By Tesfaye Demmellash (PhD)
In the course of the Revolution and in its wake and over the last two decades of ethnic feudalism, being an Ethiopian patriot and a progressive at the same time has been difficult. True, many of our revolutionaries were patriots, and identity politics may not always be unpatriotic. But our political culture of progressivism as a whole has been marked, be it in effect or in intent, by indifference, hostility even, toward Ethiopian nationalism. As teramajoch, we have often embraced modern political ideas like democracy, self-determination, and equality in a way that is incongruent with old-fashioned love of country, seeing political modernity as the simple reverse or negation of the Ethiopian national tradition. We have generally not carried patriotism with us in our revolutionary consciousness.
On the other side, as patriots, we are inclined to stress historic Ethiopian nationality or identity in a manner that does not always resonate with the contemporary, ideas-based, development of Ethiopiawinnet in the context of social and cultural diversity and globalization. This is particularly true today in that we find ourselves in a defensive patriotic position in the face of an externally assisted systematic assault of Woyane state ethnicism on our national being and on our sense of ourselves as Ethiopians. In giving free rein to the immediacies of our patriotic passion, we tend to limit our ability to practice longer-term, strategically attuned politics and to function on a broader, more enlightened level of national engagement.
I have personally felt a tension between critical, forward-looking conceptual thought on the Ethiopian tradition and on its transformation and development, on the one hand, and the lived experience and joy of simply being Ethiopiawi, on the other. Ever since the Student Movement, I have been troubled by the mutual exclusions and oppositions of politics based on progressive theory and Ethiopian national sentiments and values rooted in history.
I believe this incongruity between sensuous Ethiopian nationality and progressive intellectual and political socialization to restraint of patriotism is not merely an issue that I personally have grappled with. I am convinced that it is a problem many Ethiopians of the revolutionary generation have had to wrestle with as well, although many others of that generation have simply and unaccountably walked away from the problem. More importantly, I see the tension between a firm patriotic heart and an equally firm progressive mind as a dialectic which will figure centrally in the realization of Ethiopia’s resurgence.
Imperative of Patriotic-Progressive Ties
Connections between historically rooted national allegiance and pride and contemporary articulate ideas and goals of teramaj politics are crucial in the Ethiopian struggle against TPLF partisan-tribal dictatorship and for a more just and democratic political order in the post-Woyane era. The meeting between real, experienced Ethiopiawinnet – manifested in meaningful sentiments, values, images, symbols, and cultural practices – and forward-looking political conceptualization, agenda, and action is a vital encounter which has great promise for Ethiopia’s comeback.
Now, whatever its past achievements or present potential, teramaj politica has created a lot of disenchantment among Ethiopians. We are hesitant today to identify ourselves as “teramajoch” because the label has had such troubled and troubling association with hostility toward Ethiopian nationalism. We now know painfully well how far over the top the old model of progressive politics has gone in criticizing and opposing the Ethiopian national tradition. A follower of the model in its own narrow ethnonationalist way, the TPLF party-state machine is the last and uniquely most anti-Ethiopian link in the chain of “radical” teramaj political forces that stretches back to ultra-left dogmatic factions within the Student Movement. This chain of political forces has kept Ethiopia in shackles for decades now.
To note the deep flaws of the supposedly radical form of our progressive experience as I do here, to be fully aware of its excesses and limitations, is not to discount entirely the ideas and goals which inspired the experience. The ideas and goals as such still have wide appeal in the country today – among opposition parties and coalitions, intellectual strata, activists, civic organizations, and media groups. So any political force that seeks to galvanize the Ethiopian people and lead the country’s resurgence must develop a broad national consensus that blends patriotic and progressive movements. But, as a condition of possibility of their dynamic, mutually energizing integration, patriotism and the progressive way must be understood and approached anew, distinctly and in their ties and relations.
Love of country is an ideal or emotion that makes progressives and liberals anywhere uneasy. They generally associate it with jingoistic nationalism, xenophobia, and unthinking loyalty to the nation-state. Separatist ethnic fronts in Ethiopia have imagined and portrayed Ethiopian nationalism simply as Amhara chauvinism and oppression of other ethnic groups. Some of the most repulsive actual features of nationalism include colonialism, fascism, racism, and certain forms of tribalism.
