Ethiopia: Who will make a bridge over our troubled water and its legacy?

Alex Birhanu

By Alex Birhanu –

While reading a series of heated discussions on cyber-space in recent weeks, I came across flaring, fuming and flexing comments coming from Eritrean readers who request Ethiopian writers to abstain from including Eritrea and Issayas Afeworki in their descriptions; and only focus on contemporary political situations in Meles Zenawi’s TPLF regime. I found this Eritrean complaint as improper since the actual source of our troubled Ethiopia emanates from Afeworki’s ethnocentric political craftsmanship, which he does not allow to be experimented within Eritrea while at the same time subscribing it to be vigorously applied by his junior Meles Zenawi within Ethiopia. Secondly, there are yet unresolved matters pending between Eritrea and Ethiopia as part of the Afeworki-Zenawi unfair deals and leadership styles. So in order for us Ethiopians to get into the synthesis and anti-thesis of the whole matter in the open, we need to unveil the events and conspiracies that took place behind closed doors and left both the Eritrean and Ethiopian public in intricate political legacy yet to be rationally resolved. Following suit of Issayas Afeworki’s consistent indoctrination, Meles Zenawi keeps on running Ethiopia and its politics contemptuously under ethnocentric politics and ethnic-mobilization. But this experimental policy practice of setting-up an ethnocentric federal regime actually has not won popularity. Nearly 2-decades after its experimental sessions, Zenawi’s ethnocentric federal regime seems doomed to failure. Now that Meles is talking about stepping down from his premier position, we are all left to ponder as to who will make a bridge over our troubled water; and respond to these confusing riddles of political legacy. In order to arrive at a solid and timely way out from the trouble at hand, we need to build a bridge over our troubled political stance by examining the roots of the troubles we are faced and left with. So in what follows I will raise 11-crucial viewpoints:

(1) The roots of the ethnocentric political crisis in Ethiopia lies in the hands of 2-self-appointed despots – Afeworki and Zenawi – who take charge of governance at their will; but never delivered even a fraction of what they promised before they ascended to power. For instance, Afeworki’s Shaabia regime in Eritrea prohibits “ethnic-self determination up to secession” doctrine for its nine ethnic-sub-regions. Contrarily, Afeworki continues to preach for national unity and integrated Eritrea. Needless to say, Issayas Afeworki, who has sown the seeds of recurring ethnocentric political conflicts to deeply wreck Ethiopia into smaller mini-states, is today reaping from his own workings and tied to his own crafts that left young but not yet formally stable Eritrea in perpetual crisis and isolation from most global ties. Consequently, the Eritrean elite group has refrained from reaching its hands to quench Afeworki’s wolf-cries. Besides, untold mass exodus of Eritrean youth is continuing in all directions of the world.

(2) To accomplish one of the lethal promises made under-oath to Issayas Afeworki while under training in the Eritrean heart land Meles Zenawi promulgated in his TPLF-constitution an ethnocentric and divisive policy in the pretext of the right to self-determination, including and up to secession as written in article 39, No. 1. This initially Afeworki crafted ethnocentric article reads: “Every nation, nationality and people in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right to secession.” From the outset this article may seemingly lead to generate the feeling that an unlimited political right is granted to each of the 80 major and 223 small ethnic groups in total inhabiting Ethiopia so that each can create its own mini-state. Ironically and in practice however, Issayas Afeworki, the father of ethnocentric politics has no concession to ethnic-forces with the same demand among the 9-ethnic groups inside Eritrea. To the contrary, as late as recently, Afeworki declared war on the Afar people that don’t accept their population and land to be included within the bounds of Eritrea. One wonders about the selective use of the right to self-determination. After 18 years in practice, TPLF’s ethnocentric socio-political base remains aloof as it is solely restricted to elites selectively hand picked from within the TPLF circle; but with a population of about four million in a vast country of 80 million people this TPLF framework is not fit to mobilise or organise a nation of diversity. Without having critically examined through of its application and having failed to anticipate the consequences of its actions thereof, Zenawi’s TPLF regime hastily declared the right to self-determination including secession and invited all ethnic groups in Ethiopia to organise on ethnocentric political principles. Naively, Zenawi hoped the newly formed ethnic organisations, which understandably lack the necessary organisational experience and strength to run their own affairs by themselves, would rush to join his TPLF-regime, thereby to draw support and develop legitimacy to rule the country.

