A flapping chicken that can never fly
Is the planned establishment of an “Ethiopian National Transitional Council” (ENTC) - its formal launch scheduled to take place from 1-3 July in Dallas, the resurrectional stir of implacable Amhara extremists or does it mark the start of a new political ethos of collaborative movement by Ethiopian opposition groups? My opinion is that the ENTC, for all its promise and pomposity, is much like a chicken. It can flap all it wants but it can never properly take off, because its founding assumptions are based on nostalgia and visceral biblical prophecy that God’s purported blueprint for a “unified Ethiopia” will prevail at last, no matter what. The founding assumptions are not based on factual assessment of current political realities, anxieties and aspirations. Political programming that relies on the supernatural is not only very unnatural; its success depends on fate and coincidence, not on effort and prudence.
The Preamble of the “National Transitional Charter” of the ENTC starts with a determination to “live in unity and freedom, and to erase the effects of ethnic division and tribalist policies and practices”. For Ethiopians that suffered under successive regimes, words - whether they are spoken in public podiums or conveniently written on grandiose documents, signify nothing nor do they offer political insurance against abuse.
Yet, words reveal the mindset and interest of those who speak them and therefore have referential and symbolic import. There is nothing wrong with “living in unity” and “erasing ethnic division and tribalism”. However, centuries of broken promises and debauched political language has sired full-grown political cynicism in Ethiopia. Many Ethiopians, therefore, get unnerved by the sound of some words, which, historically, rulers have used as a whip to lash at their occupied subjects. The drafters of the “Transitional Charter” must therefore budget for annoying skepticism on each and every word of the document. That is why even such innocuous reference to “Ethiopia shall stretch forth her hands unto God” reeks of ecclesiastical colonialism to some.
This bogey called “unity” and the folly of national passivity
The opponents of ethnic-based federalism in Ethiopia can be broadly categorized into two: Amhara and Amharized elites who roundly condemn TPLF for the spiraling ethnic identity and division and consequent wilting of national identity. Fiercely opposed to this are the ethno-nationalist groups, such as the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), Sidama, Afar, Gambella fronts and other rebels, who consider the current ethnic federalism format a travesty that did not answer the ethnic question in Ethiopia.
If these two camps are to forge a common front against Zenawi’s rule, their conflicting and seemingly irreconcilable political agendas will have to bargain and culminate in a painful marriage of inconvenience. That is why, without bringing the ethno-nationalist camp onboard, the ENTC risks becoming the flag-bearer of chauvinistic exclusionary politics. Yet, despite the flaws of the initiative, the formation of an ENTC that unites the “unionist” opposition voice is a step in the right direction if the process is to be used as a stepping stone to reach out to the ethnic-based political opposition.
The ENTC or the call for “unity in diversity” is not the problem. It is given that unity cannot be foisted, through force or flowery manuscripts, on nationalities who do not want to go back to the “unity” of the past or live in the distressing present. To be viable, unity must appeal to these nationalities sense of identity and interests. If achieved voluntarily, unity is prosperity. Freedom is always sublime and tribalism incontestably bad.
Unity per se, therefore, cannot be the problem. The problem is Ethiopia’s diseased “unionists” who frothily utter phrases of the sanctity of unity and the evils of division, but are not prepared to embrace new ideas that accommodate the concerns of ethno-nationalist rebel groups who belong to different political philosophy and constituency. When the promoters of Ethiopian “unity” happen to be the usual suspects – Amhara and Amharized national elites, the word “unity” becomes a subterfuge for insufferable cohabitation. The “Transitional character” becomes a symbol of unjust transition. “Unity” turns into “chauvinistic shepherding” which is used to inveigle oppressed nationalities into solitary captivity. The ethno-nationalists read the real meaning of such “unity” which is indifferent to their lifelong plight, and they smell a dreadful smolder, the cracking of an engulfing fire of oppressive unity.
