Ethnic Politics and the Cracks in the Dry Ground of the TPLF
Messay Kebede, PhD, University of Dayton, Ohio
The current split in the TPLF and the suspension of its twelve distinguished members have come as a surprise to many observers of Ethiopian politics. Inasmuch as the recent smashing victory of Ethiopian forces over Eritrean army was entirely organized and led by the TPLF leadership, one naturally expected a reinforcement of unity. We are told that the victory was anything but a celebration of unity, as for many leading members of the TPLF Ethiopia lost politically what it had achieved militarily. In their eyes, the peace treaty singed in Algiers by Ethiopian and Eritrean governments deprives Ethiopia of what it was entitled to obtain given its enormous human and material sacrifices to reverse the Eritrean aggression.
My purpose is not establish which of the contending factions is right for the simple reason that the ethnicization of Ethiopian politics has literally blurred the distinction between Ethiopian and Tigrean, more exactly, TPLF’s interests. Instead, I want to reflect on the crack in the so far greatly publicized and hailed ideological and organizational homogeneity of the TPLF so as to unravel its real cause.
The Premises of Ethnic Politics
To really measure the exact meaning of the crack and the resulting suspension of leading members, we have first to reflect on the nature of ethnic political parties and their ideology. We can no longer ignore the fact that the proliferation of ethnic parties in Ethiopia is a byproduct of the ascendancy of Marxist-Leninist ideology over the Ethiopian students movements and educated circles in the 60s and 70s. Not to grasp the filiation is to miss the organizational and ideological similarities between ethnic politics and Leninist principles of party organization.
To begin with, ethnicity has little to do with what is known as tribalism if only because it speaks a modern language. Does it not fight for democracy, justice, and self-determination? Are not Western educated politicians and intellectuals its most committed leaders? It is also populist in that it targets the empowerment of the whole ethnic group, not a privileged sector. What is more, it is strongly held that unless the ethnic movement is radicalized by committed intellectuals it will not by itself grow into an independent and empowering force. All these orientations closely echo the basic principles of Leninist party organization and ideological unity.
Thus, just as Leninism argued for strict ideological unity on the grounds that the masses have common interests, so too do ethnicist politicians take the ethnic group as an embodiment of unity and common interests. In fact, the ethnic principle pushes even further the Marxist-Leninist requirement of total unity by arguing that the entitlement to represent a given people is inscribed in the blood, in the kinship. Individuals coming from a different ethnic descent have no right to represent an ethnic group. Such people are precisely outsiders, aliens; only kinspersons have or exercise power as a matter of natural rights, of being members of the same natural group. If you happen to be an Amhara, no matter how much you cherish justice and democracy, you cannot represent Tigreans or Oromo. Even if the Amhara, the Tigrean, and the Oromo belong to the same wealthy class, none of them is entitled to speak in the name of their common class interest. Only the kin representative has such a right as a result of political legitimacy solely residing in the kinship. Marxist-Leninist ideology had at least advocated that intellectuals, owing to their commitment to science and justice, are liable to desert their own class interests so as to espouse the cause of the working people. While maintaining the principle of a self-sacrificing elite, ethnicist intellectuals entirely confine their commitment to their own ethnic groups.
But then, the hidden principle of ethnic politics stands out in relief. It is how a small elite claims an exclusive right to represent a mass of people defined as an ethnic group. The definition involves a construct that draws common economic and political interests from the sharing of linguistic or cultural attributes. The construct sets the ethnic group against other ethnic groups even as it crowns the small elite as its natural representative. This exclusion alone is enough to evince the extent to which ethnicity is an elitist discourse: it appeals to the natural solidarity allegedly inscribed in the kinship to rally people around a radicalized elite.
The assumption being that all the members of an ethnic group, be they peasants, workers, capitalists, form a homogeneous group, the basic cement of the politics is the principle of unanimity: Indeed, the ethnic group is the embodiment of unanimism: in addition to having common characteristics and history, members of an ethnic group are supposed to think alike and to have a common interest beyond class and status divisions. Most of all, ethnic solidarity is presented as a normative behavior with the assumption that kinspersons are the best possible representatives of the ethnic group.
