By Teklu Abate
Following the election on 2 April 2018 (by the EPRDF) of Dr Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, there was massive, country-wide popular support for him and euphoria for social change. Substantial changes are made to cabinet composition. New commissions and agencies are established to harness smooth transition to genuine democracy. Political prisoners are released and the infamous Maekelawi jail is turned in to a museum. The secretive imperial palace (considered by the many as Death Valley, as many are killed and buried there by the Imperial and Derg regimes) is renovated and is made open for public visit. All types of media are set free and free speech is made part of public reality. Successful diplomatic initiatives are undertaken with neighbouring countries which mainly contributed to the award of the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 to Dr Abiy.
In his efforts to introduce and sustain a qualitatively different political dynamic in Ethiopia, Dr Abiy, as expected, faced hurdles after hurdles which cost Ethiopia dearly in terms of irreplaceable human lives. The scoio-cultural capital built by ethnic groups for years seems to shake up by the tremors. Ethnic-based skirmishes drive millions out of their ancestral lands and villages. The Nobel Peace Prize moments of happiness are immediately dashed out by the heartless carnage of 86 Ethiopians. Surprisingly, much of the chaos is taking place within Dr Abiy’s political constituency, Oromia. The ruling party, EPRDF, is in disarray. On top of all these, it is declared that Ethiopia aspires to hold general/national elections in 2020. All these seem to create a strong sense of bewilderness as to what trajectory the country is taking and how. Who is responsible for all these social evils? How can we Ethiopians overcome the hurdles and establish a lasting democratic culture?
This piece aims to contribute toward a clear conception of the struggle for genuine democracy in terms of its particular challenges and possible ameliorating strategies. It has to be made clear that this is not an academic-like discussion of social and political change; it is more of a reflection of my desire to see an empowering and lasting change in Ethiopia. I do not claim that my contribution is not pure original; I try to map out the fundamental challenges of the struggle based on media coverages, my observations and Paulo Freire’s famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) conception of humanity, oppression, empowerment, and change. The late Brazilian philosopher Freire received numerous awards for his works which influenced popular struggles for freedom in Latin America and worldwide. I believe that any struggle for freedom can benefit from Freire’s philosophy. My use of his conception in this piece is but limited to conceptions of challenges facing a struggle like ours. If we Ethiopians dare to think higher and clearer, we can ensure that poverty, tribalism, dictatorship and war kiss the abyss of history for good.
The target readers of my piece are the silent but highly educated Ethiopians at home and abroad, activists and commentators, the media (social and broadcast), opposition party leaders, civil society organizations, religious institutions, and EPRDF leadership, its members and active supporters. Considering the size of the Ethiopian population, these are obviously the minority, but they have been and still defining what trajectory Ethiopia takes. They do have the means and the capitals needed and can easily get the trust of the majority. That these sections of society seem to have differing and competing worldviews also further justify the need to target these readers for my piece.
Formidable challenges for Abiy and Ethiopia
Creating and sustaining an all-inclusive democratic system is not an easy feat. Ethiopia now faces colossal challenges of all sorts. I outlined below some fundamental challenges that are castrating our ambition and confidence toward complete and sustainable liberation and genuine democratic governance. The most threatening and incapacitating factor taking the entire country as a hostage is the emergence of new clones of oppressors who were once among the oppressed majority. The unity and integrity of Ethiopia seems to be shaken by this new breed of oppressors.
The oppressed turned as the oppressor
Due to the dehumanizing nature of oppressors, who are defined here as those who 1) do not freely think and act responsibly to actualize their dreams, and 2) do limit or challenge by any means available the free will and action of others, it is likely that the formerly oppressed (who were among the oppressed by the TPLF-led dictatorship) use dehumanizing strategies against their oppressors and the general populace to arrive at their goals. The TPLF is known for using the intelligence facilities, the police, the military, public media, and other institutions to castrate every free move of the citizenry. They were the real oppressors or at least leaders of the oppressors until April 2018. Now the TPLF and its entourage are technically gone, cornered and hopelessly kicking their shells from afar, Mekelle. What is worrisome and shameful is that several of those who once fought for overcoming TPLF-induced and run oppression turn themselves into new oppressors. Using the structures and arrangements they created during and in the fight against the TPLF, the new oppressors keep terrorizing the general populace. Their discourses freely expressed in social and mass media reveal zest for sheer dominance, power, exclusion, dehumanization, torture, intimidation, and persecution. Their discourses and talks embody actions, hence the senseless killings we happen to witness across Ethiopia.
For reasons ascribed to ethnic interests, the formerly oppressed (who include many from activists, politicians, the youth, and even the highly educated) turned themselves violent and are systematically incapacitating state machinery and the popular struggle for genuine transition to democracy. Enjoying at times state protection and the other opportunities the struggle bear so far, the new oppressors position themselves as formidable forces who are fighting for the causes of Oromia. The new oppressors embrace sectarian and fanatic rhetorics. This qualifies them as the most formidable forces that can send their tremors overnight and shake the entire landscape of Ethiopia. These new oppressors have tentacles that parallel and outsmart government structures and arrangements all the way from the federal offices down to the Kebeles. The new oppressors paralyze federal and regional government bureaucracies and threaten to cause even more damage if provoked. This gives sleepless nights to the incumbent, Dr Abiye and his government, as well as to all peace-loving Ethiopians.
