By Genet Mersha, 22 April 2010 — In his opening salvo in Debate # Six, Ato Arkebe Oqubay began by portraying all opposition parties as traitors. He used the following words to accuse them of such a heinous crime: “For eighteen years, opposition parties have tried to masquerade as patriots, without being what they say they are. They falsely capitalised on the sovereignty issue, when in reality they have only been serving foreign interests” [writer’s translation]. Since this charge is very serious, the question is why to this day they have not been tried and sentenced. Also, if that is true, how would the governing party justify its contention for power with traitors and criminals, it has accused in public?
This is a very serious sign of desperation! Obviously, it shows lack of a minimum standard of decency, especially if it is false. It also shows lack of respect to the forum itself, which by implication is lack of respect for the people. If the people have been accorded respect, then the debates would also have been dignified. Importantly, the public would have been told the truth about successes and failures of any policies and how they can be addressed better in future, instead of weaving cover to hide them.
Frankly speaking, the past seven debates have not fared well in that respect; if for a moment we leave aside whether it would serve the purpose debates are for. There were too many distortions, false accusations, official misrepresentation of facts. Added to already existing hindrances to free and fair election (high incidence of poverty and low level of literacy denying citizens access to TV programmes and radio and accessibility of debates or information, violence or threats of violence), these undoubtedly become added blockade that diminish mass possibilities for participatory democracy. For all intents and purposes, the unfavourable factors have choked it off for several years now. Clearly, in Ethiopia participatory democracy is deep on its path of regression, across the spectrum of all its stages and processes. For every criticism pertaining to human conditions in the country, the standard response has become “Can’t you see the development taking place in the country?”
Judging the candidates’ performances
However, of necessity the criteria by which the governing party and the opposition should be judged are entirely different. Opposition parties have no records in government; nor do they have any achievements that the voters are intimate with and could either accept or reject. Instead, whatever criticisms the opposition have against the ruling party should serve as sufficient guide to citizens in showing them how they would do differently and with what means (policies, strategies and resources) to achieve their goals—if elected.
If opposition parties merely make noise, citizens would judge them of irresponsibility, aware that ከበሮ ሲያዩት ያምር፤ ሲይዙት ያደናግር (it literally means, how easy and beautiful drum sounds to the novice, only to be lost in it if handed over to play it). This does not mean that hitting hard with truthful criticisms should not be welcome. For instance, Ato Lidetu Ayalew of EDP has made good use of his fiery instincts, wits and quick think skills in all debates. Judgement on his political behaviour cannot take away from that. In Debate # Six, Ato Seye Abraha, the representative of Medrek, has done it well with good command over his subject and elevated delivery.
On the other hand, the criteria by which the governing party would be judged are concrete, inviting lots of criticisms, as the evidences are there in people’s hands and lives. That is because there are records of achievements and failures, easily accessible to every voter, which makes her/him qualified witness. Therefore, the electorate would judge the incumbent on that basis, even if consistent efforts have been made to exaggerate results without any scale or scruple. This is product of our political mindset, its level of intolerance horrendous.
Of late, this has become more so with the EPRDF having intensified systematic efforts at building its control and cult of infallibility. If political debates cannot expose this and open candidates to public scrutiny, what then is its purpose? The ruling party’s sensitivity is unfortunate, which a few weeks ago led both Ato Meles Zenawi and Ato Bereket Simon to issue veiled threats to Medrek leaders, alleging that they have crossed the red line. Is it an attempt to stop Medrek, since its stride has increased? It means that, if EPRDF’s hold on power is threatened, this may lead to a replay of 2005 all over again, as official displeasures build and their words seem to hint that!
The sovereignty question
As the first one to start its presentation on April 10 for Debate # Six, the governing party indicated it would focus on five themes: the sovereignty question, Ethio-Eritrea relations and question of outlet to the sea, the Somalia question, Ethio-Sudan relations, and the constitution and role of the defence forces. Nevertheless, since it found itself bogged down in amassing allegations against the opposition, it could not treat the last four items. It constantly showered itself with praises for its “great successes in foreign policy.” These successes were described in terms of ensuring the country’s peace, protection of the interests of Ethiopians and the country’s sovereignty. Ato Arkebe Oqubay’s presentation was prepared centrally (some say by Ato Meles), with anticipation that Medrek would attack the governing party on those issues and that EPRDF would be last presenter. When he became the first to start, he was forced to read a pre-prepared response to Medrek, even before its representative spoke.
