TPLF institutionalization of ethnicity, party and state and the undoing of shared power and resources:

commentary seven

Aklog Birara, PhD

The pursuit of justice and political pluralism in Ethiopia has been severely compromised deliberately and systematically by the architects of an ethnic polity that is doing irreparable damages to all Ethiopians. Some see merit in the current system and suggest that ‘oppressed nationalities’ are better off today than they were under previous regimes.  Let us ignore the bigger picture of no ‘shared power or shared resources’ in the management of this new polity. Instead, let us relate governance to ordinary Ethiopians regardless of their ethnic, religious or demographic affiliation.  I will illustrate this by providing socioeconomic examples.

Ninety (90) percent of Ethiopians earn less than the worldwide threshold of US$1.25 per day. More than 60 percent earn less than US$1 a day. Imagine surviving on such income yourself. Last year, the cost of food rose by 50 percent. An Afar, Somali, Anuak, Oromo or other mother outside the privileged ethnic elites who benefit from the system has a higher chance of dying from lack of basic maternal care, along with her baby in one of the “unhealthiest countries in the world.” If the baby survives, her or his chance of growing stunted or of becoming an orphan is among the highest in the world. There are 7 million orphans in Ethiopia today. Children and girls are among the largest exports in the country. If a child reaches the age of maturity (18), her or his chances of attending school are lower than in next door Kenya. If, by some miracle, she/he attends high school or even college, the chance of finding a job that pays a livable wage are increasingly nil.

On the other hand, the chance of immigrating and facing the prospect of death on the way or humiliation abroad are among the highest in the world. The Gallop Poll found that 46 percent of Ethiopians, mostly the educated, want to leave the country. This is the lead reason why I have consistently suggested that growth that does not offer equitable access to opportunities does not reduce overall poverty. TPLF incorporated (TPLF Inc.) would care less whether the affected individual is Afar, Somali, Amhara, Oromo, Anuak or Tigrean. Why should it? The less people who demand public services and or freedom, the better it is for the regime. The less domestic competition there is the better for few who make money.  TPLF INC is especially inimical to national oriented individuals and institutions.  Reflect for a single minute why the country is void of nationalists, patriots and civic minded folks and institutions.

What is surprising to fair minded observers—whether Ethiopian or foreign—is that the condition of running a multiethnic nation as a business is not fully grasped or appreciated even by those who say they oppose it. This wishy-washy tendency is among the lead contributors to the disarray. Some have the audacity to accept ‘crumbs’ as democratic outcomes and neglect the vast majority who live in abject poverty and destitution. They ignore the notion that democratic outcomes mean shared power and shared resources. It certainly is not accepting second class status in one’s own region and country.

One can’t help but appreciate those who were part of the regime; reject it; and join the opposition camp. They know more about the intrigues of TPLF Inc. than we do. It is time that we let go of their past, invite and encourage them to join the democratization process. Evidence from and testimonies offered by these former supporters and participants in the establishment of ethnic federalism-- the geopolitical manifestation of ethnic polity-- show that the Ethiopian Prime Minister and his close allies are leading the entire society into the abyss. In this abyss, no current or future generation is likely to be spared. Sad but true, for Tigreans, the collateral damage that emanates from this system of exclusion is huge. Those who left it know this very well and can help in dismantling it. They know that, unless change takes place soon, Tigreans will incur long-term damages without necessarily receiving a substantial share of the proceeds from minority ethnic elite political and economic capture.  Some in the Diaspora who visit the glitz in the country return with the false impression that things are better for the vast majority of the population. They equate glitz with wellbeing for 90 percent of the population. They fail to recognize that, at US$350, per capita income is among the lowest in Africa. Having left the country in search of opportunities abroad, they detach themselves from the bigger and troublesome realities in which most live.

TPLF Inc. offers critical officials, including generals, urban lands and accesses to loans to own and build mansions and buildings in prime locations that cost between 45 and 90 million birr. Diaspora visitors fail to ask how it is possible for a general on an Ethiopian salary to build multimillion birr physical assets in one of the poorest countries in the world.

