By Ephrem Madebo
The inability of dictators to learn from their predecessors and their desire to sway the free will of society are some of the distinguishing features that identify dictators from rational leaders. Dictators always promise to attain the un-attainable and try to prevent the inevitable. As much as I detest dictators, they are not my interest in this article; I just wanted to use them as a steppingstone to point my gun at the Ethiopian opposition that never seems to be getting a lesson from its past failure. Opposition politics in Ethiopia may be as old as the Ethiopian state itself, however, organized party politics is a very new phenomenon. From the flamboyant EPRP of the 1970s to the adorable CUDP of the 21st century, all political organizations in Ethiopia came in to existence and melted away in a very similar fashion. I assume most of the parties were forged to solve national problems, but they died prematurely burned by their own internal problems. In fact, the life cycle of opposition parties in Ethiopia can be characterized by the following scheme: New party → Disagreement→ Faction→ Another new party.
I am not trying to preach a “No mistake” sermon, mistakes happen, and they are opportunities to learn something new. Columbus failed miserably on his goal to find a route to India. However, in failing he ran into a new opportunity. He reached to the new world. In the last 17 years, the Ethiopian opposition has faced as much opportunities as it has faced threats, but despite the immense popular support; the opposition neither seized the opportunities nor avoided the threats. No political party that I know resolved, or managed conflicts and continued to exit as a unified entity. In 2002, TPLF cracked internally; and Meles used the opportunity to eliminate his opponents. In December 2007, Kinjit’s chairman “fired” party executives who disagreed with him. This damaging trend confirms that the opposition seems to have no qualitative difference from what it claims to oppose.
Recently, some scholars have shed a new light on the political atmosphere of Ethiopia. A good number of scholars have written articles on the recent debacle of Kinjit, but I want to single out three scholars who suggested a scientific approach to the problem. The approach of these scholars is systemic, dynamic, and comprehensive. The three scholars are distinguished from the pack by their ability to see the bigger picture, and seek comprehensive solution to the whole system than treating parts of the system. The three scholars are Dr. Messay Kebede, Alethia, and Tefferi Mengistie.
Let me start with the “dialogue” vs “outrage” argument of Dr. Messay and Fekade Shewakena. As Maimire Mennasemay eloquently put it in one of his articles, “dialogue is the sanctuary of hope, and outrage is the sanctuary of principles. Democracy needs both”. The three scholars agree that the current political crisis of Kinjit is not an isolated phenomenon; it is a cascading problem that has cultural and moral background. It is a problem that dwarfs our political system, not just kinjit. As good as dialogues are, I don’t think they would solve the current crisis of Kinjit because the root cause of the crisis is explained by our negative culture of solving differences. There is a good chance of solving the current Kinjit crisis through dialogues, but there is equally a good chance that the problem would re-surface again, as long as the root cause of the problem is not dealt with.
Dialogue is a conscious act for a common good; outrage is a sudden reaction, or a powerful feeling of resentment aroused by a malevolence act. Outrage by itself does not solve conflict, but it forces perpetrators to accept the call for dialogs. The general public has two weapons to jolt politicians change their behavior; they are the ballot box and outrage. Dialogue is the rational choice for solving problems if and only if all parties in the dialogue recognize the rule of the game and are willing to accept the outcome of the game. The two warring factions of Kinjit may be familiar with the rules of the game, but I don’t think neither faction bothers to respect the rules if they don’t like the outcome. Surprisingly, these are the same people who wrote “Yeheg Yebelaynet Yikeber” as their mission statement.
In his initial article, Dr. Messay points at the structural problems of Kinjit that must be resolved. I don’t think any body will have a second thought on Dr. Messay’s proposal of structural change. The caveat is, large-scale structural change is limited, in part, because in the Kinjit case, the Diaspora elements and the domestic elite often seek out the most acceptable and efficient means of managing serious social conflicts rather than resolving them. When Dr. Messay proposed a structural change within Kinijit, this is what he said: “What the crisis shows is that the CUD has a structural problem that must be resolved. I implore that those who write cease to assign a hidden intention to this or that leader so as to reflect on the structural issues with an eye to proposing solutions” I don’t think Alethia has any objection to Dr. Messay’s notion of structural change, but his proposal of “root cause analysis” is not limited to Kinjit, he is eager to see structural changes deep in the moral fabric of the whole society.
