By Abdissa Zerai
In my previous piece, Ethiopia in a State of Interregnum, I have attempted to explain the current political crisis and the attendant condition of uncertainty in Ethiopia through a theoretical lens of interregnum as articulated by Gramsci. After the publication of the article, I have received emails from various individuals asking if I could also say something with respect to how to overcome the interregnum I have talked about. In this piece, I attempt to address the issue as I see it.
In the previous piece, I referred to Gramsci and defined interregnum as a situation in which the old ways of doing things do not work any longer, but new ways of doing things have not yet been designed and put in place. And in the meantime, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. Connecting the concept of interregnum with the current Ethiopian political condition, I also argued:
…the politico-economic order the EPRDF put in place following the demise of the military junta seems to have reached a point where it has lost its traction. As the continued popular protests and skirmishes indicate, citizens appear to have lost faith in the system and are unwilling to be governed in the old ways anymore. They are demanding fundamental change that is compatible with the exigencies of the time. On the other hand, a new frame that can effectively replace the dying structure has not yet been designed. As a result, in this time of great uncertainty and decomposition of life, we are observing the emergence of a great variety of morbid symptoms from different directions.
As an example of the emergence of such morbid symptoms, I have summarized some apparently confusing and often contradictory diagnoses of and prescriptions for our current political debacle offered by the various Ethiopian political forces, and how such disparate positions are making political convergence a daunting task. In this piece, I offer my perspective with respect to overcoming the condition of interregnum and thereby making political convergence a possibility.
What is the way out of the current predicament? Except on the issue of the imperative of instituting a genuinely democratic order- a point on which there is unanimity, different political forces give different responses to the question based on their respective positions on the place of identity politics in a democratic political setting. Based on such positions, the Ethiopian political forces could broadly be classified into three categories: a) those who decry anything ethnic; b) those who regard ethnicity as a panacea; and c) those who see accommodating ethnicity as a pragmatic way forward.
Those who decry ethnic-based political mobilization argue that group-based politics is structurally exclusivist and antithetical to democracy, which is often assumed to be normatively inclusive. They stress that group-differentiated politics of difference destroys the common good around which the political participation of all ought to be structured. They further note that an identity-based, group-differentiated politics endangers national identity, which ought to be the primary focus of political debate, and undermines solidarity among citizens and freezes different groups in opposition to one another. Hence, they dismiss the validity of taking ethnicity as an organizing principle for conducting democratic politics; instead, they advocate for pursuing civic-oriented politics as a viable way forward.
Those in the second category tend to evoke the colonial thesis and argue that their ethnic group had suffered internal colonization enduring systematic dispossession, exploitation and marginalization at the hands of the Abyssinian elites. They see the current political system as nothing but the continuation of the internal colonization of their group by the Abyssinian elites. The only difference this time, the argument goes, is who is in the driver’s seat, i.e., the Tigrayan elites have succeeded the hitherto dominant Amhara elites, and has substantively continued along a similar path. The only way out of such enduring cycle of internal colonization is the exercise of the right to ethnic self-determination that would guarantee their ethnic group to be the master of its own destiny. The third position seems to have emanated from the recognition of our checkered history, particularly with reference to ethnic relations, and from taking into account the objective reality that currently exists on the ground. And this is the position I would like to expound on in the subsequent section for I believe that it provides a better chance for minimizing the current political polarization and thereby making convergence among the disparate political forces a possibility.
My argument to this end is guided by the imperative of facing the world as it is instead of the world as it ought to be. In order to make my point clear, let me recall a brief story here: Sometime in December 2004, the then U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was leading a morale-boosting town hall discussion with Iraq-bound troops. But he was caught off guard when all of a sudden an Army Specialist Thomas Wilson fielded a pointed question complaining about vehicles that lacked armor protection against roadside bombs. Rumsfeld’s response was: “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” It is tempting to characterize Rumsfeld’s response as callous. But it was not callousness at all; rather, it was the realization of the fact that they were in the middle of a war and that that was the equipment available at the moment and, hence, the troops should make the best of the conditions they faced while the Pentagon would push manufacturers of vehicle armor to produce it as fast as humanly possible. My argument for the accommodation of ethnicity in our political debate is, therefore, predicated on the realization of the conditions on the ground and on the belief that we should not allow the best to be the enemy of the good. Among the inescapable objective realities that currently stare into our eyes are our checkered history, which unfortunately we have not yet been able to shake off, and the current reality on the ground.
