Ethiopia under fear and spies as ruling party uses poverty to recruit members (Daily Monitor/ Jimma Times)
- "With no one rushing it democratically, that (Mengistu) party was said to have had only 135,000 members, while militarily.... it kept the largest army in Africa. "
- "The Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF, has revised its belief in a small army when new realities developed all around. However, its most dramatic performance is the expansion of its party member base. Today it claims to have five million members"
- "Why don't you guys join the EPRDF?" He said. "I am a member because I don't want to spend a long time looking for job; I am a member because that is the only way I can study for my masters. If you are wise, you will do the same."
- "Now nearly every university student applies for membership, because the card is at least as important as the diploma and degree."
- "The recruits are organized in smaller groups called cells. The cell leaders give their members a Stassi-like order: report any misdemeanour you observe around you. This includes spying both on their party fellows and everybody else, although they are made to feel like they were not spying"
- "One of the purposes of member proliferation, he thinks, is to make everyone suspicious of the person near him, and create an environment of fear and passive obedience and acceptance. "
(By Ayenew Haileselassie, Daily Monitor)
Into a dreary and cold small Southern village in Kembata a young man was posted as a teacher in a local government school. Those were the dark days of fear under a Marxist military government. Everybody received the party newspaper, Serto Ader, and pretended that they loved it. At night this young teacher would keep himself warm burning the piles of this newspaper- of course that was a warmth to be enjoyed alone unless that teacher wanted to end up in a cold and scary prison. Back on vacation he would joke how the party doctrine kept him warm, and it was not a very funny joke. One would always wonder, "What if this young man forgot to burn the entire paper to ashes?" The fear was real in those days, one that concerned your life. After all, that regime had a bloody record in the Red Terror. There were many public security workers who spied on their compatriots. The one party leadership of the Workers Party of Ethiopia did not have to contend with another party to ascertain its hegemony, except the civil war that raged in the north. With no one rushing it democratically, that party was said to have had only 135,000 members, while militarily, where there was a more life and death contention, it kept the largest army in Africa. The teacher passed through that period and continued to witness the emergence of another hegemony in the 21st century Ethiopia, one that would stunt his career progress unless he submitted to it.
The Ethiopian Peoples' Revolutionary Democratic Front, EPRDF, has revised its belief in a small army when new realities developed all around. However, its most dramatic performance is the expansion of its party member base. Today it claims to have five million members, and it has intensified its effort to 'proselytize' more of the public. The main purpose is to avert a repetition of the 2005 election, which the opposition claimed to have won. The EPRDF, according to its own people quoted in a recent newspaper article, want to recruit enough college students and civil servants who will be baptised in revolutionary democracy enabling the party to deliver enough public goods which will lure the populace into loving it. In other words the EPRDF, after 20 years in power, seeks the legitimacy of winning in a truly free and fair election. But it wants to do it its own way. In the 2005 election the rulers of the country revealed how little they understood the electorate when they allowed almost a free election complete with a pre-election debate. They had dangerously exposed their soft underbelly and almost got it ripped apart.
Gebru Asrat, once a high level EPRDF member and president of Tigray Regional State, who has now become leader of an opposition party, Arena Tigray for Democracy and Sovereignty, says that the EPRDF strategy is to achieve the hegemony of Revolutionary Democracy and destroy every other political thinking. It also wants "to multiply its members by the millions and control the society." "Revolutionary democracy is misplaced and a misnomer," says Gebru. "It used to mean the exploitation of a capitalist system to eventually achieve socialism." It has been years since EPRDF dropped socialism and embraced the developmental state, a kind of government controlled capitalism. Now it wants its revolutionary democracy ideology to prevail in all social groups. It wants to have members from the guards to the managers and ministers as well as within family circles. It wants to ascertain that it alone will be the only opinion and decision maker, according to Gebru. He says that the EPRDF thinks that its ideology will ascertain such hegemony in 20 to 30 years, when revolutionary democracy will die naturally giving birth to liberal democracy, which, according to him, is a recipe for dictatorship.
"When that period is over, the leaders will be 80 years old and still in power," he said.
Two years ago, Gebru, says his old party set a target of having 2.6 million members in Tigray, about 60% of the population of the region.
"That is all adult population," he said.
