EPRDF leaders should not continue to delude themselves that their elaborate organizational infrastructure is serving as a two-way communication channel between these two crucial nodes. Local cadres would understandably be reluctant to transmit upwards news they fear to be unpalatable to their overlords, argues Leenco Lata.
Mass protests are once again sweeping throughout the largest and most populous Oromia Regional State of the Ethiopian Federation. Their widespread nature and their persistence for close to a month, make these protests one of the most unprecedented in the history of contemporary Ethiopia. Even the 1974 mass upsurge that spelled the demise of Emperor Haile Selassie’s reign did not involve as many rural dwellers as the protest going on in Oromia at the time of writing.
The Government’s response has taken two forms until now. First, the Government has unleashed it security forces to quell these uprisings by using excessive force and detaining peaceful protesters. Second, instead of questioning if its own failure contributed to popular grievances that culminated in these protests, it has resorted to its usual rhetoric of attributing the protests to its common culprits – “anti-peace and anti-development” groups and persons.
The latter claim would be the focus of this brief commentary for it speaks volumes about the performance of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) during a tenure now approaching a quarter of a century. Ever since coming to power in 1991, the EPRDF has posed as the exclusive promoter of economic development and defender of peace and stability. It has rationalized hamstringing the activities of legal opposition parties and restricting freedom of expression as the necessary condition for realizing its dual aim of kick-starting economic development and preserving peace and stability.
As a result, it has had an unhampered and exclusive access to the rural peasantry, which it claims to be its core constituency, for now close to a quarter of a century. And an entire generation was born and raised feeding strictly on the rhetoric of the ruling party and should hence be free from being “poisoned” by the supposedly negative propaganda of “anti-peace and anti-development elements”.
Moreover, the ease with which the Government communicates with the societies it has ruled for so long is not restricted to monopolizing the government-owned mass media backed with its various privately owned outlets. Its organizational structures stretch from Menelik palace all the way to villages and neighborhoods. If EPRDF’s own claim is to be believed, one out of every five individuals has been drawn into its security structure—the so called gox-gore network. No other contemporary party, at least in Africa, has institutionalized such an impressive and extensive contact with members of the society it is ruling.
Given the above facts, how can the Government attribute the ongoing mass protests in Oromia and elsewhere to the highly marginalized and supposedly negatively-oriented “anti-peace and anti-development elements”? The supposedly negative and unconstructive messages of these nefarious elements reach members of society at most through secret whisperings and dissemination of rumors. On the contrary, the Government’s constructive and positive messages are transmitted to the public on a daily basis by the mass media reinforced by its local cadres who harangue the public at the meetings they convene nonstop.
The claim by the EPRDF that the ongoing peaceful protests are instigated by the negative messages of “anti-peace and anti-development” forces underscores its own failure more than anything else. It clearly demonstrates that its own pervasive and constructive messages to society have been overridden by the secret whisperings of these nefarious elements. Sadly, the EPRDF has developed the habit of refusing to acknowledge and take responsibility for its own failures.
And unless it does so, fabricating culprits to take the blame every time something amiss happens would go on ad nauseam. Despite its famed tradition of Critical Self-Evaluation (gimgema), no genuine self-appraisal could ever take place inside EPRDF so long as this ploy is resorted to ad infinitum. And it has two convenient bogeymen, the OLF and Ginbot 7, to serve the purpose of blaming every time something amiss occurs despite its repeated claim that both have been defeated and buried time and again. It has now discovered another bogeyman, the El Nino phenomenon, to take the fall for the famine that is threatening 15 million Ethiopians.
Does the EPRDF realize that such claims constitute the height of suffering defeat at the hands of these so-called “anti-peace and anti-development” forces? How can the ghosts of these forces that are dead and buried successfully communicate with and influence especially the peasantry to stage the kind of widespread protests currently being witnessed in Oromia?
There is an underlying cause for the habit of the EPRDF to blame the ghosts of forces that it has allegedly killed and buried every time protests take place in one locality or another. This is the presumption that members of society are totally gullible as to be easily misled by their detractors because they are too simple-minded to know what is in their best interests. EPRDF rhetoric reveals the presumption that its favorite social sector, the rural peasantry, is particularly in need of the exclusive and wise guidance of “Revolutionary Democrats,” lest it falls under the sway of forces harboring ill-will towards it.
