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Critique and Reflection on EPRDF’s Policies and Practices

Ghelawdewos Araia                                                       August 28, 2015


This essay is intended to critically examine the policies and practices of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRDF), the ruling party of Ethiopia, but before I delve into the main corpus of this paper, at the outset, I like to make crystal clear that ‘critique’ is not synonymous with ‘oppose’, although the latter is also perfectly healthy and should be tolerated as such in a democratic political system. Thus, ‘critique’ means analyses of an objective reality critically examined in order to influence public policy and consequently implement doable development programs that, in turn, would transform the Ethiopian society.  

Let me first begin with the politics of ethnicity in Ethiopia, a topic which is central to the current affairs in Ethiopia and one that has stirred controversy and widely discussed in Ethiopian circles. It looks that now the controversy of ethnic politics has surfaced within the leadership of the EPRDF, as poignantly pointed out by Prime Minister HaileMariam. In the EPRDF conferences of the four organizations that makeup the party and that were held at Awassa, Adama, Bahir Dar, and Mekelle, policy and development issues were thoroughly discussed and dissected, but the one comment that caught off guard Ethiopian observers was Prime Minister HaileMariam’s remark on the politics of ethnicity. The PM candidly criticized the discrimination of some ethnic groups that encountered negative attitudes in some regional states other than their own state. He also emphasized on the dangers of narrow nationalism that has afflicted even university students and professors. This danger, if it goes out of control, could put Ethiopia in major crisis, he concluded.

HaileMariam Dessalegn said that “some ethnic groups are viewed as thieves in other regional states”, but he rationalized that ethnic animosities are individual quarrels and do not necessarily reflect skirmishes between nationalities. I personally have no violent objection to this kind of rationalization, but the question that could occur to any Ethiopian at this juncture is: What does the Prime Minister mean, when in fact it is EPRDF’s ethnic policy and the subsequent establishment of the nine regional states, strictly structured on the basis of ethnicity and language, that may have resulted in ethnic nationalism as opposed to Ethiopian nationalism? The EPRDF actually is responsible for the current political climate of ethnic nationalism, but we cannot squarely blame the ruling party for the culprit ethnic politics. To begin with, ethnic nationalism is universal and while gravitating toward ones ethnic group is natural and acceptable, ethnic animosity, on the other hand, is the most dangerous political bomb upon which modern nation-states rest. I believe, this problem did not emanate from the EPRDF policy of ethnic federalism including the right of nationalities to secede from the Ethiopian body politic because the original sin comes from the Ethiopian student movement to which I was a part. We Ethiopian students at Haile Selassie University (now Addis Ababa University), though sincere in our support for the rights of all oppressed Ethiopian nationalities, had gone too far on the rights of nations and nationalities and by default (not by design) emasculated our common Ethiopian identity. It is this legacy that the EPRDF adopted as its policy and literally implemented it in the formation of regional states. But what might look paradoxical is that the opposition parties in Ethiopia and the Diaspora Ethiopians are now organized along ethnic lines and have virtually undermined Ethiopian patriotic nationalism while the EPRDF seems to carry on a fragile but united Ethiopia.  

In a similar vein to that of HaileMariam Dessalegn, Demeke Mekonnen, the Deputy Prime Minister, in an interview with a TV Journalist, has admitted that members of the Amhara nationality were attacked in the Gambella and Beni Shangul Gumuz regional states. The fact that these two high ranking EPRDF officials openly talked about the problem of ethnic politics in Ethiopia could be a reflection of a much more serious problem that may have come to haunt the EPRDF itself, or the EPRDF officials may have sincerely considered to bring the problem of ethnicity in an open forum. But since it is very hard to fathom the inner dynamics of the EPRDF, it is the party itself that should present its intentions to the Ethiopian people. In the final analysis, however, it is the duty of progressive Ethiopian intellectuals (including myself) to come up with a strategy that could emancipate the collective Ethiopian psychology from the shackles of sectarian ethnic politics.

The Prime Minister also mentioned the current drought that has loomed over the Afar and other regional states. This natural calamity though exacerbated by man-made outdated agricultural techniques and also by negligence of local and national government officials, cannot be attributed to EPRDF’s failures. The present El Nino effect has created hitherto unknown heat wave and drought in parts of California and other states like Idaho, Wyoming, and Washington while it has created deluges in other parts of the world. But PM Hailemariam’s comparison of the drought of California and Australia to that of Ethiopia would not be helpful because the technological capability of California and Australia could simply overcome water shortage by even converting ocean salt water into pure potable water. Ethiopia does not have such a technology but it could mitigate water shortage and famine by increasing irrigation canals, basins, and dams that are already serving the public and some are under construction.

