On ESFNA's Rejection of PM Abiy's Request
By Tekleab Shibiru (PhD)
June 7, 2018

According to ESAT, the idea of inviting Prime Minister Dr. Abiy Ahmed to the 35th Annual Ethiopia Sports and Cultural Festival came from members of the ESFNA board. Few members of the board travelled to Ethiopia and inquired the PM if he would like to attend this year’s, Ethiopia day celebration. First of all, the organizers of ESFNA must be thanked for coming up with the idea of celebrating Ethiopia day here in diaspora. At the time, when the brand Ethiopia, is enduring hardship, the ESFNA’s determination to make Ethiopian spirit alive, deserves our thanks and praises. It is perhaps the convergence of this spirited Ethiopia day and the pan Ethiopianism lately preached by Dr. Abiy Ahmed, which motivated the invitation.

However, one can easily amused by their courage to ask the PM of Ethiopia for his attendance to an event such as this. 1) It is unprecedented for a head of government to come to an event like this; 2) one would expect that the PM’s schedule could be packed; and 3) sport fans aren’t a seriously considered platform for a national socio-political conversation around the world. Therefore, Dr. Abiy acceptance to the invitation is squarely his desire to reach Ethiopians of all walks of life. Those board members who were courageous enough to invite the PM and secured his willingness for attendance shall be cherished our appreciation. Nonetheless, what awaited these board members was an outright rejection of their initiative. According to the ESFNA board letter, the prime minister’s request was denied based on:

  1. The request was received too close to the tournament and there were too many variables introduced by the prospect of the Prime Minister’s attendance—specifically to ensure the safety of all guests and attendees;
  2. The size of the venue is not large enough to accommodate the potential audience the Prime Minister’s presence would create (an unscientific poll posted on ESFNA’s Facebook page reached over 140,000 people organically);
  3. Most of the tournament-related particulars—including liability insurance—have already been in place, and the time constraint to rework those particulars will make it improbable if not impossible to guarantee the necessary changes would be accomplished in time.

Unaffordable Accommodation

One can summarize the reasons for denial as a limitation of time to arrange the necessary accommodation for the PM. However, this reason is weak as it did not even consider asking the Prime Minister’s office as to what kinds of accommodation he needs. Neither did the board inquired the Ethiopian embassy in Washington DC, if they are willing to help with the needs of the accommodation. The PM is a head of the government and most likely particulars with regards to his safety and other issues can easily be arranged through intergovernmental relations and diplomatic channels.  Therefore, the reason listed to deny our PM are indefensible.

Another reason indicated on ESAT is that that ESFNA is apolitical association.  According to ESAT, ESFNA by virtue of its legal status, is free of political, religious, and ethnic affiliations and organizations. It was incorporated to promote amateur soccer and cultural events within the Ethiopian community in North America. This is totally acceptable, as otherwise the events could be subjected to political battlefield for often irreconcilable, and polarized diaspora political groups. However, this argument doesn’t apply to a head of state or government. Dr. Abiy is the head of government and he will be representing the Ethiopian people not a particular party. It is like Donald Trump going abroad representing the United States of America, not just republicans. Secondly, there are precedencies in the past, when the organization invited political figures including Prof. Asrat, Ms. Birtukan and even the current invited guest, Eskinder Nega. Few argue that Esknder is a journalist not political person. But he denies. He repeatedly presents himself as unapologetic fighter for democracy in Ethiopia. Not once Mr. Eskindir hide his motives and political goal which is to abolish totalitarian system and replace it with democracy. If this is not a political motivation, then what?  Also from an organization that used a ground of apolitical identity to deny the PM with a rejection letter where fingerprints of politics can be read all over, is self-defeating.  The board writes,

 “ESFNA is cognizant of the wave of change occurring in Ethiopia. Our hope is these reforms continue and become more participatory of every stakeholder of the nation. ESFNA is acutely aware of the energy and vigor with which the Prime Minister is harvesting from the Ethiopian people. We encourage everyone, including Prime Minister Abiy, to continue to engage with the Ethiopian community through peaceful dialogue so that current and future generations of Ethiopians will continue to come together.”

In this statement, ESFNA admits paying attention to the political development in Ethiopia, while also expressing their hope that the change started is inclusive of other political parties designated as stakeholders. Moreover, ESFNA acknowledged the popular support the PM is enjoying from Ethiopian population and then reminded the PM not to be fooled by the magnitude of support and in fact directed or recommended that he engages other political entities. If this is not political then what?