And the adult population all over the country is targeted as potential member. One of the reasons the ruling party is working so hard to recruit more members is that most party members to whom they can give jobs have already been given jobs, according to one of the younger members who claims to have heard so during one of the trainings. That called for recruitment from among those in colleges, a move that worked to produce fake members by the thousands.
Opposition party leaders seem only slightly concerned about the EPRDF expansion, saying that it only served to undermine the ruling party itself. They see it as one segment of the ruling party's work to weaken them. The major problems for them, they say, are the continued harassment of their members and the decision to dry their financial resources. They can only receive contributions from Ethiopian passport holders and they must keep a record of all their contributors.
Dr Merera Gudina, a long time opposition leader now at the Union of Ethiopian Democratic Forces (UEDF) seems confident to win in a free and fair election, reminding that 400 out of he 600 soldiers who he said were brought to his constituency in the last election to vote for the ruling party representative had chosen to vote for him in stead.
The EPRDF recruiters say that the expansion is a three pronged approach covering colleges and universities, the civil service and MSE's (micro and small scale enterprises) separately. A lot of work has been done in the first two, while the work on the MSE's is just beginning. Nearly every student who is in college now and many of those who have just graduated are said to have rushed to membership. One thing the party has said openly: not everyone can study for a master's degree at government universities without its goodwill. This is bolstered by the recruiters who go around telling students, "let alone a second degree, you will not even find a job unless you are a member." Newer civil servants will almost all be party members; existing ones are lured to the party because that is almost the only way if they seek to hold higher office.
"If anything happened in the university compound, I am sure they will hear of it," said a university student.
By the quantity the party membership is rising so is the security network expanding at a scale that has never been matched by any other government in Ethiopia. Going back for comparison, the Stassi of the former East Germany (the GDR) is the single most important expansive and destructive network that emerges to the mind, although what is happening here is much milder. EPRDF's manner of recruitment relies on evangelists that go around preaching the gospel of revolutionary democracy. And you don't have to believe such a gospel, but you are made to believe that you have no choice.
"A stranger never comes to talk to you," said the university student. "It is always one of your friends." He always strained his young, collegiate mind debating the demerits of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF)- Ethiopia's ruling -er- front. They have been doing that in their dormitory very often. One day there were just three of them fighting it out, until a question that ended all debates came from one of them, who was already party member, although they had not known all the time.
"Why don't you guys join the EPRDF?" He said. "I am a member because I don't want to spend a long time looking for job; I am a member because that is the only way I can study for my masters. If you are wise, you will do the same. You do not have to believe in it. Think about it." Faced with the prospect of a prolonged spell of joblessness and the possibility of their first degree becoming their last as well, these two young men decided to join the party. The young rational mind had gone to work instantly. His brother who had a college diploma had been out of work for a number of years, while his friends followed the party road to employment in the fields of their training. His family earn very low incomes, and he does not want to add to the burden. Besides whenever he thought of his career, he had always thought of getting his second degree first.
"I was surprised," he said. "Nearly everyone in my class was there." Other sources, who are now "comfortably" employed, were coaxed into membership when they heard reports that earlier year graduates were struggling to find jobs. This lady, whose name, work and the college she attended will not be identified because she fears being traced, joined in the first semester of her last year. If she had waited till the second semester, her request to join the party would have been rejected. The benefit? She and all her friends now have jobs, while most of her seniors, the ones she knew, are still looking. Now nearly every university student applies for membership, because the card is at least as important as the diploma and degree.
She is mad within herself that she had to become a party member in order to get a job and unhappy that she had to prove her loyalty in more ways unacceptable to her in order to get her dream job; nevertheless, she does not regret that she has become a member. She would, otherwise, still be looking for a job.
New recruits are assigned to ethnic specific organizations with in the EPRDF: the Oromos would go to the OPDO, the Amharas to the ANDM, the Tigres to the TPLF, and those from the Southern regional state to SEPDF. The recruitment is not really so low cost as it seems in university campuses. The EPRDF has undertaken seven rounds of trainings, according to some of its cadres, involving thousands of people at a time. The lady who spoke on condition of untraceable anonymity said that her group that was taken to Zway for training involved 40 bus loads of people.
"We were all given four bottled waters a day, and the food was always meat," she said.
The meeting lasted 18 days, and she shakes her head as she thinks of the cost.
