Dropping the Substance for the Shadow? – Messay Kebede

October 22nd, 2009 Print Print Email Email

The problem with Jawar’s latest response, “Underestimating, Misunderstanding, and Mishandling the Power of Nationalism: Rejoinder to Professor Messay’s Responses,” is that it moves further away from the main reason for our online debate, namely, the piece he wrote about the OLF in which he declares the organization “damaged beyond repair” and repeatedly speaks of its “demise.” His thesis is that inefficient leadership is responsible for this demise. My point was to ask him to look further or deeper, as ideological inappropriateness could also cause inefficiency. It is not clear to me why Jawar absolutely refuses to acknowledge that the ideology of an organization can impact on its efficiency.

My suspicious is that Jawar is now under enormous pressure from other nationalist Oromo. As a result, he effects a reversal: I become an enemy of the OLF while he himself rediscovers terms highly appreciative of the achievements of the organization. This does not come as a surprise since the absolute primacy of group solidarity characteristic of ethnic politics always ends up by silencing critical stands, even if they are legitimate.

That said, I agree with the last paragraph of Jawar’s reply in which he asks us to deal properly with Oromo identity and interest, provided that he tells us how the one-sided affirmation of a particular identity can agree with the need to promote pan-Ethiopian characteristics, without which there is no national unity. My quarrel is never against the affirmation of a particular identity; it is against those who at the same time do not see the need to develop pan-Ethiopian characteristics, not to mention those that are openly secessionists. I invite Jawar to read some of the many articles I wrote in which I promote the notion of a rainbow-nation, that is, a political and cultural solution crowing ethnic claims with a transcendent identity.

As to a detailed assessment of his reply, I make the following remarks:

I. Jawar writes: Messay “refuses to accept that organizational efficiency is primarily a result of strategy and committed leadership.” My reply: how is one to assess the efficiency, strategy, and the level of commitment of an organization without involving its ideology? No need here to come up with a sophisticated definition of ideology: one online dictionary defines ideology as “a set of aims and ideas that directs one’s goals, expectations, and actions.” Is it logical to argue that what defines goals, expectations, and actions has nothing to do with efficiency, all the more so as Jawar tells us that “an organization should be evaluated based on stated objectives?” Clearly, wrong objectives can make an organization inefficient.

2. Jawar complains about my “lack of objectivity”; that is why I (and people like me) “underestimate, misunderstand and mishandle nationalist movements.” This appeal to objectivity is baffling when we all know that politics is the clash of different interests. The ideal way of dealing with political conflicts is not by asking the one party to be objective. Not only does this approach forget that politics is the art of concession, but it also creates an imbalance. While the one opponent has the right to be subjective by speaking of the nation he wants to bring to existence, I am asked to silence my feelings about the nation that I want to defend. Rather than objectivity, the right attitude here is the effort to reach mutual accommodation.

3. According to Jawar, “had the OLF ideology failed, there would not exist a land known as Oromia in [the] country.” Maybe I am referring to an imaginary history, but recent events ascertain that Oromia was a gift of the TPLF, which represents another nation. Credit should be given where credit is due, even if it is for a sinister project. At any rate, Oromia was not established by indigenous victorious forces. And if Oromo are invited to be grateful to Tigrean conquerors for the creation of Oromia, I wonder why recognition is not extended to the primary benefactor, who is none other than Emperor Menilik. The latter should be praised for uniting the Oromo under the Ethiopian state, thereby saving them from utter dispersion under different colonial rulers, all the more so as this time Oromo were full participants in the conquest, as witnessed by Ras Gobena’s epic.

4. When Jawar accuses me of underestimating the force of Oromo nationalism, I respond that he has misread my previous article in which I state the following: “if the Oromo had really wanted to separate from the rest of the country, no force on earth could have stopped them.” Obviously, the problem is elsewhere. Jawar reminds me of the sacrifices that Oromo are paying for Oromia. He forgets one important thing, to wit, that more Oromo have died for the integrity of Ethiopia than for Oromia. A superficial look at the ethnic composition of the Derg’s army is enough to evince the enormity of Oromo sacrifices. Instead of one-sided affirmation, let us talk of dual commitment, that is, of ethnic self-assertion but also of common aspiration with other ethnic groups toward a nation based on citizenship or territory.

5. Speaking of Medrek, Jawar says: those who created the organization “have made a U-turn by embracing the reality as it is shown with their swift acceptance of Afaan Oromo as a national language.” Jawar fails to mention that this acceptance was made possible by the unconditional commitment to Ethiopia’s integrity, forcefully expressed through the rejection of secession. In my previous article, I have argued that the ground for mutual concessions is commitment to unity, which I portrayed as the building of a common house. What secessionists refuse to understand is that the so-called right to self-determination up to secession creates a dissimilarity that hinders democratic decisions, as it allows one group to practice political blackmail through the threat of secession unless it obtains all what it wants.

