Amharas and Ethiopian Resistance against Tribal Tyranny
By Tesfaye Demmellash
May 3, 2013



In responding to the savagery of the recent forcible removal of Amharas from their homes, farms and businesses in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora reacted with deeply felt concern for the survival and wellbeing of the Amhara people in their own country. The response in the media and on the Internet was in the main emotionally focused upon the act of ethnic cleansing itself. Ethiopians, Amharas and non-Amharas alike, justifiably directed their abhorrence and outrage toward the brutality and criminality of the Woyane regime.

As brutal and repulsive as the incident itself was, however, it was all part of a pattern of infliction of tyranny by the TPLF on Amharas in particular and on other distinct communities in the country generally. Underlying it is a sinister long term strategy of domination which is primarily aimed at forcing the Amhara people and the Ethiopian nation asunder, at hiving off and isolating the former from the latter. This colonially inspired tribal domination calls for an effective Ethiopian national resistance.

What are the challenges and tasks of such resistance, as they relate to Amharas in particular and to Ethiopian patriots and progressives more broadly? I offer some thoughts and views here seeking to contribute toward answers to these questions.

Amharas: Community and Resistance beyond Ethnicity

Should Amharas put up their own resistance against the tyrannical Woyane regime? In the light of particular ethnic cleansing measures the Woyane state took recently against Amharas in the Benishangul-Gumuz region and in the Guraferda area in the south earlier, one would think the case for Amharas defending themselves by all means necessary is straightforward. It should not be controversial.

There should not be much disagreement or argument over the matter also because we know that the Woyanes have long harbored, for reasons we need not go into here, animus and resentment toward Amharas. Over the last twenty years, they have been in a position, as the ruling party in the country, to turn this resentment, this negative obsession, into state policies and actions, into their “development” ideology and practice.

Still, there are some among us, particularly intellectuals and political figures in the opposition, who are ambivalent about a distinctly Amhara struggle against Woyane tribal tyranny. There is fear in certain circles that, in combating tribal demons only or primarily as Amharas, we might come to be possessed by such demons ourselves and end up playing precisely the divisive game of identity politics the Woyanes want us to play under their hegemony. We would reduce ourselves to thinking and acting nationally within a tribal framework or calculus as they do.

This concern may not be entirely discounted, but the question now is this: how should Amharas wage an effective resistance as a distinct yet integral part of a broader Ethiopian struggle against Woyane tribal tyranny? In addressing this question, it is helpful to answer another, more specific one first. Namely, is there an Amhara difference in collective subjectivity or ethnic and cultural self-identification relative to other social groups in the country?

I believe there is. How much ethnic and cultural insularity have Amharas needed historically in order to survive and flourish as a people within Ethiopia, how much identity that is singular and exclusive? I would say not nearly as much as other distinct Ethiopian communities have, certainly much less than the exclusive, hyper-politicized, often separatist identities claimed for the Tigre and Oromo communities by the TPLF and the OLF respectively. Fear of trans-ethnic Ethiopian solidarity, intolerance of pluralism and difference in national life, and instead fixation on simple, insular tribal identity or identities is characteristic of Woyane kilil nationalism.

By contrast, a basic constitutive feature of Amhara community or nationality is that it is not tied to ethnic or kilil identity pure and simple, that it has a vital evolving, flowing, mixing, and fusing character. Rather than resenting and excluding ethnic or cultural “others,” it has opened itself to diverse Ethiopian communities and cultures even as it has influenced them. The fate of the Amhara people is interlinked with the fates of all other Ethiopian communities.

The distinctness and strength of the Amhara people have much to do with this fluid, adaptive constitution. While the inequality and injustice experienced by other communities in the course of the development of the modern Ethiopian polity cannot be gainsaid, Amhara affirmation of community or nationality did not begin and develop in resentment and exclusion of what is not Amhara.

The Amhara difference in this sense has had a formative influence on the Ethiopian national experience and has implications for the struggle against Woyane dictatorship today. The experience cannot be adequately understood simply as Amhara expansion and domination. It has historically facilitated the active entry of other communities into the Ethiopian national-political scene, their interaction with Amharas, and the evolving accommodation of their demands for freedom and equality, particularly in the wake of the Revolution.

And the Amhara struggle today, even in self-defense or self-determination, is not simply ethnic or regional; it does not exclude other communities. Instead, it is an integral part of the Ethiopian democratic resistance against the authoritarian ideology, institutions, and practices of the TPLF-EPRDF tribal state. There is not going to be an Amhara liberation from Woyane tyranny which is not at the same time the liberation of Ethiopia as a whole.

