By Tesfaye Demmellash
December 5, 2019
The apparent reshuffle of existing ethnic-partisan groups within the EPRDF “coalition” into a single united political entity recently announced by PM Abiy came on the heels of the latest eruption of unspeakably brutal killings by Oromo mobs of scores of innocent Ethiopian citizens and the burning of churches and destruction of homes and businesses.
But no sooner had we heard of the supposed party unification than we learned of ‘opposition’ to it by Lemma Megersa, a top leader within the moribund ruling coalition. Evidently, PM Abiy had not secured adequate support for the ‘change’ even within ODP, the Oromo faction in the EPRDF whose Chairman he is, before attempting to unify the front as a whole. Unless, of course, the surprising but not wholly unexpected episode of “dissent” from the proposed change was more staged than real, the dramaturgic work of the shifty Abiy-Lemma duo itself.
The political theater, if that it was, might, perhaps, have been aimed at creating the impression that our dear leader Abiy ran into opposition in the Oromo partisan-tribal complex as he tried to do a good thing, to advance political, and possibly national, “unity” beyond the mere additive sum of ethnic factions. Who knows for sure about the Abiy regime anymore?
In any case, by all indications, the seeming reorganization of EPRDF into a “new” party, named the Prosperity Party (PP), is predicated on existing ethnocentric ‘constitutional,’ ‘federal’ and ‘kilil’ structures. And the continuity of structural conditions of tribal rule aside, ethnocentrism is likely to have ongoing spectral presence in the new political outfit, if such an outfit has actually taken shape and come into being at all.
What party “unity” means under these circumstances is unclear. It is not worked out in thought. The much bandied about notion of medemer does not here help much. Replete with sweeping analogical assertions, the nebulous notion has, strictly speaking, neither theoretical serviceability nor practical utility in resolving chronic polarization in Ethiopian polity and society, particularly in its present acute form of crisis of national-regional governance.
The attempt, real or feigned, at reorganizing the EPRDF appears to have been hastily undertaken by the Abiy regime to create the appearance that it is doing something tangible in response to the latest atrocities or, perhaps, to draw attention away from them. It seems to have been intended more as a distraction than anything else.
Largely symbolic rather than substantive, the ‘change,’ may be characterized as a short-run tactical move undertaken by the regime to deflect from itself broad public criticism at its inability or unwillingness to maintain basic law and order in the country and to bring about systemic change. By now, this pattern of simulated, short-term, crisis-to-crisis responses by the Abiy regime should be quite evident to the Ethiopian people.
It has also become abundantly clear over the last year and a half that every big idea that has currency in the existing pattern of regime verbal gestures or symbolic acts, like “unity” and the concept of “change” itself, is of dubious quality. It has little systemic, conceptual or principled significance beyond prettifying and aiding and abetting brute, killer tribalism that is foreign to Ethiopian national values and solidarity.
That Abiy personally has an ideological core may be in doubt, but his attachment to ethnocentrism, specifically in connection with the political project of “Oromiya,” is not so suspect. He has a stake in this project in common with other Oromo ethnoationalist groups and individuals, including Lemma Megersa, with whom he might have limited strategic or tactical differences.
So, absent effective movement toward structural change, Ethiopian national life would remain stuck in an interregnum between the blight of one (falling) ethnic dictatorship and that of another (rising) tribal tyranny. I don’t know if the nation had been through darker times than these. There appears to be no end in sight to the decay of Ethiopian nationhood set in motion in the revolutionary era, going back to the fateful Student Movement. Left unchecked, the decay could bring about a crisis of such proportions that could destroy our national life as we know and value it.
True to past pattern, the latest deadly upsurge of attacks by Oromo mobs on defenseless individuals, families and Orthodox Christian priests, was followed by a response – repugnant legally and morally – on the part of state authorities at both the “federal” and “kilil” levels. The joint response of Abiy, the Prime Minister, and Lemma, the Minister of Defense, both nominally government leaders of Ethiopia, was particularly indelible and noteworthy: they chose to speak to their Oromo constituencies, largely made up of supporters of Jawar Mohammed, leader of the Qerro mobs that committed the atrocities, rather than address victims’ families or the Ethiopian people as a whole. That was telling about where the actual “national” concern of the two leading Oromo political figures lies.
