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December 4, 2016
I take Messay Kebede comments and critics very seriously. Among his remarkable contributions, his work on the Ethiopian revolution, and particularly on the role played by the Ethiopian intellectual elite, has been considered as decisive among the academic community. Nevertheless, unless I failed to express clearly my very views in my last article, Messay Kebede ascribes me some analysis, which I don’t endorse.
1. Messay Kebede writes that my whole article subscribes to the ruling power’s position that “the current crisis of Ethiopia is nothing but an outgrowth of the success of the ruling party”. The EPRDF explains that the strong economic growth of the last decade has created a “demanding society” which now requires eagerly a fairer distribution of its benefits. But corruption and rent seeking, i.e. failures among a lot of officials, have prevented to respond positively to this demand the EPRDF considers as “legitimate”. The primary root of the crisis lies in a personal inadequacy in the implementation of the right development policy. In short, the product is good, the service to deliver it needs drastic improvements.
To present the regime’s position doesn’t mean necessary to share it. I believe this analysis is much too reductionist. The crisis has certainly an economic source, but it stems principally from political factors. At the first place I would put the federal system not in its principles but in its practice, considered biased in favour of the Tigrayan elite (“down with Woyane!” has been a rallying cry, “we want self rule!” chanted the demonstrators), then the authoritarianism of the regime (“we want freedom!” or “we want justice!”), finally the side effects of an hyper-centralised and peremptory “developmental state” (the “land grabbing”), all three being of course totally intertwined. Thus, in my view, the protest calls for at least a process of systemic change, and not for only some “adjustments” in the development’s implementation.
2. “The question was never about the well-being of Ethiopia, but about an all-embracing hegemonic control of Ethiopia… in a system constructed to perpetuate the hegemony of one regional (Tigrayan) elite… Unless the hegemonic agenda is viewed as the core issue, the intrinsic depravity of the regime does not stand out”, says Messay Kebede.
First, I believe that the reality is much complex and must be caught in its historical evolution. The TPLF was ruled since its beginning through what has been called an “elitist centralism” (Gebru Tareke), the elite being composed of young Tigrayan intellectual students, in keeping with “the normative union of knowledge with power” (Messay Kebede) laid down by the radical student movement. This elitist centralism has extended far beyond the TPLF into almost all constitutional bodies, especially as it is engraved in the Abyssinian culture at least. It continues unabated. This is one of the two pillars of the persistent exclusiveness of the ruling power, in my view “the very obstacle that blocks democratization and a fair distribution of resources” (Messay Kebede). The second is the defence of the oligarchic positions and privileges, embedded in the Party-State thanks to the decisive role of the “developmental state”. Both are totally intertwined and hit from top to the bottom at the kebele level.
But can this “elitist centralism” be mixed up with “a system constructed to perpetuate the hegemony of one regional (Tigrayan) elite”? In order to rule instead of the Derg, the TPLF created ethnic satellite parties, mainly OPDO and ANDM. But particularly since Meles passed away, and even more since the beginning of the present crisis, the relationship between the TPLF and these ethnic parties has evolved from a “satellisation” to what I would call a “junior partnership”. The latter become more partners and less juniors. For sure, the TPLF remains largely the most powerful. The protest shows that this constitutes perhaps the main fuel of the discontent. But I strongly doubt it is still hegemonic. In short, the “all-embracing hegemonic control of Ethiopia” (Messay Kebede) is not any more in the hands of one and only one ethnic elite. Regional elites have asserted themselves. In addition, from discussions I had with some TPLF’s top officials, they are pragmatic enough to fully understand that even this priviledged position of the Tigrayan elite is not sustainable.
Second, contrary to what Messay Kebede says, the ruling elite has been literally obsessed with “the well being of Ethiopia”. One can discuss at length if this stems mainly from an innermost conviction or from material interests. Whatever it be, the regime committed itself to this goal much more resolutely and efficiently as compared with similar underdeveloped African countries, and the more so after the 2001 TPLF’s crisis when its declining legitimacy relied almost only on a high economic growth. The official figures are cooked. The growth’s benefits didn’t reach enough the very poorest stratum as it could have been. But one must be blind to deny how the living standards have improved not only for the small upper group but also for large sections of the population. I have been directly obsserved this myself in the rural areas where I have been working for more than ten years.
3. “The proclamation of the state of emergency is the first step in a gradual escalation toward civil war”, like the Syria’s nightmare, says Messay Kebede. The armed dislocation of Ethiopia is preying on the intellectuals and professionals’ minds from all regions I spoke with. But I don’t think the worst scenario is the most probable.
Until now, it has not given any concrete proof of the reformism it displays, quite the opposite But it’s too early to know if the regime is sincerely decided – and able – to undertake true reforms, i.e. to begin a very opening up because in any case it will not steps into this path as long as it will not consider it has succeed first to re-impose law and order.
A serious hypothesis – right or wrong -, as far as it is possible to foresee what might happen even in a not to distant future, is that the persistence of this elitist centralism makes unlikely a very democratic evolution. But also that the EPRDF will not split if only because its leadership knows it has to work together or sink together. Its cohesiveness would keep on, of course shaken by harsh inner divisions, but which could be contained by a progressive rebalancing of power and resources between the regional elites, including those governing in the centre. If on the same time the economic growth continues even come what may (this issue is key but cannot been developed here), if the regime’s iron grip starts to relax even slightly, focusing on giving more room to the professionals to assert their capacity independently of the Party’s obedience and also to the private economic actors to allow them to engage in their activities away from the Party’s intrusiveness, the regime could continue to rule, even weakened and deprived from a substantial popular support, and so the survival of Ethiopia as a united state could be perpetuated. But I agree it would be time saving: to rebuild the regime on solid and long-term sustainable grounds requires more. To predict if this could be done later on or not is pure speculation.