Ethiopia in a State of Interregnum
By Abdissa Zerai (PhD)
December 10, 2016

According to Professor Zygmunt Bauman, the concept of interregnum appeared for the first time in Titto Livio’s history of Rome where he described the foundation of the city and the role of the first legendary king of Rome- Romulus. Romulus, according to Livio, ruled Rome for 38 years, which then constituted an average length of the life of an average person. In other words, when Romulus died or as Titto Livio suggests was raised to heaven, there were very few people in Rome who remembered a world which did not contain Romulus. On the other hand, the period between his death/disappearance and the appointment of Numa Pompilius as the next king of Rome was the time of panic, of complete decomposition of life, and of complete uncertainty. People were used to the idea that whatever needs to be done and how people need to live comes from Romulus. With the ubiquitous Romulus now gone, everything appeared in flux and nothing looked reassuring. For Titto Livio, this was the first interregnum.

However, sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s of the last century, Antonio Gramsci gave a different twist to the concept of interregnum in one of the prison notebooks he produced during his long incarceration in the Turi prison when he noted: ‘‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” In the new articulation, Gramsci infused the concept of interregnum with a new meaning, embracing a wider spectrum of the socio-political-legal order, while simultaneously reaching deeper into the socio-cultural condition. According to Gramsci’s new usage, interregnum is a situation in which the old ways of doing things do not work any longer, but new ways of doing things have not yet been designed and put in place.

Detaching the idea of interregnum from its habitual association with the interlude of transmission of hereditary or electable power, Bauman argues that Gramsci attached it to the extraordinary situations in which the extant legal frame of social order loses its grip and can hold no longer, whereas a new frame, made to the measure of newly emerged conditions responsible for making the old frame useless, is still at the designing stage, has not yet been fully assembled, or is not strong enough to be put in its place.

I contend that the current political crisis in Ethiopia can best be described as the condition of interregnum. For a keen observer of the current Ethiopian political debacle, it is increasingly becoming clear that the condition cannot be sufficiently explained away as a usual political hiccup that can effectively be dealt with through routine measures. Far from technical and administrative, the crisis is of systemic and structural in nature that requires serious systemic and structural change, which means that the current system is showing serious pathological signs and becoming obsolete as to be able to effectively respond to the exigency of the time. In other words, as posited by Gramsci, ‘the old is dying.’ In order to make sense of how we got here, however, it is important to briefly recapitulate the trajectory of this system that is fast turning into decay and obsolescence.

It is to be recalled that the demise of the military regime was brought about through a protracted armed struggle spearheaded by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Reconstituting itself under the umbrella of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the TPLF-led EPRDF assumed control of power, ushering in a new political dispensation in 1991. In line with the demands of the new global order reshaped by the West following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the EPRDF government positioned itself (at least in form) as the champion of multi-party democracy and accepted market liberalization and reforms called for by what is infamously known as the Washington Consensus. It restructured the Ethiopian state by adopting a federal system that gave premium to ethno-linguistic cleavages. Thus, in the new political dispensation, ethnicity became the primary mechanism through which access to power and resources was to be mediated. Notwithstanding a vociferous opposition from a segment of the society, there was obviously a significant segment of the society that was willing to go with the ‘flow’ for at least two reasons. First, the issue of national self-determination had for long been popular among the elites of the various ethno-linguistic groups who saw the new political order as an important step in addressing this very question that had eluded the previous Ethiopian regimes. Second, most people saw the new order as fait accompli and were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

The EPRDF feverishly promoted its image as the government of the marginalized, the oppressed, the downtrodden and the underdogs; it promised that it would bring into the center the various ethnic groups that had hitherto been condemned to the political and economic peripheries by empowering them to manage their own affairs and take charge of their own destiny. It cited the new constitution as the guarantor of such promises. At the time, such flowering rhetoric sounded like a soothing music to the ears of the various ethnic groups. To the disappointment of many, however, the euphoria did not last long. The new political dispensation being the outcome of an armed struggle rather than a democratic political mobilization, it was from the very beginning beset by asymmetrical power relations. As the armed struggle had been spearheaded by the TPLF, the political organizations that constituted the new governing coalition were themselves creatures which the TPLF brought into existence in anticipation of its impeding military victory. In other words, the new governing front (EPRDF) was constituted from the start by a coalition of unequals.

