Tesfa ZeMichael, BPhil.
Fano is conducting an armed and locally-rooted struggle against the oppressive regime of Dr. Abiy Ahmed. That Fano will win is not, however, a foregone conclusion. History shows that many just struggles have failed. A liberation struggle is likely to succeed when it is fused with ideas and ideals that concretely express the people’s aspirations for a life without want, unfreedoms, and inequalities.
Until now, Fano’s ideas do not go any further than claiming to bring down Dr. Abiy’s regime and making some general statements about freedom. Laudable as this may be, it is too abstract to generate sufficient traction. The evidence for this is that many Amharas are still on the government’s side. We must assume that they do so because they believe his claims even if his actions belie them. Denying this evidence and saying that pro-regime Amharas are traitors, hodam, and the like is self-defeating. It shows the refusal to think on why many Amharas support him and on how to persuade them that they are acting against their own interests, those of the Amhara, and of Ethiopians at large.
Moreover, If Fano succeeds in bringing down Dr. Abiy’s government, the outcome may not necessarily be a democratic regime. A military victory that is not welded to ideas that articulate freedom, equality and justice in ways that merge with the concrete needs and aspirations of Ethiopians could lead to a political chaos that gives birth to another tyranny. The democratic outcome of Fano’s military victory, if and when it happens, thus requires that its struggle be merged with a war on the front of ideas and ideals.
From the 1960 coup d’état to 2018, Ethiopia was racked with multiple crises that imposed the urgency to think. Alas, the 1960, 1974, and 1991 generations reduced thinking to borrowing theories from the Soviet Union and Maoist China. These theories were not dislocated and digested in light of Ethiopia’s historical, political, social specificities and possibilities. Cognitive mimesis replaced autonomous thinking.
Predictably, the borrowed ideas distorted our comprehension of Ethiopian society and poisoned our self-understandings. Fatally, they created an “ideas vacuum” which, in the absence of informed and rational thinking, was filled with nativist beliefs that fetishized ethnicity and confined politics to ethnic identity. Rational deliberation was thus exiled from Ethiopian political life and replaced with rampant violence and ethnic mysticism. The result is the ethnic neo-feudalism under which Ethiopians now live.
Our generation should learn from the errors of the generations that brought us the catastrophic changes of 1974, 1991, and 2018. Fano could triumph and become the midwife of a democratic society, only if it also arms itself with ideas and ideals that articulate themselves concretely with the aspirations of the Amhara to be liberated from economic, political, cultural oppression, and ethnic fetishism.
Historically, the struggle against tyranny in the realm of ideas and ideals is the task of intellectuals. Currently, Fano, with its maxim that “the Amharas will be free only when all Ethiopians are free,” is the major democratic force that is confronting Dr. Abiy’s dictatorship. Amhara intellectuals who believe in the possibility of a democratic Ethiopia need to support Fano’s struggle. And the only weapon Amhara intellectuals could bring to this struggle is their intellect, imagination, and “optimism of the will.”
This means waging an ideas-war against Dr. Abiy’s ethnicist ideas and politics which he conducts under the ideological cover of his pseudo-philosophy he calls Medemer. Medemer canonizes Dr. Abiy’s ideas as absolute knowledge flowing from the “all knowing leader.” It imposes, like all authoritarian ideologies, unanimity and excommunicates differing views. An ideas-war is thus crucial to demystify Dr. Abiy regime’s legitimating ideological and political ideas. This is an important step for garnering the psychological and political support of Amharas and other Ethiopians. Historically, a regime collapses more easily when it is confronted with an armed resistance that is conjoined with an ideas-war which hollows out the regime’s legitimating ideas and establishes alternative legitimating criteria.
In line with the above thoughts, let me raise certain issues which I believe are, in my humble opinion, important to consider, if a war of ideas and ideals against Dr. Abiy’s regime is to be successful.
