Fifteen Points: Thoughts on Progressivism, Patriotism and Ethnopolitics in Ethiopia

45 mins read

By Tesfaye Demmellash

Ethiopian protesters in Washington DC
I have in the past written about the mutual exclusions of patriotism and progressivism in the era of abyot in Ethiopia. That long era stretches from the time of the Student Movement through the blood thirsty tyranny of the Derg to the weird colonial-like dictatorship of Woyane “revolutionary democracy” over the last quarter century.

In that seemingly interminable zemen of revolution and its aftermath, professing progressive ideas and values while at the same time being an Ethiopian patriot has proven to be difficult. Indeed, a dynamic convergence of forward looking ideas and ye-ager fikir sentiments has been well-nigh impossible. But I believe such a fusion of our commitments to these, equally vital, elements of our national life is essential if Ethiopia is to thrive, not just survive.

If I am correct in this belief, a couple of related questions arise: how do we, as a nation, make the integration of patriotism and progressivism happen as it has never happened before? What are the conditions of its possibility at present? Or, how do we settle our intellectual and political accounts with the legacy of our “radical” progressive experience, whose continuing or residual effects are all around us today, largely in the form of divisive ethnopolitics? In this writing, I offer some critical thoughts seeking to contribute to the answers to these questions.

For the TPLF, the integration of forward looking ideas and ye-ager fikir remains anathema, something fundamentally at odds with the Front’s reason for being. Wedded from its inception to a retrograde, neo-feudal, regionalist, tribal political project, the TPLF has never had honest progressive intention for Ethiopia as one country. Quite the contrary. The integral transformation and development of the country has never been its motivation and goal. Nor have the Woyanes ever been patriotic in good faith, though they use “Ethiopia” cynically as a strategic subterfuge, as a political cover and resource for their project of the “liberation” of Tigray or the creation of “greater” Tigray.

The Revolution did produce many progressive patriots who sacrificed so much for the betterment of the lot of all Ethiopians regardless of ethnicity. But our culture of “teramaj” politica as a whole, including but not limited to that of the TPLF, has been inhospitable in thought and practice to the dynamic fusion of progressivism and patriotism under Ethiopian conditions. This is true, although the Woyane manifestation of the deeply problematic culture has been especially abhorrent. Admittedly, the nationally divisive partisan-tribal “revolutionary democracy” of the TPLF in particular has been the most perverse outcome or byproduct of the Ethiopian Revolution.

Still, long before the rise of the TPLF, championing universal ideas like freedom, democracy, and equality in the course of the Student Movement had already been marked by indifference, and often outright hostility, toward our national tradition. The mutual exclusion of sensuous Ethiopian experience rooted in history and culturally arid intellectual socialization based on abstract ideology has its origins in that seminal social movement. The rest, as we know painfully well, is disappointing revolutionary history, made mainly by the successive dictatorships of the Derg and the Woyanes. This persistent condition has created and perpetuated Ethiopia’s long national crisis over the last several decades.

We should be careful, however, not to regard the Ethiopian experience, specifically our struggle today for national redemption, as necessarily incongruent with progressive values and commitments as such. We should not equate progressivism as a whole with its perverse partisan features or defective ethnic variants. That would be a mistake, not only in conceptual thought or in principle but also in strategic and practical terms related to the present struggle for our national salvation.

For there are alternative ways of embracing forward looking ideas. They range from the least reflective, most formulaic and nationally rootless, “globalized” ideological constructs that have had wide currency within the Ethiopian revolutionary tradition, to historically better informed, more thoughtful and enlightened approaches that have greater accommodative democratic resonance with our national values and experience.

I see possibilities of a fruitful symbiosis today between a big, hopeful patriotic heart and a skeptical, questioning, progressive mind. I imagine a politically productive dynamic between our feelings and thoughts which will figure centrally in Ethiopia’s rise and renewal. I envision the heat of patriotic passion being productively harnessed and given sustainable form and direction by the light of cool, strategic, progressive reason.

