Ethiopians Need a Fundamental Change By Tedla Woldeyohannes (PhD)*

Aerial view of “Maekelawi” compound, the main federal police investigation center, in Central Addis Ababa, on February 18, 2013. © DigitalGlobe 2013; Source Google Earth

Both the Regime and Ethnic Federalism Must Go 

Now a few days have passed since Ethiopians and the world have heard an announcement from the Ethiopian Prime Minister about the release of “political prisoners.” I put political prisoners under quotation marks since it has not been clear how the Ethiopian government officials define political prisoners. My immediate reaction to the news was not that of excitement or euphoria as I have witnessed that was the case by many. It is not that I did not care about the release of political prisoners, if true, I do most certainly care about their release. My reaction was mostly guarded and cautious because of the reasons I decided to share in this article. My academic training is in philosophy, in the area of the theory of knowledge with a particular focus on the role of evidence in the formation of beliefs. This article attempts to raise some points to underscore the value of evidence in relation to formation of beliefs. The Ethiopian government, which personifies a pathological liar, wants the citizens to believe the government about its decisions and actions. I argue below that we should not trust a habitual liar, the Ethiopian government officials, too quickly. Our beliefs need to be based on all available evidence.

When You Trust a Pathological Liar, it’s Your Problem

It’s an essential attribute for the officials in the Ethiopian government to rule the country by telling so many lies with a hope to distort facts and hence to deceive citizens along with the international community. In general, in normal inter-human relations, when we are told lies so many times, it is being naïve or gullible to believe a liar when a liar claims that he or she is telling the truth. It is possible for a liar to change and become truthful. But there must be evidence for such a change. Those who are so readily inclined to believe a pathological liar fail a reasonable condition for forming belief about liars and their lies. We must ask ourselves whether a habitual liar, be it a government official or an individual is telling the truth. Now a case in point is the news we heard about the decision by the government to release political prisoners. If and when political prisoners are actually released, it is not unreasonable to believe based on the evidence that political prisoners are released. In the meantime, we have already observed the confusion that followed the announcement of the release of political prisoners when the BBC reported, the following day, that PM was “misquoted” about what he had said in his statement about political prisoners. 

Now let us take a moment to reflect on the question whether this same government that has been lying about numerous things over two decades deserves to be trusted to bring about a real change just based on the release of political prisoners, if and when that happens. Those who are too quick to believe that the release of political prisoners is evidence for a real change from the government need to think twice before going forward with such a belief. Remember that this very government has consistently denied for years that there are political prisoners in Ethiopia. If there were no political prisoners in Ethiopia, how come that this very government promise to release them? This blatant contradiction, which amounts to releasing non-existent political prisoners is being lauded as progress the government is making because many are saying for the first time the Ethiopian government has *admitted* that there are political prisoners whom it is releasing. Even Congressman Ed Royce, who has been working a lot on human rights violation in Ethiopia, released a press statement saying, “Ethiopia has finally acknowledged that it holds political prisoners.” What the Prime Minister has said was rather equivocal, not entirely clear about admitting that Ethiopia holds political prisoners. The Prime Minister has said, “some members of political parties and other individuals that have been allegedly suspected of committing crimes or those convicted will be pardoned or their cases interrupted based on an assessment….” The whole point of not clearly saying “political prisoners
and instead saying politicians who allegedly committed crimes is another example of misleading and lying, which is done on purpose to deceive Ethiopians and the international community.

Let’s ask ourselves a question if the Prime Minister was actually admitting that there are political prisoners in Ethiopia: Was it really an actual, genuine admission on the part of the regime like saying that it was unjust to imprison citizens for holding political views in opposition to the regime in power? Did the Prime Minister say that citizens should never have been persecuted for their political beliefs, let alone imprisoned and tortured? Without such admission of regret or remorse, on behalf of his government, and taking responsibility for the jailing of people for their political beliefs in a clear manner, on what basis should citizens trust the regime is actually changing its operation? What had happened to political prisoners after the 2005 election? Didn’t this same government jail opposition party members and later released and jailed again one of the prominent political prisoners, Birtukan Mideksa, on baseless charges? Didn’t this same government come up with the so-called anti-terrorism proclamation in 2009 to further imprison political dissidents and journalists, bloggers, among others since the release of political prisoners after the 2005 election? Hasn’t this same government imprisoned Bekele Gerba twice, who is still in prison? What fundamental operation has changed in the same government that will guarantee the safety of any political prisoner that will be released? Did the regime make a commitment in a decisive manner to repeal the anti-terrorism law, among other things? Did the regime make any public statement and commitment to stop persecuting political dissidents after the release of some political prisoners? What is the point of closing one notorious interrogation and torture station when there is zero evidence, except the usual empty promises, that political persecution will stop?

