Prof Messay Kebede

The Scramble for Ethiopia By Prof. Messay Kebede

What else could better express the existence in today’s Ethiopia of more than eighty political parties, out of which ethnic parties represent the overwhelming majority, than the term “scramble?” That for now the TPLF holds together the disjoined parts of the country by force for its own sectarian interests only reconfirms the accuracy of the term. How did this come about?

When we try to understand what happened to Ethiopia and, by extension, to Eritrea, since the overthrow of the imperial regime, we are invariably overtaken by a mounting perplexity. Unlike the imperial regime, which never declared its intention to empower the people, the political movements that opposed the regime emphatically and without exception asserted their primary and unique goal to be the liberation and empowerment of the people. The EPRP, MEISON, the Derg, the OLF, the TPLF, and the EPLF, to name the most important ones, all claimed to fight for the cause of the people. Yet, none of the movements that succeeded to seize power and implement their programs came anywhere near to fulfilling the promise of liberation and empowerment. On the contrary, all ended in similar types of abject dictatorial and sectarian rules.

The dominant explanation attributes the failures to accidental derailments. It argues that the initial intention and corresponding organizations were fully committed to the goal of liberation until they were derailed by the rise to the leadership position of unfit or fraudulent individuals, who used their position to institute a dictatorial rule and surround themselves by cynical and self-serving groups. Mengistu Haile Mariam, Meles Zenawi, and Isiyas Afeworki negatively altered, so it is said, the original good intention of the movements that brought them to power.

The trouble with the explanation is that the notion of derailment presupposes what needs to be explained. How could individuals, however smart, determined, and cunning they may be, succeed in overturning movements that were often able to overcome very challenging situations. Even if it was short-lived, the triumph of the Derg over so many opponents remains an exploit. Equally remarkable is the defeat that the EPLF and the TPLF inflicted on the military machine of the Derg. It just begs the question to assert that one or several individuals were able to misdirect movements with such proven strength.

Hence the need for a change of paradigm: instead of taking for granted an initial good intention, what if the devil was already in the intention? Rather than derailment, such an explanation sees continuity between departure and arrival, despite contrary appearances. What happened and is happening are already contained in the initial intention, which therefore was itself vicious. In other words, though the movements promised liberation and empowerment, the real and hidden goal was self-promotion and exclusive control of power. Ideologies advocating the liberation of the masses by revolutionary elites, such as Leninism, Maoism, and ethnonationalism, came in handy and quickly spread like a bushfire.

It must not be made to seem that the adoption of these ideologies by the revolutionary elites was a deliberate deception. The tragedy is that they honestly believed in these ideologies and honestly thought that they were working for the empowerment of the people. The fault was and still is in their mind, in the mistaken understanding of what liberation and empowerment mean. The misunderstanding can be traced to their colonial attitude toward their own people, itself being a resultant of the colonial education they received and thank to which they earned their elite status. The education convinced them that they are the native heirs to the civilizing mission of the colonizer, that the measure of their own modernity is the extent to which they see themselves as tutors and agents of change.

At first look, being agent of change is rather positive and expected from educated people. The problem, however, was that it was conceived in the colonial fashion: it was perceived as an imposition from above and deliberately excluded the active participation of the people. Modernity was not what people bring about through their active engagement and creativity; it was a dictate flowing from the enlightened ones and as such demanding passive compliance.  The relationship that exists between elites and the masses is not one of answerability, but of elites fashioning their people according to an idea of modernity that defines them as domesticators, thereby entitling them to absolute power. Whether you call the goal socialism, revolutionary democracy, national liberation movement, it always amounts to a dictatorial rule lining up a whole people in the name of a self-serving idea of modernity.