It is departing from this hopeful vision that I present the following fifteen critical notes on patriotism, progressivism, and ethnopolitics in Ethiopia today. I offer the notes as a spur to further thought and discussion in the Ethiopian opposition to TPLF tyranny. They are also intended to help prepare the political ground in the country for broad-based national consensus on the direction and strategies of Ethiopian renewal.

1. Ethiopia/Ethiopiawinnet is not simply a repository of historic agerawi heritage and civilization but also a vital site of contemporary national growth and development. Having already undergone a revolution, it has the potential to evolve further and better, accommodating anew progressive change while enduring as the unique national entity that it is and has been for millennia.
Consequently, any Ethiopian patriot who wants to promote systemic political change in the country today and actively participate in such change must regard reconstructed progressivism as a crucial intellectual and political ally, a vital source of enlightened vision of national freedom and development.

What drives the contemporary Ethiopian movement for freedom and renewal is neither simply abstract political thought (centered on, say, “democracy,”) nor merely historical-cultural sources of nationality. Rather, it is an integral national experience which can absorb into itself new forward looking ideas and values. In the present Ethiopian struggle for change, there is significant conceptual and strategic innovation to be gained through a renewed convergence of patriotism and progressivism.

2. However, a dynamic coming together of these two strands of our shared national life has not been possible in the course of the Revolution and its aftermath to-date. This is so largely because, given as they have been to “radical” excesses of social and ethnic engineering, revolutionary leaders, parties, and regimes lacked the intellectual disposition and resources for thinking broadly through the tension between progressivism and patriotism. Instead, they professed “progressivism” in grossly one-sided, abstract, formulaic and dogmatic terms, doing so in effect, if not always in intent, outside and against the Ethiopian national experience.
Under these circumstances, promoters and practitioners of teramaj politica in the country could make neither the Ethiopian national tradition nor progressivism itself the ground and object of their critical thought. Putting their blind, unreflective faith in such modernist idols as “revolution,” “science,” “democracy,” and “national self-determination,” they not only excluded ideas from our historic national sensibility and experience but also severely restricted the free flow and development of forward looking thought in Ethiopian politics and society.

The resulting nationally nihilistic, depthless radicalism has had significant implications for the articulation of progressivism, patriotism, and ethnopolitics in the Ethiopian context, as I note in the following critical theses.

3. Progressive ideas have made themselves felt in our country largely as the simple negation or reverse of the sentiments and experience of Ethiopiawinnet. Practitioners of supposedly radical politics in the country generally tended to devalue Ethiopian nationhood as inauthentic or “fake” relative to the “nationality” of ethnic groups.
But, for all their “radicalism,” the ideas of the ultra-left in particular could not have been actually transformative of our national culture. This was because the ideas, such as they were, represented an approach to Ethiopian national culture that was grossly and summarily rejectionist, characterizing the culture as the sum of its limitations and problems, a “prison of nations,” nothing more or different.

Thus, an entire paradigm of leftist thought, whose offshoot TPLF/OLF ethnonationalist ideology is, imagined historic Ethiopia out of existence, telling us that real and valid national being lies only in articulated ideas of democracy and ethnonational “self-determination” or “liberation,” simply as a contemporary political project. In a boldfaced Orwellian reversal, an actually existent, though imperfect, nation-state is wished out of being while a merely aspirational ethnocentric “nationality” is declared to have real existence.

4. Ethiopian progressive thought has been entangled in a web of contradictions: it has generally privileged ideology over history, promoting the overriding authoritarian power of sectarian and tribal ideologues over everyone else; yet, it has been bereft of relatively autonomous ideational content. Instead, as “radical” progressives, we have often passed our inert dogmatism off as commitment to high-minded principle.
Ethiopian progressives sought to enlighten and move “the broad masses” through ideas, but they didn’t allow the ideas they professed to convey logos or knowledge in their own terms, i.e. beyond the limits of narrow, exclusively partisan sense and meaning. The ideal purpose of Ethiopian progressivism was to cast the light of reason on our politics, to advance freedom and democracy in Ethiopia; in actuality, however, progressivism itself became a force of darkness, a means of rationalization of partisan-tribal repression and dictatorship.

