by Tesfaye Demmellash
Like a spider, the TPLF regime has spun out of itself a predatory web of rhetorical devices, ideological conceits, codes of ethnic domination, and simulations of state institutions and practices in which it has ensnared Ethiopian national life for nearly three decades now. It is a paradox: the Woyane network of partisan-tribal dictatorship is morally and culturally repugnant to the Ethiopian people, including patriotic intellectuals, yet it has not been met with effective resistance in organized ideas and principles involving the nation’s dissenting educated class.
A sizable and growing part of the intelligentsia disagrees vehemently with Woyane ethnocentrism, but the quality and expression of its disagreement leave a whole lot to be desired. Much of what passes for intellectual dissent does not challenge or even closely and systematically question the political logic or belief system of the TPLF. This is partly because our dissent itself is caught up in the net of domination woven by the Front. In part, it may also be that the disillusioned revolutionary generation of Ethiopian mihuran in particular has lost whatever appetite it had for conceptual and critical thought. Or it could be that our contemporary intellectual culture generally has limited capacity to absorb such thought.
Whatever the reason, often reliant upon what it opposes for terms of debate and discussion, the dissenting literati often seems to operate without its own political vocabulary and ideas. The nation’s mihuran have not developed their basic disagreement with the Woyane regime through the life of the mind; on the whole, they have shied away from asking probing moral, philosophical and political questions and seeking answers. This avoidance is difficult to figure out in the light of the fact that grappling with such questions is essentially at the core of intellectual practice.
More importantly, the avoidance remains puzzling, given the general recognition that our national life and culture is under serious existential threat posed by the TPLF tribal imperium and considering growing popular demand for fundamental change. The threat is posed not by tribalism pure and simple, but by an entire system of ethnocentric hegemony built out of various other elements and parts. The system consists of not only a massive repressive and intelligence apparatus but also barely disguised pretenses of “revolutionary democracy” and simulations of “federal” and “local” government.
The shortfall of nation-saving systemic dissent on the part of the literati is paradoxical also when we take into account our abiding patriotic passion and our revolutionary experience, such as it is. The shortfall is difficult to understand for the additional reason that various social strata in the country, particularly young people, farmers and other groups are waging heroic resistance against the system of TPLF domination, risking, and often losing life and limb. They are trying to stand up to the hated system by all means they can, led only by yegobez aleqoch. Yet, oddly, the nation’s educated stratum has so far been a marginal participant at best in the struggle, marginal by intellectual as well as political standards. This has got to change, and soon.
The web of deceit and oppression over which the Woyanes preside, having captured power a quarter century ago in a hostile take-over of the Ethiopian state, is presently fraying under the pressure of popular uprisings and related internal tensions within the TPLF/EPRDF apparatus. But much of the apparatus is still in place as an extensive network of dependent partisan-ethnic collaborators, particularly Amaras, and other social, cultural and institutional satellites. These all revolve around an ever scheming, manipulative TPLF cabal, which is the hub of the colonial-like predatory tribal political economy created by the Front.
I was reminded of the paradox I noted above in listening to a recent discussion of Ethiopian intellectuals held in Addis Ababa around the topic of unrest and violent clashes among college students in the country. In addition to the conversation itself being my concern, I had a personal interest in the talk because one of the participants, Dr. Dagnachew Assefa, a thoughtful, gentle critique of the TPLF regime, is an old friend of mine whose patriotism, intellectual earnestness, wit and sense of humor I have always liked and valued.
But the conversation of the mihuran itself left me wanting to hear more, not in quantity but qualitatively. I had wanted and expected to listen to the issues at hand being discussed with substantially more analytical and critical clarity, and with more systematic dissent. I will presently indicate why I felt this way, but let me first make a quick point as a set-up for my comments on the discussion itself.
Political ethnicism in Ethiopia in its ruling and oppositional forms is entering a period of decay and decline, signifying a situation of flux in the country in which the Ethiopian people appear ready to transition in unity to a different, more just and democratic, national order. What we have is an emerging condition of maximum opportunity for bold initiatives in thought and vision of systemic change. If there was ever a time not to prevaricate, not to be hesitant and unclear in our questions and answers about the truth of the system of domination we confront as mihuran, and as a nation, I believe it is now.
