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On Transition and Related Matters: An Open Letter to an Old Friend (Tesfaye Demmellash)

Tesfaye Demmellash
March 12, 2018

Dear Professor Mammo Muchie,

I read with interest what you and Dr. Berhanu Mengistu wrote recently, dubbing it an “Urgent Call for an Ethiopian All-Inclusive Consensus Forum.” I also listened to the video in which you implore the TPLF regime and opposition groups to help Ethiopia make a transition to a form of government that allows her “peoples” to live in unity and peace. I heard you beg the regime and its opponents to do this, even as you gave them in the same breath advice about practicing morally grounded politics and about promoting “the philosophy that bears the country’s name,” that is, Ethiopianism.

Fundamental questions arise here that are worth asking and seeking answers for. The issues of “transition,” and “conflict resolution” themselves, as distinct from the particular ways in which you and Dr. Berhanu in particular have framed them, are often raised widely among concerned Ethiopians at home and abroad. Since there is neither need nor space here to engage in an extended analysis, I offer my thoughts summarily on a few relevant themes. I offer them in a provisional way, with openness to exchange of ideas with you and others.

The Role of the Intelligentsia

There are many Ethiopian mihuran whose resistance against TPLF dictatorship is carried on often in ways that are not technically or essentially related to their professional work as intellectuals. An economist may work at helping disparate opposition groups reconcile their differences and create coalitions, for example; a mihur trained in law may be engaged in bringing Ethiopian concerns to the attention of major Western powers, doing “diplomatic” work in support of the Ethiopian cause against TPLF tyranny. Or, as in your case, Professor Mammo, an intellectual whose expertise lies in technological and social innovation, may implore members of the nation’s political class, including ethically tone-deaf bosses and partisans of the Woyane tribal regime, to do the right thing for the Ethiopian people. He gives moral advice to a regime that is demonstrably lacking in moral bearings.

Such “intellectual” engagements may not be entirely discounted, but they have no connection to our literati’s trained functioning as knowledge workers, as thinkers who traffic in meanings, symbols, and facts and their interpretation. The engagements are not linked to the vital functions of dissenting Ethiopian mihuran, regardless of disciplinary background. Namely, to generate new ideas and values or innovate on existing ones, to enlighten the Ethiopian people through broadly accessible analysis and persuasive argument, to chart national-strategic direction for the nation’s popular resistance movements, or to wage effective ideological struggle against nationally divisive authoritarian ethnocentrism in all its variants.

Morality and Politics

In drawing an absolute contrast between “dirty politics that kills” people with “clean politics that saves human life,” you, along with Dr. Berhanu, imply that politics can be practiced in moral purity, organizing its ideas, values and practices from “outside” the society it would transform. You seem to suggest that the political can be approached in idealistic detachment from the complexities of social-historical reality. You call upon a nefarious regime, hell-bent on carrying out an anti-Amhara and anti-Ethiopia political project, to demonstrate virtue in its behavior, to show nobleness and worth of character. You appeal to the “moral intelligence” of a fascistic ruling party which is lacking in such intelligence.

In the context of our struggle for national survival against colonial-like Woyane tyranny, this moralistic approach to realpolitik creates a double distortion: First, in effect if not in intent, it cuts the Ethiopian resistance off from the support of lived social and national experience; it disconnects the resistance from the energy and vitality of existent patriotic forces. Second, pure moralism is actually politically disabling. It has the effect of incapacitating the dissident Ethiopian mihur by inducing him or her to forgo strategic thinking and action. On the other hand, such politically disembodied moralistic posture on the part of dissenting Ethiopian mihuran is useful to the Woyanes because it does not critically and systematically challenge in thought (and practice) their system of domination.

I am here not saying that there is no room for morality in the struggle we wage to save our national life. There is. But our moral values are exercised under the conditions of our shared Ethiopian experience, not in abstraction from them. Moral agency is not a capacity to operate “outside” our national-political context but to transform it, to work through it in envisioning an alternative political order while remaining grounded on our national being.

Here, it helps to recognize that moral, intellectual and political values or sentiments are not insular substrata that take shape and come into play as such, i.e., in island-like isolation from one another. In actuality, they tend to flow and merge into one another, often while maintaining their respective spheres of influence. For example, moral integrity and intellectual courage to speak truth to power are not mutually exclusive attitudes. Or, emotional intelligence need not be separate from critical intellect. Instead, one could be reflected in, and support, the other.

