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MEDREK or the End of a Political Masquerade?

Messay Kebede is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton.

Messay Kebede

It is now abundantly clear that the project of creating a strong multiparty opposition by uniting unitary parties and ethnic parties is anything but feasible. The inability of MEDREK to achieve unity despite numerous attempts as well as Dr. Negaso Gidada’s––who stepped down from the chairmanship of the strongest unitary party, namely, UDJ––recent convoluted declaration in which he said, “I oppose secession but support the right to secession,” seal the definitive collapse of the project. The sticking point, if one can decipher it in the maze of attacks and counterattacks, is the irreconcilable position of ethnic and unitary parties on the right to self-determination up to secession of the various ethnic groups composing Ethiopia. Another sticking point deriving from the right to self-determination is that parties have no right to campaign for political support or vote in regions that they do not represent ethnically. While the right to self-determination up to secession keeps Ethiopian unity in life support, the implication that regions are reserved for ethnic politics only does no more than remove the very purpose of unitary parties. Under these conditions, it is no surprise if the project of unity could not but fail completely.

I was among the many Ethiopians who hailed the formation of MEDREK as a new and very promising beginning reconciling the imperative need for national unity with the legitimate demands for ethnic recognition and equality. What the inability to achieve unity clearly demonstrates is the persistent prevalence of ethnic nationalism over the demand for equality. Sadly, ethnic parties in Ethiopia seem to be stuck in the Stalinist dogma of self-determination up to secession as the only path to achieving equality. It never crosses their mind that there are more than one ways of rectifying past injustices without jeopardizing the unity of the country. The reason for this predilection for self-determination is not so much the commitment to democracy as the pursuit of narrow elitist interests.

No sooner did I come to this conclusion than it dawned on me that the ethnic parties are actually no different from the EPRDF. They share the same premises ideologically and politically, the only difference being that they are not part of the ruling elites. Not only these so-called opposition parties have no alternative politics to the EPRDF, but they also view the ethnic partition of Ethiopia as the formation of legitimate reserved territories for ethnicized elites. Accordingly, their aspiration is to accede to the ethnic power system by preventing unitary elites from competing. In thus defending the ascriptive right to the status of being the sole representatives of their ethnic groups, they are but saying that the groups are not Ethiopian and that they must not have the choice between alternative proposals on Ethiopian unity and ethnic diversity. People are essentially defined by their ethnic belonging: they form homogeneous and exclusive groups and, as such, have no individuality and rights transcending the groups to which they belong.

Both the defense of reserved ethnic territories and the refusal to compete in a non-ethnic field testify that ethnic opposition parties are committed to a version of politics that is utterly undemocratic and ascriptive. It is hardly consistent to speak of democracy and exclude people from competing on the basis of ethnic belonging. Our spontaneous belief is that individuals become politically active and create political parties to correct injustice and defend freedom. In reality, what Ethiopia’s modern history has invariably staged is the struggle of disgruntled elites for the control of power in the name of the working people or ethnic groups. That is why the political system they generate, when some of them succeed in prevailing, is invariably undemocratic. It is never about empowering the people; it is about seizing power in their name so as to advance sectarian interests.

The inevitable conclusion is that unitary parties must no longer waste their time, energy, and credibility in trying to form an inclusive party with ethnicized elites. My suspicion is that ethnic parties brandish unification with unitary parties just for the sake of gaining time to firmly plant the seeds of ethnonationalism in their respective regions by providing it with the aura of opposition to a failing government. Unless ethnic parties officially and without ambiguity drop the right to self-determination up to secession, they are no more no less than the Trojan horses of the EPRDF deceptively disguised as opposition parties. Instead of courting them into unification, unitary parties must focus on the task of gathering and organizing national forces and presenting their own alternative policy and vision. In addition to recognizing the equality of all ethnic and religious groups, the policy must lay out the conditions for its effective realization in harmony with the unconditional unity of Ethiopia. Where ethnic parties advocate division and exclusive enclaves, unitary parties must promote unity and equality through the democratic empowerment of the people. The motto must be: democratic unity versus sectarian politics.


  1. Thanks for your discerning analysis and exposing the motive of the proponents of ethnic based parties. I add to your suggestion for going forward that Ethiopians, given our make up and recent experience in attempting to initiate democracy, should agree to ban the formation of political parties on the basis of religion or ethnicity; and to enshrine the same in our constitution.

