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Changing Political Order in Ethiopia: Not a “Messianic” Undertaking

By Tesfaye Demmellash
November 28, 2018

In a recent writing, Professor Messay Kebede suggested that “Abiymania” constitutes a danger in that through it “politics gets mixed up with religion,” which in turn has the effect of “obstructing the critical mind.” In a similar vein, Ato Yared Tibebu lamented the substitution in present day Ethiopia of “messianism” for the active involvement of Ethiopian citizens and intellectuals in determining their country’s fate and in developing democratic government.

Such laments cannot be entirely discounted. A number of the nation’s mihuran, not just ordinary citizens, have been quick to embrace PM Abiy as a “God-sent” answer to our national troubles. Most notably among others was Professor Mesfin Woldemariam. But the prophetic luster with which Abiy burst upon the Ethiopian political scene several months ago has been worn over time although the PM still enjoys popularity.

Abiy’s initial messianic shine has deemed with the passage of time mainly on account of his inaction or lack of initiative with respect to transforming the existing political order in Ethiopia, along with its so called constitution. In its conception and spirit as well as enactment, the alleged constitution has ever remained inimical to Ethiopian solidarity and integrity, even as it continues to afford a veneer of legitimacy to the ethnic-based political order over which PM Abiy presides today. To be a truly transformational leader, then, Abiy must be willing and able to back up his alluring rhetoric and personal political moves with thoroughgoing political-structural change.

It is to be admitted that anti-corruption measures aimed at high-ranking civilian and military officials are nothing to sneeze at; they are welcome. But such personnel reshuffles and purges within the existing ethnocentric political system are not enough. Nor do they in and of themselves amount to the establishment of the rule of law in place of the domination of party, in this case, the EPRDF. The long suffering Ethiopian people expect and deserve to see the initiation of more fundamental systemic change, namely, change of underlying ideas, principles, institutions and practices of government and politics.

Under the leadership of PM Abiy, the partisan-tribal dictatorship of the Woyanes may be on the ebb, in retreat even, but the resilience of Ethiopia as an integral nation-state is being tested anew under the PM’s reformist, yet still EPRDF-based ethnocentric reign. At stake remains nothing less than the country’s continuity and renewal in the face of ongoing crisis in the relationship between the national whole and its parts, the nation’s political center and its regional and local edges.

In this connection, we need to be clear about how Abiy’s leadership poses a challenge to the project Ethiopian political transformation. As Messay Kebede and Yared Tibebu, among others, have suggested, the phenomenon of “Abiymania,” particularly the belief or feeling that he is God-sent, has had the effect of obstructing candid, rational scrutiny of his emergent rule in certain circles of the nation’s mihuran. The phenomenon has impelled some members of the learned class at home and abroad to shirk their intellectual responsibility of providing the Ethiopian people with critical analysis and understanding of problems and possibilities of systemic political change in the country today. Indeed, there is here cause for concern.

But what is at issue with Abiymania in my view is not so much its association with religion or “messianic” leadership as such. Ethiopian religious traditions can be available as moral and cultural resources in the present struggle for the transformation and renewal of the nation. For they constitute vital powers and attributes of historic and contemporary Ethiopiawinnet.

Instead, more significant questions that arise here include the following: has Abiy’s rhetoric appropriated historic Ethiopian national and religious narratives essentially within the existing ethnocentric paradigm of political discourse and practice, giving the paradigm a new lease on life through “reform” instead of aiming to change it fundamentally? Is the ground of political order and transformation in Ethiopia our integral nationality, our shared Ethiopiawinnet, or ethnic identities and their mere medemer?

One wonders here why long-lived, historic Ethiopiawinnet is expected to reduce itself to a contemporary exercise in tribal arithmetic (addition, not subtraction/separation) or to subject itself to a dubious project of “national self-determination up to and including secession” framed “constitutionally” in Stalinist bad faith.
Abiy’s much bandied about notion of medemer places minimal conceptual or political demands of change on such ethnic parties as the TPLF and the OLF. As such, it is hard to say that the notion is transformative even ideally or in theory, let alone practice. It basically invited such narrow partisan-tribal outfits to come as they are and “add themselves” to other groups like them to form a “new” Ethiopia.

