Last week I read René Lefort’s article, “A Flicker in the Gloom, on Ethiopia Insight   (https://www.ethiopia-insight.com/2019/10/31/a-flicker-in-the-gloom/). The article touches a variety of hot button political issues of Ethiopia. There are some parts in the article that I agree with, some parts that I don’t; and yet there are some sensitive, one-sided and politically charged internal issues that I strongly believe the author of the article, René Lefort shouldn’t have been part of. This piece is a reflection of all the elements René touched in his article and more.

I’m a man of hope, and I strongly believe in hope for hope is the only reason I continue to live in what is otherwise distrustful and intransigent Ethiopian politics. I think René either sees from outside what I failed to see from inside, or maybe he is more optimist than I am that, he sees a flicker in the gloom that I don’t. Please don’t call me pessimist, but right now what I see in Ethiopian politics is only the gloom, not the flicker. Well, of course my hope for Ethiopia never dies because as long as we all stand together and make a crack through the hills that currently look insurmountable, I strongly believe we can create enough space for light get in, so that we all see what René already sees . . . . . . a flicker in the gloom.

One of the most important element in René’s article is Jawar Mohamed and his political calculus. In fact, if we remove Jawar’s name and the delivered and the undelivered payloads of his political bombshells from the article, René’s article becomes meaningless. This is how important Jawar is to Oromo politics and to the politics of Ethiopia at large. But, where and how did Jawar get a prominence of this magnitude? Most importantly, where is Jawar getting his de facto power to do whatever he wants?

I remember, during the Koye Feche condominium incidence, Jawar the non-state actor went public and sent a strong message to nameless state actors. Surprisingly, it took those nameless state actors less than half a day to halt the distribution of the condominiums to their legal owners. And within a day, the Regional Sate of Oromia released untimely and a totally irresponsible press statement in which it uttered its senseless and ridiculous intention of owning Addis Ababa, our nation’s capital. About three months later when the Ministry of Education announced its long awaited national Education Roadmap, here comes Jawar again and sends his Aba Geda like message. Guess what? The Regional states of Oromia and Tigray immediately displayed utter disregard to the Roadmap and eventually rejected its implementation. Recently, when the EPRDF gave an update on its planned merger, Jawar wrote a lengthy article rebuking and rejecting the merger. The TPLF, his strategic ally (Jawar’s own words) agreed with him. But this time no one from the eight negotiating parties listened or obeyed his order, and what happened after that is a national tragedy that shook the nation to its very foundation. I’m sure by now the reader knows the source of Jawar’s de facto power. Stopping themerger of the EPRDF by any means is a do or die fight in Jawar’s otherwise “lucrative” and of course “victorious” political life because the merger is the beginning of the end of his de facto power. Bad for him, good for democracy and good to more than 100 million people.  

During the October violence of his own making, Jawar called a press conferences at his residential place around Bole. A private press conference that others were repeatedly denied wasn’t a problem to Jawar. The type of people invited to the conference and what was said on the press conference tells the kind of politicians we have, the political circumstances we find ourselves and where we’re heading to as a nation.  Mind you, people were being stoned and mutilated, factories burned and business were being robbed right at the time of the press conference, but there was no a single word of remorse for what happened, no message of condolence to the families of the victims, and most importantly, there was no word denouncing the violence and its masterminds. The striking difference that I noticed between the Gamu elders that I saw during the Burayu violence and the elders invited to Jawar’s news conference distresses me and makes me sick to my stomach, but it also gives me hope because I know for sure  . . . .  “ያልተማሩምሁራን ያቆዩዋትን  ሀገር የተማሩ መሃይማን አያፈርሷትም  

To me as a human being, the moment I read a press release that came from Minneapolis, Minnesota, was one of the lowest moments of my life that showed me how low people can goeven at a time of violence when fellow countrymen kill each other. The inconsiderate Minneapolis press release was unapologetically asking for the ownership of Addis and the inclusion of Dire Dawa and Wello in Oromia, a demand that has the potential to make the nation a blood bath. These thoughtless and myopic people sitting in a comfortable American living rooms were literally sending death messages at the very time our nation was looking for solace.

