Revival of politicization of ethnicity

By Yared

This commentary is the edited version of an offline discussion with Dr. Getachew Begashaw. It was triggered when G7 and OLF had a meeting in Arlington, VA, on July 10, 2011. The speakers of the meeting were Dr. Berhanu Nega of G7, Dr Nuro Dedefo of OLF and Dr. Getachew Begashaw (as an independent).

I watched this meeting on YouTube and felt uncomfortable by Dr. Getachew Begashaw’s appreciation of OLF and ONLF flying flags together with that of Ethiopia.

This made me search for Dr. Getachew’s email address to send a polite note why I do not agree and asking him why he thinks that the Ethiopian flag does not represent the Oromos and Ogandens to rally around.

To be honest, I didn’t expect a reply. In fact I feared a defensive or antagonistic reply we often see from Ethiopian politicians but Dr. Getachew understood my anxiety and sent me a reply explaining what he meant and in what ways his approach may not lead to my conclusion.

This put the ball in my quarter and I had to scratch my head and articulate my points. What took me by surprise is that rather than being antagonistic which we often see in Ethiopian politics, Dr Getachew came back with generous reply and even encouraged me to publish what I wrote to start the debate on the public forum.

I found Dr Getachew rational and open minded to discuss any issues. He also promised to come-up with an article to explain his points.

So it is on this basis and Dr Getachew’s suggestion that I am posting my concern for the benefit of the wider public. My concern is about the further politicization of ethnicity, in what ways it could be dangerous for the survival of the country, whether it can bring about a democratic governance and prosperity in the country.

Below is my reply with a few editions.

Selam Dr. Getahew,

Thank you for your explanation and understanding of my worries. It gave me an opportunity to think and reflect. In my view this is a serious issue that we all need to worry; just in case our action becomes a catalyst for revival of ethnic parties and a contributing factor for the demise of our country.

If Ethiopia is led in to the direction of breakup, ethnic cleansing and an endless war, we cannot escape from judgment of history by pointing our fingers on others.

Even if we do not have a role to play, the future generation would look back at the time where the country comes to an end to ask where these idiots came from to inherit a proud country and reduce her into piles of rubble and extinction.

History teaches us that while some generations are nation builders, some are nation destroyers engaging in pity squabbles to pass slavery to their children.

Roland Reagan is not Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson; he was a charming cowboy, but he had made one important observation that best describes our situation.

He said: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them…”
We should not forget that it took only one Indian generation to sell their country to a British East India Trading Company and let many subsequent generations of Indians suffer and humiliated over the span of 400 years.

Already this generation is not going to be remembered for the monuments and Obelisks it erected, the poetry and artistic creations or for inventing i-Phone or cracking of human Genome. Its place in history is assured as missionary of destruction through waging mindless civil wars, ideological fanaticism, starvation, ethnic cleansing, terror and making Ethiopians maids to the Middle East.

Millions of people have perished in the last 40 years through ideological driven “uncivil war” and political persecutions and the end is not yet in sight.

The destructive journey that was started over 40 years ago has been eating the country away and has not yet stopped. And yet, there seems to be a lack of intellectual capability and unwillingness to stop and reflect. We are engaged in doing the same thing again and again and expect different results. It is from this perspective that I see the momentum being built for the formation of EPRDF version-2 as the last nail in Ethiopia’s coffin.

Of course, I fully understand your points and motives but I want to bring my worries to your attention. This is to help you think about it from different perspective but not criticize your approach.

Allow me to elaborate in what ways your attempt to bring back the ethnic organizations would have the opposite effect. First, these are self-appointed organizations which represent themselves and we should not assume that they are representative of the ethnic groups.

If we take the logic of first-formed-first-representative, then we may end up making TPLF, OLF, ANDM, etc the only legitimate representatives of the people of Tigray, Oromo, Amhara, Ogaden, Gambela etc.

Appeasing self-appointed ethnic organizations will surely leads to ostracizing and silencing of the members of ethnic groups who want to celebrate their Ethiopian identity. If you praise the OLF flag, where does it leave an Oromo person who opposes the views and goals of OLF and want to fly the Ethiopian flag?

Let me give you a good example by telling you what one Eritrean friend who always maintained his Ethiopian identity told me before the Eritrean independence.

He said, at the start, there were many Eritreans who opposed ELF/EPLF arguing Eritrean strong link with Ethiopian. However, he said, it was when the so called the Ethiopian ‘progressives’ came to endorse the views of the secessionist movements that we were reduced to backward individuals who are instruments of the monarchy.