An ordinary Tigrean does not live in a decent home let alone in a palatial or mansion like edifice in Mekele or Bole in Addis Ababa.  So, we cannot afford to be categorical in chastising the Tigrean population for the misdeeds of TPLF Inc. We need to make clearer distinctions between those who rule and exploit or plunder the country and the rest. By the same token, we cannot afford to assume that every Oromo supports the OLF and that most Oromo support secession. The vast majority of the Oromo population suffers from the same systemic barriers as the rest. This condition creates resentment against the system. This does not, however, mean that most Oromo or Tigrean support secession. Oromo and Tigrean and others have sacrificed as much as anyone in defending and preserving Ethiopia. It is equally wrong to assume that every Somali supports the Somali National Liberation Front. These categorical notions and beliefs are what TPLF Inc. wishes us to buy in the market place of propaganda. If we wish freedom for all Ethiopians, we cannot afford to be trapped in this cycle of categorical condemnation of others and misdeeds of the past. What matters most is the future.

Who wants national unity and the sovereignty of the Ethiopian people?

This question leads me to one general observation that some present in a recurrent fashion as if the people on whose behalf they talk—without the benefit of being elected--do not know what they want. Active and sustained support of Ethiopia’s national independence, territorial integrity and unity and sovereignty that embraces the diversity of the population is national hopes and aspirations. These do not belong to the so-called ‘unity crowd.’ Such narrow and self-serving attribution serves TPLF Inc. and narrow ethnic elite outlooks. Indirect or direct reference to the so-called ‘unity crowd’ is another way of confining identification narrowly to a group rather than to the entire society. It is a reinforcement of the current ethnic federal system that discourages communication and interaction among the country’s diverse population. Who benefits from such an arrangement? It is elites and not the people they contend to represent. Trade, employment, investment and knowledge sharing are restrained heavily by this narrow definition of the ‘unity crowd’ theme. TPLF Inc. reinforces such an insular and isolated life at the cost of millions of Ethiopians. Those who echo the same are essentially saying the same thing: live in isolation from one another. Restricted economic and social activity on the basis of ethnic identity deters the natural flow of knowledge, best practices, experience and markets. It deters innovation and change and counters the global trend toward social, economic and market integration.

One unintended consequence that those who demean the ‘unity crowd’ advocate is that isolated ethnic communities are more vulnerable to manipulation by domestic elites and globalization than nationally oriented societies. As such, the argument is not so much one group advancing ‘unity’ for its own sake and another protecting ethnic turf. Instead, it is advancing the noble causes of shared power and shared resources that can only occur when Ethiopians have the freedom to choose their representatives in a free and fair electoral process; and when their government becomes accountable to them and not to narrow ethnic elites. Those who adhere to the notion of national unity as if this concept is embedded narrowly in one or two ethnic groups (the ‘unity crowd’) fail to realize that unity in a multiethnic and multi-religion country such Ethiopia is a national and not an ethnic concept at all. This is especially the case in this century. How else does one justify the European Union or the illusive African Union? National unity is a matter of economic and political survival.

TPLF Inc. has gotten away with murder so far by institutionalizing the irreconcilability of ethnic groups and by categorizing all Amharic speakers as ‘oppressors.’ It inherited these traditions of categorical accusation and demeaning from the EPLF and foreign powers inimical to Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people as a whole. The division within the Worldwide Ethiopian Student Movement in the 1960s and 1970s; and later on, the ensuing onslaught against nationally oriented and highly competent Ethiopians, was part of the strategy to undo Ethiopia forever. In large part, this strategy succeeded. It is not so much because of the brilliance of EPLF intellectuals that it did. It is because of the gullibility of many Ethiopian intellectuals who wanted change and listened to anyone without assessing motives and calculating possible outcomes.

The country lost its access to the sea and is now losing the pillars of its economy. In large measure; and whether recognized or not; this gullible generation helped to create a submissive and subservient political culture. The emergence the EPLF and the TPLF Inc. is part of this gullible generation. Foreigners inimical to Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people have a knack at recruiting, funding and arming Ethiopians against one another. Who pays the price ultimately? It is the country and its people. Why else would we leave our country and immigrate to all corners of the world; and then go back to our country as tourists?

