Ethiopia: Strategic Challenges and Possibilities of Unity
Recent popular uprisings sparked by a proposed Addis Ababa Master Plan involving state appropriation of land worked by Oromo farmers and by actual imposition of Tigre kilil identity on the Amhara people in the Welkait region of Gondar have raised a central and pressing question in the Ethiopian opposition to TPLF dictatorship. Namely, how should particular regions and communities in Ethiopia wage an effective and sustainable resistance against the dictatorship as integral parts of one national struggle?
This is fundamentally a question of strategic vision and coordination. Strategic thought could be crucially involved in the establishment and maintenance of a nucleus of national value for the contemporary Ethiopian freedom movement. It is essential in building unity within any broad-based national struggle, peaceful and/or armed. Yet this necessity has been overlooked in the opposition to Woyane regime. In saying NO to the regime, dissident parties have generally taken the line of least resistance, often fixating on merely aggregating disparate organizations, groups, and localities in contradistinction to the divide-and-dominate tribalism of the TPLF dictatorship. There is no overall plan of national movement that incorporates and governs varied issues, interests, groups, and activities that in themselves would be characterized as limited, local or tactical.
It is not only that trans-ethnic Ethiopian patriotic and democratic forces, which have yet to rise up in unity against the divisive Woyane tribal imperium, seem unable to impart definite design or direction to the resistance; they also apparently lack critical awareness of the need for such direction. At home and abroad, the strategic reason of Ethiopian solidarity is too often pre-emptively drowned out by incessant talk of unity in terms of putting together a patchwork of assorted partisan organizations and ethnic outfits. As already noted, this style of oppositional engagement has generally confined itself to following the line of minimum resistance against TPLF tribal tyranny. Limited by naïve realism, those who engage in dissent in this way are given to taking too much for granted in the areas of thought and strategy, shying away from raising probing questions and seeming to think that they know more than they actually do.
For many of the opposition groups at home and abroad, including those which harp on about “national reconciliation,” cannot really be said to be engaged in strategically attuned oppositional thought. Even for the purposes of negotiating peace and reconciliation with the TPLF regime, they have yet to constitute themselves as a credible, contending national force that the tribal regime would feel compelled to listen to and come to terms with. They don’t seem to see the need to shore up the gravely damaged national ground they stand on as a condition of gaining and projecting bargaining power in possible negotiations with the Woyane dictatorship. By the way, given its political history and pattern of current practice, the dictatorship can hardly be characterized as having a conciliatory disposition toward Ethiopian patriotic and democratic forces. And this fact makes the clamor for “reconciliation” simply wishful rather than reasonably hopeful.
At bottom, strategy has to do with setting goals, thinking through ideas, and specifying methods and means of realizing them. I here refer to “realization” in the double sense of cognition and actualization. It is important to draw a distinction between awareness and affirmation of an idea or a value, say, “unity,” on the one hand, and active analysis and understanding of the idea that addresses the matter of how it is achieved in practice, on the other. Unity as a relational matter subject to strategic reason and governance is not identical with unity merely as affirmed value. The value enters the field of Ethiopian national struggle not simply on account of its ideal or rhetorical currency but according to its framing by definite, historically informed, consensual codes of interpretation and design of realization.
Strategy generally signifies planning, organizing, and directing activities or movements toward intended outcomes. My use of the concept is fairly broad and applies to movements in thought as well as action; I see strategy working onthought, not just in it. The use is intended to cover the governance or coordination of a broad range of ideas, values, subjectivities, and forms and means of struggle in the contemporary Ethiopian movement for national survival and freedom.
In defining the concept this way, I depart from the understanding that strategy can enable the defense and affirmation of shared Ethiopian nationality in diverse local and regional contexts and under evolving global conditions. It can do so by forming a value-center that prioritizes interests, issues, ideas, goals, tasks, and activities. The strategic nucleus shall actively articulate together parts and localities of the Ethiopian national struggle, shaping their relations so that they create a broader and deeper unity that is sustainable over the long haul.
In this way, the strategic hub not only undertakes its own directive actions but also creates a strong field of force, a center of moral, intellectual, and political gravity. A force-field, that is, capable of attracting solidarity and support from a broad range of Ethiopian national stakeholders at home and abroad. Strategic engagement in thought and action, then, is not one of defensively coping with events, issues, and states of affairs in Ethiopia over which we as a people have little say and even less control. Instead, it is (or should be) about proactive transformation of existing conditions, vigorous redirection of the trajectory of ideas, events and developments, many of which, if left unchecked, could continue to pose a serious threat to our shared national life. Not limited to ensuring our survival as a nation, the engagement could help Ethiopia become stronger, opening up for it avenues of all round integral growth and development that benefits all its citizens.
