The choice between reform and revolution in Ethiopia
By Shiferaw Abebe
March 20, 2018
There are three “choices” to resolve the current political crisis in Ethiopia. The first is a cosmetic reform which TPLF has in mind. This reform would start with the inauguration of a new prime minister (the hype is already going through the roof) and could include the release of more political prisoners, amendments to one or more of the most egregious laws (e.g., the anti-terrorism law), and a promise of a wider political space.
As part of this reform package, TPLF may also agree to grant more autonomy to regional states and an early termination of the SOE if region al states calm down their constituencies. To give a false pretense of seriousness on “bad governance” and corruption, TPLF may purge and/or prosecute a bunch of scapegoats.
On the other hand, under a cosmetic reform, the current ethnic political system would remain untouched; the key positions in the military and the security apparatus would stay in the hands of TPLF; no one of significant position would be held accountable for the thousands of deaths in the last two years alone; and TPLF’s economic empire would be unscathed. All in all, TPLF would come out of this reform with its political and economic hegemony basically unchanged.
Yet, the few shinny goodies in this package, such as more regional autonomy or a wider political space could potentially lure EPRDF partners with the illusion of exercising more power, and opposition parties with a chance of winning some seats in parliament come next election. If these two blocks are in the bags, then the West would readily endorse the deal and pledge support to the “reform” process. (The West’s definition of an acceptable reform, courtesy of Rex Tillerson, is the election of a new prime minister, a shorter SOE and a “greater” freedom. Note the key word “greater freedom” which implies Ethiopians are not entitled to full freedom, because we are not “civilized” enough to handle or make good use of it!).
A cosmetic reform is a disastrous outcome for the Ethiopian people on so many levels.
First, as soon as TPLF regains full control, which it will under a cosmetic reform, it will take away every inch of concession it may offer today. The new prime minister, whom ever it will be, will not change the status quo a fair bit even if he wishes, because TPLF will keep him on a short leash. And unless he has both the freedom and the desire to change the political system in a fundamental way by taking immediate and convincing steps towards that goal, he will not have much chance with the people either. These diametrically opposed forces could end up paralyzing the new prime minister even more so than the last one. TPLF will then take away any autonomy it may grant regional state now. The recent arrest of outspoken or critical senior and midlevel officials in the Oromia Regional is only the harbinger of what will happen on a bigger scale once TPLF regains its footing. TPLF is not only a tyrant, it is a tiny minority that must take away the rights of others in order to exercise a dominant position within and outside of EPRDF. TPLF will also constrict the political space for the opposition parties and will not allow a fair or free election because there is no chance under the heavens it will win a free or fair election. Rest assured that it will start very soon harassing, intimidating, and dismantling opposition parties, jailing journalists, and human right advocates, and refilling the prisons with new and old prisoners.
Second, if TPLF gets away with a cosmetic reform, it will kill the patriotism and spirit of national unity that has rekindled in the last couple of years. A country thrives and make a comfortable home for its citizens when its people feel a sense of ownership, belongingness, and patriotism, are full of passion, optimism, promote shared values, respect and love for each other. TPLF has over the past 27 years worked tirelessly to undermine these kinds of intangible, yet invaluable virtues from the Ethiopian body politic. Only fools will expect TPLF to ever change its nature.
Third, a bad reform will keep Ethiopia poor. The country’s fragile economy that has long been supported by borrowed and loaned money is falling apart as we speak and will not turnaround without a change in the political system. Even if the economy stabilizes, it would be TPLF’s mafia economy and the few who are politically or ethnically connected to the regime that will benefit from it. Fundamentally, however, Ethiopia will not grow or attain its full economic potential under a balkanized ethnic political system. Real economic growth will occur only when human and financial resource are free to move to anywhere they can attain the best returns, which will not happen under the current system which is in place to benefit TPLF.
Real reform or revolution?
