Passion and Interest: The Faking of Tigrean Nationalism

Messay KebedeBy Messay Kebede (Ph.D.) 17 jan. 2010 — I have read with great interest Jawar’s well thought and skillfully articulated piece on Tigrean nationalism. It has inspired me to present my own view, not so much to contradict Jawar as to present an alternative interpretation. I do not consider this article as a rebuttal because I agree with Jawar’s analysis on several points so that my interpretation can be considered as an invitation to broaden the approach. I no longer believe in the unity and struggle of opposites whereby the one pole triumphs by annihilating the other; instead, debates and differences of ideas mean the search for accommodating alternatives that trigger choices rather than the attempt to dominate.

One undeniable fact is that nothing is more crucial for people engaged in the fight to topple a regime than to know the true nature of the regime. In this regard, Jawar defines Meles’s regime as a “business oligarchy,” both to emphasize that the pursuit of individual interests rather than ethnic commitment is its driving force and to unravel its preferential treatment of one ethnic group as a politics designed to obtain support by instilling fear and insecurity.

Though I find Jawar’s definition clever and useful, I do not quite see why a business oligarchy will engage in or continue to pursue identity politics in a country like Ethiopia. Let me explain. If indeed Meles and his Tigrean associates make up a business oligarchy with no Tigrean bias except to deceitfully coerce Tigreans into supporting them, then Ethiopia is a country that offers them a better alternative to achieve their goal. Of course, I have in mind the undeniable existence of a civic nationalism, which we can define as Ethiopian nationalism. In effect, why would Meles and co. get involved in the muddle of ethnic politics when they could have governed in the name of Ethiopian nationalism and with the help of a de-ethnicized bureaucracy, as did the Derg, for instance?

Jawar’s answer is that Meles and co. need ethnic politics to rally Tigreans: by favoring them economically, they arouse the animosity of other ethnic groups, thereby forcing Tigreans to seek their protection. This reasoning makes sense only if one assumes that Meles and co. had no other option than ethnic politics to get some popular support. And Jawar can think so because for him Ethiopian nationalism has never existed. So that, no other way exists for an oligarchy to rule the country than to appeal to ethnic alignments even if business interests have diluted the ethnic commitment it once had.

But can anyone really believe that Meles and co. would have failed to find some legitimacy if they had espoused Ethiopian nationalism? The latter is still alive, as forcefully demonstrated by the 2005 electoral victory of Kinijit that Meles had to suppress by violent means. Is any of Meles’s decisions and frequent crackdowns intelligible without his resolution to prevent at all cost the rise of a strong pro-Ethiopian political party? Birtukan is in jail because she epitomizes the resurgence of Ethiopianism. It is because Meles is convinced of the resilience of Ethiopian nationalism that he is so persistently at war with whatever seems to reinforce it. Doubtless, then, if Meles had defended Ethiopian nationalism and made some regional concessions to ethnic concerns and expanded the already existing pan-Ethiopian bureaucracy and military apparatus, he would have acquired acceptance and created a solid base, which he would have rewarded with economic advancements.

On the other hand, Jawar reasons as though there is such a thing as “Tigrean nationalism.” He is surprised that the TPLF betrayed that nationalism by involving Tigreans in the untenable situation of new conquerors and oppressors. Thus, he is baffled that the freedom fighter that he once knew ransacked his village. Is not Jawar’s surprise easily explained by the bogus nature of the so-called Tigrean nationalism? The inspiring goal of the leaders of the TPLF has never been the alleged Tigrean nationalism, which they knew not to exist. In light of centuries of unity between Tigreans and Amhara, there is neither political nor cultural justification for arguing in favor of a separate Tigrean national identity. Incidentally, Jawar gives us the foundation of Ethiopian nationalism, and hence of the non-existence of Tigrean nationalism, when he interprets the appointment of a Tigrean as a patriarch of the Orthodox Church as another TPLF’s “intensified effort to make ethnicity more important than religious solidarity.” Is not the necessity of an intensified effort to break the old bonds tying Tigreans to the Amhara a confirmation of the inexistence of Tigrean nationalism?

What the TPLF baptized as “nationalism” is none other than the hatred against the Amhara ruling elite and Ethiopian nationalism. As Aregawi Berhe, one of the founders of the organization, openly admits in his new book (A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front), the inspiring motive of the rebellious Tigrean elite was “resentment” at the sight of Tigray’s economic and political marginalization by the Amhara ruling class. The split of Tigrean students from the pan-Ethiopian orientation of the Ethiopian student movement was the product of elite conflict for the control of state power that the TPLF disguised as Tigrean nationalism. Hostility, first against the Amhara ruling elite and then against the Derg––as a proponent of Amhara hegemony––was systematically disseminated to provide a popular support to the Tigrean educated elite in its competition for the control of state power. Giving this hegemonic goal, is it surprising if, once it seized power, the TPLF has proved to be an instrument of oppression?

