From Land to the Tiller to Power to the People
The Ethiopian Student Movement's Unfinished Political Journey

July 1, 2007.


Nearly half a century ago, Ethiopia's Emperor Haile Sellassie's Imperial Guard forces staged an unsuccessful coup d'etat attempt against him. It is believed that the event led to the gaining of support among the Ethiopian university students and the educated young class against the late Emperor's monarchical rule. Consequently, it may have increased the radicalization of Ethiopia's student population, which led to the formation of the Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM). This student movement drew its members and arguably ideologies from the so called "modern education." As such it is the early frontier Ethiopian students to be exposed to Western thoughts through the education infrastructure put in place mainly under Haile Sellassie's rule.

Since the emergence of this student movement, much has happened in Ethiopia politically as well as economically. Several years later after the coup d'etat attempt, Haile Sellassie's rule was overthrown and his monarchical system was abolished. The Ethiopian Student Movement (ESM) was split into many camps of political persuasions. A portion of them joined liberation fronts such as the Eritrean People Liberation Front (EPLF), the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), the Tigrean People Liberation Front (TPLF), and so on. A good portion of them have been split between two political organizations: the All Ethiopia Socialist Movement (MEISON in its Amharic acronym) and the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Party (EPRP). Both of these latter groups were weakened by a military junta that would rule Ethiopia for about seventeen years while fighting the liberation fronts on various sides.

The weakening of MEISON and EPRP through the so called Red Terror marks a sad chapter on Ethiopian history. One main motto the student movement had across the board appears to be Land to the Tiller. The ideologies of socialism and communism were espoused perhaps by most parties, if not all. While all the liberation fronts focused mainly on the rights of nations and nationalities to self-determination, the other two parties as well as the military junta clearly stipulated their position on the unity of the country. These are clear evidences about the tendencies of group political ideologies along the centralization-decentralization axis. At the extreme end of the centralization tendency lie the one nation, one language, and practically one religion political posture. On the other hand, at the other extreme end lies the right of nations and nationalities to self-determination up to and including secession. As the saying goes, one can't lead the world by the extremes. The general dynamics of Ethiopia's politics appears to be a case in point.

The unitary political posture has been tried with iron fist by the military junta for nearly 17 years. It was during this time that particular focus was made to make the Amharic language the lingua-franca of Ethiopia while at the same time hunting the voices of decentralization from within and the armed liberation fronts in the jungle. However, it was defeated by the efforts of the liberation fronts and the end of the cold war and the socialism ideology of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The liberation fronts took the place in 1991, with the EPLF going as far as demanding referendum for Eritrea, the former province of Ethiopia. Eritrea's referndum was conducted in 1993 with the support of those who took the state power in Ethiopia. While Eritrea's case is the only one that went as far as breaking away from Ethiopia, there were activities by various other factions from Ethiopia who have been raising the question of secession. That kind of question was fashionable since 1991 until the 2005 legislative elections in the country in which a new coalition of parties calling for unity participated in the elections with seemingly significant support from some sections of the general public. In fact, the year 2005 appears to be where there was a manifestation of umbilical fusion between the de-centralization and centralization tendencies, which since then has become a source of confusion and political wrangling by the various parties including the breakaway state of Eritrea.

It has now become evident that unity has become fashionable, including by those who have been espousing secession from Ethiopia. It even appears there are early signs from some elements from Eritrea talking about removing an artificial wall between the brotherly peoples of Ethiopia and Eritrea. In a recent interview the current Ambassador of Ethiopia to the Scandinavian countries, Dina Mufti, gave to a Sweden based Eritrean media, the Ambassador clearly stated about the need to remove this artificial wall between the brotherly peoples of the two countries.

The mere fact that there is a swing from the centralization fashion to the decentralization fashion and then back to the centralization fashion is clear evidence about two main parallel political ideologies existing in the country. Even though differences in political ideologies are not unhealthy, the back and forth swinging has caused political stagnation and great confusions among Ethiopian politicians. The ESM has produced many political parties and political leaders and as of late many books by the leading figures of these political organizations. The extents of singularity and plurality of the parties and their leaders have taken the peoples of the Horn of Africa region as political hostages.