Nor is the medemer slogan actually attuned to the narrative national self-understanding of Ethiopian citizens, patriots, intellectuals and political activists who feel and experience Ethiopiawinnet deeply as more than the sum of ethnic or local parts. True, the reformist, mainly Oromo wing of EPRDF, having gained more power and influence relative to its Amhara counterpart, whose top leaders remain more or less pliant underlings of TPLF bosses, has re-discovered Ethiopiawinnet. But this “re-discovery” by the Abiy-Lemma group has had the look and feel of a gambit aimed at appeasing growing patriotic and societal demands for change of the political order expressed in various regions and communities in the country.

Abiy’s national discernment, his “return” to Ethiopia and Ethiopiawinnet, has been related less to the transformation of the existing ethnic-oriented political order and more to the continuity of the EPRDF dominated system of rule through necessary reforms and adaptations. While social resistances have been particularly acute in Oromo and Amhara regions, popular demands for change have not been limited to these regions of the country.
So Abiy’s leadership has been, on the one hand, a vehicle, largely rhetorically, for revitalizing Ethiopian solidarity and, on the other, an occasion for the assertion of change-averse, strident identity politics, particularly among some Oromo “elites.” And the narrow, exclusively partisan ethnicism of elites, such as they are, has often been accompanied by a more brutal, murderous tribalism practiced by some individuals and groups within the ordinary Oromo ethnos.

The result has been the recurrent persecution of people who are non-Oromo, especially Amharas, and massive social dislocation and human suffering. This has to be stopped by any and all means necessary.

The “Return” to Ethiopia: Characterizing the Old Progressivism

Noting the long presence of the tradition of revolutionary or progressive politics in Ethiopia, how it took shape and came into operation as an entire paradigm of thought, discourse and action, is not just of historical interest. It is essential to understanding our current state as a nation. And gaining such awareness is in turn vital to recognizing what, fundamentally, we want to change and are transitioning from as we struggle for political transformation.

In making the transition, finally, into a post-Stalinist, specifically post-Woyane, era of Ethiopian politics and government, it is important to get a good grasp of how the old progressivism originated in the Student Movement and subsequently came to dominate Ethiopian politics for over half a century. Though the Movement itself is history, its spin-offs, malignant offshoots, and residual effects are all around us.

In this connection, I am unable to understand Messay Kebede’s characterization of the profession of communist ideology in the past by “Ethiopian intellectuals and students” in terms of “messianism.” He asserts that messianism “inspired” the nation’s revolutionaries “to easily espouse Marxism-Leninism in the hope of leading Ethiopians to the promised land of socialism and communism…”

Are we being told here that a prior Ethiopian Christian belief or tradition “inspired” Ethiopian revolutionaries to embrace Godless Marxism-Leninism, while at the same time impelling them to shunt aside or undermine the very tradition that “inspired” them? I don’t quite get the reasoning here, be it logical or analogical.

In my view, the dominant “radical” iteration of Marxism-Leninism in Ethiopia, in whose formulation Walelign Mekonnen and his ultra-left ilk played a seminal destructive role, can hardly be said to have been messianic in the sense of being concerned with Ethiopian national salvation. For this politically nihilistic group, whose thinking, such as it was, came to dominate the Student Movement, there was no “real” Ethiopian nation to save; Ethiopian nationhood was unreal, non-existent, mere “myth.” To the extent Ethiopia was said to exist at all, it was portrayed as nothing but “a prison of nations.”

Consequently, what “radical” Ethiopian intellectuals and would-be intellectuals embraced tended to be a nationally perverse, impersonal Leninism-Stalinism. At its most radically “progressive,” the ideology simply rejected as “fake” historic Ethiopian nationhood and Ethiopiawinnet, including our spiritual sensibility and religious traditions.

And it approached socialism not in terms of a messianic “promised land” as Messay asserts, but as a “scientific” certainty, an inevitable outcome of “class struggle” and historical development. Wherein lay the messianic figure or substance in the espousal of Marxism-Leninism in the context of our revolutionary experience, going back to the Student Movement?

The mode in which our abyotegnoch embraced “scientific socialism” may be said to have been “religious,” but only in a mindless, hyper-partisan, cult-like sense. I have myself argued along these lines in a little journal article I wrote back in the 1980s (“On Marxism and Ethiopian Student Radicalism in North America,” Monthly Review, Vol. 35, No. 9, Feb. 1984), from which Messay was kind enough to quote at length in writing one of his books.

