Ethiopia: Behind the Politics of Hatred

By Taye Negussie (PhD)

In the introductory note to the thirteenth edition of the journal Taking Sides: Clashing Views in World Politics (2008), editor John T. Rourke invokes Rolling Stones’ popular song “Sympathy With the Devil” and Marshal Berman brilliant essay, “Have Sympathy for the Devil” stating that the mutual theme of the Stones’ and Berman’s works rest on Johann Goethe’s classical drama Faust. In that classical drama, the central character, Dr. Faust, “sells his soul to gain great power.” He attempts to do good but ultimately he commits evil by “doing the wrong things” for what he thinks is “the right cause”.

This story seems to have some affinity with what is transpiring today with too many of the hardliner identity politics that attempt to justify their political cause by demeaning and criminalizing the entire groups of societies–the “evil-others”–whom they accuse for denying their right to a “sovereign state” and eroding and diluting their “natural identity”.

Without a doubt, it is such prejudiced and irrational account that often had led many to commit heinous acts of mass massacre and genocide as evinced in Ruanda, former Yugoslavia and many more other places. Even the recent atrocious massacre of many Ethiopians in Libya and South Africa reportedly by Islamic fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists respectively seems to have been rooted in the misperception about other religious faiths and the imagined threat posed by foreigners on the livelihood of the locals.

Though nowadays we tend to associate fundamentalism solely with extremist Islamic ideology but the historical evidences would rather reveal that it could indeed well be the case with any hardliner exclusionist in-group vs. out-group oriented identity politics. In fact, as world history well testifies the racial and ethnic instigated violent incidences are by far more numerous and frequent than the purely religious ones.

Whatever the case may be, one thing that must be clear to all of us in this regard is that almost all of the hitherto identity related conflicts and massacres that occurred around the world were invariably the direct consequence of a vigorous and sustained psychological and emotional campaign by the belligerent party. These campaigns were often used for two major reasons: 1/to isolate and dehumanize the scapegoat ‘enemy’, 2/ to charge the alleged victims with as much rage and vengeful sentiment as needed to bolster them to commit any heinous act without regret.Consider the ultra-nationalist Nazi regime’s intense anti-Semitic campaign that led to the extermination of around 6 million Jewish in Germany during the Second World War, and the much more recent Rwanda’s well-orchestrated anti-Tutsi campaign that resulted in the massacre of half a million Rwandans, mainly of Tutsi ethnic group.

This being said, now we may rightly ask what is indeed the root cause that pushes many racial/ethno-centric fundamentalists to adopt such a hard-liner exclusionist stance? Of course, their largely manifest motto usually starts from the seemingly legitimate premise of reviving and reincarnating some allegedly endangered or lost identities. But, this really tells very little about the true essence and ultimate object of many of the sectarian identity politics. A serious endeavor to get a sense of the true nature of such a subtle politics must go much further than the façade appearance.

A quick review of literature in this regard reveals that the real issue can only be glimpsed in the unwritten and implicit assumption of the fundamentalist racial/ethno-centric ideology which centers on the principle governing “natural” social organization.

The case of ‘Heroic-Folkish Realism’

Evidently, the ideal model of social organization often imagined by the exclusionary fundamentalist racial/ethno-centric politics is what the renowned critical social scientist Herebert Marcuse calls “Heroic-Folkish Realism”–an exclusionist world view that imagines a “pure” racial/ethnic stock as ever tied to a particular soil. The underlying assumption in this mentality is the sanctity and universality of the notion of “folk”, “race”, “blood” and “soil” underlining a true “natural” social organization.

A careful look into these concepts might lay bare how much they are meant to reduce the ever inquisitive, vibrant, restless, wondering and intermingling human race to a dormant, isolated, immobile object ever fixated to its soil. Since the assumption behind these concepts is little reflective of much of the current social reality, particularly in urban context, we may be justified to think that these concepts are rather used as tools to advance unjust and discriminatory governance in otherwise much more complex and pluralized identity arenas.