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The upshot is that notions like “democracy,” “equality,” “national self-determination,” “constitution,” and “federalism” under the Derg and/or Woyane regimes have had no reference to anything that has meaningful conceptual content and institutional reality. They are normatively empty rhetorical conceits of dictatorship.

5. For a lot of patriotic Ethiopians, the historical and cultural sources of Ethiopiawinnet may loom larger than its contemporary ideas and validity, while for the nation’s many other citizens and some political entities Ethiopian nationality may be more significant as a contemporary civic and political achievement than as a structure of past events, deeds, accomplishments and cultural sources of identity.
However, neither aspect of our national tradition in and of itself adequately captures the meaning and realities of Ethiopian patriotism today. What is significant is not one or the other strand of our shared nationality taken singly, but the synergy produced by the fusion of both streams of Ethiopian national consciousness. History is not simply a record of our past achievements as a people; it is a vital constitutive part of contemporary Ethiopian national being and consciousness.

6. As a structure of historical events, facts, deeds, accomplishments, and patriotic narratives, Ethiopiawinnet has had its native critics and objectors like other national cultures and civilizations. Here, we should distinguish between two types of objectors.
Namely, on one side are patriotic and progressive Ethiopian dissidents of various ethnic backgrounds who have sought in good faith, though not effectively, to engage our national tradition, seeking to bring about its integral transformation and development. And, on the other, we have protagonists of more or less separatist identity politics that have willfully and “radically” alienated themselves from Ethiopian nationhood, which they have wanted to undo.

The latter (we may characterize them as ethnopolitical “others”) are bent on undermining our shared nationality or, failing that, only accept Ethiopiawinnet grudgingly as nothing more than a collection of tribal kilils. The TPLF, the current “ruling” party (if one can call it that), belongs in this category of extremist objectors that are resentful and hostile toward Ethiopian multiethnic national culture. So do unreconstructed separatist factions or remnants of the OLF.

This distinction has strategic implications for the resistance in terms of building national consensus and coalitions toward post-communist and post-tribal Ethiopian transformation. Broad-based agerawi agreement can be built among patriots and reconstructed progressives of diverse ethnicities who operate in good faith within the parameters of commonly shared Ethiopian nationality and citizenship even as they disagree on matters of politics and policy.

But it is impossible to accommodate within such consensus ethnonationalist elements obsessed with separatist identity politics. The alliance of patriotic-progressive resistance forces has no choice but to do battle with these “others” on various fields of engagement and by various means in the most critical and systematic way it can.

7. Love of country has its own challenges and drawbacks. Modes of patriotic concern and the ways in which patriotism is valued or approached differ with different parties, regimes, and interests. For example, the Woyanes have their own exclusively partisan sense of, and identification with, Ethiopia and Ethiopiawinnet. National sentiments and values can take liberal-democratic form or repressive-authoritarian shape. They can assume broadly trans-ethnic, civic mold or narrowly tribal pattern; and they can be expressed with honest or dishonest intention. Also, patriotism may be used by regimes and politicians to distract the attention of citizens from policy failures or limitations and internal problems.
Among individuals and groups motivated by honest nationalist intention, patriotism can be emotionally overcharged and at times impervious to reason and strategic intelligence. At a time today of challenging Ethiopian struggle for national survival against an enemy at once cunning and brutal, giving free rein to unthinking patriotic passion can be politically counterproductive, even if it seems psychologically compelling or satisfying.

This holds true, by the way, for ethnicism or identity politics too. Including, that is, current movements of some “activist” groups that overethnicize Amarannet even as they make good faith effort to protect the Amara people from brazen and insidious Woyane genocidal aggression.

That said, we should not forget that love of country is potentially a motive force of our struggle for national salvation, a source of uplifting energy, commitment, and action. If we shy away from reaffirming our national heritage and solidarity, doing so perhaps out of a misguided progressive conceit of “multiculturalism” or “political correctness,” we disable ourselves as a people and a nation. We lose our national élan. If we suppress or neutralize our patriotism, we lose the spirit, vitality and power of integral Ethiopiawinnet.

