Reforming or Deforming the Opposition?

Wondemhunegn Ezezew | 2 July 2010 — Election 2010 is gone—for ever. TPLF/EPRDF won 99.6 percent of the seats for the lower house of parliament, or so we were told by that docile electoral board of Ethiopia. Most were surprised at the unprecedented level of the much anticipated fraud and used the fateful event of May 23, 2010 as a spring-board to step up their efforts to enlist more hawks into their increasingly widening circle. Of course, many time-honoured enthusiasts of armed struggle found a good reason to celebrate the cause they dearly espouse by amplifying their voice in pontificating about their strategy and intensifying the advertising for their vision of a more peaceful and democratic Ethiopia, with three decent meals (and clean water) a day for every one. You see, dear reader, whichever party, peaceful or all-inclusive, that is the maximum they have to promise to deliver to the general public when they win power. We are content with such a promise because we know how hard it is to fulfill. If we wanted more, we would vote for Coca Cola and the MacDonald’s.

Honestly speaking (or writing), I was not surprised with the outcome of that historical election. In fact I found it very surprising to see MEDREK winning one seat for its candidate representing Mercato electoral district in Addis. MEDREK may be a shot gun marriage among unreliable and incompatible partners, but as a (superficial) coalition calling for solidarity and togetherness in the run up to the polling day, it surely deserves one seat. Two would be unfair. I will tell you why further below.

Most opposition supporters, from both within and without the country, as measured by the barrage of write-ups that flooded us after the Electoral Board announcement, were extremely livid about the miserable performance of the opposition. To be fair, their fury was justifiable though it was disproportionately directed at the ruling party. Of course, no one in his right mind would argue that the incumbent regime could not have used any of its usually fraudulent tactics to doctor the outcome of the election, especially in remote, less sophisticated districts. But, in my opinion, the electoral process of 2010, which culminated in a landslide victory for TPLF/EPRDF, was reliant less on fraud in vote counting than on savagely clamping down on the opposition and blackmailing of voters in exchange for publicly provided services, positions and promotions in the civil service, where the government is by far the single most important provider of such opportunities and utilities. Vote for TPLF/EPRDF or you will lose your livelihood!

It was amidst such terrible atmosphere and highly choked political landscape that some opposition leaders, and notably those at the apex of EDP and AEUP, were raving hysterically that it was possible to conduct fair election and challenge the ruling party accordingly. Worse yet, the now-resigned-then chairman of AEUP, at a meeting in Bahir Dar, purportedly organized to address his supporters, droned on what could be recorded as the swan song of his more than four-decade-questionable-political career. The sum and substance of that speech, dear reader, was: They chose exile out of fear and are now ranting aimlessly—Fertew Hidew Yaqraralu–the Amharic verbatim, which you could watch on aigaforum. What was the purpose of such speech? We may differ on the interpretation and implication of such speech but it was certainly counter-productive as proved by the outcome of the election and the self-imposed resignation of Hailu Shawul. To me, more than TPLF/EPRDF’s efforts to divide and weaken the opposition block, it was self-serving, vindictive, and short-sighted individuals who put their personal interests over and above the interests of the downtrodden that killed Election 2010. That is the whodunit about that electoral suicide committed in the run up to and on May 23, 2010. Sadly, the fashionable hypocrisy is every where and even those who claim to be gurus in the field would not dare to touch it.

Politics, dear reader, like marketing, is all about conquering target territories and getting as many buyers as possible. To do so, two things are imperative: Firstly, there must be an independent regulatory body that enforces contracts and protects the properties of buyers and sellers from vandals or burglars. No one should harm me or destroy my possession because I vote for MEDREK or prefer Dashen to Wogagen Bank to set aside money for rainy days. Dashen may be paying lower saving rates or MEDREK may be fraught with “hateful chauvinists.” It is my free choice and everyone else, including the competitors, must respect it. And Conversely, MEDREK and Dashen Bank must have the untrammeled freedom to attract as many customers as possible, employing any strategy permissible under the supreme law of the land.

This is what we may call guarantee for freedom of choice. But it is not bi-directional. You are free to choose between the banks mentioned or between TPLF/EPRDF and MEDREK; but the banks and political parties should not choose between customers—that would be discrimination, legally punishable. Thus, in both business and politics, while customers and voters should be free in their choice of political parties or companies—which we do not consider discriminatory– no party or firm should harass them to vote for it or to buy its product/service, which is coercion and legally prohibited in any country inhabited by sensible men and women.

The other imperative condition for free competition among business or political actors is a level playing field. David could not have defeated Goliath without out (miraculous) divine intervention. David was honest to himself. He recognized his foibles. He knew that his adversary’s power was matchless and his fragile boyhood would evaporate in the mere presence of Goliath. Thus, the rationale for divine support—which we know led to David’s overwhelming victory against his contender.

