A Breath of Fresh Air in Ethiopia

Published on 20th November 2018

“The moral behaviour of ruling groups tends to be more criminal and sub-moral than that of the ruled strata of the same society.” –Pitirim A. Sorokin and Walter A. Lunden 

Sorkin and Lunden (Power and Morality, 1959) asserted in great statistical detail that the criminality of the rulers is many times higher than that of the ruled population. For example, regarding “the crimes of aggravated assault, rape and other sex offenses, robbery, burglary, theft, larceny, embezzlement, fraud and forgery, and other lesser crimes against person, property, and good mores, the rates of the rulers in these crimes are much higher than those of the ruled.”

What had taken place in Ethiopia over the past 27 years is undeniably one of the worst cases of betrayal and mortification ever unleashed on that unfortunate society. Nothing else speaks so elegantly to capture the sense of the situation than the findings documented by Sorkin and Lunden, and stated in the quotes provided above. 

Almost three decades ago, a group known as the Tigrai Liberation Front (TPLF) marched into Addis Ababa having just vanquished a demoralized Ethiopian army and a government so unpopular that it had lost all support from the people, and so unable to govern. The victory was the people’s victory but was hijacked by the TPLF, which was the primary organized fighting force at the time. The TPLF would use this power to form a government. It would craft a constitution, organize and create member parties to form a coalition called the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (EPRDF).  

It has been documented over the past twenty-five years or so, that the EPRDF was really a front for the TPLF, with all meaningful power vested in its members at every level of government or governmental institutions. As a consequence, the system became a TPLF or a “Woyane” system. In an epic case of miscalculation, the Woyane created the “Killil” system in which it divided the country based on ethnic identities. This would eventually set in motion the internal division of and the tearing up of Ethiopian society. And to make things worse, the Woyane seems to have even considered themselves as the end of history where anything and everything goes as long as it was consistent with their manifesto regardless of their own constitution.  In all objectivity, the current Prime Minister Abiy himself was and currently is a member of this EPRDF establishment. It was even reported that he was one of the founders of the security establishment. 

Fatality of Ethnic Politics: 

What happened eventually? The Ethiopian people realized the fatality of ethnic politics, and began rebelling against it. They saw the abuse and hatred first hand; they saw human rights violations; they realized the structures they were building were prisons for the thousands of political dissidents; and they witnessed the government’s inability to improve their lives, as it was unable to produce results. They saw the mushrooming of corruption as a way of life; the condition of the youth deteriorating; meaningless and sub-standard education that only led to huge unemployment rates; absence of free and fair elections; and hypocrisy at every level of government.  They witnessed that the ruling group was willfully inflicting pain on society: that it had become both dangerous and sociopathic. Arguably, I contend that one of the key observations Ethiopians made was that, as the years went by, the TPLF government could not deliver on its promises. That the TPLF’s reach had exceeded its grasp, its capacity. 

Gradually, the country’s progress would be halted by, among others: ethnic strife, unimaginable level of corruption, lack of leadership, unequal development, and by the absence of the rule of law.  

The appearance of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the political scene was, indeed, punctuated by these events. Abiy, who I presume has ridden a horse or two, realized that the TPLF could not continue to ride its horse without eventually falling off, began to engineer, with his allies and the help of the Amharas, the downfall and demise of the Woyane rule!

Once in power, Abiy opened up the gates of the many prisons and let political prisoners go; he made rapprochement with Eritrea a key plank of his administration’s policy, opened up the political space, and ushered in one of the prerequisites of democratic societies: a free press. He made a commitment to democracy, but unlike his predecessors, by not subverting the rule of law.

Abiy challenged the debasement of our ancestors and the contributions they have made to bequeath us. He detested the debasement of social and political institutions. He challenged those who have contributed to damaging the “etiquette of daily behavior” that had provided the fiber that bound people together. He challenged those who had replaced the idea of reciprocity (fulfilling one’s responsibility towards others) with corruption. He chastised those who helped make empathy and understanding rare in Ethiopian society. 

This opening of the political space is sweeping Ethiopia like a breath of fresh air. The country and society that was on political life support only six months ago is breathing the proverbial healthy air again. 

“If and when the power of ruling bodies is greatly limited (legally and factually), and when the governments function amidst a strongly integrated and unified moral public opinion, their criminality may become equal or even fall below the criminality of their ruled populations.” (Sorkin and Lunden, 1959). 

What Have We Learned Since the Opening of the Political Space? 

Since the emergence of Abiy and his assumption of power as Prime Minister, we have learned, through the many public reports, that the mediocrity of the previous rulers (save their penchant for thievery) was hardly concealed. 

If all or even some of the public reports are true, we have learned that the EPRDF was a party infested with the savagery, barbarity, and inhumanity that is hard to fathom. In my personal opinion, that makes it an incurable, irreparable party. 

We have learned that the EPRDF made the country a scrap yard for poorly made products and waste material in the form of chemicals. The pictures of heaps of unusable products purchased in search of commissions for the well-connected is simply grotesque. They have scarred the landscape, and will no doubt poison the soil and water. 

We have learned that members of the ruling faction have had no compunction stealing from the women of Oromia, Amhara, Tigrai, and all the other killils: women who break their backs to feed their families, and send their children to school in hopes of someday escaping poverty. 

If all the public reports are true, we had people with no scruples, and no points of honor while governing the country. 

We have learned that the ruling group’s punctilious mission was not to develop the country, but to buy, to purchase, so that they could steal. 

We have learned that the country’s rulers had held everyone in contempt, were scornful, and disdainful of the law.  

We have learned that their self-regard, self-indulgence or self-worship was so extraordinarily wrapped in fake patriotism that they forgot who they were and where they came from. Furthermore, their delusion is so grand that they have the temerity to take offense when caught, and insist on benefiting from the public dole in the form of public defenders. 

If all the public reports are true, the ruling group engaged in a grotesque, malformed, ugly and distorted act of deploying their country’s flag to engage in contraband activities and in illegal arms trade using an Ethiopian vessel.  

We have learned that the scourge they have brought, the grief they have caused, the bankruptcies they will undoubtedly help unleash, and the enormous wreck they have caused in society cannot be understated. 

We have learned that Ethiopians deserve to reject, repudiate, cast aside, dismantle, and sweep away those members of the EPRDF, its structures and founders. Their impious acts were so profane that they would be barred from any religious assembly anywhere. 

If all or even some of the public reports are true, Abiy cannot restore, renew, regenerate, cure, or remedy this mess. He won’t be able to purify, rehabilitate, or breathe new life into this corpse of a party. 

We have learned over the past few weeks that no one seems to have had a public interest in mind in all of this mess, and in all of government.  From the cadres to the low level operators, from ministers to ambassadors, and from men in uniform to even members of parliament. At every level, people looked the other way hoping to preserve the crumbs handed down to them. The system they championed corrupted everyone, and everybody. 

If all or even some of the public reports are true, the nation can’t afford a relapse, a retrogress of any of this. This fetid, putrid, rotten group with its malodorous seizure of power 27 years ago should never be anywhere close to power again. Guarantee their rights under the law—something they had denied others—but throw the book at them. 

We have also learned that we want Abiy to succeed so desperately that we will continue to wish him well. 

And finally, we have learned as well that all or some of us currently hold views, which we may have detested in the past; and that it is all right to be both angry and exuberant at the same time. The water has finally reached its edge! 

By Teshome Abebe,

Professor of Economics and Professor Laureate, is a former Provost and Vice President. He may be reached at teshome2008@gmail.com.


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