However, we cannot equate patriotism as such with its abhorrent variants or features. We cannot say it is the sum of its flaws and problems, nothing more. The fact is that patriotism, as a set of attitudes, values, sentiments, and dispositions makes itself felt in different contexts and modalities of activity, including varying forms of civic and political engagement. There are alternative, more or less desirable styles of national allegiance and loyalty, ranging from the least informed, most emotional and exclusive to highly enlightened, disciplined, and accommodative forms. Love of country can assume progressive or reactionary shape, democratic or authoritarian style.
Thus ethnicism or chauvinism is not a necessary feature of Ethiopian nationalism, just as separatism or kililism is not a necessary part or condition of the self-determination of distinct ethnic and cultural communities in Ethiopia. Alternatively, patriotism need not be associated exclusively with a particular ideology or religion, say, liberalism, socialism, Christianity or Islam. It could instead be based on a common national culture which integrally accommodates pluralism and difference. Seen in this light, the separatist tribal grudges the TPLF and OLF bear Ethiopia spring from two sources. One source is a politically oversimplified, obsessively anti-Amhara, resentful misapprehension or willful distortion of Ethiopian national experience and accomplishment. The other is underestimation of the potential of the ethnically diverse Ethiopian people for a more perfect union.
For many citizens of Ethiopia, the deep historical origins and development of national identity may not be as significant as its more contemporary form and validity. And for many other citizens of the country, Ethiopiawinnet may be less a modern, Western-inspired political achievement and more an indigenous heritage sedimented over centuries and generations. Given these distinct strands of Ethiopian national sensibility, traditional patriots have to be careful not to aggravate, rather than lessen, the difference by overly stressing narrative sources of national identity to the neglect or near exclusion of present issues, themes, aspirations, and agenda of Ethiopian nationality.
On the other hand, more liberal or moderate Ethiopian patriots need to avoid receding from affirmation of their national heritage, recognizing as a matter of both principle and strategic necessity in the struggle for Ethiopia’s democratic renewal, that love of country can be a motive force, a source of uplifting energy, passion, and commitment. This is particularly important when the survival of the nation is at stake, as has been the case over the last two decades under the divisive dictatorship of the TPLF. If we suppress or neutralize our patriotism, we lose our national vitality, inspiration, and purpose. We become passive or weakly connected to Ethiopian affairs and to the Ethiopian people themselves for whose betterment the revolutionary generation shed so much blood, sweat, and tears.
Granted, patriotic passion is not without its pitfalls. If not tempered with reason it can get out of control and become counter-productive. The point is that the remedy for Ethiopia’s ills lies within us as a people, in our rekindled national energy and spirit. We must come to terms with, and value, who we are as a nation and act accordingly. This does not mean that we lessen our commitment to progressive change and development, that we detach our national interests and values from the outside world, globalization and all, which is neither possible nor desirable. Rather, it means we carry progressive change and the experience of the world within our national being. It means we look and move forward as one people, one nation, diverse but united and indivisible.
In short, love of country can signify deeply felt and experienced national consciousness capable of galvanizing the Ethiopian people across ethnic, cultural, and regional lines. It can be a vital part of not only our resistance against the tyranny of Woyane tribal feudalism but also our democratically inspired national affirmation. Yet we should not expect patriotic feelings and values to relieve the resistance from the burden of strategically attuned progressive thought, commitment, and struggle.
Change of Progressive Culture
If we as “progressives” want to change Ethiopia for the better, we must first change ourselves. From the Student Movement through the brutal tyranny of the Derg to the tribal dictatorship of the Woyanes today, charting a progressive path for Ethiopia has been problematic. We embrace democratic and egalitarian ideas as simple and ready formulas instead of developing them through open argument, dialogue, and discussion. We subscribe to global values in a way that does not resonate with our own national experience and context. We confuse intellectually inert ideological positions and sectarian discourses of self-definition, propaganda and polemic with broad-based, reflective and critical thought, speech and debate. We equate dogma with principle. We use imperious partisan-cum-authoritarian politics to simulate civil society, fabricating a multiplicity of constituencies, groups, and institutions that are not self-organized and so do not have the look and feel of true agency or real autonomy. This, sadly, has been the tradition of progressivism in Ethiopia for nearly half a century.
