Dr.Birhanu Nega
Dr.Birhanu Nega

Derese G Kassa (PhD)

Three Strikes: Berhanu’s Synopsis

I remember him driving in Sidist Kilo campus blasting the air waves with Marvin Gaye’s “Brother, Brother”.  College juniors, I and my friends wondered, “Who is this guy?” Apparently he was an Economics professor who happened to be one of the most consequential and inspiring faculty members that Addis Ababa University was graced with during my undergraduate days. Dr. Berhanu’s classes drew so many of us who were not economics students at all. I remember dropping in one of his classes, “History of Economic Thought”, on borrowed time from another upper level course from my own department, Sociology. His mastery of the subject matter, passion about Ethiopia, and liberal mannerisms were legendary.

I remember he used to invite all his students to a night out to celebrate the end of each semester. Among the very conservative and status conscious cadre of AAU professors, Dr. Berhanu stood out a cosmopolitan, liberal and critical thinker who inspired most of us. It seems that streak never left him. He once took me by surprise talking about the National Football League (NFL) and Pittsburgh Steelers in the middle of a heated political discussion about Ethiopia. He topped it this week when he picked a baseball lingo and employed it to talk about the two revolutions (1974 and 1991) we underwent in the 20th century and this last bout we are in. If we miss this third history critical junction, he quipped, it would be “three strikes and we (the nation) will be out!”

I agree.  This is a historic moment. It is a do or die moment for a great segment of the Ethiopian population that ardently believes in the very existence of a supra-ethnic, state-national identity called Ethiopian. This is a critical moment for those of us who point out how the current ethno-federal design and the excesses of ethno-nationalism in TPLF’s Ethiopia suspended our collective identity as Ethiopians, stifled our individual freedoms and liberties, and hamstrung our well-being consigning us to be one of the poorest nations in the world. For a country that prides itself as one of the most ancient African civilizations, played crucial role in the fight against European colonialism, in the struggle for African Unity and stood out as a symbol of independence to Black people all over the world; our current state of demise is simply heartbreaking.

Berhanu was on point when he listed out some of the lasting ill effects of the past two transitions. The Ethiopian revolution and the Derg meant authoritarianism couched in the language of Marxism Leninism. It meant the end of feudalism but peasants moved from being gabbars of feudal land lords to being tenants of the state. Ethiopia’s agrarian crisis reached its apogee with the 1984 famine. State driven collectivization, villagization and coopertivization schemes designed to transform our agriculture did not succeed. Our social capital got eroded by a modern elite that scoffs at and ridicules the cultural and moral fabric its country was made of. That generation had, and still has, a giddy penchant to import foreign models and transplant them into the Ethiopian reality.

These problems further intensified in TPLF’s Ethiopia but with a sinister addition to the fray. The TPLF instituted a state structure where access to political power and economic resources is single handedly determined by one’s ethnic allegiance. Of course, the TPLF elite that hailed from Tigray reaped economic benefits, concentrated political and military power in its hands effectively isolating the elite from all other cultural communities. 

Despite repeated calls about the risk of total state collapse this would entail, Meles Zenawi dared to fuse iron clad dictatorship and ethnic patronage in a highly extractive lower base economy. These factors culminated in the explosion of protests and popular outbursts of resistance among Ethiopian Muslims, the Oromos and Amharas followed by incidents and conflicts in many other parts of the country. A notable exception here is, of course, Tigray. 

Hundreds died. Tens of thousands were arrested, jailed and tortured. Millions were displaced because of inter-ethnic conflicts, some allegedly masterminded by the military security complex of the TPLF. The political turmoil forced the regime to declare a state of emergency twice. The prime minister resigned opening an era of confusion, intra-party wrangling and competition within the EPRDF leading to the final selection of Dr. Abiy Ahmed.

The Enigma of Dr. Abiy Ahmed: To Reform or Transform? 

According to Berhanu, the debate then pivoted to two major questions. Is the new prime minister willing to bring genuine democratic transition in Ethiopia where all opposition parties and voices would negotiate to chart a new political path for the nation? Second, even if there is the willingness would Dr. Abiy and his cabinet have the political capital to enforce these consequential reforms? I also agree with Berhanu’s analysis that Abiy and his party (OPDO) had to tread on a difficult path to claim the premiership and emerge as “winners” within the EPRDF. But I am still skeptical on whether Prime Minister Abiy would muster the political muscle to flex against the military and security dominance of the TPLF and the latter’s strategic control of financial institutions of the state.

A month before Abiy’s inaugural address (Feb. 20, 2018) I opined,

Given all these, and let us, for arguments sake, say with all the positive intent that the rumored candidate- Dr. Abiy Ahmed- has to effect change, what change can he possibly bring about?? His appointment serves TPLF very well to claim they are reformists- they brought in an Oromo, a “reformer” etc. But everybody knows his office prerogatives will in fact be more restricted, regimented and controlled by the military-security complex of the TPLF. In fact, he is going to be a much weaker prime minister than Hailemariam. Will he have the powers reverse the state of emergency? Can he disband the military security cabal (“command post”) the day after his appointment?