What made the situation even more absurd was the way the remaining five peripheral regional states were treated in the regime’s power calculus. As with the main coalition partners, the parties that would control these five regional states were organized along ethnic lines. However, the process of organizing such ethnic-based political parties that would ostensibly control their respective regional states was virtually controlled by the TPLF-led EPRDF. Although the EPRDF did not want the ethnic-based parties that would control these regional states to be part of its party structure, it shrewdly planned to use them as its proxies in exerting control of their respective regional states under the name of ‘allied parties.’ In the new political dispensation, it could therefore be argued that there were three hierarchical levels in the party power structure: the nucleus party (TPLF), the three parties in the governing coalition (ANDM, OPDO & SEPDM) and the allied parties that would ostensibly control the five peripheral regional states. Since both the parties in the governing coalition and in the ‘allied’ category owed their very existence to the nucleus party, their continued access to power and resources was predicated more on their loyalty and deference to the nucleus party than their loyalty to the constituencies they purportedly represented. It was clear from the very start that such built-in asymmetrical relations of power would have a detrimental impact on the evolution of a genuinely democratic order.

As witnessed in the subsequent years, despite its publicly expressed commitment to a democratic order, what has practically defined the regime’s behavior is what I call ‘victor mentality.’ There has been an unofficial but widely shared conviction among the members of the nucleus of the governing party that their organization had dearly paid in the removal of the military junta, and, hence, they were entitled to control the lever of power. The other members of the coalition tacitly accepted the claim without much fanfare. Elections were, thus, used as an instrument for legitimizing such sense of entitlement. As a result, elections became predictable and uneventful rituals designed to give credence to an otherwise autocratic political order in the eyes of the citizenry in general and the donor community in particular. On the ground, however, key political appointments and dismissals practically fell under the discretion of the victor rather than the will of the electorate, making the rhetoric of empowerment and self-governance ring hollow. When elections failed to serve such preconceived legitimizing role, they would cease to be anything of value to the regime as witnessed during the 2005 elections whose outcome was set to upset the status quo.

Following the political crisis in the aftermath of the 2005 general elections, the regime was aware that its duplicity and political chicanery with respect to instituting a genuine democratic order had been exposed for what it is and, hence, business as usual would no longer be tenable. In search of being relevant, it took a radical shift towards embracing a developmental politico-economic model where it thought it would base its legitimacy purely on economic performance while providing a lip-service to its commitment to democracy. Except its public pronouncement of the fact that its developmental model is tempered with democracy, the regime has not bothered itself much as to how the potential incompatibilities between the two could be reconciled. But what was obvious was that delivering a sustained economic growth was seen as a matter of life and death by the ruling elite. This new reorientation in turn necessitated stricter centralization of policymaking and political control although the administrative structure still remains decentralized. To the chagrin of its critics, the reforms that were initiated to this end have delivered an impressive economic growth for more than a decade (save the disputes over the officially endorsed growth figures) and contributed to observable expansions in social and infrastructural sectors.

However, the policy pursued and the economic ‘miracle’ registered also gave birth to another serious problem, i.e., it has contributed to the creation of an oligarchical power structure within the ruling elite; and such self-serving power structure runs from the center right to the peripheries. Being part of the oligarchical class and with the realization that their power did not primarily emanate from the ethnic group they purportedly represented but from their loyalty to their handlers and from playing their ‘cards’ well, ethnic political elites have increasingly turned despotic, engaging in corruptions and egregious abuse of power. But in as long as they remained subservient to the demands of their handlers and ‘behaved’ well in a manner reminiscent of Malcolm X’s characterization of the “house nigga,” the predatory behavior of the ethnic elites was not that much of a concern to those who controlled the structure of the oligarchy.

In order to obfuscate the matter, the regime tasked its propaganda machine with the responsibility of feverishly promoting the economic ‘miracle’ it has achieved and how it has predictably been taking the society to the ‘promised land.’ Intoxicated with its own narratives, the propaganda machine turned a blind eye to a critical scrutiny of its development discourse in terms of the breadth and depth of the claimed growth and its equitable distribution. It is no-brainer that owing to the low level of the initial starting point, no matter how much one would try to mask the reality with the narrative of double-digit growth, measured in absolute terms, the volume of the growth has obviously been very modest. More importantly, the much touted economic growth has not been widely shared among citizens. As noted earlier, political elites, party and party-affiliated enterprises, and politically well-connected individuals or groups have been the ones who have disproportionately benefited from the reported growth. For the broader section of the society, dreams have turned into nightmares, disillusionment has replaced hopes, and life has increasingly become unbearable. The phenomenon has further been exacerbated by the onset of the recent drought and the resultant food shortage that has affected millions of citizens.  