Other important points raised by the PM are the problem of democracy, bureaucratic bottlenecks, and corruption. With respect to democracy, it is understandable that we Ethiopians have yet to embrace it as part of our culture. We simply don’t have it and the EPRDF alone cannot be blamed for the democracy deficit in Ethiopia. However, compared to the opposition parties and the Ethiopian people at large, it is the EPRDF that must shoulder responsibility by demonstrating an exemplar role in laying the cornerstone of democratic culture in Ethiopia, or it should allow democratic forces to find democratic institutions in the country of their birth. And in order for democratic institutions and culture to flourish, freedom of speech and press and other fundamental rights, as enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution, must be guaranteed to all Ethiopians, not only for propaganda purposes but also as part of way of life of Ethiopians. It thus logically follows that journalists, authors, writers, filmmakers, play right artists, academicians, and political activists must not be subjected to unnecessary scrutiny and imprisonment. I must salute the EPRDF for recently releasing some journalists and opposition party members, but the Party’s policy of democracy contradicts its practice of intolerance to the opposition and must show a will to change in this regard.

The bureaucratic bottlenecks and inefficiency as well as endemic corruption in Ethiopia are not unique to the country; it is in fact a universal problem. But since the EPRDF considers itself a revolutionary party, it ought to take revolutionary measures to tackle the twin major problems, and if the ruling party is serious about finding a panacea to red tapes and corruption, it should begin within itself, that is, within the government bureaucratic apparatuses. It seems to me the EPRDF should prune itself by gradually replacing the old cadres by educated professionals. I understand that the old cadres paid dearly in the protracted struggle against the Derg and they deserve to be rewarded, but a quarter of century of special privilege is good enough especially if priority is given to the welfare of the Ethiopian people. Moreover, if Ethiopia’s development is going to be meaningful and this poor country must catch up in the 21st century and compete in the global economy, it can be done only by the leadership of intellectuals and entrepreneur professionals, and this brings me to another relevant theme pertinent to Ethiopian intellectuals.

The EPRDF policy-planning spectrum should genuinely and seriously consider the inclusion of various policy-related issues initiated or proposed by Ethiopian intellectuals outside the Government and opposition parties whose agenda could benefit Ethiopia. In regards to the inclusion of Ethiopian intellectuals as catalysts in the transformation process that Professor Teodros Kiros touched upon by directly appealing to the Ethiopian officials, and a noble idea that I endorse fully, I like to use this opportunity to tell my own experience so that the reader could have a full grasp and flavor of the impediments that Ethiopian intellectuals have encountered in the past two decades. I personally have made several attempts to bridge the link between Ethiopia and Diaspora Ethiopians and I have been trying this for the last two decades and half in an effort to realize our contributions to Ethiopia’s development. This is the story in brief: it is common knowledge that a decade and half ago I founded an organization known as Rehab ENATFFA and I managed to attract some wonderful Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals who were willing to dedicate their time to conquer and eliminate famine in Ethiopia once and for all, but this dream of mine never materialized. However there were also other initiatives that I undertook but I never intended to make them public until the writing of this essay. Long before the Ethiopian-Eritrean war erupted, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Seyoum Mesfin, former Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, and proposed to him that I would like to organize Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals who could volunteer to contribute in the transformation of Ethiopia. He supported my idea and was even enthusiastic about it, but this initiative too did not materialize, and I tried to follow it up by writing a letter to Ato Seyoum (sent by a personal courier) and a friend delivered the letter on my behalf. There was no response to the letter. In the middle of all these attempted but failed initiatives, I was involved in the finding of a higher institution of learning in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This initiative was not mine. It was in fact the initiative of Dr. Dan Johnson, former professor and founder of the Gondar Public Health College, which was part of Haile Selassie I University. Dr. Johnson was a retiree from California State University at Stanislaus and I met him through Dr. Beyene Negewo, once Ethiopian ambassador to the UK. The two intellectuals and I were going to find Ethiopian African American University (EAAU) and Dr. Johnson did the preliminary job of funding from world institutions, contacting Ethiopian authorities, and the granting of land, and he told us he was successful in finding a campus space in the Kotebe area, near the Civil Service College. The three of us were elated by the initial promise and we were ready to do our job as educators and leaders of a new university by a unique name. The promise faded gradually and EAAU never saw the light of the day.

Finally, in the last three to four years, I resorted to another route and began to have a talk with Dr. Tekeda Alemu (New York UN Mission) and Ambassador Girma Biru (Ethiopian Ambassador to the US). I have clearly presented to them that “we are a group of Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals who wish to make input in the transformation of the Ethiopian society and they to serve as a go-between the Government and us.” They were cooperative, but this last resort also vanished before it even took off.

