By Tesfaye Demmellash
If you told Abiy Ahmed and Shimeles Abdisa, the Oromo regime’s top bosses currently presiding over Ethiopia’s undoing, that they are engaged in a postmodernist tribal political project, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. Still, one can aptly portray their work of national demolition from within as such, particularly in terms of the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s suggestive idea of “simulation.”
The concept stimulates critical thought about Ethiopia’s existential crisis, including the unprecedented challenges the culturally diverse country faces in mounting concerted resistance to rescue itself from the ravages of divisive, authoritarian identity politics. I apply it to political matters in the Ethiopian context, in place of – and contrary to – the conventional notion of “representation.” Namely, a word, a symbol, an ideological category, or an institution could stand for social referents and national interests.
“Representation” presupposes that a signifier, a name, or a ritual could stand for and ascertain meaning, mediating beliefs, ideas, or institutional practices. Contrarily, “simulation” in Baudrillard’s formulation could discount, ignore, reverse, or liquidate these, displacing real sense by its counterfeit, rhetorical, or symbolic double. It could replace a substantive idea or value, say, that of “democracy,” “federalism,” or “constitutional rule” through its conceptually barren, institutionally fraudulent, and practically empty nominal twin.
The Tigre and Oromo tribal tyrannies have undermined our transethnic national tradition over decades, doggedly subverting Ethiopian values behind a thin veil of Itiopiawinnet. The Abiy regime struck a seductive patriotic pose that many of the nation’s politicians and intellectuals found alluring, while some remained skeptical. It has relied on dubious pro-Ethiopia rhetoric to subvert from within Ethiopian national consciousness and experience.
Consequently, a web of paradoxes – in the structure and politics of the regime of identity – has marked the Oromo hostile takeover and control of the Ethiopian state, with significant implications for the transethnic patriotic resistance.
Oromo Tyranny – Antinomies of Tribal Structure and Politics
Structure. The Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), the party in power, makes no pretense of establishing a whole new political system. It inherited from its erstwhile (“Abyssinian”) TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front) handlers and mentors the basic kilil structure of ethnic domination in place. Ironically, the “Oromia” tribal enclave, which the party flaunts as a crowning achievement of its “national self-determination,” is primarily a TPLF self-serving political construct.
Yet, the ruling clique has also reverted to centuries-old prototypical Oromo destructive behavior of invasion and plunder, now intensified and sustained through state power and institutions instead of being limited to the predation of brutal, marauding sectarian bands alone. Herein lies the core of the Oromo regime’s structural contradiction: The motley collection of “governing” entities has taken state power within the limits of exclusive, separatist ethnicity, which traps itself and Oromos generally in a restricted range of conflict-prone, cultural, socio-economic, and political life. At the same time, on the plane of fantasy, the oppressive ruling group aggressively pursues the expansionist vision of “Oromia” as the dominant “national” power over all of Ethiopia and beyond. It seeks to occupy the broad, historic Ethiopian national space without “leaving” the troubled and troubling narrow tribal place it is in and with which it overidentifies.
This underlying antinomy has saddled Ethiopia with a sketchy yet highly oppressive, predatory pattern of domination in which the Oromo “ruling” entity cannot project integral state power even in its ethnic stronghold, let alone nationwide. The severe limits on its governing capacity are, at the bottom, institutional and systemic, inherent in state ethnicism. However, they also reflect willful tribal greed and corruption, plain political incompetence, and utter lack of moral or humanistic bearing.
Unwilling or unable to maintain law and order, the artless regime merely passes off a piled-up polity of assorted, unequal, and warring local and regional groups, including looting, murderous, terroristic entities. It pretends to rule over these barbaric groups, and they, in turn, make a show of following its laws and policies. Chronically conflict-ridden and consumed by irrational resentment of the Amhara, the Apartheid-like Oromo tyranny is unsustainable. It provokes growing outrage and resistance from the Ethiopian people, especially Amharas, whose patience has nearly run out.
The basic system of predatory rule the Abiy regime presides over thus amounts to little more than a mere aggregation of island-like, insular, regional, and cultural communities dominated after a fashion by the party of “Oromia.” Objects of extensive state manipulation and simulation, these entities’ relations are marked by volatile tension and antagonism that often erupt into genocidal violence directed primarily at Amharas.
