Freeing Ethiopia from Ethnocentrism: Thought for Deep strategy

By Tesfaye Demmellash (PhD)

How to liberate Ethiopia and Ethiopiawinnet from the grip of corrosive, sectarian ethnocentrism? That is the question. In raising it, I depart from the understanding that partisan identity politics is not something Ethiopians, regardless of our ethnicity, can’t imagine being any other way, something factual pure and simple we have to accept, as some artless “realists” among us urge. I set out from the recognition that the historically given elements and dimensions of ethnicity cannot be conflated with a particular political form of ethnicism. The TPLF cannot be equated with Tigre, nor is the OLF or some spin-off of the OLF equivalent to Oromo.

Ethnocentrism may have bits and pieces of reality in it, but that does not mean that we have to give in to it as a political construct, doing so with a sense of defeatist realism. A whole lot of it is actually unreal, as I have tried to show in an earlier piece; it is largely mere simulation, an effect of overpoliticization of ethnicity. TPLF ethnocentrism is a hyper-politicization of issues and concerns of the Tigre community, an exclusive, authoritarian construct of Tigrean identity. In this sense, raw ethnic fundamentalism or separatism is couched in anti-Ethiopian, specifically anti-Amhara, “revolutionary” narrative, in which guilt and blame are ascribed to Amharas, thereby foisting an “oppressor” identity on nearly an entire community.

As such, the rule of TPLF political ethnicism is contestable and changeable, potentially at least; it is (or should be) open to debate, debunking or transformation. Hence, the question of strategy: how do we save our national being from TPLF divisive tribal politics, which is not only unsustainable in the long run but also dangerous to the Tigre community itself as much as it is to our shared Ethiopian nationality?

In a previous writing, I indicated that we can think of strategy in the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for national survival and freedom as a mechanism for exercising broad governance over the formulation and enactment of thoughts, beliefs and goals, including interpreting and framing ideas, issues, and identities, charting systemic political transformation, and flexibly adjusting the struggle to changing circumstances and opportunities. In concluding the discussion on strategy in this third and final installment of a series of writings on the subject, I do so taking to heart a vital lesson from the Chinese warrior-philosopher, Sun Tzu.

To paraphrase one of Sun Tzu’s maxims in the context of the Ethiopian patriotic and democratic resistance to TPLF dictatorship, when resistance forces use a strategy that is “deep and far-reaching, then what [they] gain…by [their] calculations is much, so [they] can win before [they] even fight…” Insofar as the ideas, goals, organization, and planning of the Ethiopian freedom struggle are well thought out and enacted, they discredit the enemy’s ideology and neutralize its strategy and instruments of domination, including its network of proxies and alliances. The enemy loses before it goes to war, or goes to war already a loser. While the movement for the liberation of Ethiopia from tribal tyranny requires serious commitment in thought, belief, and action and will exact sacrifice in various ways, broad and deep strategy has the potential to minimize protracted contention and combat, particularly violent conflict, in the struggle.

In stressing depth of planning in the Ethiopian movement for freedom, then, I view strategy holistically, considering it in its governance of conceptual thought, culture, discourse, sense contents (such as feelings and emotions), organization, and all round practical action, each singly and in combination. I envision it broadly as an “economy” of struggle, a productive way to marshal diverse national resources of resistance. I talk here about Ethiopiawinnet itself as a vital strategic asset (as well as being an intrinsic value) from this perspective of economy of directive effort in the struggle for our national survival and renewal

Dissent: Active Strategy and Quiescent Principle

In the Ethiopian resistance against the Woyane regime of identity, we may distinguish between two interrelated modes of opposition. One form commonly involves us in principled dissent from TPLF tribal dictatorship; it is often expressed in heightened patriotic concern and in generally passive, inchoate desires, ideals, and goals of democratic change. The other mode involves us in both dissenting in principle and formulating our dissent in active strategic terms, or attempting to do so.

Aspirations to liberty, equality, and democracy are in themselves powerful in moving us to resistance against tyranny; but we should recognize that ideas and values do not enter the field of the Ethiopian struggle for survival and freedom on account of their abstract or principled content alone, simply as universal ideas. They do so according to their definite formulation and direction through strategic movement in thought and practice in the Ethiopian context. Ethiopians could not aspire to democracy without patriotic values and sentiments any more than we could embrace progressive ideas anew without interest in political enlightenment and development.

In short, in our existential struggle as a nation, we differentiate strategically alert and mobile engagement that could be politically productive from relatively unmoving and undirected dissent in emotional and ideological agitation or in “pure” moral principle. Active strategy enables the struggle to impart to progressive ideals and patriotic values definite form, direction, and energy of movement. It helps Ethiopian resistance forces integrate and govern varied issues, interests, groups, and oppositional activities that in themselves we would consider limited, local or tactical. In this sense, deep strategy is attuned to broad-based Ethiopian national solidarity.

