(OPride) – In its first political act, Ethiopia’s opposition Semayawi (Blue) Party drew a large crowd to a peaceful protest rally held on Sunday. At least 10,000 people participated in the procession that took place in Addis Ababa, according to Reuters.
Locals estimated the number to be much larger. The demonstration, which received widespread mainstream media coverage in the U.S., was hailed as the first large-scale protest in the Horn of Africa country since the disputed 2005 election.
Indeed protests are rare in Ethiopia. But while Blue Party’s rally was the first one authorized by the regime since 2005, over the last 18 months, Muslims in Ethiopia have been protesting against government meddling in religious affairs in far greater numbers. In February, Bloomberg’s William Davison reported some 90,000 people gathered in Addis Ababa to protest negative portrayals of the Muslim movement in a documentary film produced by the state-run Ethiopian Television (ETV), Jihadawi Harekat.
Protesters on Sunday demanded the immediate release of jailed journalists, Muslim leaders and opposition activists, according to reports. In a sign of growing mobile and social media influence, citizen journalists fired away up-to-the-minute tweets, Facebook posts, images, and uploaded short video clips on YouTube. Engineer Yilikal Getnet, chairman of the Blue Party, told Reuters the protesters were also concerned about lack of action to tackle soaring unemployment, inflation and corruption.
"If these questions are not resolved and no progress is made in the next three months, we will organize more protests. It is the beginning of our struggle," he vowed.
Government officials said the demonstration didn’t meet legal standards, expressing outrage at what they saw as unacceptable mixing of political and religious messages. In statements aired on ETV, State Minister of Communications Shimeles Kemal said, it was unconstitutional to call for a release of persons convinced of “criminal offenses.” He told Bloomberg that the organizers “will be held responsible for breaking the law.”
The rally also raised a lot of questions about the Blue Party itself. As enthusiastic tweets trickled in on Sunday morning, Elizabeth Blunt, a journalist at IRIN news wrote on Twitter, “astonishing tweets of a big opposition demonstration in Addis Ababa. The only demo in my day brought out less than 100 rather nervous people.”
She was not alone. Eng. Getnet and the Blue Party were virtually unknown until their debut on the demonstration. A Google search for “Blue Party in Ethiopia” yielded few results on Sunday. The group’s website is only in Amharic, Ethiopia’s federal working language.
Excerpts from a recent interview conducted with Eng. Getnet by a local Amharic paper, Life Magazine, offers a cursory look at the group’s vision.
(The interview was conducted in Amharic and first posted on Daniel Berhane’s blog. Efforts were made to make the translation verbatim.)
Life: What is the political philosophy of your party?
Yilikal: The question is a broad one. Our political philosophy is mainly based on individual rights. We believe that we promote a center-right-moderate liberal political outlook. We say rights start with an individual; if individual right is respected, the right of all/everyone shall be respected. For example, Yilikal is male. So, he has gender. Yilikal has language, education, and profession; and so, he does not need anything special. If my right is protected, the language I speak will be respected. The view that groups and individuals are to be seen in the same way (equally) is not rational. Individuals come before groups (individuals are primary to groups). And so, we believe that when individual rights are respected, group rights will be respected.
A political party should in time correct itself rather than stick to its pre-commitments; it can’t do politics in this way. For example, you can be a tribal organization but not a tribal party. Because of the sensitivity, in this country, we don’t talk about it, but if someone starts by saying I am an Oromo organization, where else can he go other than [to] Oromo? Because it is limited from its very start. We believe that organizing oneself on a tribal basis is the cause of new issues. But we don’t have a view that in our Ethiopia everything should revolve around tribes.
Life: The governing party appears to have known nothing except organizing citizens. Some scholars blame the federal system for creating ethnicity, groupings and localization. You guys, on the other hand, are claiming the beginning of everything is individual, how do you settle these extremes.
Yilikal: Politics should not be fuelled by wind of the day. You need to shape you arrangement with a long-term outlook. As tribalism grows in this country, you may be confronted if you claim to be an Ethiopian. But this should not push you to accept the fact and go ahead. Ethnicity comes with colonization. Colonizers exploited it to divide and rule. The English have walked a long way on this matter. However, as this belief is getting position and power, it is messing up the country. Even if the sort of ‘I am better’ ... ‘I am better’ competition is putting our country on the verge of collapse, we are struggling to give individual right a priority. We Ethiopians used to be great, if you go and search on the Internet, you will find out that we are one of the oldest nations. Ethnicity is a new creation and we need to go back to the old greatness.
Life: After EPRDF came to power, there are group of people who claim that their identity got recognition and that they are speaking their language. EPRDF is blaming the Derg version of Ethiopian Unity and claiming that it has been helping to grow a unity in diversity.
