We Owe It to Them! By Professor Solomon Terfa

It is said that if one is between the ages of 18 and 30 and is not revolutionary, of the socialist/communist type, something is wrong with him. However, the maxim goes on that if one is over the age of 35 and is still revolutionary, then, obviously something is still wrong with him.

The essence of this saying is that those years, between 18 and 30, are years when we humans are motivated by emotions and idealism. We do not heed rational advices nor are we governed by empirical evidences for they may conflict with our emotions and idealism. Ergo, we decide to take the bull by the horns and grapple with it.

This maxim, I dare say, to a large extent, describes the evolution of the political activities of the generation of Ethiopian students, now between the ages of 60 and 75, that is unfortunately responsible for the sad state of affairs our beloved Ethiopia and its people have been embroiled in over the last 40 years. The intention of this writing is not, by any means, to blame and condemn that generation. It is however to appeal to our rational senses and come out, however difficult that may be, and eat crow. Unfortunately, we seem to have decided to leave the political scene quietly and tight-lipped. Yes many may not be alive to express their sincere apology. Though our intentions and activities were motivated by the love we all have for our country and the desire to see the lives of our downtrodden improve, the result has been cataclysmic and disastrous.

We decided to choose Marxism-Leninism as the only method and ideology that would solve and cure   Ethiopia’s age-old problems i.e., national, ethnic and class oppression. We surmised therefore that if we founded or established a socialist/communist society and worked towards eradicating class and national oppression, then we would resolve our problems for good.

However, to be fair to Marx and truthful to ourselves, Marx’s theory was not meant for countries like Russia, China and of course Ethiopia whose socio-economic development had not yet passed the stage of feudalism. That is where these countries were at the time they decided to establish a socialist/communist society. Marx had clearly spelled out and identified the capitalist stage to be the one that is ripe for a socialist revolution. He reasoned that, since the socio-economic development will have reached its apogee in a capitalist society, the contradiction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie would not be reconciled by peaceful means but through violent struggle. This thesis of Marx was subverted by Lenin when he not only argued that the capitalist stage could be skipped and then moved to building socialism in Russia. However, to make a long story short, one can argue that it is the failure of the Soviet Union, and of course Lenin and his coteries to skip that critical and very important stage of development,capitalism, that would have helped address the needs and aspirations of its people that finally caught up with it leading to its demise in 1989. Gorbachev’s intention of building “socialism with a human face” was intended to accelerate industrialization and redress that failure of the country. That was not meant to be.

Had Mao been alive or had he eliminated Deng Xiaoping during the so-called Cultural Revolution, the economy of the People’s Republic of China would have stagnated and would have faced the same predicament as the Soviet Union and therefore wouldn’t have become the second largest economy in the world as it is now. China has, since the 1980s, been a socialist/communist country only in name. It took sixty four years only for China to achieve that economic standing from the time when Mao Zedong declared the creation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. In the process China has managed to move three hundred million people from poverty to middle class. Fortunately for China Mao departed the political scene in 1976 leaving the pragmatist Deng to marshal China’s future. Deng is popularly known for having said “it does not matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice…” That is, it does not matter whether the policy we adopt is capitalist as long as it serves our purpose– develop China’s economy.

Our generation of students not only ignored Marx’s dictum but also decided to dogmatically follow Lenin’s path to building socialism and resolve the “national question” using his and Stalin’s works on the national question. As I have clearly argued in my recent article entitled “The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia: Liberal Democratic or Authoritarian Regime,” published in African Social Science Review, Volume 5, Number1, Spring 2012, Kennesaw State University, among the core of Ethiopian Marxist-Leninists (EMLs), that Wallelign was one of them. He was not only the first to define what a nation is, in the Ethiopian context, but also the first to articulate and categorically state that Ethiopia is composed of many nationalities. He asserted that Ethiopia is, contrary to traditional belief, composed of many national groupings with their own peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. He contended that these nations should be given not only the right to participate in state affairs, but also the right to develop their language, music, and history and secede if they so desire provided they are led by peasants and workers who are conscious of their historic internationalist obligations…. Following Wallelign’s daring contention, many scholars, Marxist Leninists and otherwise, began not only to echo and amplify his call but also to use it as a paradigm in their study of Ethiopian politics. This became the norm both in the 1960s student movement and in the works and speeches of several Ethiopian political observers.

