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The Tale of Two Nationalisms, Demystifying Narratives of Identity Deconstruction Towards the Ethiopian Orthodox Church 

Ethiopia _ two nationalism
Zerihun Addisu , the author

By Zerihun Addisu

Prelude to the Current Conundrum 

The current ongoing demonization attempt to redefine and deconstruct as well as reconstruct the Church is highly based on superficial understanding and single line of cherry-picking interpretation of Ethiopian history. This attempt to reconstruct or redefine the Church fails to take into account the broader historical significance and the irreplaceable role the Church plays in the social and cultural life of ordinary Ethiopians as one of the few indigenous African institutions that has significant place in the history of African Christianity. Unlike many institutions of the continent, the Church has “adapted beliefs and symbols which reflected and reinforced African traditions, and either absorbed or transfigured that which suited its purposes. The Ethiopian Church is an indigenous church, not an indigenized one”. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has been there for thousands of years with an incredible resilience and tenacity enduring and surviving tumultuous periods of assaults, persecutions, attempts of state led imposition of doctrines and other religions. 

However, the threat from within has been more dangerous than the external ones. Post 1991 has seen drastic changes in terms of nation building. However, many radical ethnonationalist still think the TPLF led EPRDF didn’t push further and deeper in dismantling the existing power structure that has been for centuries in the country. There were groups who think TPLF was only concerned about its power and monopoly of resources ignoring their radical agenda of completing the task of unmaking and remaking of the Ethiopian state. For this group Orthodox is viewed as the pinnacle of the ‘old regime’ and the imperial system. That’s what is driving this recent and ongoing phenomenon. The project is a continuation of EPRDF. 

Even the celebration of this year’s Adwa Victory which set a dark day on a special day when Ethiopia became a beacon of hope for Black people around the world. What happened in that day depicts the grim reality behind this notion that the EOTC has to be alienated from the public sphere and needs to be sidelined from playing significant role in the day to day lives and public rituals of ordinary Ethiopians. It is part of the narrative change which aims to debase and downgrade its presence and visibility. Above all, there is a relentless desire to alter the form and identity of EOTC.

This piece aims to shed highlight on the approach of ethnonational deconstructionist of identities in light of the recent phenomenon surrounding the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. It attempts to unpack the historical and ideological foundations that have led to the recent ongoing conundrum.  

Post 1991 Ethiopia and the Political Landscape 

The recent and ongoing quest to deconstruct and reconstruct the Ethiopian Orthodox Church partly stems from the ‘nationality question’ of the student movement (ESM) which attempted to define Ethiopia in terms of ethnic oppression and Marxist-socialist ideology. Some of the movement leaders and programs of the various political organizations of the 1960s who subscribe to ethnonationalism to diagnose and prescribe way outs from the problems. However, post 1991 Ethiopia is defined by the ethnonational viewpoint as opposed to the class analysis of the socialist worldview understanding of the problems. As a result, many of the ethnonational organizations fall under two broad categories based on their analysis of the country’s past and state-society relations. These are two lines of theses: the oppression thesis and the colonialist thesis. The colonialist thesis is largely pursued by radical Oromo and Somali nationalists such as the various factions of Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF). Whereas the oppression thesis is pursued by TPLF, Oromo People Democratic Party (OPDO), Amhara National Democratic Party (ANDM), Southern Ethiopian Peoples’s Democratic Movement – SEPDM and others.  

The 1991 take over of the political power by the TPLF led EPRDF has brought a dramatic shift in the state structure as ethnonationalists have taken central state power and redefined the country’s history. As a result, the TPLF led government has made significant restructuring of the Ethiopian state with the introduction of ethnic federalism. Since coming to power, the TPLF had sought the ‘remaking’ of the Ethiopian state according to Merrera. This is partly due to its strong belief that the state has been oppressive and unfair to nations and nationalities. In defining Ethiopia’s inherent historical problems and contradictions, the renowned sociologist Donald N. Levine (1974), author of Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multi-ethnic Society, popularized Carlo Conti-Rossin’s description of Ethiopia as ‘un museo di popoli’ – ‘a museum of peoples’ (pp. 19-20). He has been credited with the depiction of the evolution of multi-ethnic Ethiopia as an ‘Amhara thesis’, ‘Oromo anti-thesis’ and the ‘Tigray synthesis’. Throughout history, the relationship between the elites of the three ethnic groups have shaped the course of history, state formation and state-society relations. What the 1995 constitution has made a significant political misgiving is its complete insertion of ethnicity as the sole organizing unit of political life in the country. Though the above ethnic groups have a long history of contestation and cooperation, the state and the society have been able to forge complex networks of relationships, intertwined forces that transcend ethnic identities and cross the limits of geographical boundaries and ethnic cleavages. Even within those major ethnic groups there are numerous internal differences, multiple relationships of cooperations and contestations that feed into the larger and broader state building as well as alignments and intersections among various social groups of the peasantry, clergy, urban poor, Christians, Muslims and other religious belies that make the clear-cut demarcation hardly possible and incompatible to Ethiopia’s context. The history of Oromo suggests the same. There is ample resource and evidence that establishes the significant contribution of Oromo in the nation building history of Ethiopia. As Brian Yeats prefers to refer as “invisible actors” given their powerful presence within the whole political structure in key positions of bureaucracy, and the military. Countless studies show there has been significant and complex synergy, alliance, and cooperation among the Showan, Wollo and other elites. However, this history finds to have alternative and competing narratives within the larger strands of Oromo nationalists who view the past as diminishing and even eliminating from the political map. 