While the discussion of academics I am speaking of was centered topically on the matter of ethnic clashes among college students in the country, it also highlighted official ethnicism more broadly as a source of the nation’s social, economic, political, institutional and cultural ills. The discussants were of various disciplinary backgrounds, namely, journalism, law, history and philosophy. They were asked to offer their thoughts and views on the sources of unrest on college campuses and their proposed solutions for the problems.
Concerning the problems, the four participants gave basically the same diagnosis, to wit, the commonplace that everything in the country, including academic life, turns on ethnic identity (“ብሔር”). The consensus was that ethnicism makes itself felt negatively in every sector of Ethiopian society. It contravenes the values of citizenship and individual rights and undermines public institutions. While the diagnosis is spot on, it is by now quite familiar to the Ethiopian people, and may provoke their retort: “hey, mihuran, tell us something we don’t know.”
As for the proposed remedies for the nation’s ills, I found the discussion to have been even more limited in both ideational content and practical significance. The conversation on solutions hardly went beyond producing various injunctions, demands like “the government must keep its hands off institutions of higher learning,” “we should be faithful to our constitution, institutions, and the rule of law,” “it is necessary that we move away from fixation on ethnic identity and toward citizenship,” and so on.
There may be nothing wrong with these exhortations, but do they amount to meaningful proposals for change in theory or practice? Do they offer anything in thought or vision that is suggestive of an “alternative” to the existing order of things? I don’t think so.
Keep Dissent Whole
A key issue that arises here, where intellectual discourse that questions regime ideology is often parasitic upon official rhetoric, is the integrity of dissent. It is imperative that resistance be kept integral or whole, given the tireless efforts of the Woyane regime to infiltrate the opposition camp through moles and create outposts inside it.
Wholeness of resistance needs to be secured not only at the commanding heights of political thought and strategy but also in the trenches of media and propaganda warfare, in rapid tactical and rhetorical engagements in response to particular events, like the recent brutal massacre of innocent young people, including under age children, in the Amara region of Woldia by bestial agents of the TPLF regime.
There may be an ebb and flow to mass protests in particular regions and localities of the country; still, popular resistance, specifically among Amaras and Oromos, is ongoing because it concerns the basic needs and daily lives of the Ethiopian people regardless of ethnic affiliation. But often popular protests do not evince fully articulated interests or goals. When they are not suppressed through savage state violence, they are likely to be dispersed, distracted or sidetracked through the machinations of the Woyane regime. The opposition of mihuran and political groups may not be immune from such subversive machinations, but it has greater potential to organize itself into an integral whole and to think out systemic change.
We can evaluate the integrity of the dissent of Ethiopian intellectuals and political figures from TPLF hegemony using various criteria. To cite one significant test or standard, we make a judgment on the basis of what dissenting intellectuals and politicians themselves produce – terms of debate and discussion, meanings, values, forms of thought – and what they knowingly or unwittingly take from the Woyane system of domination itself even as they (apparently) disagree with it. We ask: does dissent generate innovative political vocabulary and ideas, or is it dependent on the ethnocentrism it opposes for terms and categories of social thought and for styles of identity management and control?
This question is critically important because the TPLF does not dominate Ethiopian politics only from the outside, merely explicitly through gross imposition of ideology. It is also an insidious internal player in dissent. It insinuates itself into parts or elements of opposition thought and practice at home and abroad. It does so through various ways and means, including media, academia, the state apparatus itself, the private sector, and institutions of cultural and spiritual life, particularly the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, or what is left of it after the profanation of its places and practices of worship by ungodly Woyane partisan-tribal politics.
The TPLF regime may insinuate itself into any and all sectors of Ethiopian society at home and abroad, including the opposition. It may do so not only through the work of its agents or former members and leaders that manage to associate themselves with the opposition, but also by way of circulation of its style of political and development rhetoric among dissident groups. Woyane dictatorship is always seeking to prevent intellectual and political engagements within the opposition camp from being integral activities. It is bent on co-opting the activities or separating them from their declared aims, from their honest intention.