As distinct from direct popular movements and activities limited by particular issues, localities or ethnicity and by immediate economic or social grievances that fuel such activities, planned national movement emanates from a broader, more long-term analysis of problems aimed at formulating their solutions. Note here that integral (Ethiopian) national strategy so conceived should not be confused with insular political projects of partisan/ethnic “nationality” or with the mere aggregation of such political projects. In my view, to think of Ethiopian unity in terms of the arithmetic sum of self-contained plans and movements of ethnonationality is a non-starter, both in principle and as a strategy of resistance against TPLF divide-and-dominate ethnic politics. We need to wage one national struggle in which diverse groups, regions and localities have their rightful place and representation.
Patriotic and democratic Ethiopian resistance against TPLF dictatorship is strategic according to its critical, deconstructive handling of the hegemony of the Woyane regime, not simply according to its condemnation or rejection of the regime or according to its profession of political ideas and beliefs. This means that the resistance needs to approach representations of ideas, issues, and identity politics by the regime not at face value, namely, as contents and elements of ideology signifying “national self-determination” but as mechanisms and instruments of power, as colonial-like tactics of partisan-tribal domination.
We might say here, paraphrasing/reversing Clausewitz’s contention, that political ideology is war conducted by other means. Woyane “revolutionary” dogma was certainly conceived and enacted as war against Ethiopian nationality as such, with particular ill will toward the Amhara people. It is an ideology imposed on the nation by brute force. Under these circumstances, the resistance of Ethiopian patriots and democrats faces the opportunity (and challenge) of generating active, strategic thought which would be both politically effective and broadly unifying and enlightening to the Ethiopian people.
I should add that while, in the nation’s struggle for freedom from divisive tribal tyranny, strategy has relatively autonomous rationality distinct from the reason of general political notions like “unity” and ‘democracy,” it is not something extra that is added to our political thought or shared nationality. Strategy properly formulated and enacted is what shapes various movements and activities of resistance into an integral national experience. It is what gives our resistance thought and national consciousness today sustainable form, clarity, cohesion, and direction. Not avowed in its entirety, strategy has its own logic and artfulness, yet its objects, real or imagined, and its constitutive elements are parts of our national and political life. When Ethiopian patriotic and democratic strategists work on particular issues, ideas, social interests, and local identities, they would seek to turn these objects into their common or shared forms and contents, capitalizing on the intersections of the objects and their relative openness to alternative interpretation and framing.
In sum, we can think of strategy as a mechanism for exercising broad governance over the formulation and enactment of ideas and principles as well as over tactical and practical tasks in the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for change. Strategic governance of the struggle includes interpreting and framing (or reframing) issues, articulating ideas, setting intermediate outcomes and ultimate ends, identifying and cultivating sources of support at home and abroad, charting systemic political change, and flexibly adapting the movement to changing circumstances and opportunities. It has to do with not only holding co-existent parts of the patriotic and democratic resistance together, but also the temporal ordering of plans, missions, tasks, and operations. Governance of the national movement entails managing priorities and the flow of activities through time. It concerns forging transitions and connections that enable particular phases or accomplishments of the struggle to build on one another, cumulatively resulting in the development and completion of the Ethiopian freedom movement as a whole.
Moving toward Unity in the Absence Strategic Agency
Planned national movement in thought and action generally suggests an agent or a center from which such movement emanates. Strategy is often associated with identifiable agency, a hub or nucleus of power and will, a subject capable of autonomous action and in a position to exercise command over resources. Examples include a state, a political party, an army, and a major business enterprise. Such an association of strategy and political agency makes thinking in terms of a national plan of freedom struggle in the present Ethiopian context seem untenable. For the context is marked by weakness and ineffectiveness of opposition parties, thanks to ongoing, at once brutal and insidious, systematic repression by the TPLF regime.
That is not all the challenge we face as a nation in fighting strategically for our survival and freedom. Following a perverse turn of events in the revolutionary era which ultimately resulted in the hostile take-over of the Ethiopian state by Shabiya-supported TPLF, the national center itself has been rudely relegated to a marginal status. Under the improbable dictatorship of a tiny minority party from a minority community, marginality has become the lot of the majority of the Ethiopian people, specifically of Amhara and Oromo majorities. The tail is wagging the dog, as the cliché goes. Sadly, “revolutionary change” ultimately came to signify not the integral transformation of Ethiopia but its controlled tribal fragmentation from within under the domination of a nationally self-alienated, resentful and vindictive Tigrean ruling clique.
