Ethiopia: Beyond Fear and Loathing?

In less than a month Mengistu HaileMariam and his Derg have been swept from the Ethiopian political landscape. Victory for the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front (EPDRF) came quickly and Addis Ababa was captured with minimum resistance.

The political implications of this victory however remain unclear. Historic ethnic antagonisms and rivalries continue to inspire an atmosphere of fear and loathing.

The EPDRF is viewed with considerable suspicion because it is regarded as a `Tigrean organization’ with a hidden political agenda. Non- Tigreans generally dismiss EPDRF’s claims of multiethnic representation as crass political machination. Amharas resent a `Tigrean victory’ because they feel displaced from what they perceive to be their traditional role in government. The Oromos view the situation as a change without a difference.

Other ethnic groups feel they are pawns in a long-standing Amhara-Tigrean power struggle. Many remain suspicious and apprehensive about EPDRF’s intentions or its willingness to share political power. In its military victory, the EPDRF remains under intense internal and international scrutiny.

EPDRF Statements
EPDRF leaders have so far shown extraordinary political skill and astuteness in the maelstrom of fear and loathing. EPDRF Chairman Meles Zenawi, aged 37 (whose real name is Legesse Zenawi), has appeared on television and responded to questions in Amharic. He gave assurances that Ethiopia’s flag will not be replaced by the Front’s flag. He expressed his “hope” that the EPDRF will be “an important element in a transitional government.” He has declared the aim of his interim government as one of “establishing a broad-based government to facilitate democratic elections.” He identified “stabilization of the security situation in the country” and famine relief as the top priorities.

Meles has stated that detained former government officials will be brought to trial once a provisional government has been established. He promised there will be no vendetta killings or retribution.

The most auspicious of the EPDRF statements announced the scheduling of a `political conference’ on July 1 to establish a `broad-based’ provisional government. EPDRF’s support for a referendum in Eritrea remains to be the most volatile and emotional issue to many Ethiopians.

EPDRF Actions
EPDRF forces have not openly gloated over their victory. They have been restrained in their use of violence and have refrained from large-scale vendetta killings. They have banned public demonstrations including those supporting them. Scores of youthful anti-American demonstrators were killed or injured by EPDRF forces while gathered before the U.S. Embassy. Several hundred former officials who have been placed in detention, including Legesse Asfaw and Tesfaye Wolde Selassie, are awaiting trial. Independent sources and western jounalists confirm that the detainees are being treated well.

EPDRF leaders have called on the country’s bureaucrats to seek their cooperation in reactivating civil administration. Kebele committees were established to conduct house-to-house searches for weapons. The highway to northern Ethiopia which had been closed for years is now open and famine relief activity appears to be underway.

EPDRF’s Critics
EPDRF’s critics remain unconvinced. Skeptics see sinister motives behind EPDRF’s actions. Some believe that EPDRF leaders are merely buying time until they are better able to consolidate their authority. Others claim that EPDRF leaders are cleverly manipulating democratic symbols to ultimately impose one-party Tigrean rule. It is also said that the EPDRF is merely responding to external and internal pressures and will show its implacability once it is firmly entrenched. Some even cynically suggest that the EPDRF aims to eventually breakup Ethiopia so that it can merge Tigre with Eritrea and establish a new state.

What is to be done?
The EPDRF has taken over state functions but does not regard itself a formal governmental body. EPDRF officials have said that they will defer decisions unrelated to public security until the establishment of a provisional government. This includes the trial of former officials who are in detention.

Winston Churchill once remarked: “The problems of victory are more agreeable than those of defeat, but they are no less difficult.” The EPDRF and the provisional government that it will help set up are likely to face their greatest challenges in victory than in their struggle to oust Mengistu. They have inherited complex problems.

The new government must walk a tightrope over a country teetering on the precipice of ethnic fragmentation, economic disaster and cataclysmic famine. Good intentions and good faith will not suffice.

The EPDRF leadership is `between a rock and a hard place’ particularly on the question of socialism. For many EPDRF leaders the decline and irrelevance of socialism must be utterly disconcerting. Arguably, many of these leaders including Meles, reportedly a one-time admirer of Stalinist Albania and a Marxist student activist while a medical student at Addis Ababa University in the early 1970s, attained their political education and maturity in the uncompromising tradition of Marxism-Leninism.

They looked towards Albania for a model. Ironically, three weeks after EPDRF’s victory Albanian communists voluntarily handed over power to non-communist elements effectively ending communist rule. Now the EPDRF finds itself facing a critical choice: muddle through with an unworkable and irrelevant ideology or openly renounce socialism and embrace democratic rule.

Statements by Meles suggest that the EPDRF is indeed shopping for some form of liberal democracy; and not only because socialism has been discredited but also because the democratic way is the `only game in town.’ The US and other Western countries have preconditioned any cooperation and assistance on the establishment of democratic institutions. US official Herman Cohen has obliged Meles by sending him the political writings of the framers of the American constitution.

Liberal democracy, at least in the American tradition, presupposes constitutional government with specific guarantees of individual freedoms. The powers of government are subject to constitutional constraints. The American experience also argues strongly for the division of powers between the national government and local governments under a system of federalism. In practice, periodic elections, party competition, free speech and freedom of political association are essential. Conflict is managed through compromise, negotiation and tolerance of different views. Economically, liberal democracy presupposes a free enterprise system with the role of government limited to regulatory functions.

In a society with little democratic tradition and a long history of dictatorial rule, the birth of constitutional government will be painful and even chaotic. In such circumstance, the sword often appears instinctively more appealing and efficient than laborious negotiation and compromise. But violence is its own antithesis. It begets hatred, fear and more violence. The EPDRF and the provisional government must recognize that Ethiopia can no longer be yoked by violence to preserve its integrity or attain harmony.

Ethiopia’s new leaders must be genuinely committed to democratic values and institutions. Thomas Jefferson aptly observed: “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” The new leaders must not only educate but also define a new vision for the society. They must undertake a means to change the way Ethiopians think not only about government, society, and politics but also themselves.

Burden of Education
The educational task is a unique one. Ethiopians must first unlearn and discard long-held prejudices, unfounded fears and blind ethnic aversions. We must learn tolerate each other in our diversity of views and beliefs. We must learn to respect and celebrate each other’s ethnic heritage. Only then can we begin to appreciate the innate equality of all human beings and the egalitarian value of democracy.

To Heal a Nation
There is great expectation about the July political conference. EPDRF leaders have pledged to facilitate broad-based participation in the political dialogue. However, they have not been clear on the mechanics of participation. Understandably, it is a delicate task. Many troubling questions remain unaswered.

Will participants to the conference be invited? How will groups or representatives of groups be selected? Will EPDRF leaders chair the conference? Will members of the formber regime be allowed to participate? Will organizations that have opposed EPDRF in the past be permitted to participate? Will EPDRF insist on certain portfolios such as defense in any provisional government? Where will the conference be held? If in Addis Ababa, what guarantees will be given to participants? Will the conference be televised or broadcast on radio?

If the conference is held as scheduled, EPDRF’s leaders will likely experience their first baptism in the fire of democratic politics. They should be prepared to face challenges to their legitimacy, competence, sincerity and intentions. As conference organizers with colorable title to leadership, they must show considerable political will and skill. Theyvmust strive to harmonize the diversity of views and opinions. They can not afford to be temperamental and must show an infinite capacity to negotiate and compromise. No better time to lay the groundwork for genuine democratic government than now. In the end what is at stake is not merely the construction of civil government but the healing of a nation wounded deeply by famine, poverty, and ethnic warfare. The choice is clear: A farewell to arms or a farewell to Ethiopia.
Dr Alemayehu Gebremariam is a contributing editor of ER. Los Angeles

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