OLF and Ethiopian sovereignty

By Zerihun

Recently there is a growing debate within OLF regarding its stand on the question of Ethiopian unity and there seem to be a revitalization of the question of ethno-nationalism and Ethiopian sovereignty, particularly among the Diaspora. There are now groups or individuals who previously identified themselves and recognized by others as member or supporter of OLF but their struggle, membership and claim of representation has become contested by some other group of individuals who consider themselves as more authentic than the other. I argue that the recent development within the OLF demonstrates yet again the very nature of the post-socialist Ethiopian politics which is characterized by contestation and fragmentation. And this pattern is a result of the historical and unsuccessful nation-state formation and inter-group (ethnic and religious) relationship in what is now called the Ethiopian region and is directly related to the question of diversity, integration, political stability and peace in the region.

The post-1991 Ethiopian ethno-political context is characterized by two main features; on the one hand there have increasingly emerged various groups (local and trans-local) with voices articulated in terms of ethnic ideology. These voices though are not always internally homogeneous, use ethnicity or questions of cultural identity (particularly based on language and religion)as their primary mobilizing force. Ethnic based political mobilization did in fact begin as early as the 1960s. Yet the post-1991 situation displayed an increasing number of ethnic-based political groups some of which had no earlier history at all. What is more specific about the recent revivalism of ethnonationalism is that some groups want to use the new Ethiopian constitution as an instrument in their ‘struggle’ to only undermine Ethiopian sovereignty. There are on the other hand those (not also homogeneous and expressed in various forms) who deny or (if at all they do) give secondary or marginal importance to issue of ethnicity or identity along cultural lines. This group emphasizes Ethiopian unity across linguistic or religious boundaries.

These two elements though are influenced by the post-socialist world in which both globalization and revivalism and assertion of local, national and regional identities are central, they should also be seen as being interlinked with the very unfinished modern Ethiopian nation-state building project commonly associated with Menelik and Hailselassie. As such they clearly define the contemporary Ethiopian political impasse and the way out is striking the delicate balance between Ethiopian cultural identities and Ethiopian sovereignty. In another language what I am suggesting is that rather than promoting a pro-unity OLF group of individuals vis-à-vis anti-unity OLF ones, the best solution is to work more to create a rational and national consensus among all forces that challenge the viability of a reformed federal democratic, peaceful and all-inclusive Ethiopian state.

What is the solution? A) Replacing politics of loyalty with politics based on citizenship. If there is a genuine desire and commitment for peace what is needed is not trying to maintain Ethiopian sovereignty through the few, politically loyal or co-opted groups or subjects while excluding all anti-government political movements by undermining dissent voices. B) Condemining violence by all sides. Violent struggle to remove the government cannot be a solution either. C) Political reform, not radical change. It is also not a solution to push for referendum in the name of non-violent strugle with the often furtive plan of aspiring for secession. The world has witnessed that dismantling existing (or undemocratic/empire) states to create new ones rarely led to the establishment of a peaceful and stable (let alone a democratic) political order. D) Individual right protection. There must be strong mechanisms and institutions that protect individuals rights throughout the country. F) Balancing rights with duty. Often time the Ethiopian government emphasizes the right of of nations and nationalities with out exerting equal effort on their duty, responsibility and commitment to shared Ethiopian political, social and cultural values.

I argue that the only viable solution  is pushing and working for a further reform of the Ethiopian state and national and rational consensus. This solution demands neither the few loyal political subjects nor co-opted individuals and organizations, but all citizens with their right and duties without suppressing cultural diversity and political difference. It demands building independent institutions and civil societies and legal institutions that should not sympathize with the incumbent government. It demands promoting political and economic integration across linguistic boundary against assimilation and secession/segregation.

The ethno-nationalists should stop mimicking their political enemies or acting out of grievances and biased sentiments. They should realize that it is not to the interest of regional and national peace and political stability if they are calculating how they can use the Ethiopian constitution instrumentally, with the hidden or open motive of aspiring for a referendum and then a separate state. They should excute their responsibility and come up with a responsible perspective on how to resolve their legitimate question of equality, liberty, social justice and representation within a reformed and an all-inclusive Ethiopian state.

