Solomon Terfa, PhD


   The euphoria surrounding Professor Clapham’s article “Comments on the Ethiopian crisis” are subsiding. The emotion and heat it had generated is dissipating. When every thing is said and done, however, there are two significant lingering issues. The first one is the burning light it has shined over the pseudo-democrats of the Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). It has unambiguously and clearly indicated that not only the Front’s operation, decision making, economic and land policies are dictated by its Marxist-Leninist ideology but also that it has committed itself to resist the  transference of power through peaceful electoral means. Equally important, the article seem to underline, the eminent plausibility of the charge that the government has stolen the election

   The second one issue is where the article cries out for further illumination. Unless this is treated early and especially if left as stated, it seems to me, the harm will out weigh the benefit. In fact we can split this concern into two areas. In both areas, in my opinion, we will find professor Clapham, not necessarily consciously, indulging in reinforcement of stereotypes. In one of them he says “....I have detected no explicit attempt to mobilize religion as a source of political support (though a ‘nationalist’ party like CUD must inevitably be associated in some degree with Christianity and especially the Orthodox church).(P.4) By his own admission he has not detected any explicit attempt to mobilize religion as a source of political support. If that is the case and if there is no empirical evidence to corroborate it, it would have been preferable if he had restrained himself from indulging in speculation or surmising and/or associating CUD in whatever degree with any religion since “nationalism” and “religion” are not mutually exclusive concepts. One can be a follower of Orthodox Christianity, or Catholicism, or Islam, and/or Protestantism and still be nationalist. In other words, CUD can and did appeal to the followers of all these religions as manifested in its triumph against the EPRDF in the May 2005 election. Professor Clapham himself has said the following. “...the EPRDF has completely lost public support in the cities which, in Ethiopia as throughout Africa, are the bellwethers of political opinion. Equally striking, that support has gone overwhelmingly to the CUD: for this to gain every single constituency in Addis Ababa, in both the parliamentary and municipal elections, is quite extraordinary achievement, and given the range of nationalities and settlement patterns in the city -- indicates support among all urban population groups....” (P.5)  This speculation, no doubt, springs from the stereotypical assumption that associates Ethiopian nationalism with the Amharas most of whom are followers of the Orthodox Christian church. Professor Clapham succinctly puts it thus: “....One such current is Ethiopian nationalism, which was represented in an extreme and brutal form by the Derg, and which is understandably strongest among Amharas, (my emphasis) but which has an entirely legitimate constituency in the country as a whole” (P.4).

   My effort is not to parse words or split hairs for the issue is much more complex. It is about the love and reverence Ethiopians of all nationalities have for their country. Now, the question is: how is love manifested and how is it measured? Short of empirical evidence and statistical data, how is it possible to attribute or allocate degree of variation for the love that each one of us has for our country? Is it academically feasible to arbitrarily assign superlatives and degrees of measurement with out evidence? Is it justifiable to assume that if the leader or leaders of a government are from a certain ethnic group or nationality that nationalism will be strongest amongst their compatriot or particular ethnic group? Short of empirical evidence, I doubt if this is always the case. If no justification or evidence is afforded, shouldn’t we call it for what it is, i.e., stereotyping? Isn’t there danger in this? Doesn’t this contribute to alienation? Wouldn’t people of other ethnic group and religion be offended and alienated when they are told, in so many words, that the love they have for their country is weaker or is not as strong as another ethnic group? Isn’t that offensive? Wouldn’t this be severely demeaning to people of other ethnic group who have sacrificed their lives and blood for the independence and territorial integrity of their country? If this is not a demonstration of love for one’s country, I want to know what is?

   This is why I have problem with professor Clapham’s assertion that Ethiopian nationalism is “strongest among Amharas”. I have no doubt that he has not seriously thought about the implication of this myth perpetuation and/or reinforcing stereotypes. It is this stereotype that has been exploited by the EPRDF government to the hilt to mitigate and ward off our plea to the international community. EPRDF had preemptively warned most of the leaders of the European countries and also those of the United States that it is the Amharas and disgruntled Derg supporters that are demonstrating and making noise. Amharas and Dergists, they are told are angry because they lost the helm government. So it is natural for them to cry foul under any and all circumstances. This myth is perpetuated even in the face of legitimate reasons like human rights violation and atrocities perpetrated by the rogue regime.

