Moral bankruptcy in Ethiopia’s opposition leadership
By Neamin Zeleke
“In our time, political speech and writings are largely the defense of the indefensible.” So wrote George Orwell, one of the great public intellectuals of the 20th century who spoke truth to both left and rights powers. No matter all the posturing and attempts to justify it with so much and contradictory statements and interviews by the actors and supporters alike, the recent act of singing the so-called “code of conduct” remains nothing but a grand betrayal. A betrayal is the name that could aptly characterize the document that does not meet the criteria to hold free, fair and credible elections in Ethiopia.
Chairman of All Ethiopian Unity Party (AEUP) Ato Hailu Shawl’s recent action is nothing less than reneging on the loftiest goals of the democratic movement, under whose banner thousands paid the ultimate price, including those who followed him and believed in him during the 2005 national elections that was rigged by the ruling party and the bloody aftermath. As a result of such betrayal, the movement to liberate Ethiopia from Woyanne has been forced to take a step backwards as the ruling party is using him — and that of the so-called “third way” “critical supporters” like Ato Lidetu and Ato Ayele Chamiso, the very men who betrayed Ato Hailu and the rest of Knijit leaders when they were thrown in prison — to tell the international community that now it has made an agreement with opposition forces.
By signing on this lame “code of conduct,” Ato Hailu has compromised the strategic objective of even those who struggle via peaceful means, i.e., the widening of the political space in order to hold free and fair elections by forcing the ruling party to compromise and given in to serious concessions. If Hailu Shawel can make an agreement with the Woyanne with whom he has an ocean of differences, as he made it clear in the public declarations of AEUP objectives, why can’t he agree with other opposition groups in order to increase their bargaining power? Doing so would enable him and the other groups to attain the bargaining muscle and political clout. At the end of the day, the more the political space and real democratic political order materialize, the more all players benefit to compete freely once the playing field is leveled.
What is also sad, as others have pointed out, is the fact that he did not put on the table even half of the 8 point preconditions that the Kinjit presented to the Woyane during the massive fraud committed by the ruling party following election 2005. The damage goes even further: The agreement he entered into with the regime and the two parties has blunted the attempt by Medrek to get at least better concessions as they have made known that a free and fair election cannot be held while the ruling TPLF/EPRDF controls the Election Board and appoints the 200,000 election workers at nearly 40,000 polling stations. They have also demanded the release of all political prisoners.
In addition, the absences of these demands, the lack of even the gesture to negotiate about the release of all political prisoners is a tragic, callous and immoral act. One cannot talk of struggling against dictatorship when he or she clearly knows that political prisoners, irrespective of their affiliation, are political prisoners including his former colleague, Judge Birtukan Midekesa, who is currently languishing in Meles Zenawi’s prison.
Ato Hailu Shawel has found it better to come to an agreement with the ruling party in the hope of carving his own little political space and concerned only about his political future — a breathing space for his organization at the expense of the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians hungry for rule of law, democracy, respect for human rights, their empowerment in the political and economic affairs of their country.
Let us recall that Ethiopians supported Kinjit and its leaders during the 2005 elections due to its forceful demands and clear alternatives to Woyanne and its promise to deliver democracy and rule of law for the people of Ethiopia. It was not the persona of Hailu, Lidetu, Berhanu… that did the magic of what was then called “Sunami”. It was their unified and unifying message and the vision that did the magic. It was not even the details of the program that people rallied behind. I doubt if the majority of Ethiopians even read much of it. Instead, it was Kinjit’s clear and simple message of change and alternative to the ruling party that won it a widespread support throughout Ethiopia. As observers aptly said, it was a “protest” support and vote by an electorate that wanted real change and saw Kinjit at its rightful agent.
Where then is the moral leadership that is expected of opposition leaders under conditions of dictatorship? Is opposition political leadership, under the context of a dictatorship, simply about making calculated moves to benefit single organizations or few organizations? Ato Hailu discussed only about AEUP’s political prisoners. Even then, I am not sure how many of them are released, if ever the harassment has stopped. But we would not even know as he said that the “EPRDF does not like it when we make too much noise; we find it better to write letters and follow up their case” (his interview on the Reporter).
Tomorrow the TPLF/EPRDF will tell him to stop writing the letters and then he would do so, if we take his logic. Where does it stop? What then can we call such an organization that abandons its own methods of exposing human rights abuses, even those enshrined in the so-called constitution under whose ambit it claims to operate?
This last point brings us to the heart of the matter. The constitution is said to be the supreme law of the land. But the TPLF/EPRDF has trampled on it time and again, violating each and every article for the past 16 years since its adoption. There is no reason to expect that, the agreement, a mini version along with few purported benefit to a “privileged” opposition groups, could not be violated by the TPLF.
