A Flicker of Hope
By Teshome Bedada
January 16, 2018
More than a quarter century of rule by EPRDF left Ethiopia in a precarious state of poverty, massive corruption, and prolonged unrest with many in oromia arbitrarily detained, tortured or killed for crimes they didn’t commit. The ruling clique is in complete disarray, incapable of not just launching reform but also squashing protests that began in Oromia in November 2015, the longest the country has seen in recent decades. A large swath of the population in oromia is frustrated and furious at the government reluctant to address centuries of systemic neglect by the central government. Despite being the biggest region with a population of over 40 million, Oromia remains grossly underrepresented both culturally and politically. No real actions have been taken to address past injustices committed against region. Unlike protests which in the past lasted a few weeks, the current resistance seems resilient enough to ultimately force the EPRDF to reinvent itself or face a violent revolution that will oust it from power once and for all. What led to the anger that was simmering beneath the surface for long and couldn’t be contained any longer?
EPRDF has ruled Ethiopia with little tolerance to dissent. At least since the election of 2005, no one is under any illusion that power is negotiable. Nonetheless, the party continues to hold elections once every five years with opposition groups having no freedom to reach the electorate and promote their agenda. Election is held to claim that the party has the mandate to govern and fend off accusations from human right groups and Western governments that it is undemocratic. Appearing legitimate helped the regime to keep aid flowing in and avoid, for the most part, diplomatic fiasco with the West. While all this was happening, Oromos were well aware of the true nature of their rulers. Except for strong opposition in the early years of EPRDF’s rule from the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), most, however, chose not to publicly oppose party lines on issues ranging from human rights to the economy to education lest they would face the same fate as past dissidents. Journalists who tried to hold the administration to account for its actions have seen their licenses cancelled. Worse, they found themselves tortured and thrown into jail. Opposition party leaders were no different. Prominent Oromo political leaders like Dr. Merera Gudina and Ato Bekele Gerba who pursued nonviolent means of struggle to bring change are languishing behind bars and denied the fair trial afforded to them by the constitution. Amnesty International reported, EPRDF has engaged in a crackdown on the political opposition which has resulted in mass arbitrary arrests, torture and other ill-treatment, unfair trials and violations of the rights to freedom of expression and association. Many journalists, political party leaders and others who freely expressed their views fled the country fearing for their life and seeking refuge in the West. The educated elite were alienated, the public denied any say in policy making, leaving the country impoverished and the nation in the grip of fear until very recently. Tired of the endless wait for better times, Oromos have risen demanding radical changes.
The ruling party has for long claimed “impressive” achievements on the economic front. Credulous governments and international governments bought into the story of economic prosperity raising the living standards of Ethiopians. IMF and World Bank rubber stamped the economic data the government published as the country’s economic performance failure would imply ineffective development assistance by these institutions. Protests in Oromia that began in November 2015 against the Addis Ababa Master Plan, which would have expanded the capital at the expense of land owned by Oromo farmers, continued even after the government cancelled the plan. Oromos saw their lands taken from them and given to investors in the name of development with no or little compensation paid to the farmers. Meanwhile the ruling elite made fortunes selling the land to private domestic and foreign investors. Stripped of the only means of livelihood they have, farmers saw their lives utterly destroyed. Facing little opposition from the poor farmers, the central government went on to craft a master plan for Addis Ababa that aimed at bringing neighboring Oromia towns under its control in a bold attempt to meet the insatiable needs of the politicians hungry for amassing more wealth, with no regard whatsoever for the autonomy of the region and the lives of the Oromos living in those towns. The master plan, which was officially rolled out in 2015, drained any patience Oromos mustered for far too long. Oromos took to the streets asking the government to immediately scrap the plan. As the protests intensify, the demands grew to include an end to oppression of all sorts and respect for the rule of law. Two years on, the protests have grown stronger despite desperate attempts of the government to forcefully silence the protestors instead of addressing their demands.
Corruption in Ethiopia has reached levels that are crippling the economy. In addition to the wealth that the ruling party itself garnered under the pretext of endowment fund held since its years in the jungle, politicians and businessmen with close ties to the government controlled every segment of the economy and created enormous wealth that finances, among others, high stories of buildings in the capital and lavish lifestyles for their family while most Ethiopians live in abject poverty. The outright theft of public property and inefficiencies that resulted from the rampant corruption that afflicted the economy has kept the economy from producing benefits to the wider population. To the contrary, the corruption that put money in the hands of the few created an inflation that drove cost of living through the roof. As recently as April 2017 there were 18 million people in need of food assistance, with millions more leading undignified life with extremely low income. The illicit outflow of money from Ethiopia reached record levels that depleted its foreign exchange reserves the country relies heavily on for its imports. A UN report published in 2015 documented an illicit outflow of $ 2-3 billion a year, higher than the country’s annual export or the same amount the country received through foreign aid and investment in the same year. The country struggles with shortage of foreign exchange reserve that lasts no more than a few months. Investors are on a wait list, at national bank, to get foreign currency required to import crucial raw material for the industries.
EPRDF is facing the strongest opposition from Oromos and Amhara region as it has never seen in its entire rule. This represents another golden opportunity for the party to launch a genuine reform that would transition the country to a democratic rule. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced plans to release political prisoners aiming to "foster national reconciliation". With rising popularity, the new energetic Oromia President, Ato Lema Megersa, is giving great hope to the nation in response to the Oromo Protest. To Oromos and the rest of the country, this is a historic moment with a flicker of hope on the horizon. If the past is any indication, the party would stay the course and risk being forced by the people to relinquish power and face justice. Ethiopia hopes its leaders would choose to be on the right side of history to return power where it belongs– the people.
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