Identity Politics. The Abiy regime’s structural paradoxes have also conditioned its tribal politics. My approach to the subject of Oromo (and Tigre) political ethnicism is critical and oppositional, highlighting “identity politics” as an instrument of invasion and domination of Ethiopia instead of a means of “liberation” or “self-determination” of its parts, namely Tigray or “Oromia.” While this does not exhaust the import of politics in ethnicity, it applies significantly to the cases.
The antinomy of identity politics within and against the Ethiopian nation-state may remain puzzling to some Ethiopians, but it is now clear enough to many. Simply put, traffickers in ethnic politics want to have their Ethiopian cake and eat it too. So far, stopping their predation just short of totally wrecking the country, they seek to convert its historic national value – cultural, institutional, and material resources and capacities – into tribal power and domination. In this way, they seem to betray a paradoxical attitude of aversion and attraction to the Ethiopian national tradition.
However, this contradictory posture is hardly workable for several reasons. First, the champions of cultural particularism favor and prioritize identity-based rule over the transethnic Ethiopian national experience. The colonially inspired subjugation of that experience lies at the heart of Oromo and Tigre political ethnicism. The divisive order of insular tribal enclaves and borders (the Apartheid-like kilil system) they imposed on the country, causing a massive deformation in our national life, was the clearest example of internal colonization.
Second, the Oromo governing group has assumed an “identity” obsessed at once with a victimization narrative and delusions of national grandeur. Resentful and preoccupied with narrow, exclusive ethnic self-assertion, it is too impatient and short-sighted to embark on enduring political and cultural change and socio-economic development beneficial to all Ethiopians. So, how Ethiopia could free herself from greedy, overly acquisitive Oromo political tribalism remains a live question.
Third, the basic pattern of past and present Oromo predatory expansion is the wasteful use of naked force, involving a massive expenditure of brutally oppressive collective effort that maximizes the subjugation of other cultural communities and regions. Deficient in cultural, intellectual, and national resources for projecting hegemony as distinct from mere domination, the Oromo hostile takeover of the Ethiopian state lacks a sustainable economy of power and governance. And its crude attempt at emptying Ethiopia of its historic national content and replacing it with “Oromia” is not a viable political project.
Fourth, the Oromo simulation of “Ethiopia” departs from negating the sign or the name as a signifier of meaning and value, representing the national referent. The Abiy regime seeks to counteract and neutralize from within the Ethiopian national experience, relying on “Ethiopia” nominally.
You could blame this on improper conduct in an Ethiopian government, a lapse of national loyalty, and miss the point. Indeed, Ethiopians often denounce the tribal regime for its lack of national concern. But the dreadful fact is that the state’s unscrupulous behavior hardly constitutes a scandal amenable to moral condemnation and national critique. Neither honest in its Ethiopian intention nor supported by a coherent ruling ideology, the normless regime has ever clung to insular ethnic identity as the measure and form of all values – personal, political, socio-economic, cultural, and national.
In this sense, Oromo state ethnicism represents a dangerous breakdown of national unity and sovereignty for the Ethiopian people, a time of high anxiety and insecurity. But to PM Abiy Ahmed, it seems to have created conditions that afford ample opportunity for a distinctively shifty, treacherous personal leadership. Paradoxically, the PM’s initial appeal as an avowed pro-Ethiopia Oromo leader reflected the significant loss of national meaning and value by the end of the TPLF’s reign and the beginning of his rule. The state of the nation has gravely worsened on Abiy’s watch.
Identity in Reverse: Paradoxes of Political Ethnicism
The term “political,” as applied to OPDO and TPLF ethnicity, betrays a generic Stalinist attitude that flaunts monadic “nations, nationalities, and peoples,” rejecting or ignoring the realities of Ethiopia’s intersecting and overlapping cultural communities. Political ethnicism may be somewhat contradictory: We often recognize ethnic identities by such spontaneous markers as language, history, distinctive culture, or physical appearance, yet various groups, parties, and states enact ethnicism as a political movement.
