Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Lesson from Nairobi

By Ephrem Madebo

Through out history, Ethiopia’s determination to stay as a free country and the willingness of its heroes to die for the territorial integrity of the nation has put Ethiopia in a unique group of nations that have been independent since the time of Adam and Eve. The prominent saying “We are the only non-colonized black nation” has always been the trade mark of Ethiopians around the world. Whether it is at a local bar when we get tipsy, or in discussions with people of other countries, Ethiopia’s perpetual independence has always been the source of pride for its people. Indeed, we Ethiopians are not strangers to political independence, the only thing that eluded us for many years is liberty and justice that people in many democratic countries take for granted. Many generations of Ethiopians have been pitiless fighters against foreigners who tried to snatch their freedom. However, for Ethiopians and the rest of the world, it has always been perplexing why we Ethiopians quietly allow our own country men to steal our freedom and treat us inhumanly. As a nation, if there is one thing that we repeatedly failed, it should be our inability to rise as a single entity and declare victory over dictators.

In May 1963, when the OAU was established in Addis Ababa, billboards all over the city read – “a country with 3000 years of history” while Kenya was still a British colony. In fact, Kenya’s independence didn’t come until December 12 of the same year. However, today; the question is not what Kenyans can learn from the long history of Ethiopia, it is what Ethiopia can learn from Kenya’s steadfastness for freedom and liberty. In 1991, the writer of this article was a refugee living in a place not far from the infamous township of Kibera where ethnic Kikuyus were battered by the Luos in the aftermath of Kenya’s descend into violence following the December 2007 presidential election. In my brief stay in Kenya, I witnessed the birth of multi-party politics which was architected by Martin Shikuku, Michael Kijana, Kenneth Matiba, and the late Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the father of the current opposition leader Raila Odinga.

For many Kenyans, the early years of the 1990s were times of great hope and excitement. Towards the end of 1991, Kenyans optimistically saw the resurgence of democracy as they forced the then-President Daniel Arap Moi to legalize multi-party politics. As democratic competitions increased and grass root movements flourished throughout the nation, Kenyans were unwillingly stumbled with a danger that eventually wiped out the short lived euphoria of progressive Kenyans. The Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), responsible for most political victories, split and re-split until it no more stood as a formidable force in the face of Kenyan African National Union (KANU) party. As a result, in 1992 and 1997, the incumbent Moi was re-elected with a relatively small minority of the vote. In 1992 and 1997, KANU won with 36.3% and 40.12% of the vote while the fragmented opposition shared 63.7% and 59.88% of the vote. In 2002, Kenyans learned from past mistakes and they stood together. After two consecutive heart breaking losses, finally, Mwai Kibaki kicked Moi out of office by winning 62.2% of the vote. In 2002, Kenya reached a huge political milestone in just 39 years what Ethiopia couldn’t in 3000 years.

In 2008, when Mwai Kibaki attempted to apply the bad lessons he learned from his northern border, Kenyans said no. They just didn’t say no, they made Kenya ungovernable. The entire world condemned the killings in Kenya and stood with the Kenyan opposition. Last week (February 28, 2008) Mwai Kibaki and Ralila Odinga agreed to share power and opened a new era in Kenyan politics. When Kenya was in political turmoil, unlike Ethiopia, the whole world looked at Kenya, not because the world loved Kenya more than Ethiopia. To be honest, it was the Kenyan opposition specially the determination and resolution of the Kenyan people that forced the world to look at them. In Kenya, just like in Ethiopia, ethnic identity has been manipulated by some self-serving political elites, but make no mistake, Kenya’s political disorder after the election has nothing to do with ethnicity, it was all about the rule of law and respect to the will of the people.

In 2005, when the then loose alliance of CUD and UEDF called the “stay home” strike, the so called western ambassadors tried to bring Meles and the opposition to the negotiation table. Both Meles and the opposition agreed. However, Meles walked out victorious as the western ambassadors doubted the will and unity of the opposition when CUD and UEDF called off the strike and made different decisions on how to continue the struggle. During the negotiation, Meles, who in advance knew the consequences of the strikes and the demonstration, did not want to see both before the opening of the parliament. He managed to avoid both by begging western diplomats to exert pressure on the opposition. The naive opposition called off the strikes and helped Meles to cool off the people’s wrath, the only power that could have brought his totalitarian regime to an end. The opposition failed to use its ultimate power, the people’s power.