More significantly, in their address to an Oromo audience, Abiy and Lemma were incredibly unabashed in defending Jawar Mohammed, the notorious agitator who incited the mass killing of innocent citizens and whose personal “activism” borders on terrorism. In a shocking move, Abiy and Lemma thereby added insult to injury, re-traumatizing the Ethiopian people, already reeling from the pain and suffering inflicted on the nation by marauding, murderous Qerro hordes that are at the beck and call of Jawar.
Displaying a wholly unapologetic attitude, the ethnocentric duo publicly declared its solidarity with and continued support for its notorious ethnonationalist fellow traveler. The genocidal mob violence was repugnant enough, but what was doubly reprehensible was the Abiy regime’s defense of the chief instigator of the violence. Whatever his differences with the Abiy led system of ethnocratic rule, Jawar, along with his Qerro mobs, seems to function as a serviceable adjunct of the system.
A couple of things have now become clear, if they were not already before the latest outburst of mass killings by a brutal strain of Qerro youth of innocent individuals and families, wrongly characterized by PM Abiy and others as “clashes” between two opposing sides. Clear, that is, to all but the least trenchant or most self-deluding Ethiopians.
Namely, first, there is actually no Ethiopian state worthy of the name today, no central government with honest intention and concern to safeguard the security, wellbeing and civil rights of all Ethiopian citizens. Parts of the existing tribal regime have in fact been complicit in the commission of crimes against humanity by Jawar’s marauding Qerro. Second, Abiy Ahmed may profess Itiopiawinnet with rhetorical flourish but his behavior has been patently at odds with his dissembling discourse.
In the troubling personal rule of “Negus” Abiy today, Ethiopia thus operates largely without a reliable or workable rule of law; fair and equal administration of justice is virtually non-existent in the country. This is not just my opinion; rather, sad to say, it is objectively observable fact.
The historic Ethiopian nation itself, and the lives of citizens and communities in it, are in this sorry state in large part because, for the last thirty years or so, trans-ethnic patriotic groups and parties have been woefully incapable of achieving effective national agency or “core actor” status in Ethiopian affairs.
The sources of this puzzling and troubling incapacity, which continues to this day, are varied and complex. But at bottom, they have to do with the inertia or residual effects of the domination of Stalinist ethnocentrism in Ethiopian politics and national affairs in the post-revolutionary era. But a proximate, yet not so obvious, reason for the incapacity is the personal ‘leadership,’ or lack thereof, of PM Abiy Ahmed.
Abiy’s Janus-Faced Personal ‘Rule’
Abiy Ahmed no longer has the outsize personal appeal and popularity he enjoyed during the first several months of his tenure as leader of government in Ethiopia. Today, Ethiopians – citizens, patriots, spiritual leaders, intellectuals, activists, political figures, journalists, and others – have mixed views about the Nobelist Prime Minister.
To some of us, whose number is fast dwindling, Abiy’s now fading charismatic rule, still appears, recurrent crises and all, a welcome release from the perverse, colonial-like, divisive dictatorship of the Woyanes. In a highly positive vein, the PM has been seen as a Moses-like figure that would save the Ethiopian people from national destruction. Abiy has shown himself as an innovative political thinker, a champion of peace and democracy. His latest act, or apparent act, of carving out in short order the PP out of the EPRDF seemingly attests to this perceived quality of his.
But to many others among the Ethiopian people, PM Abiy’s tenure in office has been nothing but a perilous and frightening breach with law and order, in effect threatening to plunge Ethiopia into disastrous civil war. While some of the nation’s mihuran still regard “negus” Abiy’s reign a fount of “light,” a source of enlightenment, to other Ethiopian intellectuals less enamored of his persona, the PM is a charlatan, a pretender to the throne, a prince of darkness.
