Marxist and ethnic politics: A dangerous mix that put Ethiopia at odds with itself
By Asefa Gultu
Marxist Ideology and Ethnic Politics Have Destroyed Ethiopia: Are There Ways to Reverse the Damage?
I have the utmost respect for the ’60s and ’70s generation of the brave Ethiopians that sacrificed immensely for our country. It is the generation that paid one of the heaviest prices for the cause of justice in Ethiopia’s recent history. But unfortunately, it is my view that the ideology that generation adopted, namely Marxism, not only rendered all the sacrifices less than worthwhile, but is in many ways responsible for the current disgraceful state of the country. And this is what I am going to write about in this piece. My aim is not to criticize that generation, as they did all they could under the circumstances, but to reject the ideology by which the generation was heavily influenced. If rebuffing the ideology also implies criticism of the generation, I am ready to take that.
Ideologies have consequences. The bad ones have bad consequences and good ideologies have good consequences for the individuals and societies that adopt them.
Marxist ideology was/is bad for Ethiopia for two main reasons: one spiritual and the other secular. The spiritual reason as to why Marxism is/was wrong for Ethiopia is because the ideology has, as its underlying tenets, the denial of God as we know it in the scriptures. For Marxists, religion is the opium of the masses and God is nothing but man’s projection/imagination/wish about his own strength and power. In other words, in a Marxist’s world view, man created God, not the other way round. This was a complete reversal in our society’s value system.
However rudimentary or traditional, Ethiopian society is deeply religious whose morality is based on a supernatural being that not only created the world including human beings, but is also in control of its creation. As the 2007 census indicates, the overwhelming majority of Ethiopian people, about 97%, are followers of the two major world religions: Christianity and Islam. No wonder that an ideology that views the world through a materialist perspective, as Marxism does, is bound to dangerously disrupt a society like Ethiopia which prides itself as a distinct civilization based on thousands of years of tradition, patriotism and religion.
It is true that the young generation of the ’60s and ’70s that was radicalized by Marxist ideology was not actively engaged in atheistic activities. Most even did not seem to be aware of the Godless foundation of the ideology that was shaping their world view in such a powerful and profound way. But the disastrous consequence of the fatal and wrongheaded shift in the society’s foundational values was unmistakably clear right from the beginning.
The immediate and direct consequence of the advent of Marxist-Leninist ideology in the country was the red terror, a mindless and horrible bloodshed of the 70s that pit brothers among themselves. Specially, the young and the educated, who would have built the country, were murdered by the tens, if not hundreds of thousands all over Ethiopia. A whole generation was decimated.
It looked as if human life suddenly lost value in the country. If one was deemed to be an ‘enemy’, him or her ‘ceases’ to be a human being. Inflicting harm on him/her, including killing, becomes an acceptable, even a moral duty for the other side, not an act of murder. The killing was so ‘honorable’ that even the victim ‘approves’ of the act, hence the label that reads ‘let red terror reign on me’ (key shibir yfafambign), which the victim is forced to wear on their chest or back before he/she is killed. I was not old enough to have a personal memory of the carnage, but I can sense the psychological scar left in the country today by that horror which traumatized and shocked the collective conscience of our society, from which, I think, we have not yet fully recovered.
The sad thing about the different groups at time, including the Derg (the government that was the perpetrator of the violence) as well as those who oppose it, was not how they were different, but how remarkably similar they were in terms of the ideology that motivated them. The only thing was that one claims to be more (truly) Marxist than the other. Such is the sad story of our country.
Of course this is not unexpected from a movement motivated by Marxist Ideology. There is nothing wrong in Marxist philosophy’s intention of improving the human condition, establish equality and end oppression of man by man. But it seems to me that Marxism as an ideology is inherently a contradiction form a spiritual perspective because it claims to retain the value of human beings while denying the existence of God. As a Christian, I believe that the ultimate value of a human being emanates from the fact that we are created in the image of God. Once this basic essence of what it means to be a human being is precluded, no amount of secular values are enough to stop the inevitable decline in the moral worth of human life.
I do not want to be too moralizing in my argument. But it may be this inbuilt tendency in Marxist ideology to go away from God that caused Ethiopia to lose its cream generation in one of the most unfortunate and senseless violence. I know some might find this line of argument suspect for the obvious reason. However, whether or not we agree with this way of looking at the matter, one thing is clear: as a result of the tragic events of the 70s which cost the nation one of its dynamic generation at the critical time in its history, Ethiopia became a place where anything is possible, paving the way for the current perilous political situation in the country, which brings me to my second point.
