For the first time in the history of the EPRDF, a generation of young men and women who know nothing firsthand of Ethiopian politics other than that of the current government will be eligible to vote. Neither, the young voters nor the candidates seem to fully appreciate the impact this generation could have on politics, writes BRUH YIHUNBELAY, FORTUNE STAFF WRITER.
On the cloudy afternoon of April 27, 2010, at the teeming campus of Addis Abeba University’s Commercial College, sat an attention grabbing young man, Michael Alemayehu, 20, on a block fence, giving the impression of being busy while operating his iPhone. A second year student of Marketing Management, Michael resembles most of his metropolitan peers; he was outfitted in attire that made him look like rappers from the US such as 50 Cent or Akon.
He was waiting for his friend to arrive to select a place to hang out and tee off their afternoon. Michael was a year old when the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took state power 19 years ago this month.
He is one of the over 15 million young men and women between the ages of 15 to 24, constituting 20pc of the total population. Half of these were born in the early 1990s, shortly before, during, or after the collapse of the military government.
People like Michael have recently come of age and are eligible to vote in national elections for the first time this year. But electoral authorities do not have data to show how many of the 10 million Ethiopians whose ages allow them to be first time voters have actually registered to cast their votes in the elections to be held in three weeks.
Michael will not. He is not registered, for he does not care much about Ethiopian politics. He finds them boring and lacking in captivating elements, which the US Presidential Election had.
“President Obama is a charismatic leader,” Michael told Fortune. “I have not seen anyone of that sort in the Ethiopian political landscape.”
A resident of Nefas-Silk Lafto District, around Bisrate Gabriel Church, Michael showed little interest in the current national elections. He does not know, for instance, that some heavyweight politicians are running against their former allies from 2005 for a place at one of Addis Abeba’s 23 seats in the Federal Government. Hailu Shawel (Eng.) of the All Ethiopian Unity Organisation (AEUO) and Hailu Araya (PhD) of the Forum for Justice and Democratic Dialogue, a.k.a. Medrek, are an example of this, unbeknownst to him, and Aster Mamo of the incumbent EPRDF is also competing for the same seat.
His knowledge of political personalities is limited to a short list. Meles Zenawi of the EPRDF is one, while he thinks Hailu Shawel is still a leader of “Kinijit.” He also knew of Lidetu Ayalew, although he was not able to place him with any party.
“There are some other guys, but I am not sure about their names,” he said. “I am one of those people not big on politics.”
Nonetheless, Michael, who tends to slur his English, owes his knowledge of federalism and the Constitution to civic education classes during his high school years at Ethio-Parents. But that was not enough to spark any interest in politics. His strongest desire and wish is to go to London to see his favourite team, Arsenal FC, from the English Premier League, play at the Emirates Stadium.
In essence, young eligible voters such as Michael do not have vivid impressions of the Derg Regime. Eritrea as part of Ethiopia is merely part of the distant history of the nation.
There is no emotional connection. Yet, these were issues that were lucidly placed in the minds of the pre-EPRDF generation of Ethiopia, who are at times thin-skinned when such issues are raised during casual conversations.A probe into the thought processes of the EPRDF generation reveals a disturbing level of indifference and insensitivity towards political issues. One of these young adults spoke quite frankly to Fortune about his impressions of the affairs of state. Although the awareness of his peers leaves a lot to be desired, it is clear that the interests of this crowd are engaged elsewhere; mostly in the English Premier League. What are politicians doing to appeal to this very large demographic, who is for the most part being lured towards western customs? Are the youth of today appreciated or are they justified in feeling left out and inconsequential? Read the Interview
This deficiency in political interest is apparently a feature that detaches members of the post-Derg EPRDF generation from the preceding generation. They seem to have little qualms with the Constitution, including the controversial Article 39, as they see hardly anything controversial about the political structure that many of their elders oppose as “ethnic politics.” They are products of a school system that taught them the provisions of the Constitution during Civics classes.
Ironically, they are devoid, at the same time, of a profound knowledge of the country’s political system.
“I am going to vote for Meles,” Samrawit Tarekegn, 20, a second year accounting student at the commercial college, told Fortune. “I do not know much about the other candidates. I think he is the only one who can lead the country.”
Her registration to vote is an exception among her two friends. Leisurely sitting and chatting inside Tele Bar, Tinbit Abraham and Tsega Kebede seemed uninterested in the whole conversation on politics.
All three of them were not interested in politics, Tinbit said, giggling, and teased Tsega that she was not interested in anything in life.
In response, music and contemporary vogue were two subjects that Tsega mentioned she had an interest in, giving Tinbit a shrug.
“Politics in Africa are what people get killed over,” Tsega told Fortune. “I do not want to be involved in anything of that sort.”
Their lifestyles for far too long have focused on non-political and non-sports areas, Tsega and her friends believe. For the young men of their age, though, music and sports dominate as their major preoccupations in life.
“We never seem to agree on politics, but the subjects we happen to agree on are sports and music,” a student of Bahir Dar Technology College said of his relationships with his friends.
One of them is Eskedar Mulugojjam, a second year Mechanics student at the college. Seated inside Mango Recreation Centre, Eskedar used to have the enthusiasm to participate in elections. Her enthusiasm vanished after she lost hope. She thinks that she does not have a role to play anymore.