First, I would like to provide a brief overview of our checkered history with particular focus on ethnic relations. Unless a victim of historical amnesia, one does not need to be a celebrated historian to understand the fact that the political history of modern Ethiopia has been an unflattering one punctuated by asymmetrical relations of power among its constituent ethnic groups. As had been the case with the trajectory of building empires, the Ethiopian empire had been forged largely by the exercise of brute force. And later on when the concept of nation-state became a nodal point in the political science lexicon, successful nation-state building was seen as predicated on cultivating the adoption of one national language, one national religion, one national culture, and one national way of being. This necessitated the onset of the specter of forced or involuntary assimilation into a privileged way of being, where such a privileged way of life and cultural expression essentially became Abyssinian in general and Amhara-centric in particular. In the process, Amharic was imposed as an official language; Orthodox Christianity assumed the status of state religion and the normative standard against which the worth of any religious doctrine and/or practice was to be measured; important cultural signifying features such as music, clothing, food, etc., were also allowed to correspondingly originate from the same spring. Such a process unleashed both symbolic and epistemic violence against the marginalized ethnic Others. According to Pierre Bourdieu (1998b), when a holder of symbolic capital uses the power this confers against an agent who holds less, and seeks thereby to influence or alter the agent’s actions, he/she exercises symbolic violence. From Bourdieu’s (1998b) perspective, symbolic violence is fundamentally the imposition of categories of thought and perception upon dominated social agents. On the other hand, epistemic violence, as posited by Spivak (1988), occurs when the dominant group uses its position to marginalize the voices of the dominated group.
Due to such historical coincidence, therefore, what had once been particular now became ‘universal’; what had once been cultural and historically contingent now appeared natural and taken-for-granted. Such a phenomenon in turn contributed to the creation of status hierarchy in the social milieu. It could, thus, be argued that for the members of the disparate Ethiopian ethnic communities who were on the margin, their encounter with the dominant social institutions was a traumatizing experience that constantly reminded them of their ‘Otherness’. Their struggle to fit in, to catch up and to measure up was often betrayed, among other things, by the inevitability of having to recognize the incompatibility of their life experiences with what they encountered, the reality of having to deal with one’s broken Amharic or speaking it with a heavy accent or the difficulty of expressing oneself with ease and the feeling of humiliation, low self-esteem, self-inadequacy and the resultant sense of anger associated with having to project in public an image of an infant in an adult body. What is more, apart from the damage it inflicted at the psychological and sociological levels, the phenomenon had implications for the material wellbeing of the subaltern communities as the objective conditions structurally constrained their access to opportunities in comparison to those from the dominant group. And the fact that we have not yet been able to fully recover from its debilitating impact tells us how costly our nation-state building project had been. When Ato Lencho Bati, who is one of the leaders of the Oromo Democratic Front (ODF), said (at one of the D.C. forums organized by ESAT sometime in 2016) that the Ethiopian state has been a cultural state and not a civic state, he was essentially referring to the same phenomenon I am trying to explicate here. For Ato Lencho and the Oromos he hails from and other historically marginalized ethnic groups, the images often projected by the Ethiopian state had little to do with them as these images did not provide a point of reference they could identify with.
This being the case, however, courage, intellectual honesty and, more importantly, empathy have eluded most of our intellectuals in general and some Amhara elites in particular in taking stock of the sad trajectory of our history and the unflattering relations between the various ethnic groups that constituted the Ethiopian state. The often retorted argument is that all Ethiopian ethnic groups suffered oppression and exploitation at the hands of the ruling class and there was no special privilege bestowed upon the Amhara ethnic group by virtue of the ruling elite traditionally being largely from the same group. However, the reality is more nuanced than that; it is true that oppression and exploitation were across the board. But creating moral equivalence between the oppression and exploitation of the Amhara masses on the one hand and the rest of marginalized ethnic groups on the other is a serious mistake as the capital the two groups possessed was glaringly unequal. According to Bourdieu (1998a), the structure of objective relations between social agents defines what they can and cannot do. In order to describe the power possessed by agents, Bourdieu (1998a) uses the concept of capital, of which he distinguishes four types: economic (money), cultural (skills, abilities, knowledge, etc.), social (networks), and symbolic (prestige, reputation). The relative degree of the possession of these different forms of capital determines the social agent’s chances of success.
