It is now abundantly clear that the project of creating a strong multiparty opposition by uniting unitary parties and ethnic parties is anything but feasible. The inability of MEDREK to achieve unity despite numerous attempts as well as Dr. Negaso Gidada’s––who stepped down from the chairmanship of the strongest unitary party, namely, UDJ––recent convoluted declaration in which he said, “I oppose secession but support the right to secession,” seal the definitive collapse of the project. The sticking point, if one can decipher it in the maze of attacks and counterattacks, is the irreconcilable position of ethnic and unitary parties on the right to self-determination up to secession of the various ethnic groups composing Ethiopia. Another sticking point deriving from the right to self-determination is that parties have no right to campaign for political support or vote in regions that they do not represent ethnically. While the right to self-determination up to secession keeps Ethiopian unity in life support, the implication that regions are reserved for ethnic politics only does no more than remove the very purpose of unitary parties. Under these conditions, it is no surprise if the project of unity could not but fail completely.
I was among the many Ethiopians who hailed the formation of MEDREK as a new and very promising beginning reconciling the imperative need for national unity with the legitimate demands for ethnic recognition and equality. What the inability to achieve unity clearly demonstrates is the persistent prevalence of ethnic nationalism over the demand for equality. Sadly, ethnic parties in Ethiopia seem to be stuck in the Stalinist dogma of self-determination up to secession as the only path to achieving equality. It never crosses their mind that there are more than one ways of rectifying past injustices without jeopardizing the unity of the country. The reason for this predilection for self-determination is not so much the commitment to democracy as the pursuit of narrow elitist interests.
No sooner did I come to this conclusion than it dawned on me that the ethnic parties are actually no different from the EPRDF. They share the same premises ideologically and politically, the only difference being that they are not part of the ruling elites. Not only these so-called opposition parties have no alternative politics to the EPRDF, but they also view the ethnic partition of Ethiopia as the formation of legitimate reserved territories for ethnicized elites. Accordingly, their aspiration is to accede to the ethnic power system by preventing unitary elites from competing. In thus defending the ascriptive right to the status of being the sole representatives of their ethnic groups, they are but saying that the groups are not Ethiopian and that they must not have the choice between alternative proposals on Ethiopian unity and ethnic diversity. People are essentially defined by their ethnic belonging: they form homogeneous and exclusive groups and, as such, have no individuality and rights transcending the groups to which they belong.
Both the defense of reserved ethnic territories and the refusal to compete in a non-ethnic field testify that ethnic opposition parties are committed to a version of politics that is utterly undemocratic and ascriptive. It is hardly consistent to speak of democracy and exclude people from competing on the basis of ethnic belonging. Our spontaneous belief is that individuals become politically active and create political parties to correct injustice and defend freedom. In reality, what Ethiopia’s modern history has invariably staged is the struggle of disgruntled elites for the control of power in the name of the working people or ethnic groups. That is why the political system they generate, when some of them succeed in prevailing, is invariably undemocratic. It is never about empowering the people; it is about seizing power in their name so as to advance sectarian interests.
The inevitable conclusion is that unitary parties must no longer waste their time, energy, and credibility in trying to form an inclusive party with ethnicized elites. My suspicion is that ethnic parties brandish unification with unitary parties just for the sake of gaining time to firmly plant the seeds of ethnonationalism in their respective regions by providing it with the aura of opposition to a failing government. Unless ethnic parties officially and without ambiguity drop the right to self-determination up to secession, they are no more no less than the Trojan horses of the EPRDF deceptively disguised as opposition parties. Instead of courting them into unification, unitary parties must focus on the task of gathering and organizing national forces and presenting their own alternative policy and vision. In addition to recognizing the equality of all ethnic and religious groups, the policy must lay out the conditions for its effective realization in harmony with the unconditional unity of Ethiopia. Where ethnic parties advocate division and exclusive enclaves, unitary parties must promote unity and equality through the democratic empowerment of the people. The motto must be: democratic unity versus sectarian politics.
Messay Kebede is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He taught philosophy at Addis Ababa University from 1976 to 1993. He also served as chair of the department of philosophy from 1980 to 1991.