Blog 2. Issues for Bloggers by Admin (2012)

“Civil society” organizations comprise groups of citizens who come together independently to advance the collective interest. “Civic society” activities, on the other hand, refer to the involvement of citizens in governance by serving on state institutions such as school boards. Both forms of citizen engagement are generally distinguished from two other spheres: economic society and political society. The hallmark of civil society organizations (CSOs) then is that they are composed of horizontal, solidaristic groups with cross-cutting ties of ethnicity, and often class and religion.

We are hereby launching a blog as a public square for sharing ideas with “practical” implications for productive civic engagement in a particular area—a “rights-based” civil-society movement (CSM). Here are some thoughts on the kinds of issues and questions that need to be thoroughly investigated and publicly debated if we are to mount a knowledgeable and responsible rights-based CSM in Ethiopia.

We wish to work toward a shared understanding, if not a consensus, on these fundamental issues in the specific context of Ethiopia. A shared understanding or consensus on priority areas of action is critical for the success of the civic leg of the struggle for building and institutionalizing a genuine democratic order. We need to identify viable pathways for widening the “civic space” so that ordinary Ethiopians can transform themselves from passive subjects to responsibly active citizens.

Needless to say, we wish to see this blog as a forum for the discussion of thoughtful ideas rather than as a soapbox for moralizing editorials or for overgeneralized political or social commentaries. The regurgitation of the litany of well-known problems facing the country and the all-too-common refrains of helplessness have had precious little to offer in terms of where the country ought to go or how best to get there. It is, therefore, absolutely essential that the reflections of our contributors embrace objective analyses of such vexed questions as why the country has been prone to successive dictatorships and why our ruling elites behave the way they do, and what to do to reverse these tendencies.

The issues we list below need to be explored soberly and deeply. They also need to be deliberated on with some sense of urgency to help pro-democracy forces to formulate appropriate strategies of resistance and transition to a better political system.

I. The Political System (የአገሪቱ ፖለቲካዊ ስርዓት)

The main goal of the discussion under this heading should be to identify and examine the various ways in which the current regime seeks to stifle the emergence of a strong (and obviously politically threatening) CSM. We know that the TPLF/EPRDF has worked assiduously to obliterate the fledgling independent labor movement, the teachers’ union, lawyers’ associations, students’ unions, and even faith-based organizations. This ethnocentric mono-party regime has, in fact, preserved and refined the communist-like domestic spy network and control apparatus it inherited from the Derg in order to regiment the population down to the neighborhood level. It would thus be useful to investigate the various nefarious ways in which the ruling party’s deep-seated insecurity and obsession with monopolizing all power (political as well as 

economic) has left CSOs bereft of a safe space for civic activity and community building without which no democratic order can take root.

1.1. Attributes of the Political System I: The Killil Model of Governance (የክልል ስርዓት)

Ethiopians used to be baffled by the pervasiveness and display of tribal identity among the many fellow Africans. This was understandable given our long history of a post-tribal political order. Today, political tribalism (unwittingly sanctioned by the Ethiopian Student Movement of the 1960s) is enshrined in TPLF/EPRDF’s constitution and put in the service of an avaricious coalition of ethnic elites. Who are the state elites at the federal and regional levels with vested interest in the post-1994, constitutionalized Killil (kraal) system? What are their attitudes toward a pan-ethnic democratic movement and what resources do they possess to support it, or to decisively stifle it if they find it threatening? What strategies (including promising genuine forms of regional self-administration) should the democratic movement employ to coopt or to neutralize these ethno-regional elites? Which opposition parties are likely to see an organized civic movement as a competitor, as an instrument of checks and balances on political parties, or as a potential ally and equal partner? What do the alarmingly deteriorating livelihood bases of the peasantry and the income polarization in the cities mean for a new reading of the situation in country in post-Meles Ethiopia?

