Insecurity, Loyalty, Expediency and Agony


In its first Column of January 2004, Voice Finfinne wrote an opinion about Meles’ government in Ethiopia. The column was titled Meles Politicking in Ethiopia as Risky as his Doctoring on a Patient. The article made the point that Meles’ determination to go to the jungle at a young age may have “deprived him the opportunity to learn about politics and leadership in a civil society at an active learning age and gave him the opportunity to learn the law of the jungle where he spent nearly two decades of his adult life.” The Column also made another point that Ethiopia “… has now more wounds in the fabric of the peoples in it than what already existed when the EPRDF took power in 1991.”


Recent commentaries by international scholars and observers about the current political situation in Ethiopia seem to suggest that the world has finally come to grips with its poor early judgment of Meles as a pragmatic leader.


In the absence of critical analysis of the political problems of Ethiopia, what has been playing itself out to the international community may be a combination of insecurity felt by liberation front leaders and political organizations, the unmeasured loyalty of the ranks and files of these organizations, and the expedient explanation of these elements by international scholars and observers, all of which only prolong the people’s agony in Ethiopia.


By their very nature, liberation front fighters become who they are with the purpose to fight their enemies. Their game is always a win-lose situation and losing is never acceptable to them since they have made the determination to win when they made their decisions to fight. They make little distinction between an opponent and an enemy. One can argue that this may not necessarily be a bad quality for an individual. However, when an individual is prone to use these qualities to dictate his or his group’s wish on the general populace he is leading, instead of facilitating a dialogue among the populace and implementing the consensus of the dialogue according to the wish of the populace, it paves the path to political dictatorship.  


This may be the fundamental premise on which the failures and successes of liberation front leaders could be evaluated, which the international community failed to do so in the case of Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, only to wake up to his critical failures at the first test of meaningful democracy. For critical observers, such failure could have been easily predicted by such scholars as Christopher Clapham and Paul Henze.


As third party observers, both of these scholars have contradictory explanations for the political discourse of the same country and the same legislative elections. To an objective observer, the mere fact of their differing analyses of the realities on the ground gives enough reasons to call for scrutiny of whether their analyses are for political expediency or objective assessment. When what they have not said about the realities on the ground is also considered along with their differing assessments, their commentaries fall down from the level of objective scholarly observation to partisan duel for one or the other of two parties with utterly weak foundations.  


To begin with, the political contest between the TPLF/EPRDF government and the CUD may have been a mutual contest to defeat the OLF as much as it may have been to defeat each other. In his own words, Meles Zenawi admitted that his party took a “calculated risk” in opening up the political space for the oppositions during the legislative elections. Absent the risk from the OLF side to the TPLF/EPRDF, this party may have presumed that it could defeat comfortably the fragmented Amhara centered numerous political parties that were scattered in the country and among the Diaspora until shortly before the elections. Absent the risk from the OLF side to the CUD, this other party may have thought it got an open window to defeat the TPLF/EPRDF on its own terms and assume the political leadership in the country.


In a recent commentary in The Los Angeles Times, Michael Clough had the following to say: “Most experts on Ethiopia believe that if the Oromo Liberation Front, which was forced to leave the country in 1992, had participated [in the May 2005 elections], it would have won a majority of votes in the region. That would have left Meles and his party with only a minority of parliamentary seats.” Shortly before the elections, the New York based Human Rights Watch released a report that clearly indicated elections in Oromia would be a “hollow exercise.”


Apparently, the CUD’s political platform was not to defeat the TPLF/EPRDF as much as it was to pre-empt Oromo influence of the country’s political direction in the future. This is evident from the rhetoric of CUD supporters in the Diaspora who have been blowing uncultured innuendo of reversing the current federal structure that is based on the identities of the nations and nationalities that make up Ethiopia. In the midst of their uncultured rhetoric, what strikes the careful observer is their admission that it is “now or never” for them to be able to change the direction of political decentralization in which the country is currently headed. Obviously, the Amharas, whose party the CUD is in a practical sense, are the most to loose from the decentralization of Ethiopia since they had the most mobility in the country both during their conquest of other peoples lands and during over a century of their rule over these other peoples. Evidently, the sense of “now or never” is certainly a manifestation of the insecurity felt by the CUD members as well as their Amhara core constituency. That insecurity has led the party to go to great length to overtake the government through urban violence, which may have led the ruling party to put the top leadership of the CUD behind bars and charge them with treason, which could carry the death penalty. In effect, the two parties have willingly transformed themselves from political opponents to eternal enemies.


Prof. Christopher Clapham of Cambridge University, in his Comments on the Ethiopian Crisis article dated November 7, 2005, directly targets the government in power to explain the crisis. That would have been a proper place to start, as he notes, a scholarly appraisal of the situation. However, that will never make the explanation complete if all the affected parties due to the crisis are not brought into the picture. Selectiveness in identifying the affected parties brings into question the integrity of one’s scholarship faculty with a risk of becoming a great disservice to all those affected by the crisis.


