Wednesday, August 3

Revolutionary Democracy Redux

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(Images are from a Fark photoshop contest.)

We have discussed the guiding ideology of the Ethiopian ruling party / governmment in the course of our analysis of the prospects for democracy in our Politburo Knows Best Series. We were not encouraged by the barren, or more accurately scorched earth, setting for political or economic freedom beyond the pretense needed to keep aid money rolling in ... at whatever cost to the 70 million hostages of those in power.

Events during and after the recent aborted 'election' such as the bloody and punitive response of the politburo to its massive loss have proven our estimation of the government's nature to be correct. There is little unique about that tragic nature and the damage it causes. Hundreds of millions have suffered from the same set of characteristics in the past century and mercifully few suffer from them today.

Countries that hold to the principals of the Ethiopian government have usually been proudly communist. Adaptations had to be made to the presentation of the politburo's raison d'etre because communism ended up in the dustbin of history. The third entry of the Politburo Knows Best series, Revolutionary Democracy, failed in an attempt to define the governing ideology because like all totalitarian mantras, it has no meaning beyond what serves to keep the revolutionary feudal aristocracy in power on a day to day basis of manipulation and sleight of hand.

It remains important to understand revolutionary democracy, however absurd it is, because it is as fundamentally destructive as any policy that came out of Mengistu's Dergue. Indeed, were it not for the need in the 1990s and afterward to toy with Western aid donors with a blatantly insincere affection for freedom and free markets there is little to distinguish Mengistu and his heirs from eachother. Even the tribal apartheid of contemporary Ethiopia has its roots in Lenin and the opportunistic need to use every weapon available to crush opponents.

After all they are both communists ... and to paraphrase a slogan of a different era 'communists are bad for children and other living things'. The most furtive political or historical memory when used to scan our globe will reveal that governments like Ethiopia's over the past three decades are hosts to engineered poverty and dictatorship - all in the service of the power of a tiny revolutionary feudal aristocracy.

With permission we will serialize over four posts this month, Chapter 7 of Dr. Theodore Vestal's remarkable book Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War African State. The chapter in question deals with the the ruling party's 'Revolutionary Democratic Goals' based on internal documents of the party that were published as "TPLF/EPRDF's Strategies for Establishing its Hegemony & Perpetuating its Rule," in Ethiopian Register Magazine.

The reader may want to take a look at the original entry on revolutionary democracy before proceeding.


The Strategy of the EPRDF

In June 1993 (Sene 1985 Ethiopian Calendar), at the time the EPRDF was transforming itself from a revolutionary front into the governing body of the nation, the Front published a sixty-eight page Amharic document, "Our Revolutionary Democratic Goals and the Next Steps." The document, written to define in detail the party's goals, was distributed to party cadre but was kept secret from the public. In 1996, the Ethiopian Register, an American journal, obtained a copy and published an abridged English translation.

This translation provided non-EPRDF cadre, for the first time, with a clear statement of the political and economic goals of the Front and the strategies and tactics to be used in attaining them. With the document as guide, the actions of the EPRDF/TGE can be seen as part of the party's plan for gaining and maintaining political control of Ethiopia. A review of some of the details of the strategy document explains many of the EPRDF's actions and will help inform the formulation of a political theory of the Front. The content of the document is presented here with the same headings and subheadings used in the original version.


The EPRDF strategists, heirs of the Marxist-Leninist League of Tigray, retreated from their communist roots and wartime strategies of the early 1990s. Major changes around the world and in Ethiopia forced the EPRDF to adjust its approach and to proclaim "Revolutionary Democracy" in place of Marxist socialism as the party's ideology. The contents of revolutionary democracy are expounded in the political and
economic goals of the strategy document. At the heart of the concept of revolutionary democracy is the old communist idea that leaders of the Marxist-Leninist party at the center of public life should direct all aspects of society on the basis of a supposedly superior knowledge of the nature of social development conferred on them by the party ideology.