. This is to say that ethnic politics cannot, by definition, handle a plurality of views without collapsing from within. Pluralism would mean that the alleged solidarity and common interests is only a façade with the consequence that fractions and conflicts require a non-ethnic form of representation. The acknowledgment of factions would also entail that the elite group is anything but the exclusive representative of the ethnically defined people. Failing ethnic criteria, such representation would lean toward a democratic system in the sense of reflecting diversity and individualism, thereby drawing the Tigrean toward an alliance of interests with the Amhara or the Oromo of the same social standing. But this would mean nothing else than the collapse of ethnic parties in favor of free association based on interests and ideological affinities. And this is what ethnic parties are determined to avoid at all cost, even to the point of opting for secession.
In light of this structural limitation of ethnic politics, the cracks in the TPLF’s homogeneity and the totally inability of the group to resolve differences in a democratic way is little surprising. The recognition of difference is fatal to the whole thinking: under pain of digging its own grave, it must present dissident views as betrayals of ethnic solidarity. Either the dissenters return to the ethnic cradle by totally denying their beliefs through a public self-criticism and debasement or face exclusion as traitors. How could it be otherwise when any dissident voice amounts to a betrayal of solidarity through the challenge of the fundamental belief of ethnic organizations, namely, the primacy of group solidarity over individual or sectorial interests?
The choice of democratic centralism as the basic rule of party work demonstrates that the achievement of unanimity is the main purpose of the TPLF. Generally recognized in the past as the cornerstone of TPLF’s organizational power, this Leninist principle is still operational. The Ethiopian News Agency reports that the resolution of the Council of the EPRDF on the crisis within the TPLF Central Committee admits that “the source of the exacerbated situations that emerged following the group’s walk out from meetings was the violation of the principle of democratic centralism that ‘the minority shall be governed by the will of the majority’.” The report adds that this “contravention of the Organization’s democratic centralism which is the hall mark of the EPRDF, was a destructive act aimed at blocking unity of purpose and action within the EPRDF.” The expression “democratic” should not lead us astray: the accent being on centralism, democracy is here at the service of unanimism. It is not that the majority decides; it is rather that the minority ceases to exist even as minority. Because the thinking equates the loss of unity in the party with paralysis and defeat, functionalism must be averted by all means.
Democratic centralism explains the secrecy which has surrounded the workings of the TPLF since its inception. Real democracy requires that debates and decisions be conducted in public, for secrecy is mortal to democratic procedure. The lack of openness leads to intrigues, suspicions, gossips, and finally to disaster. But in the eyes of small elites, politics cannot go public without surrendering its mission to liberate and recreate the people. When politics rises to tutorship, the enlightened few must decide and guide the masses, and public debates are irrelevant. In effect, secrecy was so pervasive in the TPLF that the dissenters admit in the official statement that they have released that “the aim of [their] declaration is to expose the truth to the public. It is high time that the causes of the friction and how it grew to such a level be informed to the public in a lucid fashion.” Inscribed in the centralism of the system, secrecy flows from the ruling that the party has only one authorized voice. The monolithic image of the party would be greatly tarnished if differences of opinion became public. In the last instance, secrecy originates from a conception of politics that refuses to give a say to the people. Major decisions involving the destiny of individuals and the nation are taken within the party, more exactly at the high level of the politburo. They are then communicated to the cadres whose major task is to reveal and explain them to the people. Since the people do not decide but are simply informed, there is no need to engage in a public debate.
The mechanism of democratic centralism presents the minority, not as different, but as utterly wrong, the consequence being that it is required to stop acting as a viable and legitimate political option. In a true democracy, the majority decides, but does not ask the minority to forsake its views. On the contrary, democracy is clearly perceived as a system where the minority has the right to present its dissident views as alternative options. Not only is pluralism tolerated, but it is also perceived as healthy and dynamic. Such is not the case of democratic centralism: pluralism is condemned as betrayal and factionalism. That is why self-criticism is the only course left to dissenters if they want to avoid physical elimination or imprisonment. Unsurprisingly, the Ethiopian News Agency, reports that the EPRDF Council “has also decided to accept members of the dissent group provided that they admitted and criticized themselves for their wrong doings.”