We thereby allow our shared nationality to be subjected to the nefarious machinations of hostile forces like the TPLF, Shabiya and their internal proxies and external allies or backers. We enable such forces to parasitize on Ethiopia, to hollow out from within her national life and spirit, to devalue her unique historical heritage, and to squander her material and cultural resources and strategic assets, all to the detriment of the interests of her citizens and distinct cultural communities.

8. In coming to terms with and valuing who or what we are as a historic nation, we carry within our national being and consciousness contemporary ideas and values of freedom, equality, political pluralism, democracy, and cultural diversity. Yet, as a nation, we move forward integrally, not divided along ethnic lines into so many exclusive, island-like “nationalities” or “peoples,” with insular territorial kilils or enclaves to match.
Such entities are unreal, lacking as they do actually free or autonomous social-political agency. They are only passed off as “facts on the ground.” The reality claimed for them is just that, a claim. As such, it is contestable and potentially open to discussion, negotiation and transformation.

9. There is little prospect of existing or emergent patriotic-progressive Ethiopian forces engaging unreconstructed partisans of separatist ethnic politics in principled dialogue and exchange of thoughts and views. One of the main reasons for this is that the “progressive” ideas such exclusive partisans formally profess cannot be opened for informed critical debate and discussion, since they are seized upon and deployed instrumentally as blunt ideological and rhetorical weapons in identity wars.
Universal, forward looking ideas professed under these circumstances have no function other than as mechanisms for projecting an imagined ethnocentric “nationality,” as devices for making aspirational claims of biherawi selfhood. In this way, broad-based ideas have been narrowed down to, or conflated with, exclusively sectarian assertions and constructs of identity politics.

For example, TPLF notions of “democracy” and “federalism” have no principled content or practical significance beyond the narrow, exclusive, authoritarian interpretation the Front gives them to suit its self-serving partisan and tribal purposes. Utterly meaningless and without value for Ethiopian politics, government and society generally, these notions constitute nothing but counterfeit ideological currency.

What this means is that, for TPLF partisans and other practitioners of identity politics, it is not the philosophical or historical contents of notions like “democracy” and “self-determination” that are important but the party or ethnic group which rhetorically and tactically “identifies” itself with such notions. Thus the overriding concern has been about who (or which group/tribe) expresses the idea of “democracy,” not what the idea itself signifies, either in principle and conceptual thought or in the Ethiopian national context.

Consequently, it has been hard to reason with such exclusively partisan ideological self-representations. How can an ethnic party or group that simply and immediately lays claim to the notion of “democracy” in framing its selfhood or in its self-identification be expected to let others question its view of that very notion? Wouldn’t that mean allowing its imagined “nationality” or “identity” to be questioned? Herein lie the underlying ideational and political limitations of ethnonationist “progressivism” in Ethiopia from the era of the Student Movement to the present.

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Put differently, the problem has been that identity as politically imagined and wished for subjectivity or a construct of generic “revolutionary” ideology is confused with historically constituted social category, namely, with actual Ethiopian ethnic-cultural communities and their commonly shared as well as distinctive forms of self-identification. And the mix up of ideological and social categories has generally made the ideology at issue closed to enlightened debate, discussion, and reconstruction.

10. Dissociating ethnocentrism as a category or system of ideas (particularly the residual Leninist-Stalinist constructs of ethnic partisans and elites) from the felt and lived self-identifications of actual Ethiopian cultural communities is imperative both as a matter of principle and in the struggle to save and renew Ethiopia.
The nation’s diverse, yet intersecting and overlapping communities can be identified locally and nationally in various ways, including shared history, common socio-economic interests, and trans-ethnic popular culture and spiritual life. Making all these sources and forms of community self-hood in Ethiopia extensions and objects of exclusive partisan or state ethnicism is not only undemocratic but also a gross contravention of the relative autonomy of the nation’s regions and localities and of the communities that dwell in them.

