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Ethiopia: This is not the Time for Pessimism

March 23, 2023


By Leo Okere

The ethnic disintegration of Ethiopia seems, as Jawar Mohammed triumphantly declared recently, unstoppable, giving rise to the pessimistic feeling among Ethiopians that nothing could be done to stop it. In the face of this creeping pessimism, one must ask: Why?

Four reasons: first, the mind-boggling lawlessness of the security forces of Dr. Abiy’s regime; second, the regime’s treatment of Ethiopians who oppose ethnic politics and support Ethiopian unity as enemies; third, the pauperization of the people while select ethnic elites are getting richer by the day; and fourth, the regime’s disdain for and betrayal of the sacrifices the Ethiopian Defense Forces have made in the war and rewarding the TPLF with a political victory that ensures its survival and its reconquest of Raya and Welqait.

Government lawlessness is lacerating the bodies and souls of Ethiopians, be they Amhara, Oromo, Gurage, etc. The diet of Amhara-hatred on which government officials feast daily has led to ethnic cleansing in many kilils. Add to these the persecution of journalists, and the government’s disdain for the Electoral Commission and the Human Rights Commission. The two Commissions’ demands that the government respect and protect freedoms of assembly and expression are scorned.

No wonder then, fear is stalking the country and pessimism among Ethiopians is growing. At first blush, pessimism seems to be justified, given the appalling situation in the country. However, pessimism must be overcome if Ethiopia is to exit from the present political disaster. Ethiopians must handle pessimism as a critical category that could enable them to overcome ethnic politics and usher democracy. To quote a philosopher, Ethiopians need to practice pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

Pessimism of the intellect:  Ethiopians must avoid wishful thinking and see the present situation in Ethiopia as it really is:  (a) a country strangled by the mortifying grip of ethnic politics and being demolished by Dr. Abiy’s regime, and (b) the absence of a credible opposition capable of stopping this demolition. Indeed, the situation in Ethiopia is so dire that the intellect recoils with pessimism at the enormity of the tasks Ethiopians face to change the present situation and install democracy.

Optimism of the will: It is said that the intellect, in making a problem knowable, takes the first step towards making it solvable. However, solving a problem means going beyond what the intellect discloses and making decisions on how to tackle it. Making decisions is a matter of “the will” or what Ethiopians call ወኔ (wäne), and not a matter of the intellect. Knowledge does not lead necessarily to action. Only the will has the capacity to make decisions to change reality. Hence, the optimism of  “the will.”

The intellect tells us that the core issue of contemporary Ethiopia is the TPLF instituted politicization of ethnicity. The original sin that tainted Dr. Abiy’s accession to power in 2018 is his failure to challenge TPLF’s legacy of politicized ethnicity. His regime emulated the ethnic politics of the TPLF, but with a new twist—it replaced Tigrayan with Oromo supremacy. Dr. Abiy thus left intact the issue of the politicization of ethnicity. This problem must be tackled if democracy is to exist  in Ethiopia. But how? one may ask.

The oft-discussed line from Wagner’s Parsifal, could offer a path of reflection: “The wound can be healed only by the spear that smote it.” The “spear” that wounded Ethiopia is politicized ethnicity, and only ethnicity could heal ethnicity from its political disease and restore Ethiopia to political health. Thus, one could see ethnicity as a pharmakon. In the same way that the wounding “spear” is transformed into the healing “spear,” the wounding “ethnicity” could be transformed into a healing “ethnicity.” So, if ethnicity is a pharmakon, what is the democratic or healing  kernel of Ethiopia’s politicized ethnicity?

This is a complex question that is beyond my intellectual resources to answer. I will leave it in the hands of Ethiopian Ph.Ds., who are numerous. Below, I sketch tentative replies to the question, based on the notions of “time” and “space,” that I hope could serve as starting points for reflection, and eventually for action. For “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” action without reflection is blind.

First, the idea of time or “rotation: I once heard an Oromo lawyer say: “The Amhara ‘ate’ Ethiopia, then the Tigrayans did; it is now our turn to ‘eat’ Ethiopia.” The idea, implicit in this strange remark, that different ethnic groups have a right to accede to power, contains a rational kernel: that (a) power is not the monopoly of an ethnic group, (b) “the seat of power is empty” and anybody could seat in it, and  (c) there should be a “time limit” to one’s occupation of the seat of power, or “rotation” of the people who sit in it.

