Wanted to tie a few loose ends before my scheduled break.
A while ago I pontificated about LF Groupies where I portentously inducted Mike Clough into the ‘LF Groupie Hall of Fame.’ Mike was speedy in responding graciously. I, on the other hand, have been tardy in posting his letter and responding back because I’m lackadaisical like that.
If you need to catch up, his op-ed in the LA Times started it all. And then I mouthed off because I’m mouthy-offy like that.
Hi Et wonkette
Nice argument about LF groupies. I agree with your general argument--and even some of your criticisms of my article. I can understand how, read in isolation, you could interpret my article the way you did. (When you write for an outlet like the LA Times, you never have the space to put all of your arguments in context and inevitably your views end up sounding less nuanced than they, in fact, are.) The main intention of the piece was to pressure US policymakers to break with Meles and recognize that the OLF, and more importantly the Oromo people, need to be considered part of the Ethiopian political equation. I have a high regard for some individuals in the OLF leadership who have been making valiant attempts to move the OLF away from separatism and armed struggle, but I would not want to see an OLF-dominated Ethiopia any more than I wanted to see a TPLF-dominated Ethiopia. In fact, I was in Addis a month after Mengistu fell and argued directly with the US policymakers who were largely responsible for the US decision to anoint Meles and the TPLF. It was a stupid decision--and Ethiopia is now paying for it. My judgment that the OLF would have won a majority of the votes in Oromia if they had been in the country and able to campaign is based mainly on the research in Oromia done by Chris Albin-Lackey of Human Rights Watch just before the election. Unlike most "experts," Chris didn't just hang around Addis and talk to other "experts," he went to Oromia. But I don't think there's really much disputing the fact that the OLF is the most popular organization in Oromia--one of the leaders of one of the parties that did run even said to Chris that if the OLF had run they wouldn't have gotten a single vote--and its pretty clear that the OPDO would be routed if there were really free elections.
My only real problem with your argument is that you make the mistake of over- generalizing about liberation groups. As I used to emphasize before I moved away from Africa policy in the early 1990s, very few governments of liberation movements are inherently good or inherently bad. (Obviously, there are some real thugs, but most governments and liberation movements contain a mix of people who are single-mindedly committed to their group, others who are genuine democrats and a lot of opportunists.) My greatest concern has always been the way in which US policy makers tend to reinforce the worst tendencies in governments and movements. That was the main argument of the book I wrote in 1992 which was harshly critical of US support for Mobutu, Nimeri, Doe, etc. It was also the reason that I wrote a series of articles for the LA Times in the early 1990s that were critical of Winnie Mandela and the undemocratic forces within the ANC. And it is why, if the OLF were to end up in a position of power in Ethiopia, I would be prepared to be as critical of them as I have been of Meles.
In any event, thanks for the thoughtful argument.
And then me, again…
With most profound apologies for the tardiness in responding to your thoughtful letter, I hope I am able to clear up a few points.
I am not anti-liberation movements. Both my great grandfathers fought the second Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and my forefathers died in Adwa. My great grandfathers left their wives and children to fight for liberty and freedom. Similarly, my American forefathers fought against British colonial powers. They fought a war of honor for liberation. I’m sorry I gave the impression I am anti- liberation movements.
I am, however, unabashedly against ethnic based liberation movements, especially in the Ethiopian context. In fact, I generally have disdain for ethnic based politics. The reason being… it has not worked. Anywhere. EPLF, TPLF and yes, OLF. As someone who has had to deal with race issues in the US, I find it galling to judge and be judged by the most capricious of yardsticks, be it skin color or the type of blood in my veins. Yes, rather simplistic, but in the end, aren’t all things simple?
I am also a pragmatist wrapped in the warm gabi of a romanticist. What have been the results of ethnic and tribal based politics? Why is Africa the only continent which has gotten poorer in the past 25 years?
I read somewhere that Ethiopia’s economy in the 40s and 50s was more developed than Korea’s. Today, Ethiopia depends on foreign aid to an extent we should all find contemptible (although I urge you not to tell the EPRDF that since it thinks more aid is development) while Korea (the sane one) is exporting cars and finding ways to jam pack my cell phone with features I find irritating yet oddly necessary.
So how do we explain the seismic developmental retardation of Africa? Sure, luck might have something to do with it, but I can argue that an unhealthy idée fixe with ethnicity has set the continent far behind. Attitudes towards land ownership, entrepreneurship and good governance have been tied to who was born unto what tribe, and I find it more than a little distasteful that in the age of a digital revolution, where boundaries, even brick and mortar are fast becoming obsolete, Africans are still machete-ing each other over who’s grandfather raided whose village.
The BBC had a very interesting program on this issue.
