The Discussion on the Review of Dr. Berhanu’s Book and My Impression

February 15, 2014

by T.Goshu

I watched the discussion (review) on Dr. Brehanu Nega’s Book, “Democracy and All-round Development in Ethiopia” (Democracy enna Hulentenawi Limat Ba’-Ethiopia) published in 2013. The discussion (the review) was conducted by ESAT on its Program “Ethiopia Nege” on February 7, 2014. Although the host of the program, Ato Gizaw had the difficulty of how to handle the conversation that sounded derailing from its very clear and specific subject matter, he deserves due appreciation for trying to keep the discussion in its right track. The participants were: Dr. Berhanu, explaining the very aim of his book on one side; and Dr.Tesfaye Demelash and Ato Berhane Mewa as critics of the book on the other side.Dr. Brehanu Nega’s Book, “Democracy and All-round Development in Ethiopia

As one of those who read the book with sincere interest, I was also one of those who watched the review discussion with great interest and sincere attention. I had to go back and watch it for a couple of times to make sure that I could grasp the very essence (specific objective) of the discussion and to make sure that I could have the right impression, not wrong perception . Has the discussion turned-out to be as inspiring as it should have been? To my understanding, it hasn’t. Why not? I will come back to that.

Let me first say that I found the discussion encouraging and interesting from the following perspectives in general: 1) Dr. Berhanu has easily and wisely handled his explanation and he showed a typically good example as far as how to deal with a conversation that sounded difficult is concerned. 2) And I also think that with all the weaknesses of their arguments, the critics (Dr. Tesfaye and Ato Berahne) deserve appreciation for coming forward with their view points about the book. I want to say that some of their concerns sounded genuine and should be treated accordingly.

As one of those readers of the book, I have tried my best to get a real sense of understanding about the very purpose of the author, and weather that purpose is well-reflected in the very content of the book. To my understanding, the very specific aim of the book is not to deal with a very comprehensive approach to all the political, economic and cultural history of our country together with what we seriously are lacking in the current political, socio-economic and environmental aspects of our lives. I do not think there is a problem of clarity and simplicity of the book as far as aiming at contributing to the dialogue on the ongoing political struggle is concerned. In other words, the author expresses his views and ideas on the question of what does good governance (good political and economic system) mean in a very clear and concise manner. This very critical question has been fairly dealt with throughout   the five chapters of the book: (1) The core criteria for good political system (justice, peace and security, economic opportunities for all citizens and the peaceful transfer of power through democratic election)(2)  The challenges related with our political history that we may face in the process of bringing about a desired system (undesirable elements of our history (scars),  highly skewed growth/development, the politics of identity, impacts of religious conflicts , the problem of our perception about justice) (3) Good economic system( the fulfilment of basic interest of citizens, economic growth /development , fair and just distribution of wealth, the opportunity to use/utilize the potentialities of the people ) (4)The  Structural challenges/problems we face to have in the process of building good economic system ( The impacts and difficult choices due to abject poverty, the negative consequence of unfair level of playing field of the economy, the question of how to balance the conflict between the search for growth/development on the one hand  and our culture and  our lifestyle on the other hand, the conflicts that may arise in the process of building justice ,history and good economy ) (5) Environmental conservation ( the current status of environmental conservation and its consequences if we ignore it  , the population growth and the challenges and  the pressure they put on us, the political and social troubles  that could be caused by the problem of environmental conservation and population growth).

In his conclusion, the author has clearly informed his readers that part two of his work will be dealing with the issues of bringing about genuine democratic political system in our country as a necessity, not as a choice.   In other words, he clearly states that his second part tries to make its own contribution to show some problem – solving steps that revolve around the imperativeness of establishing democratic political system in our country. That is my understanding and impression with regard to the whole purpose of the author. I want to make clear that I am not saying that the author should not be challenged and criticized .I strongly believe that this kind of thinking (leave me alone or leave him/her alone attitude) is not only nonsensical but absolutely wrong. What I am trying to say is that the way we criticize and challenge the work of any author should be with a certain level of rationality, clarity and genuineness. Because that is the way we can develop critical, rational/objective, constructive and forward-looking way of thinning if we want to bring about the change we desperately aspire.