Other than this, Jawar has never stood by the PM as René wants us to believe. In fact, not only Jawar, but almost all of the Oromo nationalist elites turned their back on the PM from the get go when the PM made his historical inaugural speech and said the following: “Ethiopia’s children strongly aspire and strive tirelessly to return the country to its glorious past”.  Mind you, PM Abiy’s inaugural speech is praised as Africa’s speech of the century by political scientists such as David Himbara of the University of Toronto. But to Jawar and his cohorts to whom history is binary (good or evil), a small phrase as small as “Glorious Past” was good enough to discredit PM Abiy and call him “Friend of Neftegna”, a derogatory term that proved itself to never fade away unless we prove to those who constantly use it . . . . . . . Ignorance never settles a question, but negotiation.

According to René, the coming to life of a unified EPRDF party will polarize Ethiopian politics into two extremes: the “Abiy pole” and the “ethnic federalist pole”. I think this is a shallow and wrong classification because the Ethiopian political landscape has for decades been divided into two vital and very much visible camps: The Ethnio-nationalist camp and the Ethio-nationalist camp. There is ethnic federalism in Ethiopia, but there is no group called “ethnic federalist”. Therefore, one needs to be very cautious when assigning the noun “federalist” to this or that group in Ethiopia because there seems to be a consensus on federalism, and there is no group that opposes federalism or advocates for unitary state. By the way, what is the so called “Abiy pole”?  Is this a pole where Abiy and his newly formed party stand-alone by themselves giving the Ethiopian political landscape a triangular shape? Or is it another name for the Ethio-nationalist pole? There is no doubt that the coming of the new EPRDF party reinforces the Ethio-nationalist camp and weakness the Ethno-nationalist camp. It also goes without saying that, if EPRDF grows into a new party, the new party becomes part of the Ethio-nationalist camp; and this is precisely why the Ethno-nationalist camp masterminded by Jawar Mohammed and led by the TPLF are crying foul. To me, the only foul here is crying foul itself. Ethiopia is a plural nation where there are a multiplicity of opposing ideas each with its own conception of the good. The problem with Jawar and the TPLF is that, they disregard all other ideas and force their conception of the good on others. If Jawar thinks ethnic parties are the best way to go, and if he wants to run for election on ethnic party platform, all he has to do is find his likes and form his own party. He must know that, he and his strategic allies can oppose the merger of the EPRDF, but they cannot, I repeat they cannot sabotage the merger.

René argues that EPRDF’s move to a single party is risky, not just risky but highly risky. Yes, of course there is always a riskwhen there is a political move, or any move for that matter. EPRDF’s move towards a grand unified party without its godfather is definitely a risky move, but this to me is a risk worth taking because in the short run, regardless of which side the TPLF is, the risk doesn’t go away. In the long run, the fate of the TPLF will be decided by what happens in Tigray. It shouldalso be noted that, the TPLF is not forced out, it rather forced itself out. In the current negotiations to form a new party, five of the negotiating regional parties are not part of the currentgovernment in Ethiopia. So if these parties and the three EPRDF parties merge and form a new party, who will be running Ethiopia until the next government is formed? EPRDF as-is or the merged EPRDF? I smell a risky constitutional crisis here, but I also believe it is a risk that must have already been factored in because it is a risk the whole world saw coming. What about the crisis looming? Well, I think the crisis can effectively be managed even by the EPRDF’s culture of crisis management. Other than this, when EPRDF starts functioning as a unified party, its political and organizational culture and decision making process will definitely affect the new party for a while.

PM Abiy has repeatedly promised the Ethiopian people that the EPRDF will merge and change itself into a national party. The public response to this promise is mixed. Some have dismissed his promise saying that EPRDF is a front that should never be kept or cannot be transformed. There is also a good segment of the society that sees the merger as a good thing to Ethiopia; and of course there are some from the Ethnic camp that see the merger as an existential threat to their ethnic base. Influential Oromo political activist Jawar Mohamed has publicly denounced the merger and warned that the merger pours water on the last fifty years struggle of the Oromo people. With all these in mind, to me the greatest risk of EPRDF forming a partyis actually not capable of forming a party. If PM Abiy can’t keep his promise of delivering a unified national party, his credibility takes further hits, and a possible crack or split within EPRDF damages the entire transition process. Such uneventful event has two serious consequences: first and foremost, the inability of PM Abiy Ahmed to deliver the biggest promise of his political life wears down the legitimacy of the transition government to run the country and preside over the upcoming election, and secondly, the public perception that Jawar Mohamed has the de facto power to stop anything that contradicts his political agenda becomes a norm. In my opinion, the merger of the EPRDF shall have the following five advantages:

1. The Ethiopian politics of the last 28 years is highly polarized, and the EPRDF is at the center of thepolarization by creating it and/or by keeping it alive. The merger of eight ethnic organizations into a single multiethnic national party will pull Ethiopian politics to the center and gives the moderate forces a badly needed energy.
2. Ethiopia never had a true multi-party politics let alone a party system in its entire history. In a few months’ time, this nation of 100 million people is heading towards a decisive election in its history. Therefore, it needs solid parties that present ideological and policy options to the voters, and a strong party system that reinforces political opposition and energizes electoral competition. It is precisely here and at this moment where the coming of the new EPRDF party possibly with three or more national parties lay a solid foundation for a future strong party system in Ethiopia.  
3. Political parties exist to win elections and implement their policies, but obviously winning elections and forming a government is not the only role of political parties. There is much more role to be played by political parties as loyal oppositions in the parliament. Political parties voice different views, criticize the government for its failure, create a mechanism of checks and balances and present themselves as viable alternative for future elections. Currently, Ethiopia does not have strong national parties that can play the role of opposition politics. Therefore, the addition of EPRDF as a unified national party is a much needed addition to head start opposition politics in Ethiopia.
4. The merged of EPRDF party ensures the smaller and the hitherto neglected and forgotten regional parties equal representation, equal voice and equal opportunity in making national decision and taking leadership positions at the national level.
5. During the TPLF domination, many people did have the perception that Tigrayns took advantage of everything in Ethiopia. Now this same perception has shifted towards the Oromos, and political pundits have already coined a new term known as “ተረኝነት” which basically means the Tigreans are replaced by the Oromos, or it’s the turn of the Oromos. This divisive and dangerous perception that erodes the trust of people in their national government will never go away as long as the EPRDF exists and an individual from Tigray, Amahra and Oromo region assumes the highest power of the land. The merger of the EPRDF not only changes this perception, but it also shapes a new one that makes people think and believe that the only purpose of political power is to serve the public interest.

There are some places in the article that René goes deep into Ethiopian politics and tells us some sensitive information only an insider would know. For example, he tells us that Lema Megersa, an influential figure in Oromo politics, has displayed his opposition to the merger of the EPRDF. I can’t say much on this because René is a seasoned journalist who may have a trusted informant. But, I don’t really know how and where he got it, he also says something about the possibility of PM Abiy’s new party aligning itself to Ezema and other elements in Ethiopia. Ezema is a recently formed national party whose political ideology is Social Democracy. I’m not sure why René thinks Ezema would align itself with a unified EPRDF party (if it becomes a party) whose ideology is not yet known. Besides, what is the use of the only two large parties becoming one at a time when Ethiopia badly needs at least four or five largenational multiethnic parties?  René doesn’t stop here, he goes a little further and uses the term “One-nation”, an ambiguous and derogatory term often used by Ethno-nationalist forces to falsely accuse the Ethio-nationalist camp. Ethiopia is a multiethnic country of many nations and nationalities. So in this context, what exactly does the term “One-nation” mean?  Does René know how the word “One-nation” is used in Ethiopia and who uses it? I don’t think he does, and if he does and he actually used the word “One-nation” knowing the political meaning of the word, there is a good reason to question his neutrality in analyzing and reporting Ethiopian politics. I advise René to reflect only the truth as a journalist and stay away from the dirty stuff of Ethiopia’s name calling politics.

René says that he shares the fear commentators like Tsedale Lemma, Awol Allo and Birhanu Lenjiso have on the EPRDF merger. I couldn’t read Awol’s comment because the link to his comment is broken, but I thoroughly went through what Tsedale Lemma and Birhanu Lenjiso stated regarding the merger. Tsedale Lemma doesn’t say much of her own, she just stresses on what Jawar, Awol and Birhanu Lenjiso stated. Birhanu Lenjiso’s remarks are very clear, sharp to the point and said very powerfully. He enumerates all the political and economic evils of the EPRDF and recommends a better organizational structure within the EPRDF, including party structure that accommodates political forces from all nine regions. Birhanu also emphasizes that the new EPRDF must follow the principles of representative democracy. I’m not sure what fear René is sharing with Birhanu Lenjiso and Tsedale Lemma, especially, with Birhanu Lenjiso who in essence doesn’t even oppose EPRDF changing itself into a party. In fact, one of the recommendations of Birhanu is a party form organizational structure within EPRDF.

