Ethiopia: National Affirmation and Renewal through Resistance
By Tesfaye Demmelash (Ph.D)
June 1, 2013



Newly emerging fronts and movements, namely, the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF) and the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM) as well as longer established parties and coalitions wage struggle against the Woyane regime in various ethnocentric and partisan ways. The real challenge for opposition forces in the country, however, is to affirm a common Ethiopian nationality in a broader, more integrated and effective resistance against the regime. Meeting this challenge is a strategic necessity as well as a matter of principle in the resistance. And the nation’s dissident literati and political groups need to confront it squarely.

But these are trying times for the renewal of Ethiopian national solidarity. We seek unity in opposition to TPLF dictatorship in a political and cultural environment whose dominant feature is ethnic, sectarian, and religious division, the biggest divider being the Woyane regime itself. In striving for national wholeness in the struggle, we run up against a tide of partisan and tribal fractionation. Hindrances to Ethiopian unity permeate the nation’s entire body politic, including opposition groups and coalitions at home and in the Diaspora as well as the TPLF-EPRDF state itself.

In the face of this daunting reality, the Ethiopian intelligentsia is oddly reserved. Hardly bold and assertive in opposition to the forces of division and dictatorship, we have in general been politically recessive and quiet. Indeed, we are immobilized by acquiescence and submission born largely of what I would call progressive correctness and related national self-doubt, both legacies of our troubled revolutionary experience going back to the Student Movement.

Consequently, it is worthwhile to consider problems of national affirmation in Ethiopia today as they relate to the intelligentsia and to opposition groups. The issues involved here are vast and complex and I can only touch on some of them here.  As I see it, we can hardly begin to develop our struggle against Woyane domination unless we overcome the staggering deficit of national solidarity we face today as Ethiopians. Before we can effectively refuse to be divided and dominated by the Woyanes, before we can say no to their colonially inspired divide-and-rule, we should affirm, say yes to, our common Ethiopian nationality.

National Affirmation and the Intelligentsia

The general disengagement from Ethiopian national affairs, intellectual as well as political, that has afflicted the nation’s educated strata in the post-revolutionary period is difficult to explain. The apathy of the revolutionary generation in particular is all the more baffling since that generation played a major part, either by design or unwittingly, in the massive national dislocation and loss we suffered in the course of the Revolution and in its wake. I had hoped that we will atone for the political sins we committed against our own country, for our disastrous mistakes and excesses, by reflecting candidly and critically on what we have done, asking questions like: Where did we go wrong? What can we do today to help our battered and bruised country heal and renew itself? I still believe such an undertaking would help us embark on a new course of national affirmation and healing.

In trying to explain why members of the revolutionary generation have generally not stepped out to engage publicly in soul-searching retrospection, Dr. Assefa Negash notes that “the huge sacrifice and pain of exile and destabilization that followed in [the Revolution’s]…wake, coupled with the stressful life in the Diasporic space…have prevented the emergence of critical thinkers.” This is a point well taken. Still, couldn’t experiences of dislocation, loss, and exile also motivate Ethiopian intellectuals, writers, artists, and spiritual figures to produce questioning, reflective, and creative works? Hasn’t national suffering in fact been a spur to literary, philosophical, and political expression elsewhere? What happened in our case? The Ethiopian people deserve answers.

In further explaining the inability or disinclination of our literati to vigorously affirm themselves nationally, Dr. Assefa, along with Professor Messay Kebede, observes the radicalization and cultural uprooting that followed the advent of Western education in Ethiopia beginning in the early 1900s. There is indeed a connection between the two developments, but the link is not so simple or necessarily causal. Whatever limited influence emergent Ethiopian intelligentsia experienced through Western or colonial education need not have resulted in the kind of nationally rootless and mindless left-wing extremism that came to dominate the learning and learned classes in the country through the Student Movement in the 1960s and ‘70s.

I say this from a comparative perspective, looking at the experiences of intellectual and political elites in other historic non-Western countries. Japan and China readily come to mind. The literati in these countries have also been exposed to the formative influences of Western education and ideas, including Marxism-Leninism in the case of China. But they accepted the influences without undergoing the kind of wholesale, nihilistic cultural and national self-denial or self-negation of Ethiopian revolutionaries.

