Ethiopia: Dismantling authoritarian ethnicism

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Jul 5th, 2012
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By Tesfaye Demmellash, Ph.D.
How did authoritarian identity politics come to dominate Ethiopian national affairs, rising to the level of official state ideology and practice under the Woyanes? What are the sources, forms, and contradictions of this domination, and how can the nation begin to get out from under it? These are huge questions and require broader analysis than can be attempted here. What I offer are some thoughts and views for discussion and further analysis.

Getting over History

Whatever its contemporary forms, the sources of identity politics in Ethiopia today can be traced to the nation’s pre-revolutionary and revolutionary past. It is bound up with the development of the modern Ethiopian polity and its radical transformation.

But here is the broader historical point that is often overlooked in radical ethnocentric criticism and devaluation of the Ethiopian national tradition: the formation of nation-states everywhere has generally involved more or less violent conquest, incorporation, and assimilation of some peoples or regions by others. This has been generally the way in which states have been created all over the world – in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa.

In many cases, political, economic, and cultural expansion has resulted in protracted conflict between dominant forces and dominated groups. However, this broad historical pattern of state formation has also tended to result in more or less significant progressive accommodation, within evolving nation-states, of the demands of incorporated communities for freedom and equality.

The development of the modern Ethiopian polity is no exception to this overall historical pattern, even if it has had particular characteristics of its own. It cannot be denied that this development has produced some resentment and antipathy toward Ethiopian nationhood among certain westernized elite circles and educated strata in particular ethnic and cultural minorities in the country. It has produced within these circles a sense of wounded cultural pride and a politics of victimization. But we need get over the realities of Ethiopian nation-state formation even as we struggle to right past wrongs. This can be done in part by putting in historical perspective the politics of victimization itself. Doing so is important because this style of politics has dominated and shaped the separatist ethnonationlisms of groups like the TPLF and the OLF.

Distinct Ethiopian ethnic communities cannot be spoken of entirely in terms of their treatment by conquering Amhara rulers, to the exclusion of their own historical dynamic, their own cultural influence, and their own experience of expansion, in short, their active entry into the Ethiopian national scene. It is a historical fact, for example, that, beginning in the sixteenth century, if not earlier, the Oromos launched their own expansion, moving from their base in the Bale and Borena region and advancing to the North and Northeast into the Ethiopian highlands, into areas which came to be known as Arsi, Shewa, Welega, Harar, and Wello.

The problem with continuing to depict major cultural or ethnic communities which have been centrally involved in Ethiopia’s historic and contemporary affairs merely as victims of Amhara domination is not only that the depiction is not entirely consistent with the complexities of actual Ethiopian history. The portrayal is problematic also because it results in a politically paralyzing fixation on the past which constitutes a drag on much needed forward movement and progress in trans-ethnic Ethiopian national-democratic thought and action today.

Revolution and the Domination of Identity Politics

While the inequality and injustice experienced by distinct ethnic and cultural communities in the country may have provided its primary sources or conditions, identity politics took shape and came into play in the course of the Ethiopian Revolution, beginning with the Student Movement. It did so as a corrective response to the flaws and limitations of traditional Ethiopianness, intended to bring about the freedom and equality of all “nationalities,” “nations,” and “peoples” in the country. Not simply a limited local phenomenon, then, identity politics has from the beginning been connected in thought and practice to the broader Ethiopian revolutionary project.

What is remarkable, though, is the extent to which the Ethiopian revolutionary experience as a whole came to be overtaken and dominated by its ethnocentric political offshoots, culminating in the triumphant “radical” tribalism of the TPLF. As I have noted elsewhere, the Woyanes have given identity politics primacy in a way and to an extent not theorized by pioneers of the Revolution. The pioneers saw “national self-determination” movements within the framework of class struggle, as limited tactical movements toward the trans-ethnic solidarity of oppressed classes in Ethiopia.

The problem the country’s progressives and patriots today face is not simply one of resolving conflicts between the claims of Ethiopian unity on one side and those of the self-determination of “nationalities” on the other. This is largely an old and tired formulation of our national crisis which represents a false choice, an unreal polarization bereft of conceptual and practical significance. It draws on a dubious, now discredited, Leninist-Stalinist doctrine. Oneness-in-diversity has been more or less a mark of our national development, notwithstanding the historical realities of incorporation and assimilation of diverse peoples in the growth of the modern Ethiopian state.

