Ethiopia is experiencing a crisis of transition. That’s not surprising. It’s an opportunity for an Ethiopian solution to Ethiopia’s crisis. Let us remind ourselves of a wisdom that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
Ethiopia is not alone in facing a national political crisis today. What’s unique about our country is that we haven’t yet collectively debated our national crisis in a way that allows us to reach a shared solution.
Around the world, many countries that have been going through accelerated economic transformations are also in deep political crises: we see this from Brazil to Thailand, from South Africa to Turkey.
All these crises have something in common, which is that an established political leadership has become too comfortable with power, while large numbers of young people have matured into adulthood with huge expectations of greater life chances and freedoms—and are finding that those expectations aren’t being met.
But the vast majority of young adults are open-minded and open to debate: their energies can transform the present and build the future.
For leaders who are arrogantly sure of their own visions, that can be a recipe for authoritarianism. Where leaders are lacking in any confidence, it’s a recipe for stagnation and confusion. In the middle ground, it’s a chance for a patriotic way ahead, that builds upon what is unique and distinctive about a country.
Where nations are divided and fearful, it makes them ripe for instability—sometimes fomented by malicious outsiders, sometimes by extremists within their own societies. Even the world’s most powerful countries, such as the United States and Britain, find that their publics are being pulled apart by polarizing forces that dominate the national conversation.
As a distinguished statesman observed, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” We can adapt this maxim to our times: moderate voices are quiet, extremist voices are loud and are utilizing the social media effectively.
Ethiopia has its unique qualities and circumstances. We don’t have yet an energetic overambitious leader developing a personality cult. We don’t have a country run as a family business, whose members have devoured the nation’s resources in conspicuous personal consumption, or an elite whose members have dragged the national wealth away to hide in tax havens to eat in private. We don’t have an army running the country. Let’s be grateful for those mercies.
What we do have is a public realm that is divided by ethnic group, and is being pulled further apart into polarized camps by provincialist agendas and ethno-nationalist social media. At a time when Ethiopians need a unifying national conversation in an open public forum, what we have instead are multiple parallel conspiratorial conversations .
This cannot solve our problems and move our country ahead.
There are two layers to this problem. One is the medium of the public discussion itself; the other is the political structure of the country.
The most negative outcome of our government’s policies on the media, civil society and free speech is to narrow that middle ground to the official organs of party and government. It’s natural that people become at minimum bored and at maximum distrustful of official channels. Then the alternatives exist only at the fringes, especially the unregulated diaspora social media.
It’s like clearing a field of every plant except a single specially selected strain of maize, and then being surprised when this strain sickens and vigorous pesticide-resistant weeds take over the farm. The answer isn’t more pesticide: it’s sowing barley, wheat, sorghum and teff as well.
I’m calling for a patriotic middle ground.
Then there’s the deeper problem: a political infrastructure built almost exclusively around Ethiopia’s constituent ethno-national groups. The 1995 Constitution of “a nation of nations” was designed for sound and understandable historical reasons, to remedy deep-seated wrongs in the respect for Ethiopia’s ethno-nations, and to provide all the peoples of this great multi-national country with equal rights. That was a huge and historic step which can never be reversed.
Every large and complex multi-identity country has a federal system, and Ethiopia was right to choose this path.
The nature of national sentiment is totally different in an agrarian society to an industrializing one. Ethiopia has been transformed over the last quarter century with unprecedented economic growth, but the organization of political parties and administrative functions hasn’t adapted accordingly.
For sure, there are crises in the regions: real grievances, real problems needing to be resolved. But fundamentally there is no “Oromo problem” or “Amhara problem” or “Tigray problem” or “Southern Peoples problem”: there is an Ethiopian problem in Oromo, Amhara, Tigray, the Southern region, Afar, Gambela, and so forth.
The Ethiopian national problem may take somewhat different forms in each region. But no region can solve its problem on its own, separate from the others.
The Oromo voice has been heard. Oromos are now unequivocally inside the common Ethiopian house, not knocking at the door. Yes of course there are still many problematic legacies from the past, but it is not possible to go back in history to right every wrong: that leaves everyone adrift.
Each generation remakes Ethiopia, building on the past, but creating new bonds and aspirations relevant to the present day. I state this as a proud Oromo, an Ethiopian patriot and a committed Pan-Africanist.
There is no way to realizing the rights and aspirations of Oromos separate from those of other Ethiopians. We all rise together. One of the great lessons of the last 20 years is that Ethiopia has a huge potential for growth, and everyone can share in this growth. Ours is not a zero-sum country.
The same is true for the Afars, the people of Beni Shangul and Gambela, the Southern peoples, the Ethiopian Somalis, the Amharas and Tigrayans. In each case, the road to solving the problems of each particular people, lies through everyone coming together to address the national challenges together in Addis Ababa.
The heart of this agenda is common Ethiopian citizenship. However strong our ethno-national cultural, social and political identities, our human rights are secured as citizens of the Ethiopian state. It is the Federal State that is the ultimate guarantor of our civil and political rights. Without a coherent central state authority, we have no meaningful rights, no standing in the world.
Our Ethiopian political settlement is a careful balance between the powers and obligations of the federal state, and those of the ethno-national regions. When our politics leans too much in one direction, it needs to be brought back to the right balance. This is the politics of the middle ground.
Many of our most important national institutions cut across all identities: our ministry of finance and economic development, and more importantly our national defense force, our missions abroad.
In India, another complex multi-identity nation, there are both country-wide and regional political parties. Each must contend for votes, each must strike electoral bargains with the other. This creates a vigorous and healthy dialogue between the different elements of what it is to be an Indian. The same should hold in Ethiopia: those who have a vision for the whole of Ethiopia should be able to run for office on an Ethiopia-wide political ticket.
This should be as valid for the EPRDF as it is for any other party: the EPRDF has long argued that it has a vision and program for Ethiopia as a whole, so why should it still consist of ethno-national parties? Our constitution permits such parties; our shared future demands them.
I humbly suggest that : it is by addressing the Ethiopian problem that the EPRDF will be able to resolve its own problems.
Two years is not long, so the debate needs to begin now: enough time for every viewpoint to be aired, and those in the middle ground—those whom I am convinced are the majority—to find their voices. Our country is strong enough to hold together while we conduct this debate. We shouldn’t be afraid of the angry and polarizing messages that will attempt to undermine us: these fast-moving and turbulent streams will in good time converge into a slower-moving but far more powerful river that reflects a far better direction for the country.
But it is those who can make a considered assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, our achievements and our challenges who must set the terms of this debate.
Our national conversation must be anchored in the patriotic middle ground. The positive creative energies of our young people should contribute. I have no doubt that in such a conversation, wisdom and moderation will prevail.