November 5, 2019
by Messay Kebede
It is with great interest that I have read René Lefort’s analysis and prognosis of the political situation of Ethiopia in an article titled “A flicker in the Gloom.” There is no doubt that the recent bloody disturbances have not only exposed the deep divide threatening the stability and unity of the country, but they also gave a clear picture of what is in store if nothing is done to reduce the violent tendency of the political fractures. Lefort’s analysis looks pertinent, indeed. It starts from the observation that the coalition of parties that rule the country is unable to govern because it is contested both locally and at the national level by “informal local groups of influential personalities or new community groups.” This loss of authority and control to groups that are often armed is evidenced by the widespread insecurity and the frequent ethnic clashes at the local level and by indecisions and discords at the national level.
Without a prior agreement between the contending forces and the return of some stability and security, the scheduled election cannot produce any outcome that has a remote chance of being considered as legitimate.
To this already tense situation are added two exacerbating factors, namely, the upcoming scheduled national elections and the project to merge the ruling coalition of parties into one party. The exasperating impact of the two upcoming events is but obvious. National elections will not only increase the competition between different parties and influential leaders, but, more importantly, the absence of accepted norms and rules, the persistence of insecurity, and the wide ideological disparities among the contending forces make impossible the reaching of a minimum of consensus over the results, whatever the results may be. Without a prior agreement between the contending forces and the return of some stability and security, the scheduled election cannot produce any outcome that has a remote chance of being considered as legitimate. In other words, the election, assuming that it can still take place or avoid any major disruption, will not provide any solution to issues dividing the country, and this is contrary, says Lefort, to Abiy’s expectation that it “will finally be legitimate enough to build a coalition which can set the course to resolve two key issues.”
As to the project of unifying the ruling party into one party, in addition to alarming ethnonationalist groups within the ruling coalition as well as in various opposition parties, has already led to the formation of open alliance directed against Abiy and his followers. This alliance of ethnonationalist forces, which also comprises the TPLF, constitutes by far the greatest threat to Abiy’s premiership. Because the ethnonationalist opposition is both internal and external, it does not give Abiy much room to maneuver; worse, it is progressively pushing the country to the edge of the precipice.
What is noteworthy is that, after underlining the political impasse of the country, Lefort admits that both poles, namely, “Abiy pole” and the “ethnic federalist pole”, “would eventually need to become decidedly multi-ethnic.” One is tempted to ask, why then speak of impasse? If both poles cannot but accommodate the reality of a multiethnic Ethiopia, where is the ideological chasm that separates them? Lefort’s insight is true: the survival of Ethiopia as one country, to which all the major parties seem to subscribe, at least officially, depends on the recognition and acceptance of its multiethnic political representations. Accordingly, this fact should be the basis for a broad agreement as regards the upcoming election and the prospect of forming a governing coalition if the results are not decisive enough to produce a ruling majority.
Lefort’s article does not clarify the mystery of the political impasse even as the major parties agree on the essential issue, namely, on the need to include in their program the reality of a multiethnic Ethiopia. Yet, the underlining issue that causes the rift is anything but elusive, for the issue is not so much the acceptance or not of multiethnicism as the hegemonic aspiration of some of the contending parties. Since its very inception, the Ethiopian federal system has operated under one hegemonic party, the TPLF. The expectation of change following the collapse of the rule of the TPLF was the establishment of a true, democratic federal system. But neither the TPLF nor ethnonationalist elites were willing to work for the implementation of a federal system free of the patronage of a dominant party, even though the main reason that brought about the change was the refusal of the TPLF to give up its domineering position.
Despite this clear demonstration that federalism in the TPLF style does not work, ethnonationalist elites, especially among the Oromo elite, pursue the goal of taking up the position previously occupied by the TPLF. Hence their opposition to Abiy: they accuse him, in concert with the TPLF, of not defending the interests of the Oromo and, worst still, of contemplating to get rid of the federal system. In their eyes, on several grounds, including the fact that the Oromo youth spearheaded the uprising against the TPLF and paid the heaviest sacrifice, it is the turn of the Oromo elite to rule Ethiopia. And Abiy should act less as the prime minister of Ethiopia than as the representative of the Oromo elite, much like Meles prioritized the interests of the Tigrean elite.
This competition has two facets: the one involves Oromo ethnonationalist radicals, the other has to do with the TPLF’s desire to regain its previous position by fomenting widespread unrest and insecurity.
This is to say that the sole political issue that is behind the insecurity problems, the clashes between ethnic groups, and the threat to the unity of the country is this competition for a hegemonic position. This competition has two facets: the one involves Oromo ethnonationalist radicals, the other has to do with the TPLF’s desire to regain its previous position by fomenting widespread unrest and insecurity. The only obstacle standing in the way of these projects is Abiy and his ideology of “medemer” To all appearances, the understanding that any resumption of a hegemonic rule in the federal system will definitively break up the alliance between the Oromo and the Amhara (otherwise known as oromara)––which alliance constitutes the cornerstone of the unity of the country––seems to be at the root of Abiy’s vision. Ethnonationalists want Ethiopia only in their own terms so that its survival is never an absolute; medemer sees survival as the continuation of past history but amended by the implementation of a democratic and collaborative relationship between ethnic groups.
The manner “victims” constructed the offender u-turned and became the mirror through which they see and value themselves.
I see no better way to validate this cultural transformation than to refer to the way an Oromo intellectual, Asefa Jaleta, described the situation in the Horn of Africa prior to Menilik’s expansion. He writes: “the Oromo and the Abyssinians were the main contenders in the Horn of Africa” (Oromia & Ethiopia, 1993, p. 8). This competition for hegemony resulted in the victory of Abyssinians because European colonialist forces provided Menilik with firearms, thereby thwarting the Oromo project of a “permanent dominance over Abyssinia” (Oromia & Ethiopia, p. 22). What else is Asefa doing but portraying the Oromo and the Amhara in exactly the same terms? As was the case with the Woyanne narrative on the superiority of the Tigrean people, with today’s Oromo ethnonationalists, the imperative is to revive and implement the hegemonic design that was thwarted by Menilik, who was but a stooge of European colonialism. The disease eating the Ethiopian social fabric may, therefore, be summarized thus: the manner “victims” constructed the offender u-turned and became the mirror through which they see and value themselves. This volte-face feeds on the pursuit for hegemony that is tearing up the country, thereby blocking the democratic resolution of the serious and pending problems.
The irony about the rise of ethnonationalist ideology in Ethiopia is the transformation of victimhood into its opposite, that is, into a hegemonic mentality. Since the 60s, Oromo and Tigrean elites have described themselves, no doubt based on some true historical facts, as victims of Amhara domination. To support their struggle, they have produced narratives that deliberately disparaged and at times distorted Ethiopian history and social relations. Unfortunately, the concepts they have constructed to describe Amhara elite and domination boomeranged on them so that they began to see themselves through the same lens. They thus generated a culture that aspires to be as domineering as the Amhara they constructed. The consequence is that they could find no other way to regain their self-respect than through the installation of their own hegemonic rule.