When the era of revolution began in the mid-1960s with the seminal Student Movement, Ethiopia had, politically and culturally speaking, a national center, with all its limitations and problems. While it might have neglected or suppressed the interests of localities and treated minorities unjustly, the center held, surviving massive revolutionary upheavals and the brutal reign of the Derg. But the last twenty five years of TPLF tyranny have resulted in a dangerous unraveling of the Ethiopian fabric. We are witnessing the systematic undoing of not only the national center but also, as the case of Welkait in my native Gondar amply demonstrates, the autonomy of its regions and localities. Everything national has been displaced by the TPLF’s exclusive network of partisan-authoritarian power and imperious ethnicism, apparently leaving patriotic and democratic movements today no leverage through which Woyane tribal domination might be resisted nationally. The whole nation has become nothing more than a collection of insular “peoples” that the TPLF manipulates at will and often fabricates outright.
These conditions raise challenging questions about contending with TPLF hegemony strategically: How is it even possible to talk about a nation-wide plan of opposition without a strategic national actor or center? Where is the party of Ethiopian unity that can stand apart from the Woyane partisan-tribal imperium and mount an effective resistance against the TPLF regime or even negotiate “national reconciliation” with the regime, should the opportunity for such negotiation present itself? Where is the intellectual and political space which could serve as an autonomous base for the opposition, since there is little or no possibility of developing alternative national thought and practice through peaceful struggle? How will patriotic and democratic forces be able to distance themselves from the regime of identity, since we no longer have national life beyond authoritarian yemaninet politica?
It is not only that our common national home has been reduced to a collection of disparate tribal enclaves, that we as a people have become a captive nation. We are being urged by partisans of both ruling and oppositional identity politics to accept this sorry and dangerous state of the nation as the new normal, as a “reality on the ground” that we cannot even think being any other way. So how could trans-ethnic Ethiopian patriotic groups constitute themselves into a viable national power and strategically begin to wage the struggle for the nation’s survival and freedom? And how should Amharas in particular, often a negative obsession of both ruling and oppositional identity politics, defend themselves both as a people and an inseparable part of the Ethiopian nation?
These are all important questions. Certainly, the general association of definite, often leading, agency with strategy cannot be denied. But our focuses here are conditions of national thought and action in the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for freedom, not so much the actors or subjects (existing or emergent) engaged in the struggle. More importantly, the relationship between political subjectivity and strategy is not such that the former necessarily takes shape antecedent to the latter.
Indeed, political vision of planned struggle that is not connected with any particular political organization or group could help create enabling conditions for the rise of actual planners and directors of such struggle. As the example of the Student Movement and the rise, in its wake, of organized parties like the EPRP, Meison and the TPLF show, sustained strategic-ideological agitation by intellectuals, activists, and other collective actors could help generate more or less effective strategic political agency outside or beyond such social agitation. As a group, designers or visionaries of fundamental social and political change are not always operators or directors of such change. Revolutionary vision and thought could produce revolutionary agency.
In this connection, past experience of social activism, notably that of the Student Movement, has much to instruct the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for change, which faces new challenges and is being waged under different circumstances. While we remain mindful of the flaws and excesses of the “radicalism” of that experience, we can draw positive lessons from it. One is the understanding that social movements can be at once open and hidden nodal points and networks of solidarity and activism distinct from party hierarchies in their flexibility and adaptability. As such, they can generate patterns and cells of thought and practical engagement that help develop strategic political actors and forces. Social movements may not work out plans and projects of sustained struggle as organized political actors often do. But they exhibit strategic outlook marked by generation of system-transforming conceptual thought and social analysis, and critical framing of issues and problems, including laying out ideas for their solution.
Another piece of wisdom to draw from our tradition of social movement for adaptation to the present Ethiopian struggle for change is the ethic of vigorous resistance to dictatorial rule, regardless of the tribal make-up of the rule. The ethic of rebellion was based on progressive intellectual, moral, and political vision which assumed distinct forms of criticism and dissent, organizational discipline, ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, and aspirations to national enlightenment and development. In short, whatever excesses and reversals the vision suffered in the hands of the extreme left within the Student Movement itself and subsequently among various parties, particularly the TPLF, the basic forward-looking activism of thought it produced remains strategically and practically suggestive today.
