By Maru Gubena – Five year ago, though there were feelings of uncertainty and fearfulness about the future direction of Ethiopia itself, as well as its politics – including the possible transfer of power from the regime of Meles Zenawi to the then opposition parties – a good number of Ethiopians both at home and in the Diaspora were not just active but were energized and determined to fight against the factors and actors that divide us, to cultivate and expand a sense of togetherness and unity, and to do everything in our capacity to be sincere and respectful to each other, helping our country with collective hands and fresh thoughts.
Yes, even though some of us felt a growing anxiety, especially due to the absence of well structured, professionally functioning and legally framed organizations in the Diaspora, a disproportionately high number of Ethiopians indeed anticipated that a harmonious society and a relatively peaceful, free and economically prosperous Ethiopia were being shaped and set on the right path for the first time in the entire history of our country. Consequently, the period was marked by plentiful, memorable sights and sounds of Ethiopian get-togethers, the publication of enormous number of articles, radio transmissions and demonstrations held throughout the international community protesting against the brutal killings of Ethiopians, including women and children, in support of what was then Kinijit and its leadership, from which Ethiopians were enthusiastically and with excitement awaiting relative freedom and democracy, expecting to face and test both its fruits and challenges.
Unfortunately, however – even though many of my compatriot politicians and political activists might not want to recognize this, to avoid creating impediments to their short term political agendas – whether we live in Ethiopia or in the Diaspora, and whether we belong to the ruling regime or opposition groups, one tends to feel that our blood, cultural behaviours and attitudes seem immune or perhaps inappropriate to the concepts of democracy, equality, individual freedom and human rights. Indeed, as the past two or more decades of political upheavals and experiences have shown, family affiliations, comradeship, group interests and regionalism are more urgent, more imperative to us than the complex collective issues and problems of the people of Ethiopia as a whole.
Yes, in Ethiopian culture equality, individual freedom and democracy are unknown quantities; they are strange to us, even though most Ethiopians expressed repeated wishes and uninterrupted prayers that the fears and anxieties voiced by a few concerned Ethiopians were wholly unfounded, and that instead the winds of change and democracy blowing above the mountains of Ethiopia would become more rapid and powerful. Meanwhile, the actual fashioning of implementable democratic strategies and the possibilities for working hand in glove with all stakeholders, while maintaining a sense of integrity and accountability, quickly became a tricky business, difficult to integrate with the mindsets and cultures of Ethiopians. Everything related to the opposition movements was emotionally loaded; once group oriented, they soon became to be dominated by personal and group interests and rivalries. Consequently, internal conflicts, infighting and rifts within the various movements and groups were rife, both in our homeland and in the Diaspora. This contributed to the untimely and complete dissolution of Kinijit and its disappearance from the political landscape of Ethiopia, which in turn left us today in complete darkness and confusion, with no a single reliable political party or socio-political movement to engage with and support.
Chronicling the Forgotten and Unrecorded Recent Events and Wars
As if writing up crucial historical and political events is forbidden by God or culturally restricted, we Ethiopians in general remain apathetic, appearing unconcerned about recording our own socio-economic and political processes and events, including the origins and dissolution of political parties and movements. This is notwithstanding that these political parties or movements are part and parcel of the political landscape and history of our country. They were established with the objective of adding helping hands and voices to support the process of democratization of the country, even though the opposition leaders and their supporters have been unable to communicate effectively and tirelessly and to avoid repeated confrontations and infighting. The recent unexpected dissolution of Kinijit and the unhappy split among its top leaders is a case in point. In fact, no one among those involved in Kinijit politics and activities knew in advance about the measures undertaken by Engineer Hailu Shawel during that chilly winter season, except a very few insiders or others very close to him.
Indeed, while most of us living in the western world were enjoying the approaching Christmas and New Year holiday shopping so quietly and happily, some holding firmly the hands of lovely little children or someone we love dearly, the unexpectedly speedy winds of the long smoldering rift among Kinijit leadership reached its ultimate climax. And, much to the astonishment and shock of politically conscious Ethiopians, the chilly December Winter season of 2007 marked the end of the main opposition party, Kinijit, when the Chairman of the party, Engineer Hailu Shawel abruptly announced the suspension of five top leadership figures, including Judge Birtukan Mideksa, then Vice Chair of the party; Mayor-Elect of Addis Ababa city, Dr. Berhanu Nega; Kinijit Spokesperson, Dr Hailu Araya; Engineer Gizachew Shiferaw and Brook Kebede. The announcement of the suspension was posted and/or transmitted through the Ethiopian Diaspora media outlets.
As can be imagined and as is always the case in Ethiopian political culture, the suspended individuals felt deeply offended, that the actions undertaken by Engineer Hailu Shawel were unfounded, and that the words and tone of the announcement were antagonistic, disparaging and autocratic, they responded instantaneously and heavy handedly – much to the displeasure of Engineer Hailu Shawel and his supporters – by establishing their own political party and movement, at home and in the Diaspora. The end of 2007 and the subsequent years were not marked just by the suspension of five key Kinijit figures and the establishment of a new political party and movement; more damagingly, there was also a declaration of a highly intense cyberwar among the supporters of each political group – each firing its tanks and guns from its own warzones and hidden fortresses, unknown and remote from its targeted enemies. As understood by most of us, the announcement of the suspensions and the subsequently established movement and political party marked the final dissolution of Kinijit, thereby dashing the immeasurable and intense, though short-lived, hopes and expectations Ethiopians had for both Kinijit and its leaders.