And what is the purpose of self-criticism? It is not really the integration of dissenters; it is rather their public humiliation through the recognition of utterly wrong views, thereby signing their own political death. A relevant illustration of this is the case of one of the dissenters, Hassen, who agreed to self-criticism. The Ethiopian News Agency reports that “Hassen described the divisive activities of the group as a ‘dangerous’ trend that imperils the stability of the country,” just as he “lauded the strong commitment of the Tigray people and TPLF members to save their front from division.” What Hassen stood for was not an alternative view, but a dangerous trend showing the complete recklessness of the whole dissenting group. And if you ask the question why a difference of analysis and approach is defamed as a reckless option, the only answer is that it undermines the unanimity of the movement, and hence its ethnic ethos. What is an ethnic group if it is not united, has similar interests and one purpose?
That is why most members of the Tigrean elite, whether they support or oppose the expulsion of the twelve dissenters, agree in saying that the division is dangerous and call for reconciliation. Division is fatal for the ethnic group, for the interests of Tigray and Tigreans. A supporter of Meles writes: “consequently, now all seem to be in mortal dangers of losing everything they have worked for, including their lives.” (Walta Information website). Even a Tigrean who confesses his opposition to ethnic politics, in an article titled “The Exigency of National Reconciliation & Legitimate Consensus In Ethiopia,” posted on the Ethiopian Commentator--a website strongly in favor of the TPLF--demands reconciliation on the ground that “by ousting the core of the TPLF, the organization cannot stand on its own, let alone continue to govern Ethiopia and enjoy legitimate support from the Ethiopian people.” In view of the fact that those Tigreans who call for reconciliation admit at the same time that a great difference divides the group, the call for reconciliation is little intelligible unless the imperative of ethnic homogeneity is kept in mind. They all say that the difference must be overcome in the name and interest of Tigray. Nowhere do they admit that the imposition of homogeneity was already a wrong view bound to explode sooner or later.
Unanimism, be it in the name of a class, a race, an ethnic group, cannot but promote absolutism and dictatorial methods. Leninism gave birth to Stalinism, the superiority of the Aryan race to Nazism. Though petty in its visions, ethnicity is no less unanimist. The split in the TPLF should not come as a surprise: unanimism can veil and suppress pluralism for some time, but it cannot eliminate it altogether. While ethnic unanimity serves the interests of many opportunist Tigreans, the spell of ethnic solidarity is also totally clouding the thinking of many honest and pro-Ethiopian Oromo and Tigrean intellectuals. It is time that they start reading the elitist politics of unanimism into the imperative of ethnic solidarity. What happened to the twelve distinguished members should serve them as a wake up call. If the group is able to treat thus its distinguished members, then what guarantee do they have if tomorrow they also feel the need to say something different?
The generation of 60s and 70s--to which I belong--thought that organizational and ideological unanimity was the key to the defense and empowerment of the Ethiopian masses. Because it went through the bitter experience and failures of exclusive and intolerant political organizations as well as the one-party system of socialism, many of us know to day how greatly mistaken it is to confuse what is essentially an issue of democracy and economic growth with the institution of unanimity around a self-appointed elite. Many Oromo and Tigrean intellectuals think unanimity instituted in the name of their ethnic group is or will be different. We ask them to think, to be smart enough to understand that it is the same politics with simply different words and symbols. Derg’s periodical purges use to obey the same logic of unanimity around a rising individual.
Take the case of the Eritrean struggle: wrapped up in an ethnic and secessionist ideology, it successfully gained independence. However, to their dismay, Eritreans discovered that the new country is yet to establish the elementary rights of individuals and the elementary principles of democratic government. We see them back to square one, as suppressed as before, with the irony that this time their own kin dragged them in a terrible and senseless war. Tigray too is the land of unanimity, of silence in the name of ethnic solidarity. Only one authorized voice says what Tigreans think and want. I conjecture that many of them envy the little liberty that marginalized ethnic groups enjoy in Addis Ababa with people speaking their mind, even having a “free press.” The motto is: “Silence Tigreans! We rule Ethiopia!” Some did not take this as true: their suspension has by now convinced them that Tigray too is back to square one.
Charges and Countercharges
We have now enough theoretical elements to analyze the real meaning and cause of the split within the TPLF. Undoubtedly, the best way to proceed is to review the arguments of the two contending groups in light of these theoretical indicators. A word of caution, however: in view of the culture of secrecy, analysis is condemned to interpret, guess, and extrapolate from statements and articles made public thus far. Let me begin with the arguments of the splitters and their supporters.
