OLF and Ethiopian sovereignty


By Zerihun Abebe Woldeselassie, University of Bergen, Department of Social Anthropology

Recently there is a growing debate within OLF regarding its stand on the question of a a common Ethiopian state and there seem to be a revitalization of the question of ethno-nationalism and Ethiopian sovereignty, particularly among the Diaspora. There are now a group or individuals who previously identified themselves and recognized by others as member or supporter of OLF but their struggle, membership and claim of representation have become contested by some other group of individuals who consider themselves as more authentic and legitimate 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 Ethiopian nation-state formation and inter-group (ethnic and religious) relationship in what is now called the Ethiopian region and it is directly related to the question of reforming empire-state, diversity, integration, political stability and peace in the region.

Two Major perspectives

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) and oppression ideology as their primary mobilizing force. Ethnic based political mobilization (or ethno-nationalism) 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 post-1991 Ethiopian constitution as an instrument in their ‘struggle’ to only undermine a common, Ethiopian state 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 undermines ethnic identities while emphasizing Ethiopian sovereignty and unity across linguistic or religious boundaries.

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

On Shared language and State formation

This argument is broadly related to the issue of how we explain the logic of state formation and ethnicity in a specific context. 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, at least if we tentatively assume the Hobbesian perspective, from the fact that human beings share similar culture or language but rather because human persons and groups by their very nature may come in conflict with other persons and collectives/groups that a sovereign state is the most preferred or viable legal and moral authority we know so far to guarantee political order, security, protection and prosperity to individuals and groups in through the provisions of legal rights and duties.

There is a well-established consensus in ethnic studies that there is no one-to-one correspondence between cultural difference and ethnicity (boundary) formation. Often times, ethnicity is a result of modern socio-political and economic process that include the formation (or attempt to form) of the modern nation-state. In this regard rather than a cause for the formation of the state, notion of cultural difference or ethnicity is a product of the very state formation itself. In another language any identity, ethnicity or nationalism doesn’t necessarily precede state formation.

Whatever perspective one takes, the fact of the matter is that 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. Many ethnonationalists wrongly but strategically speak of how their ethnic identity travels down the road of history, as a primordial reality. But this must only be seen as a political not a factual claim. For example, Oromo-nationalism, like many other ethnic-nationalisms in Ethiopia isn’t prior to but a result of the modern Ethiopian empire-state formation. It is a consequence of the specific modernization processes in the region.

For this reason what matters most is how to reform any state to become a secular and democratic political-system that guarantees human diversity, rule of law, equality and minority rights and all these cannot be achieved though parochial political movement that undermines historically and culturally established social, economic and political interconnections at national, regional and global levels. There are in fact some (especially from the ethno-nationalist groups) who argue against the possibility of reforming a multi-ethnic state like Ethiopia? The answer is clear 1st) It is indeed possible to conceptualize an alternative political framework to reform Ethiopia as a state, 2nd) as such Ethiopia is not and will not be an exception in this regard. The very question if an empire (a multi-ethnic)-state can be reformed or not is not a genuine question since it emanates from an ambivalent position that assumes forming a separate (nation-)state as a viable solution in a priori. Nevertheless, there is no self-evident truth that separation or cessation is necessarily a best solution to bring peace, democracy and equality in a region like Ethiopia, where historical, political and cultural interconnections have already defined our collective destiny.

Some pragmatic Suggestions

What should be done? A) INTERCONNECTION. Recognizing our interconnection or the fact of our shared past and shared future as an important element, not only of our political discourse and but also of existence and destiny. B) POLITICS OF CITIZENSHIP Replacing the incumbent’s politics of loyalty with a 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 individuals while excluding all anti-government political movements by undermining dissent voices. C) NON-VIOLENCE Condemning violence by all sides. Violent means or struggle to maintain or remove the current government cannot be a solution either. Why? The TPLF-EPRDF has proven that a political change that comes through violence and a victor’s peace hasn’t brought sustainable and inclusive political stability and peace.  It is only keeping the cycle of violence. D) REFORM Political reform, not radical change.  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. E) CIVIL RIGHT. Often times the state as well as its critics seek mobilization and legitimacy in the name of groups i.e. ethnic or religious groups. While this should be recognized, it is also significant to mobilize diverse voices within and outside groups and across boundaries towards achieving civic rights. F) RIGHT & DUTY. The Ethiopian government as well as ethno-nationalists emphasize the right of nations and nationalities without exerting an equal effort on their duty, responsibility and commitment to enhancing the shared and cross-cutting Ethiopian political, social and cultural values. Nevertheless, there must be a balance between right and duty.

Generally, I argue that the only viable solution is pushing or working for pragmatic but critical political reform of the Ethiopian state and “civil societies”, aspiring to achieve system of accountability, conciliation, national and rational consensus regarding our shared political past and (future)destiny. It demands promoting political and economic integration across linguistic boundary against assimilation and secession/segregation. This solution demands neither the few loyal-supporting political subjects nor the co-opted individuals and organizations of the regime, but all subjects within the empire-state with their right and duties without suppressing cultural diversity and political differences. It demands mobilizing each and every Ethiopian citizens based on some fundamental and shared values and political goals I have noted above.

Some Advice for Ethnonationalists

The ethno-nationalists should stop mimicking their political enemies (i.e, the state and the so called Ethiopian nationalists) 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 execute 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 practicing the so called self-determination, in the form of referendum 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 led 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 in the multi-ethnic and inter-connected Eastern African region.

Some Advice for Pan-Ethiopian nationalists

On the other hand, those who promote a Pan-Ethiopian notions or unity should also avoid the culture of conspiracy versus loyalty, Orthodoxy versus heresy politics while  acting, just like ethnonationalists, out of grievances and biased sentiments. It is interesting to notice that as far as ‘political culture’ is concerned both Pan-ethiopianists and ethnonationalists are not structurally different from each other. They should listen to the grievances (whether theses are factually true or politically constructed claims) with a common agenda of building a shared country (hager) where equality and peace are the guiding principle.

