By: Goytom Teklu and Rihana Nesrudin.
After yet another flash point, in another wave of state violence, riots and ethno-communal conflicts, Ethiopians have lost hundreds of lives (by official government accounts). Thousands more have suffered various levels of injuries to their bodies and minds by both state security apparatus and a violent mob. Many have lost their homes, businesses and places of worship. Internet shutdowns, banning of government opposing media networks and arrests of various well-known opposition figures have followed the violence. There is a serious tension of conflict and war between the federal government and regional states, as well as between regional states. If we were not witnessing everything unfold in front of our eyes, it would have been easy to dismiss all this as a nightmare we will soon wake up from.
It is imperative we assess the factors that have led us to where we are now. One such factor which needs to be properly analyzed is the role contemporary elites play in shaping the ideals and notions both people in power and the masses uphold. Are our contemporary elites helping the nation move forward to achieve a better life for the people they all claim to love or have they been embarrassing colossal failures, who should be held partly responsible for the current state we find ourselves in?
A century or so ago, before our current ruling political elites – from the Prime Minister to regional presidents to talking heads of various enclave political and media elites with bad hairlines, a shrill voice that makes Gigi Kiya & Yoni magna sound like the Dalai Lama, and access to some sort of doctorate or post graduate degree – took national stage, a steady stream of Ethiopians left their country to study abroad. During the reign of Emperor Menilik, a number of bright young men (some dumb and old were likely in the mix) traveled around the world to study with the king’s personal encouragement. These young men left their country, studied and came back equipped with knowledge and skills from America and Europe, and laid the foundations for the political philosophy of the country. These intellectuals, while critical of the government they served, wrote important and pioneering entries on political economy, literature, and social issues.
The influence of these early reformists endured in various ways for decades to come; Emperor Haile Selassie, during his second stint, rebuilt his administration with support of these intellectuals. Their influence further endured to greatly shape the ‘revolutionary’ intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s, the young men and women who changed the face of the country forever. The radicalized students of the 60s, characterized by the ascendancy of a marxism-leninism ideology and consistent demonstrations, broached key questions and issues that have remained in people’s consciousness for the following 50 years. The questions of class, land ownership, education rights, women’s rights and the “national question” were brought to the forefront of the political movement. When EPRDF, led by Tigrai ethno-nationalists, took power it continued to attempt to address these same questions, most notably it attempted to address the “national question” (at least in codifying it into the constitution).
The “educated few” who became “elites” over a century ago and the revolutionaries of the 60s have greatly shaped the ideologies and major national questions our society and government are grappling with today. But the contemporary highly “educated few” that influence public opinion and power today, are noticeably less political than the previous generation (also not really few). And those that are in the political arena are very much siloed along identitarian lines (mainly ethnic ones). On Average, today’s elites haven’t shown the “progressive” tendencies their predecessors showed. They are less likely to be found dissecting the real issues the majority of our people face and, more likely to be found giving justifications or a pseudo-intellectual cover to some tribal, authoritarian political project, with a cherry picked history or advocating for heinous Chicago school neo-liberal economic “reforms.”
Contemporary identitarian “elites:”
It is hard to decipher the role of contemporary elites in Ethiopian politics. Sometimes one can’t help but wonder if it would make a difference whether Ethiopian politics isn’t better off being led by local dureyes rather than the current PhD holders whose only end goal seems to be power – for power’s own sake. At least our dureyes know how to engage in a healthy dose of self deprecation, comprehend concessions when settling fights, have a sense of communitarianism and don’t leave you wanting to shoot yourself due to their torturous level of banality. In one form or another, it seems most only want to be the kings of their tribes or lords of their own tiny skull-sized kingdoms. It isn’t very difficult to demonstrate this point. Note the recent unfortunate nightmare we find ourselves in and the interactions taking place between Ethiopianists and ethno-nationalist on social media and elsewhere. The predictability of their response to current political events leaves one wondering if they have reconsidered their take on much of the issues they opine on since their enthusiastic university freshman days.
For instance, the (usually Western educated) modern Oromo-nationalist argues, supposedly on behalf of his people, against the oppression of the Oromo looking at history almost exclusively within a colonial framework. He equates “Neftegna” with “whiteness” and talks about decolonizing supremacist feudal views and attempts to fight “systemic oppression” that’s stifling his people. The average Ethiopianist, whose chauvinism he finds difficult to conceal, instead of arguing against the premise of such arguably weak and lazy characterization of Ethiopian history, will scream (mind numbingly predictably) “inferiority complex,” “hate” or “extremist” and walks away feeling morally superior, having won nothing but a long tedious race to the bottom.
The Slovenian Marxist Philosopher and a noted street food decimator Slavoj Zizek’s slightly revised quote about a jealous husband’s need of a cheating wife, taken from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s work, “Four Discourses,” demonstrates our current elites quite well. Zizek writes; “recall Lacan’s outrageous statement that even if what a jealous husband claims about his wife, that she sleeps around with other men is true, his jealousy is still pathological.”
Along the same lines one could say that some of the claims made by the “Ethiopianists” and “ethno-nationalists” about each other is true. For instance, the accusations of chauvinism, cherry picked history, irrational love of monarch’s history by ethno-nationalists levied towards Ethiopian nationalist (Amhara nationalists) has some merit. The accusation levied by (Ethiopian nationalists) that Oromo and Tigray nationalist as being narrow nationalists or harboring secessionist tendencies has some merit as well. But their hysteria about each other is still pathological because it represses the true reason why an ethno-nationalist of a Tigrai, Oromo etc. needs an Ethiopian nationalist (or Amhara nationalist) as enemy to sustain his ideological position.