Terrified of the possible breakup of the country on his watch and yearning personal and national security, a fast lessening number of Ethiopian citizens and patriots still cling to Abiy, some demonstrating belief in him that is suggestive of incorrigible self-delusion. They hold on even in the face of the PM’s persistent failure or unwillingness to maintain civil peace and to ensure fair and firm administration of justice in Ethiopia. They wouldn’t “let go” even though the PM engages in a pattern of conduct in which what he says is often summarily reversed by what he does and what he fails to do, or is simply untrue.
A particularly repugnant example of such conduct was the PM’s attempt to excuse the most recent atrocities committed by Jawar’s Qerro thugs by claiming that most of the people killed in the mob attacks were Oromos, a claim that is false or at least questionable. Displaying an amoral Machiavellian deftness, the PM played ethnic arithmetic with the deaths of over eighty Ethiopians, turning the victimizers into victims, the wrong doers into the wronged.
In so doing, Abiy also demonstrated the emptiness of the ideal of social and national togetherness (medemer) he preaches, specifically, his rhetoric that ‘we are Ethiopians when we live and when we die.’ His idealizing discourse is in stark contrast to the reduction by the Oromo partisan groups he leads of social relationships to that of “us” vs. “them.” In the hands of these groups, all political purposes and activities are largely divorced from any principle, meaning or concept other than that of assertion of narrow tribal self or nativist identity.
Understandably, many other Ethiopian citizens and patriots have lost faith in Abiy. They are disenchanted by the PM’s vacuous speeches and grossly offensive action or inaction, most recently by his failure to stand with, or show sympathy for, scores of victims and their families in the wake of the latest deadly attacks against innocent citizens in the Oromo region of Ethiopia.
Indeed, the Nobel Peace prize winning PM was conspicuous in his failure to condemn the atrocities and their warring perpetrators. Instead, he chose to do something that, on its face, hardly stands to reason in political, national or moral terms: He openly supported and fraternized with the extremist political boss of the depraved, terroristic, ethnic Oromo mobs, a man who is not even an Ethiopian citizen.
Still, while Abiy’s political stardom may have decidedly dimmed over time, the person of the self-anointed “Negus” still looms large in Ethiopian politics and government, even in the context of the recent purported reshuffling of the EPRDF. Yet, in acknowledging this fact, we should be careful not to overvalue the role of Abiy, the individual, or to focus exclusively on his “personality.”
More specifically, it would be a mistake to continue to construe his rhetorical gestures towards “Ethiopia” simply and straightaway as a mark of his prioritization of Ethiopian integrity and unity over ethnocentrism. Such construal gets in the way of a good understanding of the essentially political role and function of Abiy’s personal rule. Namely, to maintain the existing ethnocentric system of domination even while attempting to revamp the crisis-ridden EPRDF as a ruling party.
Personal ‘leadership’ and Ethnocentric Domination
It is useful to look at Abiy’s personal reign as PM, contradictions and all, against the background of the (now formally defunct?) EPRDF system of rule, particularly in the context of the political crisis the EPRDF apparatus has been in over the last five years or so. Its founder, the TPLF, which exercised hegemony over it for longer than a quarter century, may have lost its dominant position. But essentially the political order the Woyanes created, with its twin pillars, the “constitution” and “ethnic federalism,” is still very much with us today.
It is to be admitted that the EPRDF underwent a forced loosening of its dictatorial grip soon after the Woyanes captured power with Western help, jettisoning its language of Marxism-Leninism in favor of the doctrine of “revolutionary democracy.” More recently, over the last five years or so, the party was compelled by social protests, particularly among Oromo and Amhara youths, to undertake internal change and reorganization, culminating in Abiy’s ascension to power in April 2018.
Nonetheless, the changes that took place should not be understood as a fundamental realignment of political forces in Ethiopia. They are better grasped as alterations in three basic senses: (1) they opened up space within the existing tribal political system, enabling PM Abiy to exercise power in a relatively freer, less rigidly structured, personal way and to carry out certain limited reforms on the margins of the system, reforms essential to its continuity; (2) the changes facilitated a reshuffling of the ethnic power hierarchy within the EPRDF, allowing the OPDO (ODP/OLF) to begin to take its “turn” at the top and, oddly, letting the TPLF ensconce itself in Tigrai as a petty tribal regime unto itself; and (3) they created conditions for extremist partisans of “Oromiya” to create and deploy at will the Qerro menga as a brutal instrument of intimidation, violence and terror.