So we can say that it was not Western modernity or education as such that explains the relative incapacity of Ethiopian “progressive” intelligentsia for national affirmation, even under revolutionary conditions. The explanation lies instead in the deeply flawed, historically artless, abstract form in which our educated strata have tried to receive, reconstitute, and enact Western ideas, including Marxism. Rather than blaming the intervention of foreign influences for our national troubles in the pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras, I would argue that Ethiopian intellectual and political elites failed the nation in the way they accepted and embraced the influences.

Now, putting these issues aside, let us consider the matter of national affirmation as it relates to the task of forward-looking, patriotic intellectuals in the resistance against Woyane tyranny today. What is the underlying challenge here?

In the broad sense, we affirm our common nationality in various overlapping ways, ranging from the historical through the cultural and intellectual, to the political and the psychological. National affirmation involves a level of consciousness that is felt and experienced. Its significance lies not in conceptual thought, but in the immediacy of sentiments and the clarity of symbols, images and cultural forms and values. It speaks to us powerfully without using so many words.

 At play here are historical events, facts, myths and narratives, in short, collective memory handed down from generation to generation. These elements constitute themselves and rise up as active national spirit, especially when attacked and oppressed by a hostile foreign or internal power. The Woyanes now sit precariously atop simmering Ethiopian national consciousness which they can’t entirely and indefinitely suppress. In fact, they are pushing it to the boiling point. The nationality we experience and affirm today in this historical sense is not any less meaningful than, or necessarily in conflict with, the nationalism we embrace as a set of modern political ideas, like democracy and self-determination.

However, the fundamental challenge concerned Ethiopian intelligentsia face today in helping patriotic and progressive forces overcome deficits of national unity in the resistance against Woyane dictatorship is the polarization of these distinct forms of national affirmation or orientation. Since the days of the Student Movement, nationalism as a political ideal, as a conception of modern (more often, pseudo-modern) ideas has tended to operate outside and against our national spirit, our deeply felt and experienced sense of ourselves as Ethiopians. Contemporary ideology has been out of gear with historic tradition. Woyane tribal domination of Ethiopian affairs today starkly embodies this polarization and conflict of nationalisms in the country.

Recognizing the underlying contradiction is a necessary step in resolving it and affirming Ethiopian solidarity anew in the struggle against TPLF dictatorship. Concerned Ethiopian intellectuals can help opposition forces develop ideas, plans, and strategies for reaching or preparing broad, informed, trans-ethnic constituencies across the traditional-modern national divide. In so doing, the intelligentsia also generally assists in advancing the resistance beyond the limits of our ordinary experience of opposition.

That experience is dominated by the immediately political and the psychological. We commonly rail against this or that action of the hated Woyane regime, often in a defensive patriotic mode, using mainly polemical and tactical means and with understandable resentment. Under these circumstances, little reflective and strategic attention is paid to broad national solidarity in the struggle. The opposition to Woyane tribal tyranny gets neither the benefit of motive force through sensuous, historically rooted Ethiopian experience of patriotic resistance nor the critical understanding of vital issues through progressive conceptual thought. The opposition thereby not only becomes incapable of sustained intellectual engagement, but also loses common political sense and effectiveness.

It is not that we should be without feelings of rage and resentment toward Woyane colonial-like dictatorial rule. It is rather that, while we are discharging emotions, we are at the same time not clinging to them to the point of not being able to think and act wisely in resisting the dictatorship. The point is not simply to release emotions, but to express them with lasting strategic and practical effect and to gain motive force from them. It is to attain superior political mindfulness in part by learning not to worsen objective problems of opposition through our own responses, through fits of hatred, anger and anxiety. In the resistance, we can achieve an affirmative consciousness of our historic national being while at the same time embracing universal progressive ideas, but only when we go beyond our ordinary, mainly negative, tactical or immediate experiences of opposition.

Yet, we cannot do this merely intellectually or politically, just by changing our thinking and our positions on Ethiopian issues. We cannot simply reason our way out of the crisis we find ourselves in as a nation. Nor is Ethiopia’s renewal going to be achieved through our sense of pathos. It will have to be fought for and won with our whole being, with our hearts and our minds, on a broad range of fronts, fields, and stages. In short, the mutual exclusions of our conceptual thought, intuition, and feelings as well as of our fractionated ethnic self-identifications will have to be transcended within the wholeness of our renewed national affirmation.