Ethiopians who are familiar with my books on Ethiopia know that I have developed this flawed idea of modernity and its toxic implications from various angels. The happy surprise for me was that the idea has now crossed into Eritrea’s intellectual space, as witnessed by Yosief Ghebrehiwet’s article titled “Eritrea’s Drive for Modernity: In Search of Asmara” posted on Asmarino. Not only is the article witty and very perceptive, but it also proposes a paradigm change in our understanding of what happened both in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Thus, in analyzing the Eritrean case, Yosief barely refers to the usual motive for the uprising, namely, the national oppression by the Amhara. Instead he focusses on the impact of Italian colonization, which created “a generation that imitated the Italians in every gesture without having any understanding of the beauty of the Italian culture . . . a generation that contemptuously gave its back to the Habesha culture.” The imitation induced an abstract idea of modernity, that is, a conception of modernity “devoid of human factor” and hence intrinsically totalitarian. The modernity of the uprooted is paradoxical: though it speaks of national liberation and empowerment, it is nothing but a replica of colonization by foreign natives. Yosief courageously writes: “the structure of Shaebia’s army that marched to Asmara looked like a colonial army, with the urban elite replacing the Italian positions at the top and the peasants accorded their old place of askaris at the bottom – this was how they came to colonize Asmara.”

The reason for Eritrean uprising is thus obvious: it was a renewed scramble for Ethiopia, a reconstitution of the Italian invasion by natives. This applies to the secessionist movements in Ogadan and Oromia as well, since they aspire to dismantle the conquest by which Menilik defeated the colonial design on Ethiopia. In construing the return to a pre-Menilik political situation as decolonization of Oromia, Ogaden, etc., these movements draw, as elsewhere in Africa, the entitlement to rule from being enlightened natives pushing out alien colonizers. In other words, the ideology of Amhara colonization is how elites invent an ascriptive legitimacy to rule based on ethnic belonging. Without the ideology, the elites would have to justify their entitlement to rule by the implementation of socioeconomic progress, that is, by actual achievement and merit rather than by natural relatedness.

Needless to say, the creation of an ascriptive right to rule through the denunciation of Amhara colonization is little prone to democratic competition and accountability. Accordingly, the so-called national liberation movements are not so much liberation as elite conflicts for the control of territories resulting from the dismantling of Ethiopia. Speaking of the Eritrean war of liberation, Yoseif rightly says, “it was a war fought between Addis Ababa and Asmara elite. In between, the peasants of both Ethiopia and Eritrea perished fighting the respective urban elite’s causes.”

Elite conflicts accurately sum up the Ethiopian revolution and the ethnonationalist assaults on Ethiopia subsequent to that revolution. The reason for the radicalization of the Ethiopian educated elite through the adoption of Leninism in the 60s and 70s was the need to dislodge the old aristocracy with its bureaucracy and military apparatus from power and the control of resources. Class struggle furnished the ideology necessary to mobilize the working people against the old state apparatus and the church, not so much to liberate them as to empower elites defining themselves as “revolutionaries.” In the meantime, ethnonationalist elites were preparing the ground for another round of elite conflicts, this time by creating a form of exclusion based on ethnic belonging, which resulted in the defeat of the Ethiopian Revolution by ethnonationalist forces.

What should be underlined is that the class struggle and the ethnonationalist forms of exclusion find their common source in the colonial understanding of modernity, that is, of modernity as an imposition from above and whose main purpose is to benefit the few. Not only this form of modernization does not tolerate grass-root movements (autonomous civil societies, professional organizations, and unions), independent political parties, and a liberal economic system, but the narrowness of its goal stemming from the colonial model of modernization reserves economic benefits for the few. Such a restricted development further divides elite and unleashes a violent struggle for the control of scarce resources.

As a result, the country moves in a vicious circle: the empowerment of the few at the expense of the majority curtails economic development, which curtailment exasperates elite conflicts for the control of scarce resources. No more than overseas colonizers, internal or native colonizers can allow the enlargement of social wealth and distribution under pain of losing the absolute control of power that their faulty idea of modernity justifies. The opposite, that is, grass-roots modernization is anathema to them because it pushes for the democratization of all forms of social life and for the accountability to the people. By definition, colonizers, those who “civilize,” be they external or internal, cannot but target absolute power.

Messay Kebede is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton in Ohio. He taught philosophy at Addis Ababa University from 1976 to 1993. He also served as chair of the department of philosophy from 1980 to 1991.