The old and still residually operative habit of “revolutionary” thought and practice in Ethiopia has resulted in the overpoliticization of ethnicity or in the overethnicization of local and regional identity. This deeply flawed yet predominant pattern of identity work should be deconstructed through a new progressive-patriotic ethos marked by what I would call ethnoscepticism.

In coining the term “ethnoscepticism,” I have in mind the all-round questioning and critique of ethnocentrism. I value and embrace ethnic-cultural diversity as constitutive of the Ethiopian national experience. But I regard the tradition of identity politics characteristic of such parties as the TPLF and the OLF (or what is left of it) not only wrong in its substantive views and arguments but fundamentally misconceived in equating an exclusively partisan ethnopolitical ideology simply and straightaway with national life, with the form, substance, and horizon of nationhood as such. In this, it is deeply mistaken.

11. Part of the allure and absurdity of ethnocentrism in Ethiopia is thus its aspiration to maximize tribal identity out of all historical proportion, common sense, and socio-economic context or rationality. Its appeal, particularly to those engaged in exclusively partisan identity work aimed at creating petty tribal states, is related to the overpoliticization of ethnicity as separatist “nationality.”
The attractiveness of ethnonationalism is related to the conflation of aspirational identity constructed ideologically with the subjectivities of actually existing Ethiopian cultural communities. We see this (intended or unwitting) confusion in its most graphic form in the practically meaningless Stalinist dogma of “the rights of nations, nationalities, and peoples to self-determination up to and including secession.” This old and tired dogma has, for decades, made itself felt in Ethiopian politics through mind-numbing high rhetorical frequency, but it has never had the sense and feel of authenticity or reality.

Instead, the dogma signifies nothing but political fiction; the “rights” of which it speaks have always been unreal. Nor should we take the generic Leninist-Stalinist terms, “nations, nationalities, and peoples” at face value as social referents, as if they pick out or represent particular Ethiopian cultural communities in any descriptive or political sense. We know that the terms generally encode and rationalize single-party, authoritarian rule centered on ethnic identity, real and/or imagined.

It is worth stressing here that the overvaluation of ethnicity (as “nation”) in Ethiopia since the era of the Student Movement has not been an outcome simply of the identity work of tribal elites or partisans. Instead, it has more broadly been a mark of leftist political fashion in the country. The phenomenon is symptomatic of our troubled tradition of teramaj politica as a whole.

In effect, if not by design, the inordinate currency we have given in our progressive discourse to the ideological categories of “nations,” “nationalities,” and “peoples” can be said to represent within that discourse a conceptually inert formulaic “radicalism” aimed at delegitimizing trans-ethnic Ethiopian nationality. It signified a global, generic, fundamentalist progressivism divorced from historically informed and grounded Ethiopian political thought.

That said, we cannot deny that the tendency of old school “revolutionary” partisans of the TPLF and remnants of the OLF today to overvalue ethnicity politically has to do with wounded cultural pride, often reflecting a felt or perceived sense of being devalued or treated as inferior in one’s distinct culture and identity. Whether its sources and bases are historically real or mainly politically constructed, this feeling cannot be discounted.

12. Yet we should recognize that the sentiment is connected to the perception (by unreconstructed practitioners of identity politics) of Tigres and Oromos as passive victims in the formation of the modern Ethiopian state, which is simply and falsely equated with “Amhara expansion.” What is conveniently denied or overlooked in this overdrawn ethnocentric narrative of victimhood is the active participation of heroic figures from the Tigre and Oromo communities in the making of modern Ethiopia as well as the fact of the multi-ethnic heritage of great Ethiopian national leaders, particularly Emperor Menelik II.
The fundamental problem here is that identity issues and problems, and the solutions proposed for them, are dissociated from broader social-structural contexts of movement, contact, and interaction of communities. This is particularly true of Amharas and Oromos. The intersections, interpenetrations, and cultural exchanges of these two great communities are profoundly constitutive of historic and contemporary Ethiopia as a whole and of distinct regions and cultural identities within the country.