Oromo Opposition Groups: In Dire Need of National Affirmation

In the opposition camp, individuals, groups and parties of Oromo origin have a decisive role to play in the growth of the Ethiopian national resistance against Woyane domination, should they choose to be an integral part of the resistance. Certainly, they are historically in a position to play such a trans-ethnic national role. The Oromo community is central to Ethiopian nationhood, not only in terms of its size as one of the two largest communities in the country, but also in being broadly interspersed with Amharas and other distinct groups in the country geographically, culturally and socio-economically.

But, as an actual opposition force, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) has clearly performed below its demographic and political potential. Two basic reasons may be noted quickly for the political underperformance of the organization, particularly in the broader Ethiopian context. First, it defined Oromo identity politically bearing Ethiopia extreme resentment and grudge. In the bitter, resentful and self-righteous revolutionary narrative of the OLF, Ethiopia, seen as an evil colonial empire, has represented nothing but a foil to the goodness of Oromo nationalism. Second, the political form and ideological substance through which the OLF imagined not only Oromo national liberation but also the very category of “nationality” itself are largely derived from Leninist-Stalinist authoritarian dogma, first popularized in Ethiopia through the Student Movement. The front used exclusively partisan “radical,” global ideological materials as if they were indigenous to Oromo society and culture. 

The radical vocabulary of our revolutionary past dies hard, even in the face of fatal historical, intellectual and political flaws. It continues to weigh heavily on the present. A current example of the specter of the past haunting the present is the “manifesto” of the recently formed ODF. An offshoot of old OLF, this new political organization brings more promise of Oromo solidarity with the aspirations of other ethnic groups in the country for justice, freedom and equality.

But, following in the tradition of the OLF, the ODF speaks of the Ethiopian polity as such, not just the Woyane regime, as “a prison of nations” and an “empire,” presumably to be broken up and replaced by a new “federation” of freed nations. These terms first gained currency within the Student Movement nearly half a century ago and have been generally used by revolutionary groups and tribal fronts, including the TPLF and OLF, to deny the historical reality and validity of the Ethiopian nation-state.

While the ODF may be an improvement on the old OLF in its potential for solidarity with other opposition groups, it remains an ethnic political organization which seeks, it says, to consolidate and build on what the OLF has already achieved.  It wants to establish its own brand of “ethnic federalism,” essentially a variant of the Woyane model of authoritarian identity politics and government, not really an alternative to it. It is doubtful if the ODF even recognizes Ethiopia as anything other than the mere sum of disparate “peoples” or “nationalities.” This has to be clearly understood and reckoned with by patriotic and progressive opposition parties that are encouraged by the emergence of the ODF and want to do political business with it.  

Oromos may have suffered injustice and repression under various Ethiopian regimes, but does this give license to the ODF to keep reading “empire” or “prison of nations” into the historical accomplishment of Ethiopian nationhood, in which the Oromos have played a significant part? It is hard to argue that the inequality and injustice Oromos have experienced under any Ethiopian government comes even close to what Zulus and other black communities in South Africa suffered under Apartheid, under a state which, unlike the Ethiopian polity, came into being as an actual colonial regime, and a European one at that. Yet black South Africans, particularly Zulus managed to get over historical setbacks and lead their country’s integral democratic transformation. They were able to affirm a common South African nationality in their resistance to, and victory over the Apartheid regime.

Surely, there is a vital lesson to be learned here by emergent opposition groups in Ethiopia that characterize themselves as democratic, like the ODF and the TPDM, groups that still cling to identity politics. The trouble with the ethnocentric political project of the OLF/ODF and that of the TPLF has been not so much the claim of the right to Oromo or Tigre self-determination, as the willful alienation from the Ethiopian nation-state of the community for which the right is claimed.

What are Dissident Intellectuals and Groups to do?

What is to be done in the resistance against Woyane tyranny to end the seemingly endless obsession with divisive, authoritarian identity politics which remains antagonistic or indifferent to our national spirit? Part of the answer is that those of us who dissent fundamentally from the Woyane regime and its ethnonationalist fellow travelers in the opposition, but are not affiliated with any political party, group, or coalition have the responsibility to open a broad intellectual front and help multi-ethnic Ethiopian resistance forces develop newer and better ideas of freedom, democracy, federalism, and local self-government. We can give free reign to our critical reflection and discussion in a way that is practically fruitful, even if we are not engaged in actual political work ourselves.  