Now, like most Diaspora Ethiopians, I have learned that a new Diaspora Ethiopian Association has been established and some intellectuals have been going back and forth to Ethiopia. Whether these new sojourners to Ethiopia have established good relations with the Government of Ethiopia or were recruited by some low profile exhibiting forces, or they have a mission of their own and utilize it to promote their interests could be known only if the Government tells us why it favors them and why it denies other Diaspora intellectuals.

If indeed some intellectuals have enjoyed the collaboration of the EPRDF and the latter has indeed advisors and consultants who could formulate and polish policies, why do I then want to underscore the significance of the hundreds and upon hundreds of Diaspora intellectuals who were unable to work in Ethiopia and yet appeal to the EPRDF for cooperation? The answer is simple: 1) Ethiopia is a big developing country with big population and potential and the current number of Ethiopian intellectuals would be a drop in the bucket in the transformation of the country; 2) I see major intellectual deficit in the Ethiopian government bureaucracies and even in the academia that are presently suffering from lack of quality education. Despite EPRDF’s major contribution in the foundational economy and consequent economic growth, Ethiopia still needs the help of Diaspora intellectuals who wish to work in Ethiopia.

One other issue we need to address is, of course, the concept and practice of the developmental state (DS), which is the number one guiding economic policy of the EPRDF. I have discussed this important issue in detail in my book, ‘Ethiopia: Democracy, Devolution of Power, and the Developmental State’, but I will briefly address it here.

I am in favor of the DS, both as a conceptual methodology and development strategy and have suggested in the book mentioned above that Ethiopia should garner lessons from other developmental states like Japan, the Asian Tigers, China, Brazil, India, and Botswana. The DS is problematic with respect to democracy because it precludes democratic practices, although countries like Japan, India, and Botswana are exception to the DS autocracy. I therefore suggested that Ethiopia must follow the Japanese way in order for democracy to flourish and Ethiopians enjoy fundamental rights. The DS, thus, can become democratic but only when the policy and practice coincide.

In order for the DS to become democratic and meaningfully realize its development agenda, however, Ethiopian intellectuals and professionals must be involved at all levels, and in the absence of the latter, the policies and practices of the Government (any government for that matter) would remain rigid and redundant. Put otherwise, the DS-led economy requires what is popularly known today the ‘knowledge economy’. It does not have to be well-synchronized knowledge, but the EPRDF leaders at least need to have compatible knowledge relevant to respective policies (foreign policy, education, agriculture etc.) The EPRDF leaders should either equip themselves with political economy theories ala John Maynard Keynes or have a good grasp of various economic strategies including the monetarist, the open economy, the redistributive economy, the Chicago School, and the present challenge of Transnational Corporations. The latter are a formidable challenge to the DS and Ethiopian leaders ought to know well the complexity of the global economy and fashion policies accordingly.   

By way of concluding this essay, I like to go back to the politics of ethnicity and suggest the following immediate tasks to be met by the EPRDF:

1.       The ruling party should encourage wide open forums in the universities to revisit the current federal structure of Ethiopia and allow debates of pros and cons pertaining to ethnic federation.

2.       The Ethiopian Parliament, which is essentially an EPRDF legislative body, should initiate a new debate whether to repeal Article 39 of the Constitution, which allows the regional states to secede from the Ethiopian body politic, or vote in favor of it. The principle of secession is an outmoded policy and to date no country has adopted it, and I personally am in favor of its repeal.

3.       The Prime Minister office must establish a new task force that would be assigned to study the politics of ethnicity and practically gather data in relation to the dangers associated with ethnic animosity that PM HaileMariam underscored in his speech.

4.       The Ethiopian Government should order the state and federal police to protect all Ethiopian nationalities from any physical and mental attack by any nationality group in any part of Ethiopia. If the Government could prevent external terrorist threats, it can do so to completely secure Ethiopian nationals in their respective regional states. Members of the Amhara nationality who reside outside the Amhara regional state especially are vulnerable due to unfortunate bias and they must be given special protection.

5.       The Ethiopian Government should adopt an open door policy (not on paper but in deeds) for Ethiopian intellectuals who are willing to make a difference for the country they love.

6.       The investment policy of Ethiopia should be equipped with redistributive justice, in which all regional states equally benefit and also exploit their potential resources. The TPLF leaders, in particular, should explain why it is so difficult for Ethiopians and foreigners alike to invest in Tigray while they are pouring to other regional states like Oromia, Amhara, and Gambella.

7.       The ruling party should initiate a national reconciliation policy, a policy overdue now, and an issue that I have discussed many times in the past, and iron out its differences with the opposition parties.

8.       The Ethiopian opposition parties also have an obligation to reconcile their differences with the ruling party and should exhibit courage to recognize the development initiatives the Government has taken so far. Rigid politics is a sign of immaturity and the opposition needs to elevate itself beyond the clamor of “Woyane” to an all-Ethiopia agenda.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA, Inc. 2015. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org

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