Reflections on Nationalism and the Current Ethiopian Politics

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M. Tena Kebede, The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

Nationalism has been a potent political force in Ethiopian politics at least for half a century if not for more. Contending nationalist political forces and groups have vied for supremacy in the country and advocated for the cause of the “nation” as they conceive it. Arguably, Ethiopian nationalists, whose pan-Ethiopian bona fides could legitimately be debated have been and are still active in Ethiopian politics. In fact, such political personalities and groups have been the most dominant and leading political forces in Ethiopia until 1991.  Be it under imperial or military garb, “Ethiopian nationalists” have been the central figures in the Ethiopian political arena. Starting from the 1960’s, if not earlier, the hegemony of “Ethiopian nationalism” has been challenged and constantly contested by various regional and ethnic nationalist (for ease of reference to be referred to as ‘ethno-nationalists’ hereinafter). Eritrean nationalists have paved the way and students and youngsters from different ethnic groups and parts of the country have followed suit. However, it will be wrong to associate ethno-nationalist sentiments exclusively with student political movements of the early 1960’s and 70’s. Earlier peasant revolts also seem to have had nationalist overtones and the Mecha and Tulama Association is also an important entity that played a key role in the emergence of modern-day Oromo nationalism. Such ethno-nationalist movements challenged “Ethiopian nationalism” and depicted it as Amhara ethno-nationalism writ large. They argued that what passes as “Ethiopian nationalism” is not really pan-Ethiopian but something that has space for non-Amhara Ethiopians only to the extent that they are willing to cast away their cultural heritage, including their language and ethnic identity.

The political onslaught against “Ethiopian-nationalism” triumphed and ethno-nationalist discourse gained ascendancy at the seat of power in 1991 when EPRDF and EPLF defeated the Durge/PDRE. The victors quickly went about re-creating the country in accordance with their own vision. EPLF controlled Eretria and with the collaboration of EPRDF formalized the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia.  EPRDF, with OLF as its partner begun reconfiguring the Ethiopian state as an ethno-national federation. Even after the OLF left the transitional government, EPRDF carried out this project with zest and consolidated its vision of multi-national Ethiopia in the 1995 constitution. The Constitution that established the FDRE Constitution proclaimed the sovereignty of “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia” and made the right to self-determination of these ethno-linguistic groups a prominent and pervasive principle of the Constitution. Furthermore, the organization of EPRDF itself as a coalition of parties that are mainly formed along ethnic lines cemented the centrality of “ethno-nationalism” within the new political order. In its political discourse, the EPRDF tried to demystify and deconstruct “Ethiopian nationalism”. It seemed that “Ethiopian nationalism” had become passé.

Then came the Ethio-Eritrean war and in the process of mobilizing the public, EPRDF itself started to echo the “Ethiopian nationalism” of yesteryears. The flag, Ethiopian nationalist songs and symbols came back and during culmination the war. “Ethiopian nationalism” was in full swing. It seemed that those who questioned the relevance of Axum to the Wolaita begun to sing a different tune. After the end of the war, however, it seemed that the fortunes of Ethiopian nationalism were in decline once again. Though there seemed to be a lull in the barrage of ridicule and criticism against Ethiopian nationalism, between the end of the war with Eretria and the advent of the new Ethiopian millennium, Ethiopian nationalism had lost the allure it had for the state. In these years, EPRDF was not openly and actively hostile to Ethiopian nationalism, nor was it actively promoting it. It appeared that EPRDF had become agnostic about “Ethiopian nationalism” once it has seen its practical utility for the state. In this story of contesting nationalisms, the 2005 election was another huge milestone. During that election, the Coalition for Democracy and Unity (CUD) became wildly popular among a very significant percentage of the electorate by campaigning on a platform of “Ethiopian-nationalism”. EPRDF publicly dismissed the CUD as a neo-neftegna party and tried to explain CUD’s electoral success as a “protest vote” that does not reflect genuine support to its platform. Nevertheless, recognizing the widespread and strong nostalgia among certain segments of the population to “Ethiopian nationalism”, EPRDF begun appropriating some of the Ethiopian nationalist rhetoric of CUD. The flag that was ridiculed suddenly became sacrosanct. EPRDF started talking about Ethiopian history as extending beyond the 19th century all the way back to the Axumite Kingdom. “Ethiopian Renaissance” became in vogue and the overarching political and historical framework for the developmentalist orientation of the state.  The celebration of the Ethiopian millennium provided the occasion for the repositioning of EPRDF as a champion of an Ethiopian nationalism of sorts.

