Reflections on Post-War Issues in Ethiopia
The current debacle of the TPLF army spells its inevitable defeat. This does not mean that there may not be ups and downs and seesaw movements on the battlefield. However, I believe now is the time, before we are blinded by the flush of victory, to start reflecting on how we Ethiopians and our government are going to transform this battlefield victory against the TPLF into a victory for peace and unity, freedom and equality, and prosperity and justice.
The spontaneous and massive self-mobilization of Ethiopians to resist the TPLF’s aggression has shown the presence of powerful historical, affective and political energies that, if canalized properly, could reinforce Ethiopia’s budding democracy and economic transformation in a lasting way. To reduce the end of the war to the cessation of fighting is to waste these energies. Moreover, if the end of an intra-state war is not used as an opportunity for socio-political transformation, vindictive passions will dominate the post-war period and subvert the moral, political, and legal conditions necessary for a lasting peace, enduring democracy, and vigorous economic development. Indeed, when a violent intra-state conflict ends, various studies show that after five years of peace, 43% of those conflicts reignite themselves unless the issues that caused the war and its harmful consequences are dealt with in the post-war period (Daniel Philpott 2012).
Fifty years of war
To ensure that a just and lasting peace is possible, we need to be clear on when the war started and the reasons behind it. A war has ideological, psychological, political, and physical dimensions. Thus understood, it is naïve to believe that the present war started with the TPLF’s attack on the Ethiopian defense forces on November 4, 2020. The TPLF started its war against Ethiopia 50 years ago with its “1968 Manifesto” in which it painted Ethiopia as a colonial empire, reduced Ethiopians to ethnic entities with no shared history and shared aspirations, and initiated the politics of ethnic hatred and divisions.
After ascending to power in 1991, the TPLF ruled Ethiopia with an iron fist. On suddenly and unexpectedly losing power in 2018, it retreated to its ethnic base and started plotting its return to power. The November 4, 2020 attack is thus the fourth phase, after 1968, 1991, and 2018, of TPLF’s war against Ethiopia. I believe only such a historically rooted understanding of the current war could enable us to reflect productively on how to extirpate the poisonous legacy of the TPLF in the post-war period and achieve a lasting peace.
For decades, the TPLF poisoned Ethiopia’s social, cultural, legal, political and economic institutions with pathological ethnic politics and toxic ethno-narcissism. It instituted an ethnic-divide-and-rule system that enabled it to fracture Ethiopians and to monopolize political and economic power without being effectively contested. Since its 1968 manifesto, the TPLF has fed the people of Tigray with a steady diet of ethnic hatred against the Amhara and with a relentless propaganda calculated to separate Tigreans from other Ethiopians and turn them against Ethiopian unity. Generations (1968 to the present) of Tigreans have grown up in this toxic atmosphere. In coming to power in 1991, the TPLF flooded Ethiopia with its poisonous and false thesis that Ethiopia is a one-hundred years old colonial empire created by the Amhara. Meles Zenawi loved to repeat this poisonous lie ad nauseum.
The major goal of this noxious propaganda was to pit Ethiopian ethnies against each other. The TPLF calculated that if it succeeds in implanting animosity between Ethiopian ethnies, it could maintain itself in power indefinitely. As the events of 2018 showed, its calculation misfired, because it was based on a lie that tried to suppress the long history that Ethiopians made and shared collectively. However, this does not mean that the effects of the pathological ethnocentrism and malignant ethnic politics that the TPLF has injected into Ethiopian society for 50 years will disappear with its military defeat. The post-war period must develop political, legal, educational, and other institutional ways and means that could extirpate TPLF’s malevolent ideology, values, beliefs, practices and their effects and traces from all facets of Ethiopian life.
The post-war context
The post-war context is one of heartbreaking psychological and physical damages. The consequences of the enormous human suffering that the TPLF has inflicted on Ethiopians are deep and widespread. Millions of Ethiopians have lost their brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, neighbors, and friends. Many are physically disabled. That such psychological and physical traumatisms and sufferings could create vindicative passions, hatred, and call for revenge in the post-war period is to be expected. We Ethiopians and our government must find multiple ways and means of allaying such alarming developments in ways that make possible political reconciliation among Ethiopians. This is necessary if we are to avoid the festering of the war’s psychological and social wounds and the emergence of new cycles of revenge and violence. If vindictive passions start dominating the lives of the millions of Ethiopians victimized by the TPLF, the Ethiopian moral, political, and legal order will be in big trouble.
