Running the Political Gauntlet: The Blue Party and the Diaspora
By Tecola W. Hagos
June 8, 2013
As a hyperactive child who had foolishly tried at one point to outrun his own shadow, I was taught a parable in an attempt to enlighten me about the facts of life, specifically about patience, fortitude, and perseverance. The story I was told was about a man who had lost his eyesight in both eyes when he was about seven years old due to smallpox, and had lived all of his life in total darkness. One day a person of great medical skills visited him and told him that he will be cured of his blindness and his sight will be restored the next morning. The blind man retorted back quite strongly protesting how he would be able to live through that night without his sight. The moral lesson in this story is a direct one. We Diaspora Ethiopians have lost the art of patience, fortitude, and perseverance. We seem to think that social changes must occur immediately. We do have real psychological problems.
In my last two articles, I was aiming to get us talking and listening rather than continue shouting slogans at or past each other. Ethiopian political reality is uniquely Ethiopian, and I doubt that any non-Ethiopian could have deep understanding of our political and economic situation. At this point in our history, there is a shift in our political paradigm and an expansion of our economic frame of reference. In the past several decades, it seems to me that our national political agenda has been set by individuals (which includes Diaspora political leaders) who seem to favor extending controversy and disharmony indefinitely among Ethiopians trying to erect a kind of a political Jacob’s Ladder that one can climb only in dreams. Fantasy is fine for children, but for adults the mark of great statesmanship is the ability to recognize political opportunities in such events that signal shifts in the power base. Here is where I challenged in my two previous articles Diaspora politicians to take note of the changed circumstance in the political power structure of the EPRDF, and the fact that Meles Zenawi is dead, and that we have a new Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn.
The public demonstration staged by the Blue Party on June 2, 2013 is a watershed event, the first of its kind since the mass chaotic and destructive demonstration of 2005 where government security forces killed about two hundred demonstrators. There were conflicting accounts of events, including eyewitness accounts, leading to that great loss of life as reported by the Commission established by the Ethiopian Government; however, the Commission’s report was further overshadowed by some of the Members of the Commission whose public dissension eventually put the blame on the Ethiopian Government use of excessive force. There were lessons to be learned from such incidents that I hope Ethiopians have learned since. Considering the peaceful conclusion of the Blue Party sponsored demonstration, it seems both the Ethiopian Government officials and the demonstration organizers and the participants have learned about their respective roles quite well. One must decide one’s priorities even in service of one’s country. No matter how long and how deep I look into the hierarchy of rights, I always end up strongly on the side of protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia overriding any of the individual or group political rights.
II. The Blue Party: Baby-Steps
The Blue Party’s demonstration in Addis Ababa on June 2, 2013 is a clear indicator of the changing political environment of the new Ethiopian Administration of Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. This is the type of “baby-steps” I wrote about in my earlier articles. The emphasis on individual rights and political rights of Ethiopians is of primary importance next only to national survival right when threatened with immediate and real danger, and it is precisely in that order of importance that we have witnessed steps being taken by the new administration starting with the reinstating process of Amharas back to their settlements in Benshangul Kilil after they were forcefully removed by local authorities, a clear reversal of the obnoxious anti-democratic practice of the earlier administration.
The follow-up comment by the Government’s spokesperson, State Minister of Communications, Shimelis Kemal, on the Blue Party sponsored demonstration marred to some extent that singular achievement of the Government’s change of policy on permitting demonstrations. Shimelis does not seem to care about the distinction between “content” and “venue” when it comes to regulating public demonstrations. In the alternative, a well versed constitutional law expert should take the lead in showing to the Ethiopian public the distinction between common criminal activities from religious beliefs and the duty of the Ethiopian Government to restrain individual rights in the interest of society and the protection from harm of all other individuals. There are no absolute rights as such that would allow an individual or a group based on his/her beliefs or based on the individual freedoms to harm others, to insult or degrade others, or to enslave anyone, or to exploit without due compensation anyone et cetera. The role of a responsible government is to safeguard the rights of all citizens and to protect individuals from being harmed by others.