We should note, however, that there are varying modes of strategic concern, ranging from those which are overly calculated to yield particular, often narrow, exclusively partisan-tribal political effects to those which resonate more openly and dynamically with the world of ideas and with autonomous, trans-ethnic social agency. Some strategies facilitate oppressive systems of rule such as colonialism, fascism, and certain forms of political tribalism, including the TPLF variety, while others are more serviceable for democratic politics and government. Consequently, we cannot simply oppose political strategy to principled commitment to ideas and values; we cannot equate strategic concern as such with its abhorrent forms and contents. There are alternative, more or less effective and desirable forms of planning and organizing a national freedom struggle. Strategic engagement can assume essentially progressive or reactionary shape, basically democratic or dictatorial form.

The State of Our Dissent from TPLF Rule

The ways in which we oppose TPLF dictatorship have settled into a familiar pattern. The dictatorship is bent on keeping Ethiopia divided along ethnic lines; we resist by insisting on unity; the Woyanes and their fellow practitioners of identity politics in the opposition view Ethiopia as nothing more or greater than the sum of disparate “nationalities” and “peoples;” we dissent through affirmation of integral Ethiopian national experience; the TPLF seeks to perpetuate itself in power by fomenting tension and conflict within and among distinct Ethiopian communities, particularly Amharas and Oromos; we “oppose” by harping on wishfully about “national reconciliation.”

In brief, in maintaining their dictatorship, the Woyanes have blotted out every distinction in government and society between the real and its mere simulation, between domestic (i.e., Ethiopian) and foreign interests, and between good and evil; we continue to fight back through moral condemnation, often simply rejecting their power as unEthiopian, unjust and oppressive. In the process, we have left the overall plan of their domination largely unchallenged in critical thought and counter-strategy. This has been how we have tended to dissent from the TPLF political establishment over the last twenty five years, a pattern of opposition we need to break out of.

Yet things are not as neatly polarized as they seem, given that the line between the “Establishment” and the “Opposition” is often blurred. The gulf between domination and resistance lacks clarity intellectually, morally, and politically. Thus, the politics of identity has become both ruling orthodoxy and oppositional dogma. Dissident political ethnicism of the OLF variety is essentially cut from the same cloth as bureaucratically administered state tribalism presided over by TPLF overlords. And, whatever its differences with the TPLF, the Shabiya-assisted Ginbot Sebat movement conducts its alleged armed struggle using a version of essentially the same logic of divisive identity politics (by working with the likes of the OLF and by raising tribal armies, such as they are) employed by the Woyanes. In short, we see a nexus between ruling and “oppositional” ethnocentric parties, despite their tactical differences or rivalries. And this condition has continually undermined the growth of integral Ethiopian national resistance.

More fundamentally, the line between the Woyane political establishment and much of what is said to be the opposition is blurred because the Revolution has passed on to us a legacy of dictatorship and “democracy,” oppression and “liberation,” and “nationality” and tribalism within one neat paradigmatic package of “progressivism.” So it is unsurprising, though not excusable, that many among us, including “learned” strata, are afflicted by intellectual and moral ambiguity in our dissent from the “revolutionary democracy” of the Woyanes, including their so-called “developmental state,” and from the triangular ethnocentrism that has been inflicted on Ethiopia by the TPLF, Shabiya, and G-7.

Intellectual and political equivocation also marks elements within diasporic Ethiopian opposition strata, particularly certain academic and technocratic groups which push for “national reconciliation” with the Woyane regime, though the regime seems to have no conciliatory bone in its political body. What is regarded as “dissenting” discourse among such groups does not analyze, challenge, or even question the political assumptions, beliefs and values of TPLF ethnocentrism as critically and systematically as one would expect.

What passes for “dialogue” among these reconciliation advocating dissident circles tends to exclude significant intellectual commerce, thoughtful exchange of ideas, questions, and responses focused on the Ethiopian struggle for freedom from divisive ethnocentric domination. Instead, terms of debate and discussion associated with the TPLF-EPRDF state often become part of the political vocabulary of seemingly anti-Woyane “intelligentsia” in the Diaspora. Indeed, unwittingly or knowingly, certain groups abroad may be helping the Woyane regime benefit from a largely simulated “opposition” that occupies the space of real, actually functioning resistance against it. The Ethiopian people surely expect and deserve more systematic dismantling of Woyane ethnocentrism in thought and practice from the nation’s concerned intellectuals and political groups.

The Design of TPLF Domination

It is not hard for Ethiopian patriots to find fault with, condemn, and reject the Woyane regime of identity because the regime is so patently flawed, so obtrusive and provocative in its domination, and so openly inimical to our national values and sensibility. The Ethiopian people do not need the use of learned conceptual thought or sophisticated analysis to grasp the TPLF’s grossly oppressive nature or to rage against the soulless political machine that it is. The repressive structure, instruments, and practices of the TPLF regime are materially observable, as are the immediacies of its dictatorial policies and actions, its brutal and, at times, deadly behavior.