The fallacious and dishonest argument of leaders and ardent followers of groups like OLF and ONLF is the notion that freedom from the so-called ‘national oppression’ or self-determination will necessarily lead to human right, freedom and equality. However, oppression by its nature is a multi-faceted phenomenon and demand more than ethnic mobilization. If the Oromo-speaking people establish a separate state and will be lead by their own ethnic elites (local or Diaspora) this doesn’t necessarily guarantee progress, equality, peace, freedom and human right for every Oromo individuals as many ethno-revolutionaries flaunt. Not only because of the obvious logical argument that collective right doesn’t immediately translate into individual right but also because there is no empirical and historical evidence to support the claim that self-determination necessarily leads to peace and freedom, particularly from the Eastern African region.

This argument is broadly related to the issue of how we explain the logic or necessity of state formation. Notwithstanding the relevance of ecological, political, cultural and economic factors, the primary and political necessity of a sovereign state power, especially in the modern context, doesn’t emanate from the fact that human beings share similar culture or language but rather because human individuals or groups by their very nature may come in conflict with other individuals and groups that a sovereign state is the only viable legal and moral authority to guarantee freedom, security, protection and prosperity to individuals through legal rights and duties in the form of citizenship. Contrary to the claim of ethno-nationalists, there is no natural (causal) relationship between sharing a language or other cultural attributes and forming a state or any political system. At the end of the day what matters most is an actively and consciously reconfigured Ethiopian state-system that guarantees human diversity, rule of law, human right, equality and minority rights and all these cannot be achieved though maintaining ethnic or religious based identity or boundary.

On the other hand those who promote a pan-Ethiopian nationalism or unity should also consider the way to accommodate diversity particularly, ethnic and cultural identities through devolution of power at different levels. It is worrying that many proponents of Ethiopian unity do not seem to properly understand that ethnicity is a modern phenomenon not a result of residual and primitive form of organization or mentality as they often wrongly claim. They do not seem to understand that Ethiopia has always been an empire-state not a nation-state. In fact for some Ethiopia is imagined as a nation-state. However that is an illusion, and the post-1991 political development in Ethiopia has unequivocally shown that an attempt to impose a European like nation-state project has reached its dead-end. But this doesn’t mean that Ethiopia is a mere collection of unrelated populations. This rather entails that in as much as Ethiopian shared religious (Islam/Christianity) cross-cutting ties, cultural ideas, practices, identities and subjectivities are historically established social and cultural forces, specific ethno-nationalist identities are not figments of individuals’ imagination and therefore need to be reconciled and recognized as an aspect of, if not central to the Ethiopian social and political configuration. This facilitates re-imagining Ethiopia by both sides in a new form.

What about the existing Ethiopian government? Rather than the solution, the current EPRDF is part of the problem. This is because though it declared a victor’s peace following winning a war and subsequently dismantling the formal dominance of the historically Amhara-Tigre-Orthodox-Christian culture dominated Ethiopian nationalism; EPRDF didn’t institutionalize an alternative, all-inclusive and democratic form of Ethiopian identity based on shared values of civic citizenship and Ethiopian patriotism. By patriotism, I am not implying a need for that assimilationist political project of nationalism, which is the first step toward totalitarianism particularly in the context of a multi-ethnic empire-state. What I am rather saying is that EPRDF has not been committed to building a shared civic identity, where every (ethnic) political group or person in Ethiopia, across ethnic, linguistic and religious boundaries, identify and commit himself or herself to Ethiopian sovereignty as a member of one polity based on citizenship. In fact EPRDF gives trifling importance to what unites persons and collectives in Ethiopia as citizens of the Ethiopian state, beyond and in addition to their being possible member of an ethnic or religious communities and this, I think, make Ethiopia fragile and more vulnerable to internal conflict.

Some argue that the EPRDF is the solution and its introduction of federalism is a real alternative. While federalism in general is indeed an appropriate system for Ethiopia there are a number of problems as it’s practiced under the current Ethiopian government. First, it is essentially based on group-centered ideology at the expense of individual freedom. Despite the fact that individual right is recognized in the Ethiopian constitution, the real politics gives precedence to collective, cultural or linguistic “rights”. That means EPRDF prioritize cultural identity claim over and above citizenship and this has a negative consequences in the protection of individuals’ right in the country. Second, even though it promotes cultural or ethnic identity, it does not recognize internal difference and dissent voices among citizens within an identity/cultural group. For EPRDF there must only be one and authentic political representation for a nationality group. Third, what EPRDF did is largely de-concentration and power sharing among political elites. Though this has undoubtedly created new opportunities to historically marginalized local populations in the form of loyal, supporters and beneficiaries of the regime, it has not brought a real decentralization and devolution process in the sense of empowering local persons as citizens.