Contrary to these historical conditions of our shared nationality, supposedly revolutionary narratives of “self-determination” or “liberation” have constructed disparate island-like ethnic “selves” as focal points of partisan domination, identity work, and wished for tribal state formation. The TPLF has become master of ethnocraft in this sense, adept at engineering cultural identities in Ethiopia today, particularly targeting the Oromo and Amhara communities. The possible solidarity of these two intersecting Ethiopian communities constitutes a mortal danger to the partisan-tribal dictatorship of the Woyane party, and the Woyanes know it. And they will do everything they can to prevent its realization.

13. In this connection, Amara distinctness is worth noting in particular. Woyane Tigres dream of reducing Amaras to just one among many other tribal groups in the country; they have sought to force Amarannet and Ethiopiawinnet But, if there is a distinct Ethiopian cultural community whose national identity or nationalism cannot be defined simply by ethnicity, it is the Amara people.
We as a community certainly have a right to defend ourselves by all means necessary against existential threats the TPLF and its proxies pose, and we should not hesitate to exercise that right whenever and wherever the need arises. But the continued survival and flourishing of Amaras (and of other cultural communities in the country) has a lot to do with maintaining cultural distinctness while strengthening civic unity and political solidarity with others through Ethiopiawinnet. Ultimately, we rise or fall together as Ethiopians. In the long run, the salvation of the Amara people will be achieved not in isolation from, or on the margins of, the Ethiopian experience but as integral and central to that experience. Ethiopiawinnet is deeply constitutive of Amara maninnet.

Even as we defend ourselves as a distinct community from TPLF predatory tribal aggression, we rely on Ethiopiawinnet for building patriotic-progressive coalitions and for cultivating needed allies and supporters near and far in the resistance against Woyane tyranny. As a vital part of Ethiopian national life, Amaras everywhere in the country confront a vengeful, scheming tribal enemy that harbors ill will towards us. It oppresses us not only by means state power, but through a network of local, national, regional, and global partners and allies. In doing so, it uses a wide range of ways and means, including coercion, espionage, political pressure, programs and projects of economic “development,” cyber tools, media, and propaganda.

Against an enemy operating on such networked terrain, the Amara community cannot effectively engage even in self-defense by practicing identity tegadlo pure and simple, disregarding or ignoring its vital historic and contemporary ties with other Ethiopian communities. Instead, in struggling to neutralize, turn aside or unravel the TPLF network of domination, the Amara resistance should take full advantage of its broader Ethiopian heritage of standing up to enemies, foreign and domestic.

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This means in part leveraging the values, resources and capabilities of Ethiopiawinnet existent in diverse communities and localities of the country. More broadly, it means building a strong coalition of patriotic and progressive forces linked to a countervailing network of regional and global sources of support.

But this cannot be done merely or primarily by practicing identity politics. The nation’s struggle against Woyane tyranny, at the center of which is the resistance of the Amara people, will require a renewed Ethiopian national vision, enlightened intellectual, political and moral leadership, a keen understanding of possibilities of trans-ethnic Ethiopian national consensus and solidarity, and strategic direction and resourcefulness.

14. TPLF ethnocentrism is caught in a net of paradoxes: generally, it is marked by a contradictory assertion of egalitarian ideals and dictatorial power. Its ethnic “federalism” represents an imposition of centralized state power by a small party, locally based in a minority ethnic community, over much larger Ethiopian cultural communities.
Under these conditions, “national self-determination” as an egalitarian value or ideal is neutralized by its treatment as an object of tactical maneuvers and manipulations by the Woyane power hierarchy. We see here the paradox of distinct Ethiopian local communities being subjected to dictatorial power in their supposed act of self-determination. We witness the rhetorical or formal promotion of cultural identity and difference facilitating the pre-emptive suppression of actual diversity and local self-government brought about by the homogenizing effects of TPLF state ethnicism.

Formally, the Woyane regime obsesses about, and gives excessive attention to, ideologically pre-cooked ethnic identity. Yet, whatever distinct cultural community (say, the Amara, Oromo, Tigre or Gurage) is addressed in this way gets little or no attention in its own, actual, self-identification. It has little or no agency either in its bona fide autonomy or in its historic and contemporary ties and intersections with other Ethiopian communities.

