Ethiopia: Thoughts for Revitalizing the Resistance

By Tesfaye Demmellash (PhD)

Tsefaye Dememelash
Tsefaye Dememellash

The dawn of the New Year, 2015, got me thinking about the renewal of the Ethiopian struggle to end the scourge of ethnic dictatorship. I thought about the possibility of infusing our sluggish national resistance with innovative élan and activism by tapping selectively into parts of our past revolutionary experience, whose successive sectarian and authoritarian malformation has been haunting us for decades now.

We are aware, sadly, that in its struggle for change the Ethiopian revolutionary generation committed fatal flaws of thought, strategy, and tactics from which the nation has yet to recover. In expressing forward-looking ideas, leading members of that generation and many of us who followed them did so in hostile, gross abstraction from the historical realities of the Ethiopian nation. We were alienated wholesale from our own national heritage. As “progressives,” we tried to make historic Ethiopia disappear beneath the magic wand of contemporary Western-inspired political ideology, whose extreme partisan “radicalism” signified, paradoxically, our own national rootlessness. Our interest in the plight of the Ethiopian masses was impersonal, representing an abstract mode of social concern without empathy. The Derg was clearly marked by this revolutionary attitude, as is the Woyane regime today.

Nonetheless, the political and cultural innovation produced by the revolutionary generation is undeniable, as was the high energy its members put out in effecting a massive revamping of Ethiopian national culture. That was quite an achievement, though marred by tragic blunders and limitations, whose adverse effects or byproducts we as a nation are painfully witnessing and experiencing today.

A host of questions, then, arise: can the activism of the revolutionary generation be an exemplar for the Ethiopian struggle for change today, a model for the resistance against tyrannical, divide-and-dominate ethnicism? Why shouldn’t the potency, inventiveness, and commitment of activists and patriots of the revolutionary era inspire us to fight with nearly the same degree of energy and creativity for the fundamental democratic change the country sorely needs now? Why can’t we try to generate and command a comparable level of vitality and power to effect, under changed circumstances, far-reaching transformation?

We know, of course, that the historical events of the Revolution, and the narratives, movements, and struggles it generated, cannot be replicated in a different time or place. Nor can we simply and straightaway borrow the progressive slogans of the past. For example, the old rallying cry, “land to the tiller,” cannot today have the currency that it had in the past, not only because the Revolution has apparently settled the matter, but also for the reason that voracious regional and global capitalist agro-business interests are the “tillers” of much arable land in the country today.

In thinking about possibilities of revitalizing the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for change by drawing from the experience of the revolutionary generation, I see “revitalization” in two interactive senses: the renewal of the experience itself (or parts thereof) and, more importantly, the infusion of the present struggle with new vitality and power, in part inspired by past achievement.

I take it that the accomplishments of the past, particularly its innovative cultural-political products and agency, can only be effectively made use of today if they are grasped critically, recognizing their limitations as well as strengths, and the historical conditions of their possibility and functionality. We determine which elements in them are potentially transferable across time, and which are temporally bound situational contents and forms. Critical work here is apropos in another essential respect, namely, for deflating TPLF political ideology. The Woyane regime identifies itself with, and has actually partaken of, the Ethiopian revolutionary tradition, doing so as a narrow tribal spin-off of that tradition. As a perverse, divisive offshoot of the nation’s revolutionary experience, the TPLF sectarian political project should be the object of not only polemical assault and partisan attack but also systematic critique, thoroughgoing intellectual, moral, and political deconstruction.

Critically informed appropriation of past progressive accomplishments means, then, adapting them to the needs, circumstances, and zeitgeist of the present. As the existing generation of Ethiopian patriots and progressives reflectively revives relevant aspects of its broadly revolutionary legacy in this way, it at the same time gains capacity to revitalize the present fight for fundamental political and national change. What I have in mind here is the legacy being an exemplar for one crucial concern of the Ethiopian struggle for change today, namely, cultural-political innovation. More specifically, the innovation has to do with devising new, more enlightened and effective ways of resistance against Woyane ethnic tyranny in thought and practice, advancing Ethiopian solidarity and forward-looking ideas at once.

