The Ethnicization of Ethiopian Politics: Origins and Significance
Messay Kebede | Nov 30, 2006
Nota Bene: While reading this paper, which I prepared for the forum on “Ethnicity and National Identity in Ethiopia, organized by the Ethiopian Students Association at Harvard, I ask the reader to bear in mind that my critical evaluation of ethnic movements does not signify that ethnicity should be ignored or suppressed.However misguided ethnicized politics is, once it is born, it will not go away for the simple reason that it mobilizes strong emotional forces. Instead of confrontation, I maintain that it should be used to activate democratization and economic progress, the only way by which the emotional component can be neutralized. This use of ethnicity presupposes, on the other hand, a clear understanding of its nature, namely, that it is less about the rights of peoples than about elites vying for the control of state power.
The ethnicization of Ethiopian politics since the fall of Haile Selassie’s regime is both an aspect and a consequence of the radicalization of Ethiopian students and intellectuals in the 60s and early 70s. Only when we connect the ethnic discourse with radicalization do we understand that the structural problems inherited from the imperial regime are not enough to explain the birth of ethnonationalism. The latter requires that we pay attention to the cultural developments that brought about an educated elite too prone to radical and polarizing views. True, the reluctance of the imperial regime to make the necessary reforms had polarized the country and created the conditions of class and ethnic confrontations. No scholar can seriously underestimate the impact of state repression and lack of reforms on the radicalization of students. The impatience generated by the long postponement of necessary reforms could not but favor the adoption of radical positions. Still, the whole question is to know whether structural conditions resulting from the lack of reforms fully account for the radicalization of the educated elite.
This paper firmly maintains that the evil structural legacies of Haile Selassie’s long reign do not fully explain the drift of the country into the path of radicalization and ethnic confrontation, since reformist and less oppositional solutions were available. The venture into a revolutionary path is the direct product of the infatuation of Ethiopian students and intellectuals with Marxism-Leninism. This suggests that the ethnicization of Ethiopian politics is directly connected with the ideological hegemony of Marxism-Leninism among Ethiopian students and intellectuals in the 60s and early 70s.
Ethnicity and Radicalization
Some scholars”“”“especially those originating from dominated ethnic groups”“”“see the Ethiopian ethnic problem as the main driving force behind the radicalization of the Ethiopian student movement. They argue that the movement, which intensified in the early 1960s, took a radical turn in the late 60s by adopting the Marxist-Leninist ideology essentially to accommodate the mounting struggles that oppressed ethnics, notably the Eritreans, the Tigreans, the Somali, and the Oromo, waged against Amhara rule. The student movement could not continue its opposition to the imperial regime without addressing the growing demand for the democratization of the Ethiopian state through the dismantling of its imperial structure. For many scholars of oppressed regions, then, the deep cause of the 1974 Revolution was none other than the need to smash the political and economic structure of Amhara hegemony over other ethnic groups. As one such scholar writes:
The longstanding contradictions between the Ethiopian ruling class, state, and imperialism on one hand, and the colonized nations and the Ethiopian masses on the other hand caused two types of crises in 1974: the revolutionary crisis from below and the crisis of the ruling class and the state at the top.
At first, convinced that liberalism provided the necessary solution, the student movement called for a democratic society in which all Ethiopians will have equal rights regardless of their ethnic origin. The great shift occurred when Struggle, the journal of the University Students’ Union of Addis Ababa, published in 1968 Walleligne Mekonen’s famous article stating that Ethiopian ethnic groups are actually nations dominated by the Amhara ruling class. To quote Walleligne:
Ethiopia is not really one nation. It is made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing, history, social organization and territorial entity. . . . I conclude that in Ethiopia there is the Oromo Nation, the Tigrai Nation, the Amhara Nation, the Gurage Nation, the Sidama Nation, the Wellamo Nation, the Adhere Nation, and however much you may not like it the Somali Nation.
In maintaining that Ethiopia is not yet a nation, the article squarely reduced the Ethiopian polity to the imposition of Amhara culture and interests on conquered nations, even as regards the northern part of the country. Moreover, the use of the concept of dominated nations gave dignity to the resistance against the imperial regime by transforming what so far was belittled as tribalism into national liberation movements. The significant contribution of Walleligne’s article lies in the “conceptual change he introduced into the ongoing political and academic discourse by raising the status of non-Amhara peoples in the Ethiopian empire from “˜tribes to nations and nationalities,”? says one Oromo scholar. Consequently, provided they were socialist, Walleligne supported all the uprisings of oppressed groups, including their right to self-determination. Such movements weakened the regime, but most of all they were liberation movements that fought for the empowerment of working people. Not to support their struggles amounted to allying with the imperial regime and, worse yet, to opposing socialism in the name of a nationalism that reflected nothing more than the dominance of the Amhara ruling elite.