On top of the democratic deficit, this glaring disconnect between the official discourse of economic growth or the Ethiopian renaissance, for that matter, and the lived experience of ordinary citizens across the ethnic divide has dramatically increased the rift between the regime and the citizens. The very economic model the regime hoped to be its last source of legitimacy has eventually lost its initial credence in the eyes of the citizenry. Now, the regime is left with neither electoral nor performance legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry. Thus, the recent political crisis, though triggered by conjectural factors, is mainly the result of the crisis of legitimacy of the politico-economic order.

According to Gramsci’s articulation, interregnum is a situation in which the old ways of doing things do not work any longer, but new ways of doing things have not yet been designed and put in place. In the meantime, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. As has been discussed above, the politico-economic order the EPRDF put in place following the demise of the military junta seems to have reached a point where it has lost its traction. As the continued popular protests and skirmishes indicate, citizens appear to have lost faith in the system and are unwilling to be governed in the old ways anymore. They are demanding fundamental change that is compatible with the exigencies of the time. On the other hand, a new frame that can effectively replace the dying structure has not yet been designed. As a result, in this time of great uncertainty and decomposition of life, we are observing the emergence of a great variety of morbid symptoms from different directions.

From the side of the system on the ropes, for example, despite the fact that there is an acknowledgement of government failures for the eruption of the protests, there is either a willful denial or a serious misreading of the fundamental causes of the crisis. From the perspective of the incumbent, the root cause of the political crisis has to do with lack of good governance- largely understood as the lack of efficient, transparent and accountable service delivery-, but denies that it has anything to do with macro-level structural and systemic issues. If service delivery were carried out efficiently, transparently and accountably, everything would be hunky-dory. In order to get to such a desired outcome, personnel or cabinet reshuffle in the manner of weeding out the ‘bad apples’ and bringing in a ‘new’ force with the ‘right’ knowledge and skills would be imperative. The problem with such a prescription is that it has been repeatedly tried in the past but with little or no breakthrough. And citizens are sick and tired of the already familiar failed mantra and worn out voodoo magic. They are looking for an overhaul of the system and not just the treatment of the symptoms. Amidst this, the violence has continued unabated and the government has responded by declaring a state of emergency; it now seems that never the twain shall meet.

On the opposition side, there are bewildering cacophony of voices aired with regards to making sense of and charting the way out of the crisis. For some political groups that organized themselves along ethnic lines, the current crisis is attributable to the failure of the incumbent in strictly committing itself to its constitution which has categorically provided for the institution of a multiparty democracy and a federal system structured along ethnic lines. The way out of the crisis is removing a minority-controlled government and instituting a genuinely democratic system within the confines of ethnic based federal arrangement. For some other identity-based political groups, the crisis ought to be made sense of within a broader historical context where the current predicament can be explained as the continuation of the internal colonization of ethnic groups by the Abyssinian ruling class and, hence, the crisis can only be resolved by instituting a system that guarantees national self-determination. Other groups espouse the notion that the current minority regime is nothing but oppressive and exploitative regime that has taken a deliberately designed divide-and-rule policy as its insurance and thereby put the integrity of the Ethiopian state at risk. Hence, the only viable solution to the current debacle out to be predicated on an unwavering commitment to a genuinely democratic political order as well as to the maintenance of the integrity of the Ethiopian state. For those who advocate Ethiopian nationalism, identity-based political grouping is primarily responsible for the current mess we find ourselves in and, hence, we should turn away from such primordial conceptualization of ethnicity and its attendant identity and focus on supra-national and civic based Ethiopian identity. And in between these are opposition political groups (though could be taken as outliers) who prescribe constitutional monarchy as a remedy to the current ills all the way to those who recommend the disintegration of the Ethiopian state as a precondition for ensuring national self-determination.

Owing to such disparate and bewildering diagnoses of and prescriptions for the current crisis, the political opposition seems in a predicament akin to the condition of the descendants of Noah at Shinar who set to build the biblical tower of Babel but failed to build the structure because they could not understand each other as their language turned gibberish; and this affirms my central thesis that, as it stands now, Ethiopia appears to be in a state of interregnum.

The author is the former dean of the school of journalism and communication at Addis Ababa University and can be reached at: berhanwota@gmail.com


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