Instead, the major challenge Ethiopian progressives confront today has to do with a dominant “radical” representation of ethnicity (as “nationality” and “national self-determination”) that works against not only robust, vibrant Ethiopian solidarity, but also against the real autonomy and democratic freedom of all distinct Ethiopian ethnic and cultural communities. Simply stated, exclusively partisan ideological representation is privileged and dominant over the actual self-determination or local autonomy of the nation’s diverse communities as well as over their common Ethiopian nationality. Categories like “liberation,” “self-determination,” and “revolutionary democracy” have more to do with the ruling ideology itself – its internal abstractions, codes, and practices – than with its social referents and historical context. It seems to me a good conceptual and practical grasp of this major challenge is a critical first step in overcoming it.

In other words, the struggle for Ethiopia’s democratic renewal involves grappling with an entrenched revolutionary narrative that has, in effect if not in original intent, given pride of place in the nation’s affairs to ethnic protagonists. Or, more accurately, the narrative, which the Woyanes have played upon on their way to power, has accorded a central, dominant position to self-appointed narrow partisan groups that have merely substituted themselves and claim to speak for entire communities.

What is particularly problematic here is that, under TPLF hegemony, broad-based progressive political actors that intersect ethnic and regional lines have so far been unable to come into their own. Their trans-ethnic national agency and proposed remedies for Ethiopia’s social, economic, political, and cultural ills are excluded or displaced by the priority of maximizing the “self-determination” of disparate tribal groups and parties and their definition of “national” problems and their “solutions.” It bears stressing that, for the tribal elites in power in Ethiopia today, what ideas and solutions are formulated is less important than the fact that it is they who formulate them. The priority here is not the soundness or substance of the ideas and solutions as such, but their association with affirmations of identity, with political self-definition and self-assertion.

The significant role identity politics played in the Ethiopian Revolution and its ultimate triumph in post-revolutionary Ethiopia through the reign of the Woyanes have consequently meant that the definition of problems of Ethiopian nationhood, the solutions proposed for them, and the movements and measures aimed at reaching the solutions have all taken a decidedly ethnocentric character. The very rationale of identity politics has been to exclude broader socio-economic, political, and cultural ties that interweave diverse communities and cultures in the country and to make ethnicism the form and substance of all “nationality.”

Thus, in the hands of the Woyanes and their Amhara and Oromo collaborators, the tribe-centered ideology of “revolutionary democracy” is essentially split off from the affirmed values and sentiments of our trans-ethnic national experience. The ideology presents itself as something alien or indifferent to the Ethiopian tradition, even an existential threat to that historic tradition. The Meles regime is simply incapable of relating to our national spirit from within itself, and Ethiopian patriots and democrats will not find that spirit in the regime.

The “Radical” Form of Dominant Ethnicism

If democratic opposition forces in Ethiopia and in the diasporic Ethiopian community are to formulate and implement an effective long-term strategy for undoing the ethno-nationalist hegemony of the Woyanes, then, they must have a clear understanding as to what exactly is to be undone. They must achieve a good conceptual and practical grasp of what they want to transform, namely, not ethnicity as such or merely a particular regime, but an entire system or form of identity-based “radical” politics in the framework of which the regime has taken authoritarian shape and claimed legitimacy. Their opposition needs to establish some order of priority of ideas, goals, projects, and activities in which particular accomplishments of objectives build on one another, cumulatively constituting growth, maturation, and completion of resistance. The dynamic order of priorities may be characterized as tactical, strategic and, more broadly, systemic.

For example, instead of taking ethnic identity and conflict in Ethiopia simply as historically or naturally given, opposition groups and coalitions might ask the broader systemic and strategic question: What is it about the model or system of revolutionary politics which the Woyanes have played upon that produces fixed antagonistic ethnic identities and differences within and through itself for diverse, intersecting and overlapping Ethiopian communities? In posing such a question, we direct our attention at the politically self-serving manipulation of the system by the ruling party. We highlight the fact that the Woyanes use the progressive vocabulary which has formed the basic stock of Ethiopian revolutionary discourse to encode authoritarian-tribal contents or meanings of their own. In doing so, they have often evaded systematic, critical scrutiny by insinuating their exclusively partisan constructs into supposedly “self-determining” ethnic and cultural communities.

How do we recognize the underlying form of radicalism at play here, in the abstract and in reality? It can be seen as a framework or model of political thought and practice involving pattern-making and order-creating through an arrangement of ideal and actual elements. As played upon by the Woyanes, the model interweaves fragments and pieces of reality – particular places, historical events, specific issues and concerns, and local identities, grievances and conflicts – with global, ideological dogma and political formulas, generic revolutionary narrative, and abstract social labels or categories.