As such, the TPLF state is a squanderer of Ethiopian social capital and national power. In fostering tribal division, it undermines both the national solidarity and cultural diversity of the Ethiopian people, for there is really no meaningful diversity to speak of without robust national unity. In its self-serving instrumentalization of ethnic identities, the Woyane dictatorship is socially and nationally wasteful in a double sense. The regime not only hinders the country’s diverse communities from gaining true local self-government, but also severely limits their capacity to benefit fully from larger material and cultural values the Ethiopian national experience affords.

Moreover, officially sanctioned tribal fragmentation of the country has created a fertile ground for economic inefficiencies, corruption, and uneven development against the interests of all citizens and cultural communities in the country. And most outrageously, aging TPLF tyrants preside over the subjection particularly of Amhara communities in various parts of Ethiopia to destructive ethnic cleansing and genocide or the threat of genocide.

Consequently, the institutionalized tribalism of the Woyane regime should be clearly distinguished from the actual ethnic and cultural practices of real Ethiopian communities. The identity politics of TPLF dictatorship is not a part of us as citizens and local communities. It is not our lived experience as Amaras, Oromos, Tigres, Gurages, Afars, and so on.

On the contrary, it is imposed on us, making us all its objects and extensions. Woyane bureaucratic tribalism has its own colonially inspired divide-and-dominate rationale, interests, institutions, and practices. All of these elements and features of TPLF state ethnicism have taken shape and come into play against the multiethnic Ethiopian national experience. Insofar as Woyane political ethnicism has continued to be ideologically connected to the Stalinist legacy, it has been dictatorial. And, as such, it remains a major enemy of democracy in Ethiopia.

Under these circumstances, political institutions and practices of the Woyane regime such as federalism, constitution, parliament, elections, democracy, and development are not simply instruments the regime uses to pursue and protect its partisan-tribal interests. They are authoritarian tools the Woyanes use to undermine Ethiopian national culture, to negate fundamentally what Ethiopia means to its citizens and diverse local and cultural communities.

In this regard, an issue that is worth exploring but often suppressed or ignored in narratives and practices of identity politics in Ethiopia is this: what has been the role or function of external factors or influences, colonial and post-colonial, in the formation of “local” ethnic identities in Ethiopia? What has been the impact of global and regional forces on the inflated political currency of ethnicism in the country in more recent decades? Broad and involved, these questions deserve close, critical study and analysis. Here, it is enough to make a few concluding observations by way of a fifteenth, and last, set of critical notes.

15. Ethnic identities are commonly recognized by such relatively static or spontaneous markers as language, religion, cultural practice, physical appearance, and locality or place of dwelling. But, in a political-historical context, they are better understood dynamically as products of contacts and relations of native populations or localities with larger intervening forces. Forms of ethnicity or ethnicism can be seen as links in, and outcomes of, a long chain of local, national, regional, and global interactions, influences, and activities.
In this light, we can trace connections between, for example, the separatist identity politics of the OLF and the work of colonial and post-colonial era German missionaries and of other agents of European interests, notably, Baron Roman Prochazka of Austria, an anti-Ethiopia and anti-Amara Nazi figure who reportedly was the first to have spoken of the “self-determination of tribes in Abyssinia.” The dubious intentions of the seemingly OLF-supporting Shabiya dictatorship toward Ethiopia make up another major link in the chain.

We can further include here the connection between the Shabiya regime and Arab states’ goals in the Red Sea region and in the Horn of Africa, goals which have also generally contravened Ethiopian national interest. Western Marxist revolutionary ideology (specifically the Leninist-Stalinist dogma of “national self-determination”) also deserves mention as a significant link in the chain of locality-forming or identity-shaping external forces that have in more recent decades made themselves felt in Ethiopia.