I can’t hide René’s meticulousness in assessing Ethiopia’srampant power vacuum created both at the federal and regional level with the exception of Tigray. I totally agree with his assessment and the exception. But, René who has been in the business of Ethiopian politics for a long time, and who thoroughly knows the political anatomy of the TPLF, fails to give any explanation why the power vacuum prevalent at the federal level and in almost all the regions is non-existent in Tigray. He also fails to tell us the negative role played by the TPLF in the current political crisis of Ethiopia. In fact, it is precisely here that René gets lost somewhere in the bushes of Tigray and forgets that a fire doesn’t usually consume the arsonist.

It’s true and René is spot on that, many parties in Ethiopia, especially, parties organized along ethnic lines are unambiguous on the schedule of the upcoming election. Citing constitutional imperatives, and severe consequences if the election is differed, ethnic parties urge the government to honor the schedule of the May 2020 election. Whereas most of the nationally organizedmultiethnic parties want the election to be pushed, and unlike their ethnic counterparts, the reasons they state are substantive and institutional than constitutional requirements. These parties strongly argue that, free and fair election requires independent institutions such as Media, Court, Military, Police and Intelligence, and a peaceful and stable environment where election campaigns are unobstructed in every corner of the country, and voters can go out and vote for a candidate of their choice without fear. Most of the multiethnic parties that want the election to be differed fear that the outcome of the election may not reflect the will of the electorate if the above two major preconditions are not met. The outcome of democratic elections can sometime spiral into rioting in any country when elections are rigged and manipulated. In plural societies like ours where there are rival ethnic groups, the rioting gets worse and takes the life of many people when elections are manipulated to benefit candidates from rival ethnic group.  

Legitimacy (explicitly) and constitutional amendment (implicitly) are two other issues that René touches in his article, and here is what he says: “newly elected MPs will finally be legitimate enough to build a coalition which can set the course to resolve two key issues: the type of federalism to be adopted and the degree of economic liberalization to be pursued”  It is obvious that political legitimacy derives from popular consent of the governed, and there is no doubt that free and fair election ensures law makers the legitimacy to deal with constitutional amendment issues. But, are federalism and the degree of economic liberalization the only key constitutional issues in Ethiopia? Obviously not! In fact, economic liberalization is not even a constitutional issue. Modifying the system of land ownership, electoral system overhaul, expanding the pool of official languages, the choice between presidential, parliamentary or semi-presidential forms of government and the ever controversial article 39, especially, the part that includes unconditional secession are all hot button constitutional issues that bother many Ethiopians.

We Ethiopians find ourselves in a rollercoaster like transition period, not just a transition period, but a historical juncture (for the 3rd time) where irrevocable mistakes can cost us the nation itself. The more we try to build, the more we see everything crumbling in front of us because there are two opposing forces in Ethiopia trying to impose their will on each other. The more these two forces keep on pulling the nation their own way, the more our nation suffers, bleeds and crumbles. So what should we do? There is one way, and only one way!  We all shouldleave our stinky baggage behind us and submit ourselves to a negotiation and its outcome. The future of Ethiopia should be nothing but a negotiated product of the Ethio-nationalist and Ethno-nationalist camps, the two opposing forces that currently are doing nothing but ravaging an already ravaged nation. The Ethio-nationalists used melting pot polices to muffle the Ethno-nationalists for years, they couldn’t. Using state power for 27 years, the Ethno-nationalists tried to get rid of the concept of Ethiopian nationalism, they failed. Now I think it’s about time that these two forces come both to their senses and the negotiating table because history has time and again showed us one cannot beat or get rid of the other. The Ethiopian government that sees the election not as a means to an end, but as an end by itself, must listen to this call and start a national dialoged that takes us to elite negotiations.  May God Bless Ethiopia!