The argument here is not that Ethiopian college students at home and abroad may today undertake sustained collective action along the lines of yesterday’s Student Movement. Circumstances at present are very much different and there is little possibility or need of replicating the seminal Movement. The point, instead, is that levels of solidarity, intellectual earnestness, and social commitment associated with the Movement may be achieved and serviceable today if appropriately adapted by innovative Ethiopian patriots, progressives, and activists to existing circumstances. We have lessons, both positive and negative, to learn from the past and apply to the present. As Ethiopians, we have a progressive legacy as well as a patriotic heritage to bank on.
Besides, there are conditions in Ethiopia today that invite oppositional social movement and action, including but not limited to those of students. Collective action may be launched from various sites of community life and solidarity, such as institutions of learning and worship, the work place, the service sector, and civic and patriotic groups, such as associations of veterans of Ethiopian armed forces. Some of these collective actors may have political outlook and energy in the sense that, transcending limited sectional or local interests, they may be motivated by broad-based societal and national concerns. And the TPLF regime’s extensive surveillance apparatus notwithstanding, existing conditions may also allow the creation of a secure network of resourceful collective actors that brings together various local and sectional assets and movements to advance commonly shared agenda.
To note briefly a couple of the conditions hospitable to social action, there are first, needs of resistance to tribal tyranny that are not adequately met by existing organized party-politics. That popular movements have been crowded out of the field of oppositional struggle by the proliferation of largely ineffective parties and identity groups has made these needs all the more pressing. Second, as recent collective uprisings in various parts of Ethiopia have shown, the regime of identity is facing a worsening crisis of legitimacy due to the increasing ideological bankruptcy of its self-serving project of “national self-determination, a condition likely to result in the weakening of its mechanisms of social control and domination. A state of affairs, that is, which could create more space for sustainable trans-ethnicoppositional social movement within the Woyane tribal imperium. And this in turn could produce conditions favorable to the emergence of innovative, nationally unifying political actors attuned to strategic thought and practice.
National Impasse: Conditions and Exit Options
Ever since the Student Movement, there has been a palpable tension between, on one side, the shared values and lived experience of Ethiopiawinnet and the ideology and politics of identity construed after Stalinist fashion as “national self-determination,” on the other. The mutual exclusion of the two sides has today assumed dangerous proportions under TPLF dictatorship. The Woyanes have turned issues and interests of identity into obsessions of public policy and action, making fabrications of authoritarian state ethnicism the form, substance, and horizon of all “nationality” in Ethiopia. How are we as a people to resolve this unbearable tension and avert its potentially disastrous outcome down the road? More specifically, how much of this crisis is real and how much of it is largely the TPLF’s own making?
A common reply to the former question which generally has no truck with strategic concerns centered on Ethiopia and Ethiopiawinnet, involves an anxious, seemingly practical preoccupation with the “national reconciliation” of disparate ethnic entities, be they elite strata, political parties, and entire communities or “peoples.” The fixation tends to leave the sources of the crisis we are in as a nation largely unanalyzed, often offering a simple, generic diagnosis of lack of “good governance” that doesn’t match our national ills. It also “forgets” that when we critically penetrate the world of Woyane domination, we encounter narratives, forms of discourse, ideas, subjectivities and agendas that refer formally and operationally to a particular authoritarian encoding system controlled exclusively by the TPLF. In this forgetfulness, a whole world of simulation tends to be taken as real pure and simple, a “fact on the ground” as the cliché goes.
The preoccupation with the immediacies of “conflict resolution” leaves us with activities of opposition and scenarios of “reconciliation” lacking in strategic qualities that shape and advance our struggle for national survival and freedom over the long term. It doesn’t let us feel and think our way innovatively into national wholeness in the resistance against the divisive politics and regime of identity. While the engrossing concern with peace through mutual accommodation of conflicting groups and interests may be understandable on some level, it doesn’t helping us much in turning either our resistance against tribal tyranny or the wished for reconciliation itself into an integral Ethiopian national experience.
A more satisfying answer to the question posed above has to do with working out a broad-based national consensus around fundamental ideas and issues and on forms of government, such as individual freedom, democracy, and federalism. Principal agreement could be negotiated among Ethiopian patriots, democrats and partisan-ethnic objectors, whose opposition involving matters of cultural identity, religion, ideology, economic interest or some other concern may be integrally handled within the parameters of common Ethiopian nationality. We recognize that national unity is gained and secured not by denying or suppressing difference and pluralism or by silencing voices of dissent, but through their governance by means of shared national culture, ideas, norms, and institutional practices.