Therefore, among Ato Arkebe’s first tasks was to define “sovereignty” with the help of dictionary, which he said is governmental power resting in the hands of the people, “not frenjis (white people)”. His grim point was denial that “Sovereignty is about rivers, mountains and borders.” That denial would go in our history as visitation by disaster. For the EPRDF, it was a good try, too superficial though and evident that it is linked to simplistic objective of cutting out the inherent link between sovereignty and national territorial integrity—belated fear of judgement by history.
National sovereignty for the governing party is restricted by definition, seemingly conveniently subordinated to the sovereignty of the people, which in a way is right, but incomplete. In other words, sovereignty over national territorial integrity is not given the importance of place it deserves. This surely is erroneous and fallacious, since the two are indivisible, although they have different attributes. For example, a government cannot tell its citizens or any other government in the world that it has successfully safeguarded its national sovereignty, but its remaining task is to regain its national territorial integrity. Sovereignty, according to EPRDF definition, is always intact, even when part of the country is under foreign occupation.
In this connection, I must remind readers that “territorial integrity” is one reference, whose absence in the Ethiopian constitution is glaring, although the notion is glossed over in generalities or subsumed in other concepts. In the constitution, “sovereignty” is mentioned eight times, three of them in the context of the “sovereignty of the people”, thrice as “sovereignty of the country” and once each as “national sovereignty” and “Ethiopia’s sovereignty”—none as a direct reference to the territorial integrity of the country.
Therefore, during the debate EPRDF was seen scurrying from one false argument to another trying to find a seemingly convenient cover for its historical mistakes regarding Assab and the recent territorial concessions to the Sudan that are used to bolster relations between the two countries. Obviously, this has undermined validity of the country’s disputes over a huge swath of territory for over one hundred years. The EPRDF recounted as his party’s that Ethiopians farmers on the other side of the border could stay in peace. This is a deceitful way of saying, we have given away the lands, but have agreed the Ethiopians to stay there. As far as the Sudan is concerned, that is the only foreign policy reference in the debate.
It is difficult to discuss details of foreign policy issues concerning each neighbouring country or the strategy. However, what has been defined as a national objective in respect of sovereignty leaves much to be desired. For good reason, it has not gone well in the debate. Most Ethiopians are aware of what is going on with the Sudan, which aroused hues and cries in 2008. Officially the government denied (foreign ministry, May 2008); but when the pressure intensified, the prime minister buckled admitting that some territorial ‘adjustments’ have been made. Therefore, foreign policy is a matter of credibility, which is in short supply in our government.
Are ports unimportant to Ethiopia?
Another tragedy is that, the chief representative of the EPRDF even went as far as denying the importance to Ethiopia of having its own outlet to the sea (port), which he described as “an agenda for reactionaries.” In that context, Ato Arkebe dismissed the policies of Emperor Haile Selassie and Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam on the sovereignty issue as sabre-rattling, which, according to him, eventually became responsible for their demise. Of, that, he said the TPLF would not like to repeat. In that context, he decorated his argument with praises of TPLF’s wisdom and visionary leadership, which he said has helped “to buy peace for the country”, by giving away Assab. He was not even thinking of the over 70,000 lives sacrificed in 1998-2000 in the war with Eritrea.
Perhaps two corrections would be in order here. First, the emperor was not overthrown on the question of national sovereignty and territorial integrity, to whose recognition and defence he has made enormous contributions. Nor could the Dergue be accused of disloyalty to Ethiopian sovereignty and territorial integrity. He must be charged for his misdirection of the country and poor and cruel leadership, ending up in spilling the blood of thousands of citizens. Secondly, on the question of ports, it should be recognised that transportation (land, air and sea) constitute the higher part of a country’s foreign trade (imports and exports) cost structures that is now sucking our resources.
UNCTAD estimates, “Approximately two thirds of maritime shipping costs occur in ports and in some instances transport costs can outweigh the impact of tariffs. In addition to being the point for the transfer between two modes of transport, they are the point of entry into the customs territory of the importing country”, (PORTS NEWSLETTER N°16, November 1996). In addition, on the same matter, in accepting the Almaty Declaration of 2003, the United Nations General Assembly stressed, “the major reason for the marginalization of landlocked developing countries from the global trading system is high trade transaction costs. Trade and transport are inextricably linked. Transport costs are a key determinant of international trade competitiveness”, (General Assembly, A/CONF.202/L.2). Ethiopia spends a third of its foreign exchange earnings for port fees, after it became a landlocked country.