It should be noted here that, often connected, populism and personalistic leadership, generally of the authoritarian type, can be used to fabricate undifferentiated “mass support” for a troubled political system seeking to reorient or “rebrand” itself out of crisis. This involved, in the case at hand, the EPRDF as a political party and PM Abiy as its emergent leader engaging in ritualistic “self-criticism,” (gimgema) producing narratives of ruling party problems and failures, in part echoing popular concerns and grievances and demands for change.
The purpose of such gimgema, though, particularly as articulated with apparent candor by PM Abiy, has not been to question the legitimacy of the existing system of ethnocratic domination with an eye toward transforming it. Instead, the goal has been to coopt or instrumentalize public discontent in the interest of shoring up and maintaining the decaying order by undertaking certain necessary reforms and by mollifying social demands for structural transformation.
PM Abiy has been actively involved in giving the EPRDF network of ethnocratic domination a new lease on life, tactically using his personal rule, his charisma, as a political tool of system maintenance rather than of fundamental change. He has been emphatic in his defense of the ‘constitution,’ portraying it as source of civil and political liberties and of the rights of “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia. The party of “Oromiya” may have displaced the party of “Greater Tigrai,” but PM Abiy has had no intention of undoing the ethnocentric political structure he now presides over.
While popular protest and resistance against EPRDF domination helped end TPLF domination, it created an opportunity that can be, and was, utilized by the OPDO/ODP, led by Abiy, to assume the top position within the then existing EPRDF ethnic-power hierarchy. Not surprisingly, the PM insists on keeping in place the present political structure, specifically the twin pillars of the structure, the “constitution” and ethnic “federalism,” while conceding reforms on its edges.
In fighting for meaningful structural change against emergent Oromo ethnocracy and toward Ethiopian national renewal, then, it is useful to grasp the status and function of the personal leadership of Abiy Ahmed or that of any Oromo political boss who might succeed him. Such understanding involves looking at the leading figure on two distinct but interrelated levels: the systemic political self or actorness of the leader and his personal agency in the context of the ideology and practice of the ruling party.
The political self in Abiy’s rule is grounded in a definite structure of residual and emergent ideas or mindset of partisan identity politics. The personal in Abiy’s stewardship is the peculiar manner in which he individually exercises power (or fails to do so) while more or less operating within the existing order of ethnocentric political ideology and practice. It consists of individual characteristics, among which one might mention his (now discounted) charisma, self-assertiveness, know-it-all attitude, shiftiness, and rhetorical ease and lure.
Regarding PM Abiy’s rhetorical facility and enticement in particular, one thing is especially worth mentioning, something that has had significant implications for the continuity of ethnocentric rule in Ethiopia after the apparent end of Woyane hegemony. And that is Abiy’s seductive evocation of “Ethiopia” through a recursive riff on our national story, in effect and perhaps also in intent, defanging historic Ethiopian nationalism. In his telling of agerawi tales actual Ethiopian nationality is reduced to a passive, toothless value consigned to a realm of pure symbolism and simulation. Drained of vitality and vigor, it has become little more than an adjunct of identity politics and state ethnicism, yielding to tribal reengineering without putting up much of a fight.
So Abiy’s relating of agerawi tales amounts to a rhetorical tactic of neutralizing Ethiopian nationalism as a base and force of resistance against tribal tyranny. Such pre-emptive counteraction through narrative overdose or saturation has had, then, its own paralyzing effect on Ethiopian patriotic agency, though the origins of the paralysis can be traced back to TPLF tribal divide-and-rule and beyond.