However, universal ideas, like democracy and federalism, formally professed by practitioners of identity politics in Ethiopia, mainly the TPLF regime and factions or spin-offs of the OLF, cannot be seen as relatively open, discursive and communicable signifiers whose meanings and practical functioning can be consensually established or reframed through the give and take of persuasion, negotiation and compromise. Their currency and workings are better grasped as instruments of assertion of insular ethnic identity and difference, often couched in the mind-numbing, conceptually inert, Stalinist formula of the “self-determination of nations, nationalities and peoples.” What is often emphasized is not the quality or substantive content of an idea, say, of democracy or federalism, but the subjectivities of particular political and ethnic groups that identify with or simulate the idea. Apparently, what is thought and said is less important than who thinks and says it.
This is one major reason why building principled, ideas-based consensus has been difficult to achieve among Ethiopian political organizations and ethnic parties today, including their “intellectual” backers. The contemporary Ethiopian intelligentsia has rarely gone beyond ritually affirming universal values to venture into actually thinking through ideas and realizing their suggestive possibilities in the Ethiopian context. We as a nation find ourselves in an impasse that we seem neither able to think our way out of nor fit to surmount practically.
I urge that we see the overcoming of the difficulty, like the impasse itself, in the context of a broader strategy of national-political struggle. That would be the subject of a third and concluding piece to follow this one. The purpose of the rest of the present writing is to describe what I take to be the circumstances and forms of TPLF tribal dictatorship with which patriotic and democratic forces have to contend using their own political economy of resistance.
The description is not intended simply to find fault with the Woyane regime. It has a strategic rationale, namely, that the initial step out of the impasse we are in as a nation is to take a good measure of it, as manifested in the forms and conditions of TPLF domination. Ethiopian freedom fighters today do not just oppose the Woyane order of domination without a critical analysis and understanding of the conditions that sustain the order. Moreover, the pattern of domination has ramifications beyond the TPLF regime itself; as a form of politics, it is common currency among identity-based opposition groups and their intellectual fellow travelers.
Such pattern recognition or mindfulness is necessary not only in resisting the exclusively partisan-ethnic encoding apparatus of the Woyane dictatorship consisting of ideological, political, economic, and social constructs and meanings, but also in developing an alternative, more open and democratic system of representation of ideas, values, and identities. An essential and critical move in getting a handle on the dictatorship, in effectively intervening in and dismantling its operations, then, is to distinguish clearly issues and concerns important to the Ethiopian people, including those that have to do with local identity and autonomy, from the limited sectarian construction or interpretation of the issues within the TPLF’s exclusively partisan code.
This distinction is very important. For we often see a tendency, willful on the part of the Woyanes and perhaps unwitting among some of its surrogates, supprters, and sympathizers, to conflate, for example, the TPLF’s self-serving authoritarian encoding of local “self-determination” and “federalism” with actually functioning democratic definitions of these concepts or principles of government. Such conflation is a non-starter in terms of overcoming the present Ethiopian crisis, in breaking out of our national impasse.
Fundamentally, what need to be transformed through the present, yet trans-generational, Ethiopian struggle for survival and change are not merely particular regime policies, ideas, institutions, and constructs of identity and difference. Rather, it is a whole political economy or system of power, largely inherited from the revolutionary era, within which these particularities have been produced, circulated, and valorized. The system cannot be identified with a given social or political actor alone, past or present (the Student Movement, the EPRP, Meison, the OLF, the Derg or the TPLF). It traverses all of them, constituting a paradigm or template of revolutionary thought and practice which they all have more or less subscribed to and sought to utilize in varying contexts and with varying styles and degrees of effectiveness. While the system has been marked by gaps, flaws, and contradictions and by intense, often bloody, conflicts among particular parties and groups operating within it, it has had residual regularity that cuts across partisan lines, a basic consistency of dogmatic form and function, and a glib “theoretical” fluency.
I believe this systemic pre-understanding of the sources of TPLF dictatorship is essential for grasping the workings of the dictatorship and for putting up an effective strategic resistance against it. I have elsewhere described the Woyane plan and mode of domination using the “machine” metaphor, which I will elaborate on further presently. For the TPLF, it has never been a question of representation or transformation of Ethiopian realities (social, cultural, economic, political or national); instead, it is one of the dismantling of the country through the substitution of a negative image of Ethiopia fabricated by the Woyane party itself for the historically real Ethiopian nation. The substitution of simulation of the real for the actually real extends to particular communities, groups, and localities in the country.
Actual self-identifications of ethnic and cultural communities in Ethiopia, no less than the actualities of mass organizations and civil society groups of all kinds, are subjected to massive political and ideological overloading, often producing exaggerated, hyperreal, partisan constructs, equivalents, images, and resemblances of identity and difference. The distinction between what has actual being and what is merely a simulation of being has become increasingly blurred under Woyane domination. Yet we often hear practitioners and apologists of sectarian identity politics at home and abroad making existential claims about the social “reality” created under Woyane hegemony, asserting that insular tribal kilils are real, incontrovertible “facts on the ground” that we cannot even conceive being any other way, let alone change or even negotiate over.