I hope the Blue Party leadership will not make the same type of mistake of past opposition political organizations; it is important that they be keenly aware that public demonstrations do not readily translate into taking over political power from an existing government. The 2005 political opportunity was lost due to such miscalculations, for the political leaders challenging the EPRDF should have taken their seats in Parliament and other local administrations, such as Addis Ababa’s Mayoral position, and worked their way through peaceful political influence building their power base. I have no illusion that political organizations are angelic; instead, they will fight tooth and nail to stay in power. That is no brainer, for it is a truism everywhere in all political national structures in the world. The Ethiopian Diaspora is most vocal advocating the overthrow of the EPRDF controlled Ethiopian Government. My dissention is very clear here. There is a system in place no matter how lopsided it is in favoring a particular group. It is far better than a government without legal framework and at the mercy of the whims and caprices of an individual dictator. I do not believe constant agitation and anti-government demonstrations are the best use of our productive energy. Our energy should be constructively used rather than be expended recklessly for almost nothing.
The huge mass demonstration of the supporters of the Blue Party is a great opportunity for the party to develop and anchor properly its political reach and the depth of its membership. The leaders of the Party must not interpret this huge public endorsement as a power base in order to challenge right away the existing Ethiopian Government for power, instead they ought to use this opportunity to organize and expand their party membership nation-wide and get elected in the next election for national and local seats in Parliament. In the mean time in order to attend serious and urgent national issues that we already have and those that may develop in the future, the Blue Party leaders need to establish non-profit organizations right there in Ethiopia to promote social programs in the areas of health, education, employment services et cetera. One ought to learn by looking at the same type of programs organized by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Serving the people of Ethiopia in need would earn the Blue Party great respect and trust, as well as supporters with commitment.
By contrast, any contact in terms of unity with Jihadist Muslims, or fanatical Christians, or any Diaspora based political organization is a kiss of death for the Blue Party. The Blue Party President Yenekal Getinet is reported to have said that “the Blue Party represents the desire for change among the 70 percent of Ethiopians under the age of 35, who he said want to break away from the Marxist ideas that have dominated the country’s political thinking for more than a generation.” Such understanding is a good solid foundation to formulate further real social programs. However, the President is also reported to have stated that in a three-month time if the demands of the Blue Party are not met by the Ethiopian Government, he will mount other demonstrations. This form of ultimatum giving posturing is taken from old worn out practices. There are several other ways of achieving the goals set by the Blue Party in less confrontational manner than going loggerhead with the Ethiopian Government leaders. It will be a mistake for the Blue Party to focus its energy, without proper organization and functional social programs, on power struggle with the EPRDF and the leaders in power.
There is great virtue in working from within, negotiating and compromising on some ideas or goals. All great Western democracies are built on constant negotiations and compromises reached on the idea that if one loses political influence at one point in time that it is not the end of the world, but there are future possibilities to renegotiate and to compromise on mutually beneficial goals. Ethiopian Diaspora politicians in the main are a tragic lot, for they have carried with them the old system of school-days use of “demand and boycott of classes” that they used two scores years ago from Emperor Haile Selassie’s Era. The problem then as it is now is a total misunderstanding of the fundamental life principles and political process. Politics and or economics as systems simply serve life process not the other way around if one has to make hierarchical evaluation.
III. Power Sharing, National Reconciliation
I do not believe in the idea of “power sharing” or “national reconciliations” as a way of appeasing highly vocal Diaspora Ethiopians by the Government of Ethiopia. I read these types of solutions promoted now and then by Diaspora politicians and even scholars. As a matter of principle as far as I can see, no government should be forced into using extra constitutional political process to accommodate any dissenting group. Such process of “power sharing” and “national reconciliation” introduces a corrupt structure into the constitutional law based democratic process. Those Ethiopians in the Diaspora who hunger for power ought to undergo the political process as laid out in the 1995 Ethiopian Constitution, the elections regulations, the many laws of the State of Ethiopia as is.
Sustainable and productive change in Ethiopia is going to be time consuming considering the fact that the political setup is already the work of one single group that came to power by force. The choice is ours, either to use the same process of force used by the EPRDF or use the existing political structure and the economic opportunities open for development as a tool to gain power over an extended period of time. Here is where the concept of “baby-steps” comes into good use. Let us not mix the two systems of taking power and confuse unsuspecting often emotional individuals to get hurt in violent demonstrations against a government that has full control of the means of extreme enforcement power. The art of living the good life is no different from the art of war—a great general will assess the strength and weakness of his own army as much as those of his enemies.