In struggling for change within easy reach of the repressive hand of TPLF regime, the Ethiopian people handle fear by approaching the feeling with national purpose and context, taming and channeling it as a motive force of the struggle for change, not allowing the feeling to make itself felt in its nakedness. There is a lesson here for the nation’s educated stratum, you and I included. We could use the power of ideas and causes greater than ourselves to loosen the grip spontaneous anxiety (or careerism) has over us. Such power emboldens us to speak truth to power, acting as a deterrent against sentimentalism or the emotional overloading of our politics. In this way, we refrain from feeling without thinking; instead of abstractly moralizing Ethiopian national and political affairs, we strive to get a good grasp of the reality that is in them. We explore possibilities and ways in which the reality may be transformed.

Ethiopia and Ethiopianism

As you often remind us, the meaning and value of Ethiopia have transnational and transcontinental dimensions that extend beyond the core of the Ethiopian nation-state and its territory. Historic Ethiopia has provided a global beacon of black independence, self-rule, and spiritual culture to the African Diaspora. In this sense, Ethiopianism signifies Ethiopiawinnet beyond Ethiopia. What is more, Ethiopia is the original locus from which humanity dispersed world-wide.

However, we should be careful not to mix up Ethiopianism as an enduring source of transnational “self-identification” in the Black diaspora with national identity and experience that are constitutive of Ethiopia proper. What I find problematic in your approach is that the promotion of Ethiopianism, particularly in the context of the general commitment to Pan-Africanism, is often gained at the expense of close, critical and strategic analysis of the political and national affairs of the real and objective Ethiopia in particular.

Ironically, Ethiopianism thereby bypasses or pre-empts the vitality of its national-historical ground by transposing it into a global “philosophy,” even as it glorifies and celebrates historic Ethiopia. In this sense, it represents a curious biherawi consciousness: ideally/globally assertive and celebratory, yet recessive and quietist in the face of the struggle to save the real Ethiopia from TPLF tyranny. There is here a need to recognize that Ethiopianism, embraced “philosophically” in ideal purity and isolation from the adverse realities of our national life today, would not help much in overcoming or changing those realities and in saving actually existing Ethiopia.

“Conflict Resolution”

As a general idea or theme, “conflict resolution” is hardly controversial. What is often open to debate is the way in which the idea is framed in particular terms under particular conditions. More specifically, what I have in mind here is Dr. Berhanu Mengistu’s formulation of the theme in the contemporary Ethiopian context. In making your recent “urgent call for an Ethiopian all-inclusive consensus forum,” you did so jointly with Dr. Berhanu, so I take it that you share his thoughts on the matter.

I had an opportunity a couple of years ago to comment on his views, responding to a paper he wrote, entitled “Mediating Political Space for Opposition Parties in the Ethiopian Political System: A Conceptual Framework.” So I will here state again why I found his basic approach fundamentally misconceived. I assume that he still holds the views presented in that paper. If you think otherwise about his framing of the notion of conflict resolution in the present Ethiopian context, I would like to know why you do so.

To speak more substantively about Dr. Berhanu’s views, there is, first, the matter of his characterization of the sources of conflict and crisis in Ethiopia. He sees conflict originating from corruption, human rights abuses, and scarcity of good governance. This may be so, but the characterization is marked by distortions of both commission and omission. First, clashes and struggles that are uniquely reflective of the historical depth and troubled revolutionary experience of the Ethiopian nation are flattened into general problems of African underdevelopment. Diagnosis of national problems and conflicts in Ethiopia in such generic terms as “corruption” and lack of “good governance,” which is common currency in World Bank technocratic circles, is often echoed without much critical thought among the nation’s Western-trained academics, technocrats and some advocates of Ethiopia.ransition to democracy in Ethiopia . Second, the fact that the TPLF regime in and of itself is the major source strife, dissention and instability in Ethiopia today, that the tribal regime generates conflict by its very nature and functioning, is an inconvenient truth that is ignored or unremarked in Dr. Berhanu’s talk of conflict resolution.

