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Author: Messay Kebede

Ethiopia’s Fragmented Elites: Origins and Syndromes

By Messay Kebede

One question that regularly and intensely consumes the mind of many Ethiopians is the question of knowing why Ethiopian elites are unable to work together. Especially those opposing the TPLF regime, even though they are well aware that the regime is their common enemy, invariably prove unable to agree on a common political agenda, let alone to act in concert to remove their common foe. Is the failure to act jointly due to irrational forces or is it the outcome of definite causes that are susceptible of a rational explanation? This paper is an attempt to rationally comprehend the failure, with the hope that some such comprehension will have a liberating impact, obvious as it is that the conscious awareness of the forces of division is liable to significantly reduce their grip on the mind of Ethiopian elites.

The first answer that springs to mind to the question why Ethiopian elites are unable to work together is, of course, the lack of unity. But the latter is more of a question than an answer. For, why is there such a deficiency of unity? Why are elites, despite their enduring frustration toward the regime, nay their recurring conviction that the regime is leading the country to chaos, incapable of overcoming their divisions?

The seriousness of the matter forces us to look for causes transcending the immediate preoccupations of Ethiopian elites, the very ones having to do with historical reasons. I submit that the most compelling causes are historical in that the lack of unity is a product of the ideological and political struggles since the dawn of the Ethiopian process of modernization. Let me explain.

Socio-Historical Causes

The appearance of a centralized and oppressive government and its ever-tightening grip over the country as essential ingredients of the Ethiopian process of modernization have entailed a growing rivalry over the control of power and wealth among old and emerging elites. As the progress of modernization modified the Ethiopian social fabric, the rivalry intensified. It reached its peak in the 60s when the conflict between the old nobility and the imperial state on the one hand and the various modern sectors (students, intellectuals, the emerging bourgeoisie, the bureaucratic and military elites, etc.) on the other hand increasingly took a political and ideological form.

Where there is no enough wealth, state power becomes the privileged instrument to exclude competitors. The need to exclude generates, in turn, radical ideologies either in the form of hardened conservatism or extreme revolutionarism. The function of radical ideologies is to justify the political exclusion of opponents. Thus, to the conservatism of the nobility and the imperial state in the 60s and early 70s, students and intellectuals opposed socialism and ethnonationalism. The ideology of socialism allows elites to claim that they are the sole representatives of the working people, thereby depriving other competing elites of the right to represent the overwhelming majority of the people. As to ethnonationalism, it restricts the right to represent a given ethnic group to native elites, and so denies all political legitimacy to non-kin elites. Unsurprisingly, both ideologies justify absolute power as necessary to effect the exclusion.

The characteristics of a state whose function is to exclude rivals are quite different from a democratic state. In the latter, not only conflicts are recognized, but they are also provided with the means of reaching an accommodation based on the verdict of the people. The provision of accommodation prevents the recourse to violence to settle disputes. By contrast, the excluding state rejects all form of accommodation, leaving to opponents no other choice than the overthrow of the state by violent means.

This politics of exclusion foments a culture of confrontation pursuing a zero-sum game. The fact that winners take all, in addition to exasperating the conflicts between elites, inaugurates an endless cycle of violent confrontations during which one group overthrows the ruling elite until it is itself overthrown by another group and so on. The intensification of conflicts undermines the unity of the country and, most of all, weakens the ability of elites to work together by fostering a culture of mutual animosity and mistrust. As a result, the effort to generate a democratic state is repeatedly foiled. Clearly, these characteristics trace an accurate portrait of the Ethiopian state and elites.

The main drawback of a state practicing exclusion is the lack of legitimacy. One group subduing other groups by means of force does not mean that the subdued groups recognize the authority of the state and are willing to obey. On the contrary, the groups are in a state of permanent rebellion and are just waiting for the opportunity to reverse the situation in their favor. However, their expectation makes victims of the lack of legitimacy of the state by nurturing an anarchic idea of entitlement to power. Indeed, where the state lacks legitimacy, many individuals feel entitled to aspire for the ownership of power. This aspiration stands in the way of the effort to create a collaborative spirit among elites by ignite mistrust and rivalry.

A pertinent illustration of fragmentation is the tendency to create parties revolving around individuals rather than being based on ideas and goals. Nothing better confirms the truth of this analysis than the anarchic proliferation of parties in Ethiopia whose number is estimated to be more than eighty. Worse yet, these parties have the tendency to split into smaller parties because disagreements cannot be managed democratically. Given that influential individuals consider political parties as their private possession, they are apt to create a splinter party by walking away with their followers each time internal disputes arise.