To my understanding, this first part of Dr. Berhanu’s book deals with the very first question we encounter: what is terribly missing in the current political arena of our country?  It is beyond any doubt that what is terribly missing is good governance (political freedom, rule of law, socio-economic development and fair and balanced distribution of wealth). And the next logical and critical question will be what is be done (solution)? Needless to say, the only way is to get rid of a political system that is the very root cause for what is terribly missing and replace it with a genuine democratic system that should essentially be responsible to the people and accountable for any action that is against the will and interest of the people. And that was and is my understanding of the book and of what I listened to Dr. Berhanu had to say during the discussion on his book review.

Now, let me come back to my observation / impression about the two critics of the review, Dr. Tesfaye Demelash and Ato Berhane Mewa. Both of them stated that the book deserves due recognition for raising very important issues. And that is appreciable.

1. Ato Berhane’s recommendation to those who might not read the book to read it is genuinely constructive. Yes, he was right that it is one thing to go through the review; but it is quite another thing to read and try to comprehend the whole text, and to develop it with more insightful ideas. The problem I have with his critic is related with making very general statements or lack of clarity and specificity. Let me mention some of the difficulties I had to understand his argument:

A. He argued that he believes that there is kind of gap. He tried to explain this statement by saying that the equation should include the geopolitics of the sub region, the Nile issue, the danger from external (the surrounding actors) and the issue of globalization which dictates domestic issues. Of course, all these factors should be taken into account whenever we deal with the political challenges we face domestically.  The problem is that he could not clarify why and how all these elements (factors) are directly related to the book which deals with a very specific aim, what we are seriously missing in our current political system? I do not know what was the problem to stay focused on the issues of which the book tries to deal with; the question of what went wrong and is going wrong as far as the absence of universal values of democratic political system are concerned. Is it not a very bitter truth that we continue to suffer from all kinds of crises mainly because of the absence of a democratically representative government?

B. He complained that the book mainly focuses on current issues.  Yes, it does. But that focus is based on a strong political argument that the very reason why we continue to suffer is nothing, but because of the total non-existence of a political system that promotes and protects the very interests of the country and her people.

C. I really did not understand his complaint of “In the past it was socialism; now we are talking about democracy.” If it is to mean that Dr. Berhanu’s book and argument is just simply the theorization of democratic values and principles, I do not think that is a well-substantiated and clarified argument because conceptual analysis based on a given political practice such as ours is an essential part of a struggle in a democratic process.

D. We have to talk about why we need democracy before we talk about it was another point of argument. He farther stated that he question of accepting or not democracy is up to the people. I do not know how we should have a discussion on the question why we need something without understanding what we really need. It does not sound a logically meaningful reasoning.

E. I really did not understand the argument of “first being tolerant and listen to each other, and thereafter democracy will follow.” I think the very content of the book and the way the author explained has neither excluded nor undermined the value of tolerance and the importance of listening to each other.

To sum up, I do not want to question the genuine concerns of Ato Berehane Mewa about his country and his aspiration for the realization of a genuine democratic system in which all citizens could live in peace, freedom, equality and shared prosperity. But, I have to say that the way he argued in this particular discussion of book review suffered from lack of clarity and staying focused on the very subject matter under discussion.

2. Dr. Tesfaye’s argument is not very different from Ato Brhane‘s.  I read the six pages of his article titled “Solving the Tension of a Country within a Country themselves /Yageren Wutret Beager Mefitat” (I think it means by the people themselves), and I listened to his view points during the discussion on the review. As I understood it, the article is the detail description of his argument he made during the discussion. Here are some of them and the comment I want to make on them:

A. Dr. Tesfaye mentioned repeatedly Eritrea in his argument on the very influence of external factors. No doubt that the Ethio-Eritrean issue matters a lot to our domestic security and stability. It goes without saying that it is a foreign policy that is formulated and implemented in line with the very domestic policy (of national interest) that can bring a meaningful peace/stability, security and development in Ethiopia as well as in the sub region. I think what Dr. Berhanu wants to show is that the very indispensable or determinant  factor in dealing with all issues that matters to the fulfillment of national interest is nothing, but essentially  the existence of a democratic/ truly representative government in our country. So, the very question I want to pose to both critics (Dr. Tesfaye and Ato Berhane) is: Are we arguing that the very purpose (content) of Dr. Barhanu’s book and his explanation is incomplete because it does not deal with foreign policy, or what? I am not saying their concern about external factor (geopolitics) does not sound great. Absolutely not! What I am saying is that trying to argue that the book should have included foreign policy issues (external state and non-state actors) does not sound strong as far as the very specific aim of the book is concerned.