I suggested then that that generation of Ethiopian militants at home and abroad tended to stress impersonal doctrinal formula and literalist reading of the writings of Marx, Lenin and Mao as Holy Writ. And this in turn entailed, I argued, rote learning of Marxist-Leninist texts through the application of a ritualistic mode of scriptural interpretation to the texts. However, and this is the point, such spiritually arid cultish embrace of pseudo-scientific socialism can hardly be described as messianic either in form or content or specifically in the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian tradition. Far from it.

The Abiy Paradox

PM Abiy’s leadership is marked by a net of paradoxes. He is a military officer by training and experience, yet preaches peace and love, telling us that the resort to arms in settling social and political issues is absolutely “out of style,” a mark of “backwardness.”

The PM has given pride of place to Ethiopia and Ethiopiawinnet in his speeches, but by his activities and foreign overtures has busied himself with regional and global issues in a way that seems to avert our attention from pressing Ethiopian national priorities. At a crisis-ridden time when the loss among Ethiopians of a sense of national home is acute, when we are feeling that our beloved country is no longer securely herself, Abiy seems to add to our unease and uncertainty through his distracting regional-global overtures.

The PM has enjoyed broad, trans-ethnic popularity among the Ethiopian people as a messiah-like agent of peaceful change. Yet, paradoxically, he remains a major (now the highest ranking) figure within the EPRDF ethnocentric political-bureaucratic status-quo, which is widely resented by patriotic and pro-unity Ethiopians.

Abiy’s premiership is also enigmatic in another, related, way. It involves potentially or actually secessionist partisan-tribal outfits and “activists” at home and abroad whose recurring victimhood narratives and partisan political self-importance know no bounds. These groups include old and tired “liberation fronts” still stuck in the Stalinist past after all these many decades. They have all been given a new lease on life on the PM’s watch. For such outfits, some of which bear arms, Abiy’s slogan of medemer, his urging of love, peace and reconciliation, has negligible perfunctory resonance.

Indeed, in clinging to their separatist agenda, these chronically small-minded partisan groups give the lie to Abiy’s rhetoric of Ethiopian national solidarity and integrity. Their unreasoning, brazen, petty-nationalist, tribal declarations and activities are often breathtaking, so brutish are they, and so contrary to Abiy’s ideal pronouncements and exhortations!

Giving such groups aid and comfort, as the Abiy regime has done, is all the more puzzling: for the political projects such narrow sectarian groups pursue tend to be at odds with the broader intersecting and overlapping interests of distinct Ethiopian cultural and local communities the groups claim to “represent,” and exclusively at that.

More generally, opposition groups resisting EPRDF one-party dictatorship around legitimate, non-separatist issues of identity and locality (say, those of Amhara communities of Welkait and Raya regions) are gaining prominence to an extent that political parties of Ethiopian unity are not. And, looking ahead, these regional resistance forces are likely to grow and increasingly take the fight to the predatory TPLF party-regime, or what is left of it.

We as a nation are attracted to the personal leadership of Abiy, an individual leader of uncertain messianic character that would make change we can believe in and support. Yet we are aware of, and concerned about, the leader’s lingering political and ideological ties through the EPRDF to the much hated, change-averse TPLF cabal. These connections still remain basically in place, reshuffles and removals from power of high-ranking civilian and military personnel notwithstanding.

This state of politics and government in Ethiopia today points to several pressing questions that are worth asking critically and seeking answers for. They include the following: how do Ethiopian patriotic and pro-unity forces help the PM unravel the web of political paradoxes in which he finds himself entangled?

Does medemer, a notion signifying little more than the additive sum of disparate partisan and ethnic groups, including the likes of the TPLF and OLF, amount to Ethiopian unity? Does it help bring about post-Stalinist political transformation in the country or actually hinder such systemic change? What is Ethiopian beyond the aggregation of ethnic identities or regions? To pose the same question differently, what added national value do the ethnos gain from a commonly shared post-communist Ethiopiawinnet that disposes of the meaningless, mind-numbing reference to “the rights of nations, nationalities and peoples to self-determination up to and including secession”?

Moreover, in the contemporary post-Stalinist Ethiopian struggle for change, could the nation’s regions and localities reconstitute themselves in other than a tribal way, replacing kilils of “peoples” and “nationalities” fabricated by the TPLF-EPRDF following the Stalinist formula? Could they act in concert to rebuild the gutted Ethiopian national center, while at the same time securing real, actually functioning regional and local autonomy for themselves in a way and to an extent they could not during the Derg and Woyane “revolutionary” eras?

