Given the horrendous loss in human life and property that the TPLF war of destruction inflicted on the Afar and Amhara regions, one may find it strange to think that the war has benefits that Ethiopians must put to good use. Yet, it does have benefits. First, the war has exposed the anti-African nature of the TPLF, providing Ethiopia with political assets beneficial for her present and future diplomatic dealings with African countries. Second, the TPLF war has created conditions that reinforce democracy in Ethiopia.
We have to be grateful for Tsadkan Gebretensae’s article on the Kenyan platform, The Elephant (26/12/2021), for honestly expressing the TPLF non-negotiable point: that each ethnic group is “sovereign,” which he expresses in the words he lifts from the TPLF penned 1995 Ethiopian Constitution: “sovereign legitimacy resides in the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia.” Thus when he speaks of Ethiopian politics, he speaks only in ethnic terms: Oromo, Somali, Afar, Agaw, Amhara, Tigray, and so forth. He justifies TPLF’s forced creation of an ethnic federation in 1994, the only one in Africa and indeed in the world, through a warped view of Ethiopian history that conveniently forgets the major and determinant roles that, among others, the Tigreans, the Oromos, and the Somalis (Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Ghazi) have played in the creation of Ethiopia. He adamantly expresses the TPLF commitment to get rid of the present democratically elected government.
What Tsadkan is interested in is not “federalism” but maintaining Ethiopia as a collection of ethnic groups, opening the door to an eventual return to power of the TPLF through its time-tested practice of ethnic-divide-and-rule, or to an eventual secession of Tigray. Blinded by his ethnic hatred of the Amhara, which he expresses repeatedly in the article, he cannot see that a non-ethnic federation—a political form that exists successfully in Africa and in other parts of the world—is possible, and better. The ethnic politics that the TPLF espouses is profoundly anti-African. This becomes clear when one considers the TPLF in the context of African history and politics.
The Anti-Africanism of the TPLF: historical and political
Historically, the African leaders who fight for the liberation of their countries from colonialism and neo-colonialism—Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Kenneth Kaunda, Robert Mugabe, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Touré, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Thomas Sankara, and many others—rejected the colonialists’ designs to transform their countries into a collection of “sovereign” ethnic groups. They repudiated the very idea of “ethnic federalism,” for they believed, rightly so, that it will foster ethnic fragmentation, weaken African states, and render them unable to defend their interests against the former colonial powers. Since Tsadkan published his piece on a Kenyan platform, let’s imagine applying the TPLF politics of “ethnic sovereignty” to Kenya and see its political implications.
Kenya has 70 distinct ethnic groups. If we follow the “ethnic sovereignty” politics of the TPLF, Kenya would be an “ethnic federation” of 70 “sovereign” ethnies. If we limit “sovereignty” to ethnies with a population of more than one million, that will give us an “ethnic federation” of 13 “sovereign” ethnies (Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba. Kalenjin, Kisii, Meru, Mijikenda, Somali, Turkana, Masai, Embu, Taita). If we limit “sovereignty” to ethnies with a population of more than 10 million, it will give us an “ethnic federation” of five “sovereign” ethnies (Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, Kamba, and Kalenjin). A Kenyan “ethnic federation,” based on the TPLF claim, “sovereign legitimacy resides in the nations, nationalities and peoples of…,” will surely plunge Kenya into ethnic fragmentation and strife. It will mark the end of Kenya as a sovereign state capable of defending the interests of Kenyans against outside powers. The TPLF politics of “ethnic sovereignty” and “ethnic federalism” goes against the lessons of Africa’s history of the struggle against colonialism, neo-colonialism, and ethnic fragmentation.
When Tsadkan writes, “We now call on our African brothers to reach out their hand,” Africans know that the hand the TPLF offers them is a poisoned hand that transmits a terminal disease called “ethnic federalism”: a recipe for the type of ethnic fragmentation we saw in TPLF-ruled Ethiopia. The only rational African answer is: # No More, for it is a hand that stirs anti-Africanism.