Yilikal: I don’t understand what was achieved. It is not new to speak in your language. If you go to south Ethiopia, you see people speaking Amharic. The number of Amharic speakers has not decreased. The number of books being written is much higher than that time. Then, there was not much magazine, now you will find a lot of them in Amharic. Except benefiting few ethnic elites, I don’t see anything new. Afan Oromo is not created in EPRDF time. It was there before. But to develop the language, it would have been better to use Geez instead of Latin alphabet (emphasis ours). EPRDF deliberately used this issue like colonizers to rule over the people. There are people who become millionaires overnight just because they are in the EPRDF circle. The poor Ethiopian whether he speaks Amharic, Oromo, Sidama ...is not their problem. There is nothing special; they are still living with their tiny plot of land. Afan Oromo used to be spoken in the rural area, and it is still there. No one prohibited it then, and it doesn’t have anything new now. It is an empty propaganda. Nothing was being accomplished on the ground.
Life: Regions are electing their own leaders and enacting laws. How does Semayawi Party feel about the EPRDF transformation of the centralized government structure to the current federal structure?
Yilikal: The federal structure by itself is not bad. We Ethiopians are not new to federal governance. There have always been administrators in the regions. To try to govern a country of 90 million people through a unitary system is in fact a great problem. It is good that regions are sharing power from the central government. The problem is putting the people in the baggage of ethnicity and dividing the people who used to share their happy and sad moments. ... We support people to administer their regions or their own regions. In the past times too, there were the so-called Shoan, Tigrean, and Oromo kings. These regional kings used to pay tribute to the Emperor (King of Kings); they never threatened to secede from the central government. People who lived in times when there wasn’t technology gave priority to national unity. In contrast, people who profess to be political scientists seek to secede the Oromo.
EPRDF’s federalism is nominal. The EPRDF federalism is just on paper. The party, being socialist, is centralist to its core. Few top leaders decide on everything. We have seen several episodes of intervention in the states to undermine the regional power purported to have been devolved to them. We observe that regions have more powers in olden times than in EPRDF times. They had their own military. But they worked together with others on matters of national agenda. EPRDF’s nature as an organization and federalism are incompatible. This is a political culture of pretense and deceit. In short, in our view, the federal system needs to take account of the geography, psychological make-up and the connectedness of the people inhabiting the regions, and administrative expediency. We struggle for regions (kiflate-hager) who have power under one nation [country].
Analysis: Blue Party on Ethiopia's checkered political map
By boldly condemning EPRDF's tyrannical rule, the Blue Party gave voice to growing popular discontents thereby endearing themselves to wider sectors of society, including the Muslim community that has been on the receiving end of the ruling party's iron-fist of repression for close to two years. Moreover, their catchy slogans on freedom and justice resonate well with a cross section of society.
Eng. Yilikal’s interview prior to the demonstration is little to go by but it definitely strokes a familiar chord.
His line of reasoning is reminiscent of the defunct CUD, later the UDJ, from which the founders of the Blue Party broke away. The position of the Blue Party is not surprising since it is not unusual for Amhara elite, left and right, to trumpet the virtues of 'unity' and cast it as the most valuable political asset, at times trumping liberty itself, a position which automatically leads to an irrational fear of the specter of secession. Talk of Ethiopia's past greatness is not new, either. The only sign of innovation in the Blue Party's platform is the propagation of liberal democracy. Notwithstanding its romanticization as some kind of panacea, they shot themselves in the foot by circumventing liberal democracy itself by anchoring it on a narrow premise: individual rights and borderline rejection of group rights.
To be fair, this is the crux of the matter for all pro-Ethiopia-unity groups, even the supposedly most progressive. Birtukan Midhaksa's recent interview with Harvard Gazette, where she called for recasting the past and re-imagining the future by "promoting the shared social values" that her own childhood represented, comes to mind. While the suggestions by Midhaksa, a former judge and prisoner of conscience herself, about an independent supreme court and a multicultural education to “help Ethiopians to imagine democratic Ethiopia, with all her mosaic” are steps in the right direction, her call for "an official language and nationwide political parties to supplant those drawn along ethnic lines" sound more rightist in tone than progressive.
What separates the latter from the far right is not holding ethnicity as the country's primary ill but rather the extent to which the role of Ethiopia's past injustices in creating today's 'ethnicity problem is acknowledged or denied outright as a blasphemy.'
The dream to build the future Ethiopia by hearkening back to its 'glorious' past, with distinct national symbols and emblems, is also not entirely the specialty of the Addis-based Amhara opposition. But rather the mainstay of all groups that look to Northern Ethiopia for inspiration and support, including the TPLF, which has toyed with the rhetoric of ‘greater Ethiopia’, especially at moments of supreme imperial hubris.
In conclusion, Blue Party’s failure to deviate from the standard motto of the Amhara establishment means little has changed since 2005 and the political center is still vacant.
Those who envision an open, fair, and democratic Ethiopia should stake out a firm claim to the center, embracing open political discussions on all issues. Discussions based on bottom-up consultations with all stakeholders offer an opportunity for a broad-based democracy movement rather than recycled political diagnosis affixed to a golden age that never was.
Luckily for the Blue Party, the night is still young to make amends.