In a recent training for 7,500 teachers divided between Addis Abeba and Fiche town, the EPRDF had to pay the Addis Abeba participants 50 Br allowance per day, while those in Fiche had a budget of 70 Br per day for their food, water and accommodation expenses, although they received no cash. Each participant was given six books for the training on various topics: revolutionary democracy, EPRDF programme, initiating democratic struggle, capacity building strategy, urban and industry development, and education quality. These trainings also lasted 18 days.
Reports of the outcomes vary. A local paper recently reported that all participants in the Addis Abeba training and 90% in Fiche had filled the membership form. A cadre told this writer, however, that 45% of the participants in Fiche had rejected the call for membership, and most of them did not even take the six books with them, leaving behind a big litter.
The recruits are organized in smaller groups called cells. The cell leaders give their members a Stassi-like order: report any misdemeanour you observe around you. This includes spying both on their party fellows and everybody else, although they are made to feel like they were not spying. "If you see someone breaking a window pane, you have to report him, because he is a bad fellow." So a student had his membership repealed because he was spotted by other members while he jostled to enter first into the university cafeteria at meal time in order to get the best part of the stew. When Moslem students staged a demonstration against the decision of the Science Faculty of the Addis Ababa University not to allocate a worship site within the compound, Moslem EPRDF members allegedly gave away the plotters, who were taken away and ....
In the work place this could take place in different ways. People do not trust each other, even when they are all members, so they keep their mouths shut or they could find themselves being the issue of the next cell evaluation. Usually one person makes this mistake, and everybody else takes a lesson. They don't open up even when they think they knew each other well. At other times a member you do not know could come complaining about a service and demanding if had no right to be served unless he were a party member. Similarly someone impersonating a job applicant could come and ask if he needed to bring support letter from local government officials (meaning about his party activities). In both cases the civil servant must answer that both the service seeker and the job applicant are treated just like any other Ethiopian on the basis of right and merit.
During the 2005 election, the opposition parties, particularly the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, that had seemed close to stage a democratic coup, had reached a point where they could no longer hold secret meetings. What they said in secret was always disclosed in public particularly by an Amharic newspaper that stopped publication shortly after the election crisis was over. Some opposition party members say that there are now people with in them whom they suspect of being EPRDF moles, but they do not give them away for lack of evidence and for fear of repercussions - if they knew, they might end up being suspects, too. Gebru says that the ruling party constantly works to infiltrate his small and young party.
An EPRDF source, who talked to this writer looking around uneasily, said, "Why do you and I talk so carefully? Because we do not know who these people around us are." One of the purposes of member proliferation, he thinks, is to make everyone suspicious of the person near him, and create an environment of fear and passive obedience and acceptance.
Such information network is becoming established at universities, government offices and the general public, although the average person so far has no fear of dropping dead as a result of what he or she says. However, one has to be in such network in order to get, sometimes even keep, a job in the government hierarchy, particularly the kebeles, sub-city and city administrations. One brazen new member attached a copy of his membership ID (dubbed green card by the new members) with his CV when he applied for a job- it might have been a coincidence, but he got the job. Another man had to be pushed out of a job he kept for years. He took his case to the responsible person, one of the new generation of recruits. This responsible person was not satisfied with the reasons given for his dismissal and went to enquire and learned that the man was not a party person, and his position was not meant to be filled by someone like him.
Such criterion was applied when she and her team were recruiting several new employees. The recruiting committee interviewed all the applicants, reviewed their documents, and passed the list of the selected people to the manager. They bitterly discovered that people they had not interviewed were given the jobs; the manager did not keep the secret from them because they were all party colleagues. He said the people who were given the jobs were party members. But then that was how she got her job: she was applying everywhere, when she was informed that she had already been given an appropriate job where she was not looking.
Working party members in Addis Abeba say that they have five to six meetings every month related to the party; most take place in their work places (cell meetings). There are, however, two meetings that bring together several cells in each sub city. Nearly all of these meetings take place on normal working hours achieving party objectives at government expense. At the work place each cell member has specific activities; it could be recruiters or rapporteurs, etc. Their commitments are measured by how much they tell on their colleagues at cell meetings, how many new members they recruit, and how active they are during meetings. Such people can grow up to become executives.