Tsadkan, in his clarification of TPLF’s logic of “ethnic federalism,” brings out unwittingly that Ethiopia’s war against the TPLF is Africa’s war: necessary to prevent the virus of ethnic fragmentation from becoming an African pandemic. The TPLF is made by and for war. It is driven by a deformed representation of Ethiopian history, a total indifference to life as one could see from the its scorched-earth policy in the Afar and Amhara regions, and by a culture of destruction of all that which is democratic, Ethiopian, and African. Though ruinous, the war demonstrates that Ethiopia is, as she has always been, the defender of the sovereignty and integrity of African countries and the determined opponent of anti-Africanism. This is surely an important post-war benefit that Ethiopia reaps from TPLF’s aggression.
The democratic consequences of the TPLF War
On launching its attack against Ethiopia on November 4, 2020, the TPLF thought that the ethnic divisions among Ethiopians that it has institutionalized will enable it to easily march into Addis Ababa and pursue its politics of ethnic divide-and-rule and subordinate the Ethiopian state to its interests. However, something unexpected happened. The belief in Ethiopian identity that the TPLF thought it has destroyed reared its head. The war generated unintended consequences that the TPLF leaders could not have imagined, gripped as they are by their ethnic ideology, which has robbed them of the freedom to exercise their reason and learn from Ethiopian history.
First, Ethiopian soldiers from different regions, fighting side by side to defend Ethiopia from the TPLF project to dismantle her, discovered in the trenches their commonly shared Ethiopian identity and interests. Originating from the different regions of Ethiopia, the soldiers put their lives and limbs on the line not only to protect their family and property but also the family and property of those living in the various regions of Ethiopia. In the trenches of the war were thus demolished the ethnic barriers and divisions that the TPLF cultivated and institutionalized during its 27 years in power. Trans-ethnic empathy emerged and the age-old wisdom of Ethiopians expressed as “yäne bite,” meaning “he/she is like me, I am like him/her,” irrespective of one’s identity, became a concrete reality. Thus the fighters, coming from different regions, re-discovered the other old-age Ethiopian wisdom—“Harki tokkichi waa hindhiqu,” that is, “A single hand can’t wash anything.” They realized that they need each other’s “hands” not only to win the war against the TPLF, but also to win the peace in the post-war period. In the trenches, they discovered that which is in each of them more than their ethnic identity: a commonly shared Ethiopian destiny. The TPLF aggression, meant to destroy Ethiopia, thus gave birth to new forms of transethnic empathy, solidarity, and fraternity.
Second, as crucial are the elements of democratic culture the war has brewed—an unintended consequence that will have long-term effects on Ethiopian politics. The impulse to defend Ethiopia from the TPLF’s project of ethnic disintegration emerged from below. It is as Ethiopians that Afars, Somalis, Oromos, Sidamas, Hararis, Amharas, Tigrayans, yes, Tigrayans, and so forth rose up both at home and in the Diaspora to defend the sovereignty and integrity of Ethiopia and help the victims of the TPLF. TPLF’s attack against Ethiopia has given birth to a grassroots conception and practice of democracy and politics never seen before in Ethiopian history. Let me use the issue of “participation” as a trampoline to make the point.
Political participation—a mantra of the TPLF—has always been under its rule an “interpassive participation.” Ethiopians were organized from above to participate in the discussion of political and development projects, whose issues, questions, answers, and goals were predetermined by the TPLF and its parameters of ethnic identity. The TPLF leaders sent down their decisions to the rank and file of the TPLF-created entities: the EPRDF, trade unions, peasant associations, and civil society organizations, and so forth, for “discussion”. These discussions were led by TPLF cadres, and their goal was to dissimulate the decisions of the TPLF as the decisions of the people.