6. For Jawar, the nationalist awakening of the Oromo is a major transformational force, for “without the awakening of the giant, oppressed minorities of the South would still be called “bariya,” “Shanqilla,” “Walamo.” I do not deny that the pressure of Oromo identity constitutes a major force in the Ethiopian politics. However, I ask one more time that credit be given where credit is due. The terms “galla”, “wollamo,” etc., were banned, not by an ethnic political party, but by the Ethiopian student movement and the Derg, which both had multiethnic views. You do not have to be a member of an ethnic party to fight for the equal treatment of peoples’ culture and beliefs. There are no ethnic parties in the US, and yet people are protected in their diversity. As to the main inspiration behind ethnic politics, it is not justice and the equal treatment of peoples; rather, it is the control of state power by elites vying to monopolize scarce resources.

7. I agree with Jawar when he says that “Ethiopia is an unfinished project.” I will even go further by stating that it is a failed project. The reasons for the failure need not preoccupy us here. Even so, I find it hard to believe that ethnonationalist discourse of the kind I am hearing is liable to resume the project. When the whole issue is to marry a native attachment with a transcendent identity, the affirmation of an exclusive form of nationalism is not to finish the project; it is to sabotage it.

8. To underscore the force of nationalism, Jawar asks: “Why did “ethnic” movements outlive class struggle?” In other words, why in Ethiopia did the ethnic movements of the TPLF and EPLF defeat the defenders of socialist revolution? The notion that blood is thicker than interest is precisely the manipulative argumentation that elites use to mobilize the people. I say “manipulative” because it taps natural sentiments associated with relatedness but for the purpose of empowering elites. Both the failures of Leninist socialism and fascist regimes teach us that giving more power to states and elites, whatever their declared aims are—class interest or kinship––is not the road to liberation; the latter occurs through the containment of power. Political liberation is not a family affair. People become free when they limit and divide state power, not when they let it become boundless under the pretext of achieving a cherished goal. What is true of ethics is also true of politics: the end never justifies the means.

9. That is why we should establish political systems in which the primacy of individual and universal rights overtops the criteria of blood, class interest, religion, etc. Unlike the other criteria, individual and universal rights work toward the containment of state power by protecting the individual against unfriendly and seemingly friendly forces. Despite talks of liberation, neither the TPLF nor the EPLF has provided their respective ethnic groups with anything resembling democratic governance. Most disconcerting here is Jawar’s inconsistencies: he speaks of the TPLF and EPLF as models of liberation movements while perfectly knowing their failure, which has only exacerbated Oromo frustration. I conjure Jawar to read Dr. Negasso Gidada’s article portraying the functioning of a Stalinist political system in Wallaga. The spectacle of Oromo elites suppressing the Oromo people in the name of liberation forcefully shows the danger of ethnic politics and the need to place individual rights at the center of the struggle. What the people of Wallega needs is a federal protection of their individual rights. The height of the paradox is that, no less than the Oromo and other ethnic groups, the Tigrean people too need to be rescued by a trans-ethnic state. This is to say that Ethiopian nationalism is none other than the preeminence of individual rights over ethnic states effected through the erection of a trans-ethnic or national federal power.

10. To the question why ethnic movements outlived class struggle, the ultimate answer is that Ethiopian nationalism has been seriously undermined by the failures of socialist ideology. What explains the defeat is not the strength of the ethnic movements, but, as the great Ethiopian historian, Gebru Tareke, puts it in his recently published momentous book, “the revolutionary government ultimately lost because it failed to deliver on its big promises: freedom, equality, and prosperity” (The Ethiopian Revolution: War in the Horn of Africa, p. 2). Indeed the dictatorial method, the divisive goals, and the economic failures of the Derg combined to shatter the efficiency of the armed forces. Contrary to Jawar’s claims, here is a pertinent case of nationalist defeat that was caused by a dissolving ideology. Jawar should have seen the pertinence of the case since he maintains that the Eritrean issue could have been solved if the Derg had “negotiated for ‘Federation.’” Precisely, the inability to negotiate was how Ethiopian nationalism was made inefficient by a totalitarian ideology.
11. Jawar makes me say that “leftist ideology is responsible for growth of ‘ethnic’ nationalism, secessionist demand, and armed struggle” and then contests my alleged statement by citing liberation movements that are not leftist. Yet, my reference to leftist ideology was only echoing his own analysis of the legacy hampering the OLF. To quote him, “OLF is a foster child of the student movement that brought the revolution; as such it shares some common organizational behaviors and characteristics with all other organizations that came out that era, such as the EPRP, TPLF and EPLF”; “the political forces that emerged from the student movement were led by individuals who worshiped Mao Zedong and Stalin, so they embraced such undemocratic, rigid and control freak organizational model.” True, there are non-leftist nationalist movements, but in the particular case of Ethiopia, ethnonationalist movements have originated from a split of the student movement with which they share extremism and a vision of political struggle modeled on a zero-sum game. All the events and tragedies that occurred since 1974 are various manifestations of the rise of elites with ideologies advocating the exclusive control of state power as a means of appropriation of scarce resources. Secessionism or ethnonationalism is one of such manifestations, since it is how elites take up the cause of cultural particularism (language, religion, common descent, etc.) and argue for the natural correspondence between state and culture. In this way, they exclude their rivals as aliens and establish an exclusive entitlement to power.

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