Extraverted Psyche

One must not forget that the flourishing of radical ideologies in Ethiopia is a direct consequence of modern education. Insofar as a system of education alien to the country’s history and culture has shaped modern Ethiopian elites, it has greatly facilitated the absorption of imported ideologies. The main outcome of Western education is not only to undermine the inherited common culture, but it is also to inculcate the paradigm of modernity versus tradition. The weakening of the common culture lessens unity while the paradigm of modernity values imitativeness by advocating the rejection of whatever is traditional as uncivilized, backward and by painting Western countries as the model to follow.

This copyism or extraverted psyche is one of the reasons why the modern educated sector of Ethiopian society easily adopted Marxism-Leninism, which was the dominant ideology in the 60s and early 70s. The Marxist-Leninist definition of political struggle as a resolute elimination of rivals, as opposed to the accommodative stand of democracy, became the rule for Ethiopian elites, while ideological radicalization further exasperated their conflicts to the point where they were perceived as irreconcilable. The high point of these antagonistic relationships was none other than the insidious proliferation of ethnonationalism among the educated elites.

The Lack of Galvanizing Ideas

The progressive decline of the fascination with Marxism-Leninism as a result of repeated economic and political failures of socialist countries and the prevalence of liberal democracy constitute an additional reason for the fragmentation of elites. The undeniable power of Marxism-Leninism was that it was a galvanizing ideology in that it identified the interests of elites with the liberation and empowerment of the working masses. The identification provided a nationalist vision investing elites, especially students and intellectuals, with the electrifying mission of becoming the liberators of the masses from oppression and exploitation and of their country from imperialism. Liberalism offers none of the excitements associated with revolutionary goals.

True, liberalism can inspire a fervent defense of freedom that can be as revolutionary as the idea of socialism. But we must see it in the context of Ethiopia, that is, of a mentality not yet emancipated from the totalitarian doctrine of the 60s. Such a mentality could not but amalgamate liberalism with Leninism, the outcome of which is the confusion of liberalism with individualism. The attempt to combine ethnonationalism with liberal principles, as sadly exemplified by the ruling ideology of the TPLF, is the worst form of the confusion.

The amalgam tries to apply liberalism while suppressing freedom in all its manifestations because of the Leninist remnant of politics defined as exclusion of opponents. Together with the caricature of liberalism by those who control power, there spreads among elites the interpretation of liberalism in the direction of selfish individualism. For this distorted liberalism, individuals should not be concerned about other people; their only worry should be their own interests so that all pursuit of grand causes is devalued. Clearly, where egoistic individualism becomes the norm, unity of purpose among elites is difficult to achieve.

In Ethiopia, the unity of purpose has been seriously hindered both by the proliferation of ethnonationalist ideologies and by the inability to find a matching or counter ideology against ethnonationalism. The choice is reduced to being either a supporter, an opponent, or a resigned tolerant of ethnonationalism. The perversion of Ethiopia with ethnonationalist ideologies is a stumbling block to the formation of a common purpose if only because the threat to the integrity of the nation deprives competitors of a common cause. Since elites rejecting the Ethiopian nationhood aspire either to secede or to become dominant, they cannot work together with those who defend the unity of the nation, still less can they accept an all-embracing ideology.

Divide-and-Rule Strategy and the Politics of Fear

Given that the fragmentation of Ethiopian elites along ethnic lines is the work of the TPLF, it follows that the main culprit for the lack of unity is the TPLF regime itself. It is important to note here that the TPLF did not only divide Ethiopia along ethnic states, but it also opted for a terrorist method of government, the essential function of which is the inculcation of fear. Government by fear has a paralyzing effect: though the overwhelming majority of elites is set against the regime, it cannot act in concert to get rid of the regime because of the paralyzing effect of fear. Instead of action, resignation takes the lead with the consequence that the dislike of the regime never transcends the subjective realm of feelings so as to translate into political action.

Be it noted that one of the effects of fear is the propensity to justify the postponement of political action. Indeed, fear provides justification for not acting together by enhancing little differences to the level of a fundamental disagreement. To the question of why opponents do not act together to remove the regime, the ready answer is the absence of agreement. Magnifying minor differences is how fear camouflaged itself into a valid reason for not acting, thereby avoiding the risks and dangers implied in political action. Not only does fear paralyze, but it also inspires fragmentation as a way of deferring political action. It is because dictatorial governments know that elites broken by fear cannot act in concert that they resort to systematic campaigns designed to spread fear.