And so the questions arise: what shall we do about it? How shall we change it? Without attempting to address these complex questions adequately here, let me make a few general observations. It seems to me that doing something about our troubled progressive inheritance entails first understanding it clearly, in all its flaws, excesses and limitations. We should recognize that far from being a ready solution to our national problems, the legacy has itself become problematic, an unbearable contemporary burden on the Ethiopian people regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. We need national consensus on this or some such diagnosis, since many of us who cut our intellectual and political teeth on the Student Movement still cling to assumptions and perspectives of old-school teramaj politica in some form or other. And ethnonationalist offshoots of the old and tired tradition of progressivism are still operative among groups like the TPLF and OLF factions and spinoffs, specifically the ODF.
I have argued in an earlier piece that, as a necessary condition of a new Ethiopian national consensus, the existing model of forward-looking, transformative politics has to be rethought. Here, I just want to add that critical rethinking begins by deconstructing the terms, categories, and values of the old model, before the arrival of alternative ideas and answers, or in the process of working out such ideas and answers. It begins on the ground, in our lived experience, beneath universal theoretical abstractions and ruling or partisan ideological formulas, in what we see and feel as well as in observable reality generally.
The point of this effort is to prepare the Ethiopian political ground so that the seeds of a new, more open and democratic progressive culture can be planted, take root, grow, and thrive. It is to come into contact with Ethiopian realities that are not pre-emptively and one-sidedly politicized, “theorized”, and ethnicized, to wrest the realities from the suffocating grip of supposedly progressive categories in all their sectarian and tribal forms. The point, finally, is to approach Ethiopian issues and problems by restraining our limited partisan and ideological impulses and engaging ideas nationally as sources and tools of broad-based enlightenment and development.
All the conceptual and political renovation effort we exert here is worthwhile because, notwithstanding the flaws and limitations of the particular form of teramaj politics which gained dominance over the Revolution, progressive ideas as such remain central to contemporary Ethiopian political culture. It is undeniable that any national opposition force in Ethiopia that wants to keep pace with current socio-economic, political, and cultural developments in the country and around the world and hopes to influence the course of Ethiopian events must regard the progressive ethos a valuable ally.
In a broad sense, the new progressive Ethiopian political ethos can be said to represent willful, ever forward national movement in thought and action towards definite aims, a movement centered on the universal ideas of freedom, justice, democracy and equality, and on real concern for the working poor and the most disadvantaged and vulnerable strata in Ethiopian society . In advancing these ideas in various sectors of social life in the country – the economy, government, culture, education, and so on – specific goals and policies are formulated and enacted in a spiral form that allows them to “escalate” into one another, cumulatively resulting in the all-round development of the country. The new-fashioned progressive path is to be distinguished from the old way not in its professed universal ideas and values, but in the way it approaches and handles them. Instead of confining the circulation of the ideas within exclusive or dominant partisan and authoritarian intentions, terms, and formulas, it would allow and facilitate their broad understanding through unfettered public discussion and debate. The alternative forward-looking political way would empower citizens to freely and actively engage universal values. In short, the new way, would permit progressive ideas to gain relatively autonomous currency in various sectors of Ethiopian social and public life, to convey meaning in part in their own terms.
This means we recognize that the substantive or practical significance for Ethiopian citizens of ideas like democracy, the rule of law, federalism, and civil and political rights is more important than the limited organizational or tactical serviceability of the ideas for particular parties and tribal fronts. For example, we would gain greater awareness that the ideals of democracy, self-determination, peace, and stability in Ethiopia are indivisible – they cannot be realized by particular ethnic groups while their realization is denied to the nation as a whole.
And so to be a good ally or partner of Ethiopian patriotism, our progressive vision today must “address” the nation as an integral self or whole. In the old and still operative tradition of teramaj politics, applying the idea of a national self to particular ethnic communities is a commonplace. Attributing national identity or subjectivity to Ethiopia, however, has generally been problematic for the tradition. The problem issues from the “radicalism” of the tradition itself, particularly its concern or that of its more extreme ultra-left founding members and ethnonationalist elements today, to delegitimize the very idea of Ethiopian nationality, characterizing the country entirely negatively as “a prison of nations,” hardly anything more.