This is particularly the case in times of crisis like the present when the TPLF regime is increasingly unable to exercise dictatorship using the same old tribal strategy of divide-and-dominate. In such times, the regime can be expected to act in “innovative” ways to prevent the dissent of Ethiopian mihuran and politicians to come into its own. The Woyane party may thereby attempt to continue its dictatorship indefinitely. It could also make marginal concessions to the resistance in a tactical vein. An example of this is releasing from incarceration mostly people accused of committing ordinary crimes. It may take such a step to placate the resistance and to appease its Western backers, while keeping most “high-valued” political prisoners still in prison and essentially refusing to countenance any meaningful reform.
Aside from the regime’s subversive actions, the integrity of resistance also suffers from specific gaps and limitations within dissent itself. Integrity is compromised by deficit of intellectual vigor and energy or shortage of serious critical effort within the opposition camp that is in contrast with the abundance of moral condemnation of the Woyane regime within the camp. Unwittingly or knowingly, whole sections of the dissident Ethiopian intelligentsia at home and abroad often fall back on what they oppose for political language. As such, their opposition is limited in its capacity to generate alternative terms and concepts for framing vital national issues.
With regard to the discussion of the mihuran noted above in particular, we see, on the one hand, their lament of the perverse impact of official ethnicism on Ethiopian society, polity and economy. Yet, we also observe the unquestioning reproduction of the rhetorical terms and categories of the official discourse in the very dissent of the intellectuals from state ethnicism, particularly the terms “biher” (“ብሔር”) and “constitution.”
Unless, of course, the intellectuals’ critique of the ideology of the state was expressed ironically in the regime’s own rhetoric, in which case the mihuran cannot be said to have simply reproduced or echoed the official terms. But I am not sure if the discussants were ironic in calling into question TPLF ethnocentrism. Nor were they so, I think, in relying on the nominal constitutionalism of the Woyane regime as a standard for their critique of identity politics.
So the discrepancy between the intellectuals’ lament of state ethnicism as a source of Ethiopia’s ills and their reliance on official rhetoric in dissenting from ethnocentrism still stands. The dissonance is particularly evident in the use of the term “nation” (“ብሔር”) in the discussion, a key term that, far from being simply descriptive, has, since the revolutionary era going back to the Student Movement, encoded authoritarian Stalinist political ideology and practice.
As such, the term and its associated “revolutionary” meaning and practical significance remain central to the political self-image of the TPLF regime. Consequently, the critical handling of the term today and what it (mis)represents has far reaching implications for not only resisting TPLF dictatorial ethnocentrism but also for thinking out its alternative.
As I have noted elsewhere, a basic intellectual shortcoming here is a habit of mind which causes us to adopt constructs of ideology (i.e., “nations,” “nationalities” and “peoples”) simply and straightaway as social categories or referents. We tend to take the labels at face value as descriptors of not only the identities and autonomous agency of Ethiopian local and cultural communities but also the policies and actions of the TPLF regime. As an example of this approach, we might mention a statement made by one of the participants in the discussion at issue here to the effect that, “while the constitution grants authority to individuals, power is in the hands of ብሔሮች [‘nations’].”
Need we point out here that, notwithstanding its constitutional conceit and rhetorical claims, TPLF dictatorship does not, by definition, “grant authority” to anyone but itself? Need we spell out that the conceptually inert “constitution” has no real meaning or normative significance beyond its ever dead letter? Don’t we know full well that the Woyane constitution has no interpretable life at all, that its operative content, to the extent it has any, is not at all broadly legal but narrowly and exclusively partisan-tribal? As such, isn’t its content only whatever the TPLF says it is, nothing more or different?
Since the days of the Student Movement, our political concept of “identity” or “nation” formulaically defines what it is, but that homogenizing definition has never had much to do with the dynamic historical conditions of formation of diverse Ethiopian communities or with their traditions of self-identification. Why, I often wonder, has this critical distinction, with all its possibilities for systemic transformation of Ethiopian politics and government today, not figured meaningfully in the oppositional thought of the nation’s mihuran? Is the distinction unwarranted? Is it too fine, or maybe too hard to make? But we are here talking about the intelligentsia, highly educated people. What gives?
Perhaps we all need to recognize more fully what the much bandied about phrase, “identity politics” signifies. If I understand it correctly, it means that collective “identity” or “self” is not an entirely pre-given and completed subjectivity but an evolving site of political contestation, construction and, potentially, negotiation. It is relatively open to the formative effects of these engagements and interactions.