To resist or not to resist TPLF dictatorship, that is not the question for Ethiopian patriots, progressives, and concerned citizens today. Given the predicament the country finds itself in, the existential threat that it is under, resistance is not something we can escape. But practicing opposition in generally the same way we have done over the last nearly quarter century and expecting a different outcome is not being reasonably hopeful; it is being merely wishful. So it may be necessary now to take a questioning account of the whole enterprise of opposition with an eye toward making it more creative and consequential.

The Aim and Challenges of Innovation 

The point of such broad reassessment is to help the resistance not only survive but thrive, becoming more resourceful and adaptive in the face of increasingly repressive conditions, to impart more energy of thought and belief into it. In taking stock of where the opposition has been and where it is today, we do so seeking cultural-political innovation as a means of enabling existing or emergent opposition turn itself into a more successful contender for national influence and power, a tougher competitor over the meaning and value of Ethiopiawinnet. The reassessment is a major project requiring far more involved study and analysis than I can even begin to undertake in this writing. It invites the participation of various Ethiopian stakeholders – civil society groups, cultural communities, intellectuals, activists, and political parties – at home and abroad. I only attempt here to offer a few relevant thoughts, highlighting the interplay, in the resistance, of our common nationality and forward-looking ideas and values.

A fundamental challenge for the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for democratic transformation and national renewal, for major cultural-political innovation, is overcoming the gross negativity toward Ethiopiawinnet we inherited from our flawed revolutionary project and, in the process, rolling back the national nihilism the TPLF has been trying to impose on the Ethiopian people for over two decades. This target of transformation, this nationally self-deflating “progressive” posture, is generally reflected in the modernist, often ethnocentric, critical and rejectionist attitude toward not only the limitations of our shared national tradition, but the tradition as such. Inaugurated by the likes of Wallelign Mekonnen within the Student Movement and very much in evidence in TPLF and OLF “revolutionary” thought and belief, this philistine attitude is predicated on a near absolute separation between Ethiopian national culture and what is said to be politically modern and progressive.

Against this habit of thought and belief, the struggle for change today would depart by unequivocally acknowledging and affirming Ethiopian national being. It would surmount the “radical” split between historic national tradition and contemporary political modernity through their answerability for each other, their entry into mutual communion. The opposition camp has so far failed to provide vigorously a broadly inspiring vision or principle for such convergence of historic and contemporary modes of Ethiopian national concern, and this failure constitutes its crisis, its stagnation.

To gain vitality and potency, opposition forces would need to make advances by reshaping and redirecting their common struggle in the way they embrace Ethiopiawinnet and in the manner they approach progressive ideas and values, relating the latter activity to the former. A decisive first step in revitalizing and reshaping the struggle, in bridging the gulf between national tradition and modern political reason is to say yes to, and to revalue, Ethiopian national life. It is made clear here that rejection of partisan-tribal devaluation of the Ethiopian national heritage does not necessarily entail lack of commitment to socio-economic, cultural, and political change. Unity need not exclude diversity.

Yet conceptual and political innovation means that Ethiopia would no longer be imagined as a mere sum of disparate “self- determining” localities or ethnic and cultural communities. Its identity and integrity would be firmly affirmed, and its change would be its integral transformation, not its division into insular tribal kilils. In projecting effectively such a broad affirmative vision of solidarity, opposition forces offer all citizens of the country a revitalized, richer, more inspiring conception of the meaning, value, and significance of Ethiopian national life.