Today, three years after the May 2005 election, the Ethiopian opposition is in total disarray. Instead of asking what went wrong, the opposition is busy making mistakes after mistakes to the extent of killing itself. In my opinion, the greatest thing that the Ethiopian opposition should learn from history is that it has never learned from history. The Kenyan opposition learned from its 1992 and 1997 mistakes, and in 2002, opposition parties in Kenya unseated KANU for the first time since independence. The Ethiopian opposition (especially CUDP), instead of learning from mistakes, it repeated the 1992 and 1997 mistakes of Kenya. It will be a long time before we know what in the hell [sorry for my French] the CUDP leaders were thinking when they reduced the party that petrified Meles in to numerous feeble factions. Will CUDP redeem itself by learning from the 2008 success story of Kenya?

In the last 8 years, elections results were manipulated in many unsteady democratic countries including Ethiopia (2005), Serbia (2000), Ukraine (2004), Nepal (2006), and Kenya (2008). Except in Ethiopia, in all of the above countries, opposition parties led a successful popular movement that restored the democratic process and forced dictators to give up power. Just like Serbians and Ukrainians, in 2005, the Ethiopian people were ready to do what ever it takes, but they did not have a seasoned party to guide them and a motivating leader to lead them.

Evidently, progressive sentiment in Ethiopia is very strong, but progressive institutions (political parties) are not. Leaders of opposition political parties are blown like dry leaves by the forces of egoism and strong ambition to power. The inability to distinguish between the burning needs of their nation and their political greed is one of the undesirable weaknesses of our political leaders. Today, the Ethiopian opposition is divided more than ever, and it is weaker to the extent of not being able to defend its own existence. The Ethiopian opposition camp has one common enemy that makes use of its weaknesses. The weak appearance of the opposition is a moral boost to the enemy. All in all, the failure of the opposition to stand undivided is a gratuitous reassurance to those who continue to rule us by force.

Ethiopians have started every decade with elevated hope and ended with startling despondency. They gave their money, time, and most importantly their life to create a prosperous society where liberty and justice are treasured above everything and more than anything. Every new coming regime promised a bright new era, but from Emperor Haile Selassie to Colonel Mengistu and from Mengistu to Meles Zenawi, Ethiopians were repeatedly betrayed as dictators succeeded authoritarians. The Ethiopian people feel a sense of vulnerability; they feel pain and hurt because their liberty, freedom, and peace have been snatched from them.

In the last 25 years a myriad of political parties and alliances have come and gone. We have seen countless faces, names, and name changes. The only thing we never saw is a tangible political victory attributed to these parties, or political alliances. I strongly believe that the “golden generation” that dominated the Ethiopian political landscape for the last four decades has failed individually, organizationally, and as a generation in bringing any landmark democratic transformation. Don’t take me wrong, this generation is credited for many positive changes, but it is so entangled with the past and with itself, therefore, I don’t think it has any gas left in its tank to complete the change it started decades ago. To satisfy the democratic appetite of Ethiopians, the “golden generation” unavoidably needs the help and participation of the younger generation.

Young people make up more than half of Ethiopia’s population. Today, in many places of the country and here in the US, young Ethiopians are speaking out and taking active leadership roles throughout the society to ensure that the youth plays a vital role in building a nation that truly fits the future generation. Many young Ethiopians are key community activists making differences in their communities. They are representing the concerns and views of their peers in different forums and are actively engaging in ‘inter-generational dialogues’ with adults in key decision-making positions.

The “golden generation” of Ethiopia has wisdom, but no tolerance for dissent. It has a great deal of knowledge and experience, but it is un-compromising like the mountains that protected the nation from invaders; it is also immeasurably patriotic, but appallingly self-centered. It is about time that this generation opens the door for young leaders, accepts new ideas, and invites unheard voices to the Ethiopian political forum. After all, Ethiopia is predominantly a country of the young. We need young leaders who can communicate vertically and horizontally.


Anonymous said...


I agree with you that CUDP may have made some strategic errors in 2005 that resulted in lost leverage and the population not being able to protest effectively.

But it seems to me that these and other leadership deficits, though important factors, are less of a factor than the lack of a democratic culture among the population at large.

As Messay and Levine put it:

"…modernization is unthinkable without a significant increase in solidaristic sentiments and rationalized organization. [Meaning...] In effect, the Ethiopians are ill equipped for organizing strikes with the view of defending or obtaining collective rights. The movement quickly decomposes, mostly by the influence of vertical calculations on the part of leaders and influential participants. Above all, the Ethiopians do not feel ashamed or dishonored by the failure, as communal obligations have little value for them."

You can have bad leaders here and there as a result of bad luck, but in the long run, leadership reflects the norms and values of the population, which in the case of Ethiopia, are norms of anti-cooperation and anti-solidarity.

That's why, in Ethiopia, autocratic 'big chief' type leaders tend to percolate up to the top of institutions, whether political, economic, or civic. Consider that before the 2005 elections, the two big leaders on the pro-democracy front were Lidetu and Hailu! On the other hand, leaders like Birtukan are rare, because we want to be ruled by force, as we can't rule ourselves through mutual cooperation.

Simply waiting for a generational change is no good either, because culture does not change as much between generations as we think. Again, consider Lidetu, who, while deriding the previous generation, acts exactly like one of them!

Rather, what needs to happen is an increased awareness of the lack of democratic values and a campaign to change this.

BTW, frankly speaking, a major factor in ODM's leverage is ethnic social capital. People cooperate when they see themselves as ethnic victims (see TPLF, OLF, EPLF). This is a ready source of leverage, but also has a dark side in the long run.

In Ethiopia, the pro-democracy movement is not one built on ethnic grievances, so it must be strengthened though genuine democratic values.

Ephrem Madebo said...


I share some of your ideas, but I don't think there is one single factor responsible for our failure. I touched one, Messay and Levine touched another, yet others may touch many other factors. East or west, our political leaders were complete failures, and that was what I wanted to say. There has been no single leader, or party that consistently tried to lead or organize Ethiopians for a big change. I remember when I was in junior high how EPRP organized the youth and workers of the 1970s. Why was EPRP successful then, and CUDP or others are not, almost three decades later? I do believe Ethiopians have more democratic culture now than 30 yeas ago. People shouldn't need a deep democratic culture to be in a state of rage and make a nation ungovernable at least for two or three days. All they need is a committed leadership to stand in front of them and lead them. Kenya and Nepal had a determined party and leader to lead the popular movement. Do you think democratically Nepalese are that advanced than Ethiopians? I don’t! Yes, as you said, culture doesn’t change that fast, but it changes. Birtukuan is a good example of shift in leadership culture, and she is part of the new generation. I think my generation is much better than the Hailu-Mesfin generation, and Bertukuan’s generation is better than mine. Isn’t this a cultural shift between the generations?

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your reply.

People shouldn't need a deep democratic culture to be in a state of rage and make a nation ungovernable at least for two or three days.

Yes, and that's exactly how long it can last - two or three days!

Yes, 'democratic culture' is not the right term; 'social capital' is. It is the set of norms and values that promote cooperation and collective action. These include reciprocity, honesty, reliability, trust, etc. These are the norms that make for effective communication, conflict resolution, and teamwork.

Social capital is necessary (but not sufficient) for a democratic culture to develop, which is why I used the term 'democratic culture'.

Of course, people can cooperate based on ethnicity, persecution, grievance, or seductive zero-sum ideologies such as Marxism. This is what happened with the EPRP, I think, where potent mixture of envy (of the upper classes) and utopia ('the people's romance') encouraged a level of solidarity enough to make the EPRP a force. Also, recall that the EPRP and all Ethiopian Marxist movements were, relative to movements around the world, more elite phenomena than mass or peasant based.

The above sorts of social capital, while useful in the short term, can present long term problems. The ethnic-based solidarity of the Eritreans resulted in some social progress, but also deep problems that arose as soon as the 'enemy' was removed and Eritrean society had to look inward. We have seen around the world societies rebel successfully against persecution, only to end up in a state with more persecution.

So these sorts of grievance-based movements have their limits.

People in Ethiopia are extremely bitter at the EPRDF, but in the absence of ethnic unity and severe persecution, they find it difficult to coalesce. And the EPRDF has been careful to avoid severe repression that might get people's persecution complex very high.

Given these circumstances, the only choice for the people is to develop the non-grievance based norms for cooperation so that they can channel their rage in a constructive direction.

Nepal... If you ask me, everything being equal group of Nepalese would function more effectively at achieving their goal than a group of Ethiopians, but I have no evidence for this. Needless to say, it's difficult to make accurate comparisons.

Ephrem Madebo said...


The one thing I very much agree with you is that you seem to have a very firm stand on non-ethnic based cooperation, or association. While I value ethnic identity, I don't believe a united nation [country] could be built if ethnicity is considered as a unifying factor. In fat, it is a factor that disintegrates a nation that has been together for a long time. It is imperative that we Ethiopians should jump ethnic lines and respectfully hug the other guy to work together. Every thing you touch in Ethiopia, there is a leadership issue associated with it. How do we jump ethnic lines when leaders have hidden ethnic agenda, and when there are a plethora of ethnic LFs…..Isn’t it sad?

Anonymous said...

Let the UN come in adminiter the country for two or three years and see what really the people want may be once and for all. This idea that people want this people want that without having any fact is mind boggling. people want food people want clean water people want education and we know they are not getting any one of these the reasons obviously are not being agreed up on. These same people who talk about demoracy are the ones who do not want it if their side does not prevail

Anonymous said...

very good post!!
by the way do you think birtukan can ally with with OLF??
i found this interesting about ways such alliance can be created