Berhanu Nega’s “Identity Politics and the struggle for liberty and democracy in Ethiopia”: a fresh thinking or re-articulation of hegemonic discourse?

Friday, September 24, 2010 | comments

By: D. Bultuma*


As an Oromo with interest in issues pertaining to both Oromo and Ethiopia, I followed the controversy or inter-Oromo debate revolving around Dr. Berhanu's invitation to Oromo of Studies Association (OSA) conference of 2010. I have also read the paper he presented at the meeting under the title of “Identity Politics and the struggle for liberty and democracy in Ethiopia” ** posted and available on many websites.

I am for academic freedom on the one hand but, at the same time, share the concerns expressed by some Oromos, posted by Oromo affairs in particular, about the dismissive and ethnocentric comments made by Dr. Berhanu on Oromo nationalism and aspirations which he reduced to “hatreds”. This is a typical attitude of centralist elites who tend to be allergic to identity based nationalism and the grievances of subordinated people whose experience and perception of “Real Ethiopia” contradict with their views of "Mythical Ethiopia". Nothing was academic or scholarly in they way Dr. Berhanu characterized Oromo frustration perhaps for the consumption of his social/electoral base. Dr. Berhanu found himself in prison for wrong reasons but he found ways to blame the victims who also happened to be in jail for wrong reasons. In his judgment, Dr. Berhanu did not realize that Oromo's century old grievance narratives are as legitimate as his grievance narratives against EPDRF. Incidentally, those who denied or minimized ethnic oppression in Ethiopia can see now how it feels being dominated and alienated by another ethnonational group.

The president of OSA, who tried to justify the invitation of Dr. Berhanu missed the opportunity either to withdraw the invitation or, at very least, to ask him for a clarification on his comments. Yet, it’s not sufficient to judge Dr. Berhanu’s thoughts based on a video clip or a paragraph from his book and I was curious to see the paper as I never had a chance to read any of his writings. Is he really different from other imperial ideologists/centralists? Is there something new in his insights or just a charm offensive to sell old ideas presented under the cover of a scholarly discourse? After reading the paper, I got a partial response to these questions, and the following comments reflect my understanding and perspective on the issue which may be shared by the silent majority (Oromos). First, I will frame the debate in the context of Oromo politics and then focus on the paper devoted to identity politics in Ethiopia.

Part I: Contextualizing the debate

I believe that the paper of Dr. Berhanu is hybrid with both academic and political thrust. While he tried to inject some scholarly insights on the issue of identity, democracy and liberty, his understanding of the root causes of Ethiopia’s century problems is not that different from the conventional view held by the centralists, the Amhara, and he does not offer workable and lasting solutions to century's old problem. He essentially puts blames on the current Tigrean rule and ethnic politics, the major concerns of his socio-political constituent although some of this is now shared by others. It goes without saying that their target is not the legitimacy of the Ethiopian state, not the "fact of conquest", neither is it the convoluted nature of centre-periphery relations but the wrongs of the EPDRF. His views and solutions to Ethiopia's ills better appeal to the former dominant group who are disillusioned and frustrated by loss of power and prestige and see the world upside down since 1991. The dilemma of the Amhara was summarized by one of the leading Ethiopianists in the following terms:

"Amharas faced the converse problem: whereas they had been accustomed to regard being Amhara as virtually coterminous with being Ethiopian, it was now no more than a constituent identity within a larger state, in which they enjoyed neither political power (which rested largely with Tigreans) nor numerical predominance (which fell to the Oromo) and in addition inhabited one of the poorest, and least developed and most environmentally degraded parts of the national territory… "(Calpham: 2002).

In the face of their failure to remove the Woyane regime through several pseudo elections which have been organized to ensure TPLF victory and armed struggle for which they are not ready, some of the centralist parties are turning to the OLF, which has also failed to deliver on its own objectives. It is true that many Oromo themselves are critical of OLF, its weakness/divisions and underachievement in political and military realms despite its huge popularity and a wide socioeconomic base rare in the history of ethno-national liberation movements. It may be 'inept' but it is the symbol of Oromo identity and embodies their aspiration. That is why both centralist and the Woyyane hate it to death and its crisis and endless factionalism are the most welcome news. Some rag tag commentators, including some Oromos with ideological ties with neo-imperial elites, have declared the "death of OLF". It is not surprising to see some groups launching a sort of razzia over an organization which appears in disarray. They need the Oromo votes, OLF's social base and bastion, in case of electoral democracy or foot soldiers for an eventual armed struggle. Their hope of returning to power is unlikely without the help of "others" - in this case the Oromo.