He can be an ideal surrogate. The chances are he would begin inviting opposition party leaders to the national palace for photo-ops. He will hold fake national reconciliation conferences. He will do pressers and speeches for international consumption. And yes he will be the Oromo face for the ever “optimistic” (I am tempted to add “gullible”) diplomatic corps and donors who assume a change of guard is a change of policy. All of that would be done to buy TPLF time. But would Abiy Ahmed bring real change?

Now these were controversial remarks about post-Abiy Ethiopia. But to date, some of the projections have held. The state of emergency is here and the prime minister did not say a word about overturning it. Not all political prisoners are released. The regime is handpicking some opposition party leaders to negotiate unilaterally. The premier never hinted at having a grand bargain with all invited for a national dialogue. On the other hand, many argue that Dr. Abiy is indeed delivering on his promises. Four things are mentioned to his defense. First comes the fact that a large number of political prisoners have been already released.  Others congratulate Dr. Abiy’s unabashed defense of Ethiopiawinet, a rarity from an EPRDF official. Others welcomed his remarks that opposition parties should not be demonized and undermined but be seen as competitors. Last but not least, the public liked Abiy’s action against some notoriously corrupt TPLF officials who also happen to be key power players within the ranks of the EPRDF. The dismissal of these unpopular, and corrupt TPLF officials sent a signal to many that the prime minister is neither a cipher nor a pushover.

I find most of these arguments in favor of Dr. Abiy’ tenure problematic. First, most prisoners were released on Haile Mariam’s watch and not his. Second, the fact that he waxed about Ethiopian national identity and the need for broadened democratic space does not mean he acted on it. I find both to be “campaign” promises, at best, or, at worst, rhetorical devices to appease the public. The only thing we can therefore salute him for is the ousting of corrupt and unpopular TPLF officials known for their philandering and embezzlement. But would such administrative decisions satisfy those of us who demand structural and institutional change in the way this regime operates? How about the musical chair where an Abay Tsehay gets fired and an Azeb Mesfin gets appointed to the board of METEC? We shall see but the jury is out to find the verdict.

Vague Scenarios: A critique of Dr. Berhanu’s Projections

Given all these, Professor Berhanu outlined three major scenarios: transition to a genuine democratic system, gradual (pseudo?) reform, and a complete state breakdown and civil strife. I find these scenarios vague and to a given extent obvious. Let me start from his worst case scenario. True, if age old problems of ethnic domination, poverty and horizontal fragmentation are not met with political solution, Ethiopia would face the abyss. In fact, the telltale signs of the past 5 years would make some wonder whether it already is not a failing state.

But I do not think the EPRDF risks total state collapse and mayhem if, say, it does not table an all-inclusive political platform for democratization. Its current populist dispensation with a charismatic young figure, its machinations to bring an opposition party or two (such as ODF), and future announcements for dialogue could give the incumbent regime a new lease of life. Its traditional strength in hard power aside, popular opinion has shifted and the new order is gaining traction within the opposition and the Diaspora. I therefore wonder if Berhanu’s option 3 is a plausible scenario in the immediate short term.

We should rather pay attention to the two other scenarios that Berhanu outlined: democratic transition and gradual “reform”. Berhanu did not flesh out in great detail what each of these options constitute. What does genuine democratization mean? Is it when or if the EPRDF agrees to a framework where it is willing to redraft the entire ethno-federal Constitution, agrees to establish a transitional government and summon fresh elections based on a new constitution. Is it, say, if the EPRDF is unwilling to redraft the Constitution but concedes that it needs serious revision and amendments and agrees that an independent Commission undertake that task? Consider the following third option, the EPRDF is unwilling to negotiate the terms of the Constitution but concedes that the National Electoral Board and the Justice System should be independent and free from party interference and guarantees that. If there is good will, Abiy’s government could also rescind the repressive trios- anti-terror law, charities and societies proclamation, and the press law. Opposition party leaders may also push for a new election calendar (for not more than 3 years after 2020) where they get to open offices, organize and mobilize their constituency in a bid to make the next national election genuinely free and democratic.

Would these gestures on the part of the EPRDF qualify as steps toward genuine political liberalization or do they fall in basket of gradual pseudo-reform? Readers must have noticed how I hone in on the issue of the constitution when toying with all these different scenarios. I will explain later why. I do not feel it is important to provide an example of what pseudo reform looks like. Shiferaw Shigute’s kangaroo council with makeshift political parties and “leaders” like Ayele Chamiso would suffice.   

Three Strikes and Patriotic Ginbot 7 should go home!