Until the government addresses in a concrete way issues at the bottom of imprisoning political dissents, consistent violations of human rights, suppression of freedom of speech and the press, and immediately repeals the anti-terrorism law that the regime uses to persecute citizens for their political beliefs, there is no reason to believe that there is any actual change from the side of the government. Cosmetic changes to appease popular uprising against the government need not count as evidence for a real reform from the government. To believe otherwise is to cheapen the value of evidence or worse to believe in the absence of adequate evidence. To believe in cosmetic changes the regime offers to dupe its citizens offers strong evidence to the regime in that those who readily believe that the government has made real change are only ready to be deceived and governed on the basis of more lies and deceptions. Such an attitude from citizens’ amounts to believing that somehow someday the lies the regime tells are consistent with expecting a real change from the regime. But this is like believing that lies when told too many times can turn into truth, which is engaging in self-deception! Evidence that shows that the regime has lied countless is a compelling reason to not trust this same regime about promises. This government must change so fundamentally to earn any level of reasonable trust from the citizens.

A Need for a Fundamental Change

It is not a place to make a detailed case for what is needed to bring about a fundamental change to the Ethiopian political landscape, in the days to come, but here are a few points I want to register to pursue them further in the future.

Ethiopia is at a crossroads politically and this has been evident in the last about three years of massive protests in Oromia and Amhara regions as has amply been reported. Among the demands made by protesters is an unconditional release of all political prisoners. The most fundamental change needed to address directly head on is *one of* the sources of many of the political problems in the country, i.e., the administrative structure which is called ethnic federalism. In my view, Ethiopia’s administrative structure, which divides the country along ethno- linguistic lines is among the most significant sources (not the only source) of multitudes of problems in the country, especially as manifested in the last several years.

It is absolutely important to seek an adequate explanation why Ethiopia has faced multitudes of problems most recently such as clashes between ethnic groups that sadly include university students in more than a dozen universities in the country, and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and death to many due to conflicts that did involve ethic groups (Oromos and Somalis from the Oromia and Ethio-Somali regions), etc. Why do we see ethnic conflicts among university students, between Amharas, Oromos, and Tigrayans, Oromos and Somalis, etc.? We need answers to this question, but not any kind of answer would be adequate and satisfying for an inquiring mind who is also concerned to find out a solution to the problems that affect the people of Ethiopia.

Now to a much larger observation on what has been going on in Ethiopia in the last three years. Take the case of Oromo Protest since 2015. Consider some of the demands at the heart of the Oromo Protest: The issue of the Master Plan that was used to expand the boundaries of Addis Ababa into the Oromia region, land grab and hence evictions of the Oromos from (what has come to be called) their ancestral lands, the demand for autonomy or self-rule, demand for Afaan Oromo to be a federal language, the issue of Oromia’s special interest in Addis Ababa, among others. Now let us ask one question about all these demands that constitute the demands of the Oromo Protest: What is one crucial political context in which all these demands have been raised without which it would have been highly unlikely that all these questions would be raised together or one after another the way they have been raised? Imagine the Oromo Protest with the same questions before* the current administrative structure, ethnic federalism in place. Can anyone plausibly claim that all of these demands would have brought together protesters in the form of the Oromo Protest in the absence of the current Oromia administrative region? I submit that the answer to this questions is, no. The Oromo Protest with all its demands *without ethnic federalism* as the administrative arrangement is the least plausible suggestion we can think of. Or, in other words, there is no plausible reason to believe that without the current administrative structure of ethnic federalism all the demands raised in the Oromo Protest would still have been raised.

In my view, the best explanation why the demands in the Oromo Protest were raised and consequently the context in which Oromos have been targeted for persecution, arrest, torture, and death, eviction from their lands, and displacement, etc., is the administrative structure and practice of ethnic federalism. None of these things would have occurred *the way they have occurred* if it were not for the administrative structure and practice of ethnic federalism that led to the *specific demands* we have come to see in the Oromo Protest. Note that I have not claimed that ethnic federalism directly has caused the persecution of the Oromos or their arrest or death or displacement. All that I have claimed is that the best explanation (or an ultimate explanation, not a proximate or an immediate explanation) of why things that have happened in Oromia, to the Oromos, is because of the administrative structure and practice of ethnic federalism. I am not claiming that ethnic federalism *itself* is causing displacement or arrest or any harm per se. But then, as I argued, without the administrative structure and the practice of ethnic federalism, we would not have Oromia as an administrative region to begin with, and also all the specific demands raised by the Oromos the way they have been raised would not have occurred. In other words, the fact that ethnic federalism is practiced as an administrative structure in Ethiopia is one of the necessary conditions (not a sufficient condition) for the kind of problems we have observed in Oromia. The same reasoning applies to similar problems that have been observed in other administrative regions, notably the Amhara region.