This series of connections, which generally has tended to work at cross-purposes with Ethiopian national integration, thus represents more than the immediacies of OLF (or TPLF) partisans’ narratives of ethnic victimhood and related schemes of ethnocentric “national” self-definition and self-assertion. Instead, the links signify the overdetermination of OLF/TPLF ethnocentrism by various regional and global interests and influences. They point to a more complex and problematic political quality that has shaped the seemingly simple identity politics of both ethnic parties.

Not a brute empirical datum or a “reality on the ground” given naturally, then, “identity” or “locality” here is a political construct that has varying phenomenological character. That is to say, it can be variously perceived, defined, valued, and “realized” by competing or cooperating interests and forces. Different interests may have differing locality/identity-shaping purposes, programs, and capabilities. Varying projects of ethnocentrism, say, those of the TPLF and the OLF, may use varying tactics and techniques of valorization or “nationalization” of ethnicity.

Among the ways and means of identity work the Woyane regime in particular employs are: demographic tactics (depopulation and resettlement schemes, ethnic cleansing, and so on); cultural politics, for example, interventions in the internal affairs of the nation’s religious communities; economic policies and instruments (“development” projects); gross ethnic corruption in education and professional training; and similarly wholesale tribal favoritism in appointments to positions of power and in the staffing and use of the institutions of the “federal” state, namely, its fiscal, financial, bureaucratic, intelligence, police, and military agencies.

All these factors add up to an onerous task for the Ethiopian opposition to Woyane tyranny. They pose difficult challenges for the articulation of the form and direction of the Ethiopian patriotic-progressive resistance against TPLF dictatorship, which is at once insidious and blatantly oppressive. Gaining an enlightened strategic grasp as well as a practical understanding of the challenges involved is a critical first step in waging a successful struggle toward Ethiopian freedom and renewal.

1 Comment

  1. I see major approach and methodological flaw in the above article.

    The writer begins with what he thought gave birth to national question in Ethiopian. In that context, he relates foreign elements that articulated the issue, the student movement that picked it and advanced it, the Revolution, the roles of TPLF and OLF – past and present. For the writer, since nationalism is a mental construct, what it needs to make go away is to deconstruct it using concepts such as “Ethiopiawinet, patriotism and progressivism”. He thinks it is the erosion of Ethiopiawinet that brought ethno-nationalism.

    I feel that the assumption that nationalism is a mental construct is a simplistic one. If that is true, the larger “nationalism” the writer suggests building via “Ethiopiawinet, patriotism and progressivism” is also a mental construct which can easily disappear because it has no organic existence. It means it is open to deconstruction making the process an endless one.

    The issue of “nationalism being or not being a mental construct” aside, I wonder why the writer failed to look into nationalism in countries other than Ethiopia. Scottish nationalism in the U.K, Quebec nationalism in Canada, Catalan nationalism in Spain and Kurdish nationalism in Turkey and elsewhere are some examples of mature nationalism. The writer’s failure to relate these nationalisms even in passing makes his approach deficient.

    There are fundamental reasons for the emergence of nationalism which are shared by all nationalism despite the level of development of the nations concerned and differences in economic, social and cultural relationships of the people concerned. Understanding national question in Ethiopia requires understanding national questions everywhere. Solution acceptable to all stake holders can only be found if such understanding is taken seriously.

    The “Ethiopiawinet, patriotism and progressivism” put forward by the writer as a solution to national question in Ethiopia is a non-starter. Alternatives to his suggestions are already available in the international scene. Scotts had a referendum in which the majority voted to stay in the U.K. Quebec also had a referendum in which the majority voted to stay with Canada. Catalans and Kurds might have referendums with a likelihood that Spain and Turkey will remain united.

    The question here is : how did the U.K. and Canada succeed to remain united despite referendums? Essentially because they are developed democratic countries where power has devolved to the nations and collective rights are respected. The writer makes no reference to the respect of any of these fundamental rights. That’s where I see the second flaw in his article. Put simply, an important international experience in which states keep unity despite strong nationalism is missing.

    We might lose our country if we keep pandering to vague concepts such as “Ethiopiawinet, patriotism and progressivism” which nationalists do no take seriously.

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