Fourth, EPRDF is not open and transparent towards the Ethiopian public. It still is a communist-style secretive, unknowable and vague political group. Whose ever fault it is there are for example, no free civil societies or media or public institutions (in the sense that they are not EPRDF controlled, affiliated or sympathizers) that could make the EPRDF and its officials knowable and accountable for what they did and what they are doing now. EPRDF doesn’t trust other than itself. Its officials and supporters wrongly claim that their party is a self-correcting machine and doesn’t need non-EPRDF elements (opponents) for its functioning as a guarantor of Ethiopian sovereignty. Fifth, EPRDF though seemed to embrace federalism, in actual fact its essential feature is largely similar to the century old type of Abyssinian state-system where the center co-opted local or ethnic elites from the margin. Still today state agents are those loyal and trusted individuals fitting the patron-client relationship. There is in fact a difference but it is mainly a difference in the form, scale and size rather than in the very relationship and core system.

What about Economic changes under EPRDF? EPRDF supporters further argue that EPRDF is in the right truck because it is in the business of eradicating poverty. They argue that the challenges against Ethiopian sovereignty is not a structural political problem it is rather directly related to economic underdevelopment and would be removed if poverty is removed. Nevertheless, this argument has both a philosophical as well as political flaw. First, just like promoting federalism, eradicating poverty is indeed another appropriate approach to Ethiopian development. Yet, I argue that “shared political consciousness’ is as equally important as ‘shared economic growth’ that emphasizing the one at the expense of the other doesn’t lead to sustainable development. This argument is based on the general philosophical notion that neither matter nor consciousness determines social being that both are equally important for human development. Second, while they did in fact acknowledge that  they are increasingly facing political problems in the form of what they call, chauvinistic and “rent-seeking’ behavior, the EPRDF officials do not seem to see the fact that the improvement and change in economic situation has also contributed in creating and facilitating conflict through competing ethnic elites (local/diaspora) militating against the endeavor of creating a common economic and political community as per the Ethiopian constitution.

What are the shortcomings of the EPRDF government? EPRDF should acknowledge that building a state through politically loyal subjects is not only a precarious endeavor but also is one major factor for generating conflict and instability. In this regard shared political identity or commitment to a state (not to an incumbent  government) which monopolizes violence as a formal and legal institution in the international community of states is an essential element in achieving sustainable development not only because it kindles individuals’ loyalty to the state but also because of its ability to encompass the full dimensions of human spiritual possibilities and make them conscious of their social and political existence in a country without denying their specific cultural identity and positioning. EPRDF is not building that Ethiopia in which each and every Ethiopian (possible) passport holder is fully committed and therefore is loyal, as citizens of the state, to Ethiopian sovereignty. There is no sufficient effort made in policy as well as political programs to build a new and shared political symbol, sense of citizenship, constitutional rights and duties equally applied to and respected by each Ethiopian citizen. Much  of the effort and focus has been eradicating poverty, and promoting the rights  of nationals and nationalities with less or no focus on their contributions and responsibilities (both at individual and group level) in building a common political community as per the constitution. Many regional elites act as if they have no commitment to building a common political and economic community.

This process has facilitated the contemporary competing elitism, contestation and greater fragmentation we witness along different social and political boundaries such as religious, ethnic and regional. The fact that EPRDF divided Ethiopians as friends and foes while focusing on mobilizing mainly supporters in its fighting against enemies and opponents means that it has not legitimized its control of federal state power on an alternative and shared national consensus largely respected by all Ethiopian citizens. EPRDF’s control of federal and regional state power or the existence of a FDRE is not legitimized by national consensus about (good or bad) common history, common peace, common interest and common destiny. It is also not supported by shared democratic and secular values. This is not simply because EPRDF itself is a non-democratic force but also because the Ethiopian elites as well as the mass with a hierarchical social and cultural traditions have to go a great length to develop and materialize democratic ideas and practices.