But the contradiction in the Oromo authoritarian regime is more fundamental and irreconcilable than the clash between a tribal elite’s separatist politics and its captive constituency’s transethnic lived experiences and self-identification within and through Ethiopia. Oromo politics is internally conflicted because it works against its intention of building a separate identity or forging “national self-determination,” doing so by championing an aggressive, expansionist “Oromia.” And the Oromo (or Tigre) project of reclaiming a “lost” or victimized “nation” is self-undermining, a nonstarter logically and historically, since it departs not from national existence but merely the desire for the same.
Imperialistic Oromo tribalism’s apparent strength belies its actual weakness. How is this so? First, its obsession with ethnic “identity” out of all Ethiopian historical context and proportion is self-disabling. It renders the party in power incapable of attaining a broader structural understanding of the country’s economic, social, cultural, and political problems that cut across local and cultural boundaries and proposing shared public policy solutions accordingly. For OPDO (and TPLF) partisans, nationality, society, economy, and polity are all grounded in an exclusive tribal agency or subjectivity as the form and measure of all power and all value.
Second, identity politics is also integral to the inability of Oromo (or Tigre) ethnicism to exercise lasting hegemonic leadership and influence beyond projecting predatory power on the Ethiopian people. Yet, for all its preoccupation with ethnic particularism, the “Oromia” project hardly possesses democratic legitimacy among the Oromo masses. It amounts to little more than the bastion of a greedy, corrupt, authoritarian “elite” whose power is only limited by artlessness and incompetence.
Abiy Ahmed, Shimeles Abdisa, and other Oromo bosses often appear in stereotypical, bold-colored tribal attire, making a show of their nativism. But “Oromia” does not signify an indigenized national sameness or oneness; quite the reverse. Namely, it forces on diverse Oromo local communities a generic, global, Stalinist “nationality” inimical to Ethiopia. It seeks to pass off partisan dictatorship as something the broad Oromo masses want and welcome.
So, after Tigre and Oromo traffickers in tribal politics have had their way, the affected cultural communities end up without substantive autonomy and agency. Instead of “self-determining” social referents, they remain primarily ideological categories. Though “nations, nationalities, and peoples” are ritually treated as objects of worship among the OPDO and the TPLF faithful, in identity entrepreneurs’ hands, they are profaned as playthings of power, extensions, and focal points of the regime of identity.
Third, the oddity of an Oromo identity at once expansionist and separatist, fortified through the apartheid-like kilil system along with related name changes, signifies an underlying vulnerability or feebleness instead of strength. It is suggestive of an “identity crisis.” A dictatorial imposition, the system has had a massive effect in deforming the Ethiopian nation-state, hiving off all of the nation’s parts into several conflict-prone, tribal enclaves with matching garrison regimes. Yet, in the Oromo case, in particular, the seeming strength of the structure betrays a certain insecurity or weakness of oneness, requiring, oddly, increasing tribal enclosure and aggrandizement, a fundamentally contradictory “identity.”
Seeking a robust assertion of oneness or sameness, the Oromo political class is bent on alienating itself from the Ethiopian national experience. Yet its vulnerability or insecurity lies in this profoundly flawed separation project, involving the exclusion of, and aggression on, other Ethiopian cultural communities, especially the Amhara people. The ruling tribal elite’s narrow equation of “identity” with isolating and garrisoning the “Oromia” enclave thus signifies an underlying weakness, not lasting, broad-based strength.
Likewise, renaming places and the aggressive assertion of Oromo oneness accompanying it is conflicted, an indicator of precarious yet highly acquisitive identity. Though most cities and towns, including Addis Ababa, still retain their names, the regime wants to change that. It intends to force even Ethiopia’s multi-ethnic capital city, the majority of whose population is Amhara, into a tribal stronghold integral to “Oromia.” What could go wrong with this wayward scheme of identity politics?
In a later second part of this discussion, I intend to examine the implications of the contradictory character and behavior of the regime of identity for transformative dissent. The profound challenge the Ethiopian opposition, especially the Amhara resistance, faces is that simulation (via ideas, narrative images, politics, etc.) has created its own world, far outstripping real things, events, and movements. Tribal simulators spare no effort to replace the historical or referential substance with a false narrative or an imaginary double.