As TPLF digs its hills, the chance of real reform through a peaceful process is waning and revolution becomes the option the people will be forced to take. That is always what happens when real reforms are delayed too long or blocked altogether. Unfortunately any revolution will have direct costs and unintended consequences; it result in loss of lives and property, could degenerate into protracted civil conflicts or could be hijacked by the wrong entities. Recent experiences from the so-called Arab Spring give legitimate concerns about such dangers. In Ethiopia’s case, some are afraid that a wide spread ethnic strife could ensue which could possibly lead to the disintegration of the country if the central government were to collapse. This the fear TPLF has hammered all these years to make its tyrannical rule palatable to Western powers and Ethiopians alike.
However, while the dangers of revolutions may not be avoided entirely, they need not be exaggerated or extrapolated too much. Not only Ethiopia is different than the Arab countries in many important respects (culturally, politically, and demographically), it must also be remembered that the main source of ethnic tensions in Ethiopia has been TPLF’s divide and rule agenda and scheme which at this point are defunct, by and large. In fact TPLF’s real troubles started when the two largest ethnic groups – the Oromo and the Amhara – finally foiled this scheme and reaffirmed their commitment to Ethiopia’s unity and the unbreakable bond to each other. It follows, fear of inter-ethnic strife must be, on balance, allayed, not heightened by the removal of TPLF from power by any necessary means.
This is not to dismiss TPLF’s more recent naked desperation in stirring up Tigrayans against a bogus claim of Oromo and Amhara animosity towards them, which, surprisingly, appears to gain currency outside of TPLF’s orbit. There is no denying of the existence of a degree of tension between Tigrayans and the rest of Ethiopians in general, which need to be handled carefully by both Tigrayans and the rest of Ethiopians lest TPLF exploit it to its own selfish and callous objective. However, Tigrayans must appreciate why the rest of Ethiopians could feel differently and, being human, even harbor some hard feelings towards them: given that TPLF commits horrendous crimes and injustices against them not just as an oppressive government but as a Tigrayan organization too; and given that the security and armed forces that kill, maim, torture, and arrest them are controlled or led by Tigrayans.
In fact, one must acknowledge the magnanimity, the restraint, and the far-sightedness Ethiopians continue to exhibit towards each other in the face of TPLF’s vicious assault on their unity, shared values and history. Ethiopians in the main see the fight as between justice and injustice, democracy and tyranny, freedom and domination. Since the people of Tigray experience the same tyranny under TPLF, it is high time that they respond to the cry of freedom, justice, and equality from their Ethiopian brothers and sisters ignoring the cry of wolf from TPLF. Indeed, if Tigrayans join the struggle, chances are TPLF will be forced to take the peaceful route toward real reform.
TPLF’s choice of a cosmetic reform, even in view of a potential backlash from the people, is a classic case of risk calculation. All risks have a probability of occurrence and a magnitude of impact if they happen. TPLF has assigned a low probability to the chance of a cosmetic reform backfiring or leading to an escalation of the popular uprising (or hopes to control it if it does). If, however, the cosmetic reform angers Ethiopians and leads to a revolution beyond TPLF’s control, TPLF knows there will be dire consequences for it. A low probability with a high impact means the risk has a low to medium score.
On the other hand, the probability of losing power under a real reform scenario is almost 100 percent for TPLF. The question is what value is TPLF assigning to the consequence of losing power through a peaceful reform process? In other words what else would TPLF lose if it loses power? Two stand out.
Individuals who are used to exercising some power, let alone absolute power, are neurologically conditioned to think they cannot live without it. A former Canadian prime minister once said, the worst politicians are the ones whose first career choice is politics because they will do anything to hang on to power. One could add, politics is the only choice dictators have in life, so much so that many of them had to be killed to be removed from power. TPLF leaders owe everything they have today- status, wealth, comfort and the rest of it to their political power. Take away this power, they will become nobodies overnight. The vast majority of them cannot earn an honest and decent living by their own devices.