However, the Woyane state, along with the ethnocentrism that it shares with tribal outfits in the opposition, cannot be simply rejected out of existence. Ethiopian patriots and democrats need to engage its system of rule critically and strategically. The TPLF does not exercise dictatorship over Ethiopian national affairs through coercive material ways and means alone. When we penetrate the world of Woyane domination in active, critical thought we encounter its political “software;” we face its ethnocentric encoding apparatus consisting of ideological, political, social, and economic “programs,” to extend the analogy from information technology.

What we face here, then, are not simply hard “facts on the ground,” as some among us claim, but contestable partisan-tribal narratives, constructs and simulations, including forms of rhetoric and discourse and formulas of identity and difference that refer strategically and tactically to an authoritarian code controlled by the TPLF. We are looking at the plan or design of Woyane domination which the Ethiopian national resistance needs to effectively intervene in and get a handle on if the resistance is to dismantle the domination and replace it with a more open and democratic system of rule. This is necessary even in coming to terms with TPLF rule through negotiation, if such an outcome were a reasonable prospect rather than merely an abstract possibility.

We all know that the plan of Woyane domination has no links to the Ethiopian people by a social contract or by a constitutional arrangement that is not a self-serving, unilateral fabrication of the TPLF’s own aimed at lending its dictatorship a veneer of democratic legitimacy. Nor is the Woyane state connected to us through our national tradition, from which it has in fact willfully alienated itself, seeking instead to “represent” a collection of disparate “nationalities” and “peoples.” Officially, contemporary “Ethiopia” is thus a work of dictatorial ethnocraft whose creation has been masterminded with extreme prejudice by a coterie of aggrieved and vindictive TPLF partisans and ideologues.

With an eye toward formulating a counter-strategy of Ethiopian national resistance and renewal, two related issues having to do with the plan of TPLF domination are here worth considering. The first concerns the status and function of the given, objective historical “materials” of Woyane ethnocentric social engineering and tribal statecraft. In other words, how is the Ethiopian societal terrain conceived and approached as a space or environment of TPLF strategic design and intervention? The second and closely related issue is how the strategy itself has been formulated and put into practice.

The TPLF’s dictatorial approach to social referents and contexts in its political planning and intervention, an approach inspired not simply by naked tribalism but in part by the Revolution, is marked by an underlying contradiction: while revolutionary narrative gives pride of place to broad social strata, including the ethnos, as decisive “self-determining” protagonists, as “makers of history,” at the same time, it idealizes such strata into passive objects, essentially converting them into focal points and instruments of Leninist-Stalinist organizational doctrine, codes, tactics, and maneuvers. Woyane revolutionary idealization has, in fact, rendered Ethiopian communities inactive in a double sense.

It has done so, first, by positioning, say, Oromos or Tigres within a “victim” identity, associating these communities with passive reception of oppression and injustice. The negative idealization or caricaturing of Amharas as oppressors, which grossly oversimplifies, indeed distorts, the historical and contemporary ties of the Amhara people with other Ethiopian cultural communities, complements this association of identities with victimization. Second, TPLF revolutionary idealization has turned vibrant Ethiopian communities into quiescent objects and extensions of exclusive partisan-authoritarian strategy and agenda of action. Thus, the agency of “nationalities” and “peoples” has ever been nominal; the Party or the Front is always the real actor and exclusive decision maker. Similarly, references to “national self-determination,” “the rule of law,” and “federalism” function through a system of authoritarian simulation which has nothing to do with the logic of democratic representation of actual, self-organizing constituencies or localities in Ethiopia.

This means that the social-national terrain on which the TPLF moves in maintaining its domination is not active in itself and for itself. Individual rights and the autonomy of communities or localities in Ethiopia have not constituted a dynamic initial condition for the formulation of Woyane political strategy. The TPLF model of politics suppresses or ignores historic and contemporary movements, contacts, and interactions of distinct Ethiopian communities and cultures from its strategic calculus in order to generate insular group identifications and differences. It disregards the shared field of multi-ethnic Ethiopian nationality with which local and cultural identities remain continuous.

It is to be admitted that the Woyane plan of dictatorship, consisting of particular ideological elements and political formulas of identity, has not simply dispensed with the real Ethiopian societal world. The materials of TPLF dictatorial construction are necessarily issues and problems of that world. But the Woyane strategy has taken shape and come into play exclusively on the surface of its own idealizations and simulations. To note this is not to underestimate the Woyane system of domination but to take full account of it.

For, as shallow as the system is, we must concede that its ideological sources extend far below the surface of TPLF partisan-tribal fabrications. Its roots lie deep within the troubled Ethiopian tradition of progressivism, going back to extremist strands in the Student Movement. We barely carry on as a nation today amid the ruins and malignant offshoots of our revolutionary experience, whose residual effects are all around us. We note the continuing impact of the experience in lingering formulas of ultra-leftist thought that militate against Ethiopia’s very national being, as ingrained habits of at once ahistorical and ideationally vacuous rhetoric of change, of a “new” Ethiopia, and as exclusively partisan-tribal modes of social, cultural, and political concern.