What drove Walleligne to write an article that simply called for the dismantling of Ethiopian state and unity? The question becomes all the more perplexing when we note that Walleligne was himself an Amhara from Wollo region. Hardly can we understand this extraordinary self-depreciation outside the influence of the Marxist-Leninist ideology. By depicting the Ethiopian society as a backward and obsolete feudal system, the Marxist-Leninist analysis gave a highly demeaning and gruesome picture of Ethiopia. Is it surprising if, as a result of this reading, Ethiopian students and intellectuals became prey to what an Ethiopian scholar, Hagos Gebre Yesus, called “national self-hatred and nihilism?”? Behind the endorsement of ethnonationalism, there is nothing but “national self-hatred and nihilism and . . . attachment to ethnicity and separatist politics based on ethnic, religious exclusiveness,”? he contends.
The following quotation taken from Struggle dramatically epitomizes the movement from Marxism-Leninism to national nihilism.
In our Ethiopian context, the true revolutionary is one who has shattered all sentimental and ideological ties with feudal Ethiopia. . . . Our rallying points are not a common history, a feudal boundary, the legendary Solomonic fairy tale, religious institutions, regional ethnic, linguistic affiliations, but the cause of the oppressed classes, who are the ultimate makers of history. That is why we are internationalist, because the masses have no nation, no home.
This unbelievable passage exalts uprootedness and self-denial by offering revolutionism as a substitute for Ethiopianness. Instead of common history and culture, both rejected on account of being feudal, the commitment to an internationalist view championing the unity of the oppressed is suggested as a much more worthy goal. The resolution to eradicate sentimentality and any attachment to Ethiopian characteristics clearly indicates that the rejection of tradition is not based on the examination of its negative and positive aspects. It is the product of a boundless, indiscriminate hatred that targets nothing less than a complete shakeup of Ethiopian society.
This ultimate deconstruction sees Ethiopia as yet to be born, redesigned as it should be around the struggle and the cause of the masses. For such a deconstructive project, nothing of Ethiopia is sacred, untouchable, not even national unity. Thus, Challenge, the journal of the Ethiopian Students Union of North America, takes pride of the position of the Ethiopian Students Union in North America because it “reiterated its unconditional support for the right of the Eritrean people to self-determination including independence.”? Once common legacy is rejected, no reason remains to condemn secessionist movements. An equally valid way of getting rid of oppression, however, would have been the struggle for democratization. But since Ethiopia must be redesigned, the recognition of the right to secede to resolve what is but a democratic issue is a forced component of the revolutionary project.
The Imperative of Doctrinal Consistency
The connection with radicalization suggests that, in order to understand the birth of ethnonationlism, we must first inquire into the abandonment of liberal or democratic solutions. And this inquiry means nothing less than the acceptance of the prior nature of the Marxist-Leninist commitment. Far from ethnic problems accounting for the radicalization of Ethiopian students, the prior commitment to Marxism-Leninism explains the abandonment of the liberal approach. If the issue of ethnic equality progressively appeared unsolvable with a liberal approach, the reason is not so much the inadequacy of liberalism as the need to be consistent with the commands of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine. The more loudly one claimed to be Marxist-Leninist, the harder it became to resist the endorsement of the right to self-determination. In other words, the students’ need for doctrinal consistency, which need authenticated their radical commitment, led them to posit the issue of dominated peoples in terms of dominated nations, even though no historical facts of whatever kind supported their new reading. Their overriding concern was the compliance of their approach with Leninism, which required the socialist solution and endorsed the right to self-determination. Anything short of viewing dominated ethnics as nations and nationalities would have validated the liberal approach. The endorsement of the Marxist-Leninist commitment to internationalism and to the right to self-determination was so categorical that, in the words of Randi RÃ¸nning Balsvik, “the feeling was rife that ideology had become more important to the students than the survival of Ethiopia as a state.”?
