By Lawrence Freeman
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has embarked on a bold effort to transform the political terrain of Ethiopia while simultaneously launching new economic reforms. The creation of the new Ethiopian Prosperity Party (PP) replaces the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front-(EPRDF), founded in 1988. Dissolving the reigning EPRDF and fashioning a new national party, or what some refer to as a Pan-Ethiopian party, is a courageous and daring move, essential for Ethiopia’s future. This emerging nation of over 105 million people, already a leader in economic development, is now embarking on a challenging path to create de novo a national party.
The EPRDF, which had governed Ethiopia since May 1991, was composed of four Regional States, plus the cities of Addis Ababa (the capital), and Dire Dawa. The four regional parties are: the Tigray People’s Liberation Front-(TPLF); the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization-(OPDO) (renamed early this year as Oromo Democratic Party-(ODP); the Amhara National Democratic Movement-(ANDM), (renamed early this year as Amhara Democratic Party-(ADP); and the Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement-(SEPDM), (a coalition of the 56 ethnic groups).
The EPRDF was fashioned to address Ethiopia’s earlier history of dictatorial and monarchical rule. The designers of the governing party believed that acknowledging ethnic identity, which was not recognized for centuries, would solve the tensions of that time. Recent conflicts in Ethiopia have shown this arrangement to be ineffective.
Of the four parties that comprised the EPRDF, only the TPLF has refused to join the new PP. Already the governing parties representing 5 regions, which were not members of the EPRDF, but were recognized as allies of the EPRDF have joined the PP in preparation for May 2020 elections. They are: 1) Afar National Democratic Party (ANDP); 2) Benishangul-Gumuz Democratic Party (BDP); 3) Somali Democratic Party (SDP); 4) Gambela People’s Democratic Movement (GPDM); and 5) Harari National League (HNL). The PP will be inclusive, intending to represent all communities, inviting Tigrayans, who live in and outside the region to join. The PP program will have Amharic as its working language as per the constitution. However, Afan Oromo, Tigrigna, Somali and Afar will also be the working languages of the new PP.
Prime Minister Abiy’s founding of the PP on December 1, just six months before Ethiopia’s national elections, is fraught with personal risks for the new Prime Minister. However, this endeavor is bursting with the potential to transform politics and social relations in Ethiopian society. Ethiopia has a splendid history thousands of years old, rich with a multiplicity of cultural backgrounds. The PP is intended to harmonize the diversity of the nation with a national non-ethnic based party.
Chair Persons of the eight parties who also represent eight Regions as governing parties worked under the umbrella of the EPRDF coalition signed a document for the establishment of Prosperity Party. Photo Credit OPM
Nationalism: Not Ethnic Nationalism
A sovereign nation-state is not a mosaic of diverse groups competing with each other for control of the government or pursuing administration posts to obtain economic and financial rewards. A sovereign nation should have a national identity and a mission orientation for its people; all its people, regardless of ethnic heritage. Contributing to the distinctive identity of Ethiopia was its military defeat of the Italian Empire in the battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896. Consequently, this victory, uniquely allowed Ethiopia to remain free from colonialism. Although this triumph occurred over one century ago, it is part of the psychological composition of the identity of all Ethiopians; whether they are conscious of its effects or not. Ethiopia’s decades’ long determination to develop from a disadvantaged nation to an aspiring lower middle-income nation with nascent light manufacturing industry is another feature of Ethiopia’s national identity.
Professed ethnonationalism errs in that it attempts to substitute the demands, often for legitimate needs, of one particular group above the interests of all the citizens. A nation-state cannot survive in a Hobbesian war of all against each other to obtain the most goodies for “my people.” Dare we forget the horrors of the ethnically driven tragic Biafran war in Nigeria from 1967-1970, and how geographic-ethnic distinctions have determined every unhealthy aspect of political and social life in Nigeria today?
Recriminations from the past are no excuse for actions today. Decisions concerning the best strategy for securing the future of Ethiopia must be based on how that policy will benefit the well-being of all citizens.
Medemer and Synergy
In his acceptance speech for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Prime Minister Abiy spoke of the philosophy of the Medemer.
He said: “Medemer, an Amharic word, signifies synergy, convergence, and teamwork for a common destiny. Medemer is a homegrown idea that is reflected in our political, social, and economic life. I’d like to think of ‘Medemer’ as a social compact for Ethiopians to build a just, egalitarian, democratic, and humane society by pulling together our resources for our collective survival and prosperity…At its core, Medemer is a covenant of peace that seeks unity in our common humanity.” One could appropriately, add for the “common good” of humankind.