After going through the fastidious and coded articles and statements appearing in numerous websites, I find that the opposition against Prime Minister Meles Zenawi boils down to an accusation of dictatorship. Splitters as well as their supporters all say that Meles is heading for one-man rule and that he must be stopped. I hasten to add that the accusation is overtaken by the Eritrean issue. As a result, Meles’s lack of commitment to the Tigrean cause and, with greater reason, his utter indifference to Ethiopian interests, are ostentatiously exposed and denounced. To all appearances, passion rather than reason speaks because nowhere do the authors of the statements and writings realize how embarrassing it is for a party to admit that it had put the destiny of the TPLF and Tigray in the hands of an agent of Eritrea, to say nothing of the despicable habit of calling their own long term comrade-in-arms a traitor.
Be that as it may, the dissenters and their supporters attribute the origin of the split to the Eritrean aggression. Already distressed by the privileges and special protection Eritreans enjoyed in Ethiopia, their distress grew into bewilderment in the face of Meles’s complete insensibility to the Eritrean threat even though he was notified of evidence of military preparations. Together with the already demonstrated aggressivity of the Eritrean regime against other neighboring countries, these preparations were enough to trigger Ethiopian protective measures. Nothing of the kind occurred so that the lack of military readiness cost Ethiopia many unnecessary lives and material losses. And if this were all! After the hard-won victory of Ethiopia, Meles signed a peace treaty in which the military victory did not find any political translation. According to the splitters and their supporters, this capitulation of Meles evinces his allegiance to Eritrean interests as well as his collusion with imperialist forces, given that the American government openly called on Ethiopia to sign the treaty under pain of international economic sanction. From this collusion with imperialism there follows the accusation that Meles is turning his back on TPLF’s commitment to socialism. Referring to Meles’s group, the statement of the suspended group says that “the ‘palace-group’ has started to espouse ideas which would eliminate revolutionary and socialist views. These wrong ideas could change our party into a liberal and parasitic group.”
To this ideological difference are added accusations considered symptomatic of the dangerous drift of Meles and his group. The one has to do with anti-democratic methods, as perfectly evinced by the expulsion of the dissenting group. Their statement says that “in clear violation of the party's rule pertaining to quorum which required 20 of the 30 members to be present to convene a meeting, 15 or 16 of them met to make decisions in the name of the Central Committee.” The other denounces the practice of false charges and smear campaign against opponents. Not only charges of corruption and anti-democratic schemes are made against the opponents, but also it is widely propagated that the group refuses to be investigated. Far from refusing investigation, the group insists that it has put forward the suggestion that “every member of the Central Committee should be investigated by this committee and a report be presented for the general assembly for a final decision.” Clearly, the purpose of these accusations is the public discredit of the dissidents so as to clear the way to personal dictatorship.
It should be noted that the dissidents are particularly keen on associating the dictatorial trend with the Eritrean issue. As they themselves say, “our main difference with the ‘palace-group’ lies on sovereignty. The group, pushed by Sha'bia's views, harbored a view which contravenes the aim of the party.” All of Meles’s negative behaviors flow from his Eritrean loyalty. The deference to the imperialist dictate, the revision of socialist policy, and the dictatorial methods became necessary to ensure the defense of Eritrean interests. And since the twelve dissidents stand in the way of such policy, a strategy of dismissal had to be devised. In short, what defines Meles is all-out treason.
Now let us review the charges and counter-charges of Meles and his group. Equally coded, their essential purpose is to pinpoint wanderings caused by a revengeful power struggle. Meles is successful in acquiring a national and international stature making him more and more independent of his previous comrades. Because the latter resent this independence, they accuse him of being an Eritrean supporter just to undermine his growing popularity. An article, titled “Betraying a Trust” posted on Walta webpage, best summarizes the accusation: “Perhaps they [the twelve dissidents] are beginning to realize that they are aging, and given the fact that Prime Minister Meles has emerged as an able and popular leader in his own right, the likelihood that anyone of them can legally replace him is getting remote by the day.” The article adds that “they consider the developments [the national and international successes of Meles] as a threat because the implication frustrates all their effort to grab power and recognition. As a result they have reverted to machinations. They have started to call him an Eritrean.”