Despite the attempt on the part of the late Chairperson of Front to reorient EPRDF’s stance in relation to Ethiopian nationalism, at the end of the day both the constitutional dispensation of the Ethiopian state since 1991/95 as well as the internal organization of the party itself limited the extent to which EPRDF’s flirtations with Ethiopian nationalism could go. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, EPRDF’s attempt to reclaim the mantle of Ethiopian nationalism was also undercut by the perceived and actual inequitable distribution of power, wealth and opportunity in the polity. Many people felt and still believe that the Tigray Regional State has disproportionately benefited from state funded developmental projects in the past two and half decades. Many are also of the view that among the nouveau riche who have emerged since EPRDF has assumed power, a disproportionate percentage happen to be politically connected businessmen and women hailing from Tigray. The conventional wisdom among most citizens seems to be that the Tegaru have been politically dominant (through the TPLF) and economically privileged over the past twenty something years. In addition to this general sense of relative political and economic deprivation which has been quite pervasive, there is also a belief that to protect its privileged position and to maintain the status quo, an oppressive and brutal security apparatus has been unleashed to terrorize and attack those who dare to challenge the regime. Such sentiments have been particularly pronounced in the Oromia regional state. It is within this context that the protests of the past three years have occurred.

OOpposition to the integrated masterplan might have been triggered the protests in Oromia and the Welkayit issue might have been the focal issue for the protests in the Amhara regional state. However, the underlying cause of the frustration and grievances that fueled the protests were the belief that an ethnocentric Kleptocratic oligarchy is denying justice and economic opportunity to the vast majority. The autocratic and closed nature of the regime meant there were few opportunities to express these frustrations through parliamentary politics and other less disruptive ways. It seemed that a vast majority were without representation and a voice in government. ANDM and OPDO were especially perceived as being sham nationalist outfits that did the biding of TPLF. In short, inequality, injustice, oppression, and exploitation were perceived as being inflicted mainly by elites from one ethnic group against everybody else. Therefore, in the political upheaval we have witnessed over the past two or three years, we see a great upsurge of ethnic nationalism and a strong antipathy to the Tegaru. Ethnic nationalism in Oromia seems to be at an all-time high. Even in the Amhara regional state, where ethno-nationalism had hitherto been largely considered as anathema, an explicit and bold advocacy of Amhara nationalism is gaining traction. Suspicion and hostility towards the Tegaru seems to be on the rise as well.

If this state of affairs continues, the danger we face is clear. The upsurge of ethno-nationalism that has some emancipatory and progressive potential could turn in to malevolent and ultra-nationalism. Extremism, hate are already lurking behind all ethno-nationalist movements in the country and the ugly side of nationalism has begun rearing its head. Intolerant, nativist and violent ultra-nationalism with little or no regard to human dignity and the fundamental rights of individuals, animated by hatred and the desire for revenge has already become very visible in our political discourse. Unless such views are neutralized, violent inter-ethnic conflict and genocide, as well as the dismemberment of the state, would be what lies ahead. In this scenario, we will all become losers. We have already sampled the pain, suffering and mayhem our current trajectory can bring about.

So, what should be done? More importantly, who should do what?  I would say that as the most organized and politically dominant political group in the past two decades and half TPLF has a very decisive role in determining whether or not we will be able to avoid our worst nightmares. In this regard, first of all, TPLF has to be willing to a recalibration of the power balance within the EPRDF to ensure that there will be an equitable power sharing within the Front and that members of the coalition will become genuine partners. TPLF has to learn to live and make its peace with the new and assertive stance of OPDO and ANDM. The recalibration of power within EPRDF should not be aimed at satisfying the ego, ambition or greed of political elites from any ethnic groups. A higher and grander vision for a just, prosperous and peaceful Ethiopia should be the common denominator around which the EPRDF should be built. Towards this end, all parties within the EPRDF must be willing to clean their house and put an end to the ethnocentric crony-capitalism and racketeering that has been going on for decades. TPLF, as the senior party in the EPRDF that built up this system has to take the lead in this regard. This cannot be done overnight, but it is something that must be done. The greed, corruption and crude opportunism that has become the hallmark of the regime has to be tackled in a systematic, credible and institutionalized manner. There should not be any holy cows.

A cleaner, revitalized EPRDF with a grand pan-Ethiopian vision is not, however, the solution to what ails the country. I believe it could be part of the solution. But we need much more than that. If we want to beat back the specter of ultra-nationalism we need to become a society where there is rule of law, with a strong, independent and fair machinery of justice. We need to become a country where fundamental human rights are respected and the people get to decide who shall rule them. In other words, in addition to getting its house in order, EPRDF should be ready for genuine political liberalization and democracy. Only then can we reverse the dangerous and worrisome rise of ultra-nationalism. We have been dancing on the brink, in reckless disregard to common sense, decency and the demands of justice. We have courted disaster for too long and as a result, especially over the past three years, so many lives have been lost, so much blood has been shed. Too many have suffered and wounded. Enough is enough! They say that one should never let a crisis go to waste. We have been in one huge mess, a great political crisis which brings with it a great opportunity to fix things and reform our broken politics. This is an opportunity for the EPRDF to redeem itself and rectify many of the wrongs and injustices it is responsible for. History does not give too many second chances. It will be very tragic and foolish if those in positions of authority in the country opt for business as usual. I hope and pray that we have all learned our lesson!

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