Thus the most sweeping ideological formulations and political constructs of ethnocentrism in contemporary Ethiopia in both its ruling and oppositional forms have been largely part and parcel of our vexed legacy of progressivism. The strategy of Woyane identity politics has been shaped in its “radical” ideas and slogans, in its resentment of Ethiopiawinnet generally and Amharas in particular, and in its Stalinist political culture and organizational tactics, by a long chain of revolutionary events, developments, and narratives going back to the Student Movement. The TPLF tribal regime just happens to be the last and most perverse link in the chain.

In sum, the plan of Woyane domination betrays a simple, static design of political intervention from which both trans-ethnic ties of Ethiopian unity and regional qualities of true autonomy are displaced at the very conception of the strategy, not just at the moment of its enactment. What the TPLF has been scheming and doing for decades in the Welkait region of my native Gondar is a graphic illustration of this fact. Consequently, the strategic ground of Woyane tribal domination is social stasis, marked by overpoliticized and often separatist identifications of distinct Ethiopian social-cultural groups, by the bureaucratic fixity and insularity of kililis. Other than the TPLF’s own partisan-ethnic expansion, the strategy has no resonance with the movements, interactions, and mutual influences of distinct communities over a dynamic, integral Ethiopian national landscape. The autonomy and national solidarity of intersecting Ethiopian communities is not only unnecessary to the TPLF regime but a threat to its very existence, to the logic of its colonially inspired plan of divide-and-dominate tribal politics.

Counter-planning the Ethiopian Resistance

The fundamental challenge for Ethiopian patriotic and democratic dissent from TPLF dictatorship is to try and formulate a reverse plan of engagement involving a shift in the definition of, and approach to, the Ethiopian social-national landscape. We need to change from defining the landscape as a neutral ground, a passive object of hostile Woyane take-over, to grasping it as a vital environment of actual and potential forces and energies, which might be tapped and directed by the national resistance. We move from approaching it as inactive Leninist-Stalinist social space, devoid of self-organization and meaningful agency, to approaching it in its autonomous flows, movements, and struggles and their effects on strategy.

In the old, still operative, model of TPLF dictatorial engagement, the autonomy and integrity of the Ethiopian national landscape, along with those of distinct communities, are suppressed in the conception and enactment of a static strategy. In the more innovative, dynamic model of engagement of the patriotic opposition, relatively free social agency and integral Ethiopian national experience are ordering principles of political planning and action. While tribal insularity, disparity, and division are characteristic of the TPLF’s authoritarianism, national solidarity attuned to the field of intersections or mutual influences of diverse Ethiopian cultures and ethnicities marks the politics of the patriotic and democratic resistance.

Once we embrace the nation’s diverse social-cultural terrain in this way, we may open up a new, balanced, and more lasting and fruitful relationship between political innovation and national tradition than has been possible in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary eras. In this way, the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for survival and freedom could benefit from a new, animate, progressive design informed by an active national landscape instead being imposed upon by a dictatorial “revolutionary” strategy formulated only through its own internal reason, goals, and agenda. The strategy of resistance can take shape within and through a dynamic flow of social-historical forces and energy rather than simply as the political calculus of an exclusive party hierarchy which externally intervenes in, and controls, the lives of Ethiopian citizens and communities. Matters of individual rights, social autonomy, and local self-government which hitherto have been approached only in idealized and simulated forms, merely in rhetorical and ritual gestures, can now be attended to in a more principled and substantial manner.

Contrasting the new order of forward-looking strategic thought with the old model of progressivism, we need to clarify the relationship that should obtain between what planned political action by itself can achieve or contribute to the Ethiopian freedom struggle and what impact the action can have as a leading component of broader social and national movement. Political goals successfully reached can be undone if they are achieved in tactical ways or in limited localities that do not address larger national-strategic issues of sustainability.

So the patriotic resistance against TPLF tribal tyranny needs to plan its actions in part as social and national potentialities to be actualized in the activities, movements, and self-realizations of citizens and communities. This creates a strategic challenge for innovative leaders and planners of the Ethiopian struggle for change today. On the one hand, strategists operating in particular contexts or localities must make definite priorities (and related objectives and missions) stand out distinctly against a background of other concerns, focusing attention, thought, and practical effort on such priorities. On the other, to achieve definite priorities sustainably, planners of the struggle need to be grounded in wider social, regional, and national networks of support. If the strategic goals of Ethiopian liberation struggle are to be realized, and sustained in their realization, they must be owned or shared broadly by the nation’s diverse social strata and cultural communities.

Consequently, the formulation of strategy in the resistance against TPLF dictatorship should not be a matter of superimposing a structure of ideas, goals, plans, and agenda erected beforehand on Ethiopian social and national experience. Instead, it must allow individual citizens and communities a significant measure of control over how situations affecting them are defined as issues and problems that need to be solved along with the kinds of political solutions proposed for them. It must acknowledge the distance and tension between two distinct yet related spheres of political intentionality: a set of strategic goals as a construct of an explicit rationalization, a formal conceptualization and design, on one side, and, on the other, broad and diverse domains of purposefulness in social and national experience in which strategy comes into play.