Another major distortion caused by the imperative of doctrinal consistency is the interpretation of the southern expansion of Ethiopia as a colonial conquest. The expansion refers to Emperor Menilik’s forced incorporation of what are today the southern and eastern parts of Ethiopia. According to some scholars, the doubling of the size of the empire through the incorporation of neighboring peoples at the exact time European powers were vying for colonial possessions in Africa was nothing short of a colonial conquest. This colonial interpretation of the southern expansion does no more than confirm the extent to which Ethiopian history and culture are depicted through radical concepts. Once the colonial grid is introduced, the requirement to get rid of the alien ruler is added to oppression and domination and the demand for self-determination overtakes the aspiration for equal rights. The issue is no more the termination of Amhara domination and oppression through democratic changes, but the dismantling of the colonial empire and the accession to independence. Rather than calling for a democratic process of national integration, the colonial reading simply targets the dismantling of Ethiopia.
Another forceful impact of the need of doctrinal consistency is the support that the student movements gave to the Eritrean insurgency. Even if I do not fully follow Tekeste Negash when he says, “it would hardly be an exaggeration to state that it was in response to the Eritrean challenge that the Ethiopian student movement began to develop a strategy for resolving the problems of nation-building,”? there is no denying that Eritrean students have significantly contributed to the ethnicization of student politics in Ethiopia. The ethnicization spread first to Tigrean and then to Oromo students, thus forcing the student movement to find a solution to the national problem. Moreover, the Eritrean armed resistance provoked both admiration and the tendency to emulate. Some factions in the student movement began to advocate the creation of a guerrilla movement to overthrow the imperial regime.
The influence of the Eritrean resistance grew with the emergence from within the insurgency of a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla faction, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Not only did the Front become “the vanguard of the radical opposition by its doctrine, its organization and its mobilizing power,”? but also radical students could now support the insurgency in the name both of doctrinal consistency and partnership with a fighting ally. To recognize the EPLF was none other than to support the struggle of Eritrean working masses. In addition, given the ideological orientation of the Front, the only way to accommodate Eritrea within the unity of Ethiopia was to initiate a socialist revolution and implement the Leninist solution. Since “the formula, disunite to unite, was behind Ethiopian students’ attempts to work out a stand on the Eritrean matter,”? no better proof existed to display the loyalty of the student movement to Marxism-Leninism than to support the Eritrean insurgency.
Important ideological arguments were added to the need for doctrinal consistency. Radicals had succeeded in convincing many students that the emphasis of liberalism on individual rights was not the right remedy, unable as it was to structurally undermine the Amhara dominance. In the context of the primacy of individual rights, the promotion of individual equality regardless of ethnic belonging is not enough to dismantle an already established dominance. Oppressed ethnics must organize themselves as autonomous groups to conquer and affirm their rights. While the liberal model underscores the rights of the individual, the Leninist formula recognizes group rights. The recognition creates the political reality necessary to tear down the oppressive structure. Let it be added that Western governments’ support to Haile Selassie’s regime made the repudiation of liberalism as an inadequate solution easier. And since without a genuine equality the unity of Ethiopia could not be safeguarded, the recognition of the right to self-determination appeared as the only correct solution.
Because it recognizes the right to self-determination, the doctrinal position advocating unity via disunity stands out as the only way to preserve the Ethiopian unity. Who can deny that equality emanating from the exercise of self-determination alone removes the main motive why people want to secede in the first place? Explaining that revolutionaries do not defend the right to self-determination to promote balkanization, a study published by the Ethiopian Students Union in North America writes:
Revolutionaries strive to create as large a state as possible, for this is to the advantage of the laboring masses; they strive to bring about a rapprochement between nationalities and their further fusion, but they desire to achieve this aim not by violence, but exclusively through free, fraternal union of workers and the toiling masses of all nationalities.
Lastly, the preservation of the unity of students was another cause for the prevalence of the Leninist approach. It was felt that the movement could not maintain its unity unless it took a clear stand against Amhara domination and advocated the promotion of oppressed peoples. No other way existed to preserve the participation of Oromo, Eritrean, Gurage, and Tigrean students in the movement than to concede, in the spirit of genuine equality, the rank of nations and nationalities to dominated ethnic groups. The recognition was all the more crucial because of all ethnic groups Tigrean students were “the most politically active on campus.”?