Though not so readily acknowledged as the new factual normal, the allegedly democratic political system in the country (the parliament, the judiciary, the electoral system, etc.) is similarly a crass, if elaborate, imitation of the real thing, a progressive conceit. The system is structurally rendered dysfunctional, indeed a non-starter, by its counterfeit operational copy. For ideas and principles like democracy, elections, and federalism are imagined within the TPLF’s “revolutionary democracy” as having an immediate, tightly controlled partisan significance prior to and more valued than their broad societal and governmental meaning. As such, so much of the “progressive” conceptualizing and idealizing work the Woyanes have done has merely an outward resemblance to a principled, ideas-based practice of politics.
The work has actually little or no significance beyond prettifying the ugly realities of TPLF dictatorship with shoddy ideological ornament. It has to do with the brute fact of maintaining the dictatorship of a single party over the Ethiopian people, involving the narrow, sectarian-tribal politicization of ideas and principles of governance. The TPLF party-state machine does not maintain its domination through the influence of its representation of ideas, values, identities, and patriotic sentiments or by means of intellectual and moral persuasion. It does so by exercising immediate authoritarian control of collective thought, speech, and behavior through the direct, impersonal manipulation of political codes, organizational instruments, and captive constituents.
In sum, while the actuality of TPLF dictatorship cannot of course be gainsaid, much of the domination of the party has also been unreal in the sense described here. Woyane rule has had the look and feel of inauthenticity and unsustainability, with all the implications of this for the strategic resistance of Ethiopian patriotic and democratic forces.
The TPLF as Political Machine: Efficient or Wasteful Domination?
This question is not simply a matter of intellectual curiosity or academic interest. It suggests challenges and possibilities in the Ethiopian resistance against Woyane divide-and-dominate ethnic politics. I believe addressing it will help provide a baseline of understanding for advancing strategic analysis and direction of the resistance.
Concerning identity politics in particular, such an understanding may be achieved by, first, drawing attention to partisan-ideological practices of social labeling and construction, thereby calling into question the alleged factuality of insular tribal kilils or localities, and second, by shifting the focus of the struggle for Ethiopian solidarity today to methods and tactics of production or simulation of such localities. In other words, instead of taking contemporary ethnic identities and quarrels simply as historically or naturally given, we could ask a broader systemic question: what is it about the TPLF “revolutionary” machine that serially fabricates self-enclosed, overpoliticized identities and conflicts of such identities through its moving parts, its maneuvers, its discourses, and its tactical operations?
The machine metaphor offers a powerful description of TPLF politics that is strategically more insightful and useful, I believe, than characterizing Woyane tyranny simply in terms of the party’s professed revolutionary ideology or solely in relation to its naked tribalism. In using this metaphor, I am referring to an impersonal apparatus consisting of ideas, goals, identities, and organizational devices, all functioning in stylized form as so many moving parts. I have in mind a mechanism which has socially disembodied function and produces calculated partisan effects. I am thinking of an apparatus whose nationally spiritless ethnicization of citizens and communities is controlled by a narrow Tigre clique at the top of the TPLF-EPRDF party-state hierarchy. Self-alienated from Ethiopia, the apparatus has yet annexed virtually everything in Ethiopian government and society; it has brought the entire nation under its colonial-like divisive domination.
Machinic politics has thereby enabled the TPLF to hollow out rights-bearing individuals and communities in Ethiopia. The party has been able to render social strata politically pliable by attaching dependent elements within these strata to its controlling internal power hierarchy. In this way, every social referent of the TPLF, every cultural group and locality in Ethiopia, every ethnic stratum, including the Tigre community, remains ensnared in the web of exclusively partisan priorities, agenda, and contradictions spun by the TPLF political machine.
Note here that the machine does not simply imitate or channel the ebb and flow of the Ethiopian social world; it aggressively intervenes in and gets a handle on the workings and movements of that world. The consequence is that nothing is what it seems. All that is real and autonomous in Ethiopia is neutralized by its inauthentic double through the dictatorial forms, constructs, and operations of the machine. All that is “liberated” is oppressed. Everything “self-determining” is manipulated by an external coercive rationality which traps citizens and communities in a narrow range of tribal movement and agency. Yet the much celebrated “diversity” of identities and cultures in the country has ever been dubious; it is actually homogenized through officially sanctioned and bureaucratically administered authoritarian state ethnicism.