This means that the problem is not ethnicity pure and simple, but ethnicism as a political construct and project in which partisanship and power relations produce varying terms and styles of neo-tribal selfhood. To equate ethnocentrism simply and straightaway with biher or ethnic identity is to commit the fallacy of nominal realism or misplaced concreteness. Such equation conflates naming with being. It confuses variable and negotiable characterizations of distinct communities through Stalinist ideological labeling with what history and culture have made of the identities of such communities. Unfortunately, this conflation is a common error among even dissident Ethiopian mihuran.
So we might here ask: granted that TPLF tribal tyranny is real, but to what extent has Woyane state ethnicism been reflective of, or based on, Ethiopian social and national realities?
Woyane state bureaucracy has sought to ground all of the country’s values, institutions and symbols, its national culture and its societal interests in tribal identity and difference. This desire borders on what those who study the mind might characterize as an ethnocentric psychosis – a fixation on tribe as a carrier of all grievance, identity, nationality, freedom and power, a fixation detached from the realities of Ethiopia and Ethiopiawinnet.
What I had hoped Dr. Dagnachew Assefa and the other participants in the discussion I have commented on here would do was move toward integral dissent by wrestling with questions like: how has the issue of “identity”/“ብሔር” been framed politically through TPLF rule in particular and within the worldview of the “radical” Ethiopian left generally? What forms of political power has the handling of the issue helped produce and rationalize? Below the surface of ideal platitudes and the circulation of counterfeit ideological coins like “democracy” and “federalism,” how does biher politics function in practice, in whose interest, and to what end?
The point here is not to describe what “nation” (“ብሔር”) is according to various static criteria, but to understand how it works dynamically in being incorporated into definite strategies of social categorization and naming, particularly identity labeling, shaping and control. The strategies involved may be directly or indirectly those of distinct, competing and/or coalescing interests and entities. These include localized, exclusive partisans of “national liberation,” the TPLF regime itself, regional forces like the Shabiya dictatorship and Arab states, and also global powers like the United States, the European Union, and China.
Make Dissent Systemic
In projecting power nationwide, the TPLF regime often makes tactical and rhetorical gestures toward “Ethiopia,” appearing to be concerned about the interests and affairs of the country. But we know that, in actuality, the regime lacks any context of national principle or purpose beyond its narrow, exclusively partisan ethnonationalist project.
This is so because the TPLF has not taken shape and come into power within a broader trans-ethnic setting of national meaning and value. Its “revolutionary democracy” has all been about a calculated, controlled demolition of Ethiopia from within; it has had nothing to do with the nation’s integral growth and transformation.
Yet I have also argued that the Woyane party exercises dominant power through a sprawl of ideological elements; state institutions and policies; social, economic and cultural agencies; and other governmental and non-governmental machinery. At issue here, then, is dissent from an entire system of domination whose parts include, but are not limited to raw, resentful and reactionary tribalism that is inimical toward historic Ethiopiawinnet and that directs special animus toward Amara Ethiopians in particular.
This means resisting in principle, thought and practice TPLF hegemony as a whole, as distinct from waging merely identity-based partial or localized opposition within the system of domination. But “system” is a term that has wide currency in various fields of study and contexts of description and analysis, so I should clarify the sense in which I use it to characterize Woyane dictatorship.
In a basic sense, system signifies an ordering of activities or linked functions in space and time. The term designates the transformation of individual-centered or particular activities into means to an organized collective production of desired outcomes or values.
System is broadly pre-figured in all natural and social life, where we recognize it only indirectly through observation of regularity, stability, movement and change. The concept also carries a narrower, more specialized cybernetic and social-scientific meaning. In such contexts, “system” often refers to an arrangement or interaction of parts in which distinct, self-regulating entities process inputs, outputs and feedback loops in performing work in stable, relatively open patterns or forms. In this way, we refer, for example, to the market system, a political system or a constitutional system of government.
In looking at TPLF tyranny in particular, we see not a dynamic, relatively open system able to process “inputs” and “feedback loops” from its national and social environment, but a closed, static partisan-authoritarian ordering of varied elements and entities in space and time. It is useful to distinguish here Woyane dictatorship in particular from the general pattern of domination within which the dictatorship has taken shape and come into operation. The pattern of dictatorial rule as such extends beyond the Woyane party back to the era of revolution as a whole, including the reign of the Derg. This is true, although the Woyanes have certainly given the basic system of domination colonial-like predatory tribal content and form that are uniquely their own.
