subservient to it. Proxy wars that are now normalized started to take shape before the TPLF dominated Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) began to rule Ethiopia with an iron fist more than a quarter of a century ago.
As a consequence of the narrative that placed the Amhara at par with colonial and imperial powers, the Amhara became targets of assault throughout the country. To my knowledge, no party or regional or federal official has been held accountable for the crimes against humanity inflicted on the Amhara population. Innocent children, women and men were literally thrown over the cliff to die; tens of thousands were expelled from their homes, lands and property in Gura Ferda, various parts of Oromia, Gambella, Beni-Shangul Gumuz and various towns around Addis Ababa and even in the Amhara region, especially Gondar.
Every single forcible eviction and displacement, killing, maiming, disappearance, jailing without due process of law, rape and confiscation of property from ordinary Ethiopian citizens, most noticeably from the Amhara shows that the rule of law never existed under the TPLF regime; and it does not exist now under the ODP regime either.
What it the rule of law anyway?
Every activist, intellectual, human rights advocate, politician and political party of any kind speaks about the rule of law. Constitutional lawyers have a shared definition that I shall use in this commentary.
First and foremost, the rule of law applies equally to all persons or citizens regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, class, religion or other distinction. It is a core principle. If you don’t apply it in one case it is discriminatory. For example, under Apartheid South Africa or Jim-Craw America, the rule of law did not apply to whites, blacks and browns alike. It was biased in favor of whites; it still is.
Second, the rule of law is consistent regardless of the issue or the person. Unless they are guided by ethnicity or ideology or class, public authorities do not determine that one case is potentially explosive and thus needs to be delayed for an opportune time; and another is a priority now. This is why experts argue that “Justice delayed is justice denied.” For example, top level thieves, tormentors and killers or corrupt party, regional or federal officials and thieves of state in Ethiopia who had committed crimes over decades continue to enjoy both freedom and livelihoods from stolen wealth. Yet, petty criminals and thieves do not enjoy the same rights and privileges.
Ironically, criminals and thieves who possess ill-gotten wealth, have established a network of impenetrable connections and continue to enjoy unprecedented immunity. In the process, they create havoc and destruction all over Ethiopia. They blame the havoc on the new government. And the central government does not seem to comprehend the problem. It spends more time creating commissions rather than dealing with the core issues first.
Among the missing links is the notion that Ethiopia’s external enemies are gaining ground while Ethiopians fight one another for lands and for political power. I still accept Prime Minister Dr. Abiy as a potential change agent. However, I failed to understand what his road map is for Ethiopia. A road map is virtually untenable unless Abiy’s government recognizes that ethnic federalism and revolutionary democracy are undermining the country’s sovereignty and uprooting the multiple bonds that hold the Ethiopian people together.
Third, the rule of law is predictable and reliable. Predictability and reliability are essentially of clear laws that are implemented consistently by an impartial, competent, merit based, independent, incorruptible and national judiciary system. Judges and other key personnel are selected and appointed to administer the rule of law without reverting to ethnic, religious, class or party affiliation. If you staff the court and judiciary system on the basis of ethnicity, it is predictable that the outcome will be biased and discriminatory. For this reason, ordinary people won’t trust the judiciary at all. They perceive it as an arm of the governing party.
Fourth, the rule of law must enjoy neutrality. Over the past 27 years of TPLF hegemony, the law was deployed consistently and systematically to punish perceived enemies of the governing party, the state, the government and the Constitution itself. The Anti-Terrorism Proclamation is the best example of the lack of impartiality and neutrality. You write a Constitution with all the trappings of respect for civil and human rights on the one hand; and use fabricated evidence to punish those who fight for justice, equality and the rule of law. Or you condone misbehaviors and misdeeds arguing that proponents want a redress for past mistakes.