I see you blinking! Yes, we need Berhanu Nega, and Patriotic Ginbot 7 back home as soon as possible. Hereafter I would argue why this is an urgent matter at hand. I would also outline the necessary preconditions that the Ethiopian nationalist pro-democracy camp should put forth to be a part of a transition process. Why? First of all, the Ethiopian nationalist pro-democracy camp has an urgent task of re-constituting and consolidating itself to emerge as a formidable political force in Ethiopia. Ethiopian nationalism has been under assault for the past half a century. Ethiopian history was maligned as a hundred years invention. Ethiopian identity was reduced and tainted as an Amhara construct. Ethnic identity became the only operative for political activism, power and collective action.

There is history to this.  Back in the 1970s, Pan Ethiopian progressive forces (such as EPRP and MEISON) lost out to the ethno-nationalists. In 1991, Ethiopianist pro-democracy voices were denied the right to be on the table when the new constitution was drafted. Symbols of national pride such as the Ethiopian Armed Forces and Addis Ababa University were dismantled and/or undermined by the TPLF. The unity camp last displayed its show of force in 2005. Since then, Meles Zenawi embarked on another campaign to undercut the social base of the Ethiopianist camp. The fast and loose disbanding of the CUD, the brief and tumultuous life of Unity for Democracy and Justice (UDJ) party, and TPLF’s constant assault on the urban populace, the intelligentsia, the business community, civil society organizations, and the private media have all culminated in the erosion of its social base. All of these mean the first order of business for the unity and pro-democracy camp should be to gain ground, coalesce, and organize in situ.

Second, time is of the essence here. In politics a week is a long time. We cannot afford to be absent without leave at this particular junction. I hope the former CUD leaders would not squander an opportunity to struggle on the soil of Ethiopia the same way they squandered 137 parliament seats back in 2005. Imagine the level of organization and influence unionist and liberal democratic forces would have had if they were astute enough to hold their seats and face the inevitable tug of war with the EPRDF. CUD refused and that shattered not just the victory but the very survival of the unity camp as an organized political force to be reckoned with. That vacuum is now filled with an emboldened and highly organized infrastructure of ethno-nationalists. These facts should instruct Patriotic Ginbot 7 and Co. that if the necessary preconditions of the unity and pro-democracy camp are met; they should go home as soon as possible. 

The third reason why the unionist pro-democracy camp should not be timid is the fact that its ideals have been tried and tested and they emerged as winning political ideals in the most improbable and adverse political climate one could think of. Back in 2005, the CUD coalesced in less than half a year and managed to send shockwaves to an authoritarian regime built on the principles of ethnic patronage and violence. Neither repression nor ethno-nationalisms managed to bind the wind of change that wafted in 2005 Ethiopia. Mind you, the ethno-federal constitution was alive and kicking; various ethno-national parties were competing; and the EPRDF had a total control of the state apparatus to oil its election wheels. Yet, CUD scored remarkable victory.

What are the Necessary Preconditions?

I have come to perhaps the most controversial part of this essay. The question then becomes on what grounds unionist pro-democracy groups such as Patriotic Ginbot 7 Movement should revisit their strategy. Here are my three strikes.

1. There is no beating around the bush, the current constitution should be a subject of discussion on any all-inclusive national dialogue for democratic transition. We all know how flawed and controversial many of the provisions in this constitution are. To mention a few, sovereignty rests on Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia and not individual citizens. These regional states have wide ranging powers that have structurally undermined the powers of the national government including Article 39. Constitutional disputes and judicial interpretation are not handled by a Supreme Court or a Constitutional Court but by the House of Federation which is court packed by political appointees. But content aside, this constitution is not legitimate! The Ethiopian people did not freely debate and endorse the document in a popular referendum. Neither were all political parties and viewpoints represented at its drafting. Hence dialogue about the Constitution should not be off the table. Doing otherwise is a Faustian bargain. But politics is also the art of the possible. Evidently the EPRDF may resist discarding its constitution but may concede that the Constitution needs serious revision and amendments. Given such a hypothetical, the opposition should push for an independent Constitutional Commission to undertake revision with a proviso that a national referendum be held on a revised and/or amended version of the current constitution. This may help save face for the powers that be but open the opportunity to rework the document legitimize it in an open referendum.

2. The unity camp should insist on an all-inclusive national dialogue where major institutional reforms are discussed to ensure the independence of Ethiopian Armed Forces, the intelligence agencies, and the police and guarantee their non-interference in political affairs. Ensuring the total independence and integrity of the National Electoral Board and the Justice system is also paramount. An ideal place to start this would be to annul the repressive trios- the anti-terror law, the charities and societies proclamation, and the press law.

3. If such confidence building measures are taken and agreement is reached, opposition party leaders should disrupt the current election calendar and push for a new election calendar where they get to open offices, organize and mobilize their constituency in a bid to make the next national election genuinely free and democratic.

So here is my final message to Professor Berhanu.

If you manage to strike these three in your last inning, please go home!

Derese G Kassa (PhD)