By Terrence Lyons| World Politics Review| on 25 Apr 2013,
The death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in August 2012 marked the end of an era in contemporary Ethiopian politics. After defeating the brutal Derg regime in 1991, Meles headed the powerful ruling party that led the country of more than 80 million through a massive transformation. But it is a mistake to think of his tenure as a period of one-man rule or his death as creating either a political vacuum or an opportunity for liberal reform, as power, authority and resources never rested in Meles’ hands alone.
Meles’ Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) created an Ethiopia based around ethnically defined regions and political parties, state control over land and other key economic assets and a strong authoritarian political party. Meles’ aim was to create a developmental state through revolutionary democracy, a project that more closely resembled the Chinese model than Western notions of liberalism. Levels of economic growth have been high and the expansion of health care impressive. At the same time, however, Ethiopia has effectively criminalized dissent and made it virtually impossible for civil society organizations to engage in human rights monitoring or democratization initiatives.
Many reflections on Meles’ leadership have pointed to his personal qualities and his complicated and often quite contentious legacies. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice gave a laudatory speech at his funeral, calling him “an uncommon leader, a rare visionary and a true friend to me and many.” But Meles left behind a larger set of interlinked interests that include key figures in each of the ethnic parties that make up the EPRDF coalition; powerful economic institutions and mass organizations controlled by leading members of the ruling party; and, most importantly, the large and disciplined military and security services. This old order remains fundamentally in place even after Meles’ passing. While formal authority has shifted to Hailemariam Dessalegn, a former deputy prime minister who has now ascended to the top post, it is clear that power remains embedded within this network of party, economic and military institutions, at least for now.
The EPRDF is the quintessential authoritarian party. In 2010 the ruling coalition and its allies won 99.6 percent of the seats in the national parliament, and by 2012 an estimated 6 million people had joined the party. Many sign up to gain access to government goods or to have a realistic chance of obtaining a position in the civil service. From the most remote village to the center of power, the EPRDF controls all political and economic space, with few distinctions between party and government. Meles’ death did not provide opportunities for the shattered, repressed and increasingly ineffectual opposition to engage in politics effectively. There are no public signs of a dissident network within the military or ruling party, and it is nearly impossible to mobilize outside of those institutions.
Still, while the networks of power have proved robust, the EPRDF has undergone a remarkable transition of party leaders in recent years. A number of senior figures stepped down from the coalition’s executive committee in 2010, notably Foreign Minister Seyoum Mesfin and Trade Minister Girma Biru, who were sent to embassies some distance from the political action. The EPRDF Congress last month saw the rise of a younger generation that did not participate in the armed struggle but rather had moved up party ranks on the basis of technocratic capabilities and loyalty.
The EPRDF remains, however, a coalition of ethnically based parties that differ sharply in terms of size, experience in the liberation struggle and ability to administer their respective regions. The inherent tension between centralized power and ethnic- and region-based parties remains strong. If a cabinet member from the ethnic Amhara party, for example, is replaced by someone from the ethnic Oromo party, it is perceived as a shift in the relative power of the two ethnic groups, even if the EPRDF as a whole remains in charge. This underlying ethnic positioning was evident when Hailemariam, from the southern wing of the party, appointed representatives of the Tigray, Amhara and Oromo wings as deputy prime ministers so that each constituent party retained a seat at the table.
Such tensions could be exacerbated by economic factors. Ethiopia experienced double-digit growth between 2004 and 2008, and the building boom in Addis Ababa and the construction of roads and regional universities is impressive. Hailemariam remains committed to Meles’ ambitious Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) for 2010-2015, which projected GDP growth of 10-15 percent and massive public sector investment in infrastructure, mining and energy. The Millennium Dam on the Blue Nile is the symbolic centerpiece of the plan and will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in sub-Saharan Africa when completed. It is not clear, however, whether Ethiopia will be able to finance all of its proposals. Actual economic growth is forecast to be closer to 7 percent from 2013-2017 — quite good, but not enough to meet the GTP’s targets. Ethiopia’s stability depends upon a rapidly growing economy, and a decline will create enormous political pressures.
Many strong, authoritarian parties shatter when succession crises create intraparty conflicts. While the EPRDF regime has held together despite the death of its longtime leader, it will be an extraordinary accomplishment if the EPRDF can manage the larger generational transition in which the distribution of power among different ethnic-based factions is in flux and many ambitious actors now see a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make it to the top. The period leading up to the 2015 elections will test Hailemariam’s political skills. If one or another faction perceives that it has a better chance of gaining or retaining power by making an alternative coalition and challenging the old guard, then the EPRDF may prove brittle and shatter. Such a scenario, while by no means inevitable, has the potential to become violent and to have significant spillover effects throughout the war-torn Horn of Africa.
