Strengthening democratic nationalism

Alemnew Mekonnen is head of the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) secretariat office and member of the central committee. He is considered by many as the party’s ideologue. He joined the party, then known as Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (EPDM), a splinter group of the popular party of the 1960s, Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP), at the age of 18. He has served the party and the regional government at different levels. Solomon Goshu of The Reporter sat down with him at his office in Bahir Dar to discuss issues related to Amhara nationality and the party’s performance in the region. Excerpts:

The Reporter: To a start with, would you enlighten the public on how much the ANDM has shifted in its fundamental philosophy from its precursor the Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement (EPDM)?

Alemnew Mekonnen: The then EPDM was founded by a few determined and brave individuals at a very difficult time with a tremendous task of defeating the [Derg] dictatorship. At the time, achieving that was likened to the impossible task of bringing down a mountain with the pull of a rope. Armed struggle in Ethiopia at the time was fragmented. There were nationalists and multi-ethnic forces fighting the then dictatorship. EPDM was a multi-ethnic force. It came out of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Party (EPRP). EPDM’s fundamental goals and programs at the time included addressing questions of democracy, land wonership, rights of nations and nationalities, equality of religion and gender among others. For these to be achieved the Derg dictatorial regime had to be removed so that the people can decide their own fate. The armed struggle took ten years, from 1981 to 1991. During that period we created a common front with groups with common goals including the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF). After the armed struggle, members of EPDM with diverse ethnic background chose to organize themselves in their respective ethnic nationalist groups. Some of them went on to become founding members of Oromo People's Democratic Organization (OPDO) and Rift Valley Movement from the southern region who are now with Southern Peoples’ Democratic Movement (SPDM). So, eventually members with the Amhara ethnic background and those born in the Amhara region remained with EPDM. That spelled an end to the party’s multi-ethnic nature. Organization is all about strategy that changes according to circumstances. At first EPDM’s multi-ethnic organization was essential but later it had to be organized as an ethnic nationalist party to serve the interest of the Amhara people. Hence, EPDM was renamed the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM). But the core goals of the struggle remain the same. By participating in establishing a constitutional order, a popular government was established in the region. And the struggle continues to ensure human and democratic rights not just in the region but also beyond within the ambit of the Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). We are creating awareness to promote democratic nationalism in the Amhara region. ANDM also works to help the people benefit from their land, property and labor. The changes you see and the success in the region is due to the activities of ANDM.

Do you believe the ANDM has succeeded in creating democratic ethnic nationalism in the Amhara region?

Firstly, the people of the Amhara region have been and still are peacefully coexisting with other ethnic groups. People are the same everywhere, their needs and ambitions are similar. They want to improve theirs and their family members’ livelihood. It is the same in Amhara. Secondly, after the establishment of a popular government over the last 24 years, the people of Amhara are working hand in hand with ANDM. The people have showed their support by voting for ANDM in successive elections. That means the people have voted for democratic ethnic nationalism. Even during the highly contested 2005 election, the majority voted for ANDM.

There are two polarized views in this regard. On the one hand, there are those who believe that there is no such thing as an Amhara ethnic group. And others contend that the system now in place has exposed the Amhara ethnic group to be marginalized by other ethnic groups. Can you comment on that?

These are unfounded. The people of Amhara have fought for democratic ethnic nationalism where all nations, nationalities and peoples are equal. Even historically, the people of Amhara have advocated equality among nations and nationalities. You can take Walelign Mekonnen. The people of Amhara have always peacefully coexisted with other nations and nationalities. Throughout history, the people of Amhara – excluding a few elites – have never and will never aspire to dominate other nations and nationalities. But some scholars still hold the view that the current system has given lesser place for the Amhara people. These are people who advocate an aspiring dominant nation. This does not reflect the views of the people of Amhara.  And those who hold the view that the people of Amhara have been marginalized by the current system in place should clearly state their basis for holding such a view. We say the people of Amhara have their identity protected like never before. The basis for that is the regional constitution which established the regional state, defined the territory and the legislative body. It is also represented in the federal government. Above all, the region is developing with massive agricultural programs including conservation of the environment, crop production, irrigation and animal husbandry. In addition, urban development and industry is transforming the region. The people are also promoting their language and culture. So, there is no basis to hold the view that the people of Amhara are marginalized. Beyond this, millions of Amhara people are living and improving their livelihoods in other regions of the country. Sometimes there are clashes but the same thing happens even within the Amhara region on border issues. Out of a million, the clashes are affecting tens and hundreds. This should end and should not be tolerated. But poverty and backwardness is the source of the problem. By addressing these problems, the clashes can be avoided. The other is promoting democratic nationalism. In this regard, we are working with democratic forces like OPDO, SPDM, BGDP (Benishangul-Gumuz Democratic Party) and others. It is not helpful to take these clashes out of proportion. The constitution has laid the foundation to create a country with one political economy with the will of its people.

But they argue these clashes involve the people of Amhara being singled out and evicted from other regions of the country contrary to the constitutional right to movement and work. They accuse the ANDM of not doing enough.

