A Letter to Ethiopians:
As the Executive Director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE), I want to call on the Ethiopian people to remain calm and cautious during this time of unknown certainty.
Meles Zenawi, prime minister of Ethiopia—the darling of the West, but a ruthless strongman to his own people—has passed away. After two months of rumors and speculation about his death or incapacitation, the government of Ethiopia finally announced his death. No one expected, even two months ago, that Meles’ 21-year long, iron-fisted control over the one-party government of the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF)—which controlled the coalition government of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)—would come to such an abrupt end. Meles’ absence will challenge the entire system and we must be ready, but patient.
For years, opposition groups, as well as key stakeholders within and outside of Ethiopia, recognized the ability of this one man to either hinder or advance agendas of others to his own benefit, whether in Ethiopia or in the region. Now that he is gone, the TPLF/EPRDF system that maintained him and dominated every sector of society in Ethiopia, although still in place, may have taken a deadly hit. The future is uncertain as the new regime faces new challenges from inner TPLF power struggles, splits between Tigrayans, the renewed vigor from opposition groups and now, new demands from religious groups, both Muslims and Christians, for freedom from government interference in their religious affairs.
As our dictator has been taken out of the game, Ethiopians may suddenly have a unique opportunity to win their struggle for a healthier, more inclusive and more prosperous Ethiopia. Today is a new day. We are not going to celebrate the death of somebody but must still carefully appraise the real obstacles ahead that may not have been clearly revealed to outsiders or understood by us.
Meles had two faces—one for outsiders and one among Ethiopians. To outsiders, like within the African Union, Meles was perceived to be a “uniter” but to Ethiopians, he maintained his power through fomenting division. He was the architect of the Ethiopian system of ethnic federalism, which discouraged a national identity as it accentuated ethnicity; all used as a divide and conquer tactic to maintain control of the majority by a minority group comprised of only 6% of the population. As a result, we all know that the Ethiopia of today is more divided by ethnicity than ever before.
To state players concerned about global security, Meles played a role in the War on Terror and in sending troops to Somalia; but to his own people, Meles was our home-grown terrorist who most threatened our lives and futures and radicalized neighboring Somalia.
Development assistance from outside nations and organizations flowed into the country and Meles was seen as a “new breed of African leaders,” but to the people, especially outside of Meles’ own region, outside of Addis and outside of special project areas; development monies were often linked to political views or lost to corruption.
Repeatedly, outsiders have given Meles an unchallenged legacy for bringing millions out of poverty; but on the ground, the money has not trickled down to the people. Global Financial Integrity instead gave recent documentation of billions of USD dollars leaving the country in illicit capital leakage—$11.3 billion from 2000 to 2009— money from economic growth confiscated by cronyism rather than inclusive capitalism. Yes, Meles has secured large amounts of foreign investment, especially in agricultural land and resources, but millions of Ethiopians have or eventually will be forced off their land; with no say, no compensation and no provisions for starting a new life. These small farmers are now becoming dependent on foreign aid for the first time.
These are great challenges for the future for any leader. The newly appointed transitional Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, will have a critical role to play. Whether he will take the side of the people or will attempt to continue the status quo, is unknown; however, if he rises to the challenge of advancing the interests of the people, it will require undoing the machinery of suppression so carefully put into place by this regime—like the Anti-terrorism law that has imprisoned democratic voices and the Charities and Societies Proclamation that has eliminated civic institutions, replacing them with pseudo organizations controlled by the regime.
It will require implementing broad reforms: creating an independent judiciary system, freeing the media, advancing the Internet, forming an independent election board and initiating all those key parts of any well- functioning democratic state. He must also release thousands of political prisoners who are only imprisoned because they became enemies of the regime simply for living out their consciences.
As we face these next, uncertain days and weeks ahead, if we are to succeed as a people and avoid violence and revenge after years of simmering tensions, anger and frustration among us, we Ethiopians must see each other as one people—the Ethiopian people—and part of our family of humanity. This is not a time for vengeance or destruction, but is a time to start reconciling with each other for the sake of the whole country. This is the beginning of reform.
We are calling for dialogue among Ethiopians. We are also calling on those western state players, who supported Meles, to now support the organizations who are working to establish democracy, to preserve the territorial integrity of the country, to build institutions and to reject appeals of ethnic-based violence. We know that Meles received that support, despite his many human rights abuses and the repression of his people, because of the perceived greater interest in global security and stability in a geo-politically strategic region; but now it is time to reassess who will be the best long-term partners. It is the Ethiopian people. The man that charmed the west is now gone. It is a critical time to support genuine reforms and the people and opposition groups working for broad-based and meaningful change that can galvanize the people and serve their interests while enhancing the mutually shared interests of global partners and foreign investors.
From the beginning, the SMNE was established as a non-violent, non-political social justice movement to bring the diverse people of Ethiopia together; creating security, stability and greater prosperity through the restoration of justice, built on the principles of putting “humanity before ethnicity” and caring about “others” within Ethiopia and beyond because “no one is free until all are free.” The SMNE was also created to strengthen institutions which would promote truth, freedom, democracy, equality, civility, accountability and transparency in order to bring about a more robust society that could move from its dependency on others for its basic daily needs to greater independence. Ethiopia is a rich nation in people and resources. Good governance, democratic values, ethical practice, industry and inclusive capitalism can transform Ethiopia from its image of starvation, misery and suffering to a country that can contribute to the well being of others. Ethiopians want to seize this opportunity now.
We in the SMNE call for calm among the people and restraint for the defense forces. Meles had a choice to be loved by the people when he ousted Mengistu in 1991, but he did not take it. We must be careful now to not create ingredients for fighting against each other either now or in the future. Ethiopian Defense troops and security forces with guns should not use them against the people. The taking of one life is too many.
We Ethiopians have already shed too many tears; we have already spilled too much blood; we have already lived with too much pain and sorrow; we have already felt too much desperation; and, we have already lost too many of our people to death, abuse or hardship while trying to find a better life outside of Ethiopia. It is time to reclaim, rebuild and transform Ethiopia into a New Ethiopia where people want to stay. It will require all of us working together by each doing our share.
In conclusion, everyone knows how Meles favored his own ethnic group, the Tigrayan, and his own region, Tigray, and even more his own birthplace of Adwa, but the Tigray should not be afraid. If you have not committed crimes, you have nothing to fear. You are part of us and will be part of the New Ethiopia. As we have said before, the SMNE stands to defend and to protect the well being of each and every Ethiopian individuals and groups. You are part of that. We cannot build a New Ethiopia without you. Our enemy is the system, not an ethnicity, a region, a town or a religion. You do not have to hold back. You are our brothers and sisters. With God’s help, we can find healing for the past, reconciliation for the present and hope for the future. May God bless Ethiopia!
Your brother in our struggle for a New Ethiopia,
Obang Metho, Executive Director of the SMNE