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.