Our “common humanity” exists in all of us. We are all born in the image of the Creator. All human beings are universally related by our endowed powers of creative mentation, more commonly known as reason. What distinguishes all human beings from the animal species is our mental power to discover new scientific and cultural principles embedded in our universe. All of us homo sapiens, regardless of where we were born, or any physical characteristics, are substantially more alike than we are different. Therefore, our needs, desires, and aspirations in life are similar. All human beings not only share a common interest to enhance our lives, but we also share a desire for a better future for our posterity. There is no class of superior people, who have more rights than others due to privileges of birth, religion, or skin color. Each of us are placed here on earth to contribute to the common good of our common humanity using our individual talents.
If we accept synergy to mean cooperation and collaboration to achieve an enhanced effect, then let us act synergistically to ensure a prosperous Ethiopia that provides for all its citizens.
The Constitution and Sidama
Inherent problems of the 1995 Constitution of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia are evident in the November 2019 referendum conferring autonomy to Sidama. Ethiopia’s constitution stipulates that with this lawful vote, the people of Sidama, the fifth largest ethnic group, will become the tenth ethnic regional state. Eight of the existing nine regional states are governed by the dominant ethnic group of that geographical region. However, the Sidama people reside in Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region–(SNNPR), where many other small ethnic groups (around 56) also exist.
The Preamble of Ethiopia’s Constitution properly emphasizes the conception of a united nation with a common purpose and goal for all its people. It deliberates on “advancing our economic and social development,” “common interest….and the emergence of a common outlook,” and “to live as one economic community.” Article 14 resonates with the US Constitution, stating: “Every person has the inviolable right to life the security of person and liberty.” The same principle is echoed in Article 43 of the Constitution: The Right to Development. “The basic aim of development activities shall be to enhance the capacity of citizens for development and to meet their basic needs.”
The drawback to the Constitution begins in Article 8:Sovereignty of the People, where sovereign powers are divided up between “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.” This is an obvious compromise to ethnicity. In truth; there is only one Ethiopian people and only one Ethiopian nation. The divisions in Ethiopian society are made explicit in Article39: “Every Nation, Nationality and People in Ethiopia has an unconditional right to self-determination, including the right of secession……the right to a full measure of self-government…” This separation of Ethiopians into multiple groups, outlined in the Constitution, is the seed for the tensions gripping Ethiopia today.
In the aftermath of the Sidama referendum, Ethiopia potentially faces a conundrum. Will other ethnic minorities now choose to follow the same path as Sidama in calling for autonomy as delineated in the Constitution? It appears so. In addition to Sidama Zone*, which is now claiming to be the 10th state, there are other Zones in the Southern Region that want to follow the same route to statehood. To quote William Shakespeare, “there’s the rub.” Clearly the Ethiopian Constitution, despite the best intentions, has proven to be unsuccessful in governing this multi-ethnic nation.
The Challenging Course Ahead
The emergence of a national party such as the PP can commence the process of uniting the nation by moving away from a society where ethnic interests are placed above the welfare of the nation. Ultimately the problematic features of the Ethiopian Constitution will have to be revisited. Not to address this thorny issue will allow instigators to use ethnicity to disrupt what is most necessary for Ethiopia to move forward; a healthy process of dialogue and debate on the future of Ethiopia.
This discourse should include a discussion by the Ethiopian people on changing the structure of ethnic-based parties. For example, Ghana’s Constitution stipulates that “Every political party shall have a national character, and membership shall not be based on ethnic, religious, regional or other sectional divisions.” That no political party shall be formed “(a) on ethnic, gender, religion regional, professional or other sectional divisions; or (b) which uses words, slogans or symbols which could arouse ethnic, gender, religious, regional professional or other sectional divisions.”
The lack of vibrant Ethiopian nationalism creates a fertile environment for those who want to manipulate misplaced ethnic passions. The danger presents itself during times of social or economic stress, when the population’s frustrations can be channeled along ethnic fault lines, manipulating Ethiopians to act against their true self-interest: progress for the nation of Ethiopia. Opportunistic ringleaders will attempt to misdirect the population against each other via competing ethnicities, instead of uniting society behind a national policy. A policy of economic growth that includes a strategy to generate employment opportunities for the millions of youth preparing to enter the workforce is in the vital interests of all citizens.
Of course, it will take time for people to shed their desire to control policy making through ethnic-based parties. It is an existential moment for Ethiopia, and a national grounded PP is a needed first step. It should be understood, that a sovereign nation, whose national mission is to promote the general welfare of its people does not require the elimination of historical cultures. On the contrary, the uniqueness and beauty of each ethnic culture can be synergistically woven into an elevated national character that transcends ethnicity.
*Zone is the middle tire next to the regional state in the governing structure that is also formed under ethnic lines the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR).
Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for 30 years. He is the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com