Ethiopia’s Patriotic Middle Ground

For the first time ever in our history, Ethiopia’s political leader has resigned through a peaceful process. Prime Minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn has left office showing an essential political virtue: patriotic restraint. What this shows is that our country can have normal politics.

The annals of our history is filled with people who heroically sacrificed their lives for their country. There are few who sacrificed their political ambitions for the greater good. Today, we need Ethiopian patriots who are ready to moderate their ambitions and to take stock of the national crisis in an open-minded way.

As we commemorate the anniversary of the battle of Adwa, it is worth recalling that every great event in our history has been one in which Ethiopians of diverse identities have come together in a common patriotic cause. Our celebrations of national triumph belong to us all.

Since the EPRDF marched into Addis Ababa, the face of the country has been transformed. A generation of Ethiopians has grown up knowing peace and development. This is a tremendous achievement, but for today’s Ethiopians, economic growth is an entitlement, not a privilege. And growth of this kind brings with it immense social upheaval. The transformations reach every corner of the country and affect every person. As well as new infrastructure and booming towns and cities, we see corruption, inequality and frustrations.

Across the country, especially in the smaller towns which are just now emerging as urban centers, young people are graduating from school and finding that the promises of jobs and further education aren’t matched by the realities, which are drab and dispiriting by comparison. These small towns are the places where incomes are growing fastest, and so should be the bedrock of support for the EPRDF, but instead we see young people challenging the authorities, even turning to revolt. They are using the only political language open to them: ethnic identity. Instead of talking to these young adults, engaging them as partners in a national conversation about their life chances, we are preaching to them and hardly empowering them politically to comprehend the complexity of the situation they are faced with. And the ethnic language of politics is obscuring the fundamental national debate we need, which is about the politics of citizenship, the nature of patriotism, and what future we will collectively choose for our beloved Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s national security policy sees rapid economic development as essential to our country’s survival. Having achieved unprecedented growth rates for fifteen years, we need to refine that goal. Ethiopia needs balanced development, in which everyone has confidence that they will have a place. It cannot happen overnight, but the national dialogue in that direction can start right away.

Over the centuries, Ethiopia has oscillated between a powerful central government and an array of rulers or regions, rivalrous or autonomous. We have alternated eras of emperors and eras of princes; centralization and federalism; pan-Ethiopian identity and regional ethnic identities. For the last 27 years, it has been possible to be an Ethiopian patriot and a regional nationalist at the same time—proudly proclaiming one’s identity as an Oromo-Ethiopian or an Afar-Ethiopian or a Somali Ethiopian has been possible, and quite compatible with being an Ethiopian patriot. Regional centers of power have prospered and local elites have emerged, attached to their localities and determined to do what is best for their people.

But this process can go too far. Today, our political discussions are conducted almost entirely in the language of ethnic identity: which group benefits, and which doesn’t. Our discussion on the future of Ethiopia as a whole is pushed into the shadows. As society’s confidence in the government has wavered, we see some pernicious outcomes of this. In the border areas between one region and the next, people are taking up arms to drive out the other—turning internal administrative boundaries that ought to be little more than signposts on the highways, into hard borders that define where people can live in safety. Even in universities, students who come from neighbouring regions are being driven out. If our educated young people see their future in such narrow terms, it’s alarming indeed for the future of our country. The public authorities that ought to be maintaining order and ensuring that the basic rights of all Ethiopians are respected, are conspicuously absent. Polarization is fueled by social media that promote ethnic hatred; the kind of serious public forums in which official policies can be debated sensibly, are conspicuously absent.

National or ethnic identities are constituted by historical processes, and they change over time. Today we risk being and remain stuck in a formula designed at an earlier stage of our political and economic development.

Ethiopia’s identity politics needs a middle way that balances the historic forces of centralization and decentralization. We know the virtues and vices of both well enough. We need to reassert our common citizenship: we can still have our national identities, but we are all Ethiopians. Patriotism lies in moderation.

