Saturday, December 31, 2005

No More Senseless War

By Fikru Helebo

Back in early 2000 some opponents of the Ethiopian regime, which I prefer to call appeaseniks, vigorously supported the regime’s military campaign to regain the territory that was lost to Eritrea in May of 1998. The appeaseniks reasoned that Eritrea’s invasion of the "disputed" stretches of land along the border area and the subsequent bombardment of civilian targets in Tigray region by Eritrean warplanes had taught the ruling TPLF party a lesson it won't forget: a politically divided Ethiopia that it helped to bring about is not in the interest of Tigray region.

The appeaseniks further argued that TPLF’s fallout with the Eritrean regime had left it with no choice but to pursue a policy that will put Ethiopia’s national interest ahead of Tigray’s parochial interest, and that the TPLF could eventually be persuaded to create a healthy political space for its domestic opponents as a derivative of this change of policy – the so-called peace dividend. The wishful thinking of the appeaseniks was understandable to some extent, but history teaches us that appeasement of dictatorial regimes and power-crazed militant groups has never worked and is invariably destined to fail.

It did not take very long for the TPLF to disappoint the appeaseniks as it signed the Algiers Peace Agreement without consulting them or the Ethiopian people who made the decisive victory on the battlefield possible in May and June of 2000. Alas, the TPLF’s primary interest did not match that of Ethiopia’s primary national interest once again
! The Algiers agreement also demonstrated that, at its core, the TPLF is a group that is made up of an incorrigible bunch of power thirsty individuals who do not possess the wisdom that would enable them to share real political power with the vast majority of Ethiopians from other regions. And, just like that, the wishful thinking of the appeaseniks came to an abrupt end before it had a chance to be tested.

Now, five and a half years later, Ethiopia’s victory on the battlefield, which cost tens of thousands of lives, has become a distant memory and it is clear that the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war was fought on a false premise. Most Ethiopians believed that their army was fighting for the territorial integrity of their nation and to secure Ethiopia’s natural access to the sea. Sad, but true, we now know that the real reason for the conflict was the long standing rivalry and the resultant animosity between the leadership camps of the two parties that ruled the two countries, and not the border dispute as it was made out to be.

The belligerents who gave us that senseless war, a war that should never have taken place, are now back at it again beating the all too familiar drums of war and readying their poor soldiers to die for a totally unjustifiable reason. The border dispute that sparked the war in 1998 could have been resolved through negotiations, and it can and it should be solved through negotiations regardless of how long it takes to resolve it. The Jane's group recently summed up the state of tension between the terrorist regimes of the two countries in this way:

Ethiopia has not been inclined to accept the award of territory to Eritrea and has difficulty coming to terms with its loss of direct sea access. Eritrea, meanwhile, just seems bent on being difficult. Both also have internal political and security problems, making an external 'threat' a welcome distraction.

This, I think, is a pretty good short summary of the state of the stalemate between the two belligerent parties at this point in time. That said, my view, for what it's worth, is that there cannot be any real peace between the states of Ethiopia and Eritrea until both countries have representative governments that can negotiate a real peace agreement on behalf of their respective people. Furthermore, even if the belligerent parties somehow manage to avoid going to war this time around and settle their differences by ratifying the Algiers agreement and demarcating the border, any peace agreement that is reached by the current holders of state power in Addis Ababa and Asmara will not be considered complete by the Ethiopian people if the agreement fails to address Ethiopia’s unencumbered access to the sea through the port of Assab.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Helen Helebo, 1973-2005, R.I.P.

ሔለን ሔሌቦ

Helen was a person of faith and courage. Helen was dedicated to her family and friends and she lived her life as it should be lived: she had an abiding faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and she had an unflinching optimism and a great attitude that endeared her to all who knew her. Helen passed away a week ago today at a young age of 32 from bone cancer. Learning of Helen’s untimely death, a long time family friend, Shaun Tate, wrote the following: “Helen was, is a remarkable young lady, bringing sunshine into any room she entered. She seemed to be one of the most genuinely happy people I have ever met.” This past week has been a very sad one for me, my family and all who knew Helen. We will terribly miss her positive attitude in all things and her infectious smile. But life has to go on, as it must, and blogging on Enset will also continue. Helen would not have it any other way.

The Lord is a mighty tower where His people can run for safety. Proverbs 18:10

Monday, December 12, 2005

IRIN's Interview with Berhanu Nega

"I deserve and Ethiopians deserve as much rights, as much democratic government as anyone else. In fact, we need it more for our development." - Berhanu Nega, Ethiopian Prisoner of Conscience.