We recognize the TPLF system of dictatorship, then, not solely as the work of Woyane political agency but more broadly as a product of the nation’s troubled revolutionary experience in which other groups, like the EPRP and the OLF, have also been implicated. Not the work of an isolated party or ethnic group, “system” formation has involved a cumulative build-up over several decades, an operation in a series extending back in time across successive and simultaneous movements and regimes of ideology and practice. The origin of the series can be traced back to the “radical” constructs and rhetoric of ultra-left leaders and partisans of the Student Movement, most notoriously Walelign Makonnen.
Consequently, recognizing the pattern of domination we face as a nation today in this broader and deeper sense is of critical importance for diagnosing the nation’s underlying ills rather than merely its symptoms or the particular manifestation of the ills in the doctrine, policies and actions of TPLF “revolutionary democracy.” Pattern recognition on this level is also essential for mounting systemic, transformational dissent in thought and practice.
Such dissent and resistance places a stronger demand upon conceptual thought and practical intelligence than most oppositional thinking and expression simply in terms of ideal platitudes, partisan identity politics, or technocratic-developmental rationality. I see systemic critique here not as an act merely of deconstructing TPLF hegemony but also as a movement of thought toward the production of alternative ideas, knowledge, values and political practices to the ends of fundamental change.
Since the revolutionary era, the educated and political strata in Ethiopia (and Eritrea, too) have been attempting to remedy our social and national ailments, as they have perceived them using a “radical” diagnostic system. What is different today is, first, that the ailments have become a lot worse, ironically as a result of past and present attempted “remedies.” And, secondly, the model of “progressivism” through which our national problems have been defined and addressed has itself proven to be deeply flawed. True, the system has led to some necessary changes but, essentially, it has been the problem, not the solution. This is particularly evident in the structure or unity of Woyane domination and in the nature of its systemic functioning.
The wide range of sectors of Ethiopian social, economic, political, cultural and institutional life caught up in the system of TPLF direct and indirect rule makes the system seem complicated and unwieldy. Within the sprawling, contradictory pattern of domination, an exhausted Stalinist formula of supposedly progressive ethnonationalism has merged, yet operates in tension, with backward-looking tribalism; divide-and-dominate politics inspired by Western colonialism supports a resentful, vindictive native tyranny. In short, narrow, small-minded ethnocentric rationality works against broad-based societal and national reason.
Yet, Woyane dictatorship is not as complicated a system as it seems. This is because the TPLF regime instrumentalizes everything into pliable objects and extensions of its exclusively partisan operations. Anything – an idea, local government, the media, the identity of a cultural community, an institution of higher learning, economic development, foreign relations, war and peace or dissent itself – can be, and often is, given stylized official form. In this way, anything can easily become part and parcel of the Woyane system of domination. Everything can be, and generally is, rendered in ritualized, stereotypical terms to suit the purposes and functions of TPLF dictatorship.
In lording it over the Ethiopian people, the Woyane regime thus simplifies its domination by suppressing the real diversity and solidarity of Ethiopian communities, their distinctly lived experience and shared nationality, in favor of generic simulations of the same which the regime can manipulate at will. Integral Ethiopiawinnet, free citizens, and actually autonomous localities and institutions of governance do not find themselves in this system. They find in it only unreal, hollowed out copies of themselves, reduced to nothing but focal points, symbols and cheap ornaments of dictatorial power; they are given nothing but substantially empty rhetorical and ritual value. TPLF’s simulation of “federalism” or “parliament,” for example, functions in exactly this manner.
Does the Woyane regime make up a unified system of domination and a target, as such, of dissent and resistance? It does, but its unity is not the unity of ideas or values – not an integrity or wholeness of constitutional ideals, principles and practices. The regime is certainly single-minded and very deliberate in pursuing its partisan-tribal project. However, while it engages in purposeful activities within the parameters of that project, its politics as such is nihilistic.
The Woyane dictatorship is not only unable to create broad-based national meaning; it is also incapable of receiving vital, deeply historic Ethiopian values that it did not create. Having willfully alienated itself from and essentially rejected Ethiopiawinnet in favor of narrow sectarian obsessions, the TPLF has never settled down in the larger context of our shared agerawi culture, sentiments and values. Its ethnocentrism is thus nationally meaningless.
