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Unveiling the Political Geography of Ethiopia: Beyond the Commonsense  

Ethiopia Political landscape
Berhanu Nega (left), Getachew Reda (right)

By Tibebu Taye 

Without going into details, I feel so compelled to share some of Ato Getachew Reda’s (Head of Tigray Interim Admin) views during his interview with Journalist Simeneh Bayfers  and Prof. Birhanu Nega’s (a member of Ethiopian Citizens for Social Justice Party and who is serving as the current Minister of Education of Ethiopia) remark during an elite level dialogue titled “የመደመር ትውልድ መቅረጽ”. They recognized two contemporary states of affairs that our nation is engulfed in, but their comments received insufficient attention. In this analysis, I demonstrate that when considered in conjunction with other contemporary global trends, the problems underlined by these personalities are actually far more serious matters that merit our careful examination. This article is all about explicating that.

Note: I am not fans of any of their former political accomplishments, nor do I support their present political endeavors. Our interest in reflecting on their views only arose when we crossed on some matters that, given our position of expertise and experience, I believe, are interesting to comment on. 

Starter

In the interview with Simeneh (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fV0F2cqd5RA, listen to 00:00 – 00:10), Ato Getachew presents a version of himself as a victim of the new “culture of likes” by alleging that most of his statements from the two-years conflict (betWEen the TPLF and the federal government) Ire distorted and that the majority of his speeches Ire amplified on social media at an astronomical rate. By emphasizing his personal experience, he bitterly reveals that social media is controlled by vice ontology supported by people’s gullibility. Furthermore, he underlined the role emotion plays in the spread of socially and ethically extreme voices, particularly at times of political upheavals. According to him, political contents with thin fictional and sensationalized material are more likely to garner attention and, as a result, are more likely to show ‘superlative bias’ to use what Merlyna Lim’s expressions (2018). He also talked on how emotion, and fake news play a part in normalizing the abnormal, undermining institutional and societal trust, and kindling more animosity and incitement of violence in the political economy of social crises in general and total war in particular.

In a very similar vein, remarking on the historical curvatures that the now Ethiopian generation is living under and how to produce one that can fix and heal Ethiopia’s all-round problems, Prof Birhanu Nega, in an opening statement on አዲስ ወግ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMnBhDUoP-Q, listen to his speech from 00:00 – 00:18 and 00:52 – 60:00), an elite level dialogue on ‘የመደመር ትውልድ መቅረጽ’, inspired after Dr Abiy Ahmed’s recent book title, highlights very interesting trend in the contemporary Ethiopia. After citing the three obvious sources of knowledge—the family and the local community, the church, and the school—he had every right to forget about the media, Prof Birhanu continues to make observations about the metacognitive underpinnings of Ethiopian culture, and he transitions to a transcendental thought when he says, “truths and fakes are muddled today, and Ethiopians are at a paradigmatic crossroads”. He describes Ethiopians as extremely sensitive individuals who frequently form flash mobs that are driven by emotions. He claims that this would ultimately result in a discrepancy in how we view both nature and other human beings. Distilling his annoyance into a single assertion, as he repeatedly claimed, Ethiopia is in a historical timeline with impatient generations that are unable to trust one another. 

What More Questions Might One Inquire? 

It could be challenging to describe or comment on the general behavior of the current Ethiopian generation. To be capable of doing that or to have the authority, one must be as bold or as ignorant as is conceivable. However, putting their utterances in one check box, it brings out important questions such as how can Ethiopia stand out these challenges and form its new political mass? What moral foundations and virtues should be activated to move forward with its present and new generations? Will the ideological and philosophical prospects braced in Dr Abiy’s ‘Medemer’ book series bring momentum to people’s own enforcement? Or are we looking for a new generation composed of obedient subjects, or are we seeking one that can move forward with the investable technological changes in this era of attention economy? Like I said, it would be hardly possible to discern about the entire generation, but I suppose that many of us are equally perplexed by those questions, and we would love to know the answers to them. Both Ato Getachew Reda and Prof Birhanu Nega are too close to recognize the already felt impacts of the late capitalist culture and the subsequent global retrogressions, such as democratic recessions, network crises, information disorder, and to add more, the rise of ‘fascist-lit’ populist leaders and political masses worldwide. Anyway, in this piece, I will provide a conceptual framework for what they highlighted as key problems our nation is currently confronting. Doing so, I remain optimistic in terms of sparking an urge for proposals for possible resolutions to fix back those societal retrogressions, however, a part of me is still skeptical as genuine transformation comes from pride and a sense of patriotism.