The tension between these spheres of rationality must be maintained as a condition of achievement of strategic economy and effectiveness. As the experiences of the Derg and Woyane regimes have shown, preoccupation with specifying intended political effects and with spelling out mechanisms and processes of realizing directly such effects can flatten the varied and vital terrain of social-national experience into an extension of a homogenized, authoritarian, state planning and programming system. Insofar as political goals and plans are not understood in part as societal potentialities, whose actualization is to be leveraged strategically, they will remain one-sided and their hegemonic effects (in the Gramscian sense of the term) or their long-term cultural and social impact may be insignificant.

In this regard, economy of strategic effort should fundamentally differentiate the Ethiopian patriotic and democratic resistance from the politically indulgent TPLF domination. I have in an earlier writing used the machine metaphor to describe the political profligacy of the Woyane dictatorship. It is enough to note here that the obtrusiveness of the dictatorship, its frontal, aggressive projection of partisan-cum-tribal power coupled with its self-alienation from our shared national experience and culture leaves the dictatorship absolutely no room for intellectual, moral, and political leadership of Ethiopian society. Having incurred a huge legitimacy deficit in the eyes of the Ethiopian people in its structure and behavior as a tribal imperium, the ever scheming TPLF regime can only maintain its rule statically and wastefully through excessive expenditure and exercise of raw, dictatorial political power.

On the side of the Ethiopian national-democratic resistance, economy of strategic effort involves actively entering intellectual, cultural, and social fields of engagement to exercise governance over the definition of the nation’s affairs. But the involvement does not entail bringing “precooked” authoritarian or sectarian premises and agenda to bear on the formulation of national issues. In contrast to the old-school “revolutionary” plan of TPLF intervention and domination, the point of strategic direction of the contemporary Ethiopian freedom struggle is not to fixate on producing calculated political effects through the intervention which might be identified with “the Party” or “the Front.” It is rather one of subsuming the strategic rationality of politics under broader, autonomous social and national purposefulness.

In this way, the resistance needs to avoid both the excesses and limitations of overpoliticization of issues, ideas, and identities characteristic of Ethiopian revolutionary convention, evident particularly in TPLF and OLF ethnocentric offshoots of that deeply flawed convention. A basic concern of the Ethiopian freedom struggle here should be to narrow the gap between what limited local grievances and acts of rebellion may signify to particular social strata or cultural communities in the country, on the one hand, and how the grievances and acts may be coded and framed in strategic thought and movement, on the other.

Ethiopia/Ethiopiawinnet: Strategic Resource and Base

History has shown that Ethiopian nationalism can be a potent force against enemies – foreign and domestic – hostile to our national being and independence. It can be a powerful current of resistance whose energies and resources might be tapped by contemporary patriotic citizens, intellectuals, activists, and political movements, a fount of uplifting passion and commitment on which strategy works. If we suppress our patriotism, perhaps out of concern for “progressive” correctness or simply because we are stuck in an enfeebled defensive posture, we lose not only our national élan but also our strategic base and purpose in the contemporary struggle against TPLF divide-and-dominate ethnocentrism.

It is to be admitted that love of country is not without its pitfalls. If the heat of patriotic passion is not tempered with enlightenment and a cool rational plan of engagement, it can get out of hand and become counter-productive. But the point is that the remedy for Ethiopia’s ills lies within us a nation, not simply and straightaway in a system of ideas or in politics. The primary source of the cure is our rekindled spirit and energy as one people, diverse yet united.

This is not to suggest that we abandon or lessen our commitment to universal, progressive ideas or isolate ourselves from global realities in the present protracted, intergenerational struggle for Ethiopian liberation and renewal. Instead, it is to say that we incorporate universal values within our national being and experience. It is to argue that Ethiopia can only survive its present crisis, born of divisive political tribalism, through a redemptive actualization of its promise and potential as a historically deep rooted multi-ethnic nation.

What does this mean in terms of planning our national freedom movement, or concerning the relationship between Ethiopiawinnet and the strategy of Ethiopian liberation struggle? It means that, in the struggle, we depart from the recognition that historical depth, cultural diversity, and revolutionary experience constitute the truth of the Ethiopian national condition today and this truth must inform the strategy which would overcome the crisis we have fallen into as a nation. The strategy is real and effective only insofar as it resonates with our integral national experience. There is no question of an ahistorical plan for “creating” Ethiopia from whole cloth, simply as an effect of political will to an ideological system (“democracy,” “federalism,” and so on). Instead, in embracing political ideas, we start from what history has made of us as a nation and move forward in the direction of the kind of country we want to develop into. Ethiopia will renew and re-affirm itself; there will not be a “new” Ethiopia.

In moving ahead in this way, Ethiopiawinnet has to make itself felt beyond the limits of defensive patriotism. We as a nation have been stuck in this limited mode of movement for a quarter century now, often alternating between appeasing ethnocentrism and playing a passive victim of its tyranny. This is so largely because of our anxiety about the fate of the nation under the dangerously divisive dictatorship of the TPLF and the sense of urgency we feel about rescuing the country from possible disintegration.