And in embracing a renewed progressive worldview accordingly, Ethiopian resistance forces would do so by giving currency to ideas and values from within the particularity of the Ethiopian national experience. They would not, in the manner of the revolutionary generation, adopt an external, supposedly radical attitude toward our national being in criticizing and attempting to change it. Instead, they would engage, question, and seek to refashion and develop the stuff of unique Ethiopian nationality. They would recognize that ideas-based politics should not be an abstract, impersonal machine-like controlling force over our national life. Instead, it must come to terms with what we want to be, departing from what history has made of us, namely, free and equal citizens of one diverse yet indivisible nation.

The attempt to integrate political ideas and national life in the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for change confronts the domination of revolutionary ideology in which the formal or literal meanings of represented ideas belie actual political behavior and institutional practices. Thus the category of “national self-determination,” the centerpiece of TPLF “revolutionary democracy,” in fact signifies little more than partisan-authoritarian domination, an alibi for imperious Woyane-Tigre control over Ethiopian national and local affairs. Though generally unanalyzed as the fundamental problem that it is, inauthenticity or perversion of professed progressive ideology has been endemic to the Ethiopian revolutionary tradition, from the brutal communism of the Derg to the divide-and-dominate ethnic dictatorship of the TPLF in the present.

This means innovative struggle for Ethiopian democratic change today has to be transformative in a dual sense, even as it affirms Ethiopiawinnet. It itself constitutes, or should constitute, a renewed and further renewable performance of aspects of past and contemporary political experience. And it is also, or can be, a source of novel forms of progressive thought and practice. In both respects, the struggle would not be simply a creator of an alternative political-national culture; it would be a transformer of an established paradigm or pattern of politics. It would effect a new revolutionary change.

In engaging in the contemporary struggle for change, we embrace progressive ideas and values within a novel national-political quest, not as old radical or liberal platitudes disembodied from our historic national experience, or as conceptually inert ethnonationalist orthodoxy. This would be a new, more open and animate form of intellectual engagement and political activism that avoids cultural insularity and ideational complacency or passivity. In this sense, the engagement would constitute a significant advance beyond what generally passes for opposition today. Now someone might retort, this is all fine in theory, but will it work in practice under present Ethiopian conditions? It is to be admitted that cultural-political innovation of the sort I am urging is difficult. It is not readily practicable among existing opposition parties, activists, and ethnic outfits, even intellectuals, at home and abroad. It is not even thinkable within the narrow-minded ethnic dictatorship that is the Woyane regime. Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, though, and we all must work diligently at it. Years of violent revolution and brutal civil war have left us with a political culture marked by partisan and tribal fractionation, mistrust, tension, and infighting.

It may look like the proliferation of opposition parties, groups, and media at home and in the Diaspora, and the unending political squabbling among us mean that we take our differences seriously and tackle them frontally. Yet our divisions and antagonisms have multiplied largely because we have tended to avoid grappling with difference, pluralism, and complexity in our political and national life. We retreat from the challenges and rewards of broader Ethiopian solidarity, seeking instead the reassurance and comfort of easy, narrowly partisan, often separatist forms of cultural or ethnic identity.

Insofar as we think of national and political “unity” we tend to do so weakly in simple additive terms, as the mere aggregation of assorted parties and ethnic groups, nothing more. We forget that national unity is greater and more complex than the arithmetic sum of political parties, social groups, and ethnic identities. The often heard call for “national reconciliation” is similarly formulated without the aid of probing analysis. Here too the tendency is to shy away from active conceptual and substantive thought, from critical, reflective engagement with the vital issues involved.

For example, how can pro-democracy Ethiopian patriots and partisans of the OLF or of spin-offs of this organization, develop common interests, ideas, and values of Ethiopian nationality? What does “righting” historical “wrongs” mean and entail in the context of the formation of the Ethiopian nation-state and, comparatively, in the more brutal formative experiences of other nations, say, the United States or South Africa? What is the conceptual status or political function of the old Leninist-Stalinist notion of “national self-determination” in Ethiopia today? What, if at all, should be its place in Ethiopian “national reconciliation,” in principle or practice? Is difference (political, ethnic, linguistic, and so on) to be understood simply as dissimilarity and separateness or as diversity, pluralism, and democratic openness within an integral Ethiopian whole? Such questions form the point of departure of cultural-political innovation in the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for change.