Transitioning to a “Post-revolutionary,” Democratic Political Order

There has been a resurgence of Ethiopian national consciousness at home and abroad in recent months, coinciding with the ascent to power of PM Abiy Ahmed. At a time when the nation faced acute existential crisis, the PM captured the popular imagination in the country largely through his appealing rhetoric of national unity. His uplifting speeches came to be identified with the revitalization of Ethiopian solidarity in stark contrast with the nationally debilitating, divisive, tribal language of greedy, massively corrupt TPLF bosses and hangers-on.

Are we entering, or headed in the direction of, a new, post-Woyane era with the emergent reign of “Nigus” Abiy? Does the PM’s leadership represent a movement toward actually functioning post-ethnic democracy in Ethiopia that leaves behind the scourge of tribal “revolutionary democracy”? Is systemic political transformation in the offing in our country at long last? Is this a reasonable hope or merely a wishful desire?

As captivating as it has been, PM Abiy’s Ethiopian-nationalist affirmation cannot be said to be unequivocally post-tribal in the sense of transcending the TPLF/EPRDF Stalinist inspired paradigm of ethnocentric politics through which what are named “nations, nationalities and peoples” have been accorded ritual primacy over Ethiopian unity for nearly three decades now.

Abiy’s identity politics is certainly softer and more “liberally” accommodating of Ethiopiawinnet relative to the calcified, unenlightened, and insular political ethnicism which the TPLF and OLF have tended to practice. These “liberation fronts” have been so narrowly fixated on the politics of the ethnos that they are bent on attempting to do the improbable bordering on the impossible. Namely, to stand as ethnic parties in polar alterity or otherness to Ethiopian nationality, seeking to realize what they claim to be national self-determination “outside” and often against Ethiopiawinnet.

In this quixotic attempt, the TPLF and the OLF undermine the very social-historical ground they stand on; they alienate themselves politically from the national reality they would change. It is safe to say PM Abiy has distanced himself from such self-defeating sectarian politics of tribal insularity. This is evident in his publicly expressed reformist views, positions and arguments.

Yet, pro-reform declaratory views and positions aside, as the top leader of the EPRDF, the ruling party within which he was politically socialized and rose to power to become PM, Abiy must travel mainly on the road of ethnocentric rule paved by the party. The existing system of rule may allow him to engage in all the discursive and rhetorical activity he wants, but he must not attempt to transform the constitutive values, institutions, policies and practices of the system.

Even in undertaking reform of the existing political order, he must work essentially within it. Abiy is quite different as PM from his predecessor, Hailemariam Desalegn, in that he has created a center of political gravity around his person. Still, he is not entirely his own man. On the surface, his power and reformist orientation may appear to originate from his charismatic leadership; but they flow mainly from deeper ideological and political sources of the ethnocentric EPRDF party-state apparatus.

How then shall Ethiopian patriotic and pro-unity forces move on the uncharted terrain of transition toward systemic political change? Doing so, that is, with PM Abiy’s help if possible, or without his assistance if necessary? This is a question that ager weddad mihuran (enlightened patriots) in particular need to frame with concern for settling ideological and political accounts with our troubled “progressive” past whose influence is still being felt today. The question should be posed with an eye toward the convergence of ideas, rhetoric, political strategy, and practical struggle.

To give ourselves a chance of formulating an alternative, more civil and democratic political order in Ethiopia, there is a need, on the one hand, to subject the existing ethnocentric ideological-cum-political order to systematic, critical scrutiny and, on the other, to move proactively in the field of ideas as well as in the more practical spheres of cultural, rhetorical and tactical struggle using various media.

In giving currency to such political-ideological categories as “nations,” “peoples,” “self-determination,” “federalism,” “democracy,” and “development,” the system of ethnocentric domination over which EPRDF presides does so essentially with particular Stalinist authoritarian codes. As we all know, the operative content or function of these categories generally belies their nominal or literal meaning. They are unreal, mere pretense or perversion. Thus, in the Woyane era, the political constructs, “parliament” and “constitution,” for example, have been coded to work exclusively within a particular authoritarian system to serve a particular partisan-tribal project of domination, nothing more or different.

In the movement for systemic change, such constructs must be challenged at the conceptual and discursive levels and rearticulated within an alternative, actually functioning framework of democratic institutions and practices.

We should, first, achieve ideational and normative clarity about the system of domination the Ethiopian people need to transition from. We must then work to transform the system into something qualitatively different and better, into a freer, more transparent and democratically accountable political order that is in tune with Ethiopian national solidarity.

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