A related event took place some six weeks prior to the suspensions carried out by Engineer Hailu Shawel. Strangely, almost unbelievably, even the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) activists – with almost four decades of experience in politics and conflict resolution, and who had managed to regroup, primarily during the campaign and the aftermath of the May 2005 Ethiopian parliamentary election – were not spared by the spreading cruel, unforgiving disease of divisiveness. One would certainly not imagine that the hostile winds of division would dare to shake and tear the rocky houses built by those who were the direct victims of both the Dergue and Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), and suffered so tremendously at their hands – those who had held secret and dangerous meetings in various Ethiopia cities, waged urban wars, and who spent time together so closely and intimately as brothers, sisters and comrades under the chilly winters and summers of the Assimba mountains. Unfortunately, however, we who envisaged that the houses of EPRP were built upon heavy, immovable rocks and that decades of life and political experience and wisdom would not be so easily and so simply cracked were wholly in error. Yes, we were utterly wrong because, notwithstanding the incalculable sacrifice made by the generation that withstood the early years of Ethiopia’s socio-economic and political upheavals, accompanied by a climate of irreversible and irreparable destruction and of trust and confidence in each other, and the wisdom and life experience built up by the EPRP over decades, including their unhurriedly, carefully constructed rocky and immovable houses, appeared full of holes – weak and unable to hold back the strong, speedy winds carrying both long existing animosities and newly conceived hostilities and resentments among Ethiopian political activists.
Many politically conscious Ethiopians, especially those who belong to the generation had hoped that the long-held ideology of EPRP, the lost comrades, brothers and sisters in the cities of Ethiopia and in the vicinity of the mountain of Assimba, and the deep-seated and painful memories of the struggle would serve the entire EPRP, activists and other sympathizers, as sources of motivation, as fuel providing energy, and as a vital linkage, keeping them together and united for as long as the resistance requires them, and even beyond. Unfortunately and sadly, however, the hopes most us associated with both the blood and the ideology of the generation did not materialize. After some months of rumors in some Diaspora media outlets about increasing disagreements and wrangling, the actual split of EPRP into two camps became a reality at an Extraordinary Congress held on 29 October 2007 in Washington DC, which was marked by a fierce debates and the exchanges of unpalatable words, statements and accusations among long-time friends and war comrades who together had survived repeated attempts on their lives in the cities, the bush and the deserts of both their country of origin and their countries of exile within the region of the Horn of Africa. As can be imagined, the news was received by member activists, sympathizers and by others who belong to the generation with astonishment and sadness.
As if the shock and astonishment experienced by Ethiopians at the split of the EPRP and the measures undertaken by Engineer Hailu Shawel had not been enough, the unforgiving, cruel winds of divisiveness continued, spreading into the bodies of other political activist groups like a contagious disease. Even though society regards women, in comparison to their male counterparts, as more tolerant, sensible and capable of resolving disagreements and conflicts through softly, wisely and diplomatically crafted talk and other means of communications, due to an apparent absence of training in effective communication and conflict resolution within organizations, and also due to the affiliation of most of the leading members of the International Ethiopian Women’s Organization (IEWO) to one or the other of the political groups, there was no way to prevent the powerful and spreading disease of separation from entering the body of this group as well. Consequently, within just a few months after the split within EPRP, the IEWO group, to which I was once invited to speak, giving an overview about the future role and direction of Ethiopian opposition parties, made its irreconcilable decision to follow the footsteps of Kinijt and EPRP. It became two IEWO groups in early 2008, and exactly as other Ethiopian social and political groupings, they too decided to create two separate groups, each with its own website, but with significantly fewer activities, including face-to-face gatherings, and with fewer activist members, especially in comparison to the initial months of the IEWO.
The three tragic events described here, which took place in just under six months, illustrates how we Ethiopians evidently find it extremely difficult to work together on issues related to our country, unless we are forced to it either by extreme economic hardships or political and other pressures. These three most unfortunate examples show also how far removed our political culture is from becoming mature. What is more confusing, even embarrassing, is that – while we are not even in a position to maintain a friendly and peaceful climate while engaging each other in mature political discussions, and to manifest integrity and democratic minds while working together in groups – individual Ethiopians, even those who have already split up and established their own talking shops and groups are still talking so boldly and so loudly about their irrevocable determination to free Ethiopia from the entangled chains of the repressive regime of Meles Zenawi. They also repeatedly raise billion dollar questions, such as what exactly would be the best strategy and the shortest road to travel to destroy Meles Zenawi and those around him? Instead of first asking themselves why on earth we Ethiopians are so culturally stubborn, so unable to work together on the issues of our country and to sort of what exactly went wrong with us, including how we can be cured of our culturally inculcated diseases of family and group orientation and regionalism in relation to Ethiopian politics? Why, actually, do we still talk about destroying the power structure of the tyrannical regime when over ninety percent of us cannot even look at and talk to those who belong to other opposition political groupings in civil terms, genuinely, and with clean and clear minds?
In summary, though difficult to measure in objective terms, I would nonetheless dare to say that the price to be paid for the direct and indirect repercussions of these tragic events and related infighting would be, as has already been witnessed, the gradual disappearance of political movements and politically active community members, the breakup of already weakened social relationships and work within the Ethiopian Diaspora community, and unquestionably – and more essentially – the extension of the lifespan of Meles Zenawi by an additional two or more decades, unless some kind of coup d’état within his own circle, possibly by the armed forces, were to occur.
Readers who wish to contact the author can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org