   I remember vividly one anecdote where we, members of the Committee for Peace, Reconciliation and Democracy (CPRD) were told, in April 1991, by the ambassador of Great Britain to Ethiopia that we “did not have to worry because we will have an Amhara Prime Minister”. The CPRD was established, I’m sure Professor Clapham would remember, during the Eleventh International Ethiopian Studies Conference held at the Addis Ababa University in April 1991. It resulted from a paper presented by the eminent scholar and human rights champion Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam in a committee chaired by Professor Clapham himself, if my memory serves correctly. Attendants and participants were so fascinated not only by the very daring presentation but most importantly by the proposal that professor Mesfin put forward. He called for an immediate formation of a Transitional Government composed of elders to prepare the condition where all parties and liberation movements, including the Tigre People Liberation Front, the Eritrean People Liberation Front, the Oromo Liberation Front and others would participate. After serious discussion and debates on the merits and demerits of the proposal, participants and attendants wanted to seize the opportunity and establish a committee that would work towards that end. Mengistu for the first time was urged to relinquish power to save the country from further senseless bloodshed and destruction. Eleven of us were given this noble duty but only nine of us met regularly and strategized and planned to discharge our responsibility. I should mention that when the academic discussion on the paper ended and the house moved to the discussion of establishing a committee, Professor Clapham to his credit, retired from his chairmanship claiming that he did not have to be part of it for it was outside the parameter of the occasion and also strictly an Ethiopian affair.

   The Committee was of the opinion that securing the support of foreign governments, particularly those of the permanent members of the UN Security Council, to further its objective would enhance its status both nationally and internationally. It was hopped that it would facilitate the Committee’s function. Towards this end the members of the Committee began to pay visits to these embassies in Addis. It was during one of these visits that the then British Ambassador shocked us by his uncalled for and insensitive remark. But again his remark illustrates how strongly entrenched this myth and stereotype is. I am of the opinion that; had it not been for the May 2005 election and its aftermath that stripped the veneer of pseudo democratic cover of the EPRDF government and exposed its true nature, murderous authoritarian that has no respect for human rights, our effort at convincing the international community would have been stubbornly frustrating. And this is simply because of the stereotype that it is the irate Amharas that are making noise. It is in this context that we have to view Professor Clapham’s article.

   Professor Clapham’s article jolted my memory. It helped me remember the survey which I did in 1992. The study is possibly the only -or among the very few- surveys done on the behavior and attitude of the Ethiopian students on the politics of the country. The survey was conducted while the EPRDF was still serving as a Transitional Government (TG).  The study springs form three assumptions about the former and current governments of Ethiopia:

1. that the government of Colonel Mengistu--- People’s Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (PDRE), was overthrown because its highly centralized, dictatorial nature and that planned, command  economy could not resolve the problems of the country,

2. that the Transitional Government, a “decentralized” and ethnically based government with a fledgling “free market” economic system, may succeed in resolving Ethiopia’s problems, and

3. that the students also do share the concern of the TG, namely

--- Amhara domination,

--- National oppression or in the parlance of the TG the “national question”,

--- Absence of democracy and/or the centralized and dictatorial nature of governments ,

--- Federalism as a solution to Ethiopia’s problems,

--- The federation’s use of language as the main criterion for delineating ethnic regions,

--- Whether the political process that began indicates a bright future, and  

--- Other equally important and burning issues.

I should at the outset mention that the survey did not query students about their ethnic origin or multi- ethnic identity and therefore responses cannot be analyzed with accurate  breakdown by ethnicity. 650 students in eight cities participated, with a representative sample of students of the largest ethnic groups-Amhara, Oromo, Tigre, Gurage, etc., . Based on the standard set by The University of Nebraska Annual Social Indicator Survey (NASIS) which uses 1800 as a representative sample for two million residents, 650 constitutes a representative sample for college and high school population of approximately one million.

The survey was administered to

1. third and fourth year students of the Department of Political Science and International Relation Students of the Addis Ababa University, sample size 56

2. third and fourth year students of the Faculty of Science who were taking a course entitled     Introduction to Political Science sample size 135

3. High school students who took their Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate (ESLCE) exam. on        the campus of Addis Ababa University compound sample size 77

4. Bale high school students who took ESLCE, sample size 63

5. Gojjam high school students who took ESLCE, sample size 48

6. Gidole high school students who took ESLCE, sample size 35

7. Kembata high school students who took ESLCE, sample size 46

8. Arssi high school students who took ESLCE, sample size 62

9. Wolaita high school students who took ESLCE sample size 64

10.Gamu Goffa high school students ESLCE sample size 64


Table I: Ethnic Identity of respondents:

I am first (an)--------------

                                              students who said they are first                    

Ethnic Identity                     Number                                        %    

Amhara                                 45                                                 6.9 

Oromo                                   38                                                 5.8

Gurage                                    5                                                    .8

Tigre                                      17                                                 2.6

Ethiopian                             531                                                81.7

Other                                      14                                                  2.2

My assumption that the ethnic politics unleashed by the Transitional Government would enhance and deepen ethnic nationalism or ethnocentrism was not supported by the data While of the 650 respondents 531 or 81, 7 % categorically say they are Ethiopians first, 38 or 5.8 % and 45

or 6.9 % of the Oromos and Amharas respectively say they are Oromos and Amharas first. This could be explained as follows:

(a.) since the respondents are students, they are probably reflecting the level of ethnic integration of their towns or regions and/or

(b) their response may demonstrate the extent of progress the country has made in resolving ethnic differences and building national consciousness and/or

(c) the students may be demonstrating their rejection of ethnic politics.

Table II: Hitherto governments have been dominated by Amharas


Students who agreed            124                                  19

Students who disagreed       526                                   80 .9

 Total                                     650                                    99.9

Here again my assumption was that the current ethnic politics would induce our respondents to reevaluate and or reconsider their position with regard to the ethnic composition of the former governments of Emperor Haile Selassie and Colonel Mengistu. Of the 650 respondents a large majority of them -526 or 80 % disagreed that the governments of both Haile Selassie and Mengistu were predominantly composed of Amharas while 124 respondents or 19 % agreed. This therefore indicates that the influence of ethnic politics is negligible.

Table III: Hitherto governments were dominated by Amahra-Tigre


Students who agreed            89                                    13.7

Students who disagreed      561                                    86.3

 Total                                    650                                     100.0

Here again my assumption was that the myth that the governments of both Emperor Haile Selassie and Colonel Mengistu were dominated by the two ethnic groups would be shared by the respondents. But in fact the number of those students who disagreed increased to 561 or 86.3% while the number of those who agreed decreased to 89 or 13.7%.

Table IV: Hitherto governments were all inclusive


Students who agreed            486                                   74.8

Students who disagreed       164                                    25.2

  Total                                     650                                    100.0

The negative responses in both Tables 2 and 3 have been corroborated in Table 4 where, of the 650 respondents, 480 or 74.8 % agreed that the former governments had been inclusive with more ethnic groups represented. On the other hand, though the number of those who disagreed has slightly increased-164 or 25.2 %-, the impact of ethnic politics unleashed by the TG had not been significant.  One possible explanation is; that that consistent with their responses in Tables 2 and 3, the majority of the respondents must be convinced that both governments were all inclusive.

Table V: National oppression or national question


Students who agreed             275                                    42.3

Students who disagreed        375                                    57.3

Total                                      650                                    100.0

 My assumption here was that the TG’s contention that the primary and paramount problem in Ethiopia is national oppression would resonate with the students. I must point out that the issue of national oppression or the national question was in the minds of many of the students of the 1960s and 1970s. However, interestingly, a clear majority of the students 375 or 57.7 disagreed, while 275 or 42.3 percent agreed. The explanation in this case may be that although national oppression is one of the problems, it is not the single most important problem. Another explanation could be that those students might have transcended their ethnic biases and have started looking at broader problems of national context. This may indicate the degree of ethnic/national integration and the level of nationhood attained.

Table VI: Problem has been the centralized and dictatorial nature of the governments and the absence of democracy


Students who agreed             425                                     65.4

Students who disagreed         225                                    34.6


Total                                       650                                     100.0

The fact that 425 students or 65.4% agreed and 225 or 34.6% disagreed seems to indicate that, compared to national oppression where 375 students or 57.7% disagreed and 275 or 42.3% agreed, the paramount problem in Ethiopia has been the absence of democracy and the centralized and dictatorial nature of the governments. Both Haile Selassie’s and Mengistu’s governments were centralized and dictatorial. Though both had written constitutions with provisions for defense and promotion of human rights of their people, they did not practice these provisions. Both governments were objects of studies and criticism by various human rights organizations, especially Amnesty International.

 Table VII: The solution to Ethiopia’s problems could be found through federal form of government


Students who agreed            436                                     67.1

Students who disagreed       214                                      32.9

    Total                                      650                                     100.0

Complementing their opposition to centralism and dictatorship, (Table VI), almost equal numbers of students -425 or 65.4% and 436 or 67.1% respectively--agree that federalism could resolve

Ethiopia’s problems. This may be explained by the fact that genuine federalism is antithetical to centralism and that there will be division of power between the federal government and its constituent parts with checks and balances between the various branches of governments.