The EPRDF made three big promises when it took power. On development and federalism, it has delivered—though with problems. The third promise was to build a multi-party democracy . This has not been delivered, and we are paying a high price for that shortcoming.

At times it has seemed that the EPRDF views democracy narrowly or as an after historical stage. But neither development nor politics work that way. Ethiopians demanded democracy fifty years ago, at a time when the country was much poorer than today. . The EPRDF has seriously started analyzing its errors and beginning its own reform process, but Ethiopians are waiting patiently on the sidelines until the EPRDF leaders come out from their deliberations .

The whole political system in our country has been designed around one single party, the EPRDF. The developmental project is the EPRDF’s. The federal system can only be run by the EPRDF. When the EPRDF falls into political crisis, the whole country follows it into that same crisis. We are all hostage to a single political party, with all that party’s strengths and weaknesses. Ethiopia is bigger than the EPRDF and we cannot let a crisis within this ruling party become an existential threat to the country.

The crises of developmental upheaval and ethnic politics can only be addressed through a democratic process, beginning with a free and open national debate. What kind of Ethiopia do we want to have? What demands do the young people have? How do we adapt a federation of nationalities to the new stage of our political and economic development?

Our country is now more powerful and prosperous than at any time in our history; we have had a quarter century of unprecedented progress and internal stability. But our political process is still shrouded in secrecy and mystery, and is ill-equipped to deal with complicated challenges. Our crises are incubated in the dark, either within the citadels of power or among the masses of the people who communicate and organize in underground ways. Our institutions are not prepared for crisis, and tend to evaporate like soap bubbles in the wind. Most people, who yearn for stability, become paralyzed with fear and helplessness.

At a time like this, the heavy price paid by relentless censorship and by choking civil society becomes evident: our conversations are myopic and tactical. Who will be ahead of whom in the race to be the next PM? Which ethnic group will emerge ahead in the jostling for key positions? In this babble, the necessary national conversation cannot begin. Civil society is essential to this: in stifling civil society, the government has weakened the fabric of society as a whole, weakened many of the bonds of solidarity that held us together across ethnicities and faiths, and left us ill-prepared for adapting to a fast-changing world, or forging a new social contract at a time of a nationwide crisis of legitimacy.

In this context, the true patriot begins by trusting the people. Patriots love their country; they are proud of their citizenship and all it entails; they see their affinity for their country and their fellow citizens as complementing other bonds of solidarity. The patriot is honest about his or her country’s shortcomings, is ready to talk and listen to all citizens, and has faith in the future—faith that citizens acting together can overcome all hardships and challenges.

Ethiopians have experienced dictatorship and revolution, but never up to now have we had the benefit of the middle way of democratic openness. Ethiopians are instinctively patriotic, but have never had the chance for a democratic, moderate patriotism.

Ethiopia has proudly faced its challenges by drawing our own internal strengths: our diversity, our deep patriotic spirit, our respect for our national institutions. We may seek out lessons from across the world as we solve our problems. We welcome goodwill from abroad, but this is a challenge that we shall surmount ourselves.

In meeting our challenge, we will also set an example for Africa, of how to manage transition with stability, how to achieve democracy while sustaining our own values. A strong, democratic Ethiopia will retain its position as an inspiration for the continent and will lead by example.

Let’s begin our national conversation with our strengths. Ethiopia is stronger than ever before; it has weathered crises such as drought that humiliated previous governments; it has functioning institutions of government including a professional national army. The ruling party has admitted its errors and committed itself to reform and opening up, and the highest political official in the land has stepped down in the national interest. His successor should take on the mantle of leadership in a spirit of humble patriotism: he or she will be the temporary custodian of Ethiopia’s political direction, the moderator of the national conversation, and the servant of the public. Ethiopia needs the patriotism of humility and readiness to listen; Ethiopians need to be passionate in their moderation, finding the right balance among our multiple identities, and beginning an all-inclusive national debate about the many possible futures that face our country.

Stay Connected