  2. It is no secret, the ambition of the ethnic based organizations ,no matter what guise it takes, is to secede.Each one of them stack to the uniquely appealing dream of their own Banana Republic. These ethno-centrist leaders on each organization is just waiting on the wing to see what will happen to TPLF and take it from there. They are so committed to their idea of secession they are satisfied to substitute their current inactivity for future indulgence. That explains why they choose to be mute ,at the present, to the ongoing gross violations of the rights of citizens. Ethnocentric politicians are not concerned about violations of individual rights. After all, if opportunity permit they are prepared to repeat what TPLF, and EPLF are doing allover again so why criticize TPLF’s policy now. For them the only thing that matters the most is to move subtly and not compromise their ambition of secession. Ethiopians need ,with out any hesitation expose the motive behind Ethnic elites.Their single preoccupation is to be their own ethnics boss. In the mean time the people need to be told what they need is freedom from every form of manacle, and not a substitute one dictatorship over another.

  3. Ashenafi Kebede

    But, I wonder when is the general political awareness is moving beyond 0. It is even worse with the so-called ‘political leaders’ -who never made it out of the -ve. I think they should stop thinking about revenge, personal interest, fame, ethnicity,… and start looking at the broader objective which is National interest. ETHIOPIA should be the first and most important thing in there mind. They should start feeling responsible for the land, the people, the culture, values, the history, the environment, the systems, the sovereignty; the past, present and the future; the politics; the economy; etc. They need to think outside of that STUPID little box which is ‘ethnicity’!!!!

    Ethiopia lezelalem tinur!!!
    Ethiopia tiqedem!!!
    Egziabiher Ethiopian Yebark!!!

  4. At the end prof Messay get it.

    The objective of ethnic based parties is not to bring democracy for the people but to create their own safe area and take power in the name of their ethnics.

  5. In any nation building or formation of a country inevitable authorities were committed by those were on power at the time on those were resisting. In many countries those who were resisting defeated and assimilated or reconciled for comment benefit or continue resisting in few corner of the world. In Ethiopia it is mixed filling due to that there is few of all other than reconciliation. We also note that denial and exaggeration of the past taking their spree in opposite directions which creating uncertainty in the country benefiting the regime on power instead of those benefiting the population that both ethnic based and unitary advocate parties are claim to represent.

    After 23 years if we are not coming to our cense people of Ethiopia may take their fait into their hand. It may be chaotic, but what if there in no choise?

    Quebec (Canada) provincial election result is a good learning example for those preaching separation without listening to the people they pretend to represent. The separatist party of province of Quebec (one of the province of Canada) Party Quebecois keeps preaching on separation and on controversial Quebec Charter of Values on election campaign without lasting to the people. Finally the people of Québec spoken by showing red card not only to the separatist party but also to the leader of the party by denying her their vote, Canada is where people put their will in practice, democracy. How many time people of Ethiopia shown red card to TPLF/EPDRF? Countless. No independent referee to take a note and to tall the looser, you’re the looser give way to the winner, tyranny doesn’t understand the language of loosing by ballet.

    For those also preaching unity without diversity and respect of others have to woke up to the reality to build Ethiopia for all. Come up with clear and inclusive vision for all with honesty and humiliation. If not as I mentioned above we are making fertile environment for longevity of the power of tyranny in Ethiopia.

    Allah the Almighty Bless Ethiopia and its people

  6. ፕሮፌሰር መሳይ

    እጅግ በጣም አመሰግናለሁ:: መስቀልኛ መንገድ ላይ ግራ ተጋብቼ ስዋልል ነው ይህን ሲሳይ የጻፉት::

    እኔም እንደርስዎ ቀንደኛ የመድረክ ደጋፊ ነበርኩ::ነገሩን ሳየው የመድረክ አደረጃጀትና አካሄድ ከኢህኣደግ ቡዙም እንደማይለይና አገሪቱን ወደ ሌላ የጎሳ አዙሪት ውስጥ እንደሚጨምራት አያጠራጥርም:: በተለይ ዶክተር ነጋሶ ጊዳዳ ከግርማ ካሳ ጋር ያደረጉት ቃለ ምልልስ በጣም የሚገርም ነው:: የአንድነት ፓርቲ ሊቀመንበር የነበሩ ሰው እንደዚህ ሲጽፉ አንብቤ ገረመኝ:: እኔ ለዶክተር ነጋሶ ፕሬዚደንት ከነበሩበት ጊዜ ጀምሮ አክብሮት ነበረኝ:: አሁን ግን ሁለተኛው አባ መላ እንዳይሆኑ አሰጉኝ:: ምናልባት ያለባቸው የገንዘብና የኑሮ ችግር የፈጠረባቸው ጫና ይሆን ወይ ብዬ ጠርጥሬአለሁ:: እንደገና ለኢሕኣደግ ማመልከቻ ማግባታቸው ይሆን እንዴ?

