When Brehanu Nega's family sent him a collection of books in December last year, the prison security personnel went through the contents of the books with a careful eye of a censor. Those books whose content substantially reflected about freedom and democracy were disallowed and returned to the senders. Little did the censors knew that Brehanu himself would write one of the most compelling and uplifting freedom books in the country's history in the jail they put him and his fellow democracy fighters to bend their will.
Brehanu Nega's "Yenetasanet Goh Siked" begins with a passionate defense for liberal democracy in Ethiopia, rejecting benevolent dictatorship advanced in the Lee thesis and the confused revolutionary democracy of Meles Zenawi. "Before EPRDF put it in an intellectual quagmire," he writes, "revolutionary democracy was a concept worth debating at academic circles." Nonetheless, he was without illusions. He acknowledged that there are serious obstacles, governmental and non-governmental, which impede the kind of democracy he zealously espoused and defended. He dealt with our perception of the powers of government, sense of powerlessness, interpretation of history by the country's competing elites as some of the non-governmental obstacles for the building of democracy in Ethiopia. Here he reserved his most lethal armor to Ethiopian academics in Ethiopia. While teaching at AAU, Brehanu had noticed a well-entrenched "fear, cynical academic culture and the lack of critical thinking" which is reflected on the students who then go on to become leaders of the country.
He goes through the latest three governments and their contribution towards the frustration of development of democracy in Ethiopia. The last one, the one who's jailed and abused the writer, is particularly put to sword. Its ideological confusion was ridiculed with the penetrative analysis of an academic. He told us that today's EPRDF is like a "cosmopolitan". It has no identity. It started, Brehanu argued, with confusion by marrying communism with ethnic nationalism. When it got the power of government, it pretended to embrace capitalism to hoodwink the international community. There were no serious debates within the party during these ideological transformations. That put the members in utter confusion and the party with no identity and purpose.
Brehanu recalled EPRDF's first time in government as its honey moon period. The first-generation reforms, the relative peace and stability, the honesty and integrity of rank and file members of the party, he thought, contributed to the a lot of people willing to give it the benefit of time despite the suspicion and criticism of other who though the organization wasn't ready to defend the country's national interest. Some of the critics were vindicated when the government didn't show the slightest inclination to defend the country's interest during and after the cessation of Eritrea. The latter period of EPRDF's power was when it lost support and credibility. The aftermath of the Eritrean war (the Algiers agreement), the split of TPLF, the stalled economic progress, the lack of independent democratic institutions and freedom and others contributed to its massive unpopularity.
Despite being loathed by many Ethiopians, there was no strong opposition party. He offered reasons for that. Some of the opposition, who were organized around ethnicity, didn't provide a different alternative to EPRDF. Their politics had pushed away capable people. And the number of players in the political field was simply too many.
After setting a theoretical framework for the book, he follows it with a blend of captivating and emotive memoir and crisp and sharp analysis of the periods leading up to the election. He recounts how the discussion which started in jail with professor Mesfin broadened to include other academics and led to the formation of kestedemena, the party which took the initiative to form Kinijit. The personal brawls, the ideological struggles and the petty squabbles during the formation of Kinijit were exposed. He accounted for facts which were not in the public arena and are fascinating to read.
Before he tells us about the gradual transformation of Kinijit from a coalition of parties with clashing personalities, egos and cultures to a solid, vibrant organization, he analyzes why EPRDF made election 2005 freer. Its objectives were to hold an election and to win. It was confident that it would win. Brehanu tell us that he used to drink Whiskey with Bereket Simon twice a week before the election. The sheer arrogance and the pampered self-confidence of EPRDFites were revealed in their conversations. EPRDF, according to Brehanu, loved to split society into groups. Its election calculations were made based on such divisions. Its first division was between rural and urban population. It thought it had a major support in rural areas. Party bosses were boasting that their researches had shown that they were supported there. Brehanu scoffs at such researches. He argues that such researches were misleading in a fear society. The peasants would feed EPRDF cadres whatever they wanted. This was their coping mechanism in a dictatorial role. EPRDF had discounted how a farmer who lived in a fear society would act when suddenly he thought he was free.
