By Tibebe Samuel Ferenji
“Individuals may form communities, but it is institutions alone that can create a nation”
I am using the phrase “it’s the economy stupid” that political strategist James Carville used during the election campaign of Senator Harris Wofford in Pennsylvania which brought the incumbent senator from 40 point deficit to victory. The same phrase was also used during the former US President Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign to make the economy the focal point of the 1992 presidential election.
After enormous turmoil, Ethiopians are focusing on the selection of Dr. Abiy Ahmed by the ruling party to be the new Prime Minster of Ethiopia. It is important to remember that neither the ruling party nor Dr. Abiy are elected by the Ethiopian people. Though the selection of Dr. Abiy has been a welcome news to many Ethiopians, I fear the visible euphoria from Dessie to DC may make us forget the importance of building institutions to transform our nation and lift her from the current predicament. I already see the political myopia and the danger of the looming personality cult. Ardent supporters of Dr. Abiy, particularly, Oromo People Democratic Organization (OPDO) cadres are elevating him as a “super hero”. Ethiopians seem to forget that one man is never the solution for the current problems we are in and the future challenges we face. Time and again, we have failed to focus on the importance of building institutions and continued to relay on individuals to pull us out from crisis. For years, the Ethiopian politics have centered on building individual cult instead of focusing in building institutions that will last for the generations to come. We Ethiopians don’t seem to learn that we can’t solve our multi facet complicated problems by simply elevating one person to “a superman status” and hoping for that one man to solve all our problems.
For more than 20 years the ruling party in Ethiopia hyped the “brilliance, bravery, visionary, wisdom” and other traits of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that he never possessed, when he died suddenly in 2012, the ruling party was forced into a crisis mode to come up with viable solution. To make it look as if the ruling party has built “a solid institution” in Ethiopia, it was forced to name former Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn as the Chairman of the ruling party and the “New Prime Minister”. Despite the title however, Mr. Dessalegn didn’t have any real power to lead, delegate, and command, the people around him. Because the whole façade was built around Zenawi, when he died, the ruling party, and the country at large was grappled with crisis that almost led the country into Rwanda type of ethnic conflict.
Though Mr. Zenawi rose through the rank and file to become the Tigrean People Liberation Front (TPLF) Chairman, when the TPLF, in a guise of the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), took power in May 1991, the TPLF continued to dominate the EPRDF. The TPLF, by default, the EPRDF, elevated Mr. Zenawi as a “superman” from the start. Although between May 1991, and March 2001, the TPLF leadership made collective decisions and the country was ruled by one party, between March 2001 and August 2012, the country was ruled by one man, Meles Zenawi. In March 2001, when Zenawi’s authority was challenged by his former comrades, his “Super Man” status gave him the power to purg12 TPLF central committee members in March 2001 and rule the country unchallenged until his death. When he died, the country entered into serious crisis.
From the beginning, the TPLF, in its conventional wisdom, knew it will not be accepted by the western governments unless it established a façade that made it look like Ethiopia has a constitution and a functional government led by a “democratic institutions” instead of a tyrant. Despite the fact a commission was established to draft Ethiopia’s “new” Constitution, the “draft” was nothing more than a list prepared by the TPLF. The main objective of the Constitution has been to simply divide the country along ethnic lines with a malicious intent to create animosity among different ethnic groups and different clans within the same ethnic group. With that evil intent, the TPLF was able to prolong its grip on power and implement its destructive policies that was designed to disintegrate the nation. Instead of building a true democratic institutions and transform the nation into a democratic country, the TPLF squandered that golden opportunity and focused in building a personality cult of Mr. Zenawi. Despite the fact, Meles Zenawi had no vision for Ethiopia and his work was dedicated for the development of Tigray, his comrades and ardent supporters labeled him as “a visionary” leader.
Even though Zenawi imprisoned thousands of his opponents, committed genocide, exiled many who disagreed with his policies, and violated human and civil rights of millions of Ethiopians, for his supporters, he could not do anything wrong. To speak ill of Zenawi is unthinkable and considered a betrayal. Even after his death, to continue aggrandize him with false assertion became a mission. The Westerners who cared more about their interest than the interest of the people of Ethiopia, knew the reign of tyranny in Ethiopia under Zenawi and after his death; but they looked away and funded a brutal regime led by cruel man whom they labeled as “wise”. Zenawi did not only rule the country with an Iron Fist, he also ruled the TPLF/EPRDF with fear. Those who tried to deviate from his plan were chastised in party and parliamentary meetings and purged from the party. The do-nothing parliament was there to simply rubber stamp what was decided by Mr. Zenawi. Even members of the ruling party, his comrades in arms, were fearful of him; thus they lionized his work, his alleged accomplishments, and praised a wisdom he never had.