The Lack of Renovated National Ideology
Granted the compelling nature of doctrinal consistency, still the history of the Ethiopian student movement shows that a great number of students dragged their feet in endorsing the Leninist solution to ethnic inequality. Aware of the danger of the Leninist idea of self-determination, some students proposed Ethiopianism as a renovated nationalism. Ethiopianism transcended both Imperial Ethiopia and ethnic loyalty through the assertion of equal rights and the promotion of national integration; it defined Ethiopia as the integrated unity of free and equal citizens. Moving on the offensive, groups of students, including some activist students, denounced the Leninist approach as a promotion of tribalism and national divisions. The offensive proved successful:
The 1967 annual meeting of NUEUS [National Union of Ethiopian University Students] debated the national issue and passed strongly worded resolutions condemning “˜sectarian movements in Ethiopia,’ labeling supporters of the movements petty bourgeois opportunists and reactionary elements that were encouraged by reactionary Arab forces. . . . The meeting declared Eritrea an indivisible part of Ethiopia.
If there was one issue against which the majority of students resisted the pressure of radical students, it was the commitment to the national unity. Many students were willing to follow the radicals all the way except on the question of Ethiopian national unity. So strong was the national sentiment that in the 1968 election the candidate of the radicals, Tilahun Gizaw, lost the presidency to Mekonnen Bishaw, who represented the moderate view. The radicals explained their defeat by the fact that “students were deceived by professional agitators,”? who spread rumors suggesting that they were in league with secessionist movements.
The rise of a rival movement, expressly defining itself as “Ethiopianism,”? confirms that the safeguarding of Ethiopian nationalism was an important concern, especially among many Amhara and Tigrean students. Moderate students initiated the movement to counter the Marxist-Leninist ideology, all the more so as radical students’ support to the Eritrean secessionist movement had particularly antagonized the nationalist feeling. Observing that the support had weakened the influence of the radicals, moderate students saw the nationalist issue as an opportunity to rally the majority of students. An article published in Struggle under the title “Ethiopia and Ethiopianism”? gives the following definition:
Ethiopianism is the concept that transcends personal, tribal, and regional loyalties. It is the belief held by the Ethiopian who thinks in terms of the people as a whole . . . . To him what matters is not his loyalty to one person, religious or tribal groups, but to the development of the people, as a whole. To him, the leader or the government is but the agent for carrying out the development and reforms needed to lessen the misery of the population.
Written by an Ethiopian Muslim, the article visibly avoids Marxist-Leninist jargon, such as class struggle, revolution, self-determination, etc.; instead, it advocates reformism, as it considers “the accumulation of wealth by a few individuals as undesirable, when there are millions struggling for a decent place in the sun.”? Reforms pave the way for genuine national integration. They result in the creation of a nation of equal and free individuals through the transcending of linguistic, regional, and religious disparities. That Ethiopianism is proposed as a rival ideology, another article in the same issue makes it quite clear:
Existence of regionalism and tribalism (primitive sentiments) in Ethiopia are realities that we should accept; but what we should not accept is their perpetuation. But they do not die out by evasion and avoidance. They die out only when they are replaced by a higher and progressive ideology, (such as Ethiopianism or Ethiopian Nationalism).
The moderate students who thought of using the ideology of Ethiopianism to counter the growing influence of Marxism-Leninism did not fully realize the extent to which Marxism-Leninism was an even more powerful seducer of nationalism. For one thing, the promotion of the interests of the oppressed and the exploited as a means of creating a truly united nation appeared too remote, given the reluctance of the imperial regime to undertake any serious reform. For another, the Leninist proposal alone was liable to enlist the enthusiastic support of oppressed ethnic groups themselves. Above all, Ethiopianism was unlikely to contradict the influence of Marxism-Leninism because its proposals were not enough to undermine the imperial regime and inspire a movement of opposition. In a word, it was not a renovated nationalism: it neither comprised a clear strategy of economic development, nor reinterpreted the traditional culture so as to make it conformable with modernization.
This is to say that Marxism-Leninism stood for an unrenovated nationalism. Under the imperial regime nationalism was crippled both by the uprooting effect of a Westernized educational system and the lack of reforms necessary to remove the numerous hurdles to socioeconomic growth. It is therefore not contradictory to assume that the frustration of nationalism is one of the reasons why so many young educated Ethiopians turned to Marxism-Leninism in the ’60s and early ’70s. This approach corrects Hagos’s statement: what inspired the student movement was not so much national nihilism as the frustration of nationalism. While in becoming Marxist-Leninists students were going against important features of their legacy, the enchanting promises of socialism made these rejections worthwhile, and so metamorphosed them into an expression of higher fidelity. To the extent that Marxism-Leninism had become the ideology of those driven by “radical nationalism,”? it naturally reached an increasing number of students as disillusionments over the imperial regime grew.