Those who hold Ethiopia’s progress forward by deploying different methodologies to capture state power are not helping Abiy in building bridges. As the African wise proverb goes “In the moment of crisis, the wise build bridges and the foolish build dams.” I am not saying that dams are no good; they are. I am saying that the time to build dams and all other economic infrastructure will come when we embrace and accept one another as human beings and as Ethiopians.
The priority now is to build bridges among all Ethiopians. It is the people of Ethiopia as a whole who fought and lost their lives and ushered in a new regime. Ethno-nationalism does the exact opposite. It builds barriers to inclusion.
It is therefore time that the federal government shows muscle and teeth and guarantee the safety and security of Ethiopians without distinction to ethnicity or religion or class. No armed group; no special force of any kind should be allowed anywhere in the country to roam, maim, kill and forcibly evict innocent citizens.
Commissions alone do not work. Setting up all forms of commissions and staffing them with the same cadres of people who are part of the problem is not wise; and won’t produce positive outcomes. Ethiopia must strengthen at any cost its national institutions first.
No accountability! No Rule of law
Fifth, the rule of law holds everyone accountable for harmful conduct and action. If you apply ethnic, religious or class preferences in adjudicating the rule of law, all is lost. Thieves, murderers and other criminals alike feel that they are entitled to impunity; that the rule of law does not apply to them at all. Impunity is the enemy of national unity and justice for all.
Whether affiliated to a municipal, local, regional or federal government or the private sector, every citizen must be held accountable. Disparate or unequal or uneven treatment of individuals based on ethnicity, wealth or political power is anathema to the rule of law. Most critical of all, disparate treatment in the application of the rule of law based on different types of connections diminishes public trust in party and government officials.
An American scholar, democratic activist and patriots summed up the rule of law. “In America, the rule of law is King.” In contrast, the rule of law in Ethiopia is farce. For example the TPLF’s Chief of Security, Getachew Assefa, is described by knowledgeable experts as “corrupt, murderer, inhumane and torturer.” He and his partners have cordoned themselves off from the rest of Ethiopia in the garrison city of Mekele. Who knows what they are plotting next and where? Equally, who knows what the OLF is plotting from its “home base” in Addis Ababa?
What I surmise is this. The TPLF and its allies used public funds and other resources to recruit and staff an elaborate system of institutions in critical parts or regions of Ethiopia, for example, in Beni-Shangul Gumuz, Gambella, Addis Ababa and other locations. I won’t forget the 5 to one surveillance system that was Orwellian; the numerous State of Emergencies that proved to be lethal in the Amhara, Oromia regions as well as in Addis Ababa following the stolen elections of 2005; and during the state of siege from 2014 to 2018.
While the TPLF was dislodged from state power, the grassroots level organizations and traps it planted most often using local proxies and agents have not been dismantled. There is a plethora of evidence that confirms the existence of parallel authorities, chieftains and some say governments. The TPLF plots in Mekele and the OLF plots in Addis Ababa. What is the distinction between the two?
The Prime Minister ought to recognize that these schemes and plots together are intended to thwart the reform process; and to reinstate the TPLF or a similar ethnic based dictatorship. The severity of a Mafia or mob style resistance differs from one locality to another. You bring Oromo and Somali Ethiopians together artfully and systematically one day; and resolve disputes successfully; and another ethnic conflict erupts somewhere else. The root cause is the same.
The TPLF, OLF and other ethnic allies as well as their foreign backers institutionalized ethnic federalism with the intent of keeping Ethiopia in suspense, threatening it with a break-up when the situation is not favorable to the ethnic elite masters and new land lords. The TPLF and OLF in tandem argue that dismantling the ethnic federal system they established will result in Ethiopia’s Balkanization. The same architects that brought Ethiopia to the brink are now telling us that Ethiopia will balkanize unless the status quo is maintained.
Why not asks the people of Ethiopia to decide the matter in a national referendum?
Proponents of the status quo ante do not, however, tell us why the system is the single most critical source of ethnic cleansing, murders, robberies, internal displacements and land grab. Neither the TPLF nor the OLF gives value and priority to all human life.