The second reason why I think Marxism is/was bad for Ethiopia has to do with the more secular or civic aspects of life. The damage done in this respect is the import of a whole notion of vocabulary that is totally alien to the economic, political and social life of the society. No doubt that injustice, poverty, and oppression have always been, and still are, day today realities of the Ethiopian people’s experience. But looking back, it is not hard to see why leftist ideology was the absolute wrong prescription to solve Ethiopia’s problems.
To begin with, the suffering of Ethiopians is directly related to the rulers, who, though utilizing different means, have always had the same objective: staying in power. Haileselaasie used divine justification to rule the country for more than four decades. For Mengistu Hailemariam, the excuse was building socialism in the country while murdering its own citizens. Meles’ (the current regime), on the other hand, has employed the dirty game of ethnic politics to further carry out what the previous government started, only in a more dangerous way. I am saying all this only to make the point that Ethiopia’s problems is rooted in the rulers’ greedy and myopic attitude. This was true in the 60s and 70s as it is now.
What was needed for Ethiopia was a gradual transformation of the political culture in a way that preserves Ethiopia’s identity and heritage as a nation. But that was impossible under Marxism due to its tendency to indiscriminately castoff tradition, be it cultural or political, as reactionary. Marxian conceptual frameworks such as class and class struggle, invented in the context of the industrial Europe, would not have been the answer either. They had neither practical relevance for the problem, nor cultural reverberation for the society.
Besides, in a poor country like Ethiopia, there is/was not enough wealth to redistribute, something a Marxist economic system ultimately requires. Moreover, Ethiopian political culture, before the introduction of Marxism in the country, or even today, is marred by mutual suspicion, intrigues and lack of democratic tradition as well as institutions. But the Marxist movement that took root in the country in the 60s and 70s, with its emphasis on radical and violent changes, was a recipe for disaster since it exacerbated those damaging tendencies in the society rather than taming and moderating them.
The destructive legacies of leftist ideology in Ethiopia still lives with us. One of the most consequential of those legacies is ethnic politics which remains to be the single most important existential threat for the survival of Ethiopia as a nation today. True, there were pockets of limited political movements in Ethiopia that appeared to have ethnic dimension even before Marxism became fashionable in the country, before EPRP was established or even before the student movement.
On the other hand, while all the ethnic-based movements in the country did not question their Ethiopian identity, they were, for the most part, particularly the major ones (TPLF, OLF, EPLF), secessionist in character. Furthermore, secessionist or not, the ethnic movements then, as they are now, adhere to the same Marxist ideology just like the multi-ethnic or unity forces.
Now, it is important to understand that a Marxist worldview (leftist ideology) has a predisposition to see society in terms of groups, focuses on historical grievances (imagined or real), and tends to inherently radicalize society. All of these features of Marxism are perfectly suitable for those who promote exclusivity and separation, as most, if not all ethnic based movements are. But these same characteristics of a Marxist world view run against the cause of building a united Ethiopia based on justice, democracy and mutual understanding for which the unity forces stood.
Here in lies the unfortunate tragedy of our country. The unity forces whose aim was to bring about justice and equality under the umbrella of Ethiopia as a sovereign nation put themselves in an odd and contradictory position by virtue of their ideology. They could not wholeheartedly oppose the ethnic fronts for fear of being labeled as reactionary and out of concern not to jeopardize the ideological solidarity they share with the ethnic movements. By so doing, the young and brave generation of Ethiopians inadvertently fostered the weakening of Ethiopia, which they would not otherwise have done.
Just to show the level of idealism of the ’60s and ’70s, I quote from Walelign Mekonnen, one of the intellectual giants of the student movement, frequently mentioned and admired by ethnic politicians and the unity forces alike. Here is what he wrote in his famous (infamous?) 1969 paper titled “On the Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia”
As long as secession is led by the peasants and workers and believes in its internationalist obligation, it is not only to be supported but also militarily assisted. It is pure backwardness and selfishness to ask a people to be partners in being exploited till you can catch up. We should never dwell on the subject of secession, but whether it is progressive or reactionary. A Socialist Eritrea and Bale would give a great impetus to the revolution in the country and could form an egalitarian and democratic basis for re-unification.