The Tale of Two Nationalisms 

The emergence of Oromo nationalism has ideological foundations that uses historical colonial or oppression lens based on what one interprets history and the state-society relations with regards to the people of Oromo. Whether one follows the oppression or colonial thesis, there is no clear-cut difference on some of the cross cutting and salient issues within the broader Oromo politics. This is one of the fundamental divergences between Oromo nationalism and Tigrayan nationalism. Tigrayan nationalists have their own peculiar features that could be seen separately in light of the current conundrum of the move to redefine and take over the Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Tigray has a major historical significance in EOTH’s history. It has been a focal point of Ethiopia’s ancient civilization and empire that has contributed significantly in spiritual, historical, linguistic, cultural, material, psychological, etc. make up of modern-day Ethiopia. TPLF and Tigray nationalism did not pose the threat of making EOTC as part of the unmaking and remaking of the state. Contrarily, the dominant discourse on Oromo nationalism sees Orthodox Church as an instrument of oppression or colonial annexation. 

To substantiate this argument, I will provide two prominent figures representing the two strands. Asafa Jalata, one of the prominent and authoritative voices of the colonial view Oromo nationalism states that “the Amhara-Tigrayan state has used both violent and institutional mechanisms to ensure that the Oromo people remain leaderless. Furthermore, to ensure its colonial domination, the Ethiopian state has destroyed or suppressed Oromo institutions while glorifying, establishing, and expanding the Amhara-Tigrayan government and Orthodox Christianity.” For Asafa the EOTC is a major actor in state building and like many others his view of the Church is deconstructionist. Another contemporary scholar and politician who follows an oppression thesis, Merera Gudina, states that “The core of the power elite of the emerging empire-state was the Shewa Amhara elite, who successfully incorporated and assimilated the Oromo elite of Shewa with its three-pronged ideology of Orthodox Christianity, Amhara cultural ethos and Ethiopian unity.” He adds that “And, for a century to come, the Shewan Amhara elite – the embodiment of Orthodox Christianity, Amharic language and the Abyssinian cultural values dominated multi-ethnic Ethiopia in a manner hitherto unprecedented in the country’s history.” These two prominent figures have differences in terms of viewing the country’s history within the prism of oppression and colonial lenses, yet both demonstrate significant similarity if not identical position how they view Orthodox Christianity and the role of the institution in the making of modern Ethiopia. This complex symphonic similarity becomes hard to discern when such attitudes and assertions hold on central authority and state power. It brings irreconcilable antagonism. 

This is exactly what TPLF faced when it controlled power after the fall of the Derg regime. According to the well-known British scholar Chrisopher Clapham who suggests that Tigrayan nationalists and the TPLF insurgency leaders, faced the stark reality of administering the state that they have been waging war against to dismantle. According to Clapham “On coming to power in 1991, the TPLF faced the immediate problem – common to any guerrilla movement that seizes control of a national government – of taking over the state apparatus against which it had been fighting for the previous decade and a half. On the whole, it managed this problem extremely well.” Unlike TPLF, most of the current Oromo nationalist Prosperity Party leaders were not rebel leaders or guerrilla fighters who have taken over state power through armed warfare. However, Oromo nationalism has no consensus and clearly defined ideology with regards to what kind of political formula it adopts and the goal it aspires to accomplish within the current Ethiopian landscape. However, there are indicators and trends. The recent repositioning and constellation around Oromo PP and the pm ranging from Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) and Oromo Federalist Congress (OFC) to OLF demonstrate this tendency to establish consensus around the fundamental interests beside the urge desire to maintain the status quo of ruling Ethiopia.  

