Lidetu Ayalew, the founder and the longest-serving president of the Ethiopian Democratic Party (EDP), rose to prominence in Ethiopia’s opposition politics during the highly contested 2005 general elections. The aftermath of that election, although it won Lidetu and his party seats in parliament, alienated him from a strong support base due to a split within the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD). The impact continued during the 2010 general elections as EDP failed to win a single seat in parliament. And in 2011, Lidetu stepped down from his party’s presidency and virtually vanished from active politics since then. He then traveled to UK to do his MA in Developmental Studies at the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. As the country warms up to the fifth general elections, Lidetu, a member of EDP’s Central Committee, has once again resurfaced with a new book titled Tiyatre Boletica (Theatre of Politics). Recently, following the chain of political unrest in Oromia and Amhara Regional State and the current debacle regarding severe deficits of the EPRDF-led government in delivering good governance and stamping out rent-seeking and corruption, Solomon Goshu of The Reporter approached the seasoned politician to reflect on current events that have transpired in the political agenda. Excerpts:
The Reporter: As you may well know, the ruling party EPRDF and the government have admitted that lack of good governance is becoming a real threat to the political order. There are also different degrees of reception for this pronouncement by the government. In your view, what is the source of this problem?
Lidetu Ayalew: As you said it, the basic issue with the current debate regarding lack of good governance in Ethiopia is the depth of the problem and the degree of political commitment to combat it. In the eyes of the opposition and part of the public, government pronouncement is nothing more than a theatrical orchestration to benefit the officials in the ruling party. So, in my opinion, the problem is a real threat to the system; and I don’t believe the actions of the government this time around are genuine. I gathered that the government has been rudely awakened and that it rightly perceives that the problem is a credible threat to the system as a whole. One thing I can assure you is that if what some people claim, those who say that government’s campaign against lack of good governance is not genuine, is true, the problem would definitely bring the system tumbling down in a short period of time. But, since it is a threat against the party’s own survival, I think that the urgency the government is showing is real. You see, that is one of the problems with the government in that it always acts when its own survival is at stake instead of nipping the problem in the bud while it was easy to do so. Although the party is seeing the problem from its own perspective, the problem is also a threat to the overall national security of the nation; and I argue that should have been the frame of reference to evaluate the problem. At any rate, regardless of why, I think EPRDF is genuine when sounding the alarm on rampant deficit in good governance. On the other hand, I also sense a gap in the definition of the very conception of “lack of good governance”. The party perceives lack of good governance largely to mean bureaucratic hurdles and corruption that the public has to face while receiving services from governmental agencies. But, I argue that this explains only part of the problems since the term ‘good governance’ also refers to democratic and human rights and how the government upholds them in a given county. It incorporates the overall relationship between the government and the public. It is about whether a government that has entered into contract with the public via election is fulfilling its end of the bargain. So, it has a highly political nature unlike the portrayal of the ruling party where good governance is mostly about economic matters. Hence, I don’t think, a solution or a campaign that emanated from this sort of understanding of the problem of lack of good governance would be successful. On the other hand, even with this narrow definition of good governance, we don’t often see the source of the very problem being discussed by the party and its top leadership. To successfully suppress any problem, one has to first understand and discuss the very source of the problem. We haven’t seen that happing in any of the public platforms. For me, the source of the problem is the political corruption that the ruling party itself encouraged. I think economic corruption is just a follow-up of the political corruption that the ruling party aided and abetted. This is manifested in the bureaucracy, which is filled not with technocrats but political appointees. This is political corruption. And one could not be surprised if a bureaucracy that is organized in such a way falls prey to an endemic economic corruption few years down the road. In other words, a party that encouraged its cadres to repress opposition voices and the media and violate basic human rights to solidify its grip on power cannot be surprised when these same cadres invite themselves to the cookie jar (economic corruption). In my over twenty years’ experience in Ethiopia’s politics, I have not seen a single EPRDF cadre being reprimanded for violating the election code of ethics or abusing an opposition or violating human rights. So, how can you stop this opportunist force when it is engaged in economic corruption? It is difficult.