The pressing aim of our opposition at home and abroad can, thus, be summed up in the desperate riff, “let’s save Ethiopia.” But, ironically, the immediacy and naïve realism of our national concern have dulled the analytical and critical edge of our resistance; our tactical urgency has been a drag on our capability to formulate a strategic way out of the crisis we find ourselves in. I believe that the most profound way in which the country’s survival and freedom can be ensured is not through rescue projects of partisan or ethnic politics but by letting Ethiopia be Ethiopia, even as its political system undergoes democratic change.

Letting the country come into its own does not mean regarding it as a finished accomplishment or receiving our national legacy passively as an entity to be valued and saved in its present diminished condition. Letting Ethiopia be Ethiopia 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 and embracing all round development that benefits all its citizens and regions. It means that we receive our national heritage actively as a condition in which the historical and the contemporary interact and national tradition and political modernity exert mutual influence. A dynamic condition, that is, in which we are engaged in a decisive fight for our national life and wellbeing.

In this existential struggle, Ethiopiawinnet is a strategic asset as well as an inherent value. As such an asset, it does not, however, come into play fixed or ready-made, all by itself. It must be earned by every generation of Ethiopians under changing and, at times, challenging conditions. We recognize here that our shared nationality evolves through generations, adapting and changing, but a recognizable, unique national entity endures. Active, even creative, reception and advancement of our national heritage means, then, that Ethiopians move the country forward in each succeeding age, integrating past and present and ever looking to the future. In the process, we overcome problems and crisis as they arise, fusing valued tradition and needed innovation. This is what I believe Ethiopiawinnet signifies today, not only as an intrinsic value but also as a resource and a weapon in our present struggle for national survival and renewal.

In more specific strategic terms, we acknowledge Ethiopiawinnet as resurgent, flowing, and changing as well as something determinate and lasting. We embrace it as an efflux of our historically given national being, as a “category of practice,” something we feel and experience, and also as conscious thought in which we reflect back on our national tradition. In formulating resistance strategy against TPLF dictatorship, we activate Ethiopiawinnet from its “margins,” culturally and regionally, and from its “center.” We do so emphasizing the significance of regional patriotic sentiments and identifications for broader agerawinnet, noting how the diversity of such identifications have helped enrich our shared national culture, as well as recognizing the integrative influence of the center on regions and localities.

In this way, the national resistance against Woyane tribal tyranny combats a particular habit of “revolutionary” thought associated generally with the Ethiopian tradition of progressivism and particularly with ruling and oppositional ethnocentrism in the country today. Namely, the over-identification of Ethiopiawinnet with state formation and power. The resistance recognizes that, while important, the Ethiopian state is not the only source of Ethiopianness. It departs from the understanding that no political, military or bureaucratic power structure in the pre-revolutionary or post-revolutionary era has ever represented the Ethiopian experience entirely in its diversity, integrity, and potentiality.

Agerawi Movement and Ethnicity/Ethnicism

The politics of “recognition” or “identity” is at the center of the contemporary Ethiopian crisis and so the ideas, goals, and tactics of the strategy for resolving the crisis should handle issues and problems of political ethnicism. The issues cannot be simply ignored or suppressed. Nor should their handling involve the nation in apologizing for its historic being as such. As a condition of settling the relevant matters, agerawi forces must move thoughtfully and deliberately on the terrain of ethnic ideology and practice, recognizing that the way out of ethnocentrism is the way through it.

The patriotic resistance needs to emphasize at the outset that cultural and regional diversity has been historically constitutive of Ethiopiawinnet and that pluralism and difference are our national assets, not in themselves liabilities, sources of division and conflict. We here draw a clear distinction between ethnicity and ethnicism. The former refers to historically given distinctness of Ethiopian communities in terms of language, culture, way of life, and so on. The latter signifies a limited partisan construct or movement, say, that of the TPLF or the OLF, in which a residual Stalinist project of “national self-determination” shapes actually existing, flexible, interactive ethnicity into a rigid, exclusive political form or image of ethnicism. We note here that, while there are legitimate ways of valuing and expressing one’s ethnic heritage and seeking redress for group grievances, past and present, identity issues need not be immediately and overly politicized; they don’t have to be transposed simply and absolutely into partisan dogma and antagonism.

In this connection, the focus of the strategy of Ethiopian freedom struggle today are the ways in which “revolutionary” discourses, narratives, assumptions, and beliefs have been used to generate partisan-authoritarian constructs of ethnic subjects rather than to represent in a democratic way historically given social and cultural groups. The discourses and narratives are mainly carriers of the political and ideological agenda of old-school “progressive” partisans of ethnocentrism rather than signifiers of the self-identifications of entire Ethiopian communities, notably Amharas, Oromos, and Tigres. In fact, the operative content of the Stalinist notion of “national self-determination” has always been the reverse of the literal meaning claimed for it in glib revolutionary rhetoric.