An objective assessment and analysis of Ethiopia’s socio-political situation would have shown that a large majority of Ethiopians were proud of being Ethiopians. A 1992 survey conducted among 650 university and high school students from eight different regions of the country: Addis Ababa, Bale, Gojjam, Gidole, Kembata, Arsi, Wolaita, andGamu Gofa (Terfa, 1993,5-21) not only illustrates this but also contradicts the late Prime Minister’s contention that ethnic federalism is “the only solution to the century old oppression under centralist government and one ethnic domination of culture, language, politics and economy”(Zenawi, 2009,6).

Eighty percent of the respondents consider themselves primarily Ethiopians and seventy five percent of them clearly expressed their opposition to using language as a criterion to delineating the provinces of the federal state. In addition, sixty five percent of the respondents thought the absence of democracy and the political domination of the country by authoritarian leaders were the premier problems in Ethiopia rather than the national question as the drafters of the constitution asserted (Terfa, 1993,13). Hence, one could say that the problem of nationalities or “the national question” was only a hypothesis or a theoretical construct that had not been proven in the case of Ethiopia. It saddens me to say that the EMLs blindly adopted Lenin’s and Stalin’s method of resolving the “national question” to Ethiopia’s situation. (For more read my article mentioned above.)

I argue that the following sad history of the Ethiopian student movement serves as a prelude to the darkest forty year period in Ethiopian history. It occurred between 1974 and 1976 when the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP) and the All Ethiopian Socialist Movement, MEISON, failed to iron out their political differences and forge a united front against the much threatening and menacing Derg led by Mengistu Haile Mariam. By this time theDerg was laying the foundation for a military dictatorship. MEISON then decided not only to ally with the Derg but also give ideological and theoretical legitimacy to the military junta. It in effect took the position that the Derg was led by revolutionaries and communists and therefore needed the support of all progressive forces in the country. The EPRP on the other hand took the position that the Derg was a military junta that had usurped political power from the Ethiopian people. These irreconcilable and antagonistic positions sparked the violent engagement between MEISON and the Derg on one side and the EPRP on the other. Mengistu then declared the mini civil war, the Red Terror, which claimed the lives of thousands of dedicated, committed and determined Ethiopians on both sides.

Most of those who founded the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), a Marxist-Leninist political organization of the Albanian sort were, while students, sympathizers and/or members of the EPRP. They therefore adopted Lenin’s and Stalin’s methodology for resolving “Ethiopia’s national question.”

The very fact that they still call themselves a Liberation Front is a clear indication of that. This is because the nuclei of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front were members of the Marxist Leninist League of Tigray, an exclusive club dominated by Meles and his close friends. Upon their triumph over the Derg in 1991, this group was the one that dominated not only the Transitional Government but also the constituent assembly that drafted the Constitution.Aregawi Berhe, a former member of the leadership of the TPLF, succinctly put it this way:

In 1985 a party, officially known as the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray (MLLT) was established within the TPLF, with Meles Zenawi as its chief ideologue. In its constitution, this party declared that…MLLT, as the   core of the future of the Ethiopian Marxist Leninist Party, is the only correct party free from all sort of revision (Trotskyism, Maoism…) that could constitute a proletarian-peasant dictatorship to liberate the Ethiopian People (Berhe, 2009, 5).

But, still Meles continued to deny this historical fact about his party. In his April 3 and 5, 1990, interview with the late Paul Henze, Meles Zenawi, tried to allay the fears of this former American government official and through him the then American administration and the Congress of the United States by saying the following:

“We are not a Marxist-Leninist movement. We do not apply Marxism-Leninism in Tigray. The name of our organization does not include any reference to Marxism-Leninism. We do have Marxists in our movement. I acknowledge that. I myself was a convinced Marxist when I was a student at [Haile Selassie 1st University] HSIU in the early 1970s and our movement was inspired by Marxism. But we have learned that dogmatic Marxism-Leninism is not applicable in the field. We do not believe that any foreign system can be imposed on a country (Henze1990, 3).

On looking at the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (FDRE), one would learn that Meleshad married two diametrically opposed philosophies, Marxism-Leninism and liberal democracy. It should be stated that these two philosophies provide different approaches to solving problems between people and also between the people and their governments.

For liberal democracy, the right of the individual is paramount and, therefore, should not be subordinated to the right of a group or a collective. In liberal democracy, the problem of the individual or groups of individuals will be solved within the framework of democratic governance where the rights, privileges, responsibilities and obligations of the individual are enshrined in the Constitution. If and when there are discrepancies or inconsistencies or even contradictions between what the Constitution promises or offers and how the government of the time interprets the Constitution, designs and implements its policies to favor one person over another or one group of people over the other, then the aggrieved person or groups of persons can address their grievances to the courts.