That said, to note the national nihilism of TPLF politics is not to suggest that the Woyane regime is simply lacking in political beliefs. The regime ritually professes “revolutionary” progressivism, tracing its ideological pedigree back to the Student Movement. But here is the thing: much of the Front’s idealizing effort has always been focused on elevating its vulgar tribalism to more “refined” authoritarian ethnonationalist politics, on prettifying its blatantly aggressive and expansionist behavior by labeling it “national self-determination.”
The problem here is not simply that particular ideas the TPLF regime professes are conceptually barren, practically meaningless and nationally non-communicative across partisan and ethnic lines; it is, more broadly, that the entire ideological-political rationale of the TPLF regime is corrupt. Woyane “revolutionary-democratic” dogma is fundamentally bereft of integrity; it is deeply falsified by dishonest intention and thinly disguised practices of simulation.
In sum, TPLF tyranny is organized around “Greater Tigrai” as an ultimate value and goal in relation to which everything the Front thinks and does acquires sense and meaning. But it is worth remembering one thing here. Namely, if we are to mount an effective dissent from Woyane tyranny, reducing the challenge posed by a whole model of official and oppositional ethnocentrism to the problem of common, garden variety tribalism is a false start. It does not take the present Ethiopian struggle for fundamental change very far.
Such reduction amounts to failure to recognize the systemic character of that which we dissent from. It falls short of fully confronting an existing pattern of domination that has traversed time and varying ethnic “liberation” fronts, political parties, and regimes. By extension, the reduction limits or ignores possibilities and strategic options of system-transforming resistance.
Well, then, how should patriotic Ethiopian intelligentsia go about helping develop such resistance against TPLF tyranny? Given the tame, halting manner in which the learned-cum-political class at home and in the diaspora has tended to express its dissent over the last nearly three decades, it may be rather naive to ask how the literati should upgrade or advance its oppositional thought and practice. But I think things are changing; I think it is reasonably hopeful, not simply wishful, to ask the question now and seek answers.
Closing Notes on Strategy and Tactics
The Ethiopian opposition to Woyane dictatorship may be approaching a turning point, but it is presently in an impasse. The impasse has to do with a major gap between growing popular protests, on the one hand, and their transmutation in thought and strategy into a sustainable nation-wide organization of oppositional practice, on the other. It speaks to the need to translate the immediacy and bare factuality of resistance actions, deeds, and events into a coherent, symbolically ordered, forward-moving, integral experience.
How might the educated/political stratum begin to meet this need and thereby overcome the impasse? We can here make a distinction between strategic and tactical modes of engagement. The concept of “strategy” often implies the existence of a definite actor, say, a party or an armed group, that effectively distinguishes and distances itself from a given state, putting itself in a position to plan and execute movements of forces against the existing political order.
Such a strategic actor could then challenge the system as a whole using various tactics and means, including political pressure, “the criticism of the weapon,” negotiation, propaganda, social media and clandestine resources and methods. Strategic engagement, involving objective analyses of relations of forces and their alignment and deployment may be characterized in terms of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony as a “war of maneuver.”
Tactical engagement, on the other hand, is possible and could be effective even in the absence of an independent base or nucleus of political organization. Tactics could facilitate multiple points of resistance against the TPLF system of domination from within the system, say, through subversive actions taken against the TPLF-dominated EPRDF by disaffected elements of the OPDO and ANDM. Such a gradual yet potentially system-changing process of struggle may be called, again following Gramsci, a “war of position.”
We are here talking about a relative distinction, not an absolute difference in levels of resistance. In the Ethiopian struggle for change today, both strategic actions of “maneuver” and tactical efforts of “position” could be at play. The engagements may take place on diverse fields and assume various forms; they also carry varying possibilities, limits, risks and rewards. But, essentially, strategy and tactics are better understood as mutually inclusive levels of resistance movement on a continuum than self-enclosed modes or methods of struggle.