In 1957, Ghana and Malaysia gained independence from Britain. Malaysia had to import palm oil trees and expertise from Ghana in the 50s, which has been harvesting palm oil for centuries. Production in Ghana was low, however, because tribal chiefs were territorial about releasing more land for production. Can you believe palm oil was not even grown in Malaysia 50 years ago? Well, according to the BBC (June 22, 2005 broadcast), Malaysia is now the leading producer of palm oil. Not just that, but shifting its focus towards industrialization has enabled it today to be in a position of manufacturing cars! (The Proton – terrible name withstanding.) How far do you think sub Sahara Africa is from manufacturing cars?
You see, Mike? You see where I am going with this? When we talk about ethnic based liberation movements, we are talking about tribal politics. And tribal politics makes no room for industrialization. No industrialization means being at mercy of rains that love sporadically and aid that comes with pretty chains.
Ethiopia missed the industrialization revolution, and is now poised to miss the digital revolution because tribalization is more important than burying fiber optic cables. Hence, my disdain.
Which brings me to the OLF. I will concede to you that if elections were held today in the Oromiya region that the OLF would win elections. Fair enough. But what would that mean? The EPRDF has such a vile human rights record that I am sure people would vote for Hitler before they vote for the EPRDF. But what does it mean that the OLF wins in that region under these circumstances? What has TPLF meant for the people of Tigray? (Ethiopundit has an excellent article on this.) What has Hamas winning against Fatah meant for Palestinians? What has a “99% vote” for seceding from Ethiopia meant for Eritreans? Probably one of the most devastating things I’ve read about the current Eritrean situation was about an older Eritrean gentleman who lamented how the Issayas government has been as bad for the Eritrean people as the Dergue. Can you imagine? It is a psychological tsunami that is withering in its indictment. All those lives lost, all those mothers who willingly gave up their children, and for what? It’s a terrible legacy not just for Ethiopians and Eritreans but for Africans in general.
Yes, I will concede to “over-generalization” of liberation movements (ethnic based ones) if you will entertain a certain weakness to over-romanticizing a presumed underdog. It’s the American way, Mike. I understand. We like underdogs. But there is nothing in the OLF that even hints it has, at its core, democratic tendencies, although I am relieved to learn you know some hardworking OLFfers who are trying to reform it away from separation politics and armed resistance. I hope they prevail. But from what I read on “we are the great Oromians not Ethiopians” websites, there is a lot of the same kind of blind tribalism we saw with the Eritreans. The OLF’s main recruiting apparatus depends on riling up 17th century rivalries without account to fact and history; it depends on a general concept of those pesky “Amhara rulers, colonizers”; it depends on people’s visceral instincts to hate rather than appeal to their more evolved sense of rational thought process. There is a reason why ethnic liberaton movements depend on weaknesses and not strengths. The OLF talks about “getting our land back” and thinks calling Addis Abeba ‘Finfine’ is actual policy. But that’s all ethnic based liberation movements have to offer: demagoguery and warlordism. That, to me, has impending disaster written all over it.
This is not to say there has not been ridiculous oppression of ethnic groups in Ethiopia, which I condemn with the same disdain. There has to be to be a way to address those grievances honestly and decisively. Ethiopia’s history has not always been fair, and sometimes it’s even been grotesquely unjust. But Mike, how do you feel about rhetoric about the reconquista of “Aztlan”? Should the US work on giving back the Southwest to Mexico?
I was intrigued by this paragraph in your wonderful letter:
The main intention of the piece was to pressure US policymakers to break with Meles and recognize that the OLF, and more importantly the Oromo people, need to be considered part of the Ethiopian political equation.
Mike, why not pressure the US to break with Meles and recognize an opposition which has most probably won the elections? That includes the Oromo people, by the way. I am still cloudy on why your piece was disproportional in its focus on the OLF. Why wouldn’t you bat for all Ethiopians who have been the bane of this government’s existence? Also, not all people of Oromo background support the OLF, as I am sure you know (ask my grandmother), just as all Tigrayans don’t support the TPLF etc. So, in the midst of an election gone awry, when innocent Ethiopians were being shot at, when leaders of the opposition party were being jailed, it was curious that you focused on why the US should be speaking to and recognizing the OLF and not all the voices of the Ethiopian people. Your “main intention” still puzzles me, but maybe I missed something.
It might be because when “you write for an outlet like the LA Times, you never have the space to put all of your arguments in context and inevitably your views end up sounding less nuanced than they, in fact, are.” But wouldn’t the fact that you are writing for the LA Times and that you have limited space be exactly why you should be very careful that your arguments are properly nuanced, it being a rare opportunity to raise awareness and all? For someone who doesn’t have any knowledge of the situation (which might be 95% of LAT readers), it appears as if there is this fantastic, democratic outfit called OLF that is fighting for freedom and democracy, but Washington is refusing to deal with it despite its “democratic traditions.” You probably didn’t mean that, but that’s how it reads.