The American academic and political discourse, for example, is often replete with the notion of white privilege. But this does not necessarily mean that all white Americans are rich, educated, healthy, powerful, etc. There are dirt-poor, uneducated and disenfranchised white Americans as there are African Americans and other minorities. What it means is that the mere fact that they are whites gives them societal privileges that benefit them beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white Americans under the same social, political, or economic circumstances. And such disparity in the possession of this important capital makes a huge difference in an individual agent’s or a group’s relative chance of success and social standing.
Applying the same logic, an economically poor Amhara could, for example, have a better cultural, social and symbolic capital at his/her disposal than one from a marginalized ethnic group who might even have an economic capital at his/her disposal. Similarly, a poor and uneducated Amhara could have a far better social and symbolic capital than his/her counterpart who might have happened to be from a minority group, and we can go on and on.
The protracted struggle waged for inclusion, recognition, dignity and national self-determination was largely born out of the realization of and the desire to reverse such injustices perpetrated against the various constituent ethnic groups in the name of nation building. This struggle has still continued to date. The need to accommodate ethnic-based organizations as a pragmatic solution comes against the backdrop of our checkered history and the collective struggle the various groups pursue in order to correct its deleterious effects
This struggle first led to the overthrow of the monarchy that had presided over ‘the prison house’ of nationalities and set a stage for the subsequent takeover of the Ethiopian state by a military junta. Although the military junta tried to bring about some changes, for various factors it failed to effectively address the ‘national’ question and transform the Ethiopian state in a new progressive direction. Ostensibly for the very similar reasons identified above, the TPLF fought the Marxist military junta tooth and nail and removed it forcefully in 1991. Soon after controlling the lever of power, the TPLF-led EPRDF gave ethnicity a central place in structuring the Ethiopian political sphere. It went as far as constitutionally guaranteeing ethnic self-determination up to cessation. It adopted a federal structure organized largely along ethno-linguistic cleavages. After more than twenty-five years of experimentation, however, our problems have become even more intractable and are posing an existential threat to the integrity of the Ethiopian state.
The political forces who decry anything ethnic cite the current crisis as a further indictment of ethnic politics and calls for the cleansing of our body politic from identity-based political mobilization. Indeed there are numerous social theorists, political scientists and philosophers that argue that ethnic-based politics can pose a threat to the survival of democratic political order. Such arguments are often advanced through the lens of ethnic outbidding theory. On the other hand, there are scholars who see the nature of institutions as a more important determinant than the presence or absence of identity politics. In fact they argue that in an ethnically divided society, institutional engineering offers the least unfavorable prospects for peaceful democratic order. According to professor Kanchan Chandra (2005), for instance, ethnic parties can sustain a democracy depending on the institutional context within which ethnic divisions are politicized. Chandra (2005) further asserts that institutions that artificially restrict ethnic politics to a single dimension are likely to destabilize democracy, whereas institutions that foster the politicization of multiple dimensions of ethnic identity are likely to sustain it. Professor Chandra’s (2005) claim rests on a revision of the outbidding models’ assumptions about ethnic identity. According to Chandra (2005), these models are based on the now discredited “primordialist” assumptions that ethnic identities are fixed, uni-dimensional, and exogenous to politics. But Chandra (2005) discards these assumptions in favor of the “constructivist” position that ethnic identities can be fluid, multidimensional, and endogenous to competitive politics. These new assumptions reveal an unexpected and positive relationship between the institutionalization of ethnic divisions and democratic stability.
As is known, India meets the classic definition of an ethnically divided society where such a division often goes along the lines of language, tribe, caste, region, and religion. And parties based on these divisions have often emerged in Indian politics. As argued by Chandra (2005), while these parties have often engaged in an initial spiral of outbidding, however, this has typically given way, over a longer stretch of time, to centrist behavior. According to Chandra (2005), the roots of this pattern lie, paradoxically, in the institutional encouragement of ethnic politics by the Indian state. The scholar goes on to argue that acting on the inherent multidimensional of ethnic identities, such encouragement forces initially extremist parties toward the center. As a case in point, Chandra (2005) identifies the ethnic party behavior in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and the mechanism by which institutionalization produces centrism in ethnic party behavior. Notwithstanding various scholars’ misgivings about the potential deleterious effects of ethnic-based politics, I think that professor Chandra’s insights cannot be dismissed off hand, as these insights might have some relevance in explaining the current political crisis in Ethiopia. In this respect, it can be argued that the crisis in our body politic has more to do with the way ethnic politics has been institutionalized than something necessarily inherent to ethnicity. In other words, the behavior of ethnic party politics is largely shaped by the way it is institutionalized.