Such was the extent of Marxist intoxication prevalent in that generation. Socialism takes primacy to everything else. It is true that many of his contemporaries later (even at the time) distanced themselves from Walelign and his aggressive ideas such as the one quoted above. However, there is no denying the fact that the 60s and 70s generation was so absorbed in the image of a utopian paradise promised by Marxist philosophy. So much so that they could not stop and think what the long term effects of their love affair with Marxist theories would be on their country. If Walelign and others of that era were to rise from their grave today, they would regret how Ethiopia, the country they loved and paid the ultimate price for, is being dismantled using (or abusing?) their ideas by people like Meles Zenawi.
Today, there may not be any party or group that openly promotes Marxism as an ideology in Ethiopia. But leftist thinking is more widespread than ever. All the negative features we see in our politics today, the lack of unity, the cynicism, the endless suspicion of others, the tendency to resort to intrigues rather than open and honest discussion, the hopelessly ridiculous level conspiracy mindset are all remnants of the leftist mentality created or encouraged in the 60s and 70s.
In an environment where leftist mentality reigns, all one has to do to succeed is to have a lust for power while vowing day and night to stand for the people’s interest. Lies and deception are the main features of a social and political atmosphere dominated by Marxist thinking. Whether we like it or not, evil that is one of the most important reason why an evil force like TPLF thrives in Ethiopia. Despite being a hard-core and Marxist group, TPLF has no problem swearing in the name of free market capitalism and claim to be champion of democracy. But we know from their behavior that they strictly implement a Stalinist style of governance, the worst and most sinister form of Marxist- Leninist Ideology.
To be fair for the generation that fell under the spell of a Marxist world view, they had little choice at the time. Marxism seemed inevitable, if not natural, given the global popularity the ideology enjoyed then. But that does not take away from the fact that it was a wrong approach for Ethiopia. In short, with a full benefit of hindsight, one can say that Marxism was not only wrong for Ethiopia then, but it is destroying it now. I hope that generation (whatever is left of it) as well as mine realizes how devastating and wrong leftist ideology is for Ethiopia and reject it completely.
What is to be done now?
Spiritual Revival: More than anything else, we need spiritual and moral strength to do something about the problem we have in Ethiopia. Challenges like TPLF, who are masters of hatred, skilled in deception and have insatiable lust for power cannot be defeated by political smartness alone. We need a help form God. We need a spiritual transformation in a way that inspires us to stand for truth, justice and human dignity for our country.
But the question is where we look for inspiration. Strange as it may sound, my answer is we need to look for God and Godly people as an inspiration. Many societies used the moral and spiritual power of religion to change their societies for the better. In the west, Christianity served as the basis of both scientific advances as well as the spread of democratic systems. Ethiopia is one of the ancient nations in the world to accept Christianity and is a land where the first Muslims resided, even before Mecca. But despite this long standing religious tradition, we have been unfortunately un able to harness the transformational potential of religion for the advancement of our society. I admit that given the level of moral bankruptcy we witness today in our institutions of worship which allow themselves to be used as an instruments of injustice for worldly leaders, the idea of looking up to faith as a source of inspiration appears to be counterintuitive.
But my suggestion is not so much the institutions as such, but people of faith. Although the institutions are corrupt, there are individuals in those institutions who are not tainted by the corruption because they understand that they worship God, not institutions. It is my idea that we need more of those kinds of people in politics. I do not mean people who use religion for self-promotion. Neither am I referring to those who tend to view religious conviction in terms of attacking others of different faith in the name of defending their ‘religion’.
I am talking about people who have deep conviction in their spiritual life and see no contradiction between their belief in God as a creator and controller of the world on the one hand, and the need to speak truth to worldly leaders on the other. We need someone who not only motivates us to stand for justice, but shames our shameless and corrupt rulers to come to their senses. We need someone who is solid in his/her faith in God but also takes their civic duty seriously enough to participate in politics not because they seek power but rather to transform the way politics is done in the country. In short, we need an Ethiopian Martin Luther King.
On the other hand, I have no illusion as a Christian about the fundamental theological difference between Christianity and Islam. But I also know that a devout Muslim who truly understands the loving, just and fair nature of God plays an equally, if not better, role in transforming Ethiopian politics as his Christian counterpart.
Some may object to my idea of inviting religious people to politics by reason of separation of church and state. There seems to be a basic misconception regarding the notion of separation of church and state. The issue of separation of church and state is about the institutions, not about the faith of individual politicians or the political views of individual religious leaders.
