By Ahmed M Hassen, @amhassen
Addis Abeba – Since its inception, several formulas have been tried to transform the Ethiopian empire stitched together by warfare and violence into a stable polity functioning based on legitimate authority. In the early 1990s, the ethnonational liberation forces who removed Mengistu Hailemariam’s military government crafted a political settlement to address the country’s diversity. The settlement was meant to address the failure of state-building which emanated from the refusal of ethnocentric Amhara elites at the center to share power in any meaningful way with the elites of other communities, particularly of the lowland periphery. The politics of peripheralization led to the creation of several liberation fronts that fought back, toppled the regime that centralized power and constructed a fairer and more judicious mechanism of power distribution.
The power-sharing formula, the multinational federation, envisioned Ethiopia as a political community of self-governing nations and nationalities and guaranteed the right of nations to self-determination as the mechanism of power-sharing and authority legitimation. This contributed to reductions in inter-communal conflicts, a relatively stable security environment and rapid economic growth. While progress was made in these areas, issues of economic justice, democratization and respect for human rights remained severely hampered. Popular protests demanding these rights erupted, first among Muslim activists’ objecting political interference in religious affairs in 2011 and followed three years later by Oromo youth protestors demanding self-rule, economic justice and respect for cultural identity. These challenges shattered the incumbent regime’s aura of invulnerability, opening the way for a country-wide movement that ended the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) era of dominant party democracy.
The change of administration in April 2018 raised hope that, at long last, Ethiopia would relegate its imperial and autocratic past and commence a transition to participatory politics and a political dispensation of power-sharing. However, something went terribly awry. The hope for a democratic transition that dawned in April 2018 has now given way to a reign of terror characterized by war crimes, unspeakable violence and myriad acts of cruelty including ethnic cleansing. The worst excesses of EPRDF’s tenure now seem mild and tolerable in comparison to the death, destruction, and decadence of the Prosperity Party era. The country has been transformed into an Akeldama, a field of blood. Politics has become a Hobbesian conflict and life for ordinary citizens has become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Ethiopian rulers have demonstrated an eagerness and willingness to perpetrate atrocity crimes with legendary brutality. Some of the strife are now being given a religious hue, a poison that a multi-ethnic multi-religion Ethiopia has to avoid at all costs.
Failure of Democratization and National Integration
The sad turn of events resulted from an existential struggle between forces of progress and forces of reaction. In the last three years, and an allegedly reformist faction that wrested power has resuscitated the forces of reaction in its effort to replace the forward-looking formula of the 1991 political settlement by restoring a unitary state with a leviathan sitting at the pinnacle of a centralized authority of a unified “nation.” The Prosperity Party, on the face of it, denies its goal is to restore Ethiopia’s imperial past. Denying an act while palpably engaged in it is a tried-and-true tactic Ethiopian politician employ. The party’s constitutive documents, the party leaders’ various pronouncements and its supporters’ discourses are fraught with evidence. Most importantly, the centralization of power, the militarization of politics, and the wanton criminalization of the forces of change, specifically ethnonationalist politicians, put the lie to the pervasive denials.
Most analysts view the present political drift and the specter of state collapse as a failure of democratization. On one level, this is true. Some sixty years ago, the eminent sociologist Donald Levine warned in his famous book, Wax and Gold: Tradition and Innovation in Ethiopian Culture, about structural impediments to Ethiopia’s quest for modernization (democratization). He was shouted down by the contemporary elite and declared persona non grata in Ethiopia. In 2011, John Markakis, an astute observer of Ethiopian politics, in his Ethiopia: The Last Two Frontiers, posited that the insistence on monopolizing and concentrating power has frequently obstructed the struggle to democratize governance in Ethiopia.
“…in the absence of an orderly transition to a different administration, removing or sidelining Abiy by any other means would create a political vacuum that would aggravate the crisis and bring about further chaos and bloodshed.”
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to reduce the repeated scuttling of transition to participatory politics to Ethiopia’s tradition of the politics of intrigue and chicanery. What is happening in Ethiopia is the unraveling of the century-old effort of national integration. The oppressed nations in Ethiopia are used to the political rhetoric of denigration, marginalization and dehumanization. Its goal was assimilation and the deracination of ethnic identity and loyalty. The current high-pitch political rhetoric calling for ethnic cleansing and genocide is unprecedented. As if the destruction that has occurred so far aren’t enough, it calls for a permanent conflict to saturate the airwaves. The values of constitutional supremacy, the rule of law and democratic governance are now replaced by those of expansionism, chauvinism and xenophobia. The absence of accountability for officials at the highest levels of government presages a more ominous political dispensation.