According to scholars, the ethnic federalism system that the ruling party and country had embraced for the past two decades has their own challenges. Primarily, such federalist arrangement hinges on apportioning political power and sources fairly among the various ethnic groups in the country. How do you think this has affected the quality of services in the public sector?
The central point here is that in a country which is organized on ethnic and language lines, other matters that are important for governance and economic growth will be pushed aside since ethnicity would take priority. This is what we are seeing these days in the form of lack of good governance. When people go to government offices these days, they don’t go there to get services from institutions but personalities. So, the public would get services from government institutions depending on their political or ethnic relationships with those in the bureaucracy. The basic building blocks of a government bureaucracy which is professional training, work experience and ethical standards have been brushed aside. So, the majority of the people who join the public sector, especially in the countryside, are those who have not done well in their education or profession. If you come to the urban areas, people who mostly choose to join the public sector are those who are not competent enough to get employment elsewhere like the private sector and the NGOs. Even then, it is clear that the public sector doesn’t pay nearly enough to sustain livelihood. However, most choose the public sector expecting to exploit the administrative loopholes and get financial gains from corruption. My observation is that the system itself breeds politically loyal yet corrupt bureaucrats. So, government’s campaign against lack of good governance will have to defeat those in its own structure. That is why it will be a difficult battle. Yet again, I believe that respect for the equality of the nations and nationalities is not necessarily in contradiction to assigning administrative work based on merit. The fact on the ground shows you that the problem is not about the ethnic affiliation anymore. It is about political loyalty. The federalist system is correct in affording nations and nationalities the right to govern themselves. But, I argue that the federalist system is also expected to deliver economic growth and development and administrative justice. I think the basic problem with Ethiopia’s federalist arrangement is that it is only used to address the question of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia. But, that should not be the case. In Ethiopia, the federalist system could not be used to address other economic and administrative issues properly because the focus is on ethnic and matters of nations and nationalities. However, yet again, so many years after the implementation of the federalist system in Ethiopia, still the question of nations and nationalities is becoming a problem. So, what I want to reiterate is that it is not ethnic affiliation that is becoming a problem; rather it is political affiliation that is suppressing merit.
In his recent appearance in parliament, Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn alluded to the argument that good governance is the main problem of the country and that there isn’t an unanswered question regarding rights of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia. What do you make of this assessment? And do you think this could be construed as a shift in EPRDF policy after the departure of the late Meles Zenawi?
If I can start from the last one, if we ask if there are discernible shifts since the death of Meles, I would argue that there are some visible changes. For me, there is big leadership gap since the departure of the late prime minister; it is not clear where the power center lies in the party. And I think, this confusion is apparent even among members of the party. Especially, after the TPLF split, power was almost under the control of the late prime minister. So for me, the EPRDF is in the process of power consolidation and it is not clear yet where this consolidation leaves the decisive power: either in the hands of an individual or a group. This has its own problems manifested in the variation of political decisions that are lauded in public and those implemented on the ground. This is highly natural. So, political parties have to go through this process and consolidate centers of power. This has not happened yet in EPRDF; but I think this would take place in time. The other point is that observed in post-Meles era is that there are tendencies to be populists; for instance, we see decisions being taken hastily and then being reversed following public uproar. This is manifested in the two recent decisions (one, the reversal of the Addis Ababa-Oromia integrated master plan and the other the recent decision to suspend traffic regulation following uproar by taxi drivers). I think these tendencies are really dangerous for the party. Regarding the recent statement of the Prime Minister in parliament, I was really shocked when I heard the speech. If you ask me it could be a spur of the moment thing; but if it is indeed spoken intentionally, I would say that it is a really debatable issue. As far as I know, the constitution never said that the question of nations and nationalities is fully answered but it laid down the ways of properly addressing these issues. On the other hand, these kinds of issues by their nature are not issues which are raised at certain time and get settled once and for all. The issue can resurface at anytime. But, the issue should be about having the mechanism (the constitutional mechanism) to address the concerns. I think this is one of the issues which should have been considered while drafting the constitution. Once you connect the question of identity with ethnicity, language and the like, the quest for the recognition of identity would not be limited to the nine regions and major ethnic groups in the country; it is a never-ending quest. It cannot stop at regional level, woreda or kebele levels; it can go down to the level of an individual family. If we take the case of the South Region, we have 46 ethnic groups mashed together to form the regional state. But, there is no identity called South; it is a direction not an identity so you can tell these various groups that they have a region and there would never be additional quest for identity. So, really, to say that this quest has all been answered and that there could never be a quest for identity is unconstitutional by itself. If the statement is indeed the formal stance of the party then it could be construed as a paradigm shift and that we all have to debate on the matter. It is about dissolving EPRDF and remaking it.