In default of promoting action, fear encourages wishful thinking. Terror induces hope but in the form of magic or fantasy. Evidence of this is the recurrent predication of an imminent collapse of the regime by many opponents. By underestimating the strength and survival capacity of the regime, they tell us that it is on its last legs, though nothing is being done to turn the hope into reality. This kind of magical faith is another way of avoiding the risks and sacrifices necessary to actually remove the regime. There is some consolation in doing nothing when it is believed that magical forces are bound to intervene in our favor.

Beyond the Humiliated Generation

All the defects hampering rival elites pertain to a generation that has gone through the bitter experience of defeat and humiliation. The dreams of the generation of the 60s and early 70s have been squashed by the victory of the Derg whose dictatorial rule decimated its morale and that of their offspring. Both were offered nothing but the humiliation of a massive exodus. Whether they stayed in the country or left, all experienced another cycle of humiliating events when they witnessed, powerless, the defeat of the Ethiopian army, the invasion of the country by an ethnic army, and the secession of Eritrea. It is hard not to infer from these events a severe damage to Ethiopian nationalism and an erosion of self-confidence such that the generation’s belief in its ability to accomplish great things has received a deadly blow. Without self-confidence, the readiness to unite for a great cause is also likely to suffer gravely.

Defeat and humiliation entail leadership crisis. Just as a defeated army questions the competence of its commanding officers, so too a vanquished generation loses faith in leadership. Once leadership is distrusted, the willingness to unite in an organization is drastically reduced. No less than the need to accomplish great goals, confidence in leaders is a requirement of unity. Without exaggeration, leadership crisis is one of the crucial setbacks of post-revolutionary Ethiopia, all the more so as the Ethiopian culture is prone to the cult of heroes, as witnessed by the fact that its past history shows that the death or the exceptional courage of leaders often determined the fate of wars.

It would be naive to expect from a wounded generation the solutions to Ethiopia’s numerous problems. What was ruined by one generation cannot be fixed by the same generation. True change requires, above all, culture change, which takes time because it is a matter of creativity and growth. In short, real change is a generational issue. The TPLF, secessionist groups, and their opponents are all products of the dominant culture of the 60s. Their collaborations and conflicts show that society follows a determined path until it sees a precipice. The generation that takes the precipice as a precipice, and not as a redress of a vile social order, is the one called upon to change the direction. It sees an impasse in what other characterize as positive or negative developments.

When things go wrong, the culprits and their opponents are the two poles of the same reality. To the extent that the thinking of the one is just the opposite of the other, they are one and the same, as they remain tied to each other by their very contradiction. Thus, as action and reaction, the Derg and the TPLF are one and the same. That is why many of the actions of the TPLF often give us the impression of a déjà vu. That is why also, just as the Derg, the TPLF is unable to solve the problems of Ethiopia.

The generation that is free of the thinking uniting the Derg and the TPLF is alone able to bring real change to Ethiopia. However, the condition of its emancipation grows from the previous opposition, the development of which draws the limit beyond which the precipice lies. Reaching the limit clears the ground for the new, for “where danger is, also grows the saving power,” as says Heidegger. Whether such a generation is in sight is hard to tell. One thing is sure, though: the best that the defeated generation and perhaps their immediate descendant can do is to take a hard critical look at themselves and exchange their ambition to remain makers of history for the much more subdued role of midwife of the coming repaired generation.

(The writer, Dr Messay Kebede, can be reached at [email protected])

The conditional nature of TPLF’s Ethiopiawinet

By Messay Kebede

A friend recently sent me a video presenting Sebhat Nega’s defense of the TPLF constitution. My friend was rightly amazed at the dismissive and arrogant nature of the defense. My reaction wandered a bit in the direction of assessing the origin of the defense: I could not help but ask what torturous path led a Tigrean to a defense erasing the shared legacy of a very long history. Let me first briefly summarize the content of Sebhat’s discourse.

Sebhat refers to a hypothetical situation where opponents intent on dismissing the TPLF constitution succeed in seizing power. Sebhat emphatically predicts the inevitable disintegration of Ethiopia and the outbreak of war. According to him, the TPLF constitution is the foundation of Ethiopian unity. It originated from a consensus of all the peoples of Ethiopia and remains the sole guarantee of equality. Since equality is the basis of unity, any change altering its main principles inexorably entails the collapse of unity. In his assumption, this almost happened in 2005 when forces inimical to the constitution scored important electoral gains. If the movement had not been violently crushed, it would have certainly resulted in war and disintegration.