However, innovation is more difficult in Ethiopia today than in the revolutionary past. This is for two basic reasons, both having to do with the Revolution, or with the specific features and characteristics the Revolution took on through its embodiment in particular movements, parties and regimes. On the one hand, we have been very limited in our power to innovate in the spheres of progressive ideas and politics in large part because of revolutionary inertia. First taking the form of a brutal communist-military tyranny and then assuming, to this day, the shape of a “revolutionary democracy,” which is actually a nationally self-alienated ethnicist dictatorship, the Revolution has over several decades morphed into an oppressive establishment of one kind or another. As such, it has been a drag on conceptual change and political advancement.

While the fundamental flaws and limitations of the Ethiopian revolutionary project, including its subsequent ethnocentric misappropriation, have been evident over the years, there has been a more or less continuous valorization of the project’s ideological constructs and the forms of its political discourse and practice among opposition as well as ruling parties and coalitions in the country. In this way, the revolutionary establishment has, both in its Derg and Woyane variants, effectively monopolized and closed the terrain of progressive ideas and values, crowding out alternative interpretations and understandings of universal ideals through grossly partisan hegemony, pre-emptively blocking their innovative, more open and democratic, reformulation within the opposition.

On the other hand, it may have been easier to innovate in the revolutionary era than at present because the Revolution itself, going back to the Student Movement, ushered in new ways of understanding and practicing politics in Ethiopia. Individuals and groups were supported and disciplined by the certainties of Marxist-Leninist ideology, by formulaic organizational doctrine, and by fierce partisan loyalty and activism as they imbibed new political values and norms. Now we lack any such support system, attuned, of course, to our time, to our present national needs, interests, and concerns. We struggle today in the absence of contemporary counterparts to the collective structures, self-assurances and loyalties of the revolutionary past; we apply ourselves not only in the face of doubt and uncertainty, but also in disillusionment with the Ethiopian revolutionary project. Making advances in the resistance against nationally corrosive ethnic dictatorship by undertaking innovative, forward-looking cultural and political struggle is difficult because it involves fighting off and overcoming the drag of these doubts, uncertainties, and disaffections.

A Way to Support Cultural-Political Innovation

There is certainly no shortage of political parties, movements, and fronts in Ethiopia today professing ideas of freedom and democracy. A whole lot of these groups are tribal political entities, some of which, like ARENA-Tigrai and Oromo Federal Congress, have come into being outside the official framework of Woyane state ethnicism, while many others are creations and extensions of the framework. The TPLF regime has used the lure of ethnocentric “nationality” and “self-determination” to attract and bring under its authoritarian control diverse localities and communities in the country. Opposition political parties and movements, such as Ginbot Sebat and Medrek (Forum for Democratic Dialogue in Ethiopia,) may not be explicitly or exclusively ethnocentric, but are essentially “coalitions” of ethnic groups more or less on the dominant TPLF-EPRDF model.

As such, far from being hospitable to new advances in ideas and practices of freedom, democracy and equality, the Ethiopian national landscape has been dominated by old “progressive” conventions of both ruling and oppositional identity politics. The source of rampant partisan ethnicism in the country, along with its limitations and contradictions, is largely our troubled tradition of progressivism itself, not tribalism pure and simple.

And yet our revolutionary experience, going back to the Student Movement, could also be a fount of redemption – a model for creating enabling and supportive conditions of political-cultural innovation in Ethiopia today. What I have in mind here is shoring up, in part along the lines of past experience, the present Ethiopian struggle for political transformation through the coming together at home and abroad of change agents of diverse backgrounds – enlightened patriots, activists, thinkers, cultural trail blazers, and concerned citizens – who would form working groups and networks. These support networks would be “laboratories” or “incubators” of new forward-looking ideas or of alternative, nationally attuned and politically productive interpretations and understandings of universal progressive values.