Looking at the Issues Through a Microscopic Lens

I am framing Ethiopia within the context of late capitalism culture not solely due to Ethiopia’s political economy, but rather due to its susceptibility to the impact of a mixture of other factors including network crises enhanced by technological advancements such as the internet and smartphones, which are largely controlled by major international tech companies. Also known as ‘algorithmic capitalism,’ ‘digital capitalism,’ ‘information capitalism,’ and ‘surveillance capitalism,’ the fundamental characteristics of late capitalist culture are its “absurdities, contradictions, crises, injustices, inequality, and exploitation created by modern business development” (Matthew, 2019). In the context of the late capitalist culture, we do not need to deal with the “truth” and “falsity” of what politicians say or think, except simply subscribing to the multimodality of truth and knowledge productions that has eventually caused an urge to produce and disseminate more political information and its subsequent overabundance – be factual or nonfactual – sadly, welcome to the age of information disorder (Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017). 

As we transverse through this historical timeline, the following two facts stand out.

a)    The world is already readily open-ended honed by a sense of immediacy and technical turning points

From a scientific perspective, the concept of ‘open-endedness’ is related to the idea of complexity and emergent phenomena, where complex systems can exhibit surprising or unpredictable behavior that cannot be fully predicted or controlled. The idea of the world as open-ended provides a framework for embracing uncertainty and unpredictability, and recognizing the potential for growth, change, and transformation in the face of an ever-evolving world. Matter-of-factly, the concept also suggests that there is no predetermined or fixed outcome to events or situations. Instead, the world is seen as open and uncertain, with multiple possibilities and potential outcomes. This concept is often associated with the philosophy of existentialism, but the focus here is the heavy-burdened individual lurking around in an uncertain and unpredictable world. 

One of the key drivers of the world of openness is technology, particularly smartphones and the internet, which has made it easier than ever for people to connect and share information across geographic and cultural boundaries. Now, the format of communication has become “autonomous,” “many to many,” and a “multimodal” flow of messages, thanks to the digital revolution, disruptive technologies, and media convergence (Castells, 2012, p.67). These revolutions in communication technologies have created the possibilities of removing or reducing the distance between individuals, ideas, or cultures that, in the context of digital technologies and the internet, have enabled new forms of immediate, real-time communication and interaction. More specifically, on social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, an immeasurable amount of information can easily be accessed at the speed of light to wider and even more varied audiences (Wardle & Derakhshan, 2017).

Even though communication technologies tend to disperse ideas and culture, real time events such as armed conflict or pressing political issues create a sense of ‘immedition’ that recollects individuals and their attentions around a certain expressed emotion. Immediacy can be a powerful tool for building or strengthening connections and creating a sense of community, as it allows people to feel as though they are part of something larger than themselves. Additionally, immediacy can help to create a sense of urgency and importance around certain issues, such as armed conflicts and civil wars, which can make it easier to mobilize people around a particular cause or event. However, there are also potential downsides to immediacy. For example, it can create a sense of pressure to constantly be “plugged in” or connected, and an investment of our affective self, which can be exhausting and overwhelming. Additionally, the drive for immediacy can sometimes come at the expense of more thoughtful and reflective engagement with the world around us, risking us to develop a myopic vision. 

Please, take note that concerns over the accuracy and dependability of information are raised by the notions of immediacy and open-endedness of the world, as well as the possibility that the logic of digital media exacerbates prejudices, misconceptions, racism, or vigilantism. Today, mobile reporters, citizen journalists, political pundits, influencers, political satirists, conspiracy theorists, digital armies and others have already imbricated themselves into the industry of “sending breaking news updates, teasers for feature stories, and commentary on the events of the day” (Crawford, 2011, p.116). Many people think that openness is a key force for progress and change in the modern world since the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Immediacy, however, often comes at the expense of a more deliberate and reflective engagement with the world around us. When one considers the intensities of ethnic tensions, political polarizations, as well as the resulting outbreaks of violence and armed conflicts in our country, it takes no effort to recognize the associated dangers. 

b)   One truth but binary knowledge modalities

Although modalising is inherent to humans, it also implies diverse ways of acquiring knowledge and understanding of the world. From our own experience, there are several types of knowledge modalities, such as science, culture, religion, and experience. Modality represents the innate inquisitiveness to explore, articulate, and comprehend the world around us, as manifested through our everyday activities of decoding, conjecturing, speculating, or rationalizing our experiences and actions. To modalize means to exercise the modal power to make a moral judgment. 