To heap scorn on the dogmatic “unity” touted by the Amharas and Amharized elites is not to impute wickedness on the God-fearing and decent Amhara people. It is to confront the myths of the “unity” scheme, and the dishonest narrative that Zenawi alone is responsible for ethnic divisions in Ethiopia. It is to debunk these myths that are so flagrantly reworked afresh and redeployed to carry the current political needs of chauvinist elites. It is to object to the false sense of forward movement associated with this brand of “unity”, which in reality, is a huge leap back to the dark days of homegrown colonialism and repression. To call the “unionists” standpoint on the ethnic question in Ethiopia dishonest is to banalise the term into a validation of every small political error. In truth, their argument amounts to a political mischief. And it is this mischief that invites the opprobrium and revilement of those who suffered under home-made colonialism.
Living on “The Saving Lie”
The “unionist” camp cannot continue to live on Conrad’s “Saving Lie” for eternity: a lie that one must hold onto for self-preservation; a lie whose annihilation precipitates own obliteration and therefore one must believe in, even in the face of chastising outward reality.
The “unionists” infer that Zenawi created the Ogaden, Oromo, Sidama and Afar ethnic nationalism. Yet, OLF, ONLF, Sidama Liberation Front and many other fronts fired the bullet of mutiny against oppression long before the TPLF came to being. TPLF has sown seeds of division and have actively promoted ethnic politics for over three decades. But TPLF would not have succeeded in creating divisions if ethnic thinking did not exist in Ethiopia. The “unionists” need to re-examine their dogmas and exaggerations. The ethno-nationalists, wary of the exclusionary and simplistic political thought of the “unionists”, are suspicious of documents drafted in dark alleys with no consultation with real stakeholders. They see these documents as tools invoked in their name, yet invoked against them. And the more “unionists” get dismissive of this overbearing reality, the more they validate the fears of the ethno-nationalists; and the more the word “unity” gets a distinctively macabre connotative dimension.
In fairness, it is not only “the unionists” that feed on a precious saving lie. The ethno-nationalist opposition forces also practice delusionary political orgy. They often close themselves out of processes that have huge bearing on their political survival and prospect, all on crass argument that they do not belong to these processes. It is this national passivity and political inflexibility that has blunted their otherwise popular resistance. They need to realize that the core explanation for the longevity of the TPLF rule lies in the schismatic culture of the Ethiopian opposition. They should either win the liberation war they were waging for decades and impose the victor’s agenda on the vanquished or accept that they may need to sleep with strange bedfellows to advance their cause. This marriage of inconvenience could come out of shared tactics or shared vision, the latter a product of excruciating concessions and compromises by both camps.
Towards political re-engineering
Continuing to trek on twin paths of chauvinistic exclusionary politics and myopic national passivity only actuates the perpetuation of the TPLF tyrannical rule. The opposition will continue to drink more venom from Zenawi’s infected chalice as along as it is preoccupied with zero-sum politics.
Bridging the gulf between the “unionist” and “secessionist” camps is not easy though. It is hard to imagine how ethno-nationalist parties can ever get into political coalition with the “unionist” camp if the fact remains that the political programme of the current regime, for all its practical pointlessness, is found to be more progressive than that of the “unionists”. The ethno-nationalist camp may find mending fences with the ruling regime and getting as much concessions as possible from it as a more appealing option than joining hands with delusional “unionists”. But they should also know that the “unionists” could also settle for partnership with Zenawi rather than be part to the break-up of the country, if the ethno-nationalists are not prepared to compromise.
Unless both camps are open to the possibility of a political deal with TPLF, they should know the only winning formula that they can adopt is to learn how to live together without loving each other. They should know that they cannot win this struggle alone and that they need each other. If, instead, both camps think they do not need the other and that they can do the job of toppling TPLF’s regime single-handedly, then they should be able to demonstrate to their respective supporters how and when they will do it. Or explain why they have not been able to do it in the last two decades.
The addition of the ENTC to the already corpulent Ethiopian opposition camp, without fundamental behavioral change in the way opposition politics is played today, is unlikely to be anything more than a tantalizing political gossip, whose lustre will fade in few weeks. Political alliances need to be based on the culture of win-win and compromise. It should not be based on the culture of seeking allies through dictating terms to the other side. It should not be based on love or hate, but on shared interest and impassive realism. The Ethiopian opposition camp is in total disarray and badly in need of a serious political re-engineering to mount meaningful political challenge to the ruling regime. Tolerance, compromise and creative solutions are critical if the desired re-engineering is to kick off. Irreverent politics and intransigent idealism cannot win.
Muktar M. Omer
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