This power struggle has been identified as Bonapartism, which suggests an undemocratic challenge to Meles coming from the military group that claims a decisive role in repelling the Eritrean aggression. In particular, the accusation singles out Siye Abraha Hagos as the real leader of the dissenting group. Analyzing the cause of the dissent, the statement of the EPRDF Council finds that “the fundamental issues which divided the majority and the minority group in the Central Committee were the majority's contention that the main danger facing the order we are building is bonapartism and degeneration while the minority rejected this and espoused that the problem challenging our system is external.” It goes without saying that the charge of Bonapartism essentially exposes the anti-democratic nature of the dissent. It suggests that the group operates against the decision of the majority, as evinced by its walkout of meetings of the Executive Committee of the party when it had the opportunities to use all the forums opened to it by both the TPLF and EPRDF.
This open anti-democratic behavior, in turn, reveals that its intention has never been to win the support of the majority through democratic discussion. Rather, it was to cause disruption and chaos so as to seize power by illegal means. To the charge of treason, Meles‘s camp responds by calling the opponents splinter group intent on destabilizing the country. Accordingly, the crisis is due to a plot by an extremist and irresponsible group little fit to govern the country. In line with its anti-democratic goal, its characteristic method is to spread false rumors and claims. A good example of this is the smear campaign to present Meles as a supporter of Eritrea. To make the allegation credible, the splinter group presents itself as the sole architect of the victory over Eritrea, as opposed to Meles and his followers who, on top of disbelieving in the Eritrean threat, are said to have been very soft both in the conduct of the war and peace negotiations. To those who are tempted to listen to these empty claims, the statement of the EPRDF reminds that “the peoples of Ethiopia achieved victory over the invading Sha'bia regime by rallying behind the political leadership of EPRDF.” In other words, the accusation is part of a malicious plot aimed at tarnishing the reputation of Meles.
Equally made up is the charge of treason of the socialist principles of the movement. Because the term socialist and anti-imperialist are not used--probably not to antagonize Westerners and some Ethiopian sectors--it does not follow that the popular aims of the movement are abandoned. The statement of the Council insists that both “TPLF and EPRDF, which from the outset affirmed their partisanship for the people in their programs and ceaseless efforts to put their programs into action, have foiled the dissenting group's destabilizing actions in a mature and democratic manner.” Better still, the statement reverses the charge: when the dissenters attribute the victory to themselves, what else are they rejecting but the socialist principle according to which “the masses . . . are the makers of history,” thereby demonstrating that they “still have a feudalistic outlook.”
While all the above reasons are important, the principal motive for the dissent originates, according to Meles’s camp, from a much pettier concern. It has to do with the charge of corruption. An article by a supporter of Meles says it in no uncertain terms: “they had ambition, but the purpose seems to cover-up their own problems. There have been a great deal of talk about corruption implicating some of them.” Put otherwise, all the fuss about Eritrea and treason of socialism is a disguised expression of the refusal of the dissenting group to be investigated. It is a tactical diversion to avert Meles’s resolution to fight corruption and anti-disciplinary behaviors in the party. Because the members of the group personally felt threatened, they devised the plot and the smear campaign to foil the investigation.
Reaping What You Have Sown
The critical assessment of accusations and counteraccusations is liable to reveal the real reason for the crisis by going beyond what contenders are consciously or unconsciously willing to admit to themselves and their supporters. In this regard, I find it quite interesting that the two contenders felt obliged to present their case to the Ethiopian peoples and compete for their support. This fact of the Ethiopian peoples elevated to the rank of arbitrator is quite new in view of the legendary secrecy of the TPLF, most of all, of its declared accountability to the Tigrean people alone.
Moreover, to denounce the dissidents Meles saw fit to appear during the press conference surrounded by Kuma Demeksa and Abate Kisho, respectively chiefs of the Oromia and South Ethiopian Nations and Nationalities and Peoples' Regional States as well as by Addisu Legesse, Chairman of the Amhara National Democratic Movement and Vice chairman of EPRDF. These leaders of affiliate organizations denounced the actions of the dissidents. In addition to become public, dissent in the ranks of the TPLF is confirmed as wrong through the testimony and support of alleged leaders of other ethnic groups. But more yet, I find it interesting and intriguing that Ato Addisu Legesse labeled the “‘dissenting’" group ‘tribalist’ which shamefully believed in blood ties,” as though to suggest that Meles was actually fighting an extremist and ethnically narrow-minded group. In the same line, the Ethiopian News Agency reports that “according to a statement issued by the EPRDF, the mature leadership and the democratic principles employed by both the EPRDF and TPLF have enabled to stop the dissenting groups from achieving their racist and devising objectives.” Without doubt, the purpose of the whole scene is to present Meles as a Pan-Ethiopian leader, all the more so as the dissenting group received no public support, to my knowledge, from the leaders of affiliate parties.