Alethia’s far-reaching remedy for the current Kinjit crisis seems to be the better of all the alternatives. He strongly argues for a root cause analysis and blames others - in his own words “I think all the solutions proposed by these three gentlemen fail to deliver the goods they recommend. Their responses fail because all three of them, like many others like theirs, are oblivious to the more fundamental root cause of the current Kinijit crisis”. Dr. Messay might not have mentioned the word “root cause analysis” in his article. However, if what I think is right, I don’t see much difference between the root cause analysis approach [Alethia] and the structural approach [Dr. Messay] in solving the moral and cultural problems associated with the Ethiopian way of problem solving. Given Kinjit’s current problem, one can not solve the root causes of the crisis independent of the structural problems.
A brief walk through the history of opposition politics in Ethiopia reveals a clear moral resemblance between opposition parties and the party in power, or to put it in a different way, TPLF and the opposition parties are instituted in a closely similar moral foundation. The on-going struggle between the incumbent and the opposition parties is not a genuine run for a radical change; it is a mere competition for power. I know we don’t expect freedom and justice from dictators; I wonder why we should expect them from those who are not morally deferent from them. A complete transformation of our country requires an irrevocable change in the moral foundation of our society, and the readiness of the society to accept this change. We should always be able to see our existence in the context of the person next to us. We all should firmly stand for the truth and denounce egotism, dishonesty, and obstinacy no matter who the perpetrator is.
As Alethia repeatedly reminded us, the root causes of our problems today ultimately have to do with the moral foundation of our society. We denounce violence, but violence is our preferred route of conflict resolution. We fight political oppression, but we support political icons whether they are dictators, liars, or crooks. There are many of us who eagerly accept our own freedom, but do not respect that of others. The history of our country has time and again showed us that freedom can not survive for long unless it is based on moral foundations. We must understand that Ethiopia is a perpetual entity while political parties and individuals are indispensable snapshots in this perpetuity. Therefore, in everything we do, we should always put Ethiopia first; and never consider parties above Ethiopia and individuals above party. We don’t have to chew up our political figures for every minor incident, but we should always have the courage to tell them “enough” when their accumulated mistakes take our nation to a hole.
So how should the leaders of Kinjit solve their current crisis and save the party from going down in history? In the short run, dialogue is a plausible means that could avoid the total fiasco of Kinjit and keep the hope alive. Dialogue is a practical means to not just bring the factions together, it could as well be a path to peacefully depart the party. I strongly believe in dialogues, but I don’t want a dialogue to be a ploy to keep together ideologically divergent individuals, or groups in a party. In the short run, the responsibility of avoiding the political collapse of Kinjit falls on the leaders of the two factions. The factions may disagree on a number of things, but they must agree on the fact that the survival of Kinjit is more important than their individual group. As numerous as Kinjit’s problems are, a single stroke may not avoid them, however, solving the deep-seated problem that got the party in the hole may enable the leaders to buy time and gather cohesiveness to solve other problems. The leaders of Kinjit have undisputedly failed in keeping the party together. Is this by itself a mortal problem? Well no, because the greatest triumph of political leaders is not in never falling, but rising from a fall. Will they rise?
In the long run, the responsibility of revolutionizing our method of conflict resolution falls on the back of scholars, civic organizations, opinion leaders, and of course the general public. We the “enlightened” must be vectors of change and appreciate conflicts as unavoidable episodes in the process of change. Democracy requires a clear-cut moral precondition. Those who are in the forefront of the fight for freedom must believe in the principles of democracy and respect its rules. Freedom of any kind must exist within the framework of law; otherwise, it means only freedom for the strong to oppress the weak. We must enrich the moral foundation of our society and make it compatible with democracy. In countries like Ethiopia, it is morally acceptable for leaders to think that they are above the law. In fact, this kind of “dysfunctional behavior” [Teferi Mengiste] of our political leaders has a lot to do with their social consciousness than their individual character. To be honest, it is this kind of moral maxim that Dr.Messay, Alethea, Teferi Mengiste and many others must fight boldly to ameliorate the current hurdles in the Ethiopian political arena.
In the past few years, many scholars, political figures, and blogers have extensively discussed liberal democracy and emphasized on its importance for Ethiopia. Liberalism has also been ubiquitous in both the academia and the public realm, so much so that it is often presented as the unsurpassed alternative. What is liberal democracy? Is Liberal democracy the right prescription for Ethiopia? Is the moral foundation of our country well-suited for liberalism? Are the moral principles of liberalism good enough to smooth and gradually do away with the “dysfunctional behavior” of our political elites? What are the moral principles of liberalism? By the way, it is important to understand that the moral foundations of society do not extend only to its political system; they must extend to its economic and social systems as well. This article will continue on these issues next week.