We are talking here about the rise of a vanguard party or front which makes “clearings” in society, culture, and politics, creating political order unilaterally by occupying and “developing” these clearings through its exclusive ideas, institutions, and agenda. As the experiences of the TPLF and the EPLF show, once in power, the revolutionary party or “liberation front” suffers from the delusion that an entire nation is held together by its ideological and political constructs alone, fearing that if it does not maintain its dictatorship through its exclusively partisan constructs, there will be no political or national order.

Under these circumstances, virtually all social groups, political organizations, and cultural and institutional practices in Ethiopia are incorporated or neutralized as extensions or objects of the Woyane tribal party-state itself. Elements which resist such incorporation are either marginalized or excluded, and often, suppressed. No public sphere exists or functions openly and effectively in the country outside the restricted political space the state itself has created through various dependent ethnic organizations, public agencies, cultural institutions, and auxiliary intelligentsia and mass media.

Leaders and partisans of the TPLF-EPRDF of course claim that their politics reflects progressive ideas and principles and the interests of the Ethiopian people. But universal ideas as such and the autonomous interests of Ethiopian civil society are the least of the ruling party’s actual concerns. Rhetorical claims aside, its fundamental political impulse is rather to adopt an external controlling attitude toward ideas and social interests. The power of Woyane ethnocentric political system is not that of intellectual and moral persuasion, but of direct authoritarian regulation of collective behavior through manipulation of ideological codes and bureaucratic instruments and, often, by brute political force.

While the model of radical political thought and action which has guided the Meles regime and that of the Derg before it emerged in the revolutionary era formally as an order of grand ideas ( “national self-determination,” “equality,” and so on), these ideas have substantively remained outside the model and deeply contradicted by it. So, departing from a form of radical identity politics which contravenes the real freedom and autonomy of distinct ethnic and cultural communities in Ethiopia, the TPLF regime has been moving toward a goal of “national self-determination” which cannot be reached.

Contradictions of Dictatorial Identity Politics

As an overall model and in its Woyane variant in particular, identity politics is entangled in a web of paradoxes which manifest themselves on various levels. Generally, there is the opposition between, on the one hand, the ostensibly “progressive” political ethnicism of the ruling Tigrean party and, on the other, its imperious, repressive circulation in and through a whole host of dependent local social and cultural groups, institutional entities, and organizations. This represents a contradictory assertion of egalitarian values and dictatorial power, a massive empowerment of a particular party-hierarchy based in a minority “nationality” over the affairs and relations of large ethnic majorities and other numerous smaller distinct communities in the country.

Put differently, national self-determination as an ideal or ultimate value and goal is neutralized by its treatment as a ground for tactical maneuvers and engagements aimed at advancing or maintaining narrow partisan-tribal interests. Ethnic differences and conflicts in Ethiopian society have not been so irreconcilable as to justify misconceived and unworkable separatist movements like those of the TPLF and unreconstructed factions of the OLF, yet partisans of radical ethnocentrism have systematically exploited such differences, converting them into exclusive ideological constructs and political projects and into bureaucratic and material interests.

The fundamental incoherence of ethnocentric politics in Ethiopia, then, is that, while its whole rationale is the identity and autonomy of communities, regions, and localities in the country, it systematically negates this rationale through massive and highly intrusive state intervention. At work here is a paradoxical localization that converts the local, apparently self-determining, collective self into an extension and object of a centralized power hierarchy or system of domination.

Through this system, the ruling party-state hierarchy recodes, streamlines, and standardizes the values and meanings of local communities, social institutions, and cultural practices within its own political structure, stamping them with its exclusive authoritarian form. It refashions actually diverse local social strata within a more easily controllable abstract ethnicism. In this sense, the Woyane authoritarian one-party state may be seen as a deeply contradictory political system, at once divisive and aggregating, simultaneously separating and binding, formally liberating and actually oppressing.

Opposition forces can persuasively claim, then, that this structure, as well as the model of revolutionary politics which underwrites it, is of dubious value as a mechanism for securing the local autonomy or the common Ethiopian nationality of distinct ethnic and cultural communities in the country. They can also make the case that the so-called national question as traditionally formulated and debated in the context of the abstract radicalism of the Ethiopian revolutionary experience has not been particularly helpful in theorizing the concrete issues and problems of ethnic and cultural minorities on the margins of mainstream Ethiopian society, let alone in bringing minorities into the center on an equal, democratic basis.