But dictators hang on to power for another reason - they are scared of justice. TPLF leaders have committed thousands of horrendous crimes over a 27 year period. They have directly or indirectly caused the death of thousands of innocent lives; they have directly or indirectly inflicted life-long damages to a great many Ethiopians by bullet wounds, beatings, tortures and inhumane treatments in jails; and they have committed illegal business dealings, engaged in unparalleled corruption, and have looted billions of dollars from a poor country where millions starve year in year out.
If they locked up former Derg officials for decades, they must be afraid that their fate could be worse.
The second consequence relates to what could happen to the economic empire TPLF built, specifically the so-called Endowment Fund for the Rehabilitation of Tigray (EFFORT), which is estimated to be worth upwards of $3 billion. Most of this wealth is built by illegal, corruptive, and conniving methods, often at the expense of the national economy and by crowding out the private sector.
Some say the main beneficiaries of EFFORT are a few families within TPLF’s leadership circle. That is not entirely true; EFFORT and its sister organizations - Relief Society of Tigray and Tigray Development Association - have been potent instruments of TPLF’s economic agenda of skewing the distribution of the national wealth and economic opportunities in favor of Tigray. Yes, the majority of the people of Tigray are still poor like the rest of Ethiopians but one must remember that Tigray would not have been the location of many of the agro and manufacturing industries it now houses if it were not for the deliberate inequitable policies and practices of TPLF, not just as Tigray organization but, more importantly, as a ruling party.
Crime and forgiveness
Given the certainty of losing power under a peaceful political reform, a higher chance of being locked up for the rest of their lives and losing all their economic lootings will make betting on a cosmetic reform a better risk choice. So the question is can the consequences of losing power peacefully mitigated so that TPLF choses real reform over revolution?
To start with the fate of TPLF’s mafia economy, a real political reform must lead to the nationalization and then privatization of all party owned businesses (including the ones owned by ANDM, OPDO and SEPDO). There cannot be any rationale for a consolation prize to TPLF or the other parties on this. What could be conceded to those regions in whose cover name these party-owned business are currently run is that the current employees, except the executives, are allowed to keep their jobs. Similarly, the current location of these businesses and their headquarters remains where they are today, although future expansions will likely happen anywhere in the country based on pure economic or commercial considerations of their future private owners. What this means is, as home of the largest party owned businesses, Tigray will, for example, continue to benefit from the employment and the spillover opportunities of these businesses while the proceeds from the privatization of these businesses will accrue to the national (federal) government on behalf of the Ethiopian people as a whole.
The more troublesome issue is what could happen to TPLF (and EPRDF) leaders on account of the heinous crimes they committed over the past 27 years? This could be the most challenging legal, political, emotional, and ethnical question the nation will face in the near future. It would not matter if TPLF is kicked out of power tomorrow or ten years from now, the blood of so many innocent Ethiopians will keep crying for justice. How can the country serve justice while at the same time move forward on a path of reconciliation with its past.
For most Ethiopians who have strong religious roots, forgiveness could be a substitute for punishment if asked for genuinely and granted freely. That is what happened in South Africa two decade ago, for example. But forgiveness and reconciliation can happen if the guilty takes the first step towards that process. In all places where freedom was earned by blood, no forgiveness was granted to those who caused the bloodshed. If F.W. de Klerk didn’t take the courageous route of dismantling the apartheid system at the cost of his own position and power, many white South Africans, including himself would probably have traded places with Nelson Mandela and headed to Robben Island for the rest of their lives.
So could be the case with TPLF leaders. If they allow a peaceful transition of the country to democracy even at this 11th hour, if they show a presence of some conscience to spare further loss of lives and property by accepting the path of real and fundamental political reform, then they would also create the opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation.
If they redo their risk calculation with this in mind, they will see that real reform is their better choice.
One can only hope!
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