There is one strong case that distinguishes the era of TPLF led EPRDF from the current Oromo nationalist led PP government. Contrary to the EPRDF era which was politically strong handed and merging the line between party and the government that has been filled with members of the ruling party and affiliates. This was possible, partly, due to its strong party discipline and democratic centralism and revolutionary democracy that provided the party with coherence, control, and uniformity. PP does not have these strengths. For Clapham “It inherited a generally disciplined and efficient government bureaucracy, with an underlying commitment to Ethiopian statehood, which had grown disillusioned with the Derg regime.” He asserts that “despite misgivings about both the TPLF’s apparent ideological leanings and its commitment to a level of autonomy for Ethiopia’s constituent nationalities that the bureaucracy generally did not share, was prepared to work with its successor.” This context allowed TPLF/EPRDF to have a stable state machinery that eased its take over which could have been difficult had it not been for the patriotic bureaucracy which was loyal to the public interest of the country. 

Unlike TPLF era, the Oromo PP era is marked by an internal transition from one source of power to another inside the EPRDF. This transition and power shift has provided Oromo PP under pm Abiy with the advantages of stability, continuity, and legitimacy due to the combined massive support from public and from within EPRDF as a result of the tremendous backlash against TPLF’s dominance in its 27 years rule. Yet, Oromo PP seems to run the country like the rebels and armed guerilla fighters of the TPLF leadership who sought their newfound power was being under heavy scrutiny and their alienness to urban politics of the 90s Ethiopia. TPLF tried to overcome this after encountering numerous and enormous setbacks and backlash from pan Ethiopians. Ironically, PP seems desperately lacking the vision, capacity and political will to govern. However, both TPLF and PP struggle due to their inherent contradiction of the ethnonational deconstructionist tendency of approaching state power as a means to achieve a narrow self interest. Ethnonational deconstruction naturally collides with central state power and defeats the very purpose of running a government. It has a spectacular failure of establishing strong social contract. It quickly unravels as the political settlement among the various ethnic elites fails to make negotiated settlement. Today’s Ethiopia is exhibiting this acute crisis. 

Despite having the luxury of a good bureaucratic machinery, the current incumbent is operating in a fashion that resembles a power takeover by a rebel group. This conundrum has largely to do with ethnonationalist radical deconstructivism that some of the leaders adhere to. Radical ethnonationalism largely follows a trajectory that aspires to redefine and dismantle the existing and ‘residual’ pillars of the state that have enabled and sustained the making of the nation. As already indicated, it considers those pillars as instruments of oppression and marginalization that hegemonize the system. 

This assertion finds clear evidence from the recent incidents surrounding the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. This has essentially demonstrated that despite the continuities and consistencies that mark the transition from EPRDF to Prosperity Party is similar, there are clear differences in terms of the goal of the nation building. It is clear that PP takes a diametrically extreme position by taking the deconstruction and reconstruction even further to the extent of dismantling the non-political social foundations of the power relations. Unlike Prosperity Party, TPLF/EPRDF did not vigorously aspire and envision to dismantle all pillars of the state even if it restructured and redefined the state along ethnic lines. It is evident that, the constitution has dramatically transformed the state, its relationship with the various ethno-groups and the general society resulting the intensification of ethnic identities. Yet, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church was not a subject of deconstruction/reconstruction under TPLF. Issues of autonomy, independence and separation of church and state which are constitutional matters of religious liberty were the concerns. There was no attempt to restructure the Church. 

The recent political developments have made many to wonder what the differences between the TPLF/EPRDF and Prosperity Party actually are. This question emanates from the logic of contradictions of ethnonationalist forces when one controls state power. The prerogatives of attaining the goals of the political projects encounters inherent impossibilities as the logic of contradiction dictates running state power. Obviously, ruling a diverse population like Ethiopia inherently entails the ability to maintain power, deliver and gain legitimacy from the highly diverse constituencies. Failing to figure out and understand this inherent contradiction is what brings the ‘ethnonationalism trap’ that ethnonationalists face due to their interpretation of history, perception of the state and their goal of controlling state power. This ‘trap’ exposes the logic of contradictions constraining the legitimacy and capacity to effectively govern the country. While TPLF tried to gradually reconcile the contradictions and maintained loyalty to its original ideological leanings as the party faced enormous challenges of maintaining power and achieving legitimacy. EPRDF had the advantage of discipline, clear ideology and policy positions that provided continuity, sustainability, and coherence in managing its internal divisions. Yet, TPLF’s deconstructionist ideology and authoritarian rule proved, as well, incompatible to run a huge country like Ethiopia. 