By way of illustration, Sebhat takes the case of the United States. The foundation of the American federation is the Constitution, which, if changed, will entail the disintegration of the country. For Sebhat, what Ethiopians have in common with Americans is precisely that for both of them constitutional consensus is the source of nationalism. Just as American nationalism is tied to a constitutional document, so too Ethiopian nationalism derives from the TPLF constitution.

I leave out Sebhat’s illusion that the TPLF constitution originated from a consensus of all the peoples of Ethiopia when we know too well that said consensus was imposed on powerless peoples by the victorious Tigrean and Eritrean guerrilla armies. However, the illusion metamorphoses into arrogance when Sebhat compares the TPLF constitution with the American Constitution. The latter promotes individual rights while the TPLF constitution gives primacy to group rights, that is, to ethnic belonging, the consequence of which is that it works against national integration by isolating and nurturing ethnic states. States in Ethiopia are not administrative units that decentralize power and empower local communities but ethnic enclaves that create national borders within the nation and grant them with the right to secede.

What is most appalling and utterly false is Sebhat’s declaration that the fundamental act of being Ethiopian is an outcome of the TPLF constitution. How could it be so when what we all know so far is that the Ethiopian state and society have their origin in the distant history of the Aksumite kingdom and that their cultural features and history testify to a long and uninterrupted legacy that equally involved Tigreans and Amharas? Even our recent history defines Yohannes, not as the emperor of Tigray, but as the emperor of Ethiopia. The unequivocal reality is thus that Ethiopian nationhood is defined by history, and not by the acceptance of the 1994 constitution. Here we can extend to Ethiopia Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement, to wit, “Europe was created by History; America by Philosophy.” Rather than the constitution begetting Ethiopian nationhood, it presupposes it as the object of its rectification. This reversal of the correct order is typical of the thinking of the TPLF and is reflected in the first statement of the preamble in the form of “We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.”

Let me ask a question: when the guerrilla army of the TPLF marched into Amhara territory and finally into Addis Ababa and seized state power, were we supposed to assume that Ethiopia did not exist yet? But then, there is nothing that prevents us from qualifying the march as an invasion of foreign troops, nay, as a colonial conquest. Since I am sure that Sebhat will contest such a characterization, then why does he keep defining Ethiopianness by a constitution when the country existed for a long time prior to the writing of the constitution?

What Sebhat is in reality revealing is the conditional nature of his Ethiopianism. He is Ethiopian so long as the constitution, imposed by the TPLF and conducive to its hegemony over Ethiopia, is the supreme law of the land. What this means if not that Tigray will not agree to remain within Ethiopia if the TPLF loses its hegemonic position. I cannot speak for all Tigreans, among whom many are dedicated Ethiopians, but Sebhat’s position shows that the leadership of the TPLF has been and still is appropriated by individuals who have always posed the issue of Ethiopian unity in conditional terms.

This conditionality explains why many pro-Ethiopian activists and intellectuals consider Sebhat and his likes as nothing more than stooges of the EPLF. Yet, their support for Eritrean independence is just a logical conclusion of their conditional Ethiopianness. One cannot be conditionally Ethiopian while being a resolute defender of the territorial integrity of Ethiopia. Moreover, the hegemonic goal of the TPLF could hardly accommodate a rival organization like the EPLF. Both ideological consistency and interest dictated the TPLF’s determined effort to oust Eritrea from Ethiopia.

Obviously, the perceived fragility of the system subsequent to the demise of Meles Zenawi now drives TPLF people to blackmail Ethiopians. If the TPLF does not rule, Sebhat promises the deluge. Is this not to admit that two decades of forceful enforcement of the constitution were not enough to generate even a semblance of consensus? What a brilliant achievement! Sebhat sounds like those children who agree to play with other children provided they always win.

Stop predicting and start working for the fall of the Meles regime

By Messay Kebede

What I have grown to dislike is the reading of articles predicting the {www:imminent} collapse of Meles and his regime. Often written by people who sound serious, the articles affirm, with a nauseating regularity, that the regime is on its last legs without, however, giving any evidence supporting their prediction, except the state of generalized dissatisfaction of the Ethiopian society. Recently, the tendency to predict has reached a new high owning to the expected domino effect of the Arab Spring, as though some similarities were enough to cause a {www:momentous} event as the overthrow of a political system.