I am sure you have by now read Professor Berhanu Abegaz’s article, Ethiopia: A Model Nation of Minorities. As you have probably realized, the question of neatly divided ethnic groups in Ethiopia is a bit of a myth, although arguing that “the Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia” is an easy missive that de-complicates complex matters. Without a deeper understanding of the history of Ethiopia (the entire history) we fall into ready made craters. Chris Albin-Lackey has been truly wonderful, but he does have a slight tendency to want to simplify ethnic realities in Ethiopia. I can site as an example his referring to the CUD as a “mostly Amhara” organization. C’mon.
One of the more interesting articles I’ve read about Africa and its continuing political and economic trauma was in this Christian Science Monitor article, How to Stop Africa From Backsliding. Money quote:
What has gone awry so soon after a decade of democratization? Meaningful political and economic reforms will remain elusive unless Africa's traditional political class is exorcised from the landscape. This will require both a complete renewal and a broad expansion of the political elite.
Second, politics must be detribalized. One ironic paradox of multipartyism and open political competition has been the tribalization of politics. African political parties - the only vehicles through which modern democracy is practiced - are barren receptacles for tribal barons and ethnic demagoguery. They are parties in name only, not substance. They do not mobilize the population and only heighten ethnic tensions and fragment the political landscape when they do. Political parties must be national vehicles grounded in political ideologies and economic philosophies.
In the end, Mike (and you will forgive me for quoting Bonnie Raitt here--- Prime Minister Meles has made quoting American pop stars a necessary tool in discussing Ethiopian politics) “I can’t make you love me if you don’t.” If after a fair debate and analysis, people of Oromo background want to separate, let’s do it. Teddy Afro has a song that translates loosely as “if we can’t live together in peace, let’s try separation.” No one can tell me I am not Ethiopian, and I can’t tell anybody else that he/she is, especially by force. If you want to go, you should be able to go in peace. If Ethiopia had done that with Eritrea 20 years ago, Ethiopia would not be landlocked today. So, where Ethiopia ends and Oromiya starts will have to be mapped out amicably. What most of us want is for a prosperous Ethiopia that can harness its potential as an economic powerhouse. Anything that hinders that should be addressed. (I only hope when Ethiopia finally sheds its ethnic based politics, it won’t name the car it manufactures “The Electron.”)
I know what you are thinking at this juncture: that there is an inherent contradiction in my argument that OLF winning an election might not be a reflection of its clout as opposed to the opposition’s. I beg your indulgence. That’s why I said “under these circumstances.” If after a rational, democratic process that allows for open debates people choose separation, then I’ll be the first to say “God speed.” Hopefully, the moderates in the OLF you have high regard for will realize a strong Ethiopia is beneficial to all Ethiopians. (Something I don’t understand about ethnic politics: if I was half Oromo and half Gurage, and I disagreed with the OLF, do I become a full Gurage?) By the way, I argued for Ethiopia’s separation from Eritrea in the 80s, and if you knew the volatility of political discourse in Ethiopian circles at that time you would tell me what a brave little girl I am. And my position on Eritrea now (not that you asked) is: demarcate the border and let’s talk in 20 years. Until then, let’s forget each other’s numbers. When rational minds come of age, we’ll see if we can work together.
I am as puzzled as you by the US’ role in Ethiopia, Mike. The US should withdraw its support from the Meles government because affiliating the US with a discredited government is bad for US interests. Haven’t we established that through history? The EPRDF is self destructing, and US credibility can’t go down with it. More and more Ethiopians are becoming disillusioned with US policy, and having 77 million more people hating America is bad for America, especially in a volatile region like the Horn of Africa. (Redeem Ethiopia brilliantly lays this out in Ethio - US Relations: Going Anywhere? ) It’s simply bad policy that is working against the US’ self interest. Whatever you can do to shed light on that, Mike, will be welcomed. Trading tyranny for stability has never worked, and in a post 9-11 world, the US should be on the side of democracy. It’s the only long-term strategy that works. I am sure you, too, are as perplexed by the adventures of our Ambassador in Ethiopia. It foreshadows disaster. At a time in history when we are marching against genocide, it is unhelpful that the US is seen appeasing a government that was involved in the ethnic cleansing of the Anuaks.
Finally, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the time you took to write to me. I’ve been having meaningful discussions with a lot of people who have good will, and even when I disagree with them, it’s been intellectually enlightening. I don’t doubt you are well-intentioned, and HRW has been doing an incredible job chronicling the Ethiopian government’s dismal human rights record. I am especially touched by your contention that:
… if the OLF were to end up in a position of power in Ethiopia, I would be prepared to be as critical of them as I have been of Meles.
I know you will, and I think you are sweet. But by the time the OLF shows its true colors and by the time the LA Times asks you to write another op-ed, more Ethiopians would have died. That anguishes me. And maybe, just maybe, people in the Oromiya region will by then be waxing nostalgic about the EPRDF days. How sad would that be?
I am honored to be having this discussion with you.