Factually speaking, we are not currently seeing the sort of evictions that happened two or three years ago. The Benishangul-Gumuz officials who tried to evict the people alleging illegal settlement in a forest area two years ago have been charged. Officials of the Amhara and Benishangul-Gumuz regions have also discussed the peoples’ right to movement and work within the bounds of the law. The problem occurred when Benishangul Gumuz lower officials wanted to profit from the transfer of the forest land to the newcomers. This has been addressed now. A similar thing also happened in Wollega, which was later proved that OLF (Oromo Liberation Front) enticed the young unemployed in the area to rise against the Amharas there engaged in coffee plantation business. But it was the Oromos themselves who fought against it. Members and officials of OPDO have been attacked. Later, the Amharas went back to their region but officials of OPDO had held discussions with them and the Amharas returned to their original settlement. They were warmly received by the Oromo people. People are the same everywhere but it is the chauvinists and narrow-minded ones that are to be blamed. These are the facts. Because, one, it is wrong to take these things out of proportion and two, the federal system is not the source of the problem. It is poverty and backwardness. ANDM believes that these will be best addressed through the constitutional order. Firstly, we believe the regional president of Somali or Afar also represents the Amhara people. Secondly, this problem is not unique to Ethiopia. But by promoting democratic nationalism through the establishment of democratic institutions, the problems can be resolved through a democratic process. Thirdly, ANDM’s representative offices in other regions, although it is not their primary task, should assist the region in addressing such problems. But above all, it is the constitutional order and promotion of democratic nationalism and promotion of democratic institutions.

Do you believe historical factors of dominance in the country’s politics have played a factor in ANDM’s representation within the federal government, say, for example, the premiership position?

Firstly, representation in the federal government means being represented at the House of Peoples' Representatives, ministries and federal institutions. There is also the House of Federation. This is what it means to be represented. The primary criterion for the premiership position, and other ministerial positions including the Ministry of Defense, is the ability to lead a country. Our focus is on fighting poverty and backwardness and to bring about development and prosperity. So, it is not about who sits in these positions but whether the person is capable of doing the job. In key executive positions, ability is key. So, the position is up for grabs for anyone who is capable. Ethnic representation comes after that. This is not just the view of ANDM but also EPRDF’s. A person climbs up the party ladder to assume these positions. But collectively, the representation in the federal government should reflect the diversity in the country as much as possible. But whoever is in charge, it is a collective leadership through the constitutional order. So, there is no basis for historical factors.

In the face of these perceived or real issues regarding the Amharas, how can you win the people’s full commitment to enforce the party’s policies and strategies? 

Fighting chauvinism and narrow-mindedness and instilling ethnic nationalism requires a lot of work. Over the years we have done a lot to promote the values of democratic nationalism among the peasant and urban population as well as scholars. But ANDM concedes that it has not achieved the desired outcome among scholars. Yes, there are many scholars who have embraced democratic nationalism but a significant number still have questions. And there are also those who are opposed to it. We believe this will change gradually. When we succeed in bringing about economic, social, political and cultural growth, there will be enabling grounds for democracy to flourish. Parallel to that, there will be more clarity. But there should always be works for attitudinal changes to instill the concept of building one political economy. These are shaped from the elementary level of education to higher institutions of learning. So, we need to do more than what we have done so far. Because we have a noble cause, that should not be compromised by our failure to do more. But there will always be those who will hold the extreme position. The successes we see in the region are testament to the success in the promotion of democratic nationalism. There is development, democracy and peace in the region. In the GTP II, we plan to massively engage scholars both as a means to get feedback on our plans as well as ensuring their participation for the success of the plans.

How prepared is ANDM for the upcoming election?

Our preparation is in line with our expectation that the upcoming election would be free, fair and peaceful under which would witness a huge public participation. Not only that, we have organized awareness-raising meetings in which some 5.5 million people have taken part regarding election code of conduct. This will be instrumental in creating transparency and trust in the system. We expected 8.1 million eligible voters, out of whom 97 percent have registered to vote. We have reached out to over 6.6 million people in election campaigns in which we have highlighted ANDM’s success and challenges over the past 24 years. We have painted the full picture so that the electorate can make an informed decision. We are not doing this simply because we want to win the election but because we want to instill democratic values and create a demanding society. This is also to help the people make a clear distinction between backward thinking and promote developmental attitude. ANDM views the election as a golden opportunity to promote these values. The people’s awareness on democracy, development, peace and justice should continue to grow. The guarantee for Ethiopia’s democracy is the emergence of a demanding society. Without that, the ground will be fertile for dictatorship to emerge.

What are the major achievements and shortcomings of ANDM during the first GTP period?

Agricultural productivity has significantly increased. Educational enrollment and quality has expanded. There is also a meaningful growth in terms of prevention and cure with regards to the health sector. Where we need to do more is in industrial development, particularly the small and micro enterprises. The other is the issue of good governance. There are grievances in this regard. During the second GTP period we expect to build on our success and do more on the others issues.