Decoupling from the Social Foundation and the Withering of EOTC’s Autonomy 

Following the 2018 leadership change one of the main outstanding points forwarded by EPRDF leaders’ joint statement was the Front’s lack of focus on national consensus and unifying agendas. The party agreed that it made little effort to promote national shared values and collective interests and instead it was heavily preoccupied by ethnonational and regional divisive as well as polarizing agendas. However, this was not the only problem. It is half of the story. The move to form Prosperity Party was thought it would grant the former front a platform to catch larger sections the Ethiopian population. However, what the recent developments in the country as well as the leadership of Oromo PP have revealed that it has even failed to live even up to the standard of EPRDF in terms of providing security, order, and stability in the country. Above all, it has taken the road to extreme ethnonational agendas which are beyond the purview of the state. 

The recent phenomenon surrounding the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the move to split or redefine the Church’s Synod part of such tendencies. The move exhibits the deep ideological and historical politicization of the Church’s role in the political and social life of Ethiopians mainly due to its allegiance to the state and the various rulers in its long history. However, any attempt to control, redefine, deconstruct or reconstruct the identity and the administrative practice of the Church begets an interference on the internal affairs of church and religious matters which is not only a violation of the constitution of the country. It also violates he longstanding practice and tradition of maintaining EOTC as a sovereign, autonomous and independent institution with its own rich tradition and rules of interpretation, administration, conflict resolution and management of its internal affairs. Though the recent challenges are extraordinary in terms of the degree to its survival, and identity, it has never been free of threats and challenges that undermine its religious and spiritual commitments. In a constitutional democracy or at least in a country with rule of law and constitutionalism the issue could have been addressed without interference of ruling party officials and security apparatus. It is evident that PP officials in Oromia and other opposition groups have derived, exploited, and plotted the problem as they have ideological and political alignment with the group. In addition to the economic interests that prevails surrounding the Church, there several goals. I would categorize these aspired changes into three. These are ideological and political, administrative, religious/spiritual, and social. 

The ideological changes aim at dismantling and reconstructing as well as redefining the Church’s orientation, historization or interoperation of Ethiopia’s history and make it become coterminous with ethnonational interpretation of the country’s history. Whether OLF or OPP, high-ranking officials and party leaders share this strong sentiment of decoupling the Church from the state as they consider its power deeply imbedded in the political life of the public and the making of the modern state. That’s why the controlling the synod has become an important aspect of this project. It’s a groundwork for future long-term goal of decoupling and loosening the forces and elements that unite the country mysteriously and systematically. The task of competing the mission of redefining the Church in terms of ideology/political, administratively, and socially gains its culmination only when the existing one is replaced by new ones and attains hegemony in the public life of the faithful and ordinary Ethiopians. However, that is a path to dead end.

The problem is this political and ideological as well as the administrative goals are intentionally and inadvertently mixed with notions of secularism and separation of church and state including invoking of 1995 FDRE provision of the constitution that underlines such important principle. This is also the complex nature of Ethiopia’s history and process of state making and the Church, in particular. However, it has to be clearly stated that the arguments and the rationales are not entirely constitutional which should have aimed at safeguarding the fundamental democratic notion of secularism and equality of religions in the country. There is a dark underbelly for the church among some ethnonational elites who see its longstanding position and autonomy anachronistic to their political and economic ascendancy. These accusations on the TPLF led EPRDF fail to take into consideration what Tigray means and its important place in the making of the EOTC. Some hardline ethnonational elites think the TPLF led coalition deliberately avoided or ignored the redefining of the Church. Such analysis fails to see the deeply existing leftist Marxist dominated revolutionary democracy of TPLF which is only interested in control and domination as well as hegemony certain practices and values without tinkering into the details of religious teachings and ecclesiastical domains. What TPLF/EPRDF wanted was submission and subordination of interests. It was an institutional tyranny without attempting to impose its own religious doctrine, interpretations, and ethnonational orientation of ethnic composition of the EOTC’s Synod. However, this does not mean the state interference in deposing the then patriarch Abune Merkorios and appointed Abune Paulos. It left a lasting scar in causing a split within the Church; one in exile. This has become the tradition of maintaining conformity to the new ruler as the church and state relation has been designed to establish and sustain some degree of conformity. 