George Orwell once opined “The truth, it is felt, becomes untruth when your enemy utters it.” If such clash between the Government’s truth and that of others was restricted to the opposition forces it demonizes, one would not be surprised. But truth, according to the EPRDF, goes further to become the photographic negative of the truth known to members of society. Where the EPRDF sees growth and alleviation of poverty, evidently peasants seem to see devastation, eviction and the exacerbation of poverty. When one’s truth is perceived as the untruth of the other, a relation of mutual enmity threateningly prevails. This binary oppositional relation between their truth and that of particularly the peasants (their self-selected favorite constituency) should really worry the leaders of the EPRDF.
Any kind of truth, particularly political truth, is not absolute but relative because the truth of one social category could be the untruth of another. There are only two ways to reconcile the conflict between these kinds of oppositional truths: EPRDF’s style of muzzling those espousing truths contrary to its own, or heeding the call to sit down for dialogue and negotiation with others to accommodate all views.
The latter alternative makes imperative allowing loyal opposition parties to table their own policies reflecting the truth as they see it and tolerating the public at large to exercise its freedom of expression. This set-up would serve the ruling party more than anybody else. It would allow the ruling party to pre-empt dangerous and unexpected eruptions of societal expressions of discontent by making timely adjustments of the articulation and implementation of policies. When a ruling party muzzles all those airing different ideas, there is no alternative for the airing of discontent but to gather steam out of sight and hearing only to come into the open through popular upsurge of mass protests—like the volcanic eruption currently sweeping Oromia and threatening to spread throughout the country. Muzzling popular expressions of discontent, even if within the means of Ethiopia’s ruling party, cannot forever forestall its eventual reckoning with the truth of others.
Here it appears pertinent to bring up Marx’s famous statement: “In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven.” In like manner in the EPRDF-led political order, political views and interests only “descend from Menelik palace to the villages” because their “ascent from villages to Menelik palace” is blocked. EPRDF leaders should not continue to delude themselves that their elaborate organizational infrastructure is serving as a two-way communication channel between these two crucial nodes. Local cadres would understandably be reluctant to transmit upwards news they fear to be unpalatable to their overlords.
The policy of muzzling the expression of different views in the public arena inevitably seeps back into the hallowed ranks of the members of the EPRDF. As a result, the reality EPRDF leaders know based on the fabricated reports of their local cadres over time increasingly departs from what actually prevails on the ground.
EPRDF leaders rationalize their policy of hamstringing opposition parties and restricting public freedom of expression on the grounds of according priority to economic development and preserving peace and stability eclipsing all other values. No sane person would disagree that poverty alleviation by speeding up economic development and preserving peace and stability should be prioritized. No single stakeholder in Ethiopia is saying the country need not develop. No single stakeholder in Ethiopia is saying peace and stability should not prevail.
The question comes down to what kind of peace we are talking about. Rousseau’s famous question runs “There is peace in dungeons, but is that enough to make dungeons desirable?” He puts his finger on a very important point for there are two kinds of peace – peace in dungeons and just peace. Peace in dungeons is preserved by its walls and cells as well as the club-wielding prison officer. Any state runs the risk of descending into preserving peace in the dungeons when it increasingly relies on naked force alone to maintain order.
Just and democratic peace, on the contrary, relies on instituting and stringently upholding the rule of law applicable not only to the ruled but also the ruler. Many generously interpreted the EPRDF’s rhetoric about peace when they came to power close to a quarter of century ago as the aspiration to institute this particular type of peace and not peace in the dungeons. A review of their actual performance during this period would go a long way to show which version of peace predominated. The same review in the economic and other endeavors deserves to be conducted in an inclusive dispassionate atmosphere.
Consequently, all stakeholders should press EPRDF leaders to conduct such an inclusive review process coinciding with their Silver Jubilee next May. Many hoped against all hopes that such a re-appraisal will take place only to be disappointed. It is high time for all other stakeholders to conduct a self-appraisal of their own on their own and oblige EPRDF to come to its senses or face the inevitable consequences of its arrogance and blind-sightedness.
Ed.’s Note: Leenco Lata, an author, is one of the persons that laid the cornerstones of Ethiopia’s multi-national federation and currently President of the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.