Nationalism via Internationalism
An objection comes to mind: How does the assumption that Marxism-Leninism cajoles nationalism agree with the equally important commitment of the theory to internationalism? Enshrined in Marx’s celebrated declaration, “the workingmen have no country,”? internationalism is certainly not the kind of thought that encourages nationalist fervor. What is more, Lenin’s recognition of the right to self-determination of oppressed nationalities was a direct challenge to the very unity of Ethiopia. Student publications largely confirm the blindness of radical students to the danger of the Leninist formula. Thus, one editorial of Struggle writes:
A true revolutionary is an internationalist, who has understood the dialectical developments of nature and society and who is above all deeply moved by the injustice humanity is subjected to. Thus, for a revolutionary, there are no regional, linguistic, national or even continental boundaries. The most significant factor is the economic exploitation and subsequent dehumanization of the oppressed classes.
Carefully read, however, student publications reflected a nationalist manifesto rather than national nihilism. The recognition of the right to self-determination was an attempt to preserve the unity of the student movement. In particular, it was supposed to be appealing to those students who were going over to ethnonationalism. The latter had become increasingly attractive to students coming from highly aggrieved ethnic groups, such as Eritrean, Tigrean, Oromo, and Gurage students. By revealing in ethnic oppression the dimension of class exploitation, Marxism-Leninism seemed to give a correct analysis of the existing reality, but even more so to offer a solution that fell short of advocating secession. As such, it proposed a pact between revolutionaries coming from oppressed and oppressing ethnic groups. Activating the sacrificial ethos on both sides, it demanded of Amhara students to give up the traditional hegemony of their ethnic group in exchange of students of marginalized groups abandoning their separatist goal. The mutual sacrifice sealed a new “nationalist”? deal based on the common interests of the working masses.
Herein lies the considerable influence of Leninism on nationalist sentiment: it “offered a narrative of how to weld together . . . disparate ethnic groups into a unitary state defined by the boundaries of a previous conquest””by Russians in the Soviet Union and by Amhara and Tigreans in Ethiopia.”? Inversely, it was felt that liberalism cannot achieve ethnic equality: the maintenance of the class structure will simply preserve the hegemony of the dominant ethnic group. Only the destruction of the class system can pave the way for the autonomy and equal rights of ethnic groups. Once working people from oppressed groups have exercised their right to self-determination, they will unite freely with their class brothers and sisters of conquering ethnics.
This is exactly what Walleligne had in mind: his diatribes against Amhara domination turn into a calling to “build a genuine national state,”? which he defines as “a state where Amharas, Tigres, Oromos, Aderes, Somalis, Wollamos, Gurages, etc. are treated equally . . . where no nation dominates another nation be it economically or culturally.”? But what about the support that Walleligne gives to secessionist movements? Here again, his support is conditional on the genuine socialist orientation of the secessionist movements, his argument being that, with an internationalist outlook, “a socialist movement will never remain secessionist for good.”? Clearly, the attempt was to strengthen the Ethiopian nation by transcending ethnic attachments through the internationalism of socialist ideology.
Elite Conflict and Ethnicization
Since the original source of ethnicization is the infatuation of Ethiopian students and intellectuals with Marxism-Leninism, a full analysis must discuss the factors that brought about the infatuation. The question of elite radicalization is complex and involves multiple causes. The general consensus among theoreticians of revolution distinguishes five major schools that present an original analysis of the causes of revolutions. They are: (1) the theory of relative deprivation, which gives the central role to the psychological phenomenon of frustration of the working masses; (2) the functionalist-structural approach that focuses on disequilibrium in social systems; (3) the Marxist-Leninist theory with mode of production and class struggle as central concepts; (4) state-centered approaches that put great stress on the breakdown of the state; (5) political conflict theory, which emphasizes elite competition. What constitutes the originality of each school is not so much the discovery of a new causal phenomenon as the emphasis on one variable judged crucial for the eruption of revolutions.