The irony is that this self-claiming apolitical organization clearly politicized the PM’s genuine request made to engage Ethiopian soccer fans here in diaspora. This is unfortunate. Obviously, ESFNA is not political organization, but in the past years or decade, including since the events that lead to the invitation of Ms. Birtukan Midaksa, it is clear that elements of Patriotic Ginbot 7 are all over ESFNA. ESAT being the propaganda wing of Patriotic Ginbot 7 has also been deployed as ESFNA’s public relation. Therefore, considering an intertwined ESFNA – Ginbot 7 marriage; the politicization of PM’s request to meet Ethiopians of all walks of life is not surprising.

 

Why politicized?

With those flippant reasons presented, one can’t stop contemplating as to the reason why the PM’s request to reach out to diaspora soccer fans was rejected. Additionally, one can’t stop speculating as to why this request was politicized. Here are some of the speculations and it is incumbent on the ESFNA board and ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7, to rest these speculations or else live with them.

  1. To unite its base: One speculation is that the PM barred from attending Ethiopia day not to offend a segment of the base of the Patriotic Ginbot 7 party. According to the opinion poll collected by ESFNA, 35% of their base opposed the attendance of the PM, while 65% supported it. Obviously the majority of Ethiopians supported. This is the prime minister who also has upper 80% approval rating among Ethiopian people over his performance in the last 2 months. He earned the popularity for emptying Ethiopian prisons stuffed with prisoners of conscience including the release of their leader Andargachew Tsigie, championing a pan Ethiopian agenda, calling opposition party leaders brothers, and tiring down curtails of the freedom of speech or expression, association, protest and above all citizens right to life. The segment of the base could oppose the PM for whatever reason including his ethnic background, although, no one would wish to draw such simplistic conclusion. However, for ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7, instead of distancing from this posture, caving for the radicals in the sign of weakness. They have effectively ruined their credibility to critic Dr. Abiy on issues that he might look soft on conservative wing of his own party.

 

  1. To deny the PM access to their home turf: ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7 assumes diaspora Ethiopians, except for the Oromos and Tigray, are their home turf.  Therefore, it is possible that the PM was rejected in their attempt to protect their turf. The irony is however, the center piece of ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7’s promise to Ethiopian people is to champion democracy and open society, which entails ensuring individual liberty and freedom of expression, organization/association and participation in delegating/appointing own government. This episode was a test on their promise, a failure to walk to talk and a demonstration of hypocrisy on democracy at its best. It is easy to preach democracy at the places where you do not have power so as to use it as means to climb to it but holding to democracy where and when you have power is a real test.

 

  1. The triumph of Crowd Power over Principle: Ever since the initiative was announced, instead of thoughtful debate and deliberation, crowd power was implemented to hash out the ESFNA board into a hasty decision. The usual ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7 crowd such as “DC gibre haile” was used for phone harassments, intimidations, and verbal abuses of ESFNA board members they thought would bear a vote in favor of the PM’s attendance. The worry is that not just this decision, but the future of the country. Ever since its establishment, ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7, crowdsourcing has become a political tool for patronizing Ethiopian diaspora, and engaging in malicious activities of bullying, disrupting and obstructing diaspora’s liberty to conduct meetings, and social gatherings that are not rubberstamped by ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7. Therefore, it is indeed nightmare to even think of Ethiopia, where dissent opinions are suppressed and/or marginalized with an effectively deployed techniques of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding.

 

  1. Revenge and Retribution: In Ethiopian culture rejecting someone request for an invitation to attend an event, as gesture a goodwill, doesn’t translate as anything but absolute disrespect. It is like groom been asked by a friend to attend his wedding, and in return the groom rejects the request on the ground of baseless excuses. Obviously, ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7 denied, the PM of Ethiopia to disrespect him personally and his office in particular. Also, it is to make our him a mockery to the conservative wings in his own party. It is obvious that not everyone in the EPDRF is celebrating the waves of change undertaking in the country. Some within the ranks of EPDRF are skeptical of the PM’s pan Ethiopian movement and unreserved efforts to reach out to the rivaling political parties. For those who have been branding the rivaling political party as terrorists, the prime minister’s approach to rebrand them as an alternative party instead is not sitting well. For this people, the blatant rejection of the PM by the very people with whom he is trying build bridge is not just a vindication of their cause but mockery to his effort of uniting Ethiopia.

For the radical segment of ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7, the PM of Ethiopia is the leader of EPDRF party, the party that has caused lots of pain to them and the Ethiopian people. It is all revenge and retribution to the leader this party they hate.  The irony is that the revenge and retribution were administered at the time when the PM releasing of the founder and secretory general of Patriotic Ginbot 7 and lifting of the state of emergency; a clear indication that the PM will continue fulfilling his promise to the Ethiopian people despite the emanating negatives from the very people he is trying to help.