Toward Robust Ethiopian Solidarity in Resistance

To help generate and lead an effective, broad-based Ethiopian struggle against TPLF-EPRDF dictatorship, the Amhara intelligentsia and political class have to do their part in resolving an underlying conflict in the country between two modes of national concern whose origins can be traced back to the Student Movement.

Simply put, contemporary progressive national consciousness among Ethiopians, including Amharas, has raged against the Ethiopian tradition as such, not just against the limitations and problems of that tradition. Since the Student Movement, modern, “radical” national ideology has been generally out of gear with Ethiopian historical experience and with affirmed Ethiopian values and sentiments. Woyane rule vividly embodies this fundamental contradiction.

To settle this basic conflict and build Ethiopian solidarity in the resistance against the Woyane tribal regime, intellectual and political opponents of the regime, particularly Amharas of the revolutionary generation, need first to erase all traces of their own alienation from the Ethiopian national tradition. As inheritors of a revolutionary experience which took a destructive anti-Ethiopian turn, we have to fight off residual demons of national self-alienation, which are at once political and psychological.

On the political side, there is an entire paradigm of radicalism or left-wing extremism, whose offshoot Woyane ethnonationalism is, that imagined Ethiopia out of existence, telling us that real and valid nationality lies only in articulated ideas of democracy and self-determination, in representations of particular class and ethnic interests. It impelled us to think that nationhood is solely a contemporary political achievement, and that the Ethiopian experience as an evolving structure of historical events, narratives, facts, and myths has little or no national significance and validity.

Psychologically, progressive Amhara intellectuals have generally experienced these demons of national self-denial and self-doubt as unworthiness before the idols of modernity, revolution, national self-determination, and democracy. We generally saw in these idols the total antithesis of our own national heritage, which we tended to interpret as nothing more than the sum of historical injustices and wrongs committed by Amhara rulers against other distinct communities in the country.

Operating apparently out of a sense of guilt, as well as driven unthinkingly by Leninist-Stalinist dogma, progressive Amhara intelligentsia took the lead in the struggle to right these wrongs, real and imagined. We were seemingly motivated to atone for the injustices committed by our ancestors – builders and defenders of the historic Ethiopian polity. So we bent over backwards and portrayed Ethiopia as “a prison of nations” and constructed a contrary ideal – that of “national self-determination up to and including secession.” This helps explain the rise of Woyane separatist ethnonationalism and our current predicament, in which Ethiopian national affairs are dominated by divisive identity politics.

Our commitment to modern progressive ideas need not have led to the gross devaluation of our own national heritage and to our alienation from it, but, ironically, the “radical” political consciousness we did acquire was nationally rootless. This is how we have taken sides against our own national tradition. This is generally what we have done as “progressives” since the Student Movement, albeit with increasing disillusionment in the post-revolutionary period, particularly today under the rule of TPLF “revolutionary democracy.”

So our struggle today is nearly as much with ourselves as with the Woyanes whose domination we resist. That is to say, we seek to overcome lingering traces of national self-doubt. What drives us mainly today in the national resistance against Woyane tyranny? It is neither abstract ideology nor identity politics, but a deeper sense-forming Ethiopian experience which can absorb into itself progressive ideas and values rather than being externally negated by them. In assuming a definite forward-looking intellectual and political form, our resistance should not contradict but affirm what is vital and valued in our national experience.

It is worth stressing here one fundamental point the Woyanes and extreme elements of the Ethiopian left in the revolutionary era failed to grasp, largely out of learned “radical” ignorance. Namely, there can be no Ethiopian progressive growth and transformation unless there is a vital national whole that is conserved even as it undergoes fundamental change, taking integrally a new form instead of having its very integrity negated or denied in the name of some conceptually empty and practically dubious Stalinist notion of national self-determination embraced by the TPLF and other authoritarian tribal parties in the country.

So conceived the Ethiopian national landscape can be seen as a field of social and cultural energy on which intellectual and political resistance against TPLF dictatorship works. It is not mere geography, as the Woyanes see it, a passive terrain to be divided up among disparate tribal groups and their exclusive “spheres of influence,” their kilils. Rather, it should be approached as an active integrated environment whose flows of historical-national energy could be tapped today in developing Ethiopian solidarity in the resistance against Woyane rule.

In sum, to bridge the gulf between historic and contemporary forms of Ethiopian nationalism in the course of the resistance against Woyane tribal tyranny, we should abandon the radical conceit of vainly seeking to undo the Ethiopian nation wholesale and replace it with something entirely different. Instead, we should engage, question, renew, and transform what has lain within us, the stuff of our unique trans-ethnic national experience.