In this connection, the dialectical development of the political history of African Americans in the United States is an eloquent testimony of how far they have come within the framework of a liberal democracy—however slow that progress has been. It is a vivid and painful memory that the Constitution of the United States had once regarded them as slaves, and therefore property. (For more see my article mentioned above.) I hasten to add that the passage of the various Civil Rights Acts and Voting Rights Acts of the 1950s and 1960s, have contributed either to consolidating and/or expanding the gains that had been made. It is also a historical fact that the drafters of the Constitution did not initially allow suffrage to women (Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution) and property-less white men or Native Americans. All these have been corrected and rectified by amending the Constitution and/or taking these issues to the courts for their rulings.

Marxism-Leninism, on the other hand, is a philosophy or an ideology that gives primacy to groups or classes in Marxist parlance. The rights and demands of the individual have to be subordinated to the interest of the class. Hence the division of society into classes. In the slave society, the contradiction is between the slaves and the slave owners. In a feudal society, it is between feudal lords and the serfs. In the capitalist society, it is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat or the working class. In a multinational empire, it is between the oppressor nation and the oppressed nations and/or nationalities. All these contradictions are resolved through class struggle with the proletariat as the vanguard.

It is this approach to solving the “national question” in Ethiopia that is contained in Article 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia. It is to be remembered that Meles had claimed that he was no longer a communist or a Marxist. He had also asserted that the leadership did not apply Marxism-Leninism in Tigray. So where did article 39 come from? The Article did not somehow some inexplicable miracle or divine intervention, incorporate itself into the Constitution. It is in Lenin’s thesis that one will find not only the application of the concept of “self-determination that includes secession” but also the delineation of boundaries respecting national composition. It was also Lenin who coined the concept of “prison house of nations” when he described Czarist Russia. It is this method that Meles and his comrades used to address and resolve the national question in Ethiopia”.

Meles, having created the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia believes that all of those who harbor secessionist intentions need to be happy, settle down and embark on developing their ethnic fiefdom. He seemed to suggest that “the prison house of nation” as Lenin used to refer to Czarist Russia, and Meles himself used it to amplify and describe Haile Selassie’s and Megistu’s Ethiopia, has been destroyed. The hitherto “prisoners” had all been liberated and were allowed to live within their geographically defined territories. This liberation has allowed them to establish their respective government, develop their culture, and speak, teach, learn, and conduct their courts in their respective languages. Consistent with this, he would argue, they have come together and established a federal government that has given them equal voice in how it is run. Then he would conclude by encouraging them to seize the moment and forge ahead.

How sincere was the late Prime Minister when he used to claim that Ethiopia is a genuinely a Federal Democratic Republic where the Parliament is vibrant and justice prevails? How sincere was his claim that the judiciary is independent and that the checks and balances between the three branches of government are working smoothly? How independent is the National Election Board? How much freedom and democracy is there in Ethiopia?

The Executive Summary of the BTI 2012 Ethiopia Country Report crisply draws the following picture.

Ethiopia’s political performance in 2009 and 2010 was characterized by contradiction with the government politics….The bitter result of the 2005 and 2010 elections, indirectly manipulated by the government, and the subsequent authoritarian backlash have frustrated nearly all relevant political actors outside the  government camp. Opposition parties have been undermined to the extent that they no longer pose a threat; the media and civil society have been leashed by oppressive laws trade unions and professional associations have been forced either to toe the line or, like the Teachers Union, be dismissed…. A separation of powers is formally in place, but does not exist de facto. The EPRDF is the source of all power. The relationship between the executive and the legislative is wholly asymmetrical….The Judiciary and the legislature are under the full control of the ruling party. The power to interpret the constitutionality of laws rests not with the judiciary, but rather with a state organ that draws on the legal expertise of the Council of Constitutional inquiry….The independence of the judiciary is heavily impaired by political interference and high levels of corruption. Indeed, Ethiopia’s judiciary has never had an independent existence as a separate institution. It has been subject to all kinds of pressure from other governmental branches….There have been no free and fair elections in the country since the establishment of the new political regime under the constitution of 1995. Between the parliamentary multiparty elections of 2005 and those of 2010, the situation with regard to political participation has worsened dramatically….Ethiopia is not an “electoral democracy.” The National Election Board of Ethiopia (NEBE) is staffed with Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) members and is not autonomous. Though the board is supposed to be neutral, it in fact often aggressively attacks opposition parties and clearly demonstrates support for the EPRDF. The board has lost credibility with the majority of voters….The freedom of assembly and associations are also severely limited for interest groups and civil society. The work of civil society organizations (CSOs) in the areas of democracy, human rights and political participation has been curtailed through intimidation and a tightening of the legal space….Although the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, several journalists have been sentenced to prison on the basis of “incorrect reporting.” The press and other media have continued to face serious restrictions with journalists subject to arrest and prosecution for alleged defamation….Ethnic politics and the fear of potential civil war have led many voters to give up hope for a democratic society. Many citizens have lost belief in the democratic process, considering elections to be merely a ritual….(emphasis mine) (The quotation, while correctly and directly taken from the BTI 2012 Ethiopia Country Report, has been reorganized and rearranged to maintain the flow.)