In this connection, the matter of how we think about and approach opposition parties and groups at home and in the Diaspora arises. Why should we direct our attention to these political entities? Whom shall we address in our thoughts and views on the Ethiopian resistance against Woyane tribal tyranny, and why?

Our discontents with existing opposition groups are numerous and far-reaching. An imperfect lot, the groups have so far been, for reasons of their own as well as of the Woyanes’ making, weak and ineffective, yet are often quick to pick fights among themselves. Some of them, including the ruling Woyane party and the OLF, have operated on the basis of “progressive” ideas which are not only inimical to Ethiopian solidarity, but actually represent fixation on old, mind-numbing Stalinist dogma. The revolutionary orthodoxy is apparently impervious to conceptual and practical innovation. In short, we are tempted to write off existing opposition parties and coalitions across the board.

However, if we hope to get real intellectual and political work done in the resistance against Woyane dictatorship, we would do well not to adopt a rejectionist attitude toward actually existing opposition groups and their ideas, such as they are. As forms of active engagement in the resistance, our thoughts and views have to contend with the myths and realities of dissident struggle. The terrain of opposition struggle is not an ideal space apart from the beliefs, goals, and activities of actual groups and organizations, with all their flaws and limitations.

Consequently, patriotic resistance forces cannot stand in national purity or ideality, isolating or distancing themselves from the rough and tumble of partisan and tribal politics. For the path out of the thicket of political problems we face in the opposition camp can only be the path we are able to clear through it. Patriotic and progressive forces in the country can get ahead in the resistance against the Woyane regime only by responding in varying ways to shortcomings, problems and contradictions in the opposition as well as in the regime itself.

So the challenge for concerned Ethiopian intellectuals is not to make things easy for ourselves by preaching only to the already converted or by speaking to sympathetic constituents alone. Certainly, we must help strengthen, reclaim really, our national base for the struggle, since it has been under siege over the last twenty years by hostile internal forces led by the Woyanes and supported by their Amhara stooges. And we must also hold the opposition – in all its partisan and ethnonationalist variants – to critical account for its ideological and political claims. But we also need to enter into civil dialogue, whenever possible, with skeptical and even downright antagonistic groups and audiences as well.

The point here is not to win debate points or to gain partisan and tactical political advantage. It is to identify and pursue the shared as well as distinctive interests of the Ethiopian people, to come together on common national ground in resisting Woyane tribal domination. The intent is to bring about the democratic-national rebirth of Ethiopia.

In this sense, practically productive intellectual effort in the resistance today can take inspiration from the protracted work of our ancestors in building and defending the multi-ethnic Ethiopian nation with the limited political knowledge and resources at their disposal. The effort today involves not only producing new ideas, values, and institutions that will be backed by patriotic fellow travelers and allies in and around the national center, but also moving into diverse, outlying areas of the country and seeking or cultivating broad cultural, social and political support for the liberation of Ethiopia from the divisive tribal dictatorship of the TPLF.

The challenge present opposition groups pose for this effort is that, singly or collectively, they hardly represent unequivocally affirmed commitment to common Ethiopian nationality. This is so in part because, in form or substance, the political outlook of much of the opposition is generally a variation on the Woyane ethnic-based model, not a clear alternative to that model. Regardless of their differences, existing opposition parties and coalitions commonly put ethnicity to tactical political account in one way or another. There is also a general tendency within dissident groups at home and in the Diaspora to bow down to the dominance of identity politics over Ethiopian national affairs.

It should not be very hard for existing opposition groups, particularly those which do not identify themselves solely or primarily in terms of identity politics, to recognize and systematically expose the lies and misrepresentations of the Woyane regime. Surely, they must know that what is formally called a federal democratic republic is in fact a partisan-tribal dictatorship. They must be aware that national self-determination actually signifies the unlimited power of the TPLF to impose kilil identity and difference on others. They realize, don’t they, that supposedly self-determining ethnic and cultural communities in the country are in reality reduced to extensions and objects of the authoritarian power of a small minority of partisans, namely, TPLF bosses, cadres, bureaucrats, and armed forces.  It is also no secret that, as the top operators of the TPLF-EPRDF state machinery, these partisans enlist junior partners and functionaries from non-Tigre ethnic groups, yet make major policy choices and decisions affecting the nation exclusively or primarily among themselves.