Moreover, The material damage that the TPLF has intentionally wrought in Northern Ethiopia is beyond the pale. Schools, hospitals, health centers, medical supplies, food depots, harvests, roads, bridges, water and electric power lines and other infrastructures, administrative buildings, private properties, and whatever appears useful for living have been intentionally and methodically destroyed. It is reported that TPLF soldiers even killed domestic and farm animals: a heinous crime for those who live from the land. Add to this the millions of Ethiopians who were forced to abandon their homes and are left with nothing.
The Ethiopian people and their government are responsible for cleaning up the mess that the TPLF war created and for rebuilding the villages, cities, communities, infrastructures it has willfully and systematically destroyed. Such a gigantic task of reconstruction requires enormous resources. Ethiopians could meet this challenge. However, third parties, namely the American and European governments, who, by their support of the anti-democratic TPLF, facilitated the continuation of the war whose stated purpose was to overthrow a democratically elected government, have the moral obligation to provide resources for this reconstruction.
In our dealing with the West in the post-war period, we could follow the advice of the African philosopher St. Augustine (354-430 AD): “Hate the sin but not the sinner.” We hate the West’s betrayal of Ethiopian democracy; we hate its support for the anti-democratic TPLF; but we do not hate the West. The West’s contribution to the reconstruction of the war-devastated Ethiopia is a necessary act of repentance for the incalculable damage it has done by supporting the TPLF’s attack on Ethiopia. Moreover, as part of this act of contrition, the West has the obligation to return to Ethiopia the hundreds of millions of dollars that the TPLF leaders have looted and stashed in Western banks.
Reconstructing mutual trust
The task of rebuilding Ethiopia when its people are beset by deep psychological traumas and extensive physical destruction is daunting. Though we could agree that Ethiopians desire peace and unity, freedom and equality, prosperity and justice, the question is: “what kind of conditions make possible the translation of this desire into polices and concrete actions in such a dire psychological and physical environment?” We Ethiopians must flesh out these conditions and consider how to bring them about. Let me start with one indispensable condition—mutual trust—and develop the other conditions from there.
First, without a large measure of mutual trust between Ethiopians, as individuals and as groups, and between Ethiopians and their government, Ethiopians cannot fruitfully discuss and agree upon what must be done in the post-war period to concretize their desire for peace, freedom, equality, prosperity, and justice. The TPLF politics of ethnic divide-and-rule and its vicious war have destroyed mutual trust. The case of Dessie is instructive. Weeks before the event, the TPLF announced that it will take Dessie. Apparently, it was counting on the success of the pathological ethnic politics it has been practicing since 1968. And it did succeed. Many people who have lived in Dessie for generations turned against their neighbors, friends, and Ethiopian forces. The question then is: “how is it possible for people who live in the same neighbourhoods, and who have betrayed and been betrayed by their neighbours and friends, but have to continue to live together in the post-war period, trust each other again?”
The destruction of mutual trust makes unfeasible agreements on common interests and common goals. Without such an agreement, we cannot engage in collective actions rooted in commonly shared intentions and aspirations. Without the cultivation of mutual trust among Ethiopians, the victory against the TPLF might indeed bear bitter fruits. Economic development, democracy, and justice could fall victim to vindictive passions and ill-will, and wither away, opening the door for another round of political violence.
What could Ethiopians and the government do to create mutual trust? I believe that the creation of a long-lasting mutual trust among Ethiopians cannot be reduced to acts of individual forgiveness and reconciliation although these could play a role in certain situations. I believe the creation of a long-lasting mutual trust requires legal and institutional foundations.
