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HomeOpinionThe Supra-structural Functions of the Ethiopian Military

The Supra-structural Functions of the Ethiopian Military

Ethiopian Army
Ethiopian Army during parade (Photo : file/SM)

By Addissu Admas

Conscripted or regular army has played a central role in Ethiopia’s long history and the construction of her identity as a nation. How the army was recruited, armed and mobilized may have evolved profoundly through the centuries. Even the reasons that informed its constitution may have varied from one epoch to another. However, what has not, or perhaps should not change is its supra-structural functions. Before I address these, let me outline first briefly the stated functions of the army and of the military in general. 

The military is constituted primarily to defend the nation against foreign threats and aggressions. That is why it is called defense force. We also know that the great powers, as has been very clear these days, use their vast military machinery to threaten or invade smaller nations, to shore up or expand their hegemony, or exact compliance to their stated policies. Obviously, this is done in the name of security and stability. This may have been achieved through sagacious diplomacy. Apparently, good diplomacy does not seem to have a “convincing” solution than war, meaning more than a “good beating” to “teach” a lesson or two to the recalcitrant or presumably rebellious party. This has been the modus operandi of every global or regional power since recorded history. However, it remains a principle of the military that the reason of its existence is to defend the nation and not invade another for one reason or another, and in the process, preserve the sovereignty of the nation.

The second very important function that the military has played is preserving national cohesion and unity. A classic example in this case is the American Civil War. It may have been triggered by political, ideological and economical divergences, but the goal of the legitimately established authority was to bring under its sway the secessionists. In Ethiopia, the military’s function, after the Italian colonial war, has been, with but one or two exceptions, to quell rebellious faction within the country. Thus, it is not far-fetched to conclude that in Ethiopia, the military has been used by every regime since then to primarily preserve more the unity than the sovereignty of the country. As history shows, it has succeeded to some extent, and would have succeeded completely if it were not for the short-sightedness and miscalculation of its leaders, namely Mengistu Hailemariam and Meles Zenawi. No need to belabor this point further.

Beyond these two functions, as I hinted above, the military has at least three supra-structural functions. What I mean by supra-structural is what is not originally and primarily intended, but emerges from it naturally. Rather than being undesired consequence, it consistently produces positive outcomes. At least three or four are the supra-structural functions that often emerge from a well-organized, disciplined and politically well-grounded military. 

The first of these is the power of the military of becoming a premier instrument of cohesion especially for a country as ethnically diverse as Ethiopia. As the recent “tribalist” massacres in Tole have clearly demonstrated, for Ethiopia to remain whole and viable, she desperately needs armed forces that are very well-trained, ethnically diverse and ideologically committed to the notion of “Ethiopiawinet”. There is indeed a good reason to believe that for the foreseeable future Ethiopia will continue to suffer from ethnic strife inspired and sustained by misguided, narrow-minded and even malicious politics of ethnic grievances. After nearly two generations since the Ethiopian revolution and the effective abolition of the feudal system under the presumed dominance of the Orthodox Amhara people in the Ethiopian government, there is still a Quixotic, or even paranoid intent to resurrect and make current the “reality” of Amhara hegemony or dominance. More than two thirds of Ethiopia’s population was born after the Revolution of ’74, and nothing of what non-Amharas may have supposedly suffered under the imperial regime has been experienced by the post-revolutionary generations. Yet the TPLF, whose top cadre was infused by rabid hatred for the Amhara, made it its life mission to depict them, not only as a hegemonic ethnic group, but as predatory, oppressive and discriminatory. Not to be outdone, the OLF has structured its ideology on the same premises. However, the fact of the matter is that even if it may have been true to some extent in pre-revolutionary times, the reality of today is that a new generation of Ethiopians have only known the crass ethno-fascist hegemony perpetrated by the TPLF. What the Tigrean and Oromo people need now are younger leaders un-infected and unburdened by the politics of ethnic grievances. Leaders who can envision an Ethiopia that is not wrought by a history of real or imagined offenses. Until the advent of such leaders, Ethiopia’s armed forces must be trained and ready to extinguish and possibly prevent the divisive and centrifugal forces emerging all over the country. It must be noted here in passing that the TPLF’s possible involvement in the attempt to destabilize Ethiopia must be investigated thoroughly; the same with Western powers.

Until the complete demobilization of the Ethiopian armed forces by the TPLF upon Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s flight to Zimbabwe, Ethiopia possessed one of the most well-integrated, diverse and patriotic military. The TPLF, as has clearly transpired in the recent war, was never committed to providing Ethiopia with diverse, well-trained and well-equipped armed forces. Its primary objective was to refashion the military as simply the armed wing of its party. The same idea prevailed in re-constituting the security apparatus. TPLF’s objective in “rebuilding” the armed forces and the security system was primarily to secure its power in perpetuity. This “perpetuity” lasted a remarkable 27 years; far longer than if it had not put in place the kind of military and security apparatus it created.

PM Abiy needs to “return” and at the same time “go beyond” the core principles of the pre-TPLF military organizing principles. In other words, the military must not only be committed to the principles of diversity, unity and fairness, but it must also be an active agent in forming the next generation of Ethiopians. What this means is that, along its primary functions of defending the nation from within and without, it must become the primary institution of national cohesion, character formation and practical education. 

First of all, it should become again, as General Abebaw Tadesse has stated in a television interview, an institution open to all Ethiopians and where meritocracy and not ethnicity becomes the criterion of advancement. This is a rather tall order after the profoundly damaging ethnic politics in the military by the TPLF. However, it is a necessary first step. If the military is to become effective, it must encourage actively and openly the spirit of patriotism, without which it is near impossible to have a committed and dedicated fighting force. 

Secondly, in today’s abysmal degradation of traditional values, the military could become a true laboratory of character formation or modification. To this end, it may even be very beneficial to institute a compulsory military service for the duration of one year to bring together all young Ethiopians of all ethnicities, social and religious background, political persuasion, etc…not only with the declared objective to train them in the necessary art of defending the nation from “enemies foreign and domestic”, but also to provide them with the space and occasion to learn to appreciate each other’s’ languages, cultures and mores, and  in the process blunt the edges of ethnic animus. When they really come to know each other, they will most likely stop being hostile towards each other!

Thirdly, as many Ethiopian of the older generations have been complaining, there is a real debasement of character that has been brought about by an exceedingly corrupt political and economic system, if not promoted at least encouraged by the previous regime. The military could become an instrument of national cultural and behavioral regeneration. Were a national compulsory military service to be instituted, it can become the locus where not only martial duties are learned, but also civic duties could be inculcated. Put bluntly, Ethiopia cannot continue with the prevailing ethos that is not only corroding public and private institutions, but it is inexorably fraying the social fabric itself.

Finally, the military could also become the premier institution for teaching practical skills, especially for the disadvantaged youth of the country. Ethiopia, despite her very large potential labor pool, has one of the smallest population of well-trained labor force. The country does not possess enough wealth to create as many vocational schools as it needs. One way to meet the need for well-trained and disciplined work force is to transform the military into a vast network of vocational school system. This would also guarantee that upon their release from the military, all service persons could become productive and contributing citizens. Additionally, their skills would be immensely useful in times of national, natural or human caused catastrophes. In fact, this is one more reason to promote and encourage this particular possible function of the military right now.

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