Too little, Too Late
Every objective observer of Ethiopian politics, both inside and outside, shares the view that the country’s present course of the war, political repression, economic collapse and failure of governance is on track to replay the Yugoslav model of state dissolution. The simmering ethnic tensions in ostensibly peaceful quarters of the country shows the current Ethiopia project a powder keg waiting to explode. There is also consensus that if nothing is done to deescalate the genocidal rhetoric and arrest the continuing social militarization, the possibility of Rwandization cannot be ruled out.
Many observers have now come to accept that Abiy Ahmed is the author of the multidimensional crises and an obstacle to finding a political solution. Even if he agrees to sit down to negotiate a workable political solution, Abiy is no longer in a position to deliver because he is a hostage of conflicting internal power mongers. Many would like to replace him with a leader who could bring a semblance of normalcy to the otherwise chaotic situation of the country. However, the international community is paralyzed reckoning that, in the absence of an orderly transition to a different administration, removing or sidelining Abiy by any other means would create a political vacuum that would aggravate the crisis and bring about further chaos and bloodshed.
Constrained by an apparently irresolvable conundrum and petrified by the prospect of a political implosion in the Horn of Africa, the international community has put its faith in a national dialogue that the ruling Prosperity Party has hastily put together and launched. The process is described as the last and only magical panacea for all of Ethiopia’s political ailments. However, the proposed national dialogue cannot be expected to succeed because it already violates all the principles that make for a successful national dialogue.
Politicians of the center have had their time deciding the fate of the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia. They have failed ignominiously, and the raging civil war is proof that the center has no workable solution.
The Ethiopian National Dialogue Commission and the process that led to its establishment did not meet the criteria of inclusiveness, transparency, autonomy, popular participation, and setting a holistic agenda has made the whole program, some say, dead on arrival. Even if these principles were met, the political challenges in Ethiopia could not be resolved by a national dialogue. The bloodletting must stop now. It cannot wait until the commission finishes its work in three years to deliver its recommendations. In effect, the Ethiopian national dialogue is too little too late to be a workable solution for the myriad national challenges.
Every imaginable solution to Ethiopia’s political malaise has been tried. Cultural assimilation was tried to forge national unity under a unitary state. However, the targets of assimilation, the nations and nationalities in Ethiopia, found themselves marginalized further. Accommodation through a multinational federation was undermined by the so-called dominant party system. Nominal democratization was attempted, but the result was the criminalization of the politics of the right of nations and nationalities to self-determination. Leaders of ethno-nationalist parties were dubbed a “national security threat” and hauled to prisons around the country. The civil war currently convulsing and tearing the country asunder is being waged to erase ethnonational identities and deny the realization of the aspirations of Ethiopia’s nations and nationalities.
These solutions failed because they were proposed and implemented by the elites of the center. Politicians of the center have had their time deciding the fate of the nations and nationalities of Ethiopia. They have failed ignominiously, and the raging civil war is proof that the center has no workable solution. In the larger scheme of things, it is impossible to inform the shape of the center without exploring and explicating the margins. In this connection, the primary task of the activists and politicians of the periphery must be to work to secure their future by protecting their inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of self-determination. Then, they can weave those values into the fabric of the center. It is time for the solution of the periphery to reform and salvage the center.
To start with, the present challenge must be reconceived. At this stage, the longstanding popular demands of liberty, equality, justice and dignity are secondary to the imperative of avoiding a violent disintegration and the attendant bloodshed. The Ethiopian body politic has been seized by iconoclastic politicians, the social fabric that binds citizens have been irreparably damaged, and the chances of a common future dissipated.
Therefore, the way out of the present political quagmire cannot be business as usual. We have tried regime change in 1974, 1991 and 2018. The civil war currently raging throughout the country is as much the result of the failure of national integration or state-building as it is the failure of democratization. This means a novel solution is required to reimagine the Ethiopian state and reset the country on a successful democratization process.
At this point, what is needed is not a national dialogue that could have been deployed appropriately if it were conducted before the genocidal war. At this stage, the only workable solution is a National Salvation Convention of all stakeholders, in which no one is left out, including the warring parties. In the discussions, no agenda will be considered taboo and no group will have a greater role than others. The goal of the national salvation convention is not to reform or endorse the existing solutions but to imagine and construct a workable system that will ensure peace, security and the right to life.
The Congress for Somali Cause is, therefore, calling for a National Salvation Convention, whose primary objective is “preventing large-scale ethnic massacres”. To achieve this, workable solutions will be sought and discussed to end the wars, de-escalate tensions, and reset the political environment in pre-convention consultative meeting to prepare for the convention. AS