This means the Ethiopian people cannot maintain solidarity through abstract ideas alone, without relying on shared culture, values, sentiments, and experiences. The rationalist illusion of the revolutionary age that they can has no place in Ethiopian progressive politics today. Modern political ideas should not be a hostile negating or controlling force over our national life. Instead, they should come to terms with what history has made of us, and what we want to be – free citizens and communities of one nation, diverse and united.

Challenges and Tasks of Political Thought in the Resistance

The past twenty years have made evident limitations and shortcomings of opposition at home and in the Diaspora to Woyane dictatorship. Over two decades on, we are nowhere near the political change we want in the country. Unfortunately, the pattern of weakness has not led to serious reflection and discussion among us and to a charting of a new way ahead in the resistance.

As a result, the varied oppositional activities of equally varied groups, parties, coalitions, and media produce a recurring rhythm of ineffectiveness. How to break out of this vicious political loop? That is the question.

It seems to me the nation’s existing and emergent dissident forces need to broaden and deepen their conception, understanding and practice of resistance. An essential part of this effort, I believe, is a return to a more critical, ideas-based, intellectually animated and organizationally disciplined politics reminiscent of our revolutionary experience. We have done it before and we can do it again, though under different conditions today and with full recognition of the fatal mistakes and excesses of the past.

I am not here suggesting the privileging of conceptual thought over everything else in the resistance or promoting the overriding authority of the intelligentsia in the struggle. Our concern with ideas has rather to do with the need to take a full measure of the ethnocratic system of domination underlying the TPLF-EPRDF state as well as the necessity of articulating an alternative, freer and more democratic vision of Ethiopian political and national life.

This means recognizing that what the Woyanes think, believe, and do cannot be adequately understood and dealt with simply as symptoms or outcomes of ethnicity. Truth be told, raw tribalism is a significant part of their motivation, a fount of their single-mindedness and cleverness in pursuing their “national” interests. But their ethnonationalism is also rooted in and informed by a flawed progressive logos or mentality inherited from the Ethiopian Revolution. This mentality has been more or less shared by elites and partisans in other ethnic communities in the country who have advocated “national liberation” against the Ethiopian experience as such.

So, in putting up resistance against Woyane tyranny, we have to dig a bit more deeply into the problem of identity politics, into its ideological sources and partisan forms and contents. Given that so much is at stake here – the survival and wellbeing of Ethiopia, our very national life – we would do well to go beyond railing against the ordinary tribalism of the TPLF and come to grips with how ethnicity is deployed, ideationally and instrumentally, as a weapon used by the ruling party to establish and maintain its hegemony.

This is how we should approach the old and tired, yet still vexed notion of “the self-determination of nationalities, nations, and peoples,” which constitutes the linchpin of the TPLF-EPRDF state, the source of its claim to progressive legitimacy. A critical move here in resisting Woyane domination on the terrain of ideas and culture is to distinguish issues important to the Ethiopian people, including self-determination, from the narrow, exclusively partisan confines of Leninist-Stalinist ideological formula within which the issues have been framed and understood since the days of the Student Movement.

Particular “revolutionary” political projects which groups like the TPLF and the OLF have formulated should no longer be allowed to pass themselves off as the issues themselves, in response to which the limited projects may have been conceived and undertaken. Opposition forces could show that, under Woyane rule, “national self-determination” remains deeply flawed in concept as well as in practice, in Tigray no less than in other regions of the country.

The flaw is equating the success of the TPLF’s exclusive, authoritarian political mission of “national self-determination” with the freedom of the Tigre community as a whole. The equation is a nonstarter in that it misconceives the very idea of “national” agency. It conflates partisan, dictatorial identity politics with the liberty and empowerment of an entire ethnic or cultural community.

Underlying this politically learned confusion we see a process in which communities function mainly as objects and extensions of the ruling party’s own authoritarian ideas, agenda, and maneuvers. More broadly, we recognize that Woyane domination of Ethiopian national affairs is based on the substitution of a “simulation” of social reality for social reality itself. That is to say, ideological categories and inauthentic communities or groups forged within or through the ruling party-state hierarchy itself are often mixed up with, and take the place of real, autonomous social referents or constituencies.

Following a pattern of domination characteristic of the old Leninist-Stalinist paradigm, the TPLF thereby presides over a multiplicity of social, economic, political, and institutional satellites orbiting around its own power hierarchy. It has created, and resides in, its own parallel social-political universe. Within this universe, politics and government have nothing to do with the representation of actual constituencies. However they are referred to in official rhetoric – “mass organizations,” “nationalities,” “peoples,” and so on – civil society groups operate in a dependent, subordinate relationship to the authoritarian power of a single minority party.