EPRDF was also confident that its ethnic politics would serve the purpose of winning the election. It had been propagating that there were oppressed and oppressor ethnic groups. The party thought it had a support from the historically oppressed. Marrying class and ethnicity, EPRDF also further divided the oppressor ethnic group into the rulers and the ruled. It had calculated that the ruled would vote for it. Thus, EPRDF would be a party which would be supported by all ethnic groups. The party knew that to win the election it had to win in the Amhara and Oromia regions. It knew winning the Amhara region was difficult. It might have guessed that the oppressor/oppressed classification had serious opposition in the region. Yet it was dead certain that the peasants would support it and the perceived organizational weaknesses of its opponents would make it the winner in the region. Yet the anti-Amhara propaganda the party waged had alienated many. It had also underestimated the Ethiopian nationalism in the region. Due to those reasons, the party had lost any mass support in Amhara region.
In Oromia, the calculation and the failure were different. OPDO had a reasoned out that its incumbency advantage and the division in Oromo parties guaranteed a win. In addition to that OPDO thought since ethnic nationalism had a big place in the region and all of its contenders were ethnic in nature, organizational strength rather than ideology would be the key factor for winning the election. There was no question that OPDO could beat the others hands down in terms of organization. The problem was OPDO wasn't considered as true ethnic nationalist by many in the region. The fact that it collaborated with OLF whose ethnic nationalism was unquestioned had aggravated the suspicion.
In the other big region, SNNPR, EPRDF had discounted the Ethiopian nationalism which had a lot of support and the grievance of some big ethnic groups in the division of power within the region. EPRDF's own southern party, SPDF, had the weakest of all the organizations within EPRDF in terms of organization.
After debunking EPRDF's election analysis and calculation, Brehanu returns to Kinijit.It is here that the book captivates the readers with epic stories of solidarity, love and freedom and bewilders them with the clashes and contradictory party behaviors. Here that man, Lidetu's, intransigence appears. Brehanu tells us about the accusations against Lidetu that he was EPRDF spy right from the formation of Kinijit. He narrated the time when the leadership went to a Debreziet retreat to sort out the issue. It was him and professor Mesfin who rejected the accusation claiming that it wasn't substantiated with enough evidence. He gave an account of the intense rivalry between AEUP and UEDP-Medhin during the submission of election candidates. He related how AEUP representatives were quite innocent and straight-forward while Lidetu was as calculative as a chess player. Those of us who thought Lidetu had a huge role during the election are proved wrong by the book. Brehanu explained that Lidetu hadn't come to office that often and didn't work that hard even though he was the leaders of the Party's PR committee. And when he appeared, he was usually troublesome. Although Brehanu had given Lidetu his appreciation where it was due, one could easily see form going through the book that he didn't think his role after kinijit was established was that significant. In fact he mostly thought that the man was a huge mess. In particular, he gets really angry when he describes Lidetu's role in the last days before the arrest of the leadership. "Whether Lidetu was planted by EPRDF or not, history will solve the debate. But what he did to Kinijit was nothing more that a cheap betrayal," he claims in the last pages of the book.
His portrayal of Professor Mesfin and Hailu Shawel couldn't be more starkly different. Brehanu has nothing but huge owe to professor Mesfin, calling him a moral force behind Kinijit. He was saddened when he resigned form the leadership. The writer also complimented Hailu Shawel's willingness to accept collective leadership.
The most serious criticism is made against Dr. Beyene Petros. Birhanu has a particular disdain for the former Hibret leader. He tells us how in back room negotiations, Beyene stood with Bereket and EPRDF against kinijit. He related stories of Beyene's party telling voters in Hadya and Kembata that it was better to elect EPRDF than Kinijit. Obviously, the relationship between Kinijit and Hibret was strained when DR. Beyene was the union's chairman. Dr. Merera, however, gets the writer's great respect and admiration for willing to work in harmony and honesty with Kinijit. Brehanu seems to have no grudge against Merera joining the parliament. He informs us that Merera told him some days in advance that he had no choice but to join parliament to save his party.
(to be continued)
Tomorrow: Update on Hailu Shawel's health Condition
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