In Addis Abeba, the kebele, sub-city and city administrations are not only firmly controlled by the party but all the staff are carrying out party work even though they are paid government salaries. The Administrations of all 99 kebeles each have 15 cabinet members and two counsellors (representing the youth and women's leagues)- all of them appointed by the ruling party. The two counsellors are officially there to do party job; they are given that name so that their salary will come from government coffers, according to one such person. Practically all 17 people are political appointees and they are doing party work all the time at government expense. There is plan to add three additional staff for each kebele. A new salary scale which is being considered will offer a salary of 2,600 Br (a 130 Br raise for some of the staff) plus 300 Br housing and mobile phone allowance. The chief executive officers earn 3000 Br salary plus allowance. At each of the 10 sub-cities five appointees earn a 3,600 Br salary and 400 Br allowance, while the chief executive earns a salary of 4,200 Br and 2,000 Br allowance. All of these people keep themselves as busy with party work as they do with their regular work- all on normal working hour and government pay.
Gebru Asrat adds to this saying that the Tigryan People's Liberation Front, TPLF, the dominant group in the EPRDF family, has only one office in Tigray because it actually uses government offices, employees, resources and budget to do its work.
One kebele appointee said that they recruit three directors for a school, and the most important criterion, more than education and experience, is the political credibility of the candidates.
"The reasoning is that the result that the people want shall be delivered under the leadership of EPRDF people," said this source.
This is where the teacher who taught in the south, the young lady who recently joined the civil service and the young university student all find themselves at odds with what is going on. The one finds himself in a depressing situation where his career has been called to a halt- no way up the executive ladder except through the ruling party.
"Getting an executive position is difficult," said the anonymous lady, too. "I have always wanted to become a ----. But in order to get that job, I will need, for example, to befriend people and encourage them to speak their heart, and report them if they say the wrong things about the party. So I have given up thinking about my dream job, because it will take a long time for things to change enough for me to be able to get it without party loyalty. I, like most of my friends, am keeping the membership because I have no choice. I am now looking for any job- any job- out of government." The party cadre looked uncomfortably at this writer and said, "I am not proud of what I do." The recent defection of Ermias Legesse, Bereket Simon's deputy at the Office for Government Communication Affairs, during a visit to the United States, is at least in part caused by this situation.
The university student had consulted his father before he made his choice, a choice which he has kept a secret.
"It is up to you to decide," the father told his son. "Don't just do anything that is against your conscience." With or without parental consultation thousands have made their choices. From the rank and file to the higher positions of authority the EPRDF is accumulating members that do not believe in its cause, members that want it to lose and get lost. In recent EPRDF gatherings for various groups, the ruling party has been trying to imbue its new members with the self-sacrificing commitment that the members of the Tigrian People's Liberation Front (TPLF) had displayed when they started fighting the derg regime in the 1970's.
By as much as the EPRDF is getting new members who consider their membership as pre-condition for job, it is also able to raise millions of Birr from the business community. The last election has, however, left evidences of the Front's inability to get the votes of even its members. It also had transpired that public admiration and love for EPRDF people (such as Arkebe Okubay) for public goods created did not translate into votes for the same person. One voter said at the time, "Arkebe is a good man, but he is EPRDF." EPRDF's recruiters unofficially consider higher education and government jobs as a reward for membership, while the new recruits, at least those that talked to this writer, consider it a price they are paying to earn their daily bread. Under this polarized interpretation of the same situation, will the ruling party sit and hope for the best, or will it do something outrageous to make sure that all its members voted for it?
That is yet to be seen, but Gebru does not see the ruling party benefiting out of this. Both Gebru and Merera say that the leadership of the ruling party involved the simultaneous use of its power, government resources and the security forces.
"They could rule any length of time," Gebru said. "Their life could be long under a situation where there is no coordinated opposition by the society. Finally the outcome is disaster. Look at what happened to Congo and Somalia when Mobutu and Ziad Barre went out of office." He expresses fear for what could happen when all the pent-up frustration and emotion is released one day, and adds, "That is why we say there has to be reconciliation in Ethiopia." The reconciliation issue has been raised since the beginning of the EPRDF government, but the leaders have always rejected it saying that nothing has happened that required reconciliation. Meanwhile the opposition leaders express faith that many of the new EPRDF recruits will vote for them in the next election.
The young civil servant wanted so much for things to change that she could barely hide her interest in the production of this article.
"Do you think what you write will make a difference?' "Yes." "Then you must write it quickly," she urged.
Source: Jimma Times