Our surprise should decrease even more in light of ethnic discourse authorizing oppressive behavior. The clear message of ethnonationalist discourse in Ethiopia is that there is nothing common between Amhara, Oromo, Tigreans, and other groups. They are all different nations that the Amhara state held together by sheer force. Given this image of Ethiopia as a “prison-house of nations,” what can we expect from TPLF fighters when they land in Wollega, Gondar or Wolaita? Obviously, they come as conquerors and occupiers since no bonds exist between them and the indigenous people. In denying the existence of a country called Ethiopia, the TPLF fighter is thereby invited to behave as a foreigner occupying an alien land that he/she will ransack without the slightest hesitation. That is why, unlike Jawar, I am not shocked when such fighters plunder Ethiopian villages.

To downgrade the ethnic equation, Jawar analyses Meles and co. as cold calculators of their interests. He forgets the hatred they nourished for decades toward Ethiopia, a hatred such that it clouds their judgment and prevents them from seeing other options, for instance the alternative of Ethiopian nationalism. Where there is ethnic politics there is also emotional syndromes that are not accountable in terms of interests. Despite serious efforts, scholars have failed to reduce ethnic politics to rationality, that is, to the calculation of interests by elite groups. More often than not, alongside material interests primitive sentiments emerge, such as hatred, fear, mistrust, which elites use to mobilize people and from which violent confrontations often spring.

It seems to me that Meles and co. have become themselves victims of the hatred they generated against Ethiopian nationalism in their quest for power. I remember vividly one of Meles’s interviews to the Ethiopian Television soon after the occupation of Addis Ababa: to the concern that ethnic politics might destroy Ethiopia, he responded by saying that the failure of ethnic federalism would simply mean that Ethiopia was not meant to be. To be sure, the prediction of such ominous end by the head of state of the country did not emanate from a loving concern.

The combination of interests with hatred induces Meles and co. to hurt Ethiopia while exorbitantly taking advantage of its resources. This ambivalent politics explains why they engage in actions that are detrimental to Ethiopia, such as ceding lands to the Sudan or devising increasingly lethal means of division. The animosity they feel toward Ethiopia does not allow them to engage in a politics of sustained progress toward unity, democracy, and equal prosperity; they have to periodically antagonize and hurt so as to vent the enmity that is eating them from inside. Ethiopians would want Meles and co. to be rational calculators of interest, given that they would have easily perceived that their best interest lies in promoting the equal prosperity of all ethnic groups. Alas, deeply engrained emotional thirsts stand in the way of rational politics.

In this respect, nothing is more perilous than to treat Tigray and the Tigrean elite preferentially as the policy does no more than enrage the rest of Ethiopia, thereby turning the achieved prosperity into a precarious acquisition. But this is to forget that enraging Ethiopian nationalism is an integral part of the psychological makeup of Meles and co.: they cannot commit to rational politics owing to the rancor with which they have filled their mind since their student years. This is to say that I do not follow Jawar in his view that the TPLF leadership has but abandoned its ethnic references, which it uses only to scare Tigeans. On the contrary, the references are alive in the deep-seated need to damage Ethiopia. Of all people Ethiopians should never forget the destructive power of resentment: they saw it at work with Mengistu Haile Mariam whose stubborn narcissism brought about the demise of the Ethiopian army and state because some people had called him “baria” in his younger days.

Above all, the resolution to control power indefinitely pushes Meles and co. to continue the politics of divide and rule. Since the implementation of liberal democracy cannot but lead to their demise, what else is left but to force people to vote ethnically so that the resulting political dispersal is used to sustain the hegemony of the TPLF? Meles hangs on to ethnic politics for the simple reason that dispersion is the only way by which a minority can retain power. More than the need to spread fear among Tigreans through the instrumentality of envy caused by preferential treatment, ethnic politics provides an institutional mechanism that allows a minority to rule over the majority. As the workings of the EPRDF illustrate, the mechanism results from the combination of ethnic separation with centralization, which is otherwise known as democratic centralism. By making lower bodies accountable to higher bodies, the principle of democratic centralism counters the ethnic fragmentation by creating a pyramidal power structure that transfers the full control of the state to an ethnic minority elite, just as communist oligarchies ruled the Soviet empire for decades by using the same mechanism of control.

The writer, Messay Kebede is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Dayton, Ohio. He previously taught philosophy at Addis Ababa University. He is the author of Meaning and Development (Rodopi, 1994) and Survival and Modernization (Red Sea Press, 1999). For comments, he can be reached at

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