That is, what appears to be an active participation is “interpassive” activity in the sense that the participants authorize, unwillingly to be sure, through their active participation in the confirmation of the decisions that come from above, their own exclusion from their rights to formulate the issues, questions, answers, activities, and goals to be pursued. The very process of “participation” affirms the exclusion of Ethiopians as active political agents, freely choosing the kind of society they would like to create and live in. The TPLF disguised this process of “interpassive participation” as abiyotawi democracy. It was a congenitally anti-democratic procedure, whose purpose was to ensure TPLF’s domination of the Ethiopian state and economy.
However, the TPLF’s war against Ethiopia has sounded the death knell of “interpassive participation,” of its culture of exclusion, and of its underlying ethnic politics.
In response to the TPLF aggression against Ethiopia, Ethiopians have reinvented participation as an activity of free and equal Ethiopians working in solidarity with each other. They have become active self-determining agents: they have freely assumed the responsibility to self-organize themselves—reinventing, modernizing, and appropriating the Ethiopian democratic tradition of autopoietic associations such as däbo, iddir, and iqqub—to aid communities, families, women, children, the sick and the wounded, and others who have suffered from TPLF’s deliberate war of destruction.
Both in Ethiopia and in the Diaspora, Ethiopians have become the initiators, authors, imaginers, organizers, and implementers of activities dedicated to goals that they themselves have identified and defined. Witness the massive assistance Ethiopians delivered to the victims of the TPLF in Afar and Amhara. In the process, Ethiopians have liberated themselves from the TPLF’s straightjacket of ethnic identity and embraced a sense of personal worth, dignity, assertiveness, fraternity, and individual responsibility. Through their own initiatives and decisions, they have made freedom, equality, solidarity, and universality constitutive of their actions and social relations.
That is, in the process of resisting the aggression of the TPLF, Ethiopians have developed a democratic culture: taking initiatives without taking orders, defining their goals, discussing them among themselves, organizing themselves to carry out their decisions, developing horizontal rather than vertical relations of authority. All these without the intervention of bureaucrats and politicians.
The emergence of these democratic elements as responses to TPLF’s aggression tells us that there is no going back to the dark days of inter-ethnic divisions and alienations. There is no going back to “interpassive participation” and political exclusions. In forging the elements of democratic culture out of the sufferings of the TPLF-imposed war, Ethiopians have become, to use the words of the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1944), “the children of light” and are giving themselves the democratic means to defeat the “children of darkness”: the TPLF elites.
Conclusion: the need for a political victory
The question is: Will Ethiopians continue to nourish, expand, and deepen this new democratic culture for which they have dearly paid? The first condition for saving this democratic culture earned through suffering is a military victory over the TPLF. This seems to be in the process of being accomplished. However, the political victory over the TPLF is yet to be fully consummated. History has many examples, including recent ones, where a military victory has been followed by a political defeat.
In its war against Ethiopia, the TPLF has pulled out all the stops and will continue to do so to represent itself as the victim of “genocide” and “atrocities,” and to mobilize against Ethiopia the international media, American and European politicians, and Western NGOs. The record shows that up to now the Ethiopian government has been outmaneuvered in the information war. It has failed to explain and defend Ethiopia’s cause pro-actively, methodically, persuasively, and vigorously.
Perhaps, we need to listen to the advice of Reinhold Niebuhr: “The preservation of a democratic civilization requires the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove. The children of light must be armed with the wisdom of the children of darkness but remain free from their malice.” As the “children of light,” Ethiopians and the Ethiopian government “must be armed” with “the wisdom of the serpent” to counter the blatant distortions and lies of the TPLF—the “children of darkness,”—while remaining “free from their malice.” Only then could Ethiopians cap the present military victory with a political one and allow to flourish the democratic culture that they have created in their resistance to TPLF’s aggression.
Maimire Mennasemay, Ph.D. Scholar in Residence, Humanities/Philosophy Department, Dawson College, Montreal, Canada. firstname.lastname@example.org