As Prof. Clapham observes of the ruling party, it is common knowledge among the affected societies and third party observers alike that the following points made by the Prof. are not in dispute. 1) Meles’ Zenawi and his party have stayed in power for fourteen years; 2) the TPLF/EPRDF party is essentially a Tigray government; 3) all the People Democratic Organizations (PDOs) created by the TPLF have no meaningful local base in other regions, which constitute over 90 percent of the population; 4) the EPRDF had failed to deliver regional administrative autonomy; 5) the EPRDF has never sought to operate as a democratic organization; 6) a tiny Politburo well influenced by the TPLF has been making critical decisions; and so on.


While touching on the critical issues of political decentralization and recentralization trajectories in the oppositions’ camp, Prof. Clapham failed to point out the objective trajectory on which Ethiopia’s political momentum is grounded. While carefully observing the struggle between a sense of Ethiopian nationalism and a sense of political rights for specific nationalities that have been alienated from Ethiopian state politics, it is only the CUD that is against the decentralization quest which the EPRDF has failed to deliver. By all accounts, most experts on Ethiopia acknowledge that without meaningful decentralization, Ethiopia will never solve its amorphous political problems. To be sure, Oromo parties have no reason to listen to the centralist call of the CUD, and none of them does. In his sophistication of evading the readers this crucial issue, Prof. Clapham has attempted to present to his readers the leaders of the centralist opposition as “Western-oriented sophisticates”. These are the leaders other observers carefully see them as detached from the wisdom traditions of the people they come from and haven’t fully grasped the richness of the political experiences of the West.


While the elections may have opened a space for more democratic discourse in Ethiopia than before, the collusion between the CUD and the EPRDF has cost many lives and, as noted earlier, may have deepened animosity among the political leaders in the two camps, the former in its quest to overtake power and the latter in its quest to remain in power without power-sharing. Time is to tell whether this development can be marked as a founding of a democratic process in Ethiopia or whether it may lead to political instability or, even worse, forced destabilization of the country. While speculating the possible outcomes that appear to have been tailored to favor the CUD, Prof. Clapham has painted an optimistic picture of Ethiopia in transition. Yet he failed to present a critical look at the Oromo factor that, in many aspects, is one of the most important components for the transition.


It was only after Dr. Tekeda Alemu from the Ethiopian government reacted to his article that Prof. Clapham seemed to look for a “considered analysis” from a “qualified Oromo commentator” about the recent developments in Ethiopia. One would have a moral higher ground to expect considered feedback from Oromo commentators if one has considered the Oromo factor meaningfully in one’s original comments in the first place. Such a demand makes it appear a gesture toward an Oromo when faced with some level of reaction from an old friend who vowed to confront him at the risk of severing the long established friendship. Oromos haven’t found yet friendship in Dr. Tekeda, a high ranking member of the EPRDF government, and are also familiar with calls for Oromo support by those confronted only at the time of confrontation.


Paul Henze makes no qualms in defending the TPLF/EPRDF personalities in his article titled “Comments on Comments.” In his own words, he finds it difficult to regard the TPLF leadership as dishonest and inclined towards fraud. It baffles the least of imagination how Henze is not honestly reading even the name of the organization he is trying to defend. When spelled out, the TPLF stands for Tigray People Liberation Front. It is either Henze chooses to not read what is meant by it or goes to the level of conscious willingness to compromise his integrity to have his readers believe the TPLF leadership is not dishonest. Careful observers are already wondering if the TPLF leadership or some elements in there are working for the long-term interest of the people of Tigray, let alone other peoples in Ethiopia.


According to an article published by Voice Finfinne in July 2004, among the 178 Ethiopia’s House of Peoples’ Representatives from Oromia region, over seventy five percent were younger than 40 years of age and had a qualification of only Teacher’s Training Institute (TTI) certification or less. Just about two years ago, over three hundred able Oromo university students were dismissed because of their protest at the relocation attempt of Oromia’s seat from the capital to Adama. Perhaps, if these students were given the opportunity to administer Oromia instead of being dismissed from their university education, it would be very likely that they might do a better job than the OPDO administration at that time. The current president of Oromia, a former Derg soldier who was TPLF’s prisoner of war and nominally educated army general, was reportedly defeated in the May 15 elections only to claim vote rigging by the opposition, have rerun elections to win and, very interestingly, become the new president of Oromia, the largest region in Ethiopia with population about 40 percent of Ethiopia’s 77 or so million. It is the architects of such blatant political machinations that Henze is trying to present to the world as not dishonest political leaders.


With the presumption of his not dishonest friends in the TPLF leadership, he went on to defend them and put the blame on the back of the CUD, although he could not escape concluding that the TPLF’s use of force alone can not be the permanent answer. His is political expediency to put all the blame on the CUD, cleanse the TPLF off its misdeeds and wish that the two may find a way to work together in the near future, all along sidelining the Oromo factor.