People like Dr. Berhanu are conscious of the fact that even their claim of victory in 2005 elections is just virtual or hypothetical and the unpopularity of the EPDRF does not mean they won or would win genuine polls. In order to win open and competitive elections, you must get enough support in Oromia regardless of the electoral system. Otherwise, the numbers do not add up. In 2005, they only got 6% of the votes in Oromia according to independent sources. There is no surprise if they scramble to reach out to OLF to fill the gap without realizing that is not an easy task even if they bring all OSA members and disgruntled leadership of the OLF on board. In fact, some Oromo have been bombarding us with redundant terms such "self-marginalization" and "self exclusion" to justify the invitation of Dr. Berhanu, and several others like him, but they did not tell us in what and how such initiatives release the Oromo nation from the so-called "isolation"/"self-marginalization"?

On the other hand, the Oromo are anxious and have strong desire to remove the Weyane from power. But, they are not desperate to the point where they would be willing to contribute, even indirectly, to the restoration of Amhara power for another century. In effect, no guarantee that CUD and its allies, with unproven democratic credentials but imperial mindset, will organize free and fair elections and hand over the power to winners - that never happened in a long Ethiopian history. They may even come back with a sense of revanchism where they will rollback modest concessions made under the Darg and the current regime - the most nostalgic elements may dream of the possibility of going back to status quo ante (pre 1974). Moreover, the experience of “third wave democracy” in many developing nations has shown electoral democracy gives rise to illiberal and undemocratic regimes whose power is legitimized thorough procedural elections. Given Ethiopian political culture and the failed democratic transition under TPLF/EPDRF, one cannot be optimistic about the triumph of justice, liberty, democracy and the rule of law in a situation where power is good for its own sake and the focal point.

Needless to say that Oromo did not have power both under the Amhara dominated state (1889-1991) and the Tigrean version of a reconfigured imperial state (1991- ) - they continue to be powerless. They do not have any reason to think that yesterday was better than today and they would be better off should they return to the past (Amhara's Ethiopia). They deeply resent the status quo and are hopeful that tomorrow will be brighter. In other words, the historical and political grievances of the Oromo people did not start two decades ago but goes back to more than hundred years ago. The central issue and concern for the Oromo is not only how to oust EPDRF/TPLF from power, under which they continue to be oppressed and alienated, but also how to end all forms of domination and colonial type socio-economic relations once and for all. Whether or not that can be realized within Ethiopia or outside Ethiopia proper is a great inter-Oromo debate.

For Dr. Berhanu and his allies the major preoccupation is the current regime. On the contrary, for the Oromo the problem is the Ethiopian state itself which both Tigreans and Amhara co-own and on which they fight at times. In the face of this contradictory aspirations and goals, an alliance/coalition between a liberation movement, the OLF, and political organizations which appear to embody imperial legitimacy/ideology and the past is an anomaly, unnatural and infeasible. Even if you follow Machiavelli's thinking/wisdom that politics is amoral and there no morality in politics, one must be convinced that the end justifies the means: power and interest. The Oromo do not have anything to gain by allying with CUD and its offshoot parties except discrediting and burying the OLF altogether and, eventually, breaking Oromo unity.

Ideally, people are expected to learn from history, but they rarely do. The failure of Alliance for Freedom and Democracy (AFD) should have been enough to suggest that this unholy alliance cannot serve a great purpose. I know some people try to make the case for this alliance – some of them even appear to be genuine in this thinking that the alliance between the Oromo and Amhara is the only way to bring about change. If that is the case, the best thing to do is to join Dr. Merera Gudina who got that idea first and strives for the same goal instead of dragging OLF into this hodgepodge alliance which will never be understood and recognized by the majority of the Oromo people even if it is endorsed by OSA.