For more than 27 years, the TPLF and its ethnic allies including ethnic parties such as the Amhara National Democratic Movement that the TPLF fathered, ruled Ethiopia with a level of cruelty and brutality unprecedented in Ethiopian history. No matter how much I have tried, I find no parallel in modern African history that resembles Ethiopia’s Orwellian party, state and government all blended into one. It is this same system that adherents of ethnic federalism, the developmental state and RD want to preserve at any cost.
Equally, it is this Orwellian system that Abiy and his team must dismantle before it brings down the entire government; Balkanizes Ethiopia; and triggers civil war and possible genocide.
In the Amhara region, the TPLF had successfully recruited, planted and penetrated each and every municipal, regional, sub-regional and regional administrative institution including the now morphed Amhara Democratic Party itself. Colleges and universities are forced to serve as bastions of TPLF propaganda. The ADP must cleanse itself of the monster to which it is a hostage. Peace and stability are unattainable as long as the TPLF infrastructure exists. It operates and breeds like a virus. The solution to a virus is not appeasement; it is dismantlement at its institutional and constitutional core.
Contrast the Amhara region’s situation with that of the Oromia region where the Oromo Democratic Party has “freed” institutions and civil society of TPLF hegemony, influence and its hateful virus. This does not mean that the rule of law prevails in Oromia either; it does not. Comparisons should be read as relative.
Enablers and financers
This takes me to another phenomenon in Ethiopian politics that we fail to analyze and debate boldly and candidly. For a mobster like political culture to flourish, there must be enablers somewhere. Who are these domestic and foreign enablers of the mobs, thieves, robbers, black marketers, human and weapons traffickers, sharp shooters and saboteurs of economic and financial infrastructure? Do they really care for Ethiopia and for the Ethiopian people?
Why is this taking place in an environment of hope, a pronounced focus on human rights, well-articulated aspirational goals by the Prime Minister, better relations with neighboring countries, especially with Eritrea and a public euphoria for fundamental change? Why is the federal government unable to protect the safety and security of individuals, communities and the country?
Is the onslaught a threat to Ethiopia’s territorial integrity, national honor and dignity and the country’s sovereignty? My answer to this core question is an unequivocal yes.
I do not think that any person or party has the answer. I know from the experiences of other countries in transition that the Prime Minister and his party are genuine and sincere in their aspirations. However, they alone cannot solve this national and human problem. Equally, Ethiopia’s fragmented and weak opposition or so called competitive (ተፎካካሪ ፓርቲዎች) parties cannot either. I am convinced though that, if united and free, the Ethiopian people can save the country. They have done it in the past and will in the future too.
An aspect of Ethiopia’s systemic and institutional hurdle that no one is discussing forthrightly is the pull and push between the federal center and the regional or kill self-governing units. They are not in synch at all. I have shown above in the TPLF example that, on the contrary, elites of regional governments operate as “independent units.” Their loyalty to the center is questionable. In a number of instances, regions or kilil (s) serve as porous entry points for all types of extrajudicial bodies. They provide safety and security to thieves and criminals.
For example, in Gambella, it was reported that there are “three military depots, training camps” etc. In the Afar region, similar extrajudicial movements of armed men have been identified. In Beni-Shangul Gumuz, the marauding bandits of armed men who murdered civilians identifying them as Amhara nationals are described as “unknown.” Similarly, in Northern Shoa a well-armed group with machine guns moved from house to house killing innocent people, torching homes and churches. This armed group was also described as unknown. Federal authorities including defense forces have failed miserably in mitigating these and other atrocities. It is time to ask whether or not these establishments are independent and national or ethnic and biased?
