By Faisal Roble
Fraught with endemic youth joblessness, ethnic unrest, massacres of innocent civilians, waves of population movements, the weakened Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is poised to select a new Prime Minister in the coming weeks from a host of hopeful candidates. Haile Mariam Desalegn surprisingly resigned in mid-February, 2018 amid serious political and social crisis.
This essay will assess the intersectionality between ethnic, party loyalty and an Orwellian system of governance presided by EPRDF and argue that current system does not work for nationalities that are outside the four-member coalition. I argue instead that groups like Somalis must receive equitable share of power commensurate with their resource and population strength.
Dynamics inside EPRDF
Under Duress, the new Prime Minister will be decided by party loyalists comprising 180 members – 45 individuals from each of the four regions that make up the ruling EPRDF coalition. The frontrunners for the post so far are Abiy Ahmed of Oromia, Demeke Mekonnen of Amhara region, Shiferaw Shgutie of the Coalition of Southern Ethiopia, and Debretsion Gebremichael of Tigray.
These candidates hold the chairmanship of their respective ethnic parties. The unwritten rule is that no other Ethiopian can be a candidate!
Membership of the coalition from the four regions has blossomed in the last few years. According to Aljazeera, the coalition entices members’ loyalty through the distribution of graft and ill-gotten wealth, a tool that helped the rank and file party members exponentially grow from 700,000 in 2005 to seven million in 2015. In a sense, there are more EPRDF members than the entire Tigray nationality.
Although united by respective benefits each one of these candidates accrues from party membership, they are also divided by personal ambitions and ethnic politics. Each one wants to take the mantle of the troubled multi-ethnic Ethiopia; each also harbors the ambition to bring ill-gotten benefits and ethnic pride to his respective group.
Never mind they are top party functionaries and have taken the oath of office to uphold the party’s rules and regulations, one wonders whether Abiy Ahmed (Oromo), for example, has more in common with his Oromo brethren who rules Oromia (Lema Megersa) than with his Tigrigna or Amhara colleagues, Debretsion Gebremichael and Demeke Mekonnen, respectively.
Alas, ethnic sentiment is deep and supreme in Ethiopia’s politics. The root cause of the contested Ethiopian history is nothing more than the aggregate struggle for equality by nations and nationalities in the old empire (Markakis, 2011).
So is ethnicity in African politics a force to be reckoned with (Young, Crawford, 2014). Following the Nigerian war for secession by Biafra in the 1960s, for example, the late Ali Mazrui wrote in 1971 a fascinating political novel – his first book – about Christopher Akigbo titled “The Trial of Christopher Akigbo.”
In the story, Akigbo, a pan-Africanist poet who switched his poetic loyalty to the cause of his Ibo ethnic struggle, dies in a car accident and joins in heaven the likes of Amical Cabral, Malimu Julius Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah and Gamal Abdul Nasir – the Pan-African leaders of the continent. They received him at the gates of the hereafter but soon put him on trial.
Akigbo is accused of choosing loyalty to his Ibo ethnicity over that of the Nigerian nation, the later acceptable to the concept of pan-Africanism.
President Lema Megersa of Oromia is to Ethiopia what Akigbo was to Nigeria. More than Ethiopia, Lema Megersa has unapologetically shown loyalty to Oromia with gusto and often hurt others.
If Christopher Akigbo agitated and sponsored fundraising for the Biafra warriors, Lema Megersa has given moral and material support to the anarchist Qera groups that have killed innocent civilians both in the Somali and Amhara regions.
Qera is a marauding thug group in Oromia that are similar in acts and in ideology to the Serb thugs in Bosnia or the Hutu Interahamwe militia, the latter group having its origins in soccer clubs. Also, Qera contains paramilitary individuals who enjoy links with the president of Oromia.
Since 2016, Lema Megersa has been betrayed by his ethnic feelings of being first an Oromo, and only then an Ethiopian for public consumption. In more than one way, he has undercut the efforts of his own party of EPRDF. This duplicity in his state of mind made him oblivious to the massacres carried by the marauding anarchist youth groups called Qera (Roble, 2018).
During Lema Megersa’s leadership in Oromia, Qera is alleged to have killed hundreds of Somali and Amhara civilians for no apparent reason except for their ethnic identity. As a result, he caused a lot of consternation to his Tigrigna and Amhara collogues alike; so did he to his Somali neighbors as he enthusiastically presided over riotous demonstrations in his backyard, while Demeke Mekonnen or Debretsion Gebremichael have been in the thick of putting out said riots.
Despite deep mistrust among the top brass of the weakened ruling party, one of them would emerge as the victor, and party loyalty would dictate the rest to pledge allegiance not to their respective ethnic agenda but to the emergent party leader.
Whether party loyalty is compatible with ethnic goals and objectives – including secession in the case of Oromia – remains to be seen. But one cannot rule out another hereafter trial of Lema Megersa with presiding judges including but not limited to Ethiopia’s luminary revolutionaries including but not limited to Meles Zenawi, Dr. Hailu Fidda, Walelagn Mekonnen, Tilahun Gizaw, Hail Maskel Reda and AbdulMajid Hussein (Tadesse, Kiflu, 1993).