Terrence Lyons is associate professor of Conflict Analysis and Resolution and co-director of the Center for Global Studies, George Mason University.
Photo, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 5, 2008 (photo by Flickr user Sam Effron, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license).
by Mohammed Ademo
“You have a nice pair of jeans,” I tell Roba in midtown Manhattan on a recent Sunday afternoon. “I brought my Martò too,” he responds with a grin. The Martò (Marxoo in Afan Oromo) is a traditional garment worn around the waist by Karrayyu Oromos.
Roba Bulga was in New York to attend the screening of Jeans and Martò, a multiple award-winning documentary about his life and the community in which he was born. The screening took place at the 2013 edition of the New York African Film Festival presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. This year’s festival marks two decades of “introducing American audiences” to the best of African cinema, according to the organizers. Over three days, Roba attended several screenings of his film that were followed by engaging Q&A sessions with the audience.
Jeans and Martò tells the story of a young pastoralist who escapes arranged marriage and travels far from home and his close-knit Karrayyu community to make a life of his own. The film captures the story of an individual and a community as they negotiate traditional ways of life and the rapidly encroaching forces of modernity. The ever-present tension between these two forces unfold over 50 minutes in this compelling autobiographical tale both about Roba and his Karrayyu community.
When the Italian filmmakers, Clio Sozzani and Claudia Palazzi, first showed interest in telling Roba’s story, he says, “I wasn’t convinced.” But he eventually agreed to work on the script after several consultations.
Jeans & Martò – promo from andrea ciacci on Vimeo.
The Karrayyu reside in the Fantalle District of the Oromia region in Ethiopia, within the Great East African Rift Valley. As one of the few Oromo groups to have preserved their indigenous tradition and pastoralist way of life, the Karrayyu are seen as the guardians of Oromo cultural heritage. The Karrayyu still predominantly practice Waaqeffannaa, a monolithic religious belief in a supreme being called Waaqa. They are also one of the few Oromo tribes, along with the Borana, who continue to be governed by the Gaada system, a democratic political and social institution that organizes the life of individuals in the society from birth to death.
Roba was 18, and in 10th grade, two weeks away from marrying the girl arranged by his father when he ran away 200 kilometers to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Roba’s escape defied the life his parents planned for him even before he was born. Like the rest of the boys in his community, he was to drop out of school, marry and lead life raising livestock as a pastoralist among his Karrayyu tribesmen.
A major aspect of the film explores how Roba’s decision to leave the community strains his relationship with his family. In Roba’s absence, his older brother, Jilo Bulga, had to take Roba’s bride-to-be as his second wife, as per Karrayyu custom. This left Roba at odds with his parents and the community at large. He had to ask for forgiveness and reconcile with his parents, who at once felt betrayed and humiliated by Roba’s action.
The film also depicts Roba’s personal struggles in coping with a lonely city life in Addis Ababa, where he knew no one and was far removed from the camels and the sounds they make, which Roba says he misses the most. “Anxiety is killing me, I can’t sleep during the day or at night,” Roba tells his younger brother during one phone call shortly after his escape.
Roba finds himself filled with an internal sense of self-doubt. “They are right,” he says of his parents who wanted all the best things for him as prescribed by their culture. “But I think I am right too,” he pauses. “I just have to do what I want to do.” To deal with his anxiety, doubts, and frustrations, Roba turned to empowering himself with knowledge. “I spent a lot of time reading,” says Roba.
Determined to achieve his dream of education and returning to Fantalle to help his kinsmen as they strive to maintain their ways of life, Roba finishes twelfth grade at Aqaqi Adventist School and later enrolls in Foreign Languages and Literature at Addis Ababa University. A choice he says wasn’t optimal but one he couldn’t change as schools in Ethiopia assign college majors. He also had an opportunity to study at the Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences in Northern Italy. His master’s thesis, the Importance of Camel Milk at a Time of Dramatic Change: The Case of Karrayyu Oromo Pastoralist (Ethiopia), is now one of the four projects run by Slow Food, which Roba overseas in Ethiopia.