1.2. Attributes of the Political System II: Political Ethnicity and the Identity Syndrome (የዘረኝነት ፖለቲካና የምንድነኝነት ጥያቄ)

Ethiopians have been subjected to a relentlessly pernicious “politics of difference” rather than to the politics of national unity in diversity for the last four decades. Given the salience of multiple identities (Ethiopian, religious, ethnic, regional, occupational, class, gender, etc.), how has the Derg/TPLF technique of ‘managing by conflict’ rather than ‘managing for conflict’ shaped these identities? How valid is the commonly-made observation that political ethnicity and social polarization are becoming common among the youth? More specifically, where is pan-Ethiopian identity the strongest (or the weakest)? What are the effective ways a democratic civic and political movement can employ to convince Ethiopians that multiple identities can be non-conflicting? In the realm of politics, is it sensible to assume that Ethiopian identity is paramount while in the realm of social life other identities may matter more?

1.3. Attributes of the Political System III: Methods of Political Control (የፖለቲካዊ ቁጥጥር ስልቶች)

The TPLF/EPRDF government has fully embraced and embellished the Chinese-style network of control of political and economic life from the federal to the village (goT) levels. It is also betting on the sufficiency of a promise of economic prosperity as a reward for acquiescing to authoritarian rule by a minority. What exactly is the nature of this network of control—where do its strengths and its weaknesses lie? What are the various ways citizens have adapted to, evaded, or resisted the demands of the ruling party and its captive state? Are there any popular agents (religious leaders, elders, civic organizations, political organizations, etc.) left that still enjoy some autonomy to navigate in the constricted space between citizens and the state? How, if any, are the various regions in the country differentiated in this respect (lowland/highland, south/north, city/country, etc.)? Are these structures of control mere epiphenomena that are likely to crumble with the regime or are they being internalized by the new generation into a new political culture of polarization and enduring civic distrust? What are the implications for building organizations and coalitions that are bigger than the personalities who head them?

1.4. The Opposition: Political Organizations and Political Parties (ስለተቃዋሚ የፓለቲካ ድርጅቶች ይዘትና ሁኔታ)

What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of existing political organizations which can realistically be expected to coalesce under the banner of Ethiopiawinnet? And which ones are likely to continue to be 

sectarian and even anti-Ethiopian for various reasons? Which political organizations, especially political parties, view civic organizations as worthy only of capture? Which might view them as independent allies toward constructing a “winning coalition” for democratization? Are there any opposition parties which share the totalitarian ideology of “revolutionary democracy”? Why have the various attempts at unity formation proved to be a failure with an alarming consistency? How credible are such explanations as lack of rigorous analysis of the causes and effects of the political process in specific context of Ethiopia, lack of a sizeable middle class, outmoded conception of leadership, active support of the status quo by the regime’s foreign patrons, or a legacy of low trust—just to name some of the obvious ones?

A related line of inquiry might fruitfully focus on identifying any and all factors in Ethiopia’s political culture and the psychology of its largely pauperized people which seem to have imbued the populace with reverence for or deference to strongmen as well as overly intrusive governments. Relatedly, one might also ask: To what extent does our illiberal culture of hierarchy appreciate self-sacrifice for the common good (human rights for all)?

II. The Connection between Ethnicity and Civil Society ( ዘረኛነትና ሕብረተሰቡ)

We can certainly sharpen the focus on the tension between unity and diversity. The CSM in Ethiopia obviously needs to overcome an immediate and obvious challenge: how does it buck the pull of ethnicity (and increasingly, religion) and build bridges across ethnic cleavages so as to promote citizen behavior conducive to civic engagement and cooperation. A sine qua non for promoting the norms of civic engagement and cooperation is interpersonal trust. People who exhibit these norms engage readily in collective civic pursuits and cooperate more easily with people from different ethnic backgrounds.

But such generalized trust, as opposed to trust in one’s co-ethnics or co-religionists, seems in short supply in an environment of abject poverty and demographic diversity, particularly in a context where the state deliberately promotes ethnic fractionalization in order to divide the people and prolong its rule. In such an environment, it would seem that people are less likely to trust those whom they perceive, rightly or wrongly, to be different from themselves. The implication of this is that people are more likely to bond with members of their own group than to bridge with members of other groups– even when it seems obvious to the neutral observer that all would benefit by cooperation than by fragmentation. After all, this is clearly the lesson that emerges from the current proliferation of ethnic-based parties and movements in the name of democratic pluralism. At least on the surface, the pluralism that the Ethiopian political system boasts is either very thin at best or a shell game at worst. It would seem that the better course of wisdom for all civic-minded Ethiopians is to come together under the fold of a united CSM.