In this way, Abiy seems to have accomplished personally and openly what Woyane bosses, partisans, and cadres with all their insidious tribal scheming and treachery, could not do: valorizing the Ethiopian nation through rhetoric while in effect degrading it, putting the nation on the verge of disastrous civil war by periodically letting loose provocative, dark tribal forces of death, destruction and social dislocation against it. PM Abiy presides today over an Ethiopia in which long-lived sentiments of national resistance and affirmation have surrendered as pliantly to aggressive Oromo ethnic re-engineering as have the country’s territorial integrity and the autonomous governance of Addis Ababa, its capital city.
With his effusive speechifying on any and all subjects, talking at will about what he thinks he knows, Abiy is able to run political circles around our national values and democratic aspirations, denying us any conceivable means through which ethnocentrism in Ethiopian affairs might be effectively challenged in contemporary patriotic and progressive thought. Expressly following his own maxim set out in his writing, Irkab inna Menber, he “tells us what we want to hear,” and many of us still seem inclined to believe that the truth of Abiy’s personal rule is what we wish or imagine it to be.
The historic and contemporary national reality to which Abiy’s Ethiopianist rhetoric refers is plain and evident for all to see. But it should be clear by now that the rhetorical reference has a sub-text, a message hidden in plain sight, which requires a deciphering. Under present conditions of ethnocentric politics and misgovernment in the country, “Ethiopia” is coded in Abiy’s talk of unity and stability as an entity whose meaning, values, and cultural and institutional resources can be drawn off and placed in the service of the sketchy hegemonic political project that is “Oromiya.”
So we as a nation now find ourselves in suspended animation, as it were, barely alive and putting up only laid back, haphazard, often coopted “opposition,” while our very national being is under ongoing concerted assault from within. In effect, if not all by design, PM Abiy has lulled Ethiopian nationality into passivity by seductive, paralyzing rhetoric while Jawar’s Qerro mobs kill and maim with impunity Ethiopian nationals by sticks and stones.
In confronting demons, we should, as it is said, be careful not to demonize ourselves. However, we should also realize that a national tradition which has lost the will and courage to rise up and defend itself by all means necessary in the face of clear and present existential danger has neither the power nor the agency to save itself from destruction.
“What is the ‘Solution’”?
This question is routinely offered for consideration toward the end of nearly every episode of media chatter at home and in the diaspora concerning current, deeply troubled, Ethiopian affairs. It is often posed in interviews and discussions of varying quality involving the nation’s journalists, intellectuals, activists, political figures and other commentators.
And the answers given often revolve around regime change, specifically on establishing some kind of “transition government” that would presumably pave the way for sorely needed structural shift. That is, a shift away from the present crisis-ridden, dysfunctional and predatory tribal state and toward a more orderly, stable, citizen-based, democratic political system.
Setting up a transitional government may be an essential short- or medium-term answer to Ethiopia’s current political crisis, a crucial intermediary step toward systemic/democratic change. But it is not a simple and ready cure for our national ills. It is itself a challenge for us to think up and enact effectively, given our decades-old habits of polarized, overly partisan, and formulaic political ‘thought’ and action. The abstract possibility of “transitional government” does not spontaneously translate into operative ideas and principles in the post-revolutionary Ethiopian context. We cannot assume that the notion has clear, readily understandable meaning or function.
The idea of “transition” also faces immediate, practical obstacles. The party of “Oromiya,” particularly the Abiy regime within and beyond that sprawling party, has shown disdain for it as has the party of Tigrai, which has become an isolated petty tribal fiefdom, a hermetic, garrison regime. On the other hand, the party of Ethiopia, consisting of trans-ethnic patriotic and pro-democracy citizens, activists, social movements, intellectuals and political groups, is sadly too disorganized and enfeebled to have significant say in the matter.
Fractionated, hollowed out from within, and coopted by the tribal powers that be, the party of Ethiopia lacks sustainable political agency and strategic nucleus. It is too weak to work effectively toward passage to a new, freer and more democratic political system in Ethiopia, too powerless to apply pressure on the Abiy regime or to enter into meaningful negotiation with it. This remains the case although better days may be in the offing with the impending transformation of the much harassed Balderas Council into a political party.
