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Ethiopia and five decades of political deadlock: What’s next?

By Maereg Tafere

I was encouraged to write this article following a recent panel discussion on the current Ethiopian Federal system and the constitution which I thought was exciting, but for others was hugely controversial, even to the ranks of the political elite. Some participants expressed satisfaction about the relative diversity of the ideas shared and the courage of the presenters to tackle unpopular ideals. Some of the recommendations, such as a loosening of federal policies towards more independence or even to the level of confederal arrangements, raised some eyebrows. To me, the menu of ideas was still restrictive. However, it was evident that people have developed the appetite to entertain new ideas that have the potential to redefine the country’s political culture.

Hitherto, two main narratives dominate the political dialogue, particularly regarding maintaining the country’s unity — centralism and federalism. After 28 years of a federal arrangement, the debate has resurfaced afresh, especially among those that believed they were not included when the federal system was formed, and the constitution crafted. At a time such as this, where the country seems to have lost its compass, any form of consultation is badly needed. Such panel discussions may help other alternative ideas to emerge or generate inputs to refresh or modify existing ones.

The content of the political debates aside, the political culture, known for its toxicity and extremism, is another source of concern. Opinions are seen as either black or white; narrations outside the usual ones are considered taboo; and almost always, wicked ideas are hidden behind ethnic lines. Let’s take one of the contested narrations — the country’s unity. “Unity” is often over emphasised, used as a wild card to attack opposing narratives, and is offered as an end by itself. Every child in Ethiopia must have heard from his or her parents how our ancestors paid the ultimate price to maintain Ethiopia’s independence; that foreign forces have, over the years, conspired to take control of its resources; and that the new generation has the obligation to pass the baton to the next generation. None of these assertions are wrong on their own. However, they mean different things for different groups in different parts of the country.

For some, it meant maintaining the unity of the country at any cost – as if Ethiopia’s geographic boundary was more sacred than the people themselves. Some do not see any problem even if unity is assured by subjugating citizens. This was the narrative that nurtured over 30 years of armed struggle with the Eritrean forces, and other “liberation fronts” that felt yoked into unequal matrimony. The other narrative — conceived as a solution to the problems related to the former — dominated the past three decades. Rooted in the 1970s student movement, the federal arrangement was meant to cure the ills of the centralist approach.

Like its predecessor, however, it faced severe opposition by proponents of centralism and some who genuinely thought this was a bad idea. Needless to say, no idea is absolutely bad, per se. What aggravated the tension between the proponents of the two camps is the bitterness they developed between each other due to the fierce armed struggle, and partly due to the Ethiopian culture that encourages a win-lose stance. Both sides felt they had to defend their grounds, and neither of them wanted to succumb to the dogma of the other. What came out of such decades-old tension is far too obvious to the reader.

My intention is not to redeem or condemn the contents of the recent panel discussions, or the new alternatives presented by the panellists. I have heard various opinions, both for and against. Rather, I want to condemn the tug-of-war on a handful of discourses which have been preached by elite groups as untouchable edifices. Absolutism engendered a handful of misconstrued concepts framed within diametrically-opposing standpoints. Decades of such unrealistic descriptions of the country, including how it came into being and how it can benefit its people, have created “zombies”— entities who simply have to accept Ethiopia as-is instead of something that they can negotiate among themselves and recreate according to their desires and needs. It has led to mysticism and taboos.

We have those that genuinely believe ‘Ethiopianism’ is a “mystical concept.” In reality, ‘Ethiopianism’ is the real socio-political interaction of its people. As the needs and ambitions of the people grow, so should the socio-political system. I think it is time Ethiopians realise that our country is just like any other country in the world that has passed through epic civilization, downfall, geographic expansion and downsizing. Neither the Roman empire, nor the Greeks or the Ottoman Turks now control their old kingdoms. They have changed with time and have adjusted to global realities. Likewise, contemporary Ethiopian is not the Axumite or Abyssinian kingdom. When the country is presented to the new generation as a mystical concept and unique utopia that is untouchable, we close the gates for dialogue, debate, and creativity. Our forefathers, paranoid by the fear of the unknown “other world,” excommunicated Ethiopia from the rest of the world and dragged it into obscurity.