On May 30, 2003 the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) posted an interview it conducted with Berhanu Nega on its web site. I feel that this interview is a must read interview for any serious observer of Ethiopian politics and all who care about the well being of Ethiopia. I have posted below excerpts from the interview that dealt with democratic reforms. When you read it, please bear in mind that the interview was condcted more than two and a half years ago. The good news is, in the two and a half years since Berhanu refered to the attitudes of Ethiopians as "docile", Ethiopians have proven him wrong by exhibiting extreme courage in standing up for their God-given human rights. On the other hand, the bad news is the state terrorism perpertated on its own citizens by the regime in power has increased dramatically since Berhanu's interview. Hopefully, Ethiopians will once again prove Berhanu wrong by overcoming the reign of terror that is imposed on them by the Meles regime. Now to the interview...

IRIN: Donors argue that the country is democratic, or at least moving towards it?

BERHANU: What I have been hearing from donors when this is raised is that the country is moving in the right direction. They acknowledge there were irregularities here and there, but by and large for a country like this it should be acceptable. Then you find yourself in a difficult position, because you don’t know what a country like Ethiopia deserves, what is our package of democracy - 20 percent, 30 percent?

My assumption is, there is only one process: that the election is free or is not free. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but at least we shouldn’t see state functionaries making it difficult to have a free and fair election. Nobody in their right mind in Ethiopia can tell you that it is not perfect but not even acceptable when you have one party winning some 90, 95 percent of parliament. It just doesn’t happen. We should not fool ourselves.

IRIN: So you are saying the donors authorise the government rather than the people?

BERHANU: There is no mechanism for the actual population to give any approval. The dynamic link that ought to exist between state and citizens is broken, and in between are donors. We face a situation where the state is much more interested in pleasing donors and will tell them what they want to hear; and citizens, because they have no means of reaching their own government in an organic way, they put their complaints through donors.

At the end of the day, development is what individuals do, not what the state or donors do. It is what individuals do to improve their lives that will improve long-term development. The issue of freedom and democracy is important. It always amazes me that donors are not interested it that aspect.

IRIN: How responsible then are donors for undemocratic systems?

BERHANU: The general cliché is if there is going to be democracy it has to come from our own efforts. But if that is to mean - would donors have a contribution to democratisation, they certainly would. Are they effectively using their partnership with the state to pursue a clear democratic agenda - then they haven’t shown it unfortunately. That is why the pressure for a genuine democratisation process in this country doesn’t seem to come from anywhere.

Citizens are so docile and terrified that they wouldn’t do what is needed. Donors are not pressuring them to do it, because they have other interests: they are essentially comfortable with what is going on. If you want to be more radical, you can say to a certain degree they are racists, because they really don’t believe that Ethiopians deserve the kind of democracy they are enjoying in their own ountries. They think that countries like Ethiopia are so backward they only need a small amount [of democracy]...

I deserve and Ethiopians deserve as much rights, as much democratic government as anyone else. In fact, we need it more for our development. We need it desperately, because we need to liberate the individual, because the individual has to fight to improve his or her own lives. It is that feeling of freedom, to struggle to improve your own condition that is going to bring development in this world.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Withdraw from Meles's Parliament

By Fikru Helebo

In the wake of the stolen elections of May 15, 2005 and the subsequent brutal repression of any meaningful political dissent in Ethiopia, the sole useful purpose that the continued participation of members of the Southern Ethiopian Peoples Democratic Coalition (SEPDC) in Meles’s parliament serves is to provide an appearance of a continuation of a democratic process in Ethiopia for a totalitarian regime that desperately needs a semblance of it. Therefore, it is my considered view that the eleven members of the SEPDC who have joined Meles’s parliament should withdraw from an institution that has come to symbolize tyranny in today's Ethiopia while there is still time to do so.

The purpose of a political party is to bring together people who have common beliefs with the hope that they may pull their resources to putting their shared principles into practice. The folks who founded the SEPDC back in 1992, and those of us who later joined them, shared the core belief that there was, and there still is, a vital need to address the power imbalance that exists in Ethiopia - a power imbalance which has disenfranchised Southerners for more than a century. Unfortunately, it is now increasingly becoming more evident that the SEPDC is failing to be the party that can bring most Southerners together to the realization of this shared core belief.