In order to make the point of my argument more accessible, I would like to turn to an old Cherokee tale of two wolves: One evening an old Cherokee Indian told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ‘My son, the battle is between two ‘wolves’ inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’ The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: ‘Which wolf wins?’ The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’
The moral of the tale is that each and every one of us has these two wolves running around inside us. The Evil wolf or the Good wolf is fed daily by the choices we make with our thoughts. What one thinks about and dwells upon will in a sense appear in his/her life and influence his/her behavior. As individuals, groups, organizations, and society, we have a choice: feed the Good wolf and it will show up in our character, habits and behavior positively, or feed the Evil wolf and our whole world will turn negative like poison and will slowly eat away at our soul. In the same token, both the Good wolf and the Evil wolf inhabit what we call ‘ethnicity.’ This means that ‘ethnicity’ has the potential to produce good or bad fruits. But which of the two it produces at a given time depends on whether we feed the aspect of it that would bring the good fruit or one that would bring the bad fruit.
In light of this insight, we can reexamine the institutionalization of ethnic politics in the Ethiopian context. In the new political dispensation, difference based on the primordial conceptualization of ethnicity has constitutionally been codified to singularly regulate access to power and resources. Of the various markers of one’s identity (such as occupation, class, gender, age, region, religion, etc.), ethnicity is picked and given political and institutional recognition and legitimation as the uncontested identity marker that determines the fate of citizens. The rigidity of the way this identity marker has been used or abused in the last two decades can easily be seen in the way millions of ethnic ‘mestizos’ (people from mixed ethnic groups) have been denied a category that could rightly accommodate them; instead, they have been forced to choose between one of their parents’ ethnic label. Even after the forced identification, they knew that members of the ethnic group they chose to identify with would not see them as authentic members of their ethnic group. The Darwinian struggle for access to power and resources has essentially eclipsed any other forms of grouping, and has sharply accentuated difference and exacerbated tensions among the society. Since there is no incentive in terms of access to power and resources for those who might wish to organize themselves on the basis of cross-cutting cleavages, by default more and more people have turned to ethnic-based cleavages. In the process, civic or pan-Ethiopian identity has suffered a collateral damage.
If what institutionally regulates access to power and resources were made to depend on multidimensional identity markers rather than on ethnic cleavage alone, ethnic differences would not have been as accentuated as they are now. Unfortunately, the institutional choice the system made has invariably fed the ‘Evil wolf’ and thereby brought the worst in us. A step to reversing such damaging consequences does not lie on bashing anything ethnic and waving the ‘unity flag’ as a panacea. Rather, it depends on a careful analysis of the world as it is and designing a workable strategy to get to the world as it ought to be. Hence, it is important to recognize that ethnic politics is not going to go away anytime soon; believing otherwise would be a wishful thinking. As long as they are committed to the integrity of the Ethiopian state and a genuinely democratic political order, ethnic-based political organizations ought to be embraced and political forces should be open to working with them and minimizing the existing deficit of trust and confidence. At this moment, that is the viable path to achieving political convergence, without which nothing meaningful could come about. When such convergence happens, even those on the extreme wing who might have entertained the ‘Buthelezi syndrome’ could come to their senses and moderate their demands.
As the recent trend shows, however, the cyberspace is replete with self-defeating bravado, jingoism, and ad hominem that is poisoning sane political debate, and it is important to contain outbursts and focus on releasing positive energy. Having said that, I would like to conclude this piece with a brief story once told by Reverend Billy Graham (1978). It goes like this: “An Eskimo Fisherman” came to town every Saturday afternoon. He always brought his two dogs with him. One was white and the other was black. He had taught them to fight on command. Every Saturday afternoon in the town square the people would gather and these two dogs would fight and the fisherman would take bets. On one Saturday the black dog would win; another Saturday, the white dog would win – but the fisherman always won! His friends began to ask him how he did it. He said, “I starve one and feed the other. The one I feed always wins because he is stronger.”
In the final analysis, the political forces would have to either choose to see the world as it is and work with what they have to achieve convergence, or decide to keep on in-fighting and bickering among themselves until ‘kingdom comes.’ If they choose the latter, one thing will be certain: ‘the Eskimo Fisherman will keep winning.’
The author is the former dean of the school of journalism and communication at Addis Ababa University
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