What needs to be separated is the church or mosque as an institution form the state (government) as an institution. What it means is that the government (someone in the government) cannot use its power to influence how a church or mosque or any other religious institution is to be operated and vice versa. It is funny how even TPLF, who does not give a damn about religion, uses this concept to confuse people. In any case, separation of church and state is not about the separation of faith and politics. It is my understanding that decades of a secular leftist approach to politics has miserably failed us. It is time for a radical rethinking of the way politics is done, if the situation in our country is to be transformed.
Unconditional Rejection of Ethnic Politics:
Let us assume we defeat TPLF tomorrow. But the evil of identity politics created by TPLF, still remains. In fact, the most dangerous problem in Ethiopia is not TPLF itself, but the ethnic mindset prevailed in the country. We need to unequivocally oppose any politics based on ethnic identity. There should be no confusion as to where the ethnicization of politics in Ethiopia will take us: bloodshed. One of the reasons why we are not there yet is because TPLF, for its own benefit, keep a lid on an all-out war using the military, of which they have complete control. We have already seen what TPLF is prepared to do whenever it feels its power is threatened.
We need to realize that as long as ethnic politics is the dominant form of political organization in the country, there will be no real democracy, only the empowerment of ethnic elites, who want to keep the issue of identity politics alive forever. We need to say no to ethnic politics at any cost because we all know too well that TPLF’s intension in instituting it in Ethiopia is to scare one ethnic group against another as a tool for them to stay in power. Above all, ethnic politics should be condemned because it degrades people’s dignity by forcing them to be judged based on their ethnic background, not on their character.
But the danger of ethnic politics is not just the fear of fomenting ethnic hatred by elites who claim to be representatives of this or that ethnic groups. In the Ethiopian context, the way the kilils (administrative regions) are set up today is conducive for economic stagnation as well as permanent instability. Since the kilils are based largely on ethnic consideration, it gives pretext for the exclusion of people based on their ethnic origins. Recent news of displacement of people of Amhara origin from different Kilils, a phenomenon that has been going on for long time, is the direct result of kililization. It is not enough to oppose when people are displaced from their homes. We need to reject the very foundation that gave rise to this evil, ethnic politics.
Politics Based on Individual Rights. The TPLF regime always talks about group rights Vs. individual rights. Specially, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in his usual deceptive and spurious way, used to write about the subject. The way Meles and others of his kind obfuscate the issue is by saying that group rights and individual rights are inseparable. No one denies that. It is true that collective and individual rights have a complex relationship that cannot be reduced to any simplistic explanation.
But that does not have anything to do with what TPLF preaches. As far as the TPLF regime, it gives primacy to group rights because they instituted a constitution based on that belief and divided the country in to administrative regions along ethnic lines. And yet they try to confuse people by saying the two are inseparable, as if they have not taken a position affording more importance for group rights one over individual rights, a decision detrimental to Ethiopia.
Despite the complex relationship between the two, I would argue that when individual rights are secured, group rights will automatically be respected. Individual rights are tangible, verifiable and legally enforceable. This is because individual rights reside in the individual who is in turn not an abstract entity. There is no way that a system protects individual rights while abusing or denying group rights. It is hard to imagine how, group of individuals that have their personal rights protected let their group rights violated; be it language, culture, or religion.
On the contrary, however, we can mention numerous examples where group rights are claimed to be honored while individual rights are denied. The best example is our own country. We are told that the rights of oromos are secured, but a lot of Tolosas and Kumsas and Lenchos and Chalas are languishing in jail, tortured and killed because of their political views. The ghurages, we are to believe, are liberated from the yoke of oppression, but many in the guraghe community are persecuted for they dare to speak their minds. Religious freedom is so abundant in the country and yet Muslims are persecuted because they do not want the government to select their leaders for them.
Any way we see it, for the vicious circle of the humiliating brutality and degrading inhumanity we are suffering as a people at the hand of one dictator after another in Ethiopia is to end, the starting point in our politics should be individual rights. Only if and when we do so can there be real accountability in our leaders as well as lay a stable foundation for collective rights to flourish. After all, Oromos or Tigres or Amharas or wolaytas do not get their rights violated, so to speak. It is the Getachews, the Olanas, the Berhes, the Zebergas, the Fantahuns, the Tonas or the Ujulus who are arrested, tortured, killed, prevented form expressing their opinions or have their property confiscated.