That is to say, a “radical” party-state hierarchy speaks univocally through this notion, itself acting as a determinant of the “identities” and “differences” of communities, which it sees as readily delineable, self-enclosed populations. This is the truth of the progressive conceit of national self-determination under TPLF dictatorship. We are here talking about authoritarian tribalism as a condition in which the Party or the Front makes distinct Ethiopian communities and localities, say, Amharas of the Welkait region and the people of Gambella, objects of its ethnocentric political project, targets of its dictatorial agenda and maneuvers. There is no self-determination here, national or otherwise, in any meaningful sense of the term.

The question, then, is how are agerawi forces to begin to undo this state of affairs, not only in particular regions of Ethiopia but in the country as a whole? I see the forces contending with both ruling and dissenting identity politics in two interrelated strategic modalities. Namely, as a systematic, critical diagnosis of ethnocentrism, possibly along the lines suggested in this discussion, and as a renewal of Ethiopian unity on a diverse, dynamic national landscape. Clearly identifying and describing the national malady that is ethnocentrism, getting a good conceptual grasp and practical understanding of it, is essential in planning and executing well the Ethiopian struggle for change today. Defining the problem adequately is, as it is often said, half the solution.

Fundamentally, the problem has to do with the fact that what differentiates Ethiopian communities and localities from one another is given priority over what they have in common, over their historic and contemporary ties. The stasis of their local dwelling, insularity, and homogeneity is accorded pride of place over the dynamism of their movements, contacts, interspersed patterns of settlement, and cultural “hybridity.” We know full well that when identity claims and the demands of the politics of recognition are maximized in this way, what follows is the fractionation of the Ethiopian whole into disparate tribal enclaves.

And this means, consequently, the cover-up or neglect of more general, systemic issues and challenges of Ethiopian socio-economic and cultural development that cut across ethnic lines, regions, and localities. We see a mismatch between, on the one hand, the nature and magnitude of the problems of underdevelopment the Ethiopian people as a whole face, and, on the other, fixation by narrow partisans of ethnocentrism on symptomatic, fragmentary definition of the underlying problems stressing identity grievances and claims. A political party such as the TPLF or the OLF simply pushes too far its own ethnocentric subjectivity not only in its definition of national problems, but also in the kinds of “solutions” it proposes for them. We all understand that demands for cultural recognition must be accommodated within national solidarity. But it is worth noting that identity is politically overvalued by the likes of the TPLF because it is perceived to be undervalued, which is generally not the case, not so much in the post-revolutionary era anyway.

In handling issues of identity, then, it is essential that patriotic and democratic forces fundamentally call into question the ruling party’s tribal conception of social and cultural agency, supporting the Ethiopian people in their practical experience and wisdom that collective practices cannot be identified exclusively with ethnicity. Since social practices are overdetermined, the ethnicity of Ethiopian communities need not be given priority over other aspects of their collective identifications and experiences. The cultural values and accomplishments of Amharas and Oromos, for instance, cannot be assigned to Amharas and Oromos alone, as if they were the exclusive possessions or identifications of these communities rather than constitutive elements and dimensions of Ethiopian national life as a whole.

In sum, ethnic heritage can be valued and embraced as a vital part of our shared nationality such that, within any distinct community in the country, there is a substratum of integral Ethiopian experience. The experience may be expressed in varying “accents” and forms of life in varying regions and localities of the country. Such valuation of diversity-in-solidarity has significant implications for the way in which we affirm and renew Ethiopiawinnet in the struggle against the TPLF tribal imperium.

Rebuilding Unity on a Diverse National Landscape

In renewing or building again Ethiopian solidarity, the point is not to magnify the thought and act of rebuilding. It is not to accentuate, often desperately, explicit organizational reason, agenda, and maneuvers, overshadowing or ignoring broader social purposefulness and national spirit. Nor is it to pin down individuals and groups within a party hierarchy or a particular political project. True, our national unity is never something given once and for all; it must always be earned or achieved by every generation of Ethiopians.

But the achievement is not the product simply of deliberate effort involving the use of manifest tactics and techniques. Instead, it involves working out a reflexive strategy of engagement, an economy of power, if you will, which holds in check one-sided political intentionality and “creativity” that is not grounded in objective conditions of Ethiopian national being and consciousness. We are here talking about a smart, sustainable strategy capable of looking back on itself and modulating its workings so as to maximize broad social-national leverage.

Rebuilding Ethiopian wholeness, then, is a question of relating strategic reason to historically given, evolving patterns of movement and interaction among distinct communities in the country. It concerns not so much the direct manipulation of societal “materials” akin to the shaping operations of a sculptor but the governance or direction of relatively autonomous social forces, relations, and conditions. The base and motive force of strategy are patriotic values, sentiments, and commitments, in all their historical depth and cultural diversity. Strategy, broadly conceived, is not inserted from the outside (as politics) into the Ethiopian national movement for freedom; it is integral with it.