The entry of the Balderas movement into the political field in response to popular demand promises to be an opportune moment of change. For, after nearly three decades of crisis-ridden sectarian tyranny, uneven and corrupt development, and massive internal displacement of citizens, families and communities, Ethiopia today is ripe for passage from the politics of the ethnos to the politics of the demos. It is ready to transition from tribal dictatorship and personal rule to citizen-based representative democracy and to the rule of law.
The hearts and minds of the Ethiopian people have been prepared for transition to a new order by the moral, intellectual and political bankruptcy of territorially aggressive and expansionist tribalism, that of the TPLF variety and the iteration of the ODP/OLF/Jawar-Qerro network. The Ethiopian people expect and deserve a new form of politics that ends the present state of sectarian chaos and does away with impotent ‘opposition’ parties, meaningless ‘elections,’ feckless ‘parliaments,’ and perverse ‘law enforcement’ organs.
From a longer term vantage point, a major part of the answer to the query posed in the sub-title above lies in the response we give to a couple of more focused questions. Namely, first, how is Ethiopian nationality defined or what is the Ethiopian national self? And, second and relatedly, how should trans-ethnic patriotic and democratic movements in Ethiopia achieve effective national agency or reach the position of primary actor and doer in Ethiopian affairs?
These questions are predicated on the assumption that the ultimate “solution” to predatory tribal domination in Ethiopia is the rebuilding and reaffirmation of the Ethiopian nation. History has shown that Ethiopian nationalism can be a mighty force against external and internal enemies. Today, it can be a powerful current of resistance against divisive and destructive political ethnicism and a vital affirmation of the values and experience of national solidarity. In short, historical depth, cultural diversity, and patriotic resilience constitute the truth of Itiopiawinnet and this truth should inform the strategy which would resolve the existential crisis we are in today.
National Self and Political Agency
To Ethiopian patriotic and pro-democracy citizens, political parties, intellectuals and activists, it is unsurprising that selfhood may be attributed to the nation, that Ethiopia has “identity” or unique wholeness that is different from and greater than the mere sum of its ethnic or regional parts.
Historic and contemporary Ethiopia imparts a larger, shared national value to its diverse ethnic and cultural communities while in turn enriching its nationhood through their diversity. It is as such that the Ethiopian nation must be addressed by political parties and leaders seeking solve its problems.
So it is important to consider what constitutes the Ethiopian national “self.” It is important because evaluations of the political agency of patriotic and pro-democracy parties and groups are artless if they are unable to account for the contributions of Ethiopia’s nationhood, its animate national landscape, to the agentic vitality, capability and movement of the parties.
The Ethiopian national landscape is variegated and complex. It covers a wide range of forms and contents: the historical, the contemporary, the spiritual, the secular, the traditional, and the modern along with the revolutionary. It constitutes a fusion of multiple, interactive, dimensions that operates integrally without reducing itself to a simple unitary entity. This is the mystery of Ethiopia’s staying power, withstanding decades of “radical” assault, tribal predation, and particularly dark times as these.
For example, history prefigures deeply in Ethiopian nationality not merely as a record of past events but in the continuity of the past in the present, vitally informing, shaping and conditioning our national life here and now. The Ethiopian national terrain is also more than passive geography or territory; it is active in that it makes up a dynamic field of social forces and cultural powers, flows of historical and contemporary energy that could be tapped by patriotic forces today.
Modern, ideas-based politics has also figured, albeit with mixed results, in Ethiopian national identity, particularly since the revolutionary era. But it is worth stressing that Itiopiawinnet cannot be embraced or approached through political ideas, beliefs and aspirations alone. It does not make itself felt merely in articulations, or attempted articulations, of universal concepts (like “democracy”). It also makes itself felt in sense-forming lived experience and culture, in the immediacy and clarity of sentiments, images and symbols, in transgenerational collective memory. Instead of excluding or negating soundly formulated progressive thought Itiopiawinnet can, and should, incorporate it as its constitutive moment.