Nothing better should have been expected from Hailu Shawel, considering his track record of throwing a monkey wrench amidst the democratic movement since 2003. This was the time when he decided to leave UEDF (coalition of 15 political parties formed in 2003) without solid reasons. He left just ten days after his delegates Major Getachew Mengistie, and the late Dr. Mekonnen Bishaw made a public statement that they would play a great role in strengthening UEDF. Hailu Shawel lied in a statement made public while the real issue was that he was unhappy due to the fact that the conference held for seven days did not elect him as the chairman in his absence. Had he been at the all party conference he would have been elected. But he gave the lame excuse that he was sick, to show up in DC in just about a week to start dismantling UEDF and pull AEUP out. The other causality in that incident was Ato Wondayehu Kassa, AEUP North America representative who was found to be an obstacle to the devious act of Ato Hailu’s decision of withdrawing AEUP from UEDF.
For anyone involved in the details of what was going on then, one can safely reach to a conclusion that the man is not amenable to political compromise among opposition forces and one who is incapable of handling contradictions in a farsighted and statesmanlike manner as our struggle demands from those who claim to be leaders of the struggle of our people for democracy and freedom.
The root of Kiniji’s split and its collapse has much to do with such a character, if not the only reason. When the problem of Kinjit surfaced, several elder groups genuinely tired to reconcile the minor differences between him and the rest of the Knijit leadership. It is a very well known fact that he was the one who obdurately refused to make peace. He even refused to respond to messages and phone calls from those who tried to reach and talk to him about reconciliation to save Kinjit from the impending collapse. As well known, the split of Kinjit took a heavy toll on the hope and aspiration of several millions of Ethiopians for change and freedom.
Tragic, indeed, that he has the heart sit, negotiate, and agree on a non-essential document that cannot add an iota to bring about a positive change in Ethiopia. Indeed, he had the stomach to shake hands with a dictator whose hands are drenched with the blood of thousands without getting substantial concessions to hold free and fair elections in Ethiopia.
If our struggle is for raw political power and under a condition where there is a democratic system, I can understand and go along with the view that some have argued in recent days that each party acts and calculates its steps to maximize its position in relative to other players on the political landscape. But when it is done under a dictatorship such as our ever miserable people are, and when our central quest is to win our freedom denied to us Ethiopians by successive dictatorships including the TPLF/EPRDF, it becomes a cynical pursuit at the expense of the broader struggle of the Ethiopian people for genuinely democratic and free Ethiopia.
Let us leave all the past evil and wrongs that the TPLF has wrought on Ethiopia and our people. Just think for a single moment of all those teenagers, mothers, elders, and men and women, who were savagely gunned down after the May 2005 elections by Agazi forces under Meles Zenawi’s direct command. Why did they die? Why did mothers lose their loved ones? Sons and daughters, children and the new born lost their loved ones. Why and why indeed? All the bloody massacre against unarmed protesters and non-protesters alike and whose innocence was proved by the report made public thanks to the courageous move of the Inquiry Commission Meles himself appointed.
Think of all those tens of thousands who were tortured and subjected to inhumane treatment following the May 2005 elections. Recall all the brutalities, humiliation, and debasement tens of thousands of Ethiopians had to endure. Was it for individuals and political organizations to calculate as to how to maximize their individual and organizational power, increase their sits in an impotent rubber stamp parliament? Was it for a being “privileged” than other opposition groups?
The brutal reality remains that one should not have any illusion that a minority dictatorship like the TPLF will ever give up political power through peaceful means only. Even if defeated at the polls, it will not give up all its economic, political, and military domination of Ethiopia that it has amassed during the past 18 years. There are too much at stake for the TPLF, its ethnic supporters and their cronies from other ethnic groups.
Having said that, I do not have any objections towards those organizations waging their struggle through peaceful method of struggle so long as they genuinely promote the establishment of real multi-party democracy and the rule of law, and equality of all citizens and ethnic groups in our country by replacing the dictatorship of the TPLF/ERPDF and the hegemony and domination of an elite of a minority ethnic group and their surrogates from other ethnic groups in all realms of Ethiopia’s national life at the expense of the rest of the Ethiopian people. In other words, as long as these opposition forces struggle peacefully and legally with a view of democratizing Ethiopia, as opposed to having a limited end to shilly-shally in order just to get crumbs and increase their seats in the lame duck parliament by the “good will” of the ruling party and serve it as junior partners of the status quo.
In view of what has transpired in recent weeks, it is safe to argue that there exists a moral bankruptcy of opposition political leadership under the current Ethiopian condition. Ato Hailu is the embodiment of such moral bankruptcy. In the meantime, our people are under the yoke of a corrupt ethnic dictatorship that will leave no stone unturned, no tactic unused, no cleaver games from being played out to perpetuate its hold on to state power by all and any means.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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