No sooner is Meles portrayed as a nationalist leader than the accusation of tribalism presents the dissenting group as a faction still harboring the idea of a Tigrean hegemony even though the war against Eritrea had dismissed the thinking by deploying Ethiopia as the defender of Tigray. Interestingly, the description matches more or less with what dissenters and most of their supporters say, albeit in a veiled manner. Indeed, the accusation of dictatorship, when read between the lines, seems to point to Meles becoming more and more independent of the TPLF through the acquisition of Pan-Ethiopian references. As we saw, this is exactly what the supporters of Meles emphasize when they say that the previous comrades resent his growing nationalist and internationalist stature. The opponents are so convinced of the meta-Tigrean ambition of Meles that they readily understood the charge of corruption and the call for investigation as a shrewd means to get rid of them.
Meles’s alleged detachment explains some of the statements of the supporters of the suspended group. For all of them, a division of this magnitude is bound to lead to the complete loss of what has been acquired so far by the people of Tigray. In an editorial titled “A Call to Action!” The Ethiopian Commentator vehemently characterizes Meles’s action as a coup d’etat. It demands that “our leaders realize the notion that together we live and win but divided you perish.” Another article on the same webpage, titled “Meles: Stop the Tragedy and Start the Healing!,” has this to say to Meles: “We are Tigreans who are very furious with your actions! We are your fellow Tigreans who feel betrayed, and abandoned by you! We are Tigrean professionals with no political agenda except that of our people and our organization’s interest at heart.” Further it asks: “Need we remind you Mr. Meles the TPLF means everything to the Tigrean people! It is this jewel which stands to guarantee their very existence. Should anything happen to this magnificent organization, God knows what our fate would be!” It does not require a great perspicacity to understand that the concern is that a weakened TPLF would jeopardize the gains and the interests of the Tigrean people.
Quite adroitly, the threat is supposed to come from Eritrea, the unofficial but real nation of Meles himself. In this way, the dissenters hope to present themselves as Pan-Ethiopian by activating the anti-Eritrean sentiments of most Ethiopians. The Tigrean elite introduces the Eritrean issue each time it needs to grant or contest Ethiopianness, and this particularly fits an anti-Meles discourse because of Meles’s alleged soft stand against Eritrea before, during, and after the war as well as of the nasty and arrogant things he said about Ethiopia when the TPLF seized power. Maliciously, the article of the Ethiopian Commentator reminds the Ethiopians how “after reluctantly joining to sing the "Ethiopia for Ethiopians" chorus, he [Meles] stumbled more than once, at times contradicting the message that was being sent on the war front.”
But there is more. Efforts are emerging here and there to impute the independence of Eritrea to Meles, against the view, so we are told, of the TPLF. In the same article, we read that “he spent a great deal of his time telling the world and assuring Eritreans that Ethiopia had no right to the sea. That it was perfectly o.k. for a country of 50 million to go begging for port from country to country.” To all appearances, this is not an isolated opinion since another article demands: “Who gave you the right to allow Eritrea to hold a referendum? Who gave you the mandate, vis-à-vis Eritrea, to speak on behalf of the Ethiopian people?” In a statement on the Ethiopian Commentator titled “Oust Meles Zenawi”, the International Committee of Tigrians for Democracy (ICTD) denounces Meles as follows: “paralyzing Tigray, Meles thought, would enable him to rule Ethiopia unchallenged, and attract his Eritrean wolves back to bleed the “cow” to death.” The same declaration accuses Meles of being the sole architect of Eritrean independence with the complicity of his Eritrean advisors.
