Ethiopia, the oldest independent country in Africa, will celebrate its millennium Wednesday, September 12. The Ethiopian calendar falls seven to eight years behind western dates as a result of the disparities between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, concerning the date of the creation.
As part of their millennium celebrations, Ethiopians in the United States have organized a five-day extravaganza. A one-day symposium Saturday looked at the past, present and future of Ethiopia. One of the topics for the symposium was the quest for democracy in the new millennium.
Mesfin Araya, professor of African studies at the City University of New York, looked at the quest for democracy and the lessons from the 2005 election. He said the ruling party of Ethiopia is organized along ethnic lines. But Professor Araya said Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been able to stay in power because the opposition is fundamentally weak and fragmented.
“Their political history in the past has been marked by internal crisis, invariably disastrous fragmentation. And that tendency to fragment can also be seen today. De facto enhancing the longevity of the current regime. At the outset, an effort to form a broader national coalition that can critically confront Meles and his ruling party, the opposition forces decided to participate in the election at two splinter coalitions,” Araya said.
He said the opposition’s lack of consensus from within has continued to give Prime Minister Zenawi the opportunity to play the game of divide and rule.
Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic country with Amhara the predominant ethnic group. Ephrem Madebo, systems engineer for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration addressed the topic “Democratic Response to what he called the national question in Ethiopia. He proposed a decentralized federal government.
“I brought two alternatives. It could be federalism but not ethnic federalism. It could be interpreted in a way that the Ethiopian masses agree, or it could be kind of regional autonomy. Those are my two alternatives,” Madebo said.
Dima Sarbo, political science professor at the University of Tennessee addressed the topic: Challenges of balancing collective and individual rights. He said the rights of self-government and fair representation for national groups form the fundamental basis of democracy for a multi-national politic like Ethiopia.
“My argument is that if Ethiopia has to survive as a viable politic, it has to democratize and institute (a) guaranteed rights of citizenship for all its citizens irrespective of gender, ethnicity, language, religion or other differences, and (b) guaranteed national rights of autonomy and self-government through its linguistic and other national groups irrespective of their size and claims,” Sarbo said.
Getachew Metaferia, professor of political science at Morgan State University looked at Ethiopia-U.S. relations and its impact on the quest for democracy in Ethiopia. He says the U.S. has frustrated the quest for democracy by its support for unpopular governments in Ethiopia.
“The U.S. has also contributed to the dismal situation in Ethiopia by supporting and abetting an unpopular government and failing to listen to the people. Rectifying such a situation and fostering progressive, not conventional foreign policy, will cultivate Ethiopian peoples' support for the U.S. and ensure mutually advantageous long-term U.S. national interest,” Metaferia said.
Metaferia urged the United States to assist in fulfilling the Ethiopian people's quest for democracy. He also called on the U.S. to critically examine the effectiveness of its foreign assistance to Ethiopia because Metaferia said despite U.S. technical, military, and financial assistance, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world.