Invoking a biblical story to narrate the sorry story of the opposition in Ethiopia could not be any more far-fetched. TPLF/EPRDF was like Goliath: a powerful giant, with redoubtable financial and organizational strength (boasting more than five million conscripted members), its tentacles encroaching onto each and every level of social, religious and household construction that the mind could imagine. Their hubris was so limitless that its godfathers were not even shy in bragging about such organizational capacity which drew (and continues to draw) most of its strength from the widow’s cruse that the state of Ethiopia supplies. As farcical as it could be, it was against this terrible backdrop that that immaterial election code of conduct was signed by the leaders of CUD, EDP, and AEUP, giving TPLF/EPRDF the much needed legitimacy in the eyes of its Western donors and financiers who want it to show some democratic, multi-party semblance. This code of conduct, dear reader, was nothing more than a dishonest document in which we see a bunch of heretical and agnostic Davids vowing to defeat the more pragmatic and malevolent TPLF/EPRDF, which relied more on its financial clout and government facilities it controls than on miracles which it did not believe in.

When put in ordinary political parlance, the duo imperatives–an independent regulatory organ and level playing field we discussed above—are the synopsis of the existence of independent electoral board, independent court system, free and equitable access to state media, politically neutral defense, security and intelligence apparatus and all the paraphernalia of fair, free and transparent electoral process. To the extent that we recognize the fact that TPLF/EPRDF was controlling and unfairly enjoying the advantages of such public goods and services for its own political ends, it was simply foolish (or a sort of conspiracy against the common good) for the signatories of that code of conduct to assume the election would be free and competitive. If we had not warned them against the catastrophic consequences of such move, one can boldly criticize us for being ‘prophets in the hindsight.’ But we are not. It all started with ‘Enjeeraa Engineering!’

Re-inventing the Opposition

Even though most critics blamed TPLF/EPRDF for the demoralizing performance of the opposition, few have rightly questioned the motives, intensions, dispositions as well as the individual and collective mission of those driving the opposition locomotive. A closely fair person that I am, I do not put all opposition parties or their leaders in one basket and categorize them as destructive and self-serving. But make no mistake, there are many sycophants who erect big opposition billboards outside their offices and tirelessly oppose the opposition, engage in vicious activities and, at times, at the pinnacle of their flattery, simply play the role of comedians. These guys, dear reader, were buried alive on May 23, 2010 and my joy had no bounds.

There were jokes, I mean it. For example, when many concerned Ethiopians pleaded with UDJ’s leadership to make the unconditional release of Birtukan Medekssa as one of the preconditions to participate in the planned election, one of its (coup) leaders famously retorted: After we win the elections and take over power, she will be released! First power, then the rest follows! I am not going to delve into my favourite theory of power hunger; it is sufficient to wonder how and when a party/coalition, which currently wins only one out of the 547 seats in parliament, will be able to take over power and set our Iron Lady free. This is not bad luck, and do not curse yourself that such jokes are made only in Africa. Mr. Papandreou, the current Greek Prime Minister, after successfully launching the notorious IMF-sponsored austerity measures (spending cuts, tax increases, pay freeze and disposing public sector employees to tackle the country’s ballooning sovereign debt problem), he told local journalists that he is “now more socialist than he used to be!” If Marx heard this new-found version of socialist reforms, he would turn over in his grave, or so we should assume. Some politicians, like comedians, make a living selling their jokes.

Having said that, I am now switching from slight flippancy to more sober statements and will outline what each of us, individually and collectively, should do to rekindle ‘the spirit of Kinijit’ and once again stand together to pull back our country from the brink of sliding into the precipice of totalitarian rule and save our people from the multi-whammy effects of violence and internecine conflict. Where appropriate, I will mention Mr. X should do this, Mrs. Y should not do that etc. because, as we all want “Zenawi” to be held accountable for everything that goes wrong under the sun, we should also develop the appropriate culture and muster our courage to call those in the opposition by their names. Otherwise we would rather leave “Zenawi” alone and concentrate our energy on demonizing his organization. Sensible? It should be.

Transforming MEDREK

True to its credit, despite its abysmal accomplishment, Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia (MEDREK) was arguably the only opposition block that was helplessly fidgeting in a highly harsh political climate that Ethiopia demonstrated up to May 23, 2010. Its leaders persistently complained about the increasingly authoritarian behaviour of the ruling party. To substantiate their allegations, they personally travelled to various parts of the country (Dr.Negasso and Aite Seeye, for instance) and published reports that exposed the puzzling espionage-and-control networks of the government that penetrated every social structure including families. Recognizing the fact that it was impossible to conduct free and fair elections under such tightly controlled environment, they refused to sign the binding code of conduct that called for responsible actions and behaviour of contestant parties and their candidates. But, all their efforts to put pressure on the government/ruling party to open up the political space and create a level playing field for all was ruined by the treacherous moves of those parties which hastily put their stamps that literally confirmed their wilful demise ahead of the polling day.