What is not clear, however, is why Meles would topple the TPLF to serve Eritrea. Can he not do it for himself, for the consolidation of his own power? Though not admitted directly by any of his opponents, some such turn of events is nevertheless in the logic of accusing Meles of dictatorship. Meles becomes a dictator as soon as he wants to rule without the TPLF, the sole guarantee of Tigrean hegemony. The split and the expulsion of leading members are presumed dangerous to the extent that division weakens the TPLF, but most of all, undermines the ethnic solidarity, and hence ethnic politics itself. The alliance of Meles and his group with other ethnic groups against founding members of the TPLF may sound the death knell of ethnic alignments. No better illustration of the fragility of ethnic associations could be found than the display of factions and deep frictions within the most ethnic-minded organization.
This is to say that the real cause of the split has little to do with alleged Meles’s betrayals; it is ultimately due to the limitations and drawbacks of ethnic politics itself. Nobody can rule Ethiopia for long on the basis of ethnic agenda. In the past, individuals, whatever their ethnic belonging, ruled Ethiopia through the ideology of Seyoum Igziabher Recently, the socialist agenda, by the very fact it transcends regionalism, was evoked to justify power appropriation. This fact of Ethiopia is, it seems to me, what Meles and his group have understood and yet refuse to admit. On the other hand, to the perceived need of including pro-Ethiopian principles into the ethnic agenda, the dissenting group opposes the Eritrean issue by presenting Meles as an agent of Eritrea. In so doing, it does no more than confirm the need to buttress the ethnic scheme by a Pan-Ethiopian ideology and political system. However, partly because both factions remain entangled in the mire of ethnic discourses and partly because they lack the courage to admit the untenability of their former beliefs, we see them wishing the same thing in a confused, misleading and, for that matter, confrontational language.
It is high time that both camps openly admit the drawbacks of ethnic politics if only for the good of the people in whose name they claim to rule, to wit, the Tigrean people. Their dismissal and inability to go public should bring the dissidents round to the idea that the democracy that they boast to have established is a bogus one. The pitiful reality of many Tigreans outside Ethiopia denouncing Meles while those living in Ethiopia are said to support him clearly indicates that democracy does not exist even for those in whose name the small elite rule. In the eyes of ethnic politics, democracy, the existence and defense of alternative views, is an anomaly that must be extirpated in favor of unanimity.
Above all, it must be understood that democracy is not that somebody rules in my name; it is rather that this somebody, whoever he/she is, is accountable to the people perceived, not as an homogenous ethnic group, but as composed of individuals with inalienable and universal rights. The error is to confuse what is essentially a question of democracy, of exercising universal rights, regardless of blood, family or kinship ties, with the acts of governing and being citizens. For these rights to be exercised, it is essential that public functions become impersonal, free of any imperative other than the carrying out of universal rights and the accountability to those who elect. What matters is not that the state claims to be Oromo, Tigrean, or Amhara, or their federation, but that it functions on the basis of universal rights, including those rights that individuals claim as a result of belonging to particular ethnic groups.
To understand that what is said here is in the direct interest of those ethnic groups in whose name power is exercised, the essential condition is a firm grasp of Ethiopian events as direct products of the pursuit of ethnic hegemony. You cannot marginalize other ethnic groups and expect to remain free. Dictatorial methods crush everybody without distinction. The act by which the Tigrean elite steps on other peoples is also the act by which it surrenders its own freedom. In fact, the irony is that the marginalized groups are freer than the ruling ethnic group. Witness: while the Tigrean diaspora is so bitterly divided, Tigreans in Addis Ababa and elsewhere in Ethiopia are said to have one voice. For instance, the Ethiopian News Agency reports that “in a resolution they [the cadres of the TPLF] passed at the meetings they held on 16 and 18 March in Mekele and Addis Ababa respectively, the cadres said they unanimously support the TPLF central committee's decisions and measures taken to ensure the well-being of the front.” I emphasize the expression “unanimously” because, as we saw, it is a vital requirement of ethnic politics: all the members of the tribe must rally behind the self-appointed representatives under pain of dissolution.
One observer writes on the Badme Web Page: “the people of Tigray have never experienced any democratic freedom in the past 10 years. If there was any freedom of press and speech in the country introduced by this government, it is limited to Addis Ababa and this may have been a cover to convince international diplomats. If it was a genuine one, the 12 “dissidents” would have been allowed to air their voices in media.” Similarly, in an open letter sent to Meles, Tigreans residing in British Columbia (Canada), condemns Meles for the dismissal of the twelve comrades. It says: “Some of us had the chance to travel to Tigray and witness the abject condition our people are in. The core of family life is destroyed, possibly worse than in the times of the Derg regime. The worst of all times has come upon our people where only the elderly, women and children are left at home with their beloved ones never to come back.” This decline and deterioration of Tigray are surely not the handiwork of Meles, but the outcomes of the unrealistic goal of the TPLF to rule Ethiopia by a minority. Just as previous Ethiopian regimes had ruled Ethiopia in the name of Amhara people while maintaining the people in a abject condition of poverty and silence, so too the new leaders rule Ethiopia for Tigray while shutting up and dislocating its people.