Now then, what? The reason why I took the audacity to title this article “We Owe to Them” is because I have this sincere and genuine feeling that, if those idealists who sacrificed their lives to better the livelihood of their people at a very young age were alive, they would dare to join me in urging us to learn from the evolution of the political history of the United States. That is overcoming a predicament of holding together and staying as one.

Yes, many of the people may have originated from Britain. They took risks and came to America and established “self governing colonies” in the 1620s. Brigid Callahan Harrison et al in their book American Democracy Now, 2009, remind us that …. “Before the Pilgrims reached shore in 1620, they drew up the Mayflower Compact, an example of a social contract—an agreement between people and their leaders, whereby the people give up some liberties so that their other liberties will be protected. In the Mayflower Compact, the pilgrims agreed to be governed by the structure of government they formed thereby establishing consent of the governed. (My emphasis. P.14). An agreement between people and their leader and the consent of the governed is a very radical and novel concept to Ethiopia for we had never had it nor dreamt about it.

The composition of the people who decided to move to the new world was as diverse as it got. Some had connection to the king of England, others were indentured servants and still others came for religious liberties.  Added to these were many Africans who were forcefully brought as slaves.  By the early 18th century, the colonies began to revolt against what they consider an excess of government by British parliament that enacted laws and imposed these laws on them without their input or consent.

To skip ahead, in the middle of the 1770s, the colonies decided to wage a war of independence. To that end George Washington was appointed to command the continental army. They also established a committee of five led by Thomas Jefferson to articulate the dreams and aspirations of the people of the colonies in declaration form. The future president to be, Jefferson, drawing invaluable ideas from the works of British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) drafted the declaration. In part it reads as follows:

   We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

-That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,- That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to affect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpation, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world….

We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full power to levy War, conclude Peace contract  Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm   reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.        

These words, pronouncements and declarations laid the very foundation upon which the present day United States is founded. The thirteen Colonies, after having fought for their independence and liberated their country could have gone their separate ways. They could have established their separate states. But they did not. They initially formed a very loose association joined together by the Articles of Confederation (1781-1789). Article II of the Articles of Confederation reads “each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” This was so because people did not want to trust and entrust their life, development, and security to a faraway institution over which they felt they would have little control. Their colonial experience was deeply engraved in their memory. The government was so weak that it could not put down an uprising led by independence war veteran Daniel Shay and debt-ridden farmers. These compelled concerned political leaders to call for a conference of some sort to deal with the Articles of Confederation.  To that end 12 states agreed to send delegates giving them clear instruction: to   strengthen the weak provisions of the Article of Confederation and not to draft a new constitution.  Fifty five delegates, with Ivy League education i.e., Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia College, and others were selected for this onerous responsibility.  Though these people were perceived to have progressive views for that time, many of them were owners of slaves. In addition, their contempt for women and their fear and disdain for the downtrodden was beyond the pale. That is why they commonly known as “racist, sexist and elitist.”

On positive note however, Thomas Dye and Harmon Zeigler in their book the Irony of Democracy point out that the ”Fathers of the Constitution” had the paramount objective of not only protecting  property  but also the right to life and liberty. Dye and Zeigler noted that “….The Founding Fathers agreed that the origin of government is an implied contract among people. They believed people pledge allegiance and obedience to government in return for protection of their persons and property. They felt the ultimate legitimacy of government—sovereignty—rests with the people and the basis of government is the consent of the governed.”(P.29). The 55 chose a “republican form of government” because they were vehemently opposed to hereditary monarchy, which was prevalent in most of the countries of the world at the time. They were all convinced that representative government was representative, responsible, and nonhereditary. Because they viewed power “as a corrupting influence and the concentration of elite power as dangerous”(Dye, P.30) they divided government into three branches i.e., the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary with each having the power to check each other.