Explicit in the document is the division of society into traditional communist classes: the peasantry, the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, and the comprador class. The enemy of revolutionary democracy is "imperialism," a euphemism for nations that practice free market capitalism--a paradoxical view since development aid from "imperialist" countries to a large extent keeps the EPRDF in power. Strawmen called "chauvinists," "narrow nationalists," or "secessionists" are alluded to in the document to denigrate opposition and to contrast their wanton ways with those of the Front.

The document began optimistically by noting that in general, conditions in 1993 were conducive for the EPRDF to realize its goals. Nevertheless, the party would be able to fulfill only such limited objectives as conditions allowed during the Transition Period. Once the Transition Phase was "successfully completed," however, the party could begin fully to implement its program. Thus, revolutionary democracy could be realized only after a new constitution was ratified and the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia came into being.


The organization's first political goal was listed as "Materializing the peoples' political and human rights completely." According to the document, Revolutionary Democracy is based on a polarized society composed of the people and the ruling classes. By "the people," the document alludes to "the great majority of the population," also called "the great oppressed majority," while "the ruling classes," or "oppressors" refers to those who were in power during the regimes of the Emperor Haile Selassie or the Derg--or more correctly to any who oppose the EPRDF. The party program quite bluntly does not equally stand for the rights of both the people and the ruling classes.

The democratic rights of the masses are listed and include a roster of such human rights and due process protections as freedom of expression, the right to organize at any level and in any form, the right to strike in accordance with the law, and the right to express one's opposition even to the revolutionary democratic government which serves the people's interest. In light of rights actually denied to the general public by the TGE, it is instructive to see the rights of the people enumerated in the strategy document, including guarantees against imprisonment without due process and protections from beatings, confiscating of people's property, searching people's property, searching people's houses, or restricting their freedom of movement or belief. All of these civil liberty protections were denied various opponents of the government by the TGE. But even this anomaly was explained in the document.

Whether the rights of "the ruling classes" will be protected depends upon the relevance that this will have to protecting the rights of the masses. If the rights of mass clash with those of ruling class, then the rights of the oppressors will have to be suppressed and the rights of the oppressed will have be respected.

This party line of support for the rights and interests of the oppressed masses vis-a-vis those of the oppressors will have to be soft-pedaled, however, for two reasons. One is that such blatant partisanship would "be unacceptable in the eyes of Western Democracy and would invite the fierce opposition of imperialism." The strategy document notes that "the two imperialist camps" (the Cold War protagonists) "have crumbled and given way to the hegemony of the imperial power led by the U.S." This reduction in world powers has narrowed the chances for the EPRDF to realize its goals by shifting allegiance from one camp to the other. U.S. hegemony has increased the chances of the Front offending the American government, which could mobilize imperialist forces against the EPRDF--that is, they could cut off development aid vital to Ethiopia's economy.

The second reason is that it is possible to ensure human and democratic rights of the masses without suppressing all the rights of the oppressors. There also are two reasons for this. The first is that historically the enemies of Revolutionary Democracy in Ethiopia--"feudal, anti-people bureaucratic forces"--are poor. Although imperialism has global hegemony, it can only fulfill its interests in Ethiopia through what the EPRDF perceives as "the enemy within." But Ethiopian supporters of capitalism lack the political, economic, and military power to be of service to imperialists, and their organized representatives are "paralyzed by internal contradictions and cannot offer a viable alternative to the people."

The other factor is the superior power of the EPRDF in comparison to that of its enemies or of "vacillating" forces such as the national bourgeoisie. The Front enjoys greater support from the people, especially the peasantry, and thus the EPRDF can protect the rights of the masses without openly suppressing the rights of the oppressors.