It is to be remembered that social media platforms, as modal tools, enrich communication by adding layers of meaning and expression. They provide various features like ‘likes,’ ‘sharing,’ ‘commenting’ ‘imogies,’ ‘adding,’ ‘blocking’ … etc. which enhance our ability to express our modal knowledge and judgements. These features also allow our immediate reactions and judgments, reflecting a user’s attitude or stance towards a certain content and persons.

This has significantly changed the fundamental nature of truth from what was formerly seen to be clear-cut and straightforward to what is now thought to be convoluted and perplexing, as per Julian Baggini’s (2017) analysis of the evolution of truth. Furthermore, the ability to tell the truth has been transferred from established authorities like the media, schools, and religion to individuals and agents who are frequently referred to as citizen journalists, conspiracy theorists, activists, social influencers, and citizen journals. Therefore, ‘truth’ is at elevated risk of being concealed, distorted, abused, or twisted. Such a sense of unpredictability also encourages people to rely on their intuition or gut feelings to guide them navigate through voluminous information and data, which otherwise will be overwhelming to process and analyze it all. In the context of academia, the existence of multimodality of facts and knowledge is commonly discussed in relation to the notion of ‘postmodernism,’ whereas in politics, it is often discussed along with a periodizing concept called ‘post-truth politics’.

Deep Dive into the Topic: Trendy Global Concerns

If we could look at the entirety of the world through our window’s framework, it would not take us too long to realize that we are witnessing the most troubled world with amorphous political polarizations accompanied by geopolitical shifts, the rise of dictatorships, transnational conflicts, massacres, and grave human rights violations. These trends are shaping the international political landscape and are influencing national policies and relations, also shaping the local contexts and development. 

The concepts that I will discuss in this section is driven by the need to highlight a more informed and balanced approach to navigate the crux of technology and politics, particularly in a highly ‘risked’ societies like Ethiopians who are highly socially divided and are suffering from a strenuous inter-ethnic relations and a recurring violence. It is always my standpoint that we do not live on an isolated island, untouched by the stifling air of global political and technological undercurrents. However, one cannot be mistaken to announce that “we live globally but suffer locally”.

a)   Techlash checked by network crises

While digital technologies and virtual interactions can provide many benefits, such as increasing access to information and boosting our modal powers, it also comes with anti-social traces. These include the frustrating order of life powered by ‘data-centric’ or algorithmically powered ways of being (feeling, interacting, and being in every aspect of our lives). This is primarily serving as a business model for techno-commercial regimes (transnational communication and digital corporations) competing for economic exploitation of users’ personal information and emotional states (Ricaurte, 2019). Reports show that internet companies are prioritizing money over the welfare of their consumers and that they have not done enough or ignored the possibilities to tackle these issues such as hate speech and misinformation. 

Bring here the African experience in terms of appropriating the gift of social media for their political gains, in most cases, turning themselves into being ghost dictators. Take the case of Cambridge Analytica’s (CA) Facebook testing in the 2015 Nigerian and 2017 Kenyan elections, many other cases of social media manipulations- in Uganda and Ethiopia where tactics involving fake news, hate speech and propaganda have become a commonplace. Surveillance and censorship, social media manipulations, heavy-handed antisocial media laws, and targeted prosecution are also blooming. 

b)   The emergence of a ‘spectral society’ escorted by temporal disjuncture

The term “spectral society” can be used to describe a society that is characterized by a sense of fragmentation and disconnection, where people feel isolated from each other and from the world around them. This can be due to a variety of factors, including the impact of technology on social interactions, increased individualism, lack of social cohesion, or political subordination and conflict. A spectral society may see themselves as disconnected from larger social structures and institutions and may be swamped by a sense of alienation or dislocation. 

Today we live in a media regime where the private and the public sphere, the political and apolitical subjects, the sacred and the profane, taboos and habitual actions are deluged. More agonizingly, social media has blurred the boundaries between the past and the present, the leaders and the commoners, and has altered numerous other vital aspects of people’s life, like loving, hating, forgetting, remembering, forgiving, revenging etc. The last idea is particularly important because of the conflict and post-conflict conditions that our nation is currently going through. For example, it has become allegedly difficult to distinguish between old and new contents on social media, particularly in the current context of ethnic conflict, polarizations, and expanding political marketplaces. This can lead to a distorted sense of time, as users are exposed to a constant stream of information without the necessary context to understand how it fits into the broader historical narrative. Additionally, social media has made it easier for individuals and groups to revise or reinterpret historical events, often in ways that reflect their own ideological or political standpoints.