As stated above, despite its shortcomings and political/strategic mistakes in its history of more than three decades, the OLF is and remains a pan-Oromo movement embodying a set of values and aspirations. It still symbolizes Oromo unity and nationhood. Their alliance with CUD and affiliated political groups may well signal the end of its tumultuous journey, although it does not signify the end of Oromo nationalism, and the rationales of its raison d'être. It will no longer be a liberation movement and neither will it be a representative of all Oromo. The belief that OLF is an organization created and led by Oromos and, as such, embodies the inner voice of the people will end as well. Does it really make sense to ally with neo-imperial organizations after more than three decades of struggle and suffering for the Oromo, its members and leaders? Is it the promised "Imagined Community..."?

Part II: Critical commentary

To understand Dr. Berhanu's series of arguments, one has to start with his thesis in this paper:

“I will argue in particular that the prevalence of identity politics partly as a remnant of the socialist discourse of the 1960s student politics in Ethiopia, the inability of political regimes to effectively address the demands for political inclusion by various ethnic groups, combined with the failure of the democratic opposition to effectively articulate the legitimate concerns of ethnic communities within the larger context of liberal democratic politics has enabled the current regime to effectively divide and weaken the democratic opposition in Ethiopia”

Here, Dr. Berhanu omits or ignores a very simple fact that Ethiopia is an empire, where one of the constituent groups dominates, the Amhara and Tigreans have alternated the exercise of power although he would prefer to highlight the Tigrean oppression. Above all, he reduces the national question in Ethiopia and the demand for self determination, respect/recognition and autonomy to “ethnic demands for inclusion”. Inclusion to what? You know the answer: he expects the sociological minority swallowing and assimilating the larger society to create a coherent nation-state! They were already forcibly included into the empire. Then there were attempts at assimilating and destroying identities, and this was presented as a mechanism of nation-building. All they are (Oromo) asking is now to decide their own destiny where they could be part of a free nation out of volition, not an empire, live with others with equality and mutual respect according to political contract/arrangement to b made, or in the state of their own. Dr. Berhanu seems to look at the politics of identity through the old lens of national integration and assimilation around and under a single core culture, not at the possibility of organizing distinct, and even sovereign, societies living together, sharing and cooperating under the new rules of game.

His analysis also gives the impression as though the politics of identity related to socialism. As far as I understand, identity politics is closely related to the post modernity and the consequent challenge to foundational knowledge. Socialism was not the origins of many conflicts either. It is related to the politics of difference and "otherness". Multi-ethnic or pluri-ethnic states and empires are susceptible to face identity based conflicts due to numerous economic, political, social and perceptual factors. The causes of ethnonationalism have extensively been studied by scholars (Tedd Gurr, 1993, Connor Walker 1994, etc.) and I do not have space to engage into esoteric academic debate about identity based ethnonational conflict.

Although Dr. Berhanu is right in underlying the extent to which the writings of students in 1960s were influenced by socialist principle on the national question, he seems to be out of his comfort zone when it comes to the understanding and analysis of ethnic based conflicts both theoretically and empirically. For instance, he confuses ethnic nationalism and socialism in his typology as if you can be ethno nationalist and socialist at the same time. But, the fact is that classical Marxism /socialism refuses to recognize different forms of identity: ethnicity, religious, gender in favor of class identity. Marxists only look at who own the means of production and who do not, and the consequent unequal power relations.

However, this Marxist doctrinaire did not prevent socialist countries to grapple with issues of nationalities/identities, but in the context of socialism and internationalism. Despite undemocratic nature of socialist solution to the question of nationalities, it was definitively an improvement on the politics of empire. No doubt that the Bolsheviks solutions to the questions of nationalities in Russia were more progressive than policies of the Tsarist regime. By the same token, the Darg’s stance on the question of nationalities was an improvement over Haile Selsasie in its early progressive reforms although I agree with those who believe that the revolution reinforced the power of the Amhara in the 1980s and their cultural hegemony more than ever before.

On the other hand, as opposed to what Dr. Berhanu claims in the paper, Darg nationalism was inseparable from Amhara nationalism which was presented as Ethiopian nationalism. The Darg got unqualified support to its many wars against nationalists fighting throughout the country. In this sense, Darg nationalism was the continuation of official /state nationalism; it fought to protect Menelik’s empire. It inherited the Eritrean war from Emperor Haile Sellasie, but was not willing to make any compromise with Eritrean nationalists and other emerging rebels (Tigrean, Oromo, Afar, Sidama, etc) that might have initially believed the progressive government at the hub of empire would end a century old national question. The major failure of the Darg was not only economic and gross abuse of human rights but its inability to understand and manage the national question due to the preponderance of Amhara influence and the primacy of "national unity and territorial integrity". Despite its perversion and manipulation for self-interest, EPDRF's ethnic federalism, its cultural side in particular, is a progress over the Darg.