While I understand that such predictions express impatience at the increasingly repressive nature of the regime and its arrogant treatment of the opposition, unfortunately, they also reveal an irresponsible and reckless optimism. Does it require anything more than plain common sense to understand that talks about an imminent collapse do no more than demobilize people? Moreover, underestimation of what people are up against is likely to suppress the resources that they need in order to prevail. If well-intentioned people keep telling that the regime is tottering, what else is one to do but wait safely for the announced event to happen? That is why I sometimes wonder whether the predictors are not hidden agents of the regime: indeed, what better means to demobilize a people than to feed it with illusions?

That there is a general dissatisfaction in Ethiopia is a fact. That this dissatisfaction can only intensify as the regime remains deaf to calls for reasonable and mutually beneficial reforms is another given. Even so, those who display a misplaced optimism should understand that generalized dissatisfaction is a necessary condition of popular uprising but not a sufficient one. As shown by many countries around the world, repressive regimes can last for decades despite generalized discontent. To take a very recent example, it took more than forty years for Libyans to get rid of Gadhafi, and they did so, not by wishful thinking, but by an armed uprising. What is more, the necessity of generalized discontent does not entail the predictability of a prompt popular uprising. A largely accepted {www:axiom} among theoreticians of revolution is that “revolutions are not made; they happen.” Accordingly, not only wishing for revolution does not make it happen, but also even a call for revolt by an organized party often remains ineffective. In other words, revolution is a complex and objective phenomenon and, as such, not obtainable at will.

From the nature of popular insurrection emerges what needs to be done. Stop predicting or announcing the fall of Meles and his regime; instead, start working for its occurrence. Essentially, this means two things: getting ready for a long and arduous fight and doing everything necessary to bring down the regime. The latter will fall only if, beyond being dissatisfied, people and leaders incessantly work toward such a result by using all available overt and hidden means. When people engage in this kind of fight, the first thing that they expel from their thinking is the goal of a quick victory and, subsequently, the possibility that anything could happen without great sacrifices and hardships. All to the better if, in the process, a quick result is obtained, but that must never be a target.

It is my belief that if the regime could detect in the present dissatisfaction, not the wishful expectation of an impending collapse, but the {www:gestation} of a stubborn will to fight by all means, it would certainly entertain the idea of an alternative policy. What encourages the regime to pursue the road of totalitarianism is the conviction that its opponents are not serious, a conviction that the recurring divisions of the opposition further fortify. Unless we adapt the level of our struggle to the political challenge, our miscalculations, unwarranted expectations, and underestimations give life to the regime. Worse yet, in not adjusting our fight to the level of the challenge that we face, we unintentionally suppress the resources that are dormant in the society.

Here I hasten to add that there is no need for some readers to pinpoint contradiction. I am referring to a recent article in which I advocated the path of power sharing as the best way to resolve Ethiopia’s political deadlock. Among the many reactions triggered by the article, the criticism that Meles is incapable of working with the opposition, pertinent as it was, overlooked the evident component that Meles will come to the negotiation table only if the opposition shows some strength. And how else is strength obtained but by how determined the opposition is, which determination is itself a product of its correct assessment of the challenge it faces? Far from weakening the struggle against the regime, as some readers suggested, the article was actually a call for a renewed effort.

More importantly, as implied in the title, the article dealt with “Meles’s dilemma” by arguing that nothing of what he projects to do can become real unless he opens the political playing field. Put otherwise, the article reflected on the self-contradictoriness of his project to bring about a developmental state without seriously changing the existing political system. The article also noted that the ball is in Meles’s court so that his ambition to become a “great leader” awaits the glorious gesture of initiating a grand coalition. For instance, nothing is more pathetic than to see Meles, the leader of one of the poorest countries in the world, participating in the G20 meetings when it is so obvious that his reluctance to reform blocks Ethiopia’s development.

Obviously, a reflection on Meles’s dilemma does not intend to demobilize the opposition; it simply offers an opportunity for Meles to get the best deal he can, both in securing his position and realizing his personal ambition, before the tumults of revolution reach him. Above all, the formation of a grand coalition is also the best deal for Ethiopia, since it gives all Ethiopians the opportunity to learn and practice the democratic culture and forge the institutions that sustain it. What Meles must understand is that the fear of reform should be tempered by the knowledge that reforms work when they are timely. In the meantime, however, what the opposition must do is to upgrade its struggle with new determination and better means.