Table VIII: Federalism in Ethiopia should take language as the main criterion for delineating the various regions


Students who agreed            161                                      24.8

Students who disagreed       489                                      75.2

Total                                      650                                      100.0

My assumption was that the ethnic politics propagated by TG would influence the political perception of the respondents. This has not been the case. The explanation could be that the students may have transcended their parochialism and ethnocentrism and or they may have been influenced by the conflicts taking place in the country since embarking on this road.

 Table IX: Federalism in Ethiopia should consider economic and political viability


Students who agreed            515                                     79.2

  Students who disagreed       135                                     20.8

  Total                                     650                                     100.0

A great majority of the students agreed that the federation should take, among others, socio-economic and political viability into consideration to delineate the regions. One possible explanation is that the students believe that in order to build a viable nation, the economic and political compatibility of the regions should be the foundation

Table X: The provision of self-determination is included in the Charter to legalize the secession of Eritrea

---------------------------------Number-------------------------- %--------------------------------

Students who agreed            422                                        64.9

Students who disagreed       228                                        35.1

Total                                     650                                        100.0

The students are cognizant of the fact that by establishing precedence, the TPLF is increasing its options. If it prevails over the other organizations and establish its hegemony good, but if not, as pointed out in the TPLF Foreign Relations Bureau report, October 1980, it would opt to create an independent and democratic state of Tigray.

Table XI: The political process in Ethiopia holds a bright future


Students who agreed           160                                        24.6

Students who disagreed      490                                        75.4

Total                                    650                                         100.0

 The overwhelming majority of the respondents -490 or 75.4 % are of the opinion that the political process charted by the TG does not promise a bright future for the country. This may result from various reasons among which (a) political bickering and antagonisms between the so-called political organizations, and (b) the economic and social instability and the psychological uncertainty about the state of affairs are prominent.

The students seem to air the frustration and disappointment of the larger society. Ethnic politics is by its nature, repressive, regressive and counter productive. It is the feeling and hope of many that this will not be the framework upon which the future Ethiopia will be established. It is for this and other reasons that many object to the participation of the TG in the drafting of the constitution.

   In conclusion, I would say the following. The survey study clearly indicate that most of the students surveyed regard themselves as Ethiopians first. Given the representative sample size, it is safe to generalize this to the youth population. There are however several limitation to this study, not least of which is the age of the cohort. While the survey questions are valid and was circulated in a wide enough area; in order for a survey of this nature to be reliable, it would have to be administered to a more representative sample with controls for age/gender/socio-economic status/ethnic origin and perhaps political affiliation.  Any political solution that does not take this “elephant in the room” into consideration (that most Ethiopians see themselves as Ethiopian first)  will not have the support of the Ethiopian people. And in fact the source of the problems that the EPRDF government is currently confronted with emanate from this glaring reality.

   We are collectively playing the role of midwife in the birth of the new democratic Ethiopia. The Ethiopia where ethnicity and religious bigotry will be a thing of the past. It could be arduous and frustrating. The whole exercise reminds me of the book written by the late Abe Gubegna entitled Aliwoledim or its equivalent English translation I Refuse to be Born. Many of us may have reached that psychological stage. With all of us working together and with the support of Ethiopia’s friends in the international community, I have no doubt. This may be a long labor, so to speak. In long labor there is always the possibility of losing the mother. But we shall not allow mother Ethiopia to die. There are many of us who are dedicated and committed enough to let that happen. Let us refine our method of struggle and stay the course.

  The topic If not now, When? If not Us, Who? is a rephrased version of the “moral philosopher” Hilel’s question who asked “ If not now, When? If not you, Who?”. And in this connection I will say this. There might be some of you who would question the timing of this article. Why now? I would respond why not now? I would say, yes timing is very critical in politics. But I have confidence in our people that we can perform multiple and complex tasks at the same time. Our history proves this. We can struggle against the EPRDF regime and also work on laying the foundation of the new Ethiopia. They could be done simultaneously. We should not regard them as competing and conflicting ideas or interest. They are one and the same. In fact there is a dialectical linkage between the dying of dictatorship and the birth of democracy. While fighting and struggling against dictatorship we are also fighting and struggling for the birth of democracy.

Solomon Terfa ( Ph D )

E-mail: st2151@bellsouth.net

Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations.

Mississippi Valley State University


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