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Capturing an online exchange between several young Ethiopians, Elyas Mulu Kiros wonders whether the country’s ruling EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) party needs to be reformed or deformed.

Following the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, many bloggers, intellectuals, pseudo-intellectuals, political commentators and the mainstream media as a whole have been debating and forecasting that the revolutionary fervour will undoubtedly spread to sub-Saharan Africa, sooner or later. Particularly, the Ethiopian opposition in the diaspora continue to hope that Jasmine-inspired non-violent revolution will shock and awe the Meles Zenawi-led EPRDF (Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) government and will deform its foundation, destroying its legitimacy and eventually its existence. Some of the agitators have already posted Gene Sharp-inspired articles on the web, which are scarcely accessed in Ethiopia, articles that instruct on how to dethrone the EPRDF, the only party that controls the state apparatus with all its bureaucratic cracks. The vocal diasporas, a title supporters of EPRDF ‘affectionately’ gave to these radical voices, believe that the only solution to the betterment and democratisation of Ethiopia is the complete destruction of the regime in Addis Ababa.

While the silent majority both inside and outside Ethiopia wonders in silence, EPRDF officials and their ardent supporters, on the other hand, seem quite certain that what the country desperately needs is not a fruit or a flower revolution, but economic growth and transformation that will elevate it from abject poverty and launch it to a middle-income status. For them, reforming and pushing the EPRDF towards genuine constitutionalism, but not destroying it, will surely pave the way for better management and democratisation of one of the oldest nations in the African continent; while acknowledging the obvious failures, they argue that Ethiopia under the EPRDF’s leadership has become a thriving economy that has just opened its eyes from centuries of slumber.

The following is an online exchange with six young Ethiopian friends:

MR B: I believe EPRDF has to reform itself and has to level the political and economic playing field so that everyone gets equal opportunity or else face what the Arab countries are experiencing now.

MR C: EPRDF has a lot of things to reform, and they are continuously re-inventing themselves, which explains their longevity and popularity. But reform does not come by standing on the side and criticizing from distance. A true activist risks fights on the ground for his cause. The Arab movement is working because people are willing to sacrifice themselves for the peaceful resistance of their rights. Not many Habesha follow that mentality. We are mostly war mongers, we encourage war at the expense of the poor Ethiopian; the poor Ethiopian is often the one sent to the front lines to fight their battles, while the ones with big mouths talk shit from America. Let any Ethiopian go home and do what he does best, whether pushing for change or building something. Let him put his knowledge into action and walk the talk. If everyone does that, we will have a nation that sets an example for the rest of Africa. A nation is not built through words alone. No one, not me, is qualified to speak righteously when they have not tried to do something themselves in Ethiopia. The local working context is very important. Often times, it is much easier said than done. When people are wealthy enough and can feed themselves, the inevitable happens. They start to ask for more rights. Right now, I think every Ethiopian is too busy trying to bring food to the table. We have all gone through traumas of war and misery. We all want peace and prosperity for a change, not many are willing to sacrifice whatever good they have going for the ‘luxury’ thoughts of western ideology. Most just want to eat three times a day.

MR D: EPRDF is like a rotten tree, waiting to fall anytime soon. Come a powerful wind of change that can resist the regime’s repressive methods, we will find this rotten tree fallen to the ground, never again to rise. Democratic and human rights are not ‘luxury’ items; they are not just ‘western ideology’, but universal human values that must be protected and respected. Democracy and development must not be treated separately as the progress of one complements the success of the other. Any development story that is never based on win-win strategy and that comes at the expense of the rights of ordinary citizens will not only benefit corrupt leaders and their cohorts, but will lose its value, and the system that maintains it will be subject to resentments and endless frustrations that can easily explode and destabilize the country's peace. As long as the economic gain fails to trickle down to the masses, any progress made will not be embraced as a success story. Therefore, EPRDF must not delude itself, believing that it can magically transform Ethiopia without 1) addressing basic rights issues, 2) genuinely executing the constitution that it ratified, and 3) opening up the political space for genuine contenders. One party, one man dictatorship, or authoritarianism masked as a developmental state, cannot be the answer for a multi-ethnic nation like Ethiopia; if that had not been the case, the country would not have gone through the civil war that cost us millions of lives, our economy, and left us landlocked. We must accept that it is the participation of each and every Ethiopian that will make the country a truly prosperous and transformed country, not just the policy prescriptions of EPRDF and the individuals that believe in and benefit from those prescriptions.