In countries where multiparty politics is practiced, a political party will try to put its principles into practice by fielding candidates for political offices and winning a majority of the seats in legislatures. In Ethiopia, democracy and multiparty politics are fairly new concepts, and the country experienced its first genuinely contested elections only in the year 2000, albeit it was limited to the Hadiya, Kembatta and Tembarro regions in Southern Ethiopia and a few Woredas in Addis Ababa. The main opposition party contesting in the elections of 2000 in Southern Ethiopia, and for that matter in all of Ethiopia, was the SEPDC. Southerners, irrespective of their ethnic background, were filled with pride when the SEPDC registered a first in the history of modern Ethiopian politics when its candidates won 9 seats to the federal parliament, and by so doing the SEPDC proved to Ethiopians everywhere that it is, indeed, possible to achieve their political objectives by engaging in electoral politics, even under conditions that are not favorable to the opposition parties.

Unfortunately, the euphoria of election success in that small corner of Southern Ethiopia did not last long. The ruling party, the EPRDF, understood very well the significance of its defeat in Hadiya, Kembatta and Tembarro areas in 2000 and the implications of this defeat with regard to its monopoly of political power and, so, it set about to nip SEPDC's success in the bud by making Hossana, the capital of Hadiya region, a military garrison and a staging ground for persecuting SEPDC's supporters accross the region with impunity. This persecution caused more than a thousand young Hadiya, Kembatta and Tembarro supporters of the SEPDC to leave their homes and seek refuge in countries beyond Ethiopia’s borders. Having suppressed all opposition activities in Hadiya, Kembatta and Tembarro areas, the EPRDF then easily "won" the uncontested local elections of 2001 in textbook fashion.

EPRDF's severe clampdown on SEPDC's supporters in 2000 and 2001 had the effect of crippling SEPDC's activities in the Southern region as a whole. Leaders of the SEPDC at the grassroots level, who deserve most of the credit for the success of the SEPDC in the 2000 elections, understandably became demoralized. In early 2003 I had the opportunity to witness first-hand the demoralizing effect of EPRDF's repression on SEPDC's grassroots leaders on my visit to Hossana. The morale breakdown I witnessed did not surprise me since I had expected it. What surprised and baffled me, however, was the lack of support these grassroots SEPDC leaders were getting from SEPDC’s top leadership. It was apparent to me that the grassroots leaders throughout the South were left to fend for themselves by SEPDC’s national leadership and, by the time the 2005 elections approached, it was clear that the SEPDC grassroots leaders were a disorganized bunch. What was most disturbing to me in the period between 2001 and 2005 was the fact that the SEPDC's top leaders were busy building alliances with other parties, a number of which have had little or no appreciation for the very reason the SEPDC was established in the first place, while ignoring the needs and views of the SEPDC grassroots leaders that made the result of the 2000 elections possible. [I am all for building political alliances to achieve a certain common objective, the objective for the Ethiopian opposition being the defeat the EPRDF in an election. However, I do not believe abandoning one’s grassroots support base is the way to build alliances.]

The May 2005 elections are considered by many a watershed moment in the history of the country, and I do concur with this view. However, I would like to remind the reader that SEPDC’s performance in the 2000 elections was a precursor for the performance of the opposition in the 2005 elections. While I was disappointed that the political party I had supported for a long time and one that spearheaded the aspirations of millions of Southerners in the last decade failed to make gains in the 2005 elections, I was delighted to see other parties who are committed to democratic pluralism in Ethiopia do well. But, as a Southerner looking towards the future, I feel that SEPDC’s poor performance in the 2005 elections coupled with its leadership’s unwillingness to admit the mistakes of the past four years, which led to the poor performance, and the leadership’s lack of desire to make the necessary corrections that will enable the SEPDC to be a genuine voice for Southerners again, has put the shared core belief that gave birth to the SEPDC in 1992 in grave danger.

What is even more distressing to me is that this shared core belief, a cause for which many precious lives were lost and for which thousands suffered imprisonments and persecution, is currently being tainted by the continued participation of SEPDC members in Meles’s parliament. If the eleven SEPDC members continue their participation in this parliament without adequately addressing the desires of the overwhelming majority of the Southern electorate to stay out of it, I can predict with reasonable degree of certainty that the SEPDC will inevitably be considered by most Ethiopians to be an organization that is engaged in aiding and abetting the suffering of Ethiopians at the hands of a hated regime.