This politician and academic has always opposed EPLF all his life by arguing that the interest of the Eritrean people would not be served by secession of Eritrea except installing two dictators and two flags but the others felt intimidated by the so called Ethiopian Student Movement & “progressive” forces to toe in line with Shabia.

The Eritrean populous and some of the critics of secession had better chance of influencing the course of history for good had it not been, in his word, the “Ethiopian progressives” advocating the views of Shabia and Jebeha.

Since then those who are arguing for democratization rather than separation are considered traitors not to be given a chance at all. They were intimidated, killed and silenced.

So, endorsing self-appointed secessionist groups as a legitimate representatives of those groups is nothing but knifing of those who still celebrate their Ethiopian identity. It is these groups that should be encouraged, supported and protected.

Our experience with Eritrea should have been a good lesson. ESM and others who call themselves elites of the society thought EPLF and ELF were progressive forces that the Ethiopian left movement can create alliances to fight the monarchy. Once you start nationalism, you cannot put it back on a leash. Nationalism is about “us” and “them”.

No matter how apologetic and sympathetic one can be, the “them” will never be allowed to have a say in “us” affairs.

An Indian academic who did extensive work on ethnic nationalism define ethnic nationalism to have three features (Kancan Chandra, 2004).

Ethnic nationalism is descriptive. First, it has to define “us” and “them”, “insiders” and “outsiders”.

It is exclusionary. It has to block the view of anyone considered an “outsider” no matter what the view of the so called outsider is beneficial. For example, no matter one has a concern for Tigray, Oromia, Ogaden unless one is a Tigrean, an Oromo, or Somali, i.e. an  “insider”, he would not be considered to have the best interest of  the people in the eyes of liberators to be allowed to contribute for the political process.

By definition and birth mark, he/she cannot join TPLF/OLF/OPDO/ONLF etc. It is the same with EPLF and it will be the same with ONLF. No matter how hard Berhanu and Andargachew promote the cause of ONLF, they are outsiders and they will never ever be allowed to influence the course of ONLF.

A good example to look is the relationship between EPRP and TPLF. EPRP had all the sympathy for ethnic rights but it was chased out of Tigray in the 1970s using the same exclusionary strategy. You mentioned that you quoted the Aregawi of 2011 but it is the same Aregawi of the 1970s who had used this exclusionary strategy to lead an army and chase EPRP out of Tigray.

The third thing is that ethnic parties have patronage structure. Ethnic organisations are a cheaper and simpler imitation of the monarchy. There could be only one ethnic representative. It is only one group; one leader has the best interest of the group and can speak for the ethnic or nationalist group. There can be only one TPLF, OLF, and ONLF etc. There cannot be diversity of opinions or choices.  It is for this reason that TPLF fought first the other Tigrean liberation front “Tehat” from the start and EPLF has to fight ELF.

Still, for example, TPLF may tolerate multi-ethnic parties to have a  small stake in Tigray but it will not let another TPLF to emerge. OLF assumes that there won’t be OPDO by the time it reaches for power. But if it exists as an organization, there is no doubt that it will fight it until it is eliminated. That is why I think the Ethiopian student movement terribly failed to understand nationalism.

Of course, there were no libraries, access to internet, books or media to pick all these basic concepts in the 1970s. Most of the students’ knowledge was based on hearsay rather than material researches. As a result, the students failed to foresee and understand the very nature and potential of nationalism to become an instrument of division.

In a way it may be difficult to blame the likes of Walellegne and co. for indulging in a subject which they didn’t understand. Nevertheless, there can not be a sound and logical excuse for politicians who spent all their life in politics and academics to claim ignorance of the danger.
We should not also forget the cultural settings. The 1970s students were deacons who were serving in churches and who came from deeply traditional religious society. Thus, they took everything not through critical thinking and reflection but through dogmatic view of religion. Put simply politics became their new faith.

As you know, faith is believing in a thing that you could not see, understand or verify. If you can test it and prove it, it will be called science.

They simply abandoned their religious faith to be born again in a new religion, where Stalin becomes the new Jesus Christ. Of course, you know what happened next. Questioning the virtues of the Stalinist view of the world became blasphemy.

This blind faith in Stalin led to righteous indignation and outrage against whoever does not buy the Stalin’s theory of nations and nationalities.