(Prof. Messay Kebede can be reached at [email protected])

Unity in Diversity versus Diversity in Unity

By Messay Kebede

In an article titled “The Question of Unity: Do Words Matter?,” Maimire Mennasemay exposed the poison wrapped in the TPLF’s {www:catchphrase} “unity in diversity.” His insightful analysis reveals that the slogan is “diversity-centric,” in that it gives primacy to ethnic identities and conceives of unity as an {www:agglomeration} of sovereign and static ethnic groups. As an assemblage of diverse entities, unity is less the overcoming of fragmentation than the political consecration of its artificiality.

Worse yet, so conceived, unity becomes “inherently inimical to democracy.” Because it freezes divisions, it promotes the politics of divide-and-rule that is so characteristic of dictatorial regimes. It also hampers the development of universal norms, by which people assert their common interests, beyond ethnic particularisms, and come together, thereby perceiving unity as the realization of their common aspirations. With an acuminous grasp, Maimire shows how the imperial regime, the Derg, and the EPRDF have used different strategies to achieve a similar goal, namely, the coagulation of ethnicity, either through rejection or consolidation, so as “to implement their divide-and-exploit policies.” After all, whether ethnicity is accepted or rejected, in both cases it is set against unity.

Instead of “unity in diversity,” Maimire proposes the formula “diversity in unity,” which, he says, is “unity-centric” and, as such, friendly to democratic developments. Indeed, the suggested formulation no longer seeks the petrification of ethnic identities; rather, it promotes unity through the development of norms transcending particularisms. Not only does it thus give primacy to unity, but it also turns unity into the framework of diversity. It does not obtain an artificial gathering by reducing unity to a mere sum of diverse entities; on the contrary, it lays out a diversified, rainbow-like unity, as opposed to conglomerate unity. In the rainbow-like unity, the parts belong to the same unity and are in solidarity with one another, unlike the conglomerate unity, which is composed of heterogeneous entities that remain distinct as oil and water.

While conglomerate unity is perfectly propitious to a divide-and-rule policy, given that a hegemonic center becomes necessary to keep together the heterogeneous entities, the spectral quality of a diversified unity accentuates fellowship and solidarity, and so replaces divisive politics with the pursuit of consensus. In such a union, a hegemonic force becomes superfluous, since diversity becomes a component, an expression of unity rather than an entity in an artificial assemblage. Where people are united by common interests and traits, they resent divisive and dictatorial rule.

My own contribution suggests that Maimire’s analysis contains more than a prescription, an ought-to-be; it is also quite reflective of modern Ethiopian history. The beginning was unity rather than diversity. The ethnic problem of Ethiopia presupposes the territorial unity achieved by Menelik’s expansion and the consolidation of the Ethiopian state under Haile Selassie. Prior to the expansion and integration into the Ethiopian empire, most southern peoples lived under tribal organizations that significantly fell short of being nations, still less nation-states. By contrast, the northern part of modern Ethiopia had developed the sense of being a nation through a long history of unity under an organized state.

When the north conquered and integrated the south, a territorial unity was achieved, but which was fraught with deep contradictions, since it immediately took a hegemonic form. In addition to marginalizing the representatives of the southern peoples, the conquerors appropriated their land and implemented a policy of assimilation that was insensitive to their cultural legacy. And as the competition for scarce resources intensified with the process of modernization, the educated elites of the southern peoples and those of Tigray and Eritrea responded to the hegemony of Amhara ruling elite by increasingly rejecting unity and construing themselves as representatives of oppressed or “colonized” nations. Clearly, the historical reality does not show a movement from diversity to unity; rather, it displays the process of diversity emerging from unity as a result of hegemonic practices. Diversity is thus a posterior creation, not an initial point of departure, as suggested by the expression “unity in diversity.”

Unlike “unity in diversity,” which is an attempt to rewrite history by changing an outcome into a beginning, “diversity in unity” acknowledges the movement toward diversity. By conceptualizing diversity as the product of elite conflicts caused by hegemonic practices, it naturally sees it as bifurcation or divergence, which can become the basis of democratic unity, provided that it is not solidified by detrimental ideologies, notably by ethnonationalist beliefs. Ethiopia would thus evolve from territorial unity to democratic unity via bifurcation or internal differentiation. Differentiation is a mediation in the process of transition from imposed unity to diversified unity.

It is important that Ethiopian forces opposing ethnonationalist ideologies adopt the principle of “diversity in unity.” In so doing, they emphasize unity while integrating diversity in such a way that it is no longer antithetical to unity. Better still, by converting diversity into a construct triggered by elite conflicts, they counter its hypostatization, whose consequence is that diversity is approached as a political problem liable of a democratic solution, and not as a primordial attribute that is refractory to a sub-unit status. To say that diversity grew out of unity maintains the integrity of the whole, whereas the opposite, that is, the generation of unity from initial dispersion at best obtains a collection, which certainly does not amount to a nation.