However, it is also a known fact that identity politics has long occupied a central position in Ethiopian progressive politics generally. With some revisions and modifications, this vexed Leninist-Stalinist issue continues to hold sway among many individuals, groups and factions within the opposition as well within the TPLF. Operating under the influence of the old and tired “national question,” these dissident elements betray an ideologically acquired taste for the kind of partisan identity politics the Woyanes practice. So they have a trained incapacity to recognize fully the federal and democratic pretenses of the Woyane regime. The upshot is that we cannot expect these elements and groups in the opposition to hold the regime to systematic and critical account for its lies and misrepresentations.

As long as opposition groups are unable or unwilling to confront these underlying problems, far from constituting themselves into a powerful national resistance force against Woyane domination and, in the process, bringing about a renewed affirmation of Ethiopian nationality, they will remain weak and ineffective. Opposing TPLF hegemony cannot be conceived as simple or absolute negation of Woyane politics and ideology. If it is to be consequential, the opposition must distinguish clearly the particular way in which the ruling party uses key ideas, like democracy, equality, and national liberation from the ideas as such. There are alternative ways to understand and realize universal concepts like national self-determination and federalism.

So a fundamental defect to overcome in oppositional struggle has to do with the tendency to divest broad and complex categories, such as nation, history and the people, of any autonomous significance, reducing the rich, involved meaning such categories carry to a set of crude formulaic notions tied to grossly partisan political agendas. On a related note, it has to be recognized that the multiplicity of social, economic, political, and cultural issues affecting diverse Ethiopian communities and their intersections cannot be reduced to a generic “national question,” a standard ethnonationalist equation that can be solved by a single authoritarian party or front, such as the TPLF and the OLF. To believe otherwise is sheer political fantasy. Creating insular, bureaucratically rigid tribal kilils is the work of Woyane state ethnicism; actual Ethiopian communities are flexible and mutually open and accommodating in their identities and cultures as Amharas, Oromos, Tigres, Gurages, Afars, and so on.  

Closing Notes

How shall we affirm our common Ethiopian nationality today, how are we to embrace our national heritage moving forward? Since the days of the Student Movement, this vital matter has often been suppressed or ignored. Progressive ideology has generally presented itself as something indifferent, indeed, hostile to our affirmed national values and sentiments. The ideology has impelled us to use the political vocabulary of modern, mainly Western nationalism (“democracy,” “self-determination,” and so on) in a way that devalues and negates our own historic multi-ethnic national tradition. This has gone on too long. We have to put an end to it.

We readily acknowledge that, in its growth and development, the Ethiopian nation-state has not been perfect. No nation-state ever is. Not South Africa, not Russia, not the United States, to note three random examples in three continents. So, while we recognize the limitations of our national union and seek to transform it integrally into a freer, more open and democratic one for the benefit of all Ethiopians, we should embrace our renowned national heritage without apology – in fact, with appreciation and a sense of pride. We can and should do this without chauvinist overtones. We can do it without overreaching in emotional patriotic rhetoric and polemic – making every issue of ethnic identity and difference into a problem for Ethiopian unity. Instead, we should accept and celebrate diversity as an integral feature of our common nationality.

We want to be clear, finally, about what affirming our common Ethiopian nationality signifies. It is not simply about preserving geography or territorial expanse. Nor does it mean settling for a polity made up merely of an aggregation of disparate tribal kilils, as if Ethiopia were nothing but an arithmetic sum of such ethnic enclaves. Like any other long-lived integral tradition, Ethiopian nationhood must be understood and valued, not as a fixed or finished product, a static entity to be protected defensively, but a dynamic formation which is ever open to reform, growth and improvement, one which can absorb progressive ideas and thrive on social and cultural diversity.

Ethiopian national affirmation today, then, is not merely about ensuring the survival of the country; it is also about our national renewal. It involves not only the nation regaining its bearings, but becoming stronger, embracing all round development. In this way, our common nationality evolves through generations, adapting and changing, but a recognizable heritage endures.

The writer can be reached at tdemmellash@comcast.net


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