In the beauty of hindsight, one can see a parallel between ESM and modern day Taliban’s of Afghanistan. Both couldn’t possibly think that they could be wrong or there could be an alternative truth to that of theirs. Being brought up during the revolution, I see the same righteousness of their beliefs.

Since then, the world has changed. Marxism has gone bankrupt. The Berlin Wall had come down. The self appointed vanguard of the mass (the new age monarchies of the East) have been swept out of power.  Socialism as ideology was put on trial. And yet, Stalinism is still a governing principle and the mind-set of the revolutionary generation. It is mind boggling to note that many couldn’t think out of this mind-set!

You well know that the government in power is an ethnic based organisation that struggled under the banner of the Stalin theory – nations and nationalities. It claims to fight and die defending the nations and nationalities right to self-determination up to and including secession  And the alternative presented in Washington conference is exactly the same.

The opposition, the likes of ONLF and OLF, are carbon copies of the ruling party in power. They went back in 1991 to set up the transitional government, banned pan-Ethiopian political parties from taking part in the transitional government, drafted the controversial constitution and declared that Ethiopia’s 3000 years ills have been resolved with endorsement of nations and nationalities rights to self-determinations (Article 39).

The other guys, like Dr Berhanu and Ato Andargachew, were also the ones who accompanied TPLF to power, took part in partitioning of the Ethiopian society under imaginary ethnic boundaries, dismantled the national institutions like the army, trade-unions, and pan-Ethiopian institutions, wrote pamphlets why the Amharas need to organize along the “ethnic” line.

Then we were told that the vision of Ato Walelegne has been implemented to start and enjoy the golden 1000 years of peace. We were also told that the old imperial Ethiopia has been dismantled for good in exact manner prescribed by the student movement to be re-created on willful association of the nations and nationalities.

Now 20 years fast forward, the same guys are working to recreate the failed June 1991 conference. Why? Certainly, not because they have ideological differences with the ruling party but because of the power and privilege they have lost during the power struggle. They are angry because they are pushed out into the cold and back to 9-5 work.

Rather than pausing and reflecting to rectify the mistakes they have made in the last 40 years, they are back again into their comfort zone with the creation of EPRDF Version 2.

Now two ethnocentric political forces are dominating the political arena. One is led by TPLF and the Other by OLF. Out of these two groups, I expected some sort of pan-Ethiopian political forces to have a say, why both cannot bring about democracy, tolerance and prosperity.

What makes me feel sad is that the independent minds appear to shift their goal post to appease/endorse rather than standing firm to present/advocate the Ethiopian cause.

As a long standing political advocate and no member of any ethnic parties, I expected the likes of you to present a compelling case why Ethiopia belongs to all of us, and why we need to rally together under Ethiopian flag, just like united Egyptians, Tunisians and others to bring about a democratic change, equality and prosperity to all.

If you could not speak about Ethiopia passionately and eloquently, who should then? I didn’t write to Ato Andargachew or Dr Berhanu because I believe they are happy to accompany another ethnic political party to power and have few years honeymoon and get a kick on the teeth. But I thought you are different and I expected more.

Any Ethiopian who feels strongly about survival of Ethiopia should not encourage or flirt with flying ethnic flags. Engagement is important. Debate is even better. But appeasement is naivety and making the same mistake again and again. OLF and ONLF were weakened organisations. Now thanks to G7, they are given a new lease of life.

The OLF nationalism, like the EPLF, needs a symbolic enemy and has to invent distinct identity to advance its own distinct and separate national feeling. The same goes to ONLF. As you have seen in the political program, ONLF doesn’t give a damn to its words to express its feeling towards Ethiopia.

And yet there was no one at the Washington conference to say, hang on a minute, Ethiopia belongs to all of you and please let us not destroy her.

I expected that was your natural role. That is why I felt I have to write to you. I hope when you get the chance next time, you would stand up to make a cause for need for united and democratic Ethiopia for the benefit of all of us. No one lose from a democratic and united Ethiopia.

I didn’t expect a reply and I really appreciate that. Thank you again for taking your time and thought provoking idea. Hope you take my views in good faith.


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2 Responses to Revival of politicization of ethnicity

  1. Lemma Getu says:

    who told you the ESM considered the ELF and EPLF progressive? didn’t they label them petty bourgeois nationalist? read the resolutions of the unions at that time and stop recycling and repeating false info and lies of the Derg and other despicable sources.

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