(Dr Messay Kebede can be reached at [email protected])

On the Democratization Process

By Messay Kebede

This is not a response to the numerous reactions generated by my previous article titled “The fallacy of TPLF’s developmental state” Some of the reactions raised serious and legitimate questions; others emanated from misunderstandings of the actual contents of the article; still others drifted more toward {www:acrimony} and malicious {www:insinuation}s than a civilized exchange of ideas. While I thank all those who came up with serious questions and assure them that I take their challenges as expressions of the real framework of the Ethiopian political debate, I say “grow up” to those who chose acrimony and insinuations, including those who gushed their bravado about popular revolution and armed struggle from their comfortable life in Europe and America.

This paper is rather intended to stress some points that we should keep in mind when we discuss about democracy and the role of elites. Among the serious challengers of my proposal, Abiye Teklemariam Megenta and Eskinder Nega point out that elite driven political change cannot produce democratic outcomes without the active participation of the people. I wholeheartedly agree with them, but insist that the issue of how democracy functions is different from how democracy comes into being in the first place. The shift from functional to genetic perspective brings out the decisive role of elites, more exactly, the potential for democratic change when rival elites give up the path of violent confrontation. Democracy {www:presuppose}s the stage of civilized behavior through the surrender of violence as a means to defend or promote one’s interest. Once violence is out of the picture, what else remains but the avenue of compromise and agreement to resolve conflicts over power and material interests?

The whole issue is to know what compels elites to seek compromise and agreement rather than domination and exclusion. Studies of democratic changes show that when prolonged struggles over power and interests among various elite groups reach a stalemate or when a common threat endangers their existence, such as invasion by a foreign country or civil disorder and war, competing elites develop a disposition toward compromise. For instance, one incentive leading elites to devise an agreement is the fear of revolutions, which often tend to empower unorthodox and extremist elites (radical intellectuals, religious fundamentalists, secessionist leaders, etc.). Accordingly, it is idealistic to generate democratic disposition from the enlightening effect of progressist ideas or convictions; ideological conviction must be backed by interests for democratic changes to actually occur in practice. In other words, the conditions for democracy appear when rival elites commit to a peaceful resolution of their conflicts, which resolution is itself the outcome of a calculation of the best way to preserve their long-term interests.

I know that the common meaning attached to democracy is that it is the rule of the people. However, to say so does not mean that the people actually rule. Instead, it means that the people have the power to decide who rule them and that the latter are accountable to them. The control of state power is the concern of political elites, not of ordinary people. Moreover, democracy presupposes not the absence of conflicts, but their intensification, which applies more to elite competitions than to the communalism of the people. As rightly conceptualized by Karl Marx, the day the people control power is the day state power and politics come to an end.

Be it is noted that there is an organic connection between the decision of elites to settle their disputes peacefully and the recognition of popular sovereignty. As soon as elites give up the use of force, there emerges the need for a sovereign arbitrator of conflicts, and this is typically realized through a free and fair competition for the vote of the people. Obviously, competition cannot be free and fair if it does not include the respect of basic rights, such as freedom of organization and expression and the fundamental rights of the individual. There is no arbitration of conflicts by the people, either, if the people are not invested with the necessary authority.

The decisive role of elites does not mean that the people passively await for elites to grant them their basic rights. On the contrary, people fight for those rights in conjunction with elites competing to assert their interests. As shown by Theda Skocpol’s statement according to which “revolutions are not made; they come,” it is a mistake to forget the autonomy of popular uprisings from elite politics. What connects popular movements with the latter is not that elites cause revolutions, but that they need the support of the people in their struggle for the control of power and compete for it, often in {www:demagogic} terms.

Those elite groups that best articulate their interests with the interest of the masses have a better chance to rise to power through election. Nonetheless, the inevitable divergence between elite interests and the masses offers the opportunity for the rival elite group to conquer power in its turn. This democratic process runs into danger when elite groups appear that claim to represent the masses. Instead of being mere allies, such elites identify with the masses and become their saviors, the typical form of which is found in the Leninist notion of “professional revolutionaries.”