MR C: I feel perhaps I was misunderstood when I said western ideals are a luxury. Here is the context with which I made that comment: I don’t think those ideals are a luxury to ME, that is probably because I live in a western society with a decent job where I can actually think about those issues and don’t have to worry about my basic necessities. To the man or woman on the street in Ethiopia, who is constantly sleeping hungry or trying hard to feed his or her many children, having a perfect democracy is less of a cause to fight for than having a good job with a good economy. To that man or woman, everything beyond the basic necessities is a luxury, a nice-to-have wish list. I say this from a practical point of view, having lived and worked there and observed people first hand. I also have many family relatives that are struggling to feed themselves. Many people incorrectly assume that people that are moderates are directly or indirectly beneficiaries of the current regime. I find that offensive. I am a moderate and I have never taken a single cent from the government. It is self-righteous to assume that your opposition to the government is genuine and justified where as the voices of those that either support it or advocate for a constructive contribution are labeled as biased and untrustworthy. For example, to assume that all people from Tigray are beneficiaries is a tribal mentality. Not only it is false but it also creates a dangerous climate of hate, suspicion and discrimination. We will not move forward as a nation until we stop seeing everything with a pair of tribal glasses. The reality is that all the biheroch [ethnic groups] of Ethiopia face the same or similar challenges of poverty and lack of education, health and security. We should focus our energy on what makes us the same not on what separates us. That is why we have over 70 political parties each advocating their tribes when we can focus on the big challenges that our country is facing as a nation. You would be hard pressed to find more than 3-4 political parties in the west in any given country. There is a good reason for it. Let’s stop this fragmented mentality. It only makes us vulnerable to abuse by anyone who cares to take advantage of that division.

MS E: Poverty is not an excuse to suspend basic human rights. People in Egypt and Tunisia did not demand economic justice, they demanded freedom and dignity, which includes rooting out corruption and ensuring that the country’s resources are deployed fairly, as well as rule of law, ending censorship, et cetera. Tribal chauvinism is as much a diversion from the real issues as are complaints by expatriate elites that their Internet access is too often interrupted. While the Meles government is opening the country to unprecedented economic development (my take-away impression from a recent visit was that ‘the whole country is a construction zone’), control over this development is horribly lopsided. Soon, Ethiopians will be complaining not only that Meles’ wife owns too many corporations, but also that Chinese and Turkish investors are purchasing and exporting the nation’s wealth. Moreover, the factory workers, who are rapidly transforming from peasants to unionized laborers, are going to become a challenge to ‘robber baron’ capitalism too. I say, go home and engage in building the country in whatever way you know best – as an intellectual, in the private sector, in the NGO sector, even in the government! It is from the position of a functioning member of the society that one has a true opportunity to educate and advocate for democracy and civil society.

MS A: I agree with both Ms. E and Mr. C that to make a difference, through whichever way we think is best, we must be present at the scene of action, or be part of achievable solution from wherever. We must not only make noises from distance to feel ‘patriotic’, to act as a ‘freedom fighter’, or to appear as an ‘activist’; I find that phony. In order to deform or to reform the status quo in Ethiopia, one must have realistic goals, and must plan and implement realistic actions. Regarding development and democracy, this is not the chicken or the egg scenario. I want to repeat what Ms. E wrote: poverty is not an excuse to suspend basic human rights. That statement summarizes my take on this issue. I do not believe that Ethiopia will become a perfect democracy overnight (as there exists no perfect democracy), but I do not support the government moving backwards and becoming totalitarian either.

MS H: The very first question in Ethiopia or in any state that is ruled by a dictator is fairness and freedom. Ethiopians have been deprived from both of these virtues that they are entitled by birth, for so long. I was born in the time of Derg and grew up in the EPRDF regime and all my life what I have seen was suffering, oppression and instability. A system that can change laws as it pleases forcing people to live in tension and with no plans for the future. The regime would want to smear its false propaganda about winning poverty when we the people and the whole world know that Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries. That being said, the revolutions that erupted in the Middle East have been initiated by the youth who have come from the different walks of life, poor, rich professionals, and laymen. What united them was the common question of freedom. This has cleaned the dust off the question in the minds of many Ethiopians making them think of the possibilities of struggling for an oppression-free Ethiopia because as long as a Dictator is in place a revolution is inevitable. The one thing to note here is that this is not something that we will achieve easily so it really needs serious thought and real commitment, a commitment that requires the participation of every Ethiopian, not the poor-mothers’ sons only. Are we in for and is the moment now, are the two big questions.


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