Lesson from history

We must not forget that ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7 is a successor of Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP). The founder and the current chairman of Patriotic Ginbot 7 was EPRP and so are the current secretary-general, the former managing director of ESAT and the head of the political affairs. During the popular Ethiopian revolution (i.e., popular for its abolition of the feudal system and land reforms), instead of resting the party interest and ushering the country on a formidable democratic path, EPRP’s decision to pick political battle with the then another change agent counterpart i.e., All-Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON), despite both shared similar Marxist ideology was detrimental. EPRP’s “no one but me” attitude or a quest for “vanguard party” status in Ethiopian students revolution has caused it declare an open urban warfare on MEISON leaders, members and supporters. Any sane mind would think, the two leftist parties would work hand-in-hand and lift the country. Unfortunately that was not the case. The urban warfare, started by EPRP, consumed the lives of some 250,000 Ethiopian youths, ruined EPRP’s dreams of vanguard party status and above all dented the trajectory of democratic political changes envisaged by the Ethiopia’s revolutionary students.

Similarly, current ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7 leaders are people that were leading of The Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) that participated in Ethiopian parliamentary election, in 2005. CUD along with EPDRF and United Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) presented a spirited and competitive political campaign, which still vividly remembered in minds of many Ethiopians. The spirit of competitiveness, and political parties’ freedom to open offices, recruit supporters, engage the public in social, economic and political conversations, in the days ahead of the election, were sincere. CUD, which was established not more than a year prior to the election, was successful in luring close to 4.6million members across the country and be able to stand toe-to-toe with the ruling EPDRF party and rivaling UEDF. Consequently, only on the regional parliaments, CUD won almost 100% of Addis Ababa, 36% of Amhara region, 30% of Oromia (with UEDF) and 22% of SNNR (with UDEF) seats. On the federal parliament, CUD together with UEDF won almost a third of the seats. For the party, which was formed just few months prior to election, winning a third of legislative seats, including 100% of Addis Ababa would be a huge flattering success. But not if the enduring dream is to capture the pinnacle Ethiopia’s politics, by hook or by crook. Through free and fair election if possible and if not through mobilized mobs, street riots, boycotts that targets minorities, and urban warfare. Their exploit, however, only got the country into a deeper mess. More than 60,000 citizens were arrested and close to 700 people including policemen were killed, and country’s democratic process was backpedaled into a complete totalitarian government where a party assumed 100% of the parliamentary seats.

History will only dictate us to remain watchful as Ethiopians engage this hopeful political change for charting the country’s future. Extreme cautiousness is maybe necessary for the country not to descend into another political nightmare, only because of “no one but me” sentiment. The strategy for the so called “third revolution” is already in play, with the propaganda to defame Dr. Abiy starting not now but 4 days into his appointment. All ESAT panelist, except for Sisay Agena are busy demonizing, playing-down, or belittle anything the PM is doing. By tearing him down, they hope to degrade the PM’s acceptance among the Ethiopian people, while also expecting their sinister gotcha politics to build their image as sound alternative among Ethiopian population.  On the other hand, by constantly presenting unending demands and lingering questions, they hope to lure the PM into a territory of constant clash with conservatives in his own party. Their goal is to manufacture a lasting infighting within EPRDF, to its own demise. The objective is to essentially emerge powerful and rule Ethiopia on the graveyard of Team Lema including our PM Dr. Abiy. Their problem is that they cannot imagine an Ethiopia where they are not on the driver seat. Are they going to succeed? We are yet to see, but one thing is clear, their malicious and sinister political adventure did hurt the country in the past, and we must make sure it will not. 

Leadership test in Changing times (hate to go personal)

Leadership as an influential personality that draws followers for getting things done is challenging, particularly, in changing times. As a mark of leadership test, series of events have made people put ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7 (Dr. Birhanu’s) judgments on a questionable ground. The first lapse of judgment was noted when he bogged down to pressures of Addis Ababa mobs and avoided leading those elected him. Secondly, he showed a critical error of Judgment in 2012s Atlanta speech, and directed the Ethiopian people to boycott or withdraw supporting the construction of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Government comes and goes, but infrastructure such as GERD will live to benefit Ethiopia people for eternity. If completed, the GERD will generate a hydro-electric power that triples the amount the country is producing now. The dam also highlights the country’s ability to construct similar dam(s) in the same or other watersheds. Without considering the hydro-ecological and socio-economic values or services of the lake that would be produced thereof, the energy production itself would bring an economic boost that could parallel an oil discovery. Thirdly, the relocation of his resistance army to Eritrea, decades or years after OLF’s and Somali’s relocations proved futile, also indicated his poor judgment. Fourthly, his poor performance of leadership is demonstrated in his recent Washington DC meetings, where he could not settle a critical divergence of opinions as to whether team Lema is genuine change agent or a plot devised by TPLF. This shows either his inability tell the truth when it matters or else his shallow grasp of the current politics in Ethiopia. Either conclusion is critically relevant in deciding, which course of actions his organization was going to take. Lastly, his leadership was missing in action (MOA) during and in the aftermath of our prime minister’s humiliation by his compatriots in the ESFNA board.

