By Setargew Kenaw
Following the election of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in April 2018, the Ethiopian government has released thousands of political prisoners, undertaken certain administrative reforms, and promised to widen the political space. As a result, the new administration has received a widespread support from the majority of Ethiopians.
PM Abiy’s government has also gained a good deal of backing (both real and/or promissory) from the “international community” for taking the initiative to change the impasse between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and owing to the new spirit of cooperation it projected for the East African region. Above all, Abiy has been endorsed and embraced by many for adopting the language of peace, love and unity – and that in everyday vocabulary, shrugging off the humdrum political glossolalia that many party members have been expected to mumble.
During the last few weeks, however, even supporters of the new administration have begun expressing their misgivings. Some couldn’t help but develop a nihilistic attitude towards the future of the country. On my own part, I am still struggling to maintain a considered optimism on the conviction that it is better to “have faith in” what has been apparent up to now in spite of disturbing signs and lurking time bombs that could sway many of us back to the distrust we lived with for long.
As a person that has embraced optimism, I feel that the negative signals I am alluding to now should not simply be posed or assumed as predetermined, things that couldn’t be changed. They could and should be unraveled and solved. And some of these problems are not new, in fact; they have been around for the last twenty-seven years and probably they could continue affecting us, either as hangovers (which time could remedy) or as enduring setbacks.
My topic for today is the bittersweet political language that has been eating up and drying out the political discourse and practice of the country for so long. In the contemporary world, most political ideologies – be it Leftist, Rightist, or Centrist – employ perverted and high sounding terms in order to cover up things on the ground; to soften harsh measures; to overstate political and economic achievements, etc. But when we look back in history, political establishments with socialist orientations stood out very well in developing a whole system of dazzling vernacular that covers up atrocities. The “National Democratic Revolution” program of the Dergue regime and the “Revolutionary Democracy” of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) are ideological language-fields replete with many high-flown but worn-out terminologies. At this moment, even ordinary people on the street know very well that abyotawi democracy (EPRDF) or democraciawi abyot (Dergue’s period) do not have anything to do with democracy. For those very well informed, these terms are mere variations of the Leninist mantra “democratic centralism” that socialist regimes and guerilla fighters picked and utilized to make people or their followers fall in line and play seleme-seleme.
This is typical of what George Orwell conceptualized as “doublethink” in his classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He characterizes doublethink:
To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again: and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself.
In Ethiopia, the political elite making use of the doublethink known as “revolutionary democracy” play a twofaced game: They want the wider public to believe in the rhetoric of democratic rights while at the same time creating conditions by which they [the “broad masses,” “chiqunu gebere,” etc.] could be efficiently “freed” from these rights. The “developmentalist state” rhetoric that EPRDF has been propagating during the last few years made it particularly (ironically) clearer and vaguer that the party always wanted to use politics to depoliticize society – clearer because it betrays its determination to push away many from politics; vaguer for enveloping its scheme in expressions which are at once quasi-technocratic and foggy. To make matters even worse, middle- and low-level cadres are only expected to speak-in-tongues, vocalizing phrases like melkam astedader, limatawi mengist… without having a clear understanding of their meanings. These expressions are simply mumbled as if the speakers are under hypnosis.
This tendency has of course subsided during the last few months for a reason just pointed out. Things appear to change, though, very recently, forcing us to assume that EPRDF’s “revolutionary” propaganda machine has only been hibernating. In September 2018, young people in Addis had been indiscriminately rounded up and transported to a far off military camp, out of reach of their families. The official explanation was “siltena” (training). A high ranking police officer was even talking in terms of the amount of credit hours these “trainees” were “taught.” They “graduated” with a T-shirt that carries a self-incriminatory script declaring “I will safeguard the peace.”
In Dec. 2016, a huge number of people were put into military camps, and when released, they were required to wear a shirt displaying an admission of guilt that said “NEVER AGAIN.” A government spokesman said upon their release: “[The detainees] have been given lots of trainings that were meant to give them lessons so that they won’t be part of the destructive trend…” The “authorized” diagnosis was therefore that the detainees suffered from some kind of mental instability. Protesting against authoritarianism was conceived as a function of psychosis. (In the 19th century US, if a slave attempted to run away from his or her owner, the act was taken as a variant of mental illness – its scientific name was drapetomania).
The two arrests may differ in some respects. Some of the obvious ones are: the scale of the arrests, length of time the detainees stayed incarcerated, and the nature of the explanation that the security forces offered. But, all the same, both are arbitrary and mass arrests. Both lack transparency. The two arrests don’t have any legal grounds. Both are communist in spirit (remotely catching up Chinese re-education camps), in that they aim at deprogramming, brainwashing.
Evidently, Abiy’ government has taken decisive steps in a very short period of time. However, what has been happening quite recently signals a possibility of a regress. During the third week of October, two human rights advocates were detained (released after four days) for expressing their concern on the status of Addis Ababa City Administration. Many were really at a loss why this turned out to be a criminal offense – that was why it was met by instantaneous protests from human rights organizations.
So, is it not reasonable to show apprehension that things could relapse? We are (as was the case in the past) witnessing acts of designating political entities that could execute measures the opposite of their nomenclature. As stated above, Orwell aptly put this as “doublethink.” Using a scheme like revolutionary democracy, you preach democracy and practice authoritarianism. We then have to suspect and critically look into a designation like “Ministry of Peace” – a ministry that Ethiopia has recently set up. The police and all the security apparatus (with the exception of the Army probably) compose this Ministry.
We know what the security forces have been doing in this country. They have committed massive atrocities ranging from jailing and torturing people through banishing opponents to killing thousands in the last more than twenty-seven years – a period in which democracy has been preached in an unprecedented scale in the country. Thus, could we suppose that naming the ministerial office of the security forces as the Ministry of Peace help to pacify these institutions? That we shall see. As our experience of doublethink shows, however, the labeling could be a yet another mask camouflaging bitter deeds with sugary talk.
Parenthetically, it should be noted that perhaps the only country that has the Ministry of Peace other than Ethiopia is Oceania, a fictional totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In this novel, the Ministry of Peace’s main job is war. I hope the current administration of PM Abiy will distance itself from this politics of doublethink and create an enabling environment for democratizing the political space, as it promised from the very beginning.