(3) The leadership styles of Afeworki and Zenawi are profoundly rough and heavy handed authoritarianism. Although Afeworki’s EPLF-regime claims to be a diehard communist and TPLF in turn seems a half-baked-capitalist, these 2-regimes basically lack accountability and transparency. More so, Afeworki and Zenawi are seriously entrenched in clearly-open nepotism and corruption. Their government tops are immensely filled by an elite-group, which is hand-picked and indoctrinated to fragment itself on “ethnic-divides”, “religious- affiliations”, and “peer’s vested political and economic inclinations” and interests. Except for the EPLF and TPLF ethnocentric groups that hold the steering wheel, the rest of the members of the ethnically federated parliamentary assemblies in Ethiopia and the hand-picked EPLF membership in Eritrea are all indoctrinated to remain loyal-opposition groups (if any) to the regime administration on power. In actual fact, these groups are disempowered and find the working of the lofty parliamentary assembly and its political atmosphere difficult to work in and defend their respective political interests collectively; or even influence the Afeworki and Zenawi styles of governance to listen to their options. In particular, in Zenawi’s amputated “ethnically federated Ethiopia”, one observes a combination of TPLF-regime’s untold methods of repression, disorientated elite-groups grumbling to realize (a) divisive ethnic-indoctrination, and (b) an authoritarian cultural legacy both inherited from Godfather Afeworki.

(4) Looked at in retrospective, by 1991, in collaboration with EPLF, Zenawi’s TPLF regime and its affiliate-organisations went on unilaterally to capture power in Addis Ababa and restructured today’s amputated Ethiopia just in the way as aspired and promised under oath to Issayas Afeworki during TPLF’s infancy in the bushes of hinterland Eritrea. With Zenawi at the driving seat of leadership and at the helm of the new political set-up TPLF capitalized its commanding heights by virtually consolidating a supreme power for no body but all alone for Zenawi. As a result, the Ethiopian public that was already exhausted by 17-years of previous repressive Derg regimes legacy are helplessly left to face all the anticipated dangers that Zenawi’s political impasse entailed; including those of the formation of the Eritrean state and the give-away of Assab port and its assets to Eritrea by 1991. Thus the political arena crafted by Meles Zenawi reflects much of conflicting political, social, cultural and economic interests. The key ones include, but not limited to, the following:

  1. Lack of fair political play by not allowing space for compromise or broad-based consensus;

  2. Nominally crafted TPLF-regime’s local governance platforms implemented in the 6-regions proceed without deliberation or consultation at the broad-mass levels;

  3. Lack of harmonious working and livelihoods environment between TPLF and the masses that eventually sustain and cement a long-term peace;

  4. To this day, Issayas Afeworki’s initial indoctrination and the seeds he provided to germinate continue being sown by Zenawi’s TPLF-regime.