Yet, rejecting the code of conduct or being a forum of loosely held eight political parties was not enough. MEDREK has been a problematic project since its inception. Certainly it was a shot gun marriage among incongruent partners, and inevitably the honeymoon was not wonderful. And MEDREK’s only child, that amazing one seat in a five-hundred-forty-seven-seat parliament, though legally not born out of wedlock, did not bring any delight to its grand parents—the people of Ethiopia who had hoped to discover their solace and comfort in MEDREK.

There were many problems with MEDREK. Ideologically, it was an assortment of irreconcilable parties with diverse programmes and agendas ranging from unionist/Ethiopianist parties (such as UDJ) to ethno-nationalist configurations that hitherto nurse ethnic grievances and promote primarily the interests and aspirations of their own ethnic groups (such as SDAF-Ogaden, Arena Tigray, ONC-Oromia). This stark ideological disparity among its constituent parties, has contributed negatively to MEDREK’s poor electoral score in several respects. To begin with, the visible absence of genuine unity of purpose among its founders was responsible for the high level of ambivalence and unenthusiastic response from the electorate, especially in the capital Addis Ababa which is the traditional barometer of the degree of acceptance of the opposition by the public. Even with their shambolic state, the fact that the opposition block managed to gather some 45 percent of the federal parliamentary popular votes in Addis, of which the lion’s share went to MEDREK, indicate that hundreds of thousands of citizens preferred to give their votes to the opposition irrespective of the degree of their disorganization. Think of what MEDREK could have accomplished, at least in Addis Ababa, had it adopted a more coherent manifesto, followed innovative strategies in campaigning and grassroots organization, and chosen to stand as one soul and body than as a mere collection of ethno-nationalist devotees, which, in the eyes of Addis Ababa, the cultural melting pot of the nation, was uncomfortable. The spirit of Kinijit spread like wildfire throughout the country within a small time frame simply because its disciples shared the same doctrines and were preaching the same gospel in one voice, at least till some heretics fell prey to their personal egos and betrayed the people.

It is not a revelation that every one of us argues that lack of unity has been the Achilles heel of the opposition. It is rather as old as human nature itself—such as its tendency to rebel against injustice. Writing of the cause of rebellion, Thomas Hobbs, one of the greatest political philosophers of the 17th century, had said it all. According to him, three things must be in place to dispose men to sedition or rebellion: Discontent with the government, pretence of right (justification for resistance) and hope of success. He adds that hope of success consists of four points: that the discontented have mutual intelligence; that they have sufficient number; that they have arms; and that they agree upon a head (have unity of purpose), by which they are directed to one and same direction. Then we may forgive Thomas Hobbs for suggesting arms as the principal source of strength—he lived many centuries before Ghandi or Dr. King introduced and popularized non-violent resistance and that arms were the only source of strength in his time. But, his notion of unity as the necessary and sufficient condition to fight tyranny and ensure social justice is still fresh and particularly appropriate for our opposition which is in complete disarray.

The Ethiopian opposition has let down Ethiopians with its chaotic and confusing state, too often full of infighting and bickering over trivial, interpersonal issues, disregarding the very mission that an opposition block is supposed to deliver. Let bygones be bygones. But, from now on, if MEDREK wants to be taken seriously, it must put its house in order before laying the blue print for the difficult task of rebuilding the big, just, democratic house for all Ethiopians. Its leadership must make bold decisions to come of out of their respective ethnic cocoons and practically demonstrate their allegiance to the wider Ethiopian polity. Otherwise one must be naïve to expect the attention and support from the broader cross-section of the electorate at home or the scattered Ethiopian Diaspora with such visible lack of unity of purpose. Of course, one should not be a “chauvinist” Amhara to appeal to and get acceptance by the broader section of the Ethiopian electorate. I personally did not know till recently that Dr. Berhanu Nega was Gurage or Dr. Hailu Araya was from Tigray. Nor did I have the motive to track down and tally their ethnic back ground. All what mattered to me was their ideas and principles. That was the reason that I voted for Kinijit at Haramaya University and, given the variegated ethnic tapestry of students on campus, it was not a mere coincidence that Kinijit got by far the largest votes cast there. If Haramaya University were an independent electoral district, the seat would surely be won by Kinijit.

