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AT SOME POINT, THOUGH, THE GODS WILL STRIKE…

By Kebour Ghenna

First thing first: Welcome Home to the thousands of political prisoners, now free to go home for Christmas.

What do we make of a ruling party power that is superior to the law of the land?

Anyway, this is a subject for another time.

Today I’ll briefly reflect on the outcomes of the meetings of the Executive Council of EPRDF, namely on its approach to addressing the ethnic crisis of the past years.

For many Ethiopians, there is still no contradiction in embracing a strong Ethiopian identity and yet taking pride in their own ethnic or linguistic background. The Ethiopian is still today an Ethiopian first but then an Amhara, Oromo, Tigray, Guraghe, or some other ethnicity at the same time. But this can change, and change fast. When people reassert such identities to express substantial unhappiness and perceptions of injustice, this often reflects their sense that things have gotten out of control. Hard positions about these identities are articulated, accentuating the differences between groups.

This backlash appears to be strong among groups overwhelmed by economic pressures and a sense of hopelessness, seeking their last refuge in their ethnic identity.

But we’re not yet at the “breakdown” or “new paradigm” stage yet.

How do I know?

Because I don’t see people up in arms! Yes, I definitely see signs of uneasiness, even incredulity but no widespread rebellion to take up arms and start shooting around. Everyone I talk to is still wondering where our leaders (the four Heads of the EPRDF constituent groups) are taking the nation.

Of course, they don’t know where they’re taking the nation – and don’t want to know – because if they fail and create greater crisis – they would simply apologize and start again. That’s their modus operandi. That’s why they don’t bother articulate their plans. They think they have a strategy when they really don’t, at least not a strategy that people can get aligned to. This is what we’ve seen coming for the last 15-20 years.

For EPRDF the ethnic problem, for example, is sooo straight forward. This is a problem it has resolved long ago. The type of ‘ethnic democracy’ it adopted is both correct and ethically superior to competing belief systems. End of discussion! What need to be managed are the symptoms: Making sure that all the four parties operate on equal footing, or recruiting an efficient and upright public servant, for example.

At a minimum I expected the four leaders (after such long closed-door meetings) to introduce a ‘new vision for Ethiopia’ – a new course for Ethiopia – with strategies describing the ‘norms of acceptability’ and the responsibilities of citizenship in contemporary Ethiopia. I expected a vision to rebuild Ethiopia as a ‘community of communities’ accepting proper human rights culture. I expected a new discourse defining patriotism and nationalism that emphasizes civic engagement over ethnic and biological attributes. Simply put a debate between ‘ethnic nationalism’ – defining the nation in terms of ethnic origin and birth; and ‘civic nationalism’ – a nation defined in terms of shared values, not shared ethnicity.

I expected them (the leaders) to bring to the fore the issues of modernization of Ethiopia’s political institutions. Building effective, transparent and predictable institutions, developing a country with legal rules…all these don’t seem to be part of the agenda. As a result, other political institutions are no longer able to operate as a true counterweight to EPRDF power.

EPRDF authoritarians try to cast themselves as protectors of stable and effective government. Yet Ethiopians are discovering—both from daily experience and from national tragedies—that corrupt bureaucracies cannot deal successfully with ethnic violence, manage efficient public transport, create a regulatory framework that encourages the growth of small business, or even do much about encouraging free media. Above all, they cannot reform themselves.

Ethiopia itself will not truly be strengthened by authoritarianism. Authoritarianism will block the modernization of Ethiopia’s institutions and keep them weak. Over the long term, EPRDF’s policies can be no more successful than the institutions that support them and implement them. On their current course, therefore, they are likely to fail; they will limit rather than accelerate Ethiopia’s growth.

So unfortunate the EPRDF does not back up. The institutions that were meant to restrain it — a constitution, the judiciary — are ignored or reshaped so the farce can continue to the end.

I suppose I went overboard with my expectations!

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