As I have argued elsewhere, these problems amount to more than the shortcomings or failures of particular parties or regimes, such as the Derg, the TPLF and the OLF. More fundamentally, they reflect an underlying limitation in radical political thought and practice in Ethiopia, going back to the Student Movement. Simply put, the limitation consists in a naïve realism which conflates forms and categories of Leninist-Stalinist abstraction, which are constructs or contents of global revolutionary ideology, with their Ethiopian social referents, the actual communities and groups in Ethiopia to which the categories refer or which they supposedly represent.

However, being so weighted by artless realism has, ironically, caused the ruling ideology to have a disempowering, hollowing out effect on actual social groups and communities in the country. Thus there is the paradox of “nationalities” or “peoples,” including the Amhara and Oromo communities, being subjected to partisan Tigrean hegemony in the very act, or supposed act, of their “national self-determination.” We see here rhetorical and formal promotion of local autonomy, of ethnic identity and difference, going hand in hand with the erasure of actual locality and diversity brought about by the homogenizing effects of TPLF authoritarian state ethnicism.

This is so largely because, in championing the self-determination of nationalities or distinct communities in the country, the ruling party has worked exclusively with manipulable representations and dependent factions of such social entities forged within, and attached to its own power hierarchy. The TPLF’s social referents, be they Oromos, Amharas, Tigres or other groups, never achieve real local self-government or actually free collective agency because they remain ensnared in its web of partisan priorities and agenda, its dictatorial forms, structures, and operations. They function mainly as ciphers or focal points for the party’s own authoritarian priorities, ideas, goals, and maneuvers.

It is as if, in the “revolutionary” political consciousness of the Woyanes, the Ethiopian national whole and the diverse communities which make it up were utterly hollowed out and so completely filled with the TPLF’s own partisan images that neither the national whole nor its parts can be recognized apart from these images. In the process, progressive thought itself has been impoverished in the hands of the Woyanes and their intellectual backers, unable to break out of the narrow confines of inert partisan ideology and ethnonationalist orthodoxy, to come into its own and acquire analytical and critical distance from Ethiopian sociopolitical reality.

In sum, the model of radical politics within which the Woyane regime has taken shape and come into play has subjected the common Ethiopian nationality of diverse communities in the country to a two-fold reduction. First, the Ethiopian whole is diminished to a mere aggregation of disparate, self-contained parts, to nothing more than a collection of ethnic enclaves which maintain largely external relations with one another. Second, to the extent the Meles regime acknowledges Ethiopian nationhood, it does so by reducing it to contemporary ideological slogans centered on the dubious formula of “national self-determination up to and including secession.” The regime thereby perpetuates the rationalist illusion of the revolutionary era that the Ethiopian people can maintain solidarity through dry abstractions alone, without relying on a common national culture, on shared Ethiopian values and sentiments.

Undoing Authoritarian Ethnicism:A Note on Democratic Resistance

How should dissident groups and coalitions in Ethiopia resist the ethnocentric hegemony of the Woyane party-state machine, whose wheels churn our national affairs up? What are the fields and forms of their counter-hegemonic struggle for democracy? These are hard questions which don’t lend themselves to simple or ready answers and this is not the place to tackle them. It is enough here to make a few general observations by way of closing this piece.

In posing these critical questions, I envision a growth of oppositional struggle beyond the activity of simply polemicizing against or rejecting the Meles regime while adopting a defensive patriotic position in which “unity” pure and simple is sought as an antidote to ethnic “division.” An underlying limitation of our opposition to the dictatorial rule of the Woyanes is that we often limit ourselves to a moralizing position; we tend to move too immediately to a condemnation and rejection of it that actually leaves its ideas, myths, institutions, and practices largely unexamined, unchallenged, and unraveled.

The dictatorship cannot be simply condemned or rejected out of existence. If what we want is to take back effectively domains of Ethiopian intellectual, cultural, and sociopolitical life occupied by the TPLF-EPRDF party-state machine, we must engage the machine in various ways and on many fronts. We can resist its hegemony by responding to gaps, tensions, and contradictions in the structural model of revolutionary politics within which it has taken form and established itself.

Counter-hegemonic intellectual, moral, and political movement in this sense marks a further stage of development of opposition that must be reached if the TPLF party-state apparatus is to be effectively dismantled. The movement involves getting a hold on the apparatus, engaging critically its ideological premises and operative assumptions as well as its specific policies and actions, intervening in its workings as well as in its rhetoric. High-performance oppositional struggle entails taking apart conceptually, strategically, and in practice Woyane “revolutionary democracy” and offering an inspiring alternative vision of progressive politics and government that might better achieve the goals of freedom, equality, democracy, and development for all Ethiopians.


The writer can be reached at tdemmellash@comcast.net

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