The same logic operates in corruption. As one observer wrote on the Walta Information Center webpage, “corruption, inefficiency, nepotism, perfidy, obsequiousness do not entirely manifest over night. . . . Why then, have they not been stamped out before they assumed gargantuan scales? They must have been tolerated by respective retailers of the commodities in both camps in exchange for favourable returns.” In other words, you needed Meles as a dictator to act as masters and now he is turning against you. And so long as the goal of dominance is maintained, TPLF leaders cannot escape corruption for the simple reason that the premise of ethnic politics prevents them from becoming accountable to the Ethiopian peoples. Are they not themselves saying that primarily they belong to another nation, the Tigrean nation? An opponent of Meles expressed his indignation in the Ethiopian Commentator by asking: “Do you feel violated Mother Tigray? How about you Mother Ethiopia? Do you feel disgraced, humiliated and desecrated?” How amazing all this is! The opponent does not even see the oddity, to say the least, of claiming two mothers.
The lesson to be learnt here by everybody is that no ethnic group can marginalize other groups without losing its own freedom. There cannot be a free and prosperous Tigray while the rest of Ethiopia wallows in misery and repression: the very means and goal to effect this state of things is also how it shapes Tigray into an instrument of oppression by melting away its natural bulwark against tyranny. The suitable principle for everybody should be at this juncture: let us get rid of all dictatorships, including the ethnic ones, in favor of individual and universal rights. We Ethiopians must learn that when it comes to politics, it is better to trust aliens than kin, just as we must understand that sane politics is a game resulting in everybody becoming a winner. The main requirement for instituting this kind of game is the use of Pan-Ethiopian standards.
Does this mean that ethnic politics should be ruled out altogether? Not in the least, since the ethnic banner is here necessary to define and enforce the universal rights of individuals. The recognition of pluralism is essential to concretely define and protect these rights. But then, the generation of socioeconomic conditions in which universal rights protect particular rights is the way to go. If so, unlike the ethnic paradigm, particular rights do not limit universal rights for the simple reason that they are but applications, crystallizations of universal rights. The advantage of this system is that the guarantee of the rights of a given group is not its exclusiveness, but the recognition of universal rights whose consequence is that individuals always retain the control of their situation. This control is also how these individuals extend similar rights to other groups, for any denial places them in a situation in which their lack of reciprocity backfires on them by turning the chains they put on other peoples into their own prison. Ethnicity must steer toward unity and reciprocity to be consistent and empowering.
Let there be no misunderstanding: the split within the TPLF does not entail that Meles is now free of ethnic drawbacks. Because he does not ascribe the conflict to ethnic politics, Meles thinks, essentially out of personal ambition, that he too can preserve his two mothers, whatever their respective identity is. In so thinking, he is confident that he can better operate through ethnic clientalism, thereby refraining from challenging the ethnic paradigm. Thanks to the progressive fashioning of a national army and a police force committed to his protection and his control of state bureaucracy, Meles no longer excludes the possibility of ruling without his previous comrades. Yet his own base thus divided, the inherent limitation of this scheme should spring to mind. Said ethnic clients could soon be tempted to play the major role, all the more so as some of them represent majority groups. Notwithstanding the exclusion of a prolonged rule of minority over major ethnic groups by the ethnic principle itself, there is still the possibility of a minority to emerge as an arbitrator in a situation polarized by contending major actors. But I don’t think that Meles envisages this kind of role. Yet, only thus would he have placed the interest of Ethiopia above his personal ambition and Tigrean hegemony. So that, Meles is as much progressively finding the Tigrean crown to narrow for his growing ambition as he is unable to understand that his ambition invites him to come up with a Pan-Ethiopian idea. In which direction this deadlock will evolve depends greatly on the struggle of Ethiopian peoples.