The Marxist theory of class struggle and, in some sense, the theory of relative deprivation bring out the chief role of the masses in the revolutionary process. Marx’s central notion of class struggle underlines that the masses, rather than elites, make history, which history realizes their aspirations in a progressive and goal-oriented fashion. The problem with this approach is that the people who become instigators and leaders of revolutions do not often come from lower classes. Knowing the essential role of leadership, it is very difficult to argue that revolutions are propelled by the demands of the masses. That is why such schools as the functionalist approach or political conflict theory underline the crucial role of elite conflicts. These schools have developed views that replace class struggle by intra-class or intra-elite conflict. For them, in all revolutionary situations, “the conflict and “˜struggles’ were intra-class within the old and emerging new ruling classes, which responded to underlying economic changes. Slave and serf revolts were at best secondary and supplementary.”?
The basic assumption that radicalization is a product of intense elite conflicts perfectly applies to Haile Selassie’s regime. The conditions that create elite polarization and conflict were indeed quite active in the imperial regime, given that the blockage of the circulation of elites was a salient feature of the regime. Not only as an aristocratic system it offered no opening to commoners, but also the upper level was dominated by one ethnic group, the Amhara. This does not mean that individuals from humble origin or marginalized ethnic groups did not rise; they did, but they were few in number and had authority only to the extent that they remained Haile Selassie’s protÃ©gÃ©s. The blockage of social mobility took an acute form as modern educated individuals saw their ambition increasingly thwarted by a closed aristocracy stubbornly defending its traditional privileges. Though modern education was praised and encouraged, educated people had no say in the formulation of policies; they were simply asked to serve a regime that excluded them politically. This exclusion became increasingly intolerable as economic crises drastically narrowed employment possibility for university dropouts and graduates. For the rising educated elite, the situation offered no other way out than a complete overthrow of the old elite.
Be it noted that these adverse structural conditions only established the possibility of political revolution in Ethiopia. The political overthrow of the landed aristocracy was enough to open up the system: neither the complete transformation of the class system nor the adoption of Marxism-Leninism was necessary to give a political representation to the modernizing elite. How then is one to explain the drift toward a radical revolution? For many students of Ethiopia, the question amounts to asking why the excluded educated elite felt the need to speak in the name of the interests of peasants and workers. The overwhelming answer to this question underscores the inability of the educated elite to effectively overthrow the old elite and its imperial state without the support of the masses. It is therefore the need to gain the support of the masses that talked the educated elite into espousing the Marxist-Leninist ideology.
According to Gebru Mersha, for instance, radicalization has to do with the fact that “liberalism as an alternative ideology did not have a strong material base and even as an incipient tendency was already discredited.”? The extremely slow economic development and the suppression of political freedom under the imperial regime together with the dominance of foreign capital did not allow the creation of conditions favoring bourgeois forces. The educated elite had no other option than to mobilize the oppressed against the imperial regime by championing their interests. The incapacities induced by the closed society explain the drift toward a radical course.
John Markakis has developed a similar idea. For him, too, the root of the radicalization of the petty bourgeoisie is to be found in the blockage of social mobility, which offered no way out expect through an alliance with the working class and peasants. In default of any possible alliance with upper classes, the petty bourgeoisie had to make common cause with the oppressed. The perceived solidarity of interests between the masses and the petty-bourgeoisie inclined students, teachers, young officers, middle-strata state employees to become responsive to the radical ideology of Marxism-Leninism and to advocate a program of radical social change. This very radicalization propelled them to the leadership of the social protests. What is more, the alliance was not simply circumstantial: beyond the purpose of overthrowing the ancien regime, it included a project of social development beneficial to the petty-bourgeoisie and the masses alike, notably by the prospect of nationalization, which “would bring assets under its [petty-bourgeoisie] control in a greatly expanded state sector.”?
This analysis would have been correct if an alliance between the petty bourgeois, the workers, and the peasants had effectively occurred. Unfortunately, students and intellectuals did not see themselves as allies of the working masses; they viewed themselves as their representatives. Alliance maintains the differences so that the representatives of one class do not speak in the name of another class. Instead, the recognition of crucial common interests brings them together against a common enemy, without thereby dissolving their particular interests.