We already have here an implicit opening towards democracy-as-the-method for coping with Ethiopia’s ethnic problem. The resolution of the problem seems possible if we could agree that the “rotation” should apply to individuals (citizens) and not ethnic groups. Why should we agree with this idea? Because the move from “ethnic” rotation to “individual” rotation minimizes the role of violence in politics. As history indicates, violence is inevitable in “ethnic” rotation insofar as every ethnic group that tries to monopolize power uses violence against the excluded ethnic groups, and always ends up splitting internally and using violence within and on itself, as Somalia, despite its ethnic homogeneity, shows.

Moreover, “individual” rotation implies competition between individuals for support, boosting the role of arguments in choosing those who will occupy the “empty” seat of power. Thus, the unforced force of the better argument” supplants ethnic arguments and creates a peaceful environment that copes with political differences through public dialogues and rational deliberations. Ethnic arguments are impermeable to such discourses and are inseparable from violence and distortion of facts, as we see now in Ethiopia.

Second, the idea of space: Ethnic politics in Ethiopia is rooted in a ritualistic conception of space. But more and more Ethiopians are living in urban centers. Unless Dr. Abiy’s regime wants to wind back the historical clock to the 16th century, the urbanization of Ethiopia will continue. Ethiopians will increasingly transit from a ritualistic to a fluid and flexible understanding of space. This implies the desacralization of space, which leads to the de-ethnicization of space. The question then is: since a ritualistic understanding of space is inimical to democracy, what kind of spatial organization is conducive to democracy?

A spatial organization that is conducive to democracy needs an organization of space that avoids the political and demographic supremacy of one unit (kilil) over the other spatial units (kilils). To ensure an all-round equality between the kilils, a linguistic or an ethnic group could be divided into many spatial units (kilils) within a federal structure that offers each kilil or unit a semi-autonomous status.

For example, Nigeria is divided in 36 states. Each has a semi-autonomous status. Thus one finds the same ethnic groups distributed in various states. The German group in Switzerland is distributed in 17 cantons, and the French in 4. The point is that such a balanced demographic and political arrangement offers a healthy context for democracy in that, in de-ethnicizing space, it depoliticizes ethnicity by minimizing its role as a constituent element in political and economic activities. When ethnicity is a constituent element of these activities, violence and corruption are inevitable

Note that this process does not eliminate ethnicity. On the contrary, by depoliticizing it, the process expands ethnicity’s space and freedom for cultural development, because ethnicity is no longer bottled up by politicized ethnic boundaries, as is the case now in Ethiopia. In this process, both democracy and ethnicity are winners: democracy in the field of politics and ethnicity in the arena of culture.

The above arguments suggest that if democracy is to develop in Ethiopia, the economy to grow, and Ethiopian cultures to flourish, Ethiopia needs a different spatial organization. The present kilil organization is characterized by the ethnicization and sacralization of space, and by glaring spatial, political, and demographic disequilibria; it stifles democracy and the economy, and ethnicity’s cultural development. Democracy, economic development, and cultural flourishing in Ethiopia need the de-ethnicization and de-sacralization of space, and the creation of units (kilils) of comparable weight.

Thus, there is no reason why Ethiopia cannot have 3 or 4 Oromo kilils, 3 or 4 Amhara kilils, 2 or 3 Tigray kilils, “x” number of multi-ethnic kilils, and so forth. Of course, these are speculative numbers I give as examples. The number of such kilils and the criteria for evaluating their equitable comparability need to be determined by a working group of demographers, economists, geographers, and citizens.

In the present Ethiopian situation, which is saturated with state lawlessness and ethnic baiting, the “pessimism of the intellect, the optimism of the will” intimates a number of consequences. First, only Ethiopians could solve Ethiopia’s problems. Appeals to the United States and other external powers to solve Ethiopia’s problems is an expression of pessimism regarding the capacity of Ethiopians to solve the problems they themselves have created.  Outside support is secondary and effective only if Ethiopians recognize themselves and act as the primary agents of transition from politicized ethnicity to democracy.

Second, “the will” can be a transformative power only if it is embodied in an organization. Without an organization that embodies it, “the will” succumbs to the pessimism of the intellect. Thus the centuries old slogan, “Organize yourselves” is still potent. The reluctance of Ethiopians to organize themselves to solve the conundrum of politicized ethnicity is a symptom of pessimism. Without organization, “the will” is impotent. The “optimism of the will” acts only through an organization. Thus, without organization, there is no transition from politicized ethnicity to democracy. 

A Swahili saying runs: Simba aliyekufa hawezi kungurama  / “a dead lion does not roar.” The saying advises us not to stop “roaring” against injustice as long as we are alive. For Ethiopians, for whom the lion is a national historical symbol, “roaring” means in the present context organizing and struggling for democracy. This is not the time for pessimism.



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