    ፕሮፌሰር የጻፉት አርቲክል በማስረጃ የተደገፈና ሁኔታዎችን በተጨባጭ ከማጤን የመነጨ እንደርስዎ አልጸፈው እንጂ በእኔም ውስጥ በትንሹ ለሁለት ዓመታት ሲብላላ የነበረ ሃሳብ ነው::

    በጣም በጣም አመሰግናለሁ::

  7. It is great to see intellectuals such as DR. Messay kebede expressing and sharing their genuine concerns and views about very big and serious political issues going on in our country. I sincerely understand and share the observation and view points of Dr. Messay as far as our common destination as a people is concerned.
    However, I do not think the way he tries to draw his conclusion from a single political event ( the case of Medrek) sounds strongly convincing when we see things from the perspective of our very poor (backward) history of political culture .
    On the one hand,our intellectuals argue that our political discourse is not as easy as we see it and want it to be . They argue that given the number of ethnic groups (so many) and the absence of a political history that could deal with the question of how to create a system in which all ethnic groups live with a real sense of freedom and equality ( unity within diversity) requires an enormous effort that should be characterized by rational, tolerant, mutual respect and mutual understating . To my understanding, this political challenge includes (should include) a courageous and no-retreat struggle. And this kind of state of mind and practical move has to do a lot with the very ups and downs ( sometimes even frustrating) in the process of keeping all parties (be it national or ethnic) engage in dialogue and create a common understanding for a common cause ( living in a country that should reject discrination).
    On the other hand our intellectuals (including Dr. Messay )as he indicated in this piece of writing, argue that the prospects of creating kind of forum, cooperation, coordination between non-ethnic (national) and ethnic political parties and movements is a definitely “sealed collapse” . He farther argues that the positions of the two are “irreconcilable” . Let me pose a couple questions here: To what extent and to what degree those genuinely concerned intellectuals (including Dr. Messay ) and other prominent elders either at group or at individual capacity have tried to help the very age-old and very difficult political endeavor ? How many of us have extended the critical, rational, wise, strategic and constructive assistance to the political forms and plat -forms such as Medrek in a consistent manner from the outset? I do not think most of us could claim providing a meaningful help out. Unfortunately enough, we are very vulnerable to the tendency of talking about failure.
    I do not think it makes strong sense to conclude that the effort has failed because of the position taken by Dr. Negaso Gidada .
    I do not believe the politics of disengage ethnic-base political groups is something we expect from our intellectuals such as Dr. Messay. This kind of argument is very undesirable when it especially comes from intellectuals who were and are supposed to re-encourage those who might be discouraged. Simply saying or arguing that there is no need to deal with those ethnic -based political groups with no any other plausible and desirable alternative does not make sense as far as the political reality we are facing is concerned. Will the problem go away because the situation we are dealing is extremely challenging? Or because we simply want to ignore it ? Absolutely not! I am not saying let’s simply leave those ethnic based groups to do whatever they wish to do. And for that matter , we should not leave those multi-ethnic (national) parties to do whatever they wish to do because they are national. What I am trying to say is that drawing a conclusion about a very complex political challenges that is part of our long history of political culture in a very assertive and simple way is terribly wrong.

  8. Prof Mesay said the ”ethnic parties are no different from Tigre people liberation front/EPRDF, AS IF HE HAS DISCOVERED SOMETHING NEW. we expect you to know more than this. the ethnic parties are the brain child of tigre people liberation front, TPLF created them , Tplf are running them , Tplf have full control over them. without TPLF they have no existence, the ethnic parties are created by TPLF to serve TPLF.

    If this is the level of understanding about ethic politics of the fascist TPLF then we have a long way to go.

  9. No doubt, the great Amhara is the most loved, hated and the most feared spirit of this great country. … The duty of ethnic entrepreneurs today is tellling people how much of them is shared between history and chemistry …

  10. Unless unitary parties officially and without ambiguity accept the right to self-determination up to secession, unitary parties are deceptively disguised Trojan horses dreaming to impose the old Amhara hegemonic rule on other Ethnic groups.

  11. What Professor Mesay says that “Unless ethnic parties officially and without ambiguity drop the right to self-determination up to secession, they are no more no less than the Trojan horses of the EPRDF deceptively disguised as opposition parties” is absolutely right.
    Dr. Negaso Gidada’s was trying to buy time by wasting people’s time as if he is a well informed peacfull wise man who sees the benefit of working together towards improvement of the system but beneath his skin he is the same old guy frozen in the Stalinist dogma of self-determination up to secession when we see Stalinist dogma failing and disintegrating from right to left everywhere.

    This kind of pseudo reformers always work in disguise and only come out when things would not go their way. It is good he is out because he was only working for himself to get to the higher position as he previously played part installing TPLF/EPRDF until they threw him out after they used him.

    The county needs people like Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King who put their country and people’s interest first and who is patient and has tolerance to achieve peace and equality instead of the Stalinist violent, outdated and failed system that puts everyone in jeopardy and one dictator for life.

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