First, the issue of words. As one writer put it, “Words matter, and the right words matter most of all. In the end they’re all that remain of us.” A distressing practice we have borrowed from the 1960, 1974, and 1991 generations is the use of abusive language against those who hold a different view. Sadly, this practice is still alive as one could see in some of the writings and comments on different fora. It is possible to make one’s point and be persuasive without resorting to such an irrational practice. We should heed the Persian poet Rumi’s advice—“Raise your word, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
Second, I suggest that the ideas-struggle must cope with three crucial questions: a) goal, b) agency, and c) method.
a) The issue of goal: I presume we all agree that the goal is to bring about a society that creates the material, political, intellectual and cultural conditions that will enable every Ethiopian to flourish. However, this is an empty wish if we do not spell out the kind of Constitution, institutions, processes, ideas and practices that will make possible achieving such a goal. Spelling out these requires informed and rational discussion.
b) The issue of agency: Who makes possible the achievement of this goal? The easy answer is to say the people. But this is an abstract answer that is not helpful. As things stand now, there are anti-democratic and pro-democratic beliefs and forces in Ethiopia. Answering the question requires identifying and establishing communication with democratic forces for the pursuit of the commonly shared goal: democracy.
c) The issue of method: It is crucial to figure out how to reach out to democratic forces across Ethiopia, how to communicate with them, how to create lasting and goal-driven common organizations, and how to work with each other in a coherent and enduring manner. Moreover, as Steve Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” This means that it is also necessary to consider how to reach out to Dr. Abiy’s supporters and persuade them how his ideas and actions are also inimical to the interests of those who support him. This requires informed and rational discussion.
Third, since we come from different intellectual and cultural backgrounds, there are going to be different analyses of the above and other Ethiopian issues, and our ideas will tend to be incomplete and tinted by particular perspectives. Differences of analyses and ideas should be welcomed. They facilitate the cross-pollination of thoughts and make possible the emergence of better and inclusive ideas in the course of understanding and resolving our differences through informed and rational dialogues. Only through such dialogical explorations of our differences could we remedy the limitations of our individual and ethnocentric ideas and develop more comprehensive and liberating ones.
If Dr. Abiy has made it quasi-compulsory for Ethiopians to buy and read his Medemer book, it is because he wants to prevent the emergence of different ideas. The recent practice of giving Medemer-based exams to civil servants expresses his desire to transform them into his epigones. “It is so, because I say so,” is Dr. Abiy’s stance when he addresses Ethiopians, be they parliamentarians, ecclesiastics, professors, professionals, army officers, and all and sundry. It is a stance that allows him to present non-facts as facts.
Dr. Abiy behaves as if he were the “subject who knows it all.” His behaviour embodies the dark triad. As he cannot stand ideas that differ from his, he has banished dialogue and replaced it with his endless monologues on all and every topic. And those who question his monologues are arrested and disappeared. Hence the systematic arrest and dispatch to Awash Arba of Amhara intellectuals, professionals, journalists, parliament members, Orthodox priests, professors and students who express ideas different from his. By claiming a monopoly of ideas and power, Dr. Abiy has created an ecology of fear such that nobody in his government or his party dares to challenge what he says or does. Hence, the importance of articulating Fano’s armed resistance with an ideas-war to dispel the ban on thinking this ecology of fear is creating.
Moreover, such an ideas-war will have important international repercussions, particularly among foreign academia, think thanks, and opinion makers. One cannot overestimate the global political dividend of an ideas-war as one could see the significant role it played in the internal collapse of the Soviet Union.
Finally, the discussion of ideas must not be limited to the ivory tower of academic journals and conferences. It should also be conducted in the public space—print, electronic, radio, TV, and other accessible fora—so that citizens could participate. True, we need experts. But Ethiopia belongs to all, and citizens must also have the opportunity to publicly express and discuss their ideas on the present and future of Ethiopia. As a famous philosopher argued, every person is, in some ways, something of a philosopher. The inclusiveness of our discussions renews also our shared affective legacy in terms of our collective emancipation.
Ours is a watershed historical period. Fano fighters are sacrificing their lives for the freedom of Amharas and Ethiopians. Now is not the time for intellectual complacency. Amhara intellectuals owe it to the Amharas and to all Ethiopians to step forward, pool their intellect and imagination, espouse “the optimism of the will,” and conduct the necessary war of ideas to ensure the demise of Dr. Abiy and to pre-empt the advent of another tyranny. Otherwise, if and when Fano or another force succeeds in overthrowing Dr. Abiy, Ethiopians will again be caught flat-footed, as in 2018, and end up again with another tyrant.
To conclude, I am offering my thoughts here as a citizen and not as an intellectual, for my education is quite limited. If the above suggestions are misguided, it is due to my limited abilities and not to a lack of good faith or effort.
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