But then, the most consistent alliance would have been the striving for a liberal society through a political rather than a social revolution. In other words, the petty bourgeoisie did not need to adopt the radical ideology of socialism to obtain the support of the working masses. Liberal proposals, such as freedom of expression and organization, free election, government responsible to the parliament, etc., would have mobilized the working masses, all the more so as socialism was not initially a popular demand. The revolutionary ideology of the radical section of the petty bourgeoisie, and not the pressure of working classes, introduced the idea of socialism. Once radicalism is adopted, reformism becomes the expression of opportunism: it opens the system to new elites but gives nothing substantial to the masses. Rejecting categorically reformism Challenge writes: “let us all realize that to bog down oneself in reformism, today, is indeed an exercise in futility. Every good intentioned endeavor to help the people which is not linked to the revolution of the masses will not simply work!”?
One important assumption emerges: elites become radicalized, not because they need to represent the masses, but because their rise to power requires the complete overthrow of the old system. Accordingly, social revolution is the ultimate form of political competition, the very one opposing elites whose conflicts over issues have become so critical that they cannot be resolved within the existing political system. It is clear that an exclusive type of elite competition cannot appear in democratic states. Imperial or autocratic regimes alone are liable to systematically marginalize aspiring elite groups, thereby intensifying elite polarization to the point of breakup. Nothing could arouse more elite dissatisfaction than the protracted monopoly of power by Haile Selassie’s autocratic regime. The resentment against the monopoly of power by an old, outdated oligarchy accounts for the generalized disaffection of the educated elite, including the young officers in the army and police.
To the question why the Ethiopian educated elite opted for the radical ideology of socialism when it could have used liberal notions to unseat the regime, the answer is thus obvious: elite polarization created the need for radical, extremist ideologies. To be sure, democratic demands, such as freedom of expression, the right to organize, the rule of law, etc., would have been enough to ideologically undermine Haile Selassie’s autocracy. However, the political overthrow of Haile Selassie would not have been enough to empower the educated elite: the forceful presence of a landed nobility predominantly composed of one ethnic group required a change both in the class structure and the ideology of the imperial regime. Clearly, the association of radical ideology with the conquest of power rather than with class struggle better explains why elites produce or adhere to ideologies that defend the interests of the masses, such as Marxism-Leninism, instead of supporting liberal values and institutions, which are more in line with their elite status. They prefer radical ideologies less to uphold the interests of the masses than to radically undermine the regime that excludes them by putting it under the pressure of massive and far-reaching demands.
The rejection of liberal and traditional values explains, therefore, the ethnicization of the political conflict. For one thing, to the extent that the discourse of the revolutionary elite demeaned national traditions and values, even challenged Ethiopian nationhood, which it identified with imperial oppression, it was bound to revive local identities. The construction of Ethiopia as an empire in which one ethnic group, the Amhara, dominated other conquered and subdued ethnic groups clearly responded to the requirement of marginalized elites competing for power. Marginalized elites could not hope to wage a successful struggle unless they ethnicized their cause. Because liberalism was not enough to question the Amhara political and cultural hegemony, the first weapon to be used against the system was to get rid of the nobility and the imperial state by advocating a socialist society. Once liberal reform was out of the picture, ethnicization stepped in with its unique ability to give local elites the exclusive right to represent their ethnic groups and speak in their name. Indeed, what is characteristic of ethnicity is that it excludes elites belonging to other ethnic groups as strangers, outsiders, thereby giving a monopoly of representation to the elite group that is native of the ethnic group, that claims to have a natural, blood bond with the represented people.
Only the theory of elite conflict explains why the Ethiopian educated elite first identified with Marxism-Leninism and then gave birth to splinter groups advocating ethnicity. In addition to accounting for the ethnic dimension of the conflict, the concept of elite competition explains the active role that individuals from marginalized ethnic groups, such as Tigreans and Eritreans, played in the Revolution. Only by propagating an ethnicized polity could these marginalized elites successfully vie for power. Only as representatives of oppressed ethnic groups rather than of oppressed classes could marginalized elites pursue the political ambition of enthroning regional elites at the expense of the cosmopolitan or Ethiopianized elite. The positioning for elite competition explains why ethnicized groups were satisfied neither by the overthrow of the monarchy nor by the Derg’s radical attempt to end class exploitation. For them, the end of class oppression did not entail the end of the supremacy of Amhara elite.
Ethnicity is thus a construct of disgruntled and marginalized elites whose ambition for political prominence could not be achieved by means of liberal institutions. As a result, they first appealed to Marxism-Leninism to block out liberalism and then asserted their natