Monday, October 10, 2005

Reinvent the SEPDC!

By Fikru Helebo

The reason I embraced the Southern Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Coalition (SEPDC) back in 1993 was for two main reasons: 1) For the disenfranchised Southerners, it sought to address the acute imbalance of power that exists in Ethiopia, and 2) For a nation that did not know peace and stability for three decades, it offered a peaceful approach to solving the outstanding political problems of the country. My SEPDC experience since 1993 tells me that the perception and the reality of the collective Ethiopian South embracing a peaceful method of struggle has had a profound impact on shifting the political discourse of the nation from that of armed confrontation to rudimentary dialogue. I do think that this is progress. On the other hand, however, SEPDC's record in addressing the power imbalance that exists in the country has been ineffective to say the least. Thus, I believe there is still a case to be made for the need to have some sort of Southern based political movement in the spirit of the SEPDC, since the environment that gave rise to the formation of the SEPDC back in 1992 still dominates the political landscape of the nation.

My SEPDC experience since 1993 also tells me that it has failed to be the vehicle through which the unity of the disparate ethnic groups that call the Southern region their home can be brought about. Truth be told, in my view SEPDC's appeal to ethnic groups outside of the Hadiyas and the Kembattas is tenuous at best, and the result of the May 15th elections, warts-and-all, has laid bare this fact for all to see. After 13 years of existence, the SEPDC has not been able to attract a sizable portion of the political class from the three largest ethnic groups in the South, namely the Sidamas, the Guraghes and the Wolaitas. The SEPDC or any other Southern Ethiopian political movement cannot succeed with out the active participation of a majority of the political class from at least two of these three largest ethnic groups.

The embodiment of the Southern Ethiopian political movement since 1992, the SEPDC, is at crossroads following its poorer than expected showing in the May 15, 2005 elections. It is generally assumed that the SEPDC would have done much better than the
12 out of 123 seats it won from the Southern region to the House of People's Representatives, if the elections were free and fair. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the SEPDC, a 13 year old political organization, has had a poor performance in relation to the performance of the CUD (Kinijit), a six month old organization which won 18 seats to the House of People's Representatives from the Southern region.

It is true that Kinijit had a clear advantage over the SEPDC in financial resources going into the elections. On the other hand, the conventional wisdom among political observers was that the SEPDC, as the more established political party in the South, had a clear advantage over Kinijit in most of the other aspects of pre-election preparations. After all, this election was the third one for the SEPDC and Kinijit's first. As it turned out, SEPDC's presumed advantage was superficial. Election Day 2005 came and went and conventional wisdom bit the dust as the SEPDC was unable to withstand a better financed political opponent in its own back yard. The question then becomes, why was Kinijit able to out-perform the SEPDC in such a short time? Was SEPDC's financial disadvantage the culprit? I am afraid not. I believe the result of the elections for the SEPDC would not have been any significantly different if it had Kinijit's financial resources at its disposal. Can any one in the SEPDC attribute the dismal showing of its candidate for the House of People's Representatives from Soddo Zuria 1 constituency of Wolaita Zone to financial problems? I think not! The reason why financial problems can not explain this poor showing is because the candidate was none other than vice chairman of the SEPDC, the respected Ato Mulu Meja. Ato Mulu finished a distant fourth, garnering less than 2% of the total votes cast in that constituency.

So, how did the SEPDC loose its luster? One may chose to attribute the result of the election on lack of funding and lack of preparation time, among other factors, but this can not be an honest assessment of the SEPDC failures. The result of the election is a cumulative effect of many factors, prime among which is the very foundation upon which the SEPDC rests: the fact that it is still a coalition of real and some phantom ethnic parties. The answer to the above question lies in SEPDC's organizational structure and its leadership. I believe the SEPDC's main Achilles' heel is its organizational structure, the weakness in its leadership being a close second. I am of the opinion that neither keeping the status quo nor tinkering around the edges of the SEPDC will bring a better result in the next election cycle. Therefore, there has to be a fundamental change in how the SEPDC is structured for the SEPDC to survive.

A political movement needs to re-evaluate itself from time to time and to reinvent itself, if necessary, to better deal with the changing realities of the times. In the wake of the 2005 elections, the time is ripe for the SEPDC to do just that. The SEPDC needs to reinvent itself because it has become glaringly obvious that the damage caused to it from being a coalition of ethnic parties has far outweighed it benefits. To help illustrate my point, I will mention the case of the Kembatta People Congress (KPC). The KPC was founded in 1991 as a direct result of the Tigrayan take over of power in Addis Ababa. One of KPC's founders admitted in a recent meeting that he has had to act as chairperson, secretary, public relations officer, etc., of the KPC simultaneously many times in the past because of the lack of participation in the KPC by Kembattas. Why are the Kembattas, for whose exclusive benefit the KPC was founded, not participating in the KPC in good numbers? The reason, I believe, is very simple: the Kembattas, like most Southerners, are not much interested in a political organization that caters only for their ethnic group. I am of the opinion that the KPC was not borne out of Kembatta people's genuine desire to organize along ethnic lines. The same can be said of most, if not all, Southern ethnic groups. Therefore, I believe the first step for the SEPDC is to reinvent itself by doing away with the current structure immediately and by reconstituting itself as a regional party that is open to any individual person who is concerned about the welfare of the Southern region. I would name this reinvented regional party simply as the Southern Union (Debub Hibret). All persons within the current SEPDC who want to continue their support for their respective ethnic organizations should feel free to do so, while at the same time being a part of the Southern Union as individuals. But their respective ethnic organizations must not have a role within the newly organized Southern Union.

Once the SEPDC completes its reinvention, the reorganized Southern Union should be announced to the public in Addis Ababa with big fanfare at least three months before the local elections that are scheduled for sometime in 2006. As it stands currently, the SEPDC is not a political organization that has an atmosphere that is conducive to winning, and its structure and the resultant fickle membership base are its weakest link. Unless the SEPDC quickly reforms itself and makes a serious attempt to regain its lost momentum in short order, I am afraid its fate will not be any different from the EPRPs and the Meisons of Ethiopian politics whose membership dwindles year after year and whose remaining members get older year after year with out enjoying the fruits of their labor. Do you, as a past or current supporter of the SEPDC, want to be affiliated with such an organization? I do not!

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