Experts in hauntology, post-trauma studies, and spectral anthropology will undoubtedly fully understand what I am presenting here. It would be laborious to go over each of these fields individually, but in the most anthropological sense, hauntology simply deals with ” societies in which a history of violence haunts the present in significant ways. The distant past has become extremely close to us, to our saloons, workplaces, and virtually to wherever our phones might be, and because of digital media. As the first socially mediated conflict was experienced by all of us (Ethiopians), whether it was at home, at the battlefield, in the media, or in any other settings, the past and the reminiscent of the war continues to haunt our lives now and perhaps even into the future. Both the spirit of the battle and the soul of the dead bodies (digital leftovers) we have met on social media over the past two years will remain present in our memories.

How they Interplay in Ethiopia

I have no doubt that you have repeatedly asked yourself what message I wanted to convey in our writing up to this point. I understand that I have not given you a complete answer to your question, but I believe that I may have shared some important theoretical knowledge with you as a starting point for our answer. If so, I humbly invite you to pay close attention to the next thoughts. If you wish to know what I mean by affect, I prescribe you to go and read its concise meanings on Tibebu’s previous piece (shared link here: https://borkena.com/2023/12/22/how-ethiopias-pm-d-abiy-ahmed-used-affective-energies-to-achieve-his-political-aspirations-as-a-charming-dictator/). 

Remembering the Tigray War as a Textbook Example

The Tigray war illustrates the global openness and modalities of war, showing the new logic of armed war followed by information wars on Facebook and Twitter campaigns, and street demonstrations orchestrated by pro-government and pro-Tigrayan activists’ groups. 

First, the Tigray war can be taken as a case of ‘total war’ in an open-ended world. Total war has been defined as “a war that is unrestricted in terms of the weapons deployed, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the laws of war are disregarded.”(Oxford Reference). In this war, virtually, people from military to civilians, men to women, elders to children, spiritual fathers to their disciples Ire all mobilized; weapons from drones to jets, tanks to tucks, snipers to rifles, cannons to grenades, mutilations to rapes have been leveraged; places from churches to schools, trenches to market places, war front to living saloons Ire all targeted; crimes from total siege to hunger, sexual violence to war rape, extrajudicial killings of civilians to using civilians as human shields, and from widespread looting to destruction of civilian infrastructure Ire all perpetuated. 

Second, the war has been followed by a fierce information battle between pro-government and pro-Tigray activists. Both sides have been employing various tactics to shape public opinion and influence global understandings of the conflict. These included spreading their narratives through social media, news outlets, and online platforms using different tactics often amplifying their own perspectives while discrediting the opposing side. Additionally, street demonstrations surrounding the Tigray war have been characterized by two prominent movements: ‘#Nomore’ and ‘#KnowMore.’ The #Nomore movement is Pro Government activist group who aim to shed light on the underlying causes and historical context of the conflict, urging prominent Western media and governments to refrain from their intervention, “in terms of backing TPLF” and/or “undergoing their proxy war,” during the war. On the other hand, the #KnowMore, a pro-Tigrayans counter movement, aimed to shed light on the underlying causes and historical context of the conflict, urging people to seek a deeper understanding of the complexities involved. 

Furthermore, the war has spilled over into the realm of Twitter, where battling campaigns such as ‘#StopTigrayGenocide’ and ‘#CallThemTerrorists’ have thrived. These hashtags highlight the divergent perspectives on the conflict. #StopTigrayGenocide campaign organized by Pro-Tigrayans draws attention to alleged human rights abuses and calls for international intervention, while #CallThemTerrorists organized by pro-government activists frame the actions of TPLF involved in the conflict as acts of terrorism, looking to garner support for a stronger response against them. It is important to recognize that the Tigray war encompasses many perspectives and narratives. 

Considering all these phenomena, the war embodies affective polarization between two binary poles, i.e., Pro Government and pro-Tigrayans, signifying a situation where lack of understanding, empathy, and cooperation among these groups bloomed. The simple fact that binary poles exist denotes that there is highly likely binary modalization surrounding a specific event—i.e., everything and anything related to the Tigray War. The formation of such groupings is driven by a compulsive force in a spectral society, where individuals feel disconnected or alienated from the broader culture or identity frameworks but seek out communities or groups that share similar beliefs or ideologies. In social media terms, I am referring to the formation of echo-chambers, where individuals are exposed primarily to information and viewpoints that confirm their pre-existing beliefs. As a result, they may become less open to alternative perspectives and more prone to developing biased views. This means that when people become skeptical of the reliability of their older sources of information, they turn to their immediate networks for information and support, which can reinforce existing biases and create an “us versus them” mentality. In such situations, it becomes challenging to establish a shared understanding of truth across diverse groups. 