(5) With TPLF in power, ethnocentric national regions in Ethiopia have officially entered into a new twist; where irreconcilable political games are being perpetuated to eventually weaken the already amputated Ethiopia to its demise. Zenawi and TPLF echelons continue to follow suit Issayas Afeworki’s ethnocentric-politics as a viable political pathway without enquiring and getting consensus from Ethiopian opposition leaders and the general public. Dependent on Afeworki’s initial indoctrination and military backing, Zenawi and TPLF hastily imposed a highly ethnocentric political experiment upon the Ethiopian society. Ironic enough, without consulting some of the TPLF’s-gallant fighters that resisted the Derg in most parts of hinterland Eritrea; and without the consent of the people of Tigray, Zenawi advocated for Eritrean independence and gave to Afeworki a full-fledged free ride for a unilateral succession where Afeworki is left to govern the 9-ethnic groups with no mention of self-determination or succession. But when the coin is flipped to Zenawi’s Ethiopia side, ethnic-led political experiment became the icon and the centre-piece of the day; where every ethnic group is allowed to experiment with self-determination up to a point where it may ask to secede and form its own independent mini-state; thus Afeworki’s strategy of dismantling Ethiopia from the face of the globe could eventually be ascertained; but in vain. This ill-conceived ethnocentric experiment was meant to allow Ethiopian ethnic groups forming no less than eighty ethnic-based mini-states at best or 223 mini-states at worse. Imagine how tough such situation would be for the rest of Africa if Ethnocentric mini-states were to be crafted everywhere by following the example set by these two despots. In any case, Issayas Afeworki’s ethnocentric politics indoctrination carried further by Meles Zenawi is ostensibly meant to draw support and legitimacy for the TPLF regime from the numerous Ethiopian ethnic groups within the 6 regions but in vain. Unexpectedly Zenawi’s ethnocentric federal governance turned out to expedite the emergence of a wave of inhuman and barbaric ethnic-conflicts, while leaving the entire-multiethnic, multilingual, multi-religious Ethiopian population in a state of confusion and stalemate between ethnic groups residing within those 6-regions.

(6) Once after Zenawi captured power, he skilfully utilized TPLF’s political and military organs as steppingstones to consolidate power over the whole of Ethiopia; but TPLF’s power is hanging in limbo without penetrating and building effective and efficient socio-political base across ethnic lines throughout today’s Ethiopia. To make matters worse, unfortunately, the innocent Tigrayan population that have generations after generation been paying dearly for all the major political appraisals hitherto happening inside Ethiopia, is trapped between Zenawi’s erroneous policy and perceived by all other ethnic groups in both Ethiopia and Eritrea as an partner in crime of the TPLF-regime. Sad enough Tigray and its population that is the hub of homo-sapiens, the source of Tigre people in Eritrea (previously known as ‘Bahir-Negahs’ or part of Greater Tigray); the cradle of old Ethiopian civilization since the Biblical times; the home of Zion Mary of Axume, generous people known for its humane and religious faithfulness and hospitality, is merely held tight under a gun-point by Zenawi’s conspirators TPLF-regime. Otherwise we have seen signs of nationalist Tigrian individuals in Diaspora coming to the fore and speaking their minds defending Ethiopia. For that matter what is Ethiopia without Tigre and Tigray after all? Amidst all these twisted riddles to consider, to this very day, the key reason why no opposition party, other than TPLF, is allowed to work inside Tigray Region is simply to claim undivided Tigray support for Zenawi’s ruling party; to bury the burning national fillings of Tigray people against the unilateral give-away acts Meles Zenawi has committed in parts of the controversial border dispute areas between Eritrea and Northern Tigray; and thus trampling over the democratic rights of the Tigrayan people to organize an opposition; or nominally allowing an opposition group that ascertains its faithfulness to TPLF – as labelled by Zenawi in Amharic – KIN TEKAWAMI – literally meaning loyal opposition.

(7) When Zenawi entered Addis Ababa, most Ethiopians welcomed TPLF without much resistance, genuinely hoping that whoever comes to power after the horrible communist Derg Junta regime of the 1970s and 1980s may not be dreadful. Besides looked at Ethiopia’s fate from foreign affairs perspectives, in the early 1990s, the key concern of the US-led Western powers was mainly focused on arresting the expansion of Islamic Fundamentalism (perceived to pose serious political threat to the Western cultural values and material interests in and around the Middle East and Eastern Africa). Especially, Sudan, where Al-Turabi-indoctrinated Islamist regime is gaining momentum, and occupying strategic political and religious positions in the wider region had to be checked from Al-Turabi’s sphere of influences. Consequently Herman Cohen of the USA found a plausible means in both Zenawi’s TPLF and Afeworki’s EPLF as these 2-sisterly front-leaders were seen as better-organised conducting manageable military forces within a federated Ethiopia that could possibly accomplish the strategic tasks the USA wanted to pursue in the region.