In other words, the Darg, which annihilated all its opponents regardless of creed, religion, ethnicity and ideological orientation, became the custodian of official nationalism inherited from the emperors and the failure of Darg nationalism was, in a way, the failure of Amhara nationalism/patriotism, its definition of national identity, concept of statehood and nationhood. TPLF did not miss the opportunity to emphasize Amhara communal domination to justify its ethnic politics and under the cover of ethnic federalism. Even today, it can easily unleash "Naftagna return" propaganda to keep its grip on power. The misery of the past is used as a justification to perpetuate its dictatorial rule. The impact of the Ethiopia administration or internal colonialism was so deep, deeper than what Dr. Berhanu understands, any party allied with CUD and its affiliates cannot get audience and support among the majority Oromos. The OLF which awoke peasants, gave hope and contributed to the adoption of some important reforms during its short spell in the government in the early 1990s will have difficulty to convince anyone why it is allying with CUD and its ideological affiliates.
As an ally with the most conservative elements in the country, who even denied the existence of different people and identities in the country, Dr. Berhanu cannot convince us that his party has the right policy to address the issue of diversity and national question. He has a point in emphasizing the distrust between political forces in the country. How can it be otherwise? Unfortunately for him, it is not certain that his paper would help to create the missing trust. Also, as mentioned earlier, this short video clip mentioned showing his take on Oromo nationalism and frustration cannot help his image.

More importantly, I did not see any concrete proposal how his party wants to tackle the national question despite convincing analysis of the rhetoric of 1960s and 1970s. He set out to take examples from other nations who have the same problems and the way they addressed them. The paper falls short of achieving this goal. He referred to some books and discussions on identity politics. But he lacks, both theoretical framework and practical examples, how to address collective rights, group rights and individual rights in the context of an empire comprising of tens of nations and nationalities. Dr. Berhanu may have mentioned "political liberalism" and “democratic politics”. He did not tell us the meaning of liberalism and liberty and democratization in Ethiopia's social-economic settings. In Western Europe, political liberalism came out of enlightenment movement which gives the primacy of individual rights and collective freedoms. According to this, Polis (organized communities must be self governing), and it was this very idea that gave rise to nationalism and the principle of self-determination, which serves as the foundation of the international system. He spent a lot of time discussing Leninist version of self-determination but paid less or no attention to Liberal/Wilsonsian principle of self-determination and its variants in the contemporary world in general and in conflict prone multiethnic nations in particular.

He tended to avoid the use of the word self-determination as he may see the issue as that of inclusion. His central concerns, shared by his allies, are individual rights, not collective rights, even not group differentiated rights which could help to maintain both. It is important to stress that both collective rights and self determination are enshrined in the enlightenment agenda. As well, Dr. Berhanu made numerous references to "politicalliberalism" which does not mean much in the absence of liberal system and liberal values. Ethiopia did not adopt western type of liberalism; it went from feudal autocracy to modernizing autocracy, and then jumped to Afro-Marxist dictatorship to end up with a Tigrean oligarchy. The political culture of Ethiopia does not have supporting values of liberty, human rights and republicanism and compromise as well as social and political pluralism. Does electoral democracy, assuming there is one, address the competing identities and unequal power relations in the country based on conquest? What types of political arrangements need to be made? Surprisingly, in his lengthy discussion, Dr. Berhanu did not even mention "consociational democracy "; neither did he analyze the theory and practice of "group differentiated citizenship/rights", power sharing in multi ethnic societies, etc. He did not tell us how some nations have succeeded to maintain both collective/group rights and individual rights.

It is safe to say that he, like many centralist politicians, appears to dislike federalism and identity based federalism in particular. But, he did not talk about the ugly face of a centralized bureaucratic empire in the service of one ethnonational group. I personally prefer a decentralized state and any form of federalism (ethnic based, geographic based or the combination of both) can be better than a centralized ethnocratic state. That does not mean federal system is perfect; there may be some problems arising here and there but it is more suitable in the context of divided societies although statecraft is needed to conceive and implement them.