Meanwhile different political, ethnic and religious groups, networks of individuals emerge and assert their extreme position (both pro and anti unity) only to undermine Ethiopian sovereignty. In fact if one looks the pattern one can notice an increase in contestation and fragmentation within all political, religious and ethnic groups in Ethiopia. To begin with the so called pro-unity opposition groups (in the country as well as abroad) have suffered from a continuous internal conflict and fragmentation. In addition to OLF, a number of  major ethnic-based examples could also be mentioned. For instance TPLF itself once seemed a historically solid group but now we have noticed its fragmentation following an internal splinter group which charged TPLF of devaluing Ethiopian sovereignty particularly vis-a-vis Eritrea. ONLF is also a part of this pattern. Some group of the ONLF have already joined EPRDF by accepting a unified Ethiopia.  The same holds to the various Ethiopian religious groups where we see one religion is divided into different competing and sometimes conflicting groups in which the question Ethiopian sovereignty vis-à-vis the question of identity and modernity is part of the problem.

While globalization through greater contact, migration, flow of capital and people have in fact facilitated this process, fragmentation and contestaion, I argue ultimately are a function both of ethnic relations and incomplete nation-state project in what is now called Ethiopia. The main question now is how to come up with a new Ethiopia which combines these historical realities rather than dichotomizing them as irreconcilable entities. This is not a zero-sum game and there are generally tow factors that must be acknowledged in looking for a possible solution. First, every side should accept that the historical state formation in Ethiopia, though was not fully successful, had resulted in the creation of shared history (negative and positive), shared religions (Islam and Christianity) and shared socio-economic realities (plough agriculture, market relations) across ethnic and linguistic boundaries that could serve as the basis for cultivating positive relations. For example, there is more an Oromo-speaking peasant share with his Amhara or Tigre peasants especially in respect to everyday life rituals, way of life in a way different from other African countries etc… Second, there should also be a recognition that the fact that historical Ethiopian state formation was not fully successful means that there are always ethnic consciousness and identities (this includes distinct languages, religions, notions of origins, cosmologies, descent systems, and other cultural aspects) that go against any homogenizing political project. Fragmentation and contestation among contemporary Ethiopian political elites (internal and diaspora) ultimately boils down to these two contradictory but interrelated structural forces.

Back to the solution again. The way out from this predicament is developing a synthesis that transform not simply resolve the conflict in an original way. But this is not an easy task. It needs a new notion or imagining of Ethiopia. While the incumbent has legal and political responsibility to facilitate or at least not to hinder this process, no single group should claim or expect the new Ethiopia from another group. Both the ethno nationalists and the unitarists must take their respective initiative and be able to participate in constructing a new inclusive notion of Ethiopia, a notion that can only be built based on a selective, pragmatic, rational and consensual approach. This in its turn needs what I call rational innocence, positive political and moral will, critical but open-mindedness and open heart that recognizes the fact that our peace, security, development and destiny are interconnected beyond our choice and will. It demands a centrist view with civility and a post-modern thinking, which treats any extremist ideology, that undermine this interconnectedness, as a nihilistic project, while embracing rule of law, human right and diversity as the basis for democratic citizenship building.

A best solution for contemporary Ethiopia is to accept or understand that (while there are a number of cross-cutting ties, shared values and history) Ethiopia has always been an empire-state and promote and consolidate a secular federal state in which its citizens share a civic identity based on citizenship (legal right and duty), while at the same time enjoying their respective distinct cultural identities that may manifest itself in terms of diversified religion, languages, local narratives and cultures. True, Ethiopian history is contested. But the notion that all our past is not shared or is inherently negative, lacks candor and is in fact irresponsible. We have both good and bad history, heroes as well as antagonists that if we select what is common to us we can still re-define the Ethiopian population as a distinct polity vis-à-vis polities in other neighboring African countries. If there is awareness and political will from the respective elites we are in a far better position to build a stable and peaceful state in the region.

If we see the recent development within the OLF from this perspective there is more to be done in the Ethiopian political milieu than achieved so far. Diaspora Oromo elites emphasized their separate identity at the expense of Ethiopian sovereignty even if the initial political objective of the OLF didn’t totally reject the possibility of achieving equality and representation for the Oromo within a reformed Ethiopian empire-state. With this historical precedence, the fact that there are now some more Oromo elites (like the Oromo Liberation Front (ODF) for example), who openly accept Ethiopian sovereignty is not a total surprise. There is also nothing inherently negative in such a move regardless of the long-term or short-term personal or collective motives of the individuals, who promote this position. Nevertheless, if we see the bigger picture, still Ethiopian politics, at large, remains in elites’ (local and diasporic) quagmire where activists from all sides lack pragmatic approach and therefore  fail to develop a rational and national consensus towards a viable alternative from the past and the present towards a promising peaceful future.


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