This means the national unity we seek to rebuild is not merely a unity of ideas, that of an ideological system to be superimposed on Ethiopia. Nor is it the oneness of political community or of the state. Instead, it is unity that is integrally and uniquely Ethiopian: ideas and politics are articulated, organized, and practiced through the architectonic of Ethiopian nationality, the structure of our being as one nation, diversity and all. As such, Ethiopiawinnet is not reducible to either a collection of disparate ethnic identities or a simple singularity.

Our shared nationality is complex in that it represents the integration of diverse regions, communities, and cultures into a dynamic convergence that constitutes one Ethiopia while remaining irreducible to an artless unitary entity. Regional, social, and cultural variables generally remain continuous with Ethiopian wholeness, the larger integral national field or environment within which they have taken shape and continually interact and influence each other, though not always with symmetric reciprocity. This national environment, in which Ethiopian unity is to be rebuilt, can thus be understood and characterized in terms of ecological diversity and interdependence.

The growth of the modern Ethiopian nation-state can of course be viewed, like state formation elsewhere in the world, primarily as a historical and cultural process involving a combination of internal development and outward expansion, conquest, and incorporation. But we have come a long way as a nation from distant formative beginnings and growth. And the Ethiopian polity has undergone revolutionary change, though with mixed outcomes. So, in the struggle against TPLF tribal tyranny today, the point is not to relitigate the past, particularly pre-revolutionary events in Ethiopian state formation, perhaps wishing ideally to create from scratch a “new” Ethiopia. The point, rather, is to work toward the integral transformation and development of actually existing Ethiopia for the benefit of all its citizens.

Approaching the Ethiopian national landscape through a dynamic model of ecological diversity and interdependence stands in sharp contrast to the image of a flat, static horizon of authoritarian state ethnicism created by the TPLF, a horizon populated by a multiplicity of dissociated “nationalities” and “peoples,” largely as proxies and extensions of the TPLF regime of identity. The approach opens up a new way to envision the contemporary Ethiopian agerawi condition and to formulate accordingly a broader and deeper strategy for our national liberation and renewal. The vision suggests a very different understanding of identity and difference in the Ethiopian context. For, instead of self-enclosed kilils or insular social groups and localities within merely geographical space, we are thinking of historic and contemporary contacts and cultural intersections of distinct communities with each other and with their larger national environment.

I contend that, objectively and strategically, the point of departure of the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for change is not the bureaucratic ossification of identities but their vital flowing, mixing, and evolving character, their actual or potential trans-ethnic sociability and solidarity. Fundamentally, what matters is not the negativity of partisans of ethnocentrism, their resentment and exclusion of “others,” from which, paradoxically, they seek recognition. What I take to be significant, instead, are particular communities’ affirmative activities of giving and receiving, their opening to pluralism and difference within the wholeness of Ethiopian national life.

Ethiopiawinnet, our shared nationality, has its own powers and influence stored within a definite structure of past events, narratives, and historical and cultural accomplishments, and in the collective memory of citizens and patriots passed on from generation to generation. But it also constitutes a contemporary site of dynamic interrelationships among diverse social and cultural communities in which each Ethiopian community needs to strengthen its internal links with others if it is to thrive, not just survive.


My main concern in this piece and in a couple of preceding writings has been to bring to the forefront matters of political thought and design that are often neglected in naively realist discussions among us of the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for freedom from the tyranny of ethnocentrism. I have, more specifically, sought to highlight the articulation of the relationship between, on one side, Ethiopian integral national experience, the sentiments, values, and resources of Ethiopiawinnet to be tapped in the struggle, and, on the other, strategically oriented forward-looking thought.

I have attempted to do this going against the convention of portraying progressive ideology and national tradition as mutually exclusive, a convention central to our revolutionary legacy going back to the Student Movement. Though perverse in its own anti-Ethiopian inception and growth, TPLF ethnonationalism partakes of that legacy. So our struggle as a nation today is nearly as much with a whole paradigm or system of “radical” thought and practice as with the “revolutionary” dictatorship of the TPLF in particular.

From this perspective, I have pointed to complexity of thought and strategy in the Ethiopian movement to undo Woyane domination, namely, in the use of our common nationality as a base and resource of resistance as well as something we value for its own sake, and in our rejection of divisive political tribalism even as we embrace ethnic and cultural diversity as integral with Ethiopiawinnet. I see complexity here in terms of the interaction of the objective conditions or demands of the national movement with thoughtful efforts of planning and execution engaged in by leaders of the movemet.

That said, it is to be admitted that the present Ethiopian struggle for change is not an involved theoretical activity dominated by the concerns and movements of intellectuals. It speaks to concrete, actionable issues of national survival and renewal that we should refrain from overthinking. Yet we as a nation can hardly expect pressing matters of existential struggle to relieve us from the task of articulating new ideas and perspectives. Even as we attend to practical issues and problems, we can no longer neglect to develop strategically attuned conceptual thought. The need for it in the struggle is real and should be met squarely if Ethiopia is to free itself from the domination of ethnocentrism in all its sectarian and systemic forms.

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