The Somali Portrait
And where does the Somali region (DDS) fit in the equation? The third largest in population size (after Oromia and Amahara, respectively) and the second largest in land area, closely trailing behind Oromia region, Somali region should have been prominently represented at the federal level. It is not equitably accorded enough ministerial or parliamentary seats commensurate with its strength. Today, Somalis have only two ministers and 23 seats but could have as many as four ministers and 50 seats, if the system was fair.
Following are some strategic factors that should have afforded DDS more political representation.
Ports Utility: The ever-expanding Ethiopian population and its rapidly growing economy (10% annual growth) will more and more look towards the low lands (be it proper Somalia, Djibouti, or DDS) for resources and for offshore-based trade.
Ethiopia cannot grow to its potential without LEGALLY utilizing Somalia’s rich ports (Berbera, Bossaso, Hobyo, Barawe, and Kismayo). But it has to do so in a manner that is respectful of the Somali Federal Republic and its sovereignty.
Ethiopia’s Transportation Minister, Ahmed Shide, an ethnic Somali, said that the tripartite agreement over Berbera is “not related to sovereignty or recognition of Somaliland.” It is only about “economic development,” he added. This statement of the Minister should be aligned with the practice of Ethiopian government visa-a-vis Berbera Port.
The gateway to these maritime resources is DDS. In other words, where goes DDS so goes Ethiopia’s ability or inability to access these resources. And DDS people are want to see a stable Somalia that collaborates with other governments in the region
Natural Resource: There is also the prospect for exploiting vast oil and gas resources in the Qalub and other districts, which should propel DDS to play a more pronounced role in the geopolitics of the region, and more so in Ethiopia’s emerging political order. Respecting the democratic rights of the Somalis in the region is the solution to utilize the vast gas and oil resource.
Stability: Most of all the region’s enhanced stability is another factor that should empower DDS leaders. Whereas both Oromia and Amhara regions are engulfed in enter-ethnic conflicts, for example, DDS has not only remained peaceful, but the residents of diverse backgrounds and their properties as well as personal well-being have been protected.
In two recent Ethiopian TV programs, one particularly interviewed Amhara residents in the region. Some of the respondents to questions of personal and property safety startled even the reporter with their positive answers.
One former colonel (under Mengistu Haile Mariam) went as far as saying that not only is the region peaceful, but other nationalities (Amharas, Gurages, Oromo, and others) have full protection; he added to say that Somalis are people without grudge and animosity. Oromo students in Jigjig University are “secure and “safe” in DDS, reported another TV program.
Compare these two scenarios to the forced repatriation of thousands of Somali university students from Oromia region, or the murdering of hundreds of Somalis and Amharas in Oromia region, and you find a picture of DDS that is positive and forward-looking.
With recent peace talks with the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), President Abdi Mohamoud has for the first time taken the center stage in the politics of the region. If ONLF in the end teams up with DDS, the negotiating power of the region will.
After so many years of discord and political cacophony, the Somali region is by far more cohesive, united under one banner, and more focused on development, which is what helped its leaders take a center stage in recent years.
Some may attribute claimed stability and recent tangible development projects to an iron fist rule; yet others explain these gains as a function of the eagerness of the Somalis in the region to focus more on development and stability. Like many of the people in the Horn of Africa, Somalis in the region are conflict-averse and show significant war fatigue.
Being a gateway to regional ports in Somalia and in Djibouti as well, rich in gas and oil resources, enhanced stability, and a more cohesive community must soon or later earn DDS more say in how the current ethnic federalism is tuned up.
Anyone who wants to find out how Orwellian power-sharing is in Ethiopia where four groups are “more equal” than the rest should closely look at the mistreatment of Somalis. Yet, neither Western donors nor Ethiopian elites ever mention this closely guarded open secret. But they incessantly talk about how to reconcile belligerent groups within the unholy coalition. And that is not the solution to Ethiopia’s vexing problems.
To democratize Ethiopia, either tear down EPRDF, as the late Ronald Regan would say, or give each and every region equitable representation in accordance with federalism. Or, let them off bondage!
Watching who emerges as the next Prime Minister is a subject of tremendous interest for Somalis. It is not a secret that Somalis favor Demeke Mekonnen or Debretsion Gebremichael for obvious reasons that need no explanation, except to say that Oromia has chosen politics of confrontation as opposed to collaboration with DDS.
Even if things don’t go the way DDS wishes, it is certain that in the coming years, especially if and when ONLF joins its voice with DDS, the Somali interest would be expressed in a more forceful way.
Faisal Roble, a writer, political analyst and a former Editor-in-Chief of WardheerNews, is mainly interested in the Horn of Africa region. He is currently the Principal Planner for the City of Los Angeles in charge of Master Planning, Economic Development and Project Implementation Division.
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