The same way a jealous husband uses his unfaithful wife as an excuse for his own failures either in sexual or other ways, the ethno-nationalists need the group of elites they call “Neftegna” or “Derg remnants” (who probably deserve those labelings in some cases) in order to maintain his status as a defender of his “own people,” protecting them from a second coming of Derg or Minilik. The “Ethiopianist” or “Amhara nationalist,” for his part, also needs these “backward nativists” “secessionists” and “traitorous ‘bandawoch’” who are working day and night to destroy the romantic myths and idea of a harmoniously functioning cultural order of the nation that his ancestors built and want to return to. Without these enemies to yammer about and rile up the base, maybe one would be forced to examine how he participates in the strengthening of his ethno-nationalist opponents by acting exactly as his opponent portrays him to be to his base. The same applies for the other types of ethno-nationalists who are reinforcing their “opponents.”
In an alternative universe, an “Ethiopianist” who is interested in the project of building a robust nation tackles its’ existential problems head-on collectively, instead of yelling consistently at his enemies or moaning endlessly about a star on a flag (or any other identitarian BS). He pauses long enough to attempt to articulate why an Ethiopia with a dialed down ethno-nationalism is preferable to an ethnically siloed one will be beneficial to each individual and all groups, in a way that recognizes the complexity of history, culture and biases of different nations or groups. When he critiques ethno-centrism, he does so in an empathic and nonjudgemental way that recognizes and understands that countless ordinary folks grew up with their ethnicities as the center of who they are and still have that inclination. Ethiopianism is preached in a language and way of engagement that is understandable and palatable to the audience it is addressing, instead of a declaration of an almost all out culture war, that itself is ironically ethnocentrically essentialist. He entertains the possibility that maybe a destroyed statue of a historical figure he adores in London doesn’t necessarily mean a destroyed Ethiopia, that there are bigger fish to fry. He remembers that it is sort of an established fact that at this point in time monarchies in general suck and being an apologist for it in 2020 is a bit weird. He of course, also, wakes up to the reality that cultural wars waged by waving a tri-colored flag, worshiping Teddy Afro and shrieking “one-Ethiopia!” can only take him so far and is never helpful for anyone advocating a non ethno-centric approach for the country.
In this same alternative universe, the other type of ethno-nationalist, well for one, has stopped being an ethno-nationalist (it is supposed to be a different universe). But at least, for his part, he accepts that the former elites of his tribe also engaged in killings and oppressions and that they benefited substantially from the formation of modern Ethiopia. He acknowledges that the historical trauma he claims his people faced wasn’t exclusive to his people but was faced by the overwhelming majority of his countrymen/women. He has the wisdom to realize that his outrage will produce multiplicatively more results if it was less towards “a Neftegna” or a fellow PhD across his computer screen who seems to be talking down at him, and more towards the overflowing of the literal shit in streets and villages. Those who argue that ethno-centrism is not the end goal but a necessary tactical concession to address historical mistakes and existing limitations in society, do the impossible task of articulating how exactly they will achieve a common socio-economic union through an ethnocentrism that’s generally a mess. Alas, this is not the universe we currently occupy.
For all their bloviating about how much they love whatever region or country they claim to represent or fight for, none of these elites ever, with few exceptions, show their wrath on issues they should righteously be angry about such as the IMF-WB prescribed economic “reforms” that the government is implementing. Privatization of state owned enterprises, liberalizing currency exchange rate etc… which will create exchange rate volatility, imported inflation, macro instability, cronyism, corruption, huge debt pressure, sizable macro imbalances, static export, and increasing inequality that mostly lands its impact on the poorest segment of the population, is almost completely ignored by our elites. Maybe the disregard of these issues is not too surprising given to address them, one is require to care enough to spend some brain power on global and local economic and political systems and study how those systems interact and affect society. Maybe, it’s also because elites won’t necessarily be affected much by these reforms given the class positions they occupy. By simply looking at their actions and rhetoric, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the goal of most of our elites, ultimately, is to hold power and bring themselves and their circle to the ruling class using a large number of frustrated youth and whatever flavor of identitarian/nationalist agenda.
It is not easy to get out of the predicaments of the identitarian authoritarianism hell we are in. Many of the same questions that were raised in the 60s, which have been attempted to be answered in the decades that followed, still need to be answered in a meaningful manner today. One way Ethiopia can answer these questions – a way never brought up by our current elites given it requires resolve and some brain cells – is building a ground-up non-essentialist political project that is cognizant of historical baggages and challenges on the ground powered by multi-ethnic movements directly involving the masses. With all its serious drawbacks and mistakes, the movement of the 60s has at least shown us, it is possible to construct a multi-ethnic mass movement.
Of course the fact of the matter is that we do not have the popularly based, institutionalized, mass political movement that is multi-ethnic and independently powerful enough to force political concessions. We need to realize any kind of progress or the strive for a better Ethiopia can’t be constructed or achieved overnight. Such a movement can’t be spurred by symbolic flag humping events, fleecing diaspora for tribal media enterprises or sobbing on Facebook Live. It can only be constructed by linking large numbers of Ethiopian workers, farmers, students, the surplus population, the urban poor around a political agenda that speaks directly to their demands and aspirations. This, like all organizing is meticulous, laborious, challenging and sadly that may even be something that requires great personal sacrifice. And there is no assurance of a final victory, let alone short-term success. But, to quote Adolph Reed, “there are no alternatives other than fraud, pretense or certain failure.”