You have said that the government bureaucracy is filled with incompetent political appointees who could not do the job professionally. On the other hand, regarding the lack of good governance, you have argued that the party is nurturing civil servants and bureaucrats which are completely out of control. Don’t you sense the contradiction there?
The primary motivation for the government to organize such a bureaucratic force is to ensure its political dominance. The party organized this force to make sure that it has a firm grip on power and the government affairs are at its disposal by having its own people in most governmental posts. Nevertheless, the party should have been worried about the fate of the political order; it should have questioned if this force did not have its own question few years down the road. Slowly, this bureaucratic force started to seek its own economic gains. Definitely, the party did not expect this; and now that it has come clear the politically loyal bureaucrat also has its own agenda. Now, two are at loggerheads; and it would be interesting to see who comes out on top. So, they are not contradictory, one comes after the other: first it was the political corruption and now it has been transformed into economic corruption. Now, this corrupt bureaucratic force is not small; it is numbered in tens of thousands. Furthermore, this force had already tested the sweet taste of corruption and it would have the drive and resolve to continue the system. The measures that should be taken now are very decisive since they can affect the whole governmental bureaucracy and there is the risk of freezing public sector if the measures are drastic. So, I think the solution should be all embracing and political in nature while not forgetting to improve the income of civil servants. The lower salary is indirect license to be corrupt since peoples’ basic instinct is to ensure the survival of oneself and one’s family. I think there are few leaders in that party that have understood the danger well and what it means for the survival of the party. If they were to go harsh and take swift measures, I think there is a danger of losing some of the member parties in the EPRDF as a party altogether. But, I think this is the hard truth that these leaders had to face. One cannot balance the political avalanche and cure the corruption problems all at once; they have to make a choice.
At one time or another, EPRDF had authored policy and strategic documents articulating the extent of the problem of good governance and rent-seeking and the possible corrective measures needed to remedy the situation. Do you see a uniform approach when it comes to the stand of the sparty on these matters?
In my opinion, the extent of the problem of corruption has been elevated to a social problem in Ethiopia; now it is a problem that has made its way into the societal psyche. It is a big problem where an all-inclusive solution is the only framework that would even begin to scratch the surface of the problem. So, I do think changing the mindset is the first and important ground to combat the problem since the extent of problem is now scary. Compared to Kenya or Nigeria, the level of corruption in Ethiopia some five or six years ago was largely negligible. The campaign should start from the party itself and then extend to the society as well since the extent of problem is now societal.
Another confusing fact is that for a party that prides itself on having mass base and mass network that extend up to an individual level, how can a problem this big remain hidden for such a long time?
The party has been talking about lack of good governance in the last twenty years. And it has tried to implement a lot of corrective mechanisms to this effect over the years. However, these measures have utterly failed because, as I have said earlier, the party was weak in identifying the source of the problem. So, the basic problem is in recognizing the existence of a political corruption which then gave rise to an economic corruption. When the party recognizes the emergence of political corruption in the country, then the appropriate corrective measure would start in the political arena. The party always tries to address this issue without endangering its firm grip on power and political hegemony; it is practically impossibility. If you have the commitment it should be the right kind of commitment which can go as far as being willing to compromise one’s grip on political power. The party that gains unwavering support from the public is the one that says the political survival of my party could not come before the interest of the nation. So, the campaign should start with the party itself. Without defeating its inner demons, it cannot get rid of those corrupt individuals in the bureaucracy.
Apart from that what about the measures that are being taken at present. Some in the public still claim that measures that have been taken are limited to the lower tier of the political leadership. What is your take in this?