What is worse is that Dr. Berhanu depicted the political behavior exhibited by the Woyane dictatorship since its hostile take-over of the Ethiopian state in May 1991 as a “process of democratization” and a “democratic experiment.” For all his claims to “neutral mediation” or shimgillina, he concedes from the start a whole lot of ground to one side of the conflict, namely, that of the TPLF regime. He helps validate the regime’s false political self-image. Need we point out that the depiction simply flies in the face of the actualities of Woyane partisan-tribal dictatorship? One here wonders what caused the good doctor, supposedly a neutral mediator of conflict in Ethiopia, to shy away from not only speaking truth to power, but even from mildly expressing in his concept paper what he probably knows to be true about the real character and behavior of the TPLF regime.

In focusing on the imperative of creating “political space” for opposition parties within the TPLF/EPRDF state, such as it is, Dr. Berhanu’s paper suggested that lack of such space is the underlying cause of conflict and instability in Ethiopia. But, speaking more fundamentally, the challenge of transition we as a nation face today is one of transforming the existing system of politics and government, not creating more space within it. At bottom, the political project of transition has to do with phased movement from one political paradigm or system to another.

On Transition

As the Ethiopian people confront the beginning of the end of TPLF tribal tyranny, how a transition to an alternative, more just and democratic political order might proceed is not easily understood. The regime can be expected to fight for its life by all means necessary, operating desperately in a twilight zone of decline and decay before the dawn of Ethiopian resurgence and renewal.

How a transition might take place is not easily conceived also because the crisis of the TPLF dictatorship is not a particular event impinging on the dictatorship alone but an increasingly complex gray zone in which residual and emergent patriotic resistance forces are active, struggling to come into their own and avoid cooptation or destruction by the ever scheming Woyane regime. The uncertainty and contingency associated with the crisis, which has created a structural opening for systemic change, puts stress not only on the regime itself but on opposition parties and movements as well.

A central issue that arises now is this: given that TPLF bosses and cadres are unwilling or unable to engage the opposition in good-faith dialogue and negotiation for a peaceful transition to democracy in Ethiopia, how should the social and political forces of Ethiopian unity, including patriotic and forward-looking educated strata, give shape and direction to the discourse of transition? How might the conversation about transition take place as a vital national force in the transformation of the existing political system rather than as a drag on all round structural change?

The problem with the idea of “transition” as often proposed by political elites and their intellectual backers, particularly in the Diaspora, is that, knowingly or not, it throws a lifeline to the TPLF regime instead of helping to neutralize it. The notion has also the effect of dampening or circumventing potentially revolutionary popular resistance. Moreover, talk of transition tends to short-circuit critical, system-transforming thought through opportunistic “pragmatism” or conventional moralism.

Knowledge, information, strategy and intelligence are often associated with war making. But they figure in all modes of contention and combat, non-violent as well as violent. Thus, struggling peaceably for systemic transition and change in our country can be enhanced by these instruments and qualities of effective engagement, with all their attendant risks and rewards.

In a paradoxical sense, then, the art of peaceable resistance in Ethiopia today can draw lessons from the art of war. Through well thought out plan and strategy, peaceful struggle could neutralize or circumvent the war-making capacity and activity of the TPLF regime. According to the renowned Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tzu, in seeking “victory without battle, and unassailable strength through understanding of the…politics and psychology of conflict,” informed and methodical combat is opposed to destructive war making. Thought and strategy are most successful when they make possible winning without fighting, when they make “[violent] conflict altogether unnecessary…” As he further explains in his The Art of War:

    When your strategy is deep and far-reaching, then what you gain by your calculations is much, so you can win before you even fight (emphasis added). When your strategic thinking is shallow and near-sighted, then what you gain by your calculations is little, so you lose before you do battle…

Lacking autonomous agency and effective strategy, proponents of peaceful transition struggle within Ethiopian political and intellectual strata at home and abroad lose before they engage in the struggle, often giving currency to terms like “all-inclusive dialogue,” “negotiation,” and “consensus” isolated in their ideal purity from the Ethiopian national-popular resistance against TPLF tyranny. The terms signify a process seen to be prior and external to a coherent Ethiopian movement, with “movement” here understood as an integral agerawi activity in which moral, intellectual, and political/strategic engagements form an indivisible, dynamic whole.

Under these circumstances, there is little or no possibility for transition dialogue to be a powerful national force in the initiation and direction of systemic transition and change. Instead, the TPLF regime itself or its foreign enablers and/or domestic agents and intellectual fellow travelers could jump into the conversation and steer it in any way that they might desire. For this reason, Ethiopian transition thought, discourse and practice need to be guided by a deep strategy which is most productive of systemic change with a minimum of conflict and loss of life and treasure.
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