The fathers of the constitution then forwarded the finished document to New York where the Congress of the Article of Confederation was operating from to be then sent to the various states for ratification by a convention of delegates. The authors of the document also suggested  positive approval by 9 of the 13 states to be sufficient enough for it to be operative. While James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay took the onerous responsibility of getting the newly drafted constitution approved,   George Washington, the most popular person in the country, promised to help. However their work was not going to be easy for a group that called itself the Anti Federalists began to challenge the undemocratic features of the new Constitution.  This group argued that since all of the States’ constitutions had the bill of rights, there should not be, the group argued, any reason why the federal constitution shouldn’t. (Chadwick P. 54). They wanted to protect the rights of the individual in various areas from arbitrary decisions and/or policies of tyrannical government. Bruce Chadwick in his book entitled Triumviratesummarizes the concerns of the Anti-Federalists as follows. They “demanded freedom of the press, religious worship, speech, and the right to assemble in public. The people should be allowed to keep and bear arms, suffer no unreasonable searches of homes, obtain due process of law, grand jury charges for trials, speedy trials with juries, and representation by a lawyer with no high bills or cruel punishment if found guilty. The opponents, wary of a powerful national government, also insisted that any of the rights not specifically given to the national government must be turned over to the states so that the federal government and state governments shared power.”(P.54)

To make a long story short, since the Anti-Federalists had the support and sympathy of many people for their cause the Federalists had no option but to acquiesce and particularly when they learned that the call was joined by the peoples of New York, Massachusetts, and Virginia who made their support for the constitution contingent upon the Federalists’ promise to add the bills of rights as amendments. The constitution was ratified in 1788 and the bills of rights were ratified in 1791 and became effective.

Arguably this constitution is the oldest written constitution that has been a model for many countries. Though it had a history of legalized slavery, disfranchising white women, until 1920, and white male without property until 1812, it still was considered “revolutionary” by many countries in Europe for many of them were being ruled by an hereditary monarchy. In time that very constitution has managed to   correct itself, and freeing the slaves, enfranchising women and Native Americans and property-less white men and in fact allowing an African American to be the president of the country. It does this because of its inbuilt mechanism that allows amendments to the constitution. So far it has been amended 27 times, of course, not including the ten amendments of the bill of rights.

When the constitution was drafted and ratified the population of America was barely four million. Two hundred twenty five years later, in the year 2013, the population has grown to 315 million. The United States is a country of immigrant and most came in search of freedom and opportunity. To this we add, a conservative estimation of about 460,000 Ethiopians, most of whom emigrated between the years of 1980s and 2000. This was the period whenMengistu and then Meles gave Ethiopians hell on earth.

TO REITERATE:

The purpose of this article is to contribute my share in the search for a better path to governance in Ethiopia. As I have tried to intimate here, the Mengistu’s People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia was in the mold of former communist governments throughout the world and therefore neither democratic nor republic in the true sense of the word. The same is true of   Meles’ Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia which is a hybrid of Marxism-Leninism and therefore liberal democratic in name onlyThey were literally superimposed on the people without their participation or their acquiescence. But as I have tried to point out, above, in both cases many dedicated and patriotic Ethiopians have idealistically sacrificed their own lives to better the lives of their people. Unfortunately the path taken and the achievements made so far have betrayed the struggle, aspiration and sacrifice of the above mentioned patriots. I sincerely believe that WE OWE IT TO THEM—our patriots, that as of today, we relegate the following concepts and principles i.e., national question; self determination; class struggle; prison house of nations; dictatorship of the proletariat; communism and socialism to the dust bin of history and commit to the following: social contract; the consent of the governed; bill of rights; the right of people to alter or abolish government and institute new government; sovereignty belongs to the people; separation of power; checks and balances between the branches of government; the rule of law; multiparty; human rights; civil rights; political freedom; representative democracy etc., as our guiding principles and forge a united front.

I would like to thank Dr. Kathryn Green for proof reading and constructive suggestions.

Professor  Solomon Terfa can be reached at st2151@bellsouth.net

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