What is the point of the above reasoning that led us to the conclusion that the administrative structure and practice of ethnic federalism is a condition without which we would not have seen the kind of problems we have observed in Oromia and by extension in other regions of Ethiopia? The point is this: If my reasoning is correct, which I think is correct, seeking a solution for the multitudes of politically triggered problems in Ethiopia (identified above) is by dismantling ethnic federalism and replacing it by an administrative structure that can *avoid* problems that ethnic federalism has led us to. One effective way of dismantling ethnic federalism is by extensively amending the Ethiopian Constitution or by drafting a new Constitution. I submit that a fundamental change for Ethiopia the Ethiopian government needs to bring about can be seen by its commitment to dismantle and replace ethnic federalism by way of constitutional amendment, at the very least. This can take time and a process, but showing a commitment to what can bring about a fundamental change does not need take a long time or a process.

Another absolutely essential component to bring about a fundamental change to Ethiopia is when we have a government that clearly works to democratize Ethiopia with a clear commitment to the rule of law, human rights protection in a country where citizenship and individual rights take front and center in the Constitution and practice. As I argued above, we have no reason to believe that the current government is willing to fundamentally reform itself to bring about such a desired change for Ethiopia. It is in the best interest of the regime, before its departure, to facilitate a transitional government that can work to accomplish two essential goals I have identified above: To get rid of ethnic federalism as an administrative structure and to work with all concerned Ethiopians to entrust the future of Ethiopia in the hands of a transitional government that can work on the amendment of the Constitution along with ensuring that a genuine democratic change comes to Ethiopia—for the first time.

Before wrapping up this article, let me address a couple of points that circulate when ethnic federalism is criticized. First, it is common to hear, including from the high level officials in the Ethiopian government and regional presidents (for example, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Ato Lemma Megerssa, and Dr. Debretsion Gebremichael) and political activists and elites that if ethnic federalism has been correctly implemented, if not all, most of the problems critics of ethnic federalism attribute to the system will be resolved. To which my short answer is this: To argue that a correct implementation of ethnic federalism would resolve problems its critics attribute to the system is like arguing that one can cheat or steal in the right way. Likewise, as I will argue in detail in a sequel to this article, that ethnic federalism has flaws internal to the system, especially in its practice, not due to lack of democracy (see below), and consequently, a system that contains inherent flaws can hardly be correctly implemented. In short, it is not an implementation problem of ethnic federalism alone that led to the problems we identified above; rather, it is the problem in ethnic federalism that led to the problems we identified.

Second, those who defend ethnic federalism also argue that if Ethiopia has been open for democracy and human rights protection, ethnic federalism would be a good administrative structure to address issues of ethnic equality and ethnic grievances that some ethnic groups had suffered in our historical past. In other words, the main source of problems in Ethiopia in the last two decades or so has been an authoritarian government. If we democratize Ethiopia, as often heard, that ethnic federalism would be a suitable administrative system. I will also address this objection to the critics of ethnic federalism in detail in a sequel to this article, but for now here is my short answer to those who hold the view in question: As I suggested above, if there is a flaw in the system of ethnic federalism, i.e., that flaw or inherent defect in the system is not a consequence of an authoritarian regime. An authoritarian government is anti-democratic and engages in human rights violations regardless of the administrative structure, whether that is ethnic federalism or not. Note that the regime before the current, the Derg regime, was authoritarian regardless of the administrative system at that time. In other words, to argue that ethnic federalism would work fine without the authoritarian government is to argue that there is no inherent problem, especially with the practice of ethic federalism. But that I think is a mistake. Ethnic federalism is anti-democratic in the sense that it does not recognize the primacy of the rights of individuals and the fundamental notion of citizenship as foundational bedrocks for democracy.

For now I conclude this article with the following quotation from John Abbink, a foremost authority on Ethiopian ethnic federalism:

As noted above, the classification of Ethiopia’s citizens primarily in terms of their ethnicity as well as the strong territorialization of groups has been accompanied by and perhaps been a casual factor in, numerous new local-level conflicts about who is what, and to heavy pressure on people to ‘‘come out’’ for one ethnicity (e.g., of the father) and not the other. Also conflicts erupt frequently about the right to have a job in the local ethnicized administration, about voting or candidature rights, and especially of course about borders. Borders between regions, zones and districts have been the recurring issue of dozens of conflicts, many of them violent and with numerous casualties (I counted c.5000 6000 people killed over the past 20 years in such ‘‘ethnic’’ and ‘‘border’’ conflicts). This however is not to say that all resulted from state-induced border arrangements.

*Tedla Woldeohannes teaches philosophy at Southwestern Illinois College.

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Posted by on January 8, 2018. Filed under NEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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