Finally, one can doubt the validity of his numerous typologies used in his paper. He knows more than anybody that typologies do not reflect empirical reality especially when it comes to political and ideological discourses. The use of typology may be good to teach but reduces a complex reality to incoherent assertions. The use of moderates and extremists in this typology makes little sense. Who are the extremists and moderates among the Oromo forces? What is the centre? He might have tried to flatter those receptive to his ideas as “moderates” and those who are opposed to a “rapprochement” of the Amhara/Oromo as extremists. By the way, where is his place in this label or where does he categorize himself? If there is extremism, he was allied with the most chauvinistic elements of the CUD and shared their core ideas and claimed “virtual victory". Where does he place some leaders of OLF who struggled for self-determination and a separate state and who may now agree with the idea of democratization? Does it mean they were extremists then and moderates now? People change or soften their positions for tactical and strategic reasons without necessarily renouncing their core principle.

Also, when it comes to OLF, I am not sure if it was (is) a socialist organization. As far I know OLF was not created with socialist/Marxist credo. And I do not know any influential Oromo leader who was officially communist although some might have read Marxist literature without necessarily endorsing it. Mr. Lencho Leta, one of the founders of the organization, said that they did not know much about Marxism. Even today, the division in OLF is not between the right wing and left wing or conservatives Vs progressives and it emanates from, even personal, strategic differences- the Oromo do not have ideological and religious extremists. Even those who uphold the principle of self-determination, OLF's original program, are not extremists.

Although Dr. Berhanu has tried to embellish his discussion with an apparent scientific approach, his perspective is old and does not have any workable policy framework. Dr. Berhanu qualifies Tigrean rule and hegemony as “tyranny”. But he forgot to employ the same term or equivalent expression for the Amhara rule in the preceding century. While he has sufficiently emphasized on grievances against the rule and misrule of the last two decades, he is almost silent on the experiences of peoples under what he calls "centralizing monarchy". This euphemism disguises or glosses over the imperial oppression which led us to the present situation; oppression, violence, abuses of basic fundamental human rights have not started with the Woyane's takeover in 1991 but they continue unabated under the current regime. The problem is that Dr. Berhanu is an aspiring politician and he may not need to provoke the wrath of his allies and socio political base. Thus, he is a partisan politician in the analysis of the complex reality and his perspective is Amhara centered despite his attempt to reach out to others: balanced/critical scholarship may not be compatible with political loyalty and vested interests.

I may add one quick note: I was surprised not to see any references to Oromo based scholarship and scholars in Dr. Berhanu’s paper. The Oromo scholars have been writing extensively on Ethiopia and Oromo as well as on issues related to the politics of identity. He did not mention any sources although he may not agree with their perspective on modern Ethiopia. Even if he disagrees, he could have mentioned where the disagreement resides in order to have a healthy debate on the question of identity and political problems and what can be done; this would have been an opportunity to learn about each other perspectives instead of lecturing the déjà vu discourse of centralists.
Finally, he invites the children of Gadaa people to join him for a "lofty purpose." As a matter fact, Gadaa’s republican, egalitarian and democratic ideals have nothing to do with what he is offering. Above all, he may not be aware of the fact that Gadaa was destroyed by Ethiopian autocracy and the Oromo may be under Gadaa, or re-adopt aspects of it, when they are free again or sufficiently autonomous, not under the tutelage of oppressive state and a fake electoral democracy perverted and manipulated by neo-patrimonial elites.

In brief, in this paper, Dr. Berhanu has tried to marry academic perspectives and praxis by expressing his views as a politician. In fact, this is a risky business and I am not sure if he succeeded in his "balancing act". While one commends any scholarly endeavor, I was not impressed with the way he interpreted historical facts; he is selective and partial, and this seems to have obfuscated his academic insights. His understanding of the root causes of Ethiopia's competing identities and crises and the way he wants to address them are not different from déjà vu neo-imperial and hegemonic panacea which led to the current situations. Thus, the paper cannot change a thing and I do not see any reason why the Oromo should ally or join forces with him and his party to advance their cause. Instead of wasting time and energy in search of this never ending, meaningless and unworkable alliance, the Oromo organizations need to work towards their own unity and reconciliation. Lest they forget, they have more in common than what divides them.

*The author can be reached at:

** Paper prepared for the Oromo Studies Association (OSA) 24th Annual conference. Howard University, Blackburn Center, Washington DC, July 31st –August 1st 20102

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