IV. No “Arab-Spring” for Ethiopia
The idea that the EPRDF organization is weak and the political setup it has succeeded to place in power for the last twenty years can be toppled by “Arab-Spring” type public demonstration is simplistic and totally wrong approach. The better approach is to use the political and economic opportunities that the new Ethiopian Administration has introduced to promote its own agenda of political and economic staying power to ones advantages. No one can argue defending that what we have in Ethiopia is a great political and economic system. However, when the reality on the ground is such that there are possibilities to improve such a system, one should take advantage of the situation and influence the future political and economic direction of the country. The Blue Party is taking its first political step: establishing itself as an independent locally born political organization. If it tries to use this initial stage to coerce the Ethiopian Government to “share power” or start negotiation for “national reconciliation” it will definitely lose grounds maybe even its very existence. What it can do is to use its newly acquired visibility to promote human rights and political rights through conferences, charitable organizations, and education. Already there are several cases of famous Ethiopians, such as Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie et cetera who have become international personalities, that the Blue Party can champion in a responsible fashion.
There are many in the Diaspora who would love to see the Blue Party fight their (the Diaspora) type of fight against the current Ethiopian government. Their gifted writers might write endless articles encouraging even goring the Blue Party to mount massive demonstrations in opposition to the Ethiopian Government using as pretext the imprisonments of political and religious leaders. Any kind of assumption that an “Arab-Spring” type public protest would change the Ethiopian political structure is based on a misreading and misunderstanding of what happened in Arab Countries. Any kind of assumption of parallel development between Arabs and Ethiopians would result in disaster, for Ethiopians are not fanatics but rational. At any rate, a Syrian type insurrection or rebellion (revolution) is not possible in Ethiopia. Where would you find such fanatical fighters for a cause in the Ethiopian setting? Take our local examples about rebellion: for TPLF, it took seventeen years; for EPLF, it took some thirty years; for OLF, it is still going on for over forty years et cetera.
V. Solidarity of Ethiopians: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Our Ethiopian history to the present time has shown the undeniable fact that at moments of great turmoil, the people of Ethiopia and their leaders have set their differences aside and stood shoulder to shoulder defending our national interest. This time is no different. No matter how we feel about Meles Zenawi as a person and as a leader, his legacy is going to be with us for some time affecting our political and economic decisions. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Abay River is one monumental structure that will continue to be a subject of controversy and discussion for some time. There can be no backing down and reversal of our course in history in order to undo the dam building project. Managing our own natural resource, such as our rivers, is the attribute of our Ethiopian Sovereignty. Egypt and Sudan will benefit even more so due to the close economic tie between all the nations of the region due to the economic tie of having built the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and stretching power grids allover Sub-Saharan Africa including Sudan and Egypt.
The recent irrational ranting of some Egyptian politicians about sabotaging the building of the Renaissance Dam is completely out of line. First of all Egypt will never be at risk due to water shortage even if the Nile completely dries up. One must know Egypt is sitting on the largest subterranean fresh water in the World that could meet its needs for centuries. “Researchers from the British Geological Survey and University College London have for the first time mapped the aquifers, or groundwater, across the continent and the amount they hold. The largest groundwater volumes are found in the large sedimentary aquifers in the North African countries Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan,’ the scientists said in their paper. Any threat by Egypt or any other country on Ethiopia must be met with reason reinforced with military commitment to preserve the sovereign power of Ethiopia on its resources and protect the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
I look at the Southern Ethiopian Peoples' Democratic Movement (SEPDM) as the best example of a people preserving Ethiopia. People ask me often what is there in SEPDM that attracts me that much that I did not find in the many other Ethiopian political parties and/or organizations in Ethiopia or in the Diaspora. What I find highly commendable in the Members of SEPDM is simply put their undivided Ethiopiawnet. They are the only multiethnic group that have maintained the glorious vision of ancient Ethiopia, for their official language is Amharic and their official script/alphabet is the Ge’ez Alphabet. What is not to love in these wonderful Ethiopians whether it is their sense of equality among all, superb variety of songs, music, and choreographed dance, their great skill in construction, and their insurmountable sense of beauty in their weaving et cetera all add up in making me feel confident that the next generation of Ethiopians will have something from our historic past to build on.
In this brief article, my effort is to focus our many problems into manageable sizes with clarity that we can deal with without much confusion. Nevertheless, there are certain areas that must not be crossed by any opposition group that undermines the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ethiopia and the political and economic development plans of the current Ethiopian Government. My fellow Ethiopians, never fear anyone threatening us rattling worn-out and rusty saber, for we have survived over three thousand years surviving far more formidable threats to our survival as a civilization, and having fought countless battles against enemies from outside and from within.
“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:5 [King James Version of the Bible]
Tecola W. Hagos