No doubt the leader is a distinguished scholar with PhD in Economics, from a renowned university here in United States of America. He is a professor at a well-known university if not for his devotion to Ethiopian politics. Hence, he deserves not thing but huge respect for his commitment and dedication to Ethiopia. However, for someone, who wants to rest his/her hope on such dedicated Ethiopian, the types of people that surrounds him raises some questions. Majority of his compatriots are taxi or Uber drivers, non-employed welfare dependents, entertainers and comedians, people with average or low social standing in the community or so (i.e., no intention to judge our fellow Ethiopians based on their division of labor, hardworking country men and women all have our affection no matter what they do). It wonders, if leadership is more comfortable around people with lesser education than he is or the niche was purposely put together to easily look tall or if he is someone who is naturally intimidated by a seriousness conversation, rigorous vetting and fierce debate by intellectuals of his peers. Make no mistake, this is a liability for leadership, particularly in changing times. It is easy to detect a tendency of mobs (“Hoya Hoye”) aka “DC gibre haile” among the crowds than a meticulously digested and thoughtfully processed ideas that account the lives of 100million Ethiopian and many more million east Africans. We are at stage when Ethiopia’s problem can’t be solved in isolation anymore. Problems of our neighboring countries such as Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya and Southern Sudan, with whom Ethiopia shares not just boarders, but also families, languages, and religions spills-over and vice versa. Solutions for these multifaceted problem will demand a serious leadership, an integrated product of the brightest minds of all Ethiopians. In short, the current occupant of Arat kilo has raised the bar very high, ESAT - Patriotic Ginbot 7 leadership needs to pick-up the game to match and present an alternative.

Conclusion

It was the board members of ESFNA, who travelled all the way to Ethiopia to secure a compliance of Dr. Abiy, the PM of Ethiopia to attend the 35th annual sports and cultural festival. Even though, the initiative is commendable, it faced harsh critics from the remaining board members. The board criticized the members pertinent to the limitation of time for the ESFNA to produce appropriate accommodation to host the PM of Ethiopia. However, the board neither asked the office of PM for the needed accommodation, nor the embassy for help. Besides, the apolitical claim of the association to reject the PM’s attendance is flat since the PM would only attend as the head of the Ethiopian government not the chairman of EPDRF.  Even then there are precedence’s and paradoxically organization’s rejection letter is political.

In the absence of an objective and credible explanation as to why the PM was denied, speculations would inevitably sprouts. It can be speculated that the politically motivated decision to reject the PM’s invitation is coerced by Patriotic Ginbot 7, for the following reasons: To unite its base, deny the PM access to their home turf, as a consequence of the Danger of Crowd Power over Principle and for revenge and Retribution. If any of these speculations are true, Patriotic Ginbot 7 must need a complete change of heart and makeover. The hope, reconciliation, and peace promoted by the current PM has raised the people’s expectation from their political institutions.

Ethiopians are aware that Patriotic Ginbot 7 is successor of Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) and the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP).  We have a fresh memories of events that led to the death of over 250,000 Ethiopian youths, and deflection of the country’s democratic political process, which was well started by Ethiopia’s student revolution.  Also the roundups of approximately, 60,000 citizens and death close to 700 youth including policemen and the regression of the country’s democratic process back to totalitarian government where a party proudly notify an election win of 100% legislative seats. Therefore, it is about time for Dr. Birhanu, the leader of Patriotic Ginbot 7, to up his game, surrounding himself with the brightest minds among Ethiopians, and really walk the talk and lead. A strong opposition party is good for the country and our duty is to points at some weakness for the improvement.

The writer, Tekleab Shibiru, is Associate Professor of Geomatics, Chicago State University).

 

References

ESAT Eletawi transmitted Thu 31 May 2018, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ys-MGPGdHw8&t=2367s (accessed on June 03, 3018)

ESFNA board decision on PM Abiy’s request May, 31, 2018 available on: https://esfna.org/esfnas-decision-on-pm-abiy-ahmeds-request/ (accessed on June 03, 3018)

Ethiopia: Ethnic Federalism and its Discontents; Africa Report No. 153 – 4 September 2009" Archived 19 July 2013 at the Wayback Machine., International Crisis Group, p. 3 (accessed June 3, 2018)

2005 Regional State Council Elections in Ethiopia available on http://africanelections.tripod.com/et_2005state.html (accessed June 02, 2018)

 


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