Addressing Ethiopia integrally from a new progressive perspective does not necessarily entail a prior elaboration of democratic ideas and values or constitutional principles and arrangements. Instead, it means first listening well to the Ethiopian people, being truly attentive to their diverse and common concerns to the greatest extent possible, allowing the people to express their perceived interests in a way they have never been allowed to express them before.
This means letting the nation “speak,” revealing in its own voice its massive social dislocation, the degradation of its cultural, spiritual and intellectual life, its unmet basic needs, the systematic violation of the human and civil rights of its citizens, its colonial-like domination by a sectarian regime which inhabits its own parallel “national” universe, and its reduction to a collection of insular tribal kilils, all in the name of “revolution,” “democracy,” and “development.” Only then can we transform our troubled progressive legacy and credibly begin to create a new, more democratic political order attuned to the Ethiopian national experience.
Symbiosis of Patriotism and the Progressive Ethos
Does the heat of patriotic emotion coalesce with the light of cool progressive reason? The problem with this question is that it sets up an unwarranted dichotomy between sensuous national experience and ideas-based politics. It assumes that patriotism excludes political engagement informed by conceptual thought, that it is not susceptible to alternative interpretation and enactment. This assumption is mistaken.
Political ideas like freedom, democracy, and self-determination have an impact on the Ethiopian patriotic sensibility. And the meanings of such progressive ideas in turn cannot gain effective currency in Ethiopia in isolation from our historically specific common national culture, in contradistinction to our national allegiance and loyalty. The meaningful contents of the ideas cannot exist or come into play in Ethiopia merely as universal abstractions or tribal constructs, but must take concrete Ethiopian form. It is the function of progressive reason to place our immediate patriotic sentiments and localized community activities in the context of broader national ideas, goals, and movements. Yet it is in being politically attentive to the immediate and the local that larger, relatively distant and more abstract goals and tasks of Ethiopian national-democratic struggle are most effectively set and accomplished.
However, as amply demonstrated in the troubled Ethiopian revolutionary experience, particularly in the unforeseen dominance of its separatist ethnonationalist spinoffs under TPLF hegemony, patriotism and progressivism can be mutually undermining rather than supportive. The latter can be overly partisan, self-conscious and controlling, bent on denying or neutralizing the broad-based cultural contents and social bases of Ethiopian nationality while making “radical” identity politics the sole source of national meaning and value. The former, when not able to avoid an overreaction to the ethnonationalist excess, can be politically artless and engage in a counter-denial of difference and pluralism, specifically the relative autonomy of ethnic, cultural, and religious communities in the country which may realize Ethiopiawinnet in their own distinct styles as well as in commonly shared ways.
The new progressive ethos would take shape and come into play in part by overcoming the mutual exclusions and oppositions of patriotism lacking in broad national-political influence and “revolutionary-democratic” identity politics inimical toward integral Ethiopian wholeness.
Reckoning with Ethnonational “Others”
Like national traditions everywhere in the world whose formation has involved military conquest and expansion and is marked by a structure of historical events, facts, myths and narratives and cultural growth and political development, the Ethiopian experience has its native dissenters and detractors. We can here distinguish between progressive objectors, who engage the Ethiopian national tradition, seeking to transform it and realize ideas of freedom, justice, democracy and equality, and more “radical” critics and opponents, mainly the Woyanes and other practitioners of separatist identity politics, that have willfully alienated themselves from the Ethiopian experience as such and are bent on undoing it. It is the latter that I refer to as “ethnonational ‘others.’”
The distinction has implications for the development of broad-based national agreement in the resistance against TPLF dictatorship. Ethiopian consensus can be developed among and through progressive objectors who operate within the parameters of common Ethiopian nationality and whose dissent may be variously centered on matters of public policy, ideology, ethnicity, religion, region, economic interest or some other concern. It is helpful to recognize that criticism based on difference and diversity is not a problem for Ethiopian patriotic-progressive solidarity – it reflects the fact that the interpretive understanding of a common national tradition is variously influenced by the situational needs, interests, and grievances of particular communities and social groups within it. In supplying their own identities and forms of life, their own issues, concerns and questions, particular communities and groups in Ethiopia enrich our national experience.