Their primary function would not be to produce a direct impact on current debates and discussions within the opposition camp or on interactions between the opposition and the regime. Nor is it to exert immediate influence on broader social constituencies and interest groups. Immediate concerns and actions have their place in the struggle, of course. But the pressure of ongoing events and issues, of responding to the provocative policies and repressive actions of the Woyane regime, exacts a heavy toll on potential political and cultural innovators – thinkers and visionaries – in the opposition. So the network of support groups would not surrender to the status-quo by continually attending to the ebb and flow of particular events and trends in it. Instead, it would bring imagination, passion, knowledge, and skills to bear on Ethiopia’s democratic change and national renewal, developing and articulating intellectual, moral, and political vision unfettered by partisan or ethnic calculus.

The work that such a network performs in creating room for and supporting broader political and cultural innovation is vital for the Ethiopian struggle for fundamental political change. It has practical significance, but practicality here is an attitude and a form of engagement different from the immediacies of direct action or of partisan and organizational tactics. It involves negotiating a wider, more challenging, political terrain of Ethiopian solidarity in thought and practice over the long-term. It entails maintaining relative openness as a principle and strategy for ordering ideas and goals, and for charting definite courses of action in varied fields of national resistance against Woyane dictatorship. The work would be based on the recognition that Ethiopian solidarity cannot be achieved in the resistance through either the suppression of difference and dissent, or the mere aggregation of diverse parties and cultural groups, taking identities as politically given. It can only be achieved today as novel national mediation, as a new form of Ethiopian governance of identity, difference, and pluralism.

In sum, let me note, as I have done elsewhere, that in urging a return to an intellectually more animated and disciplined politics of resistance reminiscent of our revolutionary experience, I am not suggesting the privileging of conceptual thought or abstract ideology over everything else. That would be repeating the mistake of the revolutionary generation. I stress an innovative return to our troubled progressive inheritance in the interest of developing anew practically informed critical consciousness, a broader and deeper level of political mindfulness that should enable the Ethiopian resistance against tyrannical ethnicism to coalesce and move effectively on the terrain of ideas and culture.

I urge political-cultural innovation recognizing that when resistance to tyranny is generally deficient in fresh ideas and values, as has been the case over the last nearly quarter century of opposition to TPLF dictatorship, there is no possibility of illuminating and directing the struggle effectively, and upgrading it cumulatively to a high-powered national resistance. The inability or disinclination of the opposition – in all its political and ethnic variants – to incorporate broader thought and strategy beyond immediate national sentiment and concern – has manifested itself in a number of ways. Among these, two are particularly noteworthy.

First, we observe it in the tiresome tendency of critics and opponents of the Woyane regime, including intellectuals, activists, technocrats and media groups, to produce repeating factual descriptions and representations of the ugly realities of TPLF dictatorship. This tendency is generally bereft of politically productive interpretation of the observed facts in terms of resistance theory or vision and plan of action. Descriptions and lamentations of our national predicament are available aplenty, but we often face a shortage of “actionable,” strategically meaningful oppositional analysis.

Second, despite, or because of our intense resentment of the ethnic dictatorship of the Woyanes, we have often been led by the hatred to an immediate condemnation and rejection of the dictatorship that actually leaves its so-called progressive ideas unchallenged in sustained critical thought. We have often limited ourselves to reckoning with TPLF hegemony in discourses of partisan and polemical contestation. And this means we have yet to take a full measure of the “revolutionary” system of domination that we are resisting. Consequently, the opposition has not been able to articulate an alternative, more potent and inspiring, democratic vision of Ethiopian political and national life.

The resistance could overcome these limitations by undertaking thoroughgoing conceptual and political innovation, thereby helping Ethiopia finally shake off authoritarian rule and transform its polity into an actually functioning, sustainable democracy.

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