They must be able to apreciate the relevance and significance accommodating 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 (political and social) phenomenon not a result of residual and primitive form of social and political organization or mentality as they often wrongly claim.

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 treated as modern political realities and 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.

On the existing Ethiopian Government?

Rather than the solution, the current TPLF-dominated EPRDF is part of the problem. This is because though declared a victor’s peace EPRDF didn’t institutionalize an alternative, all-inclusive and democratic form of state based on patriotism. By patriotism, I am not implying a need for that assimilationist political project of nation-state type 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 citizenship, 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 equal citizenship rights and duties. In fact, EPRDF gives trifling importance to what unites persons and collectives in Ethiopia as loyal citizens of the Ethiopian state, beyond and in addition to their being possible member of an ethnic or religious communities and this, I think, is a political suicide and makes Ethiopia fragile and more vulnerable to internal conflict. It also makes the government prone to internal conflict and fragmentation.

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” at the expense of individual rights. That means EPRDF prioritize cultural identity claim over and above citizenship and this has negative consequences in the protection of civil rights in the country. Both the regional and federal governments give precedence to collective rights and had it not been for the established social and cultural values of diversity and tolerance of the various Ethiopian ethnic groups we would have witnessed more violence and conflict under the EPRDF rule.

Second, even though it promotes cultural or ethnic identity, it does not recognize internal difference and dissent voices among citizens within an ethnic/nationality/identity/cultural group. For EPRDF there must only be one and authentic political representation for an ethnic or nationality group for instance. Third, EPRDF doesn’t recognize mixed ethnicities, and constitutionally force individuals to choose ethnic identities which they do not self-identify with. EPRDF has gone a great length to undermine or systematically exclude historically established mixed identities particularly in urban centers, border regions and centers as political agencies. Fourth what EPRDF did is largely de-concentration and power sharing among political elites. Though this has undoubtedly further created new opportunities to historically marginalized local populations and communities 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.

Fifth, 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, political groups/institutions or critical 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. What amazes me is that still the core and influential elites of the regime are operating like a communist guerrilla fighters in the form of personal and ethnic profiling and characterization.  Sixth, 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 the main state agents are those loyal and trusted individuals fitting the patron-client relationship. There is in fact a difference (greater penetration of the state to the local level than even before) but it is mainly a difference in the form, scale and size rather than in the very hierarchical relationship and core system.

On Economic Change and Political conflict

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 after 1991 the challenges against Ethiopian peace and stability 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’ and political loyalty (committed citizenship) 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 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 to 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.This notion of the EPRDF has to be contextualized in terms of the ideological roots of its leaders, who embrace the Marxists notion of the primacy of Material and economic factors in the form of economic determinism. While Marxists take oppression seriously, they have a wrong modernist assumption that “false ideologies” like ethnicity and religion will disappear through economic change, denying the fact that it may be naturalized or (re-)created due to the very modernization processes itself.

Some Advice for the EPRDF government

What should the EPRDF government do? EPRDF should acknowledge that building a state through politically loyal subjects is not only a precarious endeavor but also is one major factor for 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 in the form of patriotism 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 the country without denying their specific cultural identity and positioning. EPRDF authorities should know that they are 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. They should know that there is no sufficient effort made in policy and political measures to build a new 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.

Contestation and Fragmentation

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 supporters and fighting against enemies and opponents means it has not legitimized its control of federal state power on an alternative and shared national political 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. In addition to OLF, a number of major examples could be mentioned in this regard. 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 the latter’s claims of running a unified Ethiopia even though in actual fact what we have now under EPRDF is a conglomeration of ethnic or nationality groups led by ethnic-elites who are co-opted and tightly controlled from the center. 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 contestation ultimately is a function both of ethnic relations and incomplete nation-state project in what is now called Ethiopia. Fragmentation and contestation among contemporary Ethiopian political elites (internal and diaspora) ultimately boils down to these two contradictory but interrelated structural forces. 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 two factors that must be acknowledged in looking for a possible solution.

National Political Consensus

First, a first step to the solution for contemporary political conflict in Ethiopia is to accept or understand that (while there are a number of crosscutting 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. In addition to representing a specific form of monopolization of violence, among culturally heterogeneous populations, by the concept of Empire I am specifically referring to a form of domination residing in values and ideas that claim universality  Many pro-Ethiopian activists 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.

Second, 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 etc) 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…True, Ethiopian history is contested. But the notion that all our past is not shared or is inherently negative, lacks candour and is in fact irresponsible. Ethiopians need to produce a balanced and inclusive knowledge, representation, history regarding Menelik’s conquest of the south and state formation in Ethiopia with a focus towards the future. There may always be people who may disagree with such a knowledge, representation and history that the endeavour can only aim to embrace most not all of the Ethiopian population. But there must be an attempt to represent the facts as well as the meanings related to the process without undermining the diversities of experience and voices with or across religious and linguistic boundaries.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.

Third, 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.

Fourth, 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. The fact that the mainstream oromo ethnic-nationalists do not take (or seemed to be not willing) such initiative while exerting much effort against the notion of a shared Ethiopian state (often from non-oromo-speaking groups) is not constructive at all. Both the ethno nationalists and the unitarists must take the initiative and be able to participate in constructing and proposing a new inclusive notion of Ethiopia, a notion that can only be built based on selective, pragmatic, rational and consensual approach.

A centerist view

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 interconnections, as a nihilistic project, while embracing rule of law, human right and diversity as the basis for democratic citizenship building.

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, 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 diaspora) 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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