Therefore, if any lessons are to be drawn, two of them must be mentioned: (a) the Dergue’s downfall is the best school, whose cruelty, violations of human rights, shedding of innocent blood and suppression of the people’s democratic rights had richly contributed to its ignominious demise; (b) TPLF’s rendering of Ethiopia landlocked has disadvantaged our country, our businesses, and is everyday eating into our economic growth because of high transport costs for our exports and the prices of our imports. They have been cutting deep into the profit margins of our farmers and businesses competitive capacities Ethiopia pays enormous fees of rented ports the country now pays. Its security is now dependent on the goodwill of others. Condemning the past is easy; but it does not pave the road to stable politics to a better future, public understanding and embrace which the TPLF (EPRDF) has been totally deprived of.
In the debate, all participating opposition parties responded negatively to EPRDF’s position. In comparison all of them forged reasonably strong position, which goes a long way in countering the designs the ruling party may have toward Ethiopia’s interests and its territorial integrity. To my thinking, the eight-point by EDP’s Lidetu Ayalew was more comprehensive, if its populist streaks are sheared off. Moreover, unlike the governing party with two-decades of experience in foreign policy, he has successfully highlighted the link between external policy and domestic policy, underlining the value of development, democracy and respect for fundamental human rights for internal cohesion and respectability by foreign countries.
Perhaps the best summary response to the sovereignty issue came from Ato Seye Abraha, Medrek’s representative, who said, “Unlike the denial by the EPRDF, sovereignty is inclusive of mountains and valleys; a country has defined geographical territory; it has established boundaries, which make it impossible to contemplate it without its mountains and valleys on which people leave their marks, build their identities, livelihoods and development. It is these realities that necessitate developing national defence policy and national security strategy”, [writer’s translation].
Ato Lidetu Ayalew supplemented that by asking EPRDF’s representatives to explain why Ethiopia has been in costly conflict with Eritrea over Badme to this day, if ‘territorial integrity” is not that important. Of course, he answered his own question, saying Badme is different for the ruling party; if it relented on that, it would fall on the pillar—insinuation that Tigrean opposition to giving away Badme is non-negotiable. This question he raised leads to another question. Suppose if we are to agree with the false dichotomy EPRDF has come up with. Let us say, country X and Y are in conflict. If X has occupied Y’s territory, could country Y be that stupid and say to its people that its dispute with X is not over its national sovereignty but its territorial integrity?
Nonetheless, to make case for his false argument over the unimportance of ports to a given country, Ato Arkebe made one last try. This time he took the example of Ethiopia before his party seized power and asked why it did not develop when it had two ports. He sounded, as if he was saying development entities a government to do whatever it likes to things citizens consider sacrosanct, such as national territory, boundaries, flag, etc. Similarly, he cited Eritrea and Somalia to show that they have not developed, although they have wide access to the sea and the oceans. This argument is silly, unintelligent and disingenuous. Unfortunately, throughout the debate EPRDF’s retreat from the “territorial integrity” phrase, Assab that he said the file is closed and the fertile agricultural lands given to the Sudan kept it boxed it into a bad corner, from which it could not wiggle out.
I am truly concerned that the EPRDF has gone too far in seeking to justify its past mistakes—something very disturbing—since it can be repeated anytime under different circumstances in the future. For purposes of scholarship, therefore, let me say that the concept of territorial integrity as a principle of international law is as old as sedentary human societies, even in the time of notional idea of territory before nation-states. After the destructive lessons of war in the 20th century, the central preoccupation of modern states has been how to restrain attempts by one country to promote changes in the borders of another country.
In that respect, in the post-war world the UN Charter in Article 2 (4) prescribes to all states to refrain from threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. In a recent example, the Security Council on December 20, 2007 called for respect for Somalia’s “territorial integrity and political independence” reaffirming the above. When external actors impose their will by force on another country, it is a different story, to which the international community responds swiftly and vigorously. For instance, in 1989 Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was considered, even by all Arab countries, outright violation of Kuwaiti sovereignty and territorial integrity and international legality.
Ato Arkebe Oqubay is rumoured to be the future foreign minister of Ethiopia (Addis Fortune). My advice to him is to do some serious thinking before accepting the job, if he is imbued with love of country and family!