As far as measures are concerned, to successfully fight this problem, other things that are fundamental are the work of democratic institutions and their independence to bring those to justice. Just like the bureaucracy, these democratic institutions are also composed of politically affiliated individuals. These people are people who do not have the caliber to challenge the system when they see that it is going in the wrong direction. So, we cannot say these institutions have the capacity to struggle and overcome these challenges that are haunting the political order. There are not many strong media outlets apart from government’s outlets which never questions the system. From the very start, these institutions were not organized to safeguard the system but the party and its grip on power. Hence, at this point, these institutions would be next to useless to fight corruption and lack of good governance; they are toothless tigers to say the least. You can see that, human rights abuse, corruption or administrative injustice have actually gotten worse since the establishment of the Human Rights Commission, the Federal Ethics and Anti-corruption Commission and Ombudsman Institute. So, they have to be independent from the influence of the government and the party in the first place.
How do you see the contradiction between the country-wide unrest which is going on in Ethiopia at the moment and the clean sweep victory that the ruling party declared just few months ago?
In my opinion, the ruling party should have been scared when the electoral commission announced that EPRDF and affiliates have won 100 percent of the legislative seats from the House of Peoples’ Representatives down to the kebele and woreda council levels. In a nation where there are diverse views and opinions, there is no way that one party can win 100 percent of the seats in the legislature. On the one hand, this election result reflected that plurality of view has lost any footing in the Ethiopian political system. Plus, when you see the wave of unrest that swept across the nation in a manner of months since winning the election, it tells you that the election does not reflect objective realities on the ground. In fact, in my view, these kinds of conflicts are totally natural in a country where plurality of opinion has been repressed. So, I think, it is not too late for EPRDF to stop and think hard as to what is going on around it. You can’t have it both ways in a sense that the government can’t expect to close violent ways of voicing dissent while choking peaceful ways via 100 percent dominance at all levels. It is just not possible. If you ask me, the basic question in Ethiopia today is respect for plurality of opinion. When it comes to ethnic identity, religion, culture and so on, there is at least one platform where these diversities come out into the open. However, name one government structure where plurality of opinion is adequately entertained. It is very difficult. If you see, countries which were rather stable for many years and suddenly ierrupted into violent conflict this is because these countries have not implemented reforms to accommodate diversity of opinion.
Talking of the recent violent clashes in Ethiopia, the ruling party seems to have shifted the narratives, which were a conflict instigated and sustained by anti-peace elements, to the one that is caused fully by the ruling party itself and its faulty ways. The PM made the pronouncement in his recent statement to parliament. What is your take on this?
I concur with the view that the problem has its source basically from the objective realties that has prevailed among the people. But, I cannot fully disregard the presence of some groups who are trying to benefit from the situation from behind. Nevertheless, these forces managed to get access because of the poor and belated handling of the situation. So, we can say that the fertile ground was already there. I think such forces will always be there. All they want is to escalate the situation and take matters into their worse form. I think this would not benefit anyone; the people would not stand to gain from this. But, like I said before, the basic reason behind this is the inability to address the problems appropriately and in a timely manner. So, I think it is a good start for EPRDF to admit that problem begins and ends with the party itself and the local context at large.
What do you think is the role of political parties in mitigating the current situation in Ethiopia?
I think political parties have an irreplaceable role to play in this situation. The ruling party has to open its door to let political parties play this positive role. EPRDF has to abandon its old ways of labeling all political parties as anti-peace and anti-development forces and start to entertain their varied views in the political market place. We have a number of political forces in Ethiopia with varying political views which in one way or the other represent certain section of the population. As I said before, in Ethiopia, there is a significant variation in political opinion and the country needs a system which accommodates this diversity. There should be a genuine multiparty system. On the other hand, the opposition parties should also look into themselves; and they have to check the direction they are following. For instance, regarding the recent unrest, some political parties without fully appreciating what the causes and consequences of this conflict were, they have shown tendencies to fuel the situation on the ground; and this is quite wrong. It is wrong to view everything as a potential opportunity to overthrow the government. Political parties need to calm down and craft their agendas in-line with the interest of the public. Their activities have to be completely legal and peaceful. In fact, the existence and activities of political parties do not always have to hinge on the potential of holding governmental power. A political party can come up with a concrete policy alternative and influence the government into making policy changes by peacefully pursuing their political agenda. This kind of culture is what guarantees their eventual rise to power.