To mention a few, Leenco Lata, a former deputy leader of the OLF wrote a book a few years back with a title The Ethiopian State at the Crossroads. Dr. Merera Gudina, the founder of the Oromo National Congress (ONC), produced another book titled Ethiopia: Competing Ethnic Nationalisms and the Quest for Democracy. Ayele Zewge, the founder of the Oromo Movement for Federalism and Ethiopian Unity (OMFEU), wrote a book titled Gizit ina Gizot, which is in the Amharic language. Dr. Berhanu Nega, the founding member and leader of Keste-demena and the Coalition for Unity and Democracy parties wrote a book titled Ye Netsanet Goh Siqed, also in Amharic. In what appears to be a tit-for-tat response to Dr. Berhanu Nega's book, Lidetu Ayalew, the founding member and leader of the EUDP-Medhin party, wrote a book called Ye Arem Irsha, also in Amharic. Early on, Andargachew Tsigie, a current leading member of the Kinigit International Leadership (KIL), wrote a book called Netsanet Yemayawiq Netsa Awchi, which is also in Amharic. Meles Zenawi, a longtime leader of the TPLF/EPRDF and Ethiopia’s leader since 1991, wrote a book titled African Economic Renaissance: Dead Ends and New Beginnings.

A quick glance at the titles of the books suggests that most of them show a sign of political despair and don't fall on similar illuminating pages. Turning the pages of some of these books doesn't tell a substantially different story from their titles. However, as indicated earlier, Ethiopia's basic political problems appear to be the rights of nations and nationalities in it, the respect for the rule of law, and an acceptance of the benefits of the unity of the country. These could well be solved by the formation of a Federalist Party (FP) to cater to the decentralization tendency, a Unity Party (UP) to cater to the centralization tendency, and an independent judicial system that oversees the rule of law. The composition of the UP and the FP can be based on proportional representation of the various groups of people in the country using some agreed upon premises. In addition, the adoption of such dual main political parties in the country will help maintain the balance of the two tendencies while at the same time avoiding a continuous battle between the ruling party and the opposition. The mere fact of accepting the ruling party and the opposition party labels suggests a continuous battle between the ruling and the opposition to the ruling parties instead of the two parties working together to maintain the balance of the country's political direction.

Such healthy working relationship by two ideologically different political parties will result only when the people get the power to elect a party of their choice and the parties feel they have the legitimate approval of the society that elected them. Such parties don't have to be created from a scratch since there are already many political parties which can congregate into one party or the other.

The long journeys most of these parties have gone through have tainted them with bad reputations. The TPLF/EPRDF is often accused of irresponsibly making Ethiopia one of the largest landlocked countries of the world. The OLF's siding with Eritrea in the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea has put the organization's vision to a formidable test. The CUD is blamed for urban resurrection to overtake government power. In addition, the bickering by its members in the Diaspora has made it appear a party that was not led by visionary leaders that could overcome the test of political set backs. The emergence of Dr. Taye Weldesemiat, a political scientist by training, as the leader of its international leadership appears to signal a comeback of this party from a nearly two years of meaningless internal political wrangling. The position of this group regarding the decentralization tendency remains to be seen. However, Dr. Taye is rumored to have advocated the cessation of links with the political leadership in Eritrea. If true, this step marks an important milestone in the re-emergence of CUD as a meaningful political force. In addition, the coming to Ethiopia's political landscape of more well trained political scientists will probably help meaningfully in charting a farsighted political solution for Ethiopia's problems.

This becomes paramount in view of the lost opportunities for Ethiopia in the last 50 years or so. One of the members of the CUD recently wrote about how Ethiopia and Korea were at about the same level of economic development about 50 years ago. Today’s difference between the economies of the two countries is far more than marginal. What is not so obvious is how much the ESM has contributed to creating this difference. However, it appears that even though the motto of Land to the Tiller is still a lingering issue, it is fading to the backburner and the motto of Power to the People seems to have been brought to the fore. Perhaps, that may just be what all parties should work for to relieve themselves of the long political journeys that were not charted by the consensus of the people.











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