Apparently, this does not sit well with many hardline and radical ethnonational voices who think TPLF/EPRDF made a disservice in failing to dismantle and redefine the Church politically and ideologically as well as administratively. The January 22, 2023, move to appoint two dozens of bishops is an attempt to challenge this longstanding belief that the Church needs to undertake ideological/political and administrative deconstruction and reconstructions. In the religious/spiritual aspect, the splinters argued that it was within the prerogative of the three senior archbishops to appoint bishops, it was obvious that the decision was against the dogma and the 7 hundred years of the age-old canonical practice of the Church. It unequivocally and clearly stipulates the Synod together with the Patriarch has to make such crucial and sacred decision. Accordingly, the Church has unequivocally denounced and rejected the illegal move while still making its door open for negotiated settlement and dialogue. Regrettably, the violent move to topple church leaders and overtake various churches have caused irreparable damage on the social and religious sanctity of millions of Ethiopians including the Church. It is also hurting the social cohesion and fabric of eroding the invisible values and ingredients that tie many Ethiopians together. Finally, in terms of the social aspect, disrupting the social relationships is one of the goals of deconstructionist remaking of power relations. This causes critical social consequences in ripping apart the social fabric and harmony of the country that is united by invisible factors and forces. This makes the ‘decoupling’ process easier and possible as the social forces gradually lack the fortitude and resilience to counter such moves. 

The Banality of Our Politics 

The Church is reckoned as a unifying force with an incomparable degree of embeddedness in the social life of millions of diverse Ethiopians despite their ethnic, political, and other differences. If not handled properly the situation will sow immense divisions and polarizations that are hard to reconcile and heal from. Managing such crisis requires utmost neutrality, impartiality and legality from the state given the limits of governmentality placed upon it in dealing with religious matters. The unreserved of interpretation of every life and action through ethnonational perspective results in a totalitarian tendency of systematically dictating, silencing, and controlling every human behaviour in all areas of social and personal life. this further causes the denial of basic freedoms. The ethnonational line of interpretation causes a discriminatory and exclusionary Ethiopia that marginalizes significant number of its citizens. This abrogates and violates the social contract the state has with Ethiopians. This criminalizes dissent and the fundamental freedom to worship and exercise religious liberty. It is the banality of our politics that stifles the right freedom of expression and hold a different opinion.

From Dergue to EPRDF and now to PP, the Church has been a subject of continual crackdown, cooptation, and interference that at times crippled, and divided the internal harmony and unity of the Church. In controverted matters between civil and ecclesiastical claims, as in disputes between rights of the Church and its million followers and the ethnonational questions of rights to inclusion in terms of language and administrative issues, and every contested subject whatsoever, ought to give what is due to the Church in dealing and managing the matters that are its domains. Otherwise, it is a platitude that does not bring us one iota nearer a solution rather brings layers of complexity and polarization to the existing fault-lines adding new forms of oppression in addition to the problems the nation is already grappling with and languishing from.  

Editor’s note : views in the article reflect the views of the writer, not the views of borkena.com 

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2 COMMENTS

  1. The moment the neophyte and his pp goons, including the religious impostor and pp cadre daniel kibret attacked the EOTC, the writings on the wall that have been illegible became crystal clear. For 5 years, the impostor masquerading as the premier of Ethiopia for all Ethiopians has been wishy washy. Through his extremely boring, tear-jerkingly insufferable , laborious, loquacious dribbles, the demagogue has been preaching fake Ethiopianism while causing the massacre of hundreds of thousands, the displacement of tens of millions and the disenfranchisement and alienation of tens of millions. For five years, the grim reaper has brought Ethiopia nothing but bloodshed, chaos, misery hunger, poverty, insecurity, massive inflation and just total curse and anathema day in day out. What the EOTC incident revealed was the mind boggling and heart pounding truth for everyone to see.

    የበግ ለምድ የለበሰው የኦሮሙማው የከሰረው ፖለቲከኛ ደላላ ቅን ነኝ ባይ አስመሳይ ተኩላ: ለርካሽ ፖለቲካ ትርፍ ሊጠቀምባቸው ያዘጋጃጃቸውን ማንነታቸውን ምዕመናኑ በደምብ ጠንቅቆ የሚያውቃቸውን ” አባቶች” ” የጠፉትን በጎች ይዜ መጥቻለሁ” በማለት ፊቱ ላይ ግልፅ ብሎ የሚታየውን ጥላቻ:ንቀት:ዕብሪት: ንዴት: ሌላም: ሌላም መሸፈን አቅቶት እንደለመደው: ለያወናብድ ሲሞክር: በእውነት ብርሃን የሂሊና መብራት ማንነቱ: በግልፅ በቢሊየን ለሚቆጠረው አለም አቀፍ ማህበረሰብ ቁልጭ ብሎ ታየ: ተገለፀ!!!!!!!!

    Fool me once, shame on you . Fool me twice shame on me!!!!!!!!!

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