This means coalitions of patriotic and progressive forces gain national resonance and validity mainly in proportion to the range of social and cultural bases to which they can appeal and by which they can be supported without sacrificing their principled consensus and coherence. The broader the socio-cultural range of their appeal and support, the greater their national resonance and validity. We recognize here that Ethiopian solidarity is gained and secured not by denying or suppressing difference and pluralism or by silencing voices of dissent, but through their mediation and regulation by means of progressive ideas, principles, and institutional practices. We understand that broad Ethiopian agreement could arise from the contingencies of local and particular needs, issues, and interests instead of being “precooked” through an ideological agenda elaborated ahead by an authoritarian regime, party, or front behind the backs of the Ethiopian people.
What are well-nigh impossible to accommodate within an Ethiopian patriotic-progressive consensus are separatist political entities, ethnonational “others” bent on the undoing or emasculation of the nation’s integral wholeness. This impossibility is most evident both in the ruling ethnonationalism of the TPLF and in its oppositional variants within OLF factions, though the two ethnic political fronts have their own irreconcilable differences and conflicts. Operating from antagonistic governing and opposing positions, the TPLF and OLF have commonly adopted an external inimical attitude toward Ethiopian nationality. As colonial-like rulers of the country, the Woyanes in particular are parasitic on the Ethiopian body politic, eating away at their national “host” without killing it, taking advantage of the political and material benefits it affords while undermining its vitality from within.
We may not categorically say that the TPLF is incapable of reforms which will entail a lessening of its monopoly of effective power, but there is no reasonable hope that the Woyanes will significantly change the nature of their rule if left to their own devices. The Woyane tribal regime cannot realistically be expected to enter willingly into good faith talks with opposition forces in search of national reconciliation and compromise. Nor can we be optimistic about hard-core separatist OLF groups leaving behind their ethnonationalist self-alienation from Ethiopia and moving in a new, more conciliatory and democratic, trans-ethnic national direction.
But why is there little or no prospect of patriotic and progressive Ethiopian opposition coalitions even reasoning with TPLF and OLF ethnonationalist elites, engaging them in principled, ideas-based dialogue, discussion, and debate? Aren’t the “revolutionary” partisans that run these ethnic political organizations themselves supposed to be practitioners of teramaj politica committed to big, universal ideas like freedom, justice, democracy, development, and so on?
Part of the explanation lies in the fact that the universal ideas which the TPLF and OLF formally profess cannot be opened up for fruitful debate, discussion, and negotiation since they are deployed instrumentally as ideological weapons used by the fronts for separatist ethnonational self-definition and self-assertion. The ideas cannot be articulated meaningfully outside the dominant party hierarchy or front itself, beyond its authoritarian, separatist intentions, dogma and maneuvers. And the narrow, exclusively partisan formulation of the ideas within the hierarchy assumes a false formulaic exactness because it is isolated from broad, varying social-historical contents, forms and interpretations.
Hence, ideas like democracy and federalism formally espoused by the Woyane party-state machine cannot be understood as relatively open, communicative and debatable signifiers whose meanings can be discursively established through discussion, negotiation and compromise. Their articulation and workings are better grasped as the exclusive operations of the dominant party-state machine itself. So TPLF and OLF political theory doesn’t need the minds of learned elites or ordinary citizens to engage it actively. More to the point, its logical questioning or probing from outside is unlikely to produce any reasoned response from the TPLF and OLF, since critical questioning affords no purchase on the authoritarian, exclusively partisan structures of power within which the fonts’ theory of “national liberation” has taken shape, mainly in an immediately instrumental and tactical mode.
At a deeper level, the explanation for the aversion of TPLF and OLF ethnonationalism to consensus-seeking reasoning with patriotic and progressive opposition coalitions has less to do with political philosophy or ideology than political psychology. Though given ideological impetus by the Ethiopian Revolution, separatist ethnonationalism began in resentment and hatred toward Amharas in particular and Ethiopia generally, which it simply and falsely equated with the oppression of other ethnic communities in the country by Amharas.