When Roba gets an invitation to attend the inaugural conference of Terra Madre, a gathering of food growing communities organized by Slow Food in Italy, he returns back to Fantalle to announce the news. He is met with suspicion and outrage from his father. “I don’t understand you anymore but there is nothing more we could do,” he tells Roba. “How could you go to a place that I [your father] have never visited?” Roba acknowledges his father’s suspicion and outrage. In Italy, Roba attends the inaugural conference of Terra Madre where he says he gained a useful perspective about the world and his own community’s food practice.
At 27 years old now, Roba has travelled far and wide than an average Oromo kid from rural Ethiopia. He has a full time job and occasionally travels around the world for conferences and film screenings. But his main preoccupation lies elsewhere. “I want to find ways to make tradition and modernity work together for a better future not just for the Karrayyu but pastoralists everywhere,” says Roba. He is already doing some of that.
In 2009, along with other friends, Roba launched Labata Fantalle, a non-profit organization whose mission is to support Karrayyu pastoralists through “sustainable, participatory and community-led projects that are friendly to the people and their environment.” Behind Labata’s mission is a belief that “development should be led locally and go hand in hand with culture,” Roba tells me.
The dark side of modernity
In one of the scenes in the film, we see a drought-affected Karrayyu land where climate change, water shortage, conflict, years of neglect by successive Ethiopian governments, and shortage of grazing land makes life the more unbearable. The Karrayyu think all their problems are the work of Waaqa says Roba as sadness overcomes his face.
The Karrayyu have already lost a substantial portion of their land to state-led commercial enterprises. The Awash National Park has taken over 60 percent of what used to be Karrayyu land. In the 1950s, the Dutch established the Matahara Sugar factories and its vast sugar estate, displacing the local people and taking their land without any compensation. According to the World Bank, dikes built to protect the sugar plantations restrict the water flow raising tensions over water governance among different ethnic groups in the area. Government-run agribusiness schemes continue to chip at their grazing lands, water points, and religious sites. Despite corporate expansions into the area, the Fantalle district is one of the least underdeveloped in Ethiopia with a very poor road and telecommunication infrastructure.
The Karrayyu are highly dependent on Awash river as a source of water for drinking, their livestock, and small scale communal farming. However, in addition to the dikes which limit the water flow, the pollution of Awash river by state-run factories pose a serious health hazard to the Karrayyu and their livestock. Periodic drought due to delayed rainfall, livestock disease, and conflicts with neighboring communities, primarily the Afar and Argobba, perpetuates the worsening livelihood of Karrayyu Oromos. However, Roba points out that the recurrent ethnic conflicts are usually over access to resources (grazing land and water) and land rights. Land is communally owned among the Karrayyu.
Currently, a government-led irrigation scheme funded by the World Bank is trying to convince the Karrayyu to embrace agro-pastoralism. This is threatening to further erode their grazing lands and livelihoods along with the Karrayyu cultural heritage – much of which revolves around the pastoral way of life. “The Karrayyu don’t know how to farm,” says Roba. “They are not familiar with money. It is going to be difficult to tell them to leave animal herding, and take up farming.” But this seems the role Labata Fantale is trying to play. To bridge the gap of knowledge and orient the Karrayyu into slowly diversifying their income through capacity building programs such as training on organic farming and resource management techniques.
If anything, Jeans and Martò has given Roba a bigger audience and platform to tell his story – the Karrayyu story. Roba’s quest to discover the positive sides of tradition and modernity – and reconcile the tensions – continues. His remarkable story has already affected the lives of Karrayyu children who now see the value of education. The Karrayyu today, including Roba’s own parents, are urging their children and grandchildren to go to school. In 1995, when Roba started first grade, there was only one school – the Dandi Gudina Elementary and High School founded by a local NGO, the Gudina Tumsa Foundation. Today, there are more schools in the area, which means that kids in Fantalle district don’t have to make a long commute on foot as Roba did.
The film is dedicated to Roba’s older brother, Jilo Bulga, who married Roba’s wife-to-be but was killed in an Afar vs Karrayyu conflict while Roba was still in school.
Roba, who suggests meeting the right people was a reason for his success, says Jeans and Martò is not just his story. “It’s a universal story of conflict with culture,” he says. “But it allowed me to understand myself, the richness of my culture, and gave me a broader context to the world.”
A natural orator and poet, Roba can layout the Gadaa system and the Jila festival of power transfer from one Abba Gadaa to the next by heart.
And he is very humble about it.