More immediately, addressing the Ethiopian nation integrally means listening well to its people as one national community, not a collection of disparate “peoples” and “nations.” It necessitates being actually attentive to their common as well as distinctive needs and concerns to the highest degree possible, allowing the people to express their felt interests and desires in a way and to an extent they have never been allowed before.
This means letting Ethiopia “speak,” revealing in her own voice the degradation of her national culture and spiritual and intellectual life, the unmet basic needs and recurrent social dislocation and misery of her people. This cannot be done through partisan-tribal politics as usual, in the language of the old and tired Stalinist dogma of ethnonationalism or in its residual terms and categories.
Matters of human and individual rights, social autonomy, and constitutional and federal government which hitherto have been handled in conceptually vacuous simulations, rhetorical gestures, and ritual practices must now be attended to in more thoughtful, principled and substantive manner. The Ethiopian people deserve nothing less than this from the nation’s intelligentsia. This means those of us who traffic in ideas must actually engage in ideation rather than limiting ourselves to employing universal concepts as platitudes, merely as tokens of rhetoric or habit of polemic. Instead of rushing to be enablers and apologists of the tyranny of the day, we would do better to make a good faith effort to exercise critical reason and live the life of the mind in a way attuned to the Ethiopian national condition.
With respect to political agency, what do patriotic forces and groups which make up the party of Ethiopia do? They work with the actual and potential powers of Ethiopian agerawi consciousness and culture, drawing out strategic and tactical possibilities of our national experience for movement and struggle under present conditions. In the interest of descriptive economy, the question may be better addressed here in terms of the following precis or summary notes:
1. Effective, and possibly hegemonic, agerawi political actorness does not take shape “outside” the Ethiopian national-social space; not wholly pre-given, it is an inherently interactive, relational performance and achievement. Core actorness is formed by participation in, and management of, diverse Ethiopian national contexts and networks and through various means of collective action and interaction. It takes shape and develops as an outcome of exchanges of ideas, resources and support, as an effect of negotiations, alliances, and forms of collaborative organization and leadership.
The contexts of action and interaction include localities, communities, institutions, flows of goods and services, economic relations, and cultural practices – fields or media of engagement that afford patriotic forces a range of actual and possible choices – within which they build autonomous actional capacity, strategic agency and networked national power. So it is only from its own unique base and point of departure in the Ethiopian national experience that the party of Ethiopia can develop and effectively exercise its role and function as core or leading political-national actor.
2. A “dialectic” obtains between Ethiopian national self, the historically real Ethiopia, on the one hand, and Ethiopia as felt, experienced, and consciously thought through political agency, on the other. The latter includes the experiences of citizens and distinct cultural communities of the country. But the former and the latter are better understood as having dynamic, mutually constitutive relations instead of being seen as forming a duality.
Our experience of Itiopiawinnet through (and outside or beyond) political agency is predicated on, and contains as its essential substantive moment, the actual, objective Ethiopian nation in its historic unity and integrity. So the experience is not merely subjective. But political activity and movement cannot simply be attached to an entirely pre-given Ethiopia whose national being is totally at hand, something formed once and for all. This is particularly the case in dark times like these when the “givenness” of the nation is in doubt, when the nation is facing existential crisis.
But, crisis or not, Ethiopia is historically given not only in actuality but also in potentia, as a nation which is yet to be developed and perfected, as an ongoing performance as well as an achievement. The country contains within itself the possibility of a broader and deeper realization of national self and value. But, even as actually existent nation, Ethiopia gains life and spirit within the active participation of its citizens and cultural communities in its affairs.
So patriotic and democratic forces in the country should take a correspondingly dynamic form of political agency that would allow them relative openness to the vitality and diversity of the Ethiopian national terrain. They need to develop a broader and deeper collective self that creates national and structural order beyond embodying partisan or tribal interests and projects. They should assume the form of an integral power that is capable of integrating others even as it opens itself up to them. And this means approaching the Ethiopian national landscape not as a passive social space devoid of self-organized activity and agency, but a vital terrain of movement and struggle marked by the intersection or contention of various socio-economic, cultural, institutional and political forces.