In what Prof. Clapham observed as being called on to express his government’s reaction to the professor's comments, Dr. Tekeda, tried to make Prof. Clapham I and II out of the same scholar, and has gone to a great length in doing so. Interestingly, the professor he has tried to present as a dual personality seems to know Meles Zenawi more than Dr. Tekeda knows him, the prime minister for whom he is a high ranking official. As he tries to use an analogy of a matching game with referee to explaining the Ethiopian elections complaints, one would wonder if Dr. Tekeda himself is a player or one of the balls that is being played, if he knows well when the game started, how it is played, when the points are scored and when and how the game might end.


While the two third party observers have explained away the central issue of the problem using political expediency, and the Ethiopian government official has altogether ignored even the mentioning of the problem, there are ample signs from the direction of the U. S. government officials and U.S. media of the central importance of the Oromo factor and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as an important force in Ethiopia’s political equation. Arguably, OLF was the most significant party opposed to the government before the formation of the CUD. The Oromo case has been brought to the stage of international politics that no group, political or scholarly, will have the comfort of ignoring any more.


However, there seems to be a sense of insecurity in the uninformed perception that Ethiopia falls on a religious fault line. For close observers, Oromos are neither Christians nor Muslims in the strictest senses of these two faith establishments. Pre-Christian and pre-Islam well developed wisdom traditions, which are more philosophical than spiritual, are guiding the deeper consciousness of even those Oromos who take themselves for either Christian or Muslim. As a matter of fact, there have been indications and more emerging evidences that Moses’ monotheism may have been derived from highly civilized Kushitic wisdom traditions with perhaps certain misinterpretations.


Philip Jenkins, a professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of the book The Next Christendom recently indicated that Christianity is a North African and Middle Eastern belief system that has been moving around the world in the last two thousand years. John Graham, a Canadian former NGO worker in Ethiopia for many years and wrote extensively on the country, observed in 2001 that as with Moses' Rod, Oromos have a staff called Bokku, which is used for guidance. Ahmad Osman, an Egyptologist and author of the book Moses and Akhenaten: The Secret History of Egypt at the Time of the Exodus, argues that Moses was an Egyptian Pharaoh who fled to Ethiopia before he went on the Exodus. Oromos are believed to live up to the present day in the area where this Pharaoh is believed to have fled to before the time of the Exodus.


Dr. Marco Bassi of Bologna University in Italy, who studied the Borana, a main stock of the Oromo people, for twenty years, three years by living among them, argues that the religion of the Borana is monotheistic with similarity to Christianity and Islam, and politics is separated from religion. That may be true to the extent that Oromo world outlook is similar to Christian’s and Islam’s monotheism concepts. Yet there are some crucial elements in both Christianity and Islam that are different from Oromo world outlook. In a meeting organized for Oromo nationalists in 2004 in Bergen, Norway, which was attended by a few scholars and observers such as Dr. David Shinn, former U. S. ambassador to Ethiopia, there was a crucial element in the resolution passed by all the participants, which included Oromos who practice Oromo religion, Christianity and Islam. That crucial element is the concept of Guma, absence of capital punishment, which is a reflection of Oromo world outlook of believing that man has no right to pass capital punishment on another human being despite the crime, which can well be argued as an antithesis of the concept of Jihad. The concept of Guma entails punishment in kind to which man is believed to have the right, according to Oromo world outlook. 


This concept is mentioned here to indicate the false perception of religious fault line feared by observers of Ethiopia’s politics. In his recent book titled The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times indicated that although India is the second largest Muslim country in the world, there are no Indian Muslims that we know of in al-Qaeda, no Indian Muslims in Guantanamo Bay prison, and no Indian Muslims have been found alongside the Jihadists in Iraq. While Mr. Friedman explains the reason as economic opportunities created by the Indian democratic governance, one can argue that it may actually has to do with a deeper consciousness of the concept of Karma, similar to the concept of Cubbu among the Oromo, which may be at a play. What we are sure about is the fact that there are millions of Oromos, despite the amount of preaching from either side, who have not been convinced to accept either religion in its true sense. At the same time, they have not been allowed to continue to freely exercise their belief system. Instead they continue to be coerced into not believing in it and instead directly or indirectly coerced into accepting Christianity or Islam due to the prevailing circumstances. What may have been lost to the international community is the fact that if Oromos are allowed to practice their wisdom tradition freely, it would seem to have a small India in East Africa, with the potential to shine across North Africa all the way to the Atlantic ocean, a region that is a cemetery of Kushitic people according to some learned scholars.


In conclusion, the insecurity felt by political organizations, the unmeasured political loyalty of their rank and file, and the political expediency of third party observers and interested groups make Ethiopia’s political crisis appear more complex than it is in reality. The continued lack of liberty in Ethiopia will neither present that opportunity nor lessen the debilitating poverty of the majority of the populace. It might just lead in any but certain direction. The agony through which the populace is going is reverberating from various corners. A classic example could be found in the words of an Oromo farmer in Arsi zone of Oromia region who reportedly said “bring me any person to vote for except OPDO.” That is a cornerstone of the peoples’ agony felt by millions in Ethiopia.