(8) Initially, despite their leftist-communistic rhetoric, both Issayas Afeworki and Meles Zenawi swiftly came into terms with Herman Cohen, the then US-Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. And as TPLF and EPLF forces were coming closer to Addis Ababa and Asmara respectively, in London, on 27 May 1991, Mr Cohen, met with Afeworki, Zenawi and leaders representing OLF. Other key political forces including EPRP that have clear stakes on Ethiopian affairs and could have affected Ethiopia’s future make-up undoubtedly were deliberately ignored. By so doing a golden opportunity for an all out political settlement was pushed-aside in favour of military and US-led solutions. In fact, before a negotiated settlement was reached, at the end of May 1991, Meles Zenawi, after spending a night in the American Embassy in Khartoum, suddenly showed-up in Addis Ababa and started to head his TPLF-regime in his own way; eventually, he outsmarted the political arena and backed as one of USA’s strongest allies in the region. The USA and its allies delayed no time granting Zenawi’s TPLF regime diplomatic recognition, financial aid, military and technical experts. Within months of taking office the one time Albanian Communist branded TPLF turned to claim itself as a capitalist by stand. Likewise within months, USA hooked and cemented TPLF as its dependable ally in its globalisation loop for which Zenawi’s TPLF regime consistently got remunerated in millions worth of military and financial support.

(9) Internally, Zenawi started to systematically spread his offensive campaign and silenced opposition elements within the country by denying their freedom of expression that could lead to mobilise people against his unpopular policies. Particularly, at one point, persuaded by opposition parties within and outside the country, many Ethiopian newspapers came-out in mass. Yet, whenever these papers become critical of TPLF-regime, their respective editors, journalists and publishers were immediately pulled into prison accused of negative campaigning against Zenawi’s TPLF regime. Over time, several journalists and publishers of private newspapers and magazines in Addis Ababa became arrested.

(10) To date, both Afeworki’s and Zenawi’s rigid, self-righteous and uncompromising EPLF & TPLF-regimes and their apparent determination to hold the monopoly of power by any means can be matched by the foiled peace efforts thus far and by the frustrated ambitions of the opposition parties who remain loyal at the country’s respective parliaments. From day one in power, both Issayas Afeworki and Meles Zenawi and their respective TPLF-EPLF-cohorts apparently remain unpopular; basically because these two groups came to power not only by supporting each other while in the bushes; but also by the will of the US-government. Now that both leaders remain in power by using the same military force they had previously, the keep on exercising gross militaristic actions. This partially explains why Afeworki and Zenawi are equally engaged in gross violation of human and democratic rights by simply putting it on paper for formality reasons that camouflages the true nature of their bandit-tricks, intrigues and ethnocentric leadership. The so-called constitutions, crafted by Zenawi and Afeworki regimes are neither legitimate nor regulate the roles of a stable state. These formal papers simply remain personal and programmatic constitutions adored by Zenawi and Afeworki alone. Indeed their nominal constitutions, no matter what was inscribed in them are no more than a piece of paper granted by two hated autocratic leaders that could only serve the interest of their respective ruling group whom they hand picked from time to time.

(11) Today, 2-decades later, all these factors stand as shield against the Ethiopian society from acquiring empowerment leading to egalitarian governance and access to the sea. Much so, the Afar population remains artificially divided by Afeworki & Zenawi crafted complots. A lesson learnt from EPLF and TPLF hatched ethnocentric experiment is the following: Contrary to the expectation of Afeworki and Zenawi, the Ethiopian population at large is determined to regain what it has lost during the last 18 years. With no less than eighty major ethnic groups inhabiting inside Ethiopia, ethnocentric policy can’t hold substantive results. And without an inclusive politics no governance can function feasibly in a country where the link between the interwoven grassroots and the power base are tied-in by an authoritarian leadership, fragmented elite and strangled civil society left at bay. Indeed, a government that runs by contempt and empty pride is doomed to failure. Hence it is high time for us concerned Ethiopians and Eritreans to make soul searching efforts in order to find timely viable solutions as regards who will make a bridge over our troubled water and its Afeworki-Zenawi-legacy. When all is said and done, Ethiopia will prevail while Afeworki and Zenawi will be thrown into the dust-bin of history.

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