The antipathy and bitterness in certain Tigre and Oromo elite circles toward Ethiopiawinnet then became increasingly political in the course of the Revolution and in the post-revolutionary period. The resentment has now become the form, substance, and horizon of ethnonational self-identification within the TPLF and OLF. Consumed by negativity, such self-identification says no to all that is not immediately and narrowly “itself,” to what is integrally Ethiopian about the Tigre and Oromo communities. It says no to Ethiopian nationality. As a result, TPLF and OLF political ethnicism gets neither added national value through sensuous Ethiopian experience nor the benefit of broad, forward-looking political thought. Tigre and Oromo partisans of “radical” identity politics are simply too consumed by raw tribal resentment and hatred to be moved by trans-ethnic Ethiopian patriotism or to be adequately enlightened by progressive reason and ideas.
It is for this reason that TPLF and OLF partisans approach political issues and problems in the country in disproportionately psychological terms, ever looking backward, obsessing about being victims of historical injustices, resenting those who are supposed to be victimizers, and striving against Ethiopia toward an exclusive, insular ideal of “national liberation” that cannot be realized. Under these circumstances, the attention of separatist ethnonationalists groups is nearly wholly focused on partisan identity politics. The terms of TPLF and OLF intellectual and political discourse are so focused in this way that the fronts don’t have political vocabulary to express truly national issues and concerns, not only in the context of Ethiopia generally, but also in relations to the Tigre and Oromo communities in particular. This, then, more fundamentally explains why separatist ethnonationalist groups in Ethiopia are impervious to dialogue, discussion, and negotiation with opposition forces that could lead to sorely needed national reconciliation and consensus.
So a broad-based coalition of patriotic and progressive opposition movements has no alternative but to do battle with these groups on various fields and fronts and by various means and actions in the most critical, systematic and sustained manner it can. Opposition forces should call the TPLF regime, the primary adversary, on its lies and pretenses, pressing its political and structural flaws, contrasting its rhetoric and ideal promises with its actual performance, capitalizing on the shallowness of its social bases and tribal alliances throughout the country, and circumventing its coercive and intelligence capabilities and maneuvers.
The struggle requires serious commitment in thought and action and will exact sacrifice in a variety of ways. But the coalition of Ethiopian patriotic and progressive opposition forces engaged in the resistance against TPLF tyranny should learn a vital lesson from the ancient Chinese warrior-philosopher, Sun Tzu. To paraphrase one of his maxims, “knowledge and strategy” are most effective to the extent they make combat, particularly violent conflict “altogether unnecessary.” In so far as the ideas, goals, organization, and planning of movements of Ethiopian resistance forces are well thought out and enacted, they discredit the enemy’s ideology, weaken its alliances, and neutralize increasing parts of its armed forces. When the strategy of the resistance is “deep and far-reaching, then what [it] gains by [its] calculations is much, so [it] can win before [it] even fight[s]…” And the enemy loses before it goes to war, or goes to war already a loser.
In sum, as patriots, we can best defend Ethiopia and facilitate her resurgence not by treating her national tradition merely as a museum-like repository of cultural heritage and treasures, but also a vital site of contemporary development of Ethiopiawinnet which is capable of integrally accommodating progressive ideas, social and cultural diversity, and political pluralism. We should more fully understand that the country has evolved over the ages, undergoing continual shaping and reshaping of its internal forms and its relations to the outside world while enduring as a recognizable national entity.
As progressives, we should avoid slavish translation of Western revolutionary or liberal modernism that is hardly resonant with or workable in the Ethiopian historical context. We must adequately recognize that Ethiopia’s national being is the horizon of our entire progressive thought and project. Moreover, Ethiopian national consciousness cannot be reduced to contemporary political ideas, beliefs, and aspirations, for it makes itself felt not merely in articulate concepts and values but also, and primarily, in sense-forming lived experience and culture, in the clarity of historical events and deeds, in the immediacy of sentiments, symbols, and images, and in the power of collective memory.
— The writer can be reached at email@example.com