This understanding applies particularly to intellectual-cultural opposition to the Woyane system of domination; it is relevant to effective dissent from TPLF dictatorship on the basis of ideas, values, norms and principles. Patriotic and forward-looking Ethiopian literati have to develop such an understanding if they are to help overcome the impasse, noted earlier, in the aversion of the Ethiopian people to Woyane dictatorship. In summing up, let me sketch a few precepts of intellectual-cum-political practice toward integral dissent and systemic change in Ethiopia.
1. The contribution of patriotic and forward-looking intellectuals is to discover and reveal to the Ethiopian people a pattern or system of domination which may not be entirely visible to citizens and cultural communities even as they stand up to the particular policies and actions of the Woyane regime.
Revealing the pattern of TPLF dictatorial rule means, first, showing that people, ideas, media, institutions, identities, kilils and sectors of socio-economic and cultural life under it do not make up integral entities or autonomous public spheres but links in a tight chain or structure of tyranny. The system prescribes their position and function and they in turn constitute the ingredients or formative elements of the system. Second, revelation of the pattern of Woyane dictatorship means demonstrating that the dictatorship is marked by growing tension, gaps and contradictions which make it increasingly vulnerable to all round critique and resistance.
2. The challenge of mihurawi resistance to Woyane dictatorship today is to understand, compose and practice principled, ideas-based politics in an innovative, more animate way. I have in mind a way that conceives social space as an active site of movement of free citizens, civic groups, and cultural communities rather than a passive environment populated by idealized or stereotyped “nations, nationalities and peoples.” As is well known, such false idealization of actually captive collectivities is conducive to Stalinist authoritarian political culture. The Ethiopian people need the institutionalization of a new, more open and dynamic form of political practice which is constitutionally designed in such a way that it is accountable in its actual functioning to a free society.
3. Terms and conceptual categories of dissenting intellectual discourse geared toward systemic change should not keep recycling the old, still residually operative pattern of “progressive” speech, particularly the ritualized rhetoric of “nations, nationalities, and peoples.” In this Stalinist model of political speech, the communicative functions of statements tend to be pre-emptively suppressed or neutralized through mindless partisan formula and impersonal organizational machinery.
In challenging the existing order and seeking to bring about systemic change, it is therefore essential to transform political language itself along with the model of reasoning that lies behind it. The ways in which we do this include imparting alternative, forward-looking content or meanings to existing terms and concepts, developing new ideas, and bringing into circulation a more open and enlightening form of political thought.
4. In wrestling with divisive ethnocentrism in its official and oppositional forms, critical analysis is necessary to reveal its systemic components and connections, taking into account local, national, regional and global sources, past and present. The broader and deeper the analysis the nation’s intelligentsia is able to produce, the greater the potential for systemic transformation. And the more our analysis is strategically informed and actionable, the more it helps advance the present Ethiopian struggle for change.
In more specific terms, the analytical task here is to demonstrate to the Ethiopian people how a dubious, exclusively partisan promise of “national self-determination” has been used to draw all citizens of the country, regardless of ethnicity, into an invasive, authoritarian apparatus of identity fabrication and control. It is to show that actual ethnic communities have been smothered with an overpoliticized superstructure of ethnocentrism in both its official and oppositional variants.
While affirming the diversity and equality of the nation’s distinct cultural/local groups, the literati should make it fully known that individuals and communities have needs, interests and aspirations that cannot be based on ethnic identity alone. Critical analysis of identity politics, both of the ruling (TPLF) and oppositional (OLF) variety, can even go further. It can show that ethnocentrism is systemically marked by a naked partisan-tribal instrumentality that has an identity narrowing and impoverishing effect, cutting the Ethiopian people off from broad-based societal and national values, resources and powers of individual and collective selfhood.
5. Finally, the intelligentsia should stress that the major struggle in Ethiopia today has little or nothing to do with ethnicity or ideology as such. It is not waged over notions like “identity,” “democracy,” and “federalism.” Rather, it is fundamentally the struggle of an entire nation to get rid of a grave threat to its survival, to free itself from a predatory tyrannical order which employs such notions perversely as means of colonial-like oppression.
There may be particular issues and problems in the country that pit one cultural community or one locality against another, but these pale beside the major contradiction between the system of domination confronting the Ethiopian people as a whole, regardless of ethnic affiliation. What is important is that the people achieve a good grasp of the system in all its forms and manifestations. Only then can we as a nation wage an effective struggle to dismantle it and lay foundations for an alternative political order.