3. There is, however, tension between spirited, substantive Ethiopian nationhood – our common, sensuous national culture and lived experience – on the one hand, and the grudging, rhetorically simulated, merely tactical and instrumental embrace of “Ethiopia” characteristic of avatars of ethnonationalism, particularly leaders of the ODP/OLF led by the likes of Lemma Megersa, Abiy Ahmed and Jawar Mohammed and, of course, Woyane bosses, partisans and ideologues.
In so instrumentalizing “Ethiopia” to the ends of identity politics, Oromo ethnocentric ‘elites’ led by PM Abiy have been exercising state power using overly calculated Ethiopian narratives whose influence stems more from the surface of rhetorical enticement – with which they initially seduced citizens – than from a deeply felt telling of the veritable story of our tans-ethnic national life.
Little surprise, then, that communicative emphasis on hypnotic verbal surface resulted in in a torrent of speeches that initially captured Ethiopian public imagination but failed to keep the Ethiopian people politically intrigued and supportive. Itiopiawinnet has been given pride of place in high minded discourse yet, paradoxically, Ethiopian national experience has remained, on Abiy’s watch, actually marginalized, degraded, and impoverished in the context of “federal” state ethnicism and alongside insular “kilil” regimes, complete with their own tribal territories, militias, captive constituencies, working languages, flags, and so on.
4. Over the last nearly thirty years, an exceptionally perverse “progressivist” trend in Ethiopian politics and government promoted the conceit of “self-determining” ethnonationality, elevating first the TPLF and now the ODP/OLF to a position of predatory tribal state power essentially disconnected from, and hostile to, the historic Ethiopian national experience. Whatever its differences in political style or substance with TPLF tyranny, the sketchy Abiy regime is basically an emanation of that trend.
The initial step contemporary patriotic forces and groups need to take in undoing this condition and in rehabilitating Itiopiawinnet is somehow to let the nation itself define its problems and possibilities, express anew its interests and concerns, its hopes and fears. This means empowering the Ethiopian people to speak in their own shared as well as diverse voices, not in residual Stalinist partisan language and reason, the terms, categories and arguments of ethnonationalism on Ethiopia. It means allowing or enabling the nation to regain its life and experience after being entangled and stunned in the web of TPLF “revolutionary democracy” and after undergoing a state of suspended animation through Abiy’s tactical appropriation of Ethiopian national storytelling and propagation of the indistinct yet alluring notion of “medemer.”
5. Finally, in developing itself, patriotic political agency should maintain firm commitment and ties to Ethiopian national unity and integrity not only as a matter of principle or intrinsic value but also as a strategic imperative. Why? For at least two related reasons.
First, because Ethiopian solidarity is necessary in order to carry out peaceful systemic transition in uncertain times of political change, turbulence and crisis such as these. The times require robust stabilization by shared national interests, goals and commitments.
Put differently, there can be no stable and lasting passage to a new, more democratic political system in Ethiopia unless there is a vital national whole that is preserved and secured as a source of stability even as change of political order takes place. National unity is essential as a counterpoint to the uncertainties of transition and change and as a way to mitigate the risks of civil strife in the country.
Second, maintaining Ethiopian national integrity and solidarity is also necessary as a condition of addressing broader structural issues and problems of development and underdevelopment the Ethiopian people commonly face regardless of their ethnic, cultural or regional differences.
Given underlying challenges of Ethiopian socio-economic underdevelopment, what matters fundamentally is not so much the actorness or “self-determination” of this or that ethnic community in the country as the creation of structural conditions of broader, more powerful social action across narrow tribal identities and limited regional boundaries. What is developmentally of greater significance is transforming the economic, technological, institutional, cultural and political contexts of individual and social agency in Ethiopia. And Ethiopia’s integral continuity and development in the interest of all its citizens is both a basis and an effect of such transformation.
Articles by same author
- Ethnocentrism, Ethiopia and the Ethiopian Experience (Tesfaye Demmellash)
- On Transition and Related Matters: An Open Letter to an Old Friend (Tesfaye Demmellash)
- Changing Political Order in Ethiopia: Not a “Messianic” Undertaking
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