February 26, 2011- The highly contagious flu of popular protests that forced out undemocratic regimes in North Africa has made public anxiety in Ethiopia to reach pitch high. Likewise, the ruling party, EPRDF, is equally anxious, wondering whether, how and when the protests will break out. While dismissing the risk of mass uprising as a phantom imagination of the “noisy diaspora” in public; privately, their worry is palpable.
One thing is already made clear. The EPRDF is not waiting idly until protests hit the streets. A multidimensional preparation and a multifaceted strategy are underway.
The EPRDF believes the outcome of the challenge it would face will be decided in Oromia. The belief is that if they are able to keep the lid on Oromia, they can prevail. They cite the example of the protests in the aftermath of the 2005 election. The conventional wisdom is that without taking over Oromia, no change effort in Ethiopia would succeed and that a movement in which the role of the Oromo is marginal would fail. EPRDF is counting two things: one, the inability of the OLF to speak in one voice, following the split of 2008. Two, ignorance among some Amhara circles about the seriousness of Oromo nationalism. The latter is seen as a hornet’s nest and a brick wall to stall any attempt at “returning to the old era”.
According to reliable reports, the premise of their game plan revolves around making sure that the Oromo and the mostly urban Amhara population in Oromia would not join hands. As was done in the aftermath of the 2005 elections, the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO) is busy disseminating, in the form of a rumor, information that the next Prime Minister of Ethiopia would be Oromo. Never mind that the election is four years away. Never mind that in elections the winner remains unknown until votes are actually counted. Never mind that the current Prime Minister has a deputy in place who hails from the South.
The OPDO was promised that it would make its debut as the second most important party in the EPRDF coalition in the 2010 election, displacing ANDM. However, Meles removed Abba Dula from President of Oromia to Speaker of Parliament, which is more or less a ceremonial post as the parliament has no opposition members with whom to debate policy and legislative issues. This came as a surprise, not to mention disappointment, for the rank and file. Following the election, the most visible mood among the OPDO was one of despondence.
This has all changed now. The OPDO is in a campaign mode. The cadres are now openly agitating against Oromos joining in protest along with the Amhara. Their message is partly a warning and partly a counsel. In the former sense, the OPDO is saying that they would never, EVER, allow the Amhara to stir in Oromia. The counsel is that the Oromo will be better off not joining the Amhara because the latter are still entertaining a return to the detested past era of Amhara domination. Their argument is that the talk of democracy by the Amhara is not to be trusted. They cite the attack against “gosa polotika” (tribal politics) by the Amhara elite as a code-word for dismantling the current federal structure and resuscitating the concept of “kifle hager” or even “teklay gizat”. Oromos are being told to die for Article 39.
In contrast, the message is completely different among ANDM. They are not being promised the Prime Minister’s seat. The Amhara (in the Amhara state) are being told that the EPRDF would be even more committed to Ethiopian unity. The Amhara are advised to be wary of the Oromo, who would allegedly use any opportunity to secede from Ethiopia using the provisions of Article 39.
A comment attributed to the Prime Minister is made the rounds among the Oromo in Oromia and the diaspora. The Prime Minister is said to have met a group of Oromo elders lately. He is reported to have said that some Oromo groups are trying to revive the Naftegna system whom the EPRDF has buried below the neck. He went on to add: “I and you are in the same boat. We will both lose disastrously if we allow them to ever come back to power”.
The message reaching Tigreans is altogether different. The message here is that the downfall of EPRDF would spell disaster to the Tigrean community anywhere in the country, their property and person hood is in grave danger. They are being told to die defending TPLF rather than allow the Amhara and Oromo to reduce Tigray to a marginal role in the country’s affairs.
The Southern peoples are being fed a slightly different message. The message here is how they have benefited from the EPRDF. Cadres cite that the Deputy Prime Minister, who is also a Foreign Minister, is from the South, which is an indication of the high place of the South in the New Ethiopia led by EPRDF.
The EPRDF is not satisfied with propaganda alone. It is engaged in a grand scheme to nab as many suspected opposition agitators as possible. Many are being picked up from their homes in the middle of the night. Parents are being asked to sign agreements to not allow their children to join street protests.
This time around the EPRDF does not trust its own members and officers. Security bosses are being dispatched to the provinces to check on the EPRDF hierarchy and take remedial measures to eliminate any risk from internal saboteurs. Members critical of the way the authorities dealt with merchants and the institution of price control are being targeted. A case in point is a city councilman in Adama who had made a name for himself by asking too many questions. According to my sources, he is now detained. There are also reports that the police force could be disarmed, because of uncertainties about their loyalty.
Despite the EPRDF propaganda campaign and a wave of arrests, the chorus remains: Enough with tyranny! The new slogan: “Beka-gaye!!” is reverberating, even if at heart, at least for now.