To sum up, for MEDREK to emerge as a true alternative force, its members need to exhaustively debate and discuss their multifarious ideologies and doctrines and come up with a unified workable programme. Their stance on land ownership, industrial development and other contentious economic issues are encouraging and can be further refined through more consultation and dialogue. The leaders need to replenish themselves with greater enthusiasm, passion and eloquence—which were almost non-existent during the pre-election debates. It is also important to invite and work with renegade parties like AEUO and EDP if, of course, their leaders are ready to repent of their sins by apologizing to the people of Ethiopia. The message for members of MEDREK is, there fore, short and clear: either shape up to work with and for the broader section of Ethiopians or return to your ethnic cocoons and shut up.

Reforming the media

When I scribble articles, I send them to Quatero, Nazret and ECADF, which are my favourite outlets. Nazret is for free expression; Quatero for its moderation and bilingual menu. I like ECADF because it is the appropriate antidote to the other extreme, which is Aigaforum. It is good that we have ECADF because the pro-government extremists are reminded that there is a limit to everything, including propaganda. But, when I sent them my last article, ‘what shall we do with the tools?’ Nazret and Quatero published it. But ECADF did not. Much to my surprise, one of the administrators, whose name I do not disclose for the sake of his reputation, replied: “Are you the usual Wondemhunegn Ezezew?”

You can guess why he wondered if I were the same person that ECADF knew. The tone of my voice was moderate and I suggested that EPRDF should make a big push on the problem of food insecurity, which has been tarnishing the country’s image despite its potential to be more than self sufficient. That is all. Then you may wonder why one would resent hearing a friend advising the government to change for better or do good things to its people. The multi-billion-dollar question is that, regardless of our resentment, with or without our imprimatur, they have been ruling Ethiopia for over two decades and so long as they control the realm of political power in the country, and to the extent that they heed some attention to such advice, why not throw in our two cents?

That incident has taught me an important lesson: that it is very difficult to find a middle ground between two extremes and that my loyalty should be to my people and my country. Indeed, if you happen to read an article critical of the government both on Aigaforum and ECADF simultaneously, then you should feel optimistic about the prospects of this country.

What is even more disturbing is the fact that most of the web cast media are owned and operated by Ethiopians who at one time or another were victims of government crack down as part of a systematic campaign to distort the flow of information and muzzle freedom of expression in the country. People, who furiously accuse state owned media back home of propagating distorted and fabricated propaganda on the success of government policy and of turning a blind eye on its failures, must also practice what they preach. They need to promote opposition programmes and ideas fairly and enthusiastically, and at the same time launch their relentless attack on them when they betray the people. That will help the emergence and development of responsible leaders. Our aim cannot and should not be regime change only—that would be a mere movement from the frying pan to the fire. We need also to question the actions and decisions of our leaders in the opposition and pressure them to change their trajectory and set their motion in the right direction. One of the very reasons, besides to its intrinsic weaknesses, that MEDREK performed poorly is because the media and the Diaspora community that run them did not give them the relevant weight. There was even a barrage of war of words between ECADF and Ethiomedia.

Reforming our attitudes

The ruling party too often accuses the opposition of lacking a workable and viable alternative to it in terms of programmes and policies. It is good to present feasibly superior policies but, dear reader, as you say, the best of all policies is HONESTY. Without honesty, even with the best possible policy, we cannot change our poverty-stricken country to paradise overnight. Are we honest to ourselves as leaders and supporters? Do we know what we want from each other? Did we receive Mr. Gebru Asrat, Dr. Negasso Gidada and Mr. Seeye Abraha with ululation that heroes normally deserve? Were Aite Gebru and Aite Seeye on their part bold and humble enough to come out in public, declare their remorse about their misguided past, and announce their determination that, like our hero Emperor Yohanes IV, they do not see any border of any sort between Gondar and Tigray or by extension between Tigray and the rest of the country? As Deng Xiaoping, the linchpin of China’s economic reform in the early 1980s forcefully put it: “I do not care whether it is a white cat or a black cat; it is a good cat as long as it catches mice.” Of course, the Chinese reformer was saying that he did not care whether it is a free market or a social market economy as long as that led to accelerated growth and greater social happiness. Paraphrasing Deng Xiaoping, to fit the times and circumstances of my point, I would say: We do not care whether it is Negasso, Negassi or Nigussie; he is a good leader as long as he is honest, pan-Ethiopianist, with a mission to fight for social justice, equality and freedom for all Ethiopians rather than for his own ethnic enclave. If leaders are honest, certainly their followers would and should be more honest.

In the second and final part, I will bring forward my criticisms aimed at EPRDF.

Wondemhunegn Ezezew

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Posted by on July 3, 2010. Filed under NEWS. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.