In the view of the “Heroic-Folkish-Realists”, these concepts designate natural standards and values that belong to a higher order. Accordingly, they proclaim the “natural” inequality of men is more than their “artificial” equalization, (notice the hierarchical classification of “nation”, “nationalities” and “peoples” in the Ethiopian context), the “body more than the mind”, “health more than morality”, “force more than law”, “strong hatred more than feeble sympathy”.

It, thus, comes as no surprise why many of the racial/ethno-centric political entities often opt to radical, exclusionist, totalitarian and repressive political systems. Candidly speaking, their real intent is not so much to bring about true liberation to people as it is to meet the power hunger of the elites by subjecting the largely cosmopolitan new generation to past traditions and the rule of autarchy to the effect of depriving their individual freedom and autonomy.

Viewed in light of the most influential social organization theory of Sociologist E. Durkheim, the idea of “natural” social organization will be but a hollow assumption that effectively denies the indisputable dynamic nature of social processes. According to Durkheim, what primarily governs the organization of social life is but the degree of the homogeneity-heterogeneity of the social composition of a society as determined by the prevailing state of division of labor in a given society. Thus, whereas in simpler, traditional and relatively homogenous societies where there is little diversification of labor the principle of social organization mainly rests on the shared similarity of consciousness among members of a community that he termed mechanical solidarity (apparently close to the conception of the “Heroic-Folkish Realism”); but, then, as the society becomes more diverse and heterogeneous in term of division of labor, as is the case in urban context, the principle would subsequently shift from shared consciousness to mutually complimentary relationships as derived from the specialization of labor that he labeled organic

Durkheim characterizes organic solidarity, as a spontaneous human association formed out of the necessity of each person’s need to maintain himself through his work. Each individual, thus, assigns himself to a special function in order, by the force of events, to make himself in solidarity with others. Since it is a spontaneous association, it does not require any coercive forceeither to produce or to maintain it. Subsequently, the reward system in such a social system will essentially be a meritocratic type, i.e. a remunerative mechanism based on one’s own individual effort and achievement instead of his affinity with the group.

In short, the biggest blunder with the fundamentalist racial/ethnocentric world view lies in its static view of the otherwise dynamic and complex social life as it unfolds on the ground. This may partly explain why the extremist ethno-centric ideologues here in Ethiopia have remained stuck to an empty sentimental propaganda speech of some naïve student activists of the 1960’s or 1970s (such as the often cited–like an article of faith–Wallellign Mekkone’s speech some half a century back) instead of a systematic current empirical study of the interaction and intermingling of different cultures to justify their political causes. Alas, this tradition seems to be continuing even to these days as the hardliner protagonists enthusiastically engage in relentless hateful and devilish rhetoric sandwiched in highly confusing jargons probably with the view to impose their uncompromising political will as being little understood. Here we need to recall the adage, “The simpler, the true”, as truth doesn’t beg much stuffing and bluffing.

The Oneness of life

All said, what is, thus, now needed to get out of this quagmire is to give some little time for a sober, realistic and logical reflection on life in general. To this end, against the hateful and divisive world view of the “Heroic-Folkish-Realists”, most scientific studies and almost all spiritual traditions invariably verify the inherently oneness of all life, much less the unity among human beings who have been living together for quite some time. It, thus, goes without saying the “natural” organization of human life rests not so much on filial division and spiteful discrimination as it is on firm foundation of oneness, love, peace, justice, compassion, sympathy and brotherhood among various people that happen to be sharing–wittingly or unwittingly–the
same life fate.

This may sound to the hawkish mind as some sort of feeble “exotic” and “aesthetic” politics. But, they have got to know that our primary natural identity ultimately turns out to be that of the unchanging, potentially divine inner most nature of humanity and as such, all the rest external appearances–ethnicity, race, religion, nationality, what have you–come only as mere changing secondary identities while being continually constructed, de-constructed and reconstructed by the actions and interactions of humans themselves at different historical times.

Taye Negussie (PhD) is Assistant Professor pf Sociology Addis Ababa University and could be reached with is e-mail address :