“I have not been registered to vote,” Eskedar told Fortune. “I also do not like to talk about politics; it is just pointless.”
These young men and women are radically different from the generation of the student movements back in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the figures from these movements are now leaders of the country, whether in politics, business, or social sectors. It was a revolutionary generation with a strong passion for reform and social transformation that fought for regime change. In history, involvement of the youth in Ethiopia’s politics has altered the course of the country more than once.
“The participation of the youth and students in particular was observed both in the seventies and eighties,” a political history lecturer at Addis Abeba University, told Fortune.
Although the revolutionary generation of that era succeeded in forcing the Imperial Regime to collapse, it nonetheless continued both armed political struggles and nonviolent political struggles against the military junta. The leading members of the generation thought that the military junta had hijacked the revolution that they originally stirred. One is unlikely to see such a degree of enthusiasm about political engagement from many members of the EPRDF generation.
The youth of today lack zeal and passion for political participation. This phenomenon is mostly seen in youths that come from urban areas, according to the political history lecturer.
“They are more inclined to movies, music, and sports than politics,” he told Fortune. “This is the case with other countries as well.”
This lack of basic interest in politics is not an anomaly, from a social scientist’s perspective. It may be inevitable for youngsters not to feel strongly about, participate in, or consider politics as a priority, a sociologist and social researcher from the Addis Abeba University told Fortune.
“The inadequate knowledge they have about politics is what they learned from their Civics classes in school,” said the sociologist. “Although it may be considered [by others] not to be enough, they think it is sufficient for them.”
Michael and the three young women find the media outlets, particularly the state owned TV, boring. It does not cater to their needs, and therefore is not given a chance to increase their limited political literacy.
“I get frustrated when ETV shows some uninteresting programme, cancelling live transmission of the Premier League matches,” Michael told Fortune.
Dinner time is the most important time of the day for Tsega and her family. While her mother and two brothers discuss how they spent their day, her father usually increases the volume of the TV using a remote control. He wants to watch the news of the day that comes on at 8:00pm.
“I do not like it when my Dad does that,” Tsega said. “But we are all used to it and continue our conversations while he complains that we are not letting him watch the news.”
Lidetu Ayalew, leader of the party that portrays itself as the “party of the future,” attributes such apathy to the media. It fails to appeal to this group of voters, he said.
“The incumbent controls the mainstream media, and it has failed to appropriately orient the youth to the politics of the country,” Lidetu said.
But, hardly any of the parties vying for political power seem to recognise the existence of this segment of voters. Their campaign strategies are not designed to win their votes.
Jemal Mohammed, 21, and Keribu Hassen, 21, both third year students at Addis Abeba University, are among a section of the youth that have specific demands. Jemal, from Adama (Nazareth), and Keribu, from Metekel Zone of the Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State, are unlike most of their peers. They do not watch football but do have a thing for music. They also closely follow the politics of the country.
Keribu tried to go into details, demonstrating his knowledge on the agenda of the parties and what every party claims to stand for. He thinks that the agendas of the parties are not what the youth of today are yearning for.
He and his friends want jobs after graduation.
“I cannot wait to graduate, get a job, and earn my own living,” said Keribu, while nervously rubbing his hair backwards, apparently a habit he is unaware of. Keribu fears that he may not get a job after graduation, claiming that the political parties running for office are not properly addressing the needs of the youth.
“They had a debate on federalism, agriculture, and education but nothing on the youth,” he told Fortune. “This shows me that they do not care much about us.”
Despite their evident failure to recognise this group of first time voters, many of the political party leaders claim to be doing things for the youth.
“I can confidently say that we are the only party that has pledged to provide one million jobs,” Lidetu told Fortune.
He is referring to his party’s campaign manifesto, which made such promises for the army of the unemployed, largely made up of youths.
It is not only employment the youth need, according to Temesgen Zewdie, one of the leaders of the parties that make up Medrek. The aspirations of the youth are strongly linked with educational policy, he said.
“This is where the incumbent failed, but we have an extensive plan for the youth to be part of the development process,” Temesgen said.
Leaders of the incumbent, however, claim that they have addressed the demands of the youth across the country through the expansion of education and the creation of employment opportunities.
“Though we should have done more to address the youth, I believe we have done enough,” Hailemariam Desalegn, a member of the central committee of the EPRDF and one of the campaign managers of his party, told Fortune.
His party has been working rigorously in various forms, providing opportunities for the youth, he claims. Hundreds of millions of Birr to finance the formation of 167,835 micro and small enterprises (MSEs) active in the construction of condominiums was part of this drive that was aimed at engaging younger voters. The government they run claims to have created 1.3 million jobs since 2006, according to Kassu Illala (PhD), minister of Works and Urban Development (MoWUD), who testified before Parliament last week.
The ruling party is also known to have used higher education institutions as recruiting grounds, an effort that swelled its rank and file by over four million since the last election. For a party that was on a collision course with the youth during and after the 2005 national elections, this could be taken as a phenomenal reverse.
Members of the youth, however, need motivation and inspiration that go beyond campaign pledges in order to make them actively participate in the politics of the country, according to the political history lecturer. Thus political parties have a lot more to do to rope in members of the EPRDF generation such as Michael, Samrawit, Tsega, and Tinbit. They may not be visible, but their existence in staggering numbers could alter the course of the election as their predecessors did with their revolution four decades ago.