B. Let me add just one passing remark on the questioning of the independence of Eritrea. Dr. Tesfaye expressed his difficulty of accepting Eritrea as a country in his article when he questions, “If Eritrea is said to be a country?” Well, I am one of those Ethiopians who consider the separation of Eritrea from Ethiopia using all highly falsified political games was one of very unfortunate chapters of our political history.    But, I do not think being denial of what has already become a reality (the internationally recognized Eretria) is the right thing to do as far as the imperative of dealing with the issue of how to make things that has gone wrong right is concerned. And this kind of attitude of denial becomes difficult to comprehend when it comes from well-educated people such as Dr. Tesfaye.  I strongly believe that we have to accept the already given reality and deal with it accordingly. Simply put, we need to work hard how to bring a situation where the two countries could move in a direction of  confidence building and subsequently making some sort of economic and political cooperation even to the extent of an arrangement of confederation and so no and so forth. The political culture of denial and   avoidance will never serve any desirable purpose. What kind of government or political system is required for this very huge and challenging responsibility? There is no doubt that it is only a political system that should be led by an appropriately structured and democratically representative government. And that has to be our focal point if we are serious enough about designing the way out from the very ugly political vicious circle we found ourselves.

C. Dr. Tesfaye tried to make kind of comparative politics of the French revolution and the 1970s of ours. He characterized ours as a left –wing movement started by students and now ended up with the so-called democratic revolution of TPLF. Well, leaving the question of whether the comparison is appropriate or not aside, I want to say that the way Dr. Tesfaye and so many other scholars for that matter look at the 1970s revolution sounds highly generalized and subsequently misleading. Dr. Tesfaye says, “Our revolution was started with a derailed left- wing student movement …. / Yegna abyot ferun belekeke Yetemarewoch gira-kinif enkiskasie tejemiro….”  It is one thing to simply be critical of the past wrong doings/mistakes; but it is quite another thing to rationally/objectively be critical and come up with ideas of how we should make things right and move forward. I do not know when and how we have to get out of the politics of simply blaming what went wrong in the past. I do not really understand why and how we look at the political event that took place forty years ago as the result of the then international and domestic political circumstances from our perspective of the this 21st century and blame the generation.

D. Dr. Tesfaye complains both in the review discussion and in his article about the “emptiness of concepts such as of democracy, rule of law, liberty, equality, constitution, and …..” I do not think it is arguable that that all governments including the most brutal ones preach about those very values and principles of democracy.  The question is how we should respond to these kinds of terribly hypocritical, if not deadly cynical political games.  To my understanding, the works of intellectuals such as Dr. Brhanu’s give valuable insights in this regard. So, let’s not mainly stay on leaning on what happened in the past and complain about the tyrannical ruling groups such as TPLF/EPRDF who terribly abuse their political power in the name of democracy and national security    . Let’s employ our energy and time mainly on strategic ideas and feasible ways and means that could help shorten the continuation of mere political gangsterism. That is why I do not think that criticizing Dr. Behanu’s approach as too much focus on the current challenges we are facing does sound convincing.

E. He tried to justify one of his points of critic by stating that it is not good to have “over-exaggerated concern as Ethiopiawinet is not merely the total sum of problems.” He put his argument in the form of question, “Is there no an opportunity other than problems?” And he tries to answer the question by stating that “this kind of thinking is not good to psychology.” Well, that is true. But, all these points of argument boils down to one and only one issue, the absence of practical democratic principles and values .  He says we (Ethiopians) have both national and cultural experiences that should be taken account. True. But, on the other hand, somewhere down in his article, he states that, “Our common national survival (lives) and Ethiopiawinetachin is at the cross-road, the direction of survival or death.” That is exactly the very concern expressed in Dr. Berhanu’s book. Well, his article of six pages (in Amharic) posted on Ethiomedia tries to raise and discuss many issues of concern and that is greatly appreciable. However, as it is true to most of our intellectuals, it is heavily over dominated with background information and description of problems and blaming external actors (Eritrea), the ruling party of Ethiopia (TPLF)  and “opposition forces which are being used by both parties as agents of proxy war” without referring who is who. I did not observe any substantive recommendation on the question of what is the way out.

Let me conclude my observation by saying that although expressing our views and concerns in any way we believe in should be valued , I have an impression that we most of us still are  in short of   engaging ourselves in ideas and forward –looking recommendations.  And I hope we will move towards that direction!

posted by Daniel tesfaye

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