For the Ethiopian resistance against Woyane tyranny, these political conditions are not simply theoretical challenges, merely intellectual concerns and puzzles. They speak to concrete issues and problems of struggle for Ethiopian national reconciliation and renewal. But we should not expect practical issues to relieve us from the burden of intellectual labor. Even as they attend to concrete issues and events, resistance forces can no longer neglect critical thought – the analysis and development of their own ideas as well as the deconstruction ideology of the ruling party.

What I am thinking of here is not idle theorizing but practically relevant critical consciousness, a deeper and broader level of political mindfulness that should enable opposition parties and groups to coalesce and move strategically on the terrain of ideas and culture.

This is not to deny the value of common struggle against Woyane domination fueled by sense, intuitive understanding, emotion, and spontaneous or direct public action. Felt and lived experience of opposition provides vital energy, an indispensable motive force for the resistance. Resistance in thought without sensuous experience of opposition is empty. On the other hand, common oppositional experience without strategically informed political thought or leadership is directionless. It would not go very far.

There is no direction without varied, ordinary experiences of resistance. Yet feelings, sentiments, memories, impulses, motives, and immediate or localized engagements characteristic of common oppositional experience don’t have capability for self-regulation. They will have to be evoked, thought, modified, shaped, and channeled into a broad-based Ethiopian national struggle against Woyane tyranny.

Otherwise, they will have limited political impact, if at all. For example, railing against the Woyane regime in fits of anger and resentment is more psychological than political. It may provide outlet to our internal rage and even let us feel that we are doing something to oppose the policies and actions of the regime. But such opposition often constitutes little more than immediate, episodic reaction that passes away soon after it takes place. Left to itself, it will not do real, sustained political work beyond giving us emotional relief.

Common oppositional experience can be enlightened and directed, but this capability depends on ideas-based political strategy. When strategic thought is deficient or weak, as has been the case over the last twenty years of struggle against Woyane tyranny, there is no possibility of illuminating and directing ordinary opposition and upgrading it over time to a high-powered national resistance.

Why has our dissent from Woyane dictatorship been in the main intellectually challenged? At bottom, the problem has had to do with the disinclination of the opposition – in all its political, personal, and ethnic variants – to incorporate broader critical thought which does not carry immediate partisan interest or tribal agenda. More specifically, we can point to a political syndrome which might be characterized as simple or naïve realism. This syndrome manifests itself in two significant limitations.

First, we see it in the tendency of critics and opponents of the Woyane regime at home and in the Diaspora to produce repeating factual descriptions and narratives of the sorry state of Ethiopian national affairs under TPLF dictatorship. This is done often to the exclusion of politically productive interpretation of the observed facts. Descriptions and lamentations of our national predicament abound, but we face a shortage of strategically meaningful analyses. Why has this been the case?

Well, opposition parties and groups have been preoccupied with responding to the ebb and flow of high-frequency events, issues and problems in the short term, rarely pausing to reflect broadly and deeply on them, to work them conceptually strategically into a whole. Temporally, the preoccupation is often wholly with the present, and there has been little concern to trace the roots of Ethiopia’s contemporary national crisis to its revolutionary past, or to offer a compelling post-revolutionary vision of Ethiopian progressive renewal and development.

Second, we notice the limitation of simple realism in the opposition’s mode of concern about ideas. What I have in mind here is the context of immediate tactical combat in which dissident intellectuals, politicians, and media have tended to reckon with the ideas and values of the Woyane regime. Generally, they have fought back in a polemical mode, asserting themselves in partisan discourses of contestation, attack and counter-attack.

Such tactical resistances have their place in the short term, but they don’t pay sufficient attention to the long term challenge of defeating the Woyanes in a protracted war of ideas. Woyane “revolutionary democracy” has really not been subjected to sustained systematic, probing scrutiny and thorough debunking as an ideological construct, as an entire order of views, beliefs, values, operative assumptions, and related political strategies. And in its positive moment, progressive thought within opposition circles has generally been flat and depthless, marked by ritual articulation of platitudes and lacking in conceptual innovation or critical force.

A major reason for this limitation, it seems to me, is that our intense resentment toward Woyane tyranny has often led us to an immediate rejection and condemnation of it that actually leaves its ideas, values, and practices unchallenged in more reflective thought that resonates with strategic and practical concerns of resistance.

Overcoming these tendencies in the opposition is imperative if Ethiopia and distinct ethnic and cultural communities within it are to be led toward an alternative, freer and more open society and political order. It is necessary if we are to help the country finally shake off authoritarian rule and make a real democratic turn.


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