The gist of my previous article is the assertion of a political stalemate in Ethiopia. The 2010 election has resolutely demonstrated that Meles and his followers have moved far away from the idea of free and fair competition for state power and that they are determined to stay in power by all means. This retraction incapacitates the nonviolent opposition and puts an end to the prospect of change occurring by means of free election. The deadlock is thus tangible: neither can Meles succeed in marginalizing the opposition through rapid economic development, as presumed in his defense of the developmental state, nor can the opposition overthrow him through electoral victory.

There is, of course, no impasse for those who opted for armed confrontation as the only means to topple the present regime. In my view, their position is the most consistent response to the drift of the present regime toward repression and one-party system and is in line with the goal of overthrowing the ruling elite. My problem is not that I discard the possibility of its success, given enough time, but that armed struggle leaves untouched the problem of democratization. Far from resolving the problem of democratization, the seizure of power by an armed movement creates domineering temptations, as strongly evinced by the history of the TPLF and EPLF. What remains true, however, is that the existence of such a movement can pressure the ruling elite to negotiate so that the path of democratization would still be found in the idea of coalition. Thus, there is no escaping negotiation and coalition when one wants genuine democratization.

On the other hand, the impasse of Ethiopia’s nonviolent opposition can only lead to one result: popular uprising or revolution, which, in addition to being unpredictable, will occur in a society polarized by ethnic tensions. In view of this stalemate and its dangerous implications for the country, including for the elites competing for power, I thought that an appeal to common sense and the long-term interests of all involved is timely and relevant. Hence the idea of coalition that I framed in such a way that it provides incentives for rival elites to work out a compromise. Those who characterized my idea as naïve simply forget that it is less naïve than those who believe that the TPLF can rule Ethiopia for an indefinite time or those who except democratic outcomes from a popular uprising.

For these incorrigible groups of people, I remind George Santayana’s famous warning: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Emperor Haile Selassie and the landed class lost everything because they refused compromise, thinking that they were invincible. This same belief presently animates Meles and his cronies. On the opposite side, those who pushed for revolution reaped the Derg and a host of tragic setbacks, including a prolonged civil war, economic decline, the ethnicization of conflicts, the loss of Eritrea, and the victory of the TPLF with its ethnic federalism.

What I find questionable is the assumption that genuine democratic forces are already ready not only to lead the popular uprising, but also to institute a genuine democratic government. Nothing is more naïve than this assertion: because people talk about democracy and democratic rights, it does not mean that they are willing to implement them. More often than not, elites use democratic slogans to rally popular support while their real intention is to establish their own exclusive power. All political actors in Ethiopia know this: simply, those who risk losing everything are understandably more suspicious than those who aspire for power. Moreover, democracy cannot happen overnight: it requires a protected process of institution-building, culture change, popular empowerment, and confidence building among political elites. As shown by the history of advanced democratic countries, democracy is made of incremental advances, often interrupted by setbacks.

I may disappoint many people when I say that in today’s Ethiopia I do not see the gathering of democratic forces, but that of resentment, suspicion, and hostility. The idea of a grand coalition is just an attempt to channel these negative forces into a protracted process of mutual accommodation and thrust (in lieu of distrust and dethronement of one group by another). I may disappoint even more when I state that I refuse to posit democracy in terms of either/or, that is, in terms cornering Ethiopians to say “democracy now or nothing else.” With due respect to my critics, as a long and evolutionary process, democracy grows out of authoritarianism. When one thinks in terms of process versus leap into the unknown, change is never either this or that; rather, it is this and that, to wit, a transition.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])

Way forward for Ethiopia’s opposition

By Messay Kebede

It is now totally clear that the form of opposition based on the goal of winning parliamentary elections is a dead-end, obvious as it is that the leadership of the TPLF has never contemplated the prospect of sharing power with the opposition, let alone ceding defeat to the verdict of the ballot-box. Ethiopians face two choices: either to resign themselves to the idea of an indefinite rule of the TPLF or to rise up and confront the regime with their own violence. There is, however, a third possibility, which is non-violent resistance and whose essential characteristic is the refusal to cooperate through such actions as massive strikes, demonstrations, boycotts, etc. Though highly efficient to overthrow dictatorial regimes, the recourse to non-cooperation requires the conviction that the government in place is not open to the game of elections and, most of all, leaders ready to suffer all the gruesome hardships that dictators usually preserve for opponents. Before reflecting on the way ahead, it is imperative to assess correctly the outcomes of the recent parliamentary election. People have reacted diversely to my previous article concerning the election (see “Yes, a Fake Election, but for what Purpose?”), with many disapproving my characterization of the outcome as a “defeat of the opposition.” According to my critics, the blame should be put on Meles… click here to continue reading