The elephant in the room
Since the recent Oromo protests in Ethiopia, a number of commentators have written on the need for unity, compromise, and reconciliation if a democratic Ethiopia is to emerge from the present turmoil. Indeed, for more than twenty years, many have criticized the misdeeds of the TPLF and the dangers of the ethnic political system it has imposed on Ethiopians. But there is an elephant in the room in all these discussions and criticisms. It is the issue of ethnic self-determination. We seem to shun it as if the TPLF interpretation of ethnic self-determination is the only possible one.
On the resolution of this issue hinges the possibility or impossibility of Ethiopian unity and democracy. Unless we articulate an interpretation of ethnic self-determination that meets the democratic aspirations of Ethiopians who consider the question of ethnicity too important to be swept under the political rug, exhortations to unity and criticisms of the regime will not bring us closer to unity or to democracy. True, criticisms and exhortations are necessary. However, they do not add up to an offer of an alternative.
The right step in the wrong direction
In the context of Ethiopian history, the TPLF took the right step in putting the issue of ethnic self-determination on the political agenda. The problem is that it took the right step but channeled it in the wrong direction by reducing ethnic self-determination to ethnic essentialism. TPLF policies are guided by the belief that “ethnicity is destiny”. Hence, the bolting of every ethnicity into a specified territory—the kilil—and the obligation to identify one’s ethnicity on identity cards. As the absence of trans-ethnic solidarity in the face of the TPLF’s onslaught on certain ethnic groups shows, ethnic essentialism desensitizes Ethiopians to each other by making them mere samples of their respective ethnies, locked in their ethnicity, and unable to co-operate with each other.
The distressing consequence of the failure to develop an alternative understanding of the principle of ethnic self-determination is thus the fragmentation of the popular struggle against the TPLF, as we have seen in the recent Oromo protests. Many have asked: why have other ethnicities failed to join hands with the Oromo protestors? Such an act of solidarity would have given the protest a national momentum that could have advanced the prospects of democracy. Some have explained this absence of solidarity by the lack of unity. But this begs the question.
The real question is: what prevented the others, especially the Amharas and the Tigreans, from joining the protests? The answer is: the total absence of a unifying goal. Deprived of a unifying alternative interpretation of ethnic self-determination, each group sees the protest of the other through the ethnic ideology of the TPLF. Each says: it is their protest, not ours.
There is no ready-made answer to the question of ethnic self-determination. Developing an alternative interpretation of ethnic self-determination is a difficult but necessary task. We need it to build an Ethiopia wherein being proud of one’s ethnicity will be an expression of one’s proudness of being Ethiopian.
The basic question
I would like to draw the attention of those who believe in unity and democracy to a basic question: Is it possible to develop an interpretation of ethnic self-determination and Ethiopian unity in a way that makes each the democratic moment of the other? This basic question may be unpacked into two substantive questions.
Only when we have concrete proposals to meet the concerns expressed in these questions could we have a goal to which all Ethiopians could rally. Only then will we stop saying: it is their protest, not ours.
Against the two fetishes
To answer the above questions requires an articulation of ethnic self-determination and Ethiopian unity in ways that do not fetishize either ethnicity or Ethiopia. Currently, political fetishism is in the saddle and rides Ethiopian politics. For some of us, the fetish is “our” ethnie; for others, the fetish is “our” Ethiopia. We know from philosophy and psychoanalysis that the fetish is the enemy of change.
If we authentically want to see democratic change that will make ethnic self-determination and Ethiopian unity expressions of freedom and not closed and fixed identities, we need to go beyond these two fetishes. These two fetishes freeze our history and prevent us to see the forward-looking emancipatory alternatives that gestate in it.
Only by abandoning these two fetishes could we develop an interpretation that embraces ethnic self-determination as a democratic moment of Ethiopian unity and Ethiopian unity as a democratic expression of ethnic self-determination. Without a democratization of both ethnic self-determination and Ethiopian unity, neither unity, a precondition for democracy, nor democracy have a future in Ethiopia. Ethiopia will be trapped in a permanent state of intermittent local, isolated and disconnected protests and conflicts, as we have seen over the last twenty years. Such a condition serves the interests of the TPLF but not the democratic interests of Ethiopians, whatever their ethnicity may be.
For those who want unity and democracy, the lesson of the Oromo protests is clear.
As long as we do not develop an alternative that recognizes the principle of ethnic self-determination and that implements it in ways that make ethnic identity a legitimate expression of Ethiopian identity without essentializing and territorializing ethnicity, unity and democracy will remain pipedreams.
As a consequence, we will continue nursing our favorite fetishes—“our” ethnie or “our” Ethiopia. And the TPLF interpretation of ethnic self-determination will continue its hold on those Ethiopians who reject, rightly so, the old idea of unity, however it may be dressed up in the rhetoric of democracy and solidarity.
Moreover, if we do not develop an alternative understanding of ethnic self-determination and Ethiopian unity which makes each the democratic expression of the other by the time the EPRDF implodes, which seems to be likely, we will not have democracy. Rather, we will have another dictatorship, ethnic or otherwise. .