While the rest of the world advances, Ethiopia has been submerged into a vicious internal power bargain. The current narratives seem to suggest the same. Those who raise different ideas are given names and seen as enemies of the country and its unity, or the country’s old history. I see even educated compatriots shuddering upon hearing ideas they do not feel comfortable with. Today, the first thing Ethiopians need to get used to is new ideas. We remember how scared we were at the thought of Ethiopia without Eritrea. Eritrea got its independence and Ethiopia still exists. Irrational fear is the last thing Ethiopians need at this time.

As if these ailments were not enough, a new tool has come into play that has brought a new dimension to the political space – social media. Unfortunately, these new avenues are used to perpetuate the hidden and ugly realities of the product of the decades-old political hostility. The culture of secrecy and the implied restrictions on what is open for discussion and what is not might have forced the new generation to hide behind fake names to express opinions. The impact of the new tools proved to be lethal - it gave irresponsible activists access to millions of people, in real-time, to say through these media platforms what they would not say out in the open.

As a result, unsubstantiated and fabricated news started to spread, leading to the death of hundreds and displacements of millions of Ethiopians in many regions. This can further constrain open dialogue and the development of new political culture. That is why it is imperative that some of the hidden ideas, even those categorised as “taboo,” be discussed openly and systematically in a manner that can lead to mutual understanding and ultimately contribute to the process of policy reform.

If you are wondering what I am getting at, I am calling upon concerned Ethiopians to stop limping between two worlds - one that desires the world to continue as is and another that aspires for new possibilities. I am not sure if the new generation of politicians know what they want; or if they know whether or not their desires are realistic. What is obvious is that the longer we continue to indulge in the old narratives, the deeper the problems may grow, and the harder it gets to find common ground. The new generation deserves to have its own space to create a distinct mark in the country’s political landscape. In my opinion, the narratives we have heard for the past five decades have reached their dead end. There is no common history acceptable to all Ethiopians, no flag that appeals to all, no administration system that satisfies all regions, and no common heroes and role models to look up to.

Those who may be heroes to some are villains to others. This is a time of reckoning, and we should allow other possible proposals to be tabled for further debates and negotiation between the political elites. If the people of any region feel their history has not counted in modern Ethiopia, that their heroes have been forgotten or defamed by other interests, if they feel that the current flag does not represent their history and values and desire to propose another (even if it has to be a brand new one), such discussions should be open to public debate. For those who consider Abyssinian history as not being representative of them, let them narrate their own history. There is no doubt that history was used to glorify some communities and demonize others. However, inasmuch as history should not be used to undermine any of the Ethiopian people, neither should it be used to get even with allegedly old enemies. History has one purpose and it is to provide us a platform to learn from our past so that we do not repeat the same mistakes.

If Ethiopians are to become true citizens of this country, each group or community should avoid idolizing those that perpetrated crimes against other communities in the country, even in the name of expanding the country’s territories. No one wants to be part of a country that undermines her/his very humanity. Besides, if the loosening of the federal system or an increase in the number of federal states is what this time calls for, politicians should not stick to their guns. Nothing is more sacred than human life— not a geographic boundary, not a flag, not a political dogma or a political figure. If the current deadlock continues, thousands will continue to die, and millions will likely be displaced. No responsible Ethiopian desires his/her people to perpetually suffer or die. Peaceful negotiation should be the way forward. Any sensible citizen would know that, from now on, no part of Ethiopia can be subdued by force. This may shock some, but even the question of secession should be open for debate. The idea of independence appeals to many because they do not understand what it means and what its consequences are. We have to be able to learn from Eritrea and Brexit. Open dialogue on all issues is the only solution to weigh the pros and cons of all alternatives and then make informed decisions. We live in the 21st century, where no idea is too mundane to be ignored and no idea is too sacred or “taboo” to be left untouched.

Ed.’s Note: Maereg Tafere (PhD) is based in Toronto, Canada. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. The writer can be reached at [email protected]