There certainly are countervailing considerations which may inspire hope. First, it is possible that there are many Ethiopians, particularly the millions (arguably, the majority) whose parentage straddles the ethnic divide, who may trust individuals who share their own as well as others from a different background. Second, the assumption that people only trust their own may overstate the phenomenon or may even be erroneous in that members of the same ethnic group may be divided in so far as they profess different political, ideological or economic preferences and interests. Other sources of conflict may also exist which lie beneath the seemingly homogeneous ethnic identity. Finally, all or almost all ethnic groups, regardless of their ethnic background, are at the receiving end of the tyrannical regime that rules their lives. We need coolheaded analyses of the social basis of such seemingly pathological attitudes. Could they be partly real and partly imagined sentiments of grievances which will rise before they fall? Can we identify the propitious conditions which lend themselves to bringing aboard the CSM bandwagon all those who care about human rights, individual liberty, the rule of law, official corruption and abuse, governmental transparency and 

accountability, and the neutrality of procedural institutions such as the Electoral Commission and the judiciary?

2.1. The Civic Movement: Past, Present, and Future (ስለ ማህረሰባዊ/ሲቪል ንቅናቄ)

In light of the above: Which segment of the Ethiopian civic movement, at home and in the Diaspora, is purely social or economic in orientation and which segment can be mobilized to actively support the cause of human and civil rights? Which CSOs are most vulnerable to or have already been politically captured? What stance should diaspora-based supporters take in order to reconcile the narrow organizational focus of a typical Ethiopia-based CSO with the broader national focus of rights-based activism? What are some of the proven effective ways (and seemingly insurmountable obstacles) to link the domestic movement with that in the Diaspora, especially with respect to sustainable financing of major activities? How much credibility do existing rights-oriented CSOs have among the public? Why have the myriad inter-CSO and inter-Party cooperation efforts born so little fruit?

2.2. Nonviolent Struggle for Civil and Political Rights (ስለ ሰላማዊ መብታዊ ትግል)

A nonviolent CSM must put a high premium on meticulous and consultative planning for civil disobedience, a clear vision of where the country should go, and an immeasurable courage to face a ruthlessly violent regime. And yet, misconceptions abound about the effectiveness and sacrifices entailed by a strategy of non-violence. For some, a longing for another round of armed resistance is increasingly becoming irresistible as the regime relentlessly demonizes its opponents—non-violent or otherwise. A distilling of the lessons of experience from countries which have faced comparable circumstances will, therefore, be very helpful.

III. Geopolitical Strategy: The External Actors (የውጭ ሃያላት ስላላቸው ሚና)

What are the major geostrategic interests (terrorism, poverty, safety of sea lanes, oil, Nile waters, etc.) that motivate the puzzling actions of major external actors (U.S., EU, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, the International Financial Institutions, etc.)? Which of these interests conflict with those of the democratic movement and which ones are congruent? How does a deeper democratization of Kenya and Egypt, the independence of South Sudan, the restoration of central government in Somalia, and the deepening crisis elsewhere (Eritrea, Djibouti, and much of the Middle East) affect the prospects for meaningful political change in Ethiopia? How dependent is the regime on external largess and goodwill, and how well has it turned this subservient position into an advantage? How effectively can the various competing factions within TPLF/EPRDF manipulate foreign clientelship?

IV. Transition to a Post-revolutionary and Post-ethnic Political Order (የሽግግር ጎዳና)

If electoral politics does not work and armed struggle does not deliver on participatory democracy in post-conflict societies like Ethiopia, what path will extricate the country from the current quagmire? We need informed debates on peace, truth and reconciliation; a government of national unity or salvation; a new constitution; dismantling the control structures imposed by TPLF/EPRDF; and freeing up the system of party capitalism and the giveaways of national assets to foreigners. 

Tesfamichael Makonnen