Justified fears: A perspective on current Ethiopian situation
National problems require collective effort in an open, inclusive and patient manner. No superficial effort with party political goals will bring lasting solutions, writes Desta Heliso.
There are some people who think that justice, freedom and democracy will flourish in Ethiopia if the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is toppled through violence. I have heard confident assertions along this line, but I am not sure such confidence corresponds to the complex reality on the ground. On the one hand, our country has multiple problems in terms of governance, freedom of expression, media, free and fair elections, issues relating to equity and level-playing field in politics and business, and independence in higher education. The country also remains one of the poorest in the world. On the other hand, over the last decade or so, the country has seen positive changes that we would only have dreamed of years ago. Freedom of religion, increased number of universities, infrastructural development (roads, railways and bridges), growing manufacturing industry, growing hotel and tourism sector, banking industry, mega dams such as Gilgel Gibe and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), aviation industry, growth of the middle class, higher life expectancy and relative economic growth are some of the examples. All these signs of progress have their own particular flaws and failings, but they have enabled many Ethiopians to cope and hope. And if these changes could be achieved in the face of all the deficiencies of systems of administration, how much more could be achieved if we managed to resolve even some of the abovementioned problems? We are divided over the means through which these problems can be tackled.
Many of us, including myself, believe that Ethiopia will achieve a better future characterised by better freedom, justice, democracy, equal opportunity and development only if we safeguard the current imperfect situation. The term ‘safeguard’ should not be understood in terms of maintaining the status quo in its entirety, but rather it should be understood in terms of working patiently within the status quo in order to build on that which is good and change that which is bad. There is no question that any serious instability in our country would be a hindrance for this. It could also potentially jeopardise the integrity of the country we love so very much and probably plunge the entire region into absolute chaos. This is not an apocalyptic prophecy based on mere imagination. This is a genuine view based on reality and held by a very large number of people up and down the country. Many reasons or justifications could be enumerated but let me mention only a few.
First, an attempt to change the current system through public unrest and violence could stir up historical antagonisms. Human history is never tidy and Ethiopia is not an exception. Almost for a millennium and half, political power in Ethiopia has been shifting from one region to another, the process of which was often bloody. That inevitably has left scars (to a lesser or greater degree) in the psyche of each region, hence creating what I call a historical volcano. The last theocratic regime led by Emperor Haile Selassie I kept this historical volcano from constantly erupting by employing shrewd diplomacy, politically arranged marital structures etc. The military-communist regime tried to keep it under control by brute force and an insidious focus on the Motherland. The EPRDF has tried to bring the threat posed by this historical volcano to an end by introducing political administrative structures along ethnic lines (with some exceptions). Despite some positive results, this has not worked as well as expected. Indeed, the philosophy underlying EPRDF’s political and administrative system may need to be rethought. But the fear that our country faces potentially dangerous situation if the current imperfect administrative arrangements are violently dismantled is equally justified. One might say that setting up an all-inclusive transitional government in the event of removing the EPRDF government by force will prevent this from happening.
However, second, the last 25 years have shown us that so long as ideological values and goals are driven by ethnically orientated and regionally framed programmes, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a common agenda. Let alone at the national level, it is sometimes difficult to bring people around a common purpose and goal in an ethnically homogenous region with strong clan-structures. This is precisely why opposition parties have struggled to succeed. It is also why the dream of unity-in-diversity still remains a dream. The desire in the 1990s was to achieve stronger national consciousness through affirming (rather than denying) ethnic identity. But at the moment, our sense of diversity does not match our sense of unity. The journey towards finding a healthy and inclusive sense of identity remains difficult and bumpy. This is peculiar to Ethiopia. Countries like England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still struggle with finding a balanced sense of identity. Our situation is even much more delicate and volatile than theirs. Any violent attempt to achieve what these nations have achieved over centuries could take us back to where they were 400 years ago. Violence does not always breed peace and unity; violence often breeds violence and disunity.
Third, internal conflicts within Ethiopia could potentially make the security situation in the country extremely vulnerable. External forces such as the current Eritrean government, Al-Shabbab in Somalia, Islamic State, rogue and radical military and religious elements in Egypt and Sudan could easily capitalize on internal instabilities in Ethiopia. This could result in an attempt to spread religious extremism, which could lead to religious conflicts. It could also result in the destruction of some of the projects such as GERD, for which the people of Ethiopia have paid a huge price. Furthermore, instability in Ethiopia could worsen conflicts in neighbouring states such as South Sudan and Somalia (both of which benefit from Ethiopian military support), potentially destabilise Kenya, strengthen the brutal regime in Eritrea, and terminally endanger the country’s territorial integrity.
Fourth, the Ethiopian army and police are made up of diverse people groups. While protecting and defending the security of our country with great pride and sense of nationalism, they have their own ethnic identity, of which they are also proud. If the current security and defence structures are violently dismantled, God forbid, there is a real possibility of ethnically based militia groups propping up here and there. Comrades could become enemies and turn their guns against each other to protect or expand newly created territories. This will take us back to the situation our country was in centuries ago. The level of loss of life and destruction of properties in all this could be unimaginable as well. We don’t want this to happen. Nor do we want the creation of Somalia-style territories with their own militias.
Finally, many poorest people in the countryside have benefited from various schemes such as, for example, the safety-net scheme, which puts cash in their pockets and enables them to feed their families. There are also agricultural, health and small-scale business initiatives, which have helped improve the lives of many of the poorest in our country. People may dislike EPRDF’s party-centred approach that seeks to benefit party members more than others, and yet many believe that the schemes are useful in terms of creating jobs, reducing poverty, improving general health of the population and lessening mother-infant mortality. Violence could disrupt all these and take the country many steps backwards.
From all this, I would argue that the disadvantages of attempting to change the current government through violent means far outweighs the advantages, if any. So I would plead, in the name of God, with all parties who are engaging in violent activities to stop and engage in peaceful political undertakings, difficult though that may be. I would equally plead with the ruling party and the government of Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn to fully appreciate that use of force alone would not solve our problems. No one, not even the government, possesses universal panacea for Ethiopia’s problems. National problems require collective effort in an open, inclusive and patient manner. No superficial effort with party political goals will bring lasting solutions. Indeed, any course of action, whether it be establishing the root causes of current civil unrests and coming up with solutions or determining the future direction of our nation, must include opposition groups and all people of good will. A nation-wide process of peace building characterised by forgiveness and reconciliation needs to be initiated. In this process, the role of prominent community elders and religious leaders should be central. National healing must be the goal of all efforts. And all of us – who believe in the survival of Ethiopia as a nation in all her wonders and beauties – ought to help each other to realise that we are all wounded Ethiopians and must see ourselves as wounded healers.
Ed.’s Note: Desta Heliso (PhD) is a former director of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology (EGST). He studied at the London School of Theology and King’s College in London, UK. He has worked at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology since 2003, serving as lecturer, Dean of Studies, and, from 2008-2016, as Director. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].