The strategy document describes several techniques for protecting rights of the masses. First, the country's new constitution "should be formulated in such a way that it guarantees the rights of the masses." Laws made in pursuance of the constitution would be used to protect the rights of the people and outlaw "obstructionist activities of the enemies." Institutions to protect the constitution and EPRDF- made laws would be established. When the ruling classes attempt "to obstruct the exercise of the rights of the masses," any relevant legal article can be cited to punish them. Should the oppressors rebel against the constitution, the EPRDF would "mobilize the people and crush them."

The Front's stand on human rights is clearly stated:
When we say that all citizens' democratic rights will be respected in the future socio-political system, it doesn't mean that Revolutionary Democracy will stand equally for the rights of the masses and the ruling classes. Our support is always for the rights of the masses only.
In spite of what guarantees of rights are written into the constitution or in future legislation, the strategy document implies that equal protection of the law for all citizens will not be a feature of an EPRDF government.

Political parties likewise will be treated differently depending on their sponsorship. The First Congress of the EPRDF had passed a resolution stating that the political system to be established would be multi-party. Under the interpretation given "multi-party" by the strategy document, "the masses will have many parties" and the ruling classes "will have the opportunity to organize." These parties can compete for political power, but if the ruling classes try to "obstruct the masses from exercising their rights, Revolutionary Democracy will use the constitution and other laws to punish them and bring under control their illegal activities." The meaning of "obstructing the masses" or "illegal activities" is not explained, but the interpretation of these phrases by the EPRDF does not bode well for any who might compete against the Front for political power.

Under the TGE, the Defense Force was composed of the armies of the EPRDF's member organizations. As long as the military belonged to one political force, it could legitimately work in behalf of that political organization. Under a multi-party system, however, the Defense Force would become the army of the state, and it could not continue as the army of the EPRDF. Unless the army severed its direct organizational link with the EPRDF and its division into TPLF, EPDM, and OPDO units, it would "invite the opposition of imperialism." To avoid this, the liberation front armies would have to be restructured and integrated into a unified defense force.

According to the strategy document, cutting the army's direct ties to the EPRDF does not mean abandoning its revolutionary democratic character. The Defense Force could be free and neutral in appearance but in reality be organized "to carry out the required revolutionary democratic tasks through indirect ties" to the EPRDF.

The second political goal enumerated in the strategy document was the setting up of a government which ensures the all-round participation of the masses. A power structure will be established to "enable people to decide on local issues at Kebele, Woreda, zone, regional and central level" and to recall elected representatives who fail to serve constituents' interests. The masses also will be organized on the basis of gender, trades, and professions to bring pressure on parties and actions of the central government and other power structures. The brevity of this section of the strategy document compared to that concerned with political and human rights probably indicates the pro forma nature of "participation of the masses" in a communist-inspired government.

The third political goal of the document was the ensuring of peoples' right to self-determination and building Ethiopia's unity based on equality and free choice. This goal reiterates the often repeated EPRDF mantra of the right of nations, nationalities, and peoples to secede--but with a caveat: Revolutionary Democracy believes that people benefit from staying together rather than seceding; but unity must be based on voluntary association and equal partnership. Such voluntary unity would provide people with the option to opt out when they so wish.

Opponents of the secessionist doctrine are deprecated as "chauvinists" or "narrow nationalists." Chauvinists, champions of "Greater Ethiopia," aspire to national unity with power concentrated at the center. On the other hand, narrow nationalists, such as the OLF, support the right to secession but do not stand for a strong union of peoples. They prefer "either a powerless central government and an all powerful regional government or the disintegration of the country so that they can rule over their region in the name of their nationality."

The strategy document notes that imperialism and the ruling classes oppose the peoples' right to self-determinism because they misperceive the relationship between the individual's rights and the peoples' rights. According to the EPRDF, ensuring the peoples' rights, i.e., the rights of ethnic groups, is the basis for ensuring the individual's rights. From such a perspective, the rights of the individual cannot be separated from the peoples'. Enemies of the front have a misconception of these rights and "try to drive a wedge" between them.



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