This means that the Woyane regime has no real constituents or social bases to speak of, since it has replaced practically all its social referents with simulated stand-ins for them, reducing actually existing communities to mere extensions and objects of its domination. We have here a condition which is suggestive regarding the extent of support, if at all, the regime has among the Ethiopian people. And this in turn has strategic implications for the Ethiopian patriotic and democratic resistance against TPLF tribal tyranny.
As a system of domination, the productivity (or inefficiency) of the TPLF political machine can be gauged, then, on two related levels of rationality. The first is a limited tribal scale which involves single-minded pursuit of the goal of Tigre “liberation.” The status of this goal has been unclear over the last quarter century of TPLF reign in Ethiopia. For the Woyanes have continued to call themselves TPLF since their hostile take-over of the entire Ethiopian state, yet Tigrai itself has been constituted under their dictatorship as one among several other ethnic kilils or regions of the country. The ambiguity has presumably to do with the fancy of a greater Tigrai within or outside of Ethiopia.
The second level of rationality on which the political productivity (or lack thereof) of the TPLF apparatus can be assessed is higher than and inclusive of the first. It involves an extension in scale, ambition, and strategy of the project of “liberation of Tigrai,” encompassing the entirety of Ethiopia and perhaps the Horn of Africa. The Woyanes have apparently long realized that concentration on the goal of Tigrean “freedom” alone does little by way of creating political conditions in Ethiopia necessary for realizing the goal. Besides, the TPLF political project needed to maintain strategic links to the whole country, since Ethiopia can be not only a challenge to the separatist undertaking but also a vital source of support whose resources might be exploited by the Woyanes, as indeed it has been, in trying to accomplish their aim of the “liberation” of Tigrai, whatever form the enactment of this fancy may take.
So beyond the limited idea of the TPLF as a sectarian party in pursuit of a specialized ethnocentric goal there took place an enlargement and reorientation of the TPLF political machine. The party came to be invested with a broader rationality which facilitates greater political effort and presence in the entire range of Ethiopian regions and localities with a dominant effect. In this way, an initially limited goal and tool of separatist tribalism has not been forsaken but expanded into an intention and mechanism of a larger hegemonic project.
In the process, Woyane Tigres have come to assume power in Ethiopia grossly out of proportion to their numbers or the size of the population of their ethnic base. Key to their political productivity here – to their effective domination of Ethiopian government, politics, and society despite the fact that they constitute a minority party within a minority community – is the capacity of the TPLF machine to generate a multiplicity of social, cultural, political, and institutional satellites. Control over the repressive apparatus and economic instruments of the “developmental” state aside, it is the TPLF’s partisan-cum-tribal self-inflation through surrogate political and ethnic “others” that is the secret of their success, at least so far. The TPLF’s aggressive self-valorization in this way has served to arrest pre-emptively the development of autonomous social, cultural, and institutional sites in Ethiopia as centers of power and dissent while at the same time allowing the party to operate under a veneer of “democracy” said to be revolutionary.
Nonetheless, the TPLF cannot stay in power indefinitely on the basis of such self-serving machinic productivity alienated from Ethiopian national culture. The colonial-like efficiency of its dictatorship through surrogate and proxy groups is wearing down. Its sustainability is also continually under threat from the pattern of unreality internal to its makeup and from possibilities and opportunities of opposition made available by this fundamentally crisis-ridden nature of its domination. Its structural character has, indeed, made the nationally self-alienated and insecure Woyane regime a squanderer not an economizer of political resources and capabilities, indulgent in repressive power.
The wastefulness of the TPLF party-state machine is evident in the endemic corruption of its institutions and operations, in its massive misuse of Ethiopian national and state resources. Structurally, it can be understood in terms of three interrelated factors: (1) the insularity of the TPLF’s underlying partisan-ethnic reason, (2) the overpolitization of identity and the impact this has had on the definition of Ethiopian issues and problems, and (3) the obtrusiveness of the Woyane economy or system of domination. Let me briefly remark on each in turn.
In its inception, growth, and pattern of historical and contemporary behavior, the TPLF has asserted its exclusive agency; it has ever been committed solely or primarily to its own partisan-authoritarian ethnic priorities, ideology, and agenda of action. The quest for insularity of political thought or logic is born of enmity toward the Ethiopian national tradition generally and the Amhara people in particular. Woyane political strategy has taken shape within the narrow limits of sectarian-tribal calculus – ideas, goals, plans, and agenda – and it does not go broadly and deeply into the Ethiopian experience other than to suppress or negate that experience.