What I recommend as a remedy
My hypothesis from these sets of incidents is this. When regions become porous and uncommitted or ill-equipped to safe guard the safety and security of all Ethiopians civilians in their own region and when “unknown armed groups” are able to roam, kill persons and destroy property, they have essentially failed to implement the rule of law. They have also failed to bear their share of responsibility to the federal government. In the process, Ethiopia’s sovereignty is threatened.
Regional governments and people have an obligation to ensure the safety and security of all citizens. They have an obligation to safeguard Ethiopia’s national interests and its sovereignty.
What I conclude from the chaos and the uneven change process is this. For Ethiopians to enjoy personal security, peace and stability, the rule of law must be enforced throughout the country by local, regional and federal authorities in synch. No single person or party should be above the law. The social and political glue that will strengthen the rule of law is citizens’ rights.
In any civilized country on the planet, ex-officials such as Getachew Assefa and any others who robbed 17 bank branches, murdered 58 innocent people in Burayu, triggered massive ethnic conflicts and displacements in Gedeo-Guji, Gondar, Oromia, Northern Shoa, Beni-Shangul Gumuz and near Jimma and also took out billions of dollars of Ethiopia’s wealth illicitly would be “wanted men.” They won’t be allowed to live with impunity anywhere in the world. This is the reason why I contend that appeasement won’t work at all.
What would it take to strengthen the rule of law?
First and foremost is public resolve and participation in pursuit of fundamental change.
Second is bold, courageous and imaginative government leadership at all levels; and continuous and proactive popular public engagement and support for peace and stability. More than anyone else foreign or domestic, ordinary Ethiopian citizens especially youth know the facts on the ground.
This leads me to the third recommendation, namely accountability. Youth can pinpoint and identity party, regional and federal officials who have committed crimes against humanity; and have plundered the country. Shouldn’t such persons be held accountable in a court of law regardless of tribe or power? My answer is yes.
How do we achieve accountability?
Ethiopia must use all tools at its disposal including the Magnitsky Act in the United States, the EGMONT Financial Intelligence surveillance system, Interpol and the International Criminal Court and hold those who committed extrajudicial murders of innocent civilians; and those who used their public authority and power to steal and take out billions of dollars illicitly accountable wherever they may hide.
Hemorrhaging through theft and graft
I note with delight and anticipation that the Ethiopian government has decided to join the EGMONT group of countries to track and retrieve the tens of billions of dollars stolen and taken out of the country illicitly. I have been arguing for several years that Ethiopia is hemorrhaging from illicit outflow that averages close to 3 billion dollars per annum. It is not just price mis-invoicing and under reporting that is the culprit. The foreign exchange regime is replete with distortions including black market exchanges of dollars and other hard currencies for Birr, high commissions and kickbacks, unreported and illegal Diaspora transfers of monies etc.
I shall conclude from the above hypothesis and analysis that the implication of lack of accountability for any form of crime in Ethiopia is consequential. It must be dealt with now.
This is the fundamental reason why Ethiopia needs a new Constitutional system with checks and balances: an independent judiciary, an elected legislative body that is solely subservient to the electorate and not to the party; and a top notch and incorruptible executive body appointed through free and fair elections.
I shall reiterate the most critical hypothesis. One of the biggest hurdles the Abiy government faces is lack of accountability for high crimes whether property or human lives. You can talk all you want about the rule of law; but no one will take you seriously if those at the highest level of government (local, municipal, regional or federal) are not held accountable for misdeeds in a court of law.
Transferring criminals, including thieves of party, state and government from one role to another is a form of appeasement. It is not justice. It does not advance the democratization process an inch.
In the light of the above, my advice to the Abiy team is that they need to hold each and every person who has committed high crimes accountable in a court of law now. I am hopeful and optimistic that this will happen.
In part II of this commentary, I shall discuss the pitfalls of ethnic federalism and propose an alternative that will hold Ethiopia together and advance the prosperity of the Ethiopian people.
In the interim, I urge proponents of ethnic federalism to heed to the wise advice of the late Dr. Negasso.
May 14, 2019