After the death of Zenawi however, when Mr. Dessalegn took over as the premier of this great nation, three deputy Prime Ministers were assigned “to assist him”. This is an insult not only to the new premier but the entire nation. The message was clear, the ruling junta wanted to continue to rule “with the spirit of Zenawi” and wanted further cement the idea of “no one is equal to Zenawi”. Although the ruling party denied that it was in a crisis mode after Zenawi’s death, the selection of three deputy Prime Minister tells a different story. Since the TPLF put all its eggs in elevating and lionizing one man, when that man died, it was forced to hold an empty bag. The death of the strong man that held the ruling party like a glue created a power struggle within the ruling party. At one point, Mr. Dessalegn was forced to publicly admit that he did not know who is making the decision and he only learn it after the fact. The ruling party’s failure to establish a democratic system of government and democratic institutions led to serious crisis in Ethiopia which ignited protests particularly in Amhara and Oromo regions. Despite the deception concocted by the ruling party for the last 27 years, it was forced to admit that the country was becoming unstable and the crisis was beyond its control. It was such admission and the danger of the looming ethnic conflict that brought the current Prime Minister, Dr. Abiy Ahmed, to the front line.
The last 27 years, there has been repeated calls by the opposition and concerned citizens for National Reconciliation, and establishing a democratic system of government in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, such noble cause was ignored and mocked by the regime. After enormous struggle and sacrifice of many innocent lives, the ruling junta was out of choice and forced to change its modus operandi. Mr. Dessalegn was “forced” to resign and the ruling party came with a new leader. The public pressure has led to the release of well-known political prisoners, but many remain in prison as of today. Although many people give undeserving credit to the new Premier for the release of political prisoners, the credit should go to young Oromos and Amharas who brought the ruling junta to its knees without shooting one bullet.
Don’t get me wrong, at least for now, I am carefully watching the action of Dr. Abiy Ahmed. However, I know for certain he is not the ultimate solution to the current crisis and enormous challenge ahead of us. The selection of Dr. Abiy Ahmed has averted major crisis in Ethiopia; in my opinion he has averted civil war and saved the ruling junta from its demise. This is not his only “contributions” thus far. By advocating for the unity of Ethiopia, recognizing the contribution made by previous regimes, realizing the role that the opposition play, and conveying a clear message that his desire is to establish a strong united Ethiopia, he has put extremist elements in a defensive mode.
Without a doubt, the new Premier has won the hearts and minds of the majority of the Ethiopians. He is charismatic, eloquent speaker, and a true visionary leader. May be Mr. Zenawi’s admirers could learn from Dr. Abiy a thing or two what a visionary sounds like. For many Ethiopians who longed for such uniting leader seem to lose sight about the importance of institutions and the danger of lionizing and elevating Dr. Abiy as a “super hero”. Once again, we seem to forget that Dr. Abiy is a human being who will not last forever. Where will the country be if something happen to Dr. Abiy tomorrow?
By all accounts and by its own admission, the ruling party in Ethiopia is not a legitimately elected government. It has publicly admitted it is a corrupt regime and has ruled the country with corrupt intent and using its brutal police and military force. It has admitted it is a bad government. We all know that the Ethiopian “constitution” and the parliament are façades. Hence, there is no constitutionally elected government in Ethiopia. You can slice it and dice it in any way you want, the fact remains that the current regime in Ethiopia is illegitimate, and it has publicly admitted that it is illegitimate. Therefore, we need to pressure Dr. Abiy to use his office and his “political capital” to transform the country from one man rule to a democratic system of government. No matter how much Dr. Abiy is loved by the majority, we must not forget the necessity of building democratic institutions. That is the only thing that could give our nation lasting solutions. Unlike human beings, institutions serve a country for generation to come. Our nation is too important and too great to leave her fate in the hands of one man. It is our responsibility to focus in building and strengthening democratic institutions to face the future challenges and address the current problems griping our nation. Our elites must stop bickering and stop making one man the center of “solution”. Dr. Abiy can serve as a transition from point A to point B, but he is not the end to our problems and challenges.
We must learn from our past experience; we need to stop building personality cult and relaying on a single individual to solve all our problems. We must continue the fight to build democratic institutions that are capable of serving the nation for long period. We need to support Dr. Abiy when he makes the right decisions but oppose when he makes errors and makes decision that are contrary to the interest of our nation. We must also remind him the urgency of National Reconciliation and the necessity to transfer power to the people of Ethiopia. In order to accomplish this objective, he must establish a responsible body that will bring all concerned parties to the table and craft the necessary roadmap to lead the country to a democratic system of government. Moreover, the notion that he is the “messiah” must stop; and we must remind him the lingering burning issues that need immediate attention which include the uprooting of ethnic Amharas from various regions. As the novelist and United Kingdom former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli clearly stated “Individuals may form communities, but it is institutions alone that can create a nation”. Without institutions, we cannot have a lasting peace and stable government. Hence, I humbly and respectfully say to you Dr. Abiy is not the solution; it’s the institution stupid!