Narrow partisan-ethnic purposefulness thereby severely limits the capacity of the TPLF regime to achieve economies of scale and quality in its articulation of ideas and goals, rendering the TPLF political machine unable to plan and pursue courses of action involving the integral transformation and development of Ethiopian society. Nationally divisive partisan-tribal rationality also causes the Woyanes to use desirable political ideas, such as “federalism” and “the rule of law,” at very low efficiency and effectiveness, generally as mere conceits.
How much ethnic or cultural exclusivity have Tigres, Oromos, Amaras and other Ethiopian communities needed historically in order to survive and flourish as distinct, often overlapping, groups within Ethiopia? Certainly much less than the hyper-politicized insular identities commonly claimed for Tigres and Oromos by partisans of the TPLF and the OLF respectively. Group identities need not be overpoliticized in order to be affirmed and valued in Ethiopia or anywhere for that matter. They need not be construed in exclusively partisan terms. There is no ethnic or cultural community in Ethiopia the affirmation of whose identity is the monopoly of a particular party, front or movement. To think otherwise is actually to diminish the status of the community in question and to disempower it.
But what we have in TPLF dictatorship is ethnic absolutism or fundamentalism involving a process of maximum politicization that paradoxically denies distinct Ethiopian communities, regions and localities real autonomous agency, true self-government. In Ethiopia today, identities and differences are pervasive partisan-authoritarian constructs that provide an alibi for Woyane tribal dictatorship. They have far reaching implications for the political profligacy of TPLF domination.
The wasteful expenditure of political effort and resources associated with both ruling and oppositional identity politics has to do with the process of definition of Ethiopian national issues and problems along with the kinds of solutions proposed for them. The problems themselves, which include but are not limited to identity issues, are broadly societal and call for correspondingly societal solutions; they reflect wider structural challenges of underdevelopment and systemic inadequacies of government that traverse Ethiopia’s diverse regions and localities.
Overpoliticization of ethnicity means that the underlying challenges that constitute a common set of problems for the Ethiopian people as a whole are in effect minimized or obscured rather than resolved or even objectively defined. Herein lie the waste and abuse of identity politics. Differences over the understanding of Ethiopian history and symbolic distinctions among communities tend to be given priority over present, commonly shared, material conditions of existence of the Ethiopian people. Ruling and oppositional ethnic elites, many nursing wounded cultural pride and some harboring interminable resentment of perceived historical wrongs, do this by smothering underlying socio-economic constraints and difficulties all Ethiopians face today with an overgrowth of identity politics. They do it by putting the onus of overcoming the difficulties on particular, supposedly self-determining, communities in the country.
Ethiopian issues and problems as well as their ostensible solutions thereby become the exclusive possessions or features of disparate ethnic groups rather than constitutive parts of broader societal underdevelopment. We end up with a profound mismatch between the breadth and complexity of our national challenges, on one side, and the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of their simple, if perhaps psychologically satisfying, framing through proliferating claims of political ethnicism, on the other.
The TPLF partisan-tribal machine is also profligate in expenditure of political energy in the sense that it is so displeasingly active and aggressive in projecting power, reveling in debasing our national culture, values, and symbols. The machine constitutes a system of domination held in place by an arbitrary, coercive rationality which alienates it from our national life and leaves the party little or no room for intellectual, moral, and political leadership of Ethiopian society. Ever burdened by a massive legitimacy deficit, TPLF domination is consequently dependent on excessive expenditure and exercise of raw political power.
Having walled itself off from broader Ethiopian national and societal interests through its sectarian strategy of domination, the Woyane ruling clique seems unconcerned about its overdependence on naked force or the threat of force for its survival in power. It seems oblivious to the fact that its excessive projection of partisan-tribal power has an alienating effect, separating it from Ethiopian national being and culture. The TPLF sees no need to inspire or persuade the Ethiopian people; it doesn’t need our minds to freely and actively receive or engage its “ruling ideas,” such as they are.
Instead, the Woyane party-state machine acts directly and imperiously on us, commanding our attention and telling us what to do, brutally cracking down on peaceful dissent and protest. In the overpoliticized yet fragmented “Ethiopia” created by the Woyanes, we cannot include our felt and lived experience as citizens, patriots, intellectuals, and cultural communities. We find ourselves cast out of shared national life as we know it, turned into virtual exiles in our own country.
What does all this mean in terms of the governing vision and thought of the Ethiopian struggle for national survival and freedom? What should the strategic economy of patriotic and democratic resistance look like? I take up these issues in a following concluding writing.