The Tigray war portrays a scenario when a spectral society is combined with techlash where people feel disconnected or alienated from their old-seated culture or identity fabrics. It is important to note that these dynamics are complex and multifaceted, and the impact can vary depending on the specific context and factors at play. In our case, I am taking the deep-rooted ethnopolitics that culminated in the breaking of war between the TPLF sprinter group and the federal government. In the context of ethnic conflict, the affective atmosphere of a society can be influenced, creating a condition of affective polarizations. Social networks formed within a polarized network play a crucial role in shaping member’s attitudes, beliefs, and interactions, but it can also lead to a lack of understanding, empathy, and cooperation among different ethnic groups, creating a hostile and tense environment. I can thus understand Getachew Reda’s remark in line with this situation. For the obvious reasons that emotionally and politically loaded contents, particularly those that glorifies the ingroups and belittles or incriminates the ‘other,’ are more likely to garner attention and more likes. 

The combination of spectral society and network crises does not end there just creating “us versus them” dichotomy. The combination will even be cruel when it exacerbates a feeling of anxiety, fear, and a sense of not belonging. The deterioration of social fabrics (community bonds, trust, and cooperation) also signifies the breakdown of the infrastructures of truth (schools, community, religions, and the media). The implications of this destruction lead to increased distrust among the people. This is what happened during the Tigray war when the social fabrics Are undermined by propaganda, displacement, and violence, when religious fathers blessed their disciples to join the conflict, when schools become both the military stations and targets of the war, and when the media is only used to spread of fear and confusion. All these factors combined create a condition, what Prof Birhanu Nega referred to as a ‘paradigmatic bend’ in the social life of Ethiopians. Of course, war has significantly changed the way people interact, trust, and view the world around them, temporarily or forever. 

Conclusion

This article’s main goal was to clarify the critical issues that Ethiopians are currently facing as highlighted by Ato Getachew Reda and Birhanu Nega (Prof). As I guided you through other contemporary global trends that are obstructing the development of a peaceful political mass, I should that the issues demand careful considerations and urgency to address them. Important questions like “how can Ethiopia stand out these challenges and form its new political mass” have not been answered despite the discussions. Given the dynamics of ongoing ethnopolitics, where conspiracy and arbitrary killings are rife, one must be as ignorant as possible to bid for a solution that crushes those problems. However, note that tackling these issues will require us to follow a comprehensive strategy, such as fostering inclusive dialogue, advancing digital literacy, creating robust social networks to support compassion, and understanding, and may be tweaking the constitution. 

Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of borkena.com

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6 COMMENTS

    • In what sense is the essay “subpar, below-standard?” Easy to put down but perhaps not so easy to follow it up with substantive remarks. Go ahead.

      • Hi Alem,
        I appreciate you pushing that discussion along. I could now understand the true doubts behind his remarks thanks to you, and I can provide him with a brief explanation. Finest

  1. Hi Mekuria,
    I appreciate your intellectual remarks. Its my desire to spark a dialogue about subjects that aren’t often discussed.
    Best

    • Thank you, Tibeb. I didn’t intend to criticize your writing, but I was surprised by the conclusion you reached.

      Out of all the people you found, Berhanu and company to justify your conclusions. Thatwas my issue. Berhanu is an idiotic individual who makes useless claims that Amharas are migrants to Oromia and Benishangul, and the attacks against them are not surprising. We, as immigrants in a country that is not our own, still expect fair treatment and getting it. The blameless ethnic Amharas are being targeted for merely supporting Abiy Ahmed, thinking he is a uniter, unaware of his deep-seated hatred towards them. Amhara has never based its stance on falsehood. If you are referring to the extremist Oromos and Tigrayans who have justified their actions, I can understand that perspective, but it does not apply to everyone. The Amharas have no connection to blind hatred towards any ethnic group.

      • Hello, Mekuria
        I am grateful that you have expressed your worries. Make no mistake, the Amhara community suffers from the shady side of our politics, and I always sympathise with them.

        I also want two things to be very obvious to you.

        First off, I am not a fan of any of the politicians or their “achievements,” as I made very plain at the opening of the piece. But I always keep in mind that whatever they know or do is always not illogical. In my own case, their comments prompted me to think and write about topics that are unusually covered in our analyses of Ethiopian politics.

        Second, please be aware that the only topic covered in this essay is Ethiopian modern politics. The crux of technology, ethno-politics, and its expressions are what I am trying to unpack. I continue to believe that network crises and rooted polarizations are the common causes of misery for all nation and nationalities in our country. While I make this claim, I also maintain my suspicion that our leaders are using them as their major political instruments.

        Best

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