Establishing the Rule of Law
The first condition is the unimpeachable application of the rule of law. In the post-war period, this raises a number of crucial questions that must be addressed. First, the rule of law totally rejects the idea of collective guilt. The TPLF is not the Tigray people. Like the Nazis who conflated their party and the German people, the TPLF would like us to conflate it with the Tigrean people. We have to reject categorically such a conflation. The TPLF is, like Nazism, a malignant tumor that needs to be extirpated from the Ethiopian body-politics. Its ideology, practices, and politics are incompatible with the practice of the rule of law. The establishment of the rule of law in the post-war period requires the abolition and disbanding of the TPLF.
Moreover, the rule of law requires that we distinguish between a political crime, a political error, and a political opinion. This means we must make certain distinctions regarding the members and sympathizers of the TPLF. First, there are the impenitent members of the TPLF. These are its civilian, military, and security leaders. These are political criminals. Second, there are those who have committed or ordered or facilitated the commission of rape, the killing of innocents, the wanton destructions of vital or life-saving goods and infrastructures. These are war criminals. Third, there are those who joined the TPLF not out of conviction but to serve their personal interests. These are people who committed political errors and need not be treated as political criminals. Finally, there are people whose political opinions reflect the TPLF ideology.
The impenitent members and those who committed war crimes must be brought to justice. This must be done in ways that are not susceptible to the criticism that the trials are expressions of victor’s justice. Justice requires that similar war crimes be treated similarly whether they are committed by the members of the defeated or of the victors. The rule of law must equally apply to all who violated the rules of just conduct of war (jus in bellum). Those who committed political errors in joining the TPLF must be held for the consequences of their actions, with retribution depending on the gravity of the consequences. Those who hold the political opinions of the TPLF have the right to hold these opinions. One cannot punish an opinion.
The respect and application of the rule of law will powerfully contribute to the creation and solidification of mutual trust among Ethiopians and between Ethiopians and the government. The rule of law is a legal-political force of gravity that captures trust in the same way that the earth’s gravity captures the atmosphere without which humans will die out. Where there is no rule of law, there is no mutual trust. And where is no mutual trust, there is no peace; violence reigns.
The rule of law must be seconded by institutional measures that create and enhance mutual trust. This means cultural, educational, political, legal and judicial, economic institutions, and the media must be purged of structures, procedures, functions, symbols, activities, and values that are rooted in or influenced by the ideas, practices, goals, beliefs, projects, and norms of the TPLF.
After 50 years (1968-2018) of TPLF’s unrelenting cultivation of ethnic hatred, divisions, and pathological ethnic politics, Ethiopian society must be de-TPLFized if the rule of law is to reign. Ethiopia needs in certain respects a de-TPLFization that is similar to what the Germans call Entnazifizierung (de-nazification). Moreover, all Ethiopian institutions must take seriously their pedagogical responsibilities to combat the TPLF’s lethal ideology and its destructive consequences. They have to nourish the emergence of a sense of common humanity among Ethiopians to ensure a lasting peace and a robust democracy.
Since the failed 1960 coup d’état, Ethiopians have been struggling to create a society that institutionalizes freedom, equality and justice, offers equal opportunities to all, rectifies rectifiable past injustices, and facilitates the formation of a collective will that drives the collective actions necessary for promoting Ethiopian democracy and economic development. The concretization of these goals in the post-war period is possible only and only if we successfully surmount the enormous physical and psychological damages the TPLF has inflicted on Ethiopians.
Ethiopians must discuss seriously, honestly, and without recrimination the concrete ways and means that are needed to implement the rule of law and the institutional measures that will create mutual trust and political reconciliation in order to ensure the flourishing of Ethiopian democracy, economy, and culture in the post-war period. We cannot leave this discussion to others. Let us not forget that more than a century of being told who we are, what we want, and what we should be by Western experts and academics has not enabled us to articulate and bring to fruition the emancipatory aspirations of Ethiopians. The Däqiqä Estifanos (15th century Ethiopia) tell us, “Do not stop before you reach the summit of what you are capable of.” We could reach the summit “of what we are capable of,” to wit, democracy, prosperity, and justice only if we make these the targets of our discussions, collective intentions, shared aspirations, and cooperative actions.
The ideas I propose above are suggestions motivated by the conviction that we should not waste the opportunity that the victory over the TPLF offers us to reflect upon the future of Ethiopian society. I hope others will critically consider, develop, and expand the ideas offered above, or propose new ideas.
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