Fanaticism and sectarianism
Destructive fanaticism and sectarianism also challenge the integrity of the struggle and are about to miscarriage liberation. Ethnic-based political discourses are being constructed and promoted everywhere. The majority of the 140 political parties including the ruling party, EPRDF, are organized along ethnic lines. Ethnic discourses are by their very nature incompatible to each other and hence are exclusionary. The validity and fecundity of a particular ethnic discourse is ensured at the expense of other discourses. This logic partly leads to fanaticism, sectarianism, ethnic hatred, and then persecution. Much of the political debates we have in Ethiopia is framed within this hoax. This makes it difficult to incept, develop, and sustain political discourses based on quality of ideas and policies. The prime minister tried hard to create and sustain a political culture and ambition that transcend ethnicity but to no avail. Ethnicity is the lifeblood of political organization and operation in Ethiopia. This type of politics is like a Blackbox; once you are sucked in, there does not seem to have a chance to escape back. Unfortunately, a sizable portion of the population in one way or another plays around sectarianism.
A not negligible part of the population is identifying with the new and the old oppressors. The oppressors boast to have millions of active members and supporters at their disposal. Many play the role of bandas, covertly serving the interests of the oppressors. The recent massacres in the various parts of Ethiopia are testimonies to the existence of a populace base for the new oppressors. On top of that, a minority group from the former oppressors has special and often times political and economic interests and ties with the new oppressors. For they fear for their own safety, prosperity, and influence, these groups are putting to the liberation struggle hurdles after hurdles.
Some radicals in the struggle create, consciously or otherwise, in the name of popular struggle, emotional, moral, and/or psychological dependence on the mass. The mass may then think that it is only the leaders who should decide and act. Plus, the leaders of the oppressed may unconsciously own the struggle. Self-declared leaders of ethnic groups and social movements work smart and hard to create psychological dependence on their followers. Followers religiously submit to the whims of their self-appointed leaders. The former considers the latter as their messiahs, protectorates, and liberators. This state of dependency does not discriminate political parties; the prime minister, leaders of political parties and ethnic groups have many unquestioning followers who psychologically and morally depended on them. This state of mind is itself limiting, oppressive, dehumanizing, and castrates genuine struggle for democratic governance in Ethiopia.
As the liberation moves forward, people from the former oppressor side left their ranks and files and joined the new political climate. The converts shamelessly feel that they are capable and experienced, and hence they want to lead the new struggle. Abiy’s philosophy of Synergy seems to come to their rescue. That is why we see many of them are still assuming key public positions and easily mingling with Dr Abiy. More depressing is that converts may not trust the mass. In a way, converts may not be able to bring a profound change in their world views and actions which may pose a particular challenge to the struggle. That is partly why they appear indecisive, insecure, and actionless- all these in the end rests in shaming and blaming the prime minister. The converts are real menaces to the further progression of the change process in Ethiopia. They are in constant fear of being persecuted and prosecuted someday should the change matures and solidifies itself.
Fear of freedom
The oppressed lack self-confidence in openly challenging the new system and its elements that frustrate genuine change. The oppressed self-depreciate, as they are treated like powerless, lazy, and envious by the old and new oppressors alike. The majority feel and fear that pushing this new structure a little further might trigger the outbreak of a protracted civil war. The majority of the population is still indifferent; it stands tall and quiet in the midst of all the killings, persecutions and bogus prosecutions. The oppressors (old and new) also fear real freedom and democracy, as they always consider that liberation is possible only at the expense of their safety and comfort. So, both the oppressed majority and the (old and new) oppressors fear to engage in meaningful deliberations that could result in the founding of genuine democratic governance systems in Ethiopia.
I would like to make some closing remarks. One, struggle for complete liberation and democratic governance requires profound love for people, humility, intense faith in people capacity/potential, mutual trust, hope, self-regulation, and critical thinking. Two, confront the culture of oppression culturally (deal with the world views, consciousness, actions, ethics… of the oppressor). Three, oppression embodies violence; the initiator of violence, terror, despotism, dissatisfaction, and hatred is the oppressor. If the oppressor is not willing to come to terms with peaceful struggle, the oppressed have that right of using any means thought to meet the goal- to liberate the oppressor and the oppressed alike. The latter can also restrict the movements of converts and others who appear to castrate the struggle. Four, if the oppressor is willing to have genuine dialogue possibly leading to national consensus and reconciliation, the oppressed MUST participate genuinely. Five, leaders of the struggle MUST understand the fact that they fight not for the people but with the people. Six, the goal of the struggle, to liberate the oppressor and the oppressed, MUST be constantly articulated and communicated to all sections of the society including to those linked to the oppressors. Seven, we can deliberately forget what the old and new oppressors have been doing against us and focus more on the now and the future.
I finish this piece by quoting from Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (1994), as it mightily summarizes my arguments: “I told white audiences that we needed them and did not want them to leave the country. They were South Africans just like ourselves and this was their land, too. I would not mince words about the horrors of apartheid, but I said, over and over, that we should forget the past and concentrate on building a better future for all” (736 – 737).
We shall be free!!!