The ethnic-based ruling elite continue to use its ethnic base as a shield. This shield is, however, subject to the same s scrutiny of loyalty as the rest. The Tigray regional state (Kilil) serves as the laboratory of repression and oppression of not only the region itself but the rest of the country. The ethnic elite reconfigure lands and politicize use and ownership thereby creating unnecessary animosity among Ethiopians. The good news is that, an increasing number of Tigreans, Oromo and others reject this system.  Someone said, “You can fool the people some of the time; but you cannot fool the people all of the time.” The denial of freedom in the rest of the country is the same as denial of freedom in Tigray, Afar, Gambella, Amhara, Somali and Oromia and so on. Folks, I suggest that we are in this mess together. The only way out is to close ranks and cooperate and not cope out. It is time that Amhara, Oromo, Tigre, Anuak, Somali and the rest appreciate the notion that they are going to the abyss together. No one will be free from repression and oppression unless all Ethiopians are free. TPLF Inc. is fickle for a street smart reason: survival. Like a chameleon, it changes the composition of the leadership at the top and below on the basis of perceived threats and renewed or new loyalty required.  This is the reason for the recent assessment (gimigema) and change of guards to protect the Prime Minister.

Increasingly, what seems to matter most for the top leadership is sheer survival against growing public resentment that the regime may not contain in the event of countrywide uprisings? This resentment is not bound by ethnic or religious affiliation. Those who wish to see an inclusive, just and pluralist Ethiopia must distinguish the trees from the forest and reach out to one another. I suggest that the personification of political leadership in a single figure or person is the weakest link of the present system that opponents can exploit now.  If fear permeates this oppressive system, opponents have every reason to consider that their own fear is not warranted. They must appreciate the notion that, at minimum, fear is as pervasive within this system as it is outside. This is why generals and spies are rewarded like CEOs.

The good news is that fear outside the system is imposed; it is neither natural nor part of the Ethiopian tradition.  There is power in numbers that civil resistance has yet to exploit. The outside world consists of the vast majority who reject the system. The sheer power of numbers makes fear conquerable and manageable. For this to happen, we all need to create and sustain a unity of purpose; and work on the ability to mediate and reconcile minor differences among political and civic dissidents. Opponents need to accept the possibility that narrow and personalized ethnic leadership is the Achilles Heel that is embedded in authoritarian and personalized leadership. It is this weak link that will unravel the regime. This weak link treats the entire country and its people as tradable commodities. For example, TPLF Inc. is Africa’s champion of land grab for which all ethnic groups are paying a huge price. Ethiopians are losing power, voice and a sense of citizenship in their own regions and country.

To those who find merit in Ethiopia’s ethnic polity, I have tried to show that the benefits are confined to elites. Where then is the benefit gained if the real economy is being assumed by foreign firms from India, Pakistan, the Gulf states, China and others and a selected few ethnic elites? This national onslaught must be countered fast through mobilization and consolidation of the opposition camp within the country and abroad now. The opposition camp must be courageous enough to turn the page around such that fear belongs to its rightful place: TPLF Inc.

Fear belongs to those who oppress and plunder

The fear culture that the ethnic governing elite spent hundreds of millions of dollars to implant and institutionalize is a consequence of fear itself: fear of history; of the Ethiopian public; and fear to innovate and change for the better. Let us take one example. The system of ethnicization of the security, police and defense establishment through economic and financial incentives—urban lands and borrowed financing of huge buildings in Bole, Addis Ababa, appointments to Boards and as heads of corporations-- is part of the art staying in power. Fear has produced generals who live in multimillion birr homes and in the most exclusive neighborhoods in every large city in the country. A government that is not afraid of its own shadows does not bribe its generals. It has no one to fear.

The party owns the defense establishment

You buy the defense and security leadership to your side by bribing it; and by providing it economic and financial incentives because of fear.  Here is a weakness that the opposition can and should exploit. Suppose TPLF Inc. declares war against Eritrea or is provoked to do so. The opposition cannot wait to educate ordinary soldiers who hail from every nationality groups. Ordinary soldiers and other low level personnel are not part of the financial and economic benefit deal and empire. Why not educate these thousands of police, soldiers and others who are not major beneficiaries that they are protecting a corrupt and deadly system that uses and abuses them?  Why not inform them that the biggest beneficiaries of the current system are ethnic generals who are owners of huge assets, including buildings paid for at public expense.

This can only be done if the opposition is smart enough to set aside differences and focus on all of the Ethiopian people and on the country instead of itself. Cooperation is no longer a choice; it is a necessity.

The merged state needs material resources to sustain it

Political capture does not occur in a vacuum. State owned or run entities such as telecommunications serve the ruling-party and prevent the entire society from harnessing the information revolution. Genuine domestic private sector competition is not allowed. In the absence of structural changes, increased productivity and competition, it is inevitable that prices will continue to rise. When this happens, it all Ethiopians who suffer; hyperinflation does not discriminate. Ethiopia is being left behind other African countries in the use of mobile phones, the Internet and other modern communications tools.  Last year, I visited Kenya to learn these contrasts in the use of telecommunications, mobile phones and Internet services that boost capabilities and express freedom of choice.

In Kenya, stiff competition is everywhere. There are more than 20 Internet firms that give citizens a level of access denied to Ethiopians. Young Kenyans told me that they use mobile phones and the Internet to critique and converse on such matters as the constitutional referendum. Contrast this with Ethiopia and see what TPLF Inc. is doing to the entire society. It suffocates freedom and undermines economic and social vitality and creativity. Any criticism of the Ethiopian constitution will land a person in jail. Kenya boasts the most advanced mobile money and other financial transfer system in the world. Wide spread use of the Internet and mobile phones have begun to change the social fabric of  Kenyan society, blurring distinctions between urban and rural, youth and old, women and men, rich and poor. This technology is breaking ethnic barriers.
Many young Kenyans are highly critical of their government and its leaders. They want a future that will unleash the productive capabilities and potential of the entire society. Young people are not waiting for the government to solve socioeconomic and political problems. They are actively engaged in defining problems, searching for answers and setting-up enterprises. A free press allows them to express their views without fear. While one cannot conclude from a short visit that Kenya is on the way to Middle Income status by 2030--a national goal--optimism among youth and information technology suggest that this may be reachable. In terms of the information revolution and a vibrant press, Kenya is more like emerging countries in South Asia than its northern neighbors.   

TPLF Inc. does exactly the opposite of Kenya, Ghana and others in Africa. Ethnic and region-based corporations and non-governmental agencies owe their legitimacy and assets to Federal Government budgetary transfers, contractual deals and easier accesses to the banking system, including the National Bank. This is why Ethiopian domestic banks are on the verge of collapse and are debt ridden to the tune of 60 billion birr and growing. So-called endowments firms play developmental roles. They exert monopolistic practices and crowd out opportunities for other Ethiopians. The banking system serves as piggy bank for the party. What makes Ethiopian ethnocratic governance unique and without parallel is the fact that an ethnic-based minority party (TPLF Inc.) has assumed legitimacy and total dominance in both the political state and the economy within a short period of 21 years.

The party, state and ethnic-based political, legal, judicial, economic and financial processes appear to be totally linked in a web that serves the ruling-party’s goals and interests. This is why I call it TPLF Inc. The definition of ethnocratic governance offered in previous commentaries has been augmented and validated by this merger that is total and absolute. The clash between national social and political groups on the one hand and the ethnic-based ruling-party on the other reflects tensions arising from this unacceptable concentration of political power and economic and financial wealth in a single ethnic-based elite. Given this, it is virtually impossible to expect shared power and shared resources any time soon.

Morally indefensible

This concentration is indefensible morally and in terms of socioeconomic development. It is detrimental to the notion of reducing and eventually eliminating broad-based poverty and in creating a vibrant and competitive national economy augmented by a strong domestic private sector. Growth that is not based on popular and equitable participation by the vast majority is likely to aggravate the already dangerous income and social inequality apparent everywhere in the country. By definition, ethnocratic governance cannot and will not be representative of the economic, financial, social, cultural and political interests of all constituents. It is narrowly, ideologically and ethnically based rather than societal-based. It cannot be democratic and equitable. The concept is exclusionary and founded on the premise of irreconcilability. Revolutionary Democracy (RD) is both class and ethnicity-based. Those who find some merit in this arrangement miss the bigger picture, namely, the meaning of shared power and equitable access to economic and social opportunities that lead to shared resources and shared prosperity long-term. Anything less understates the hopes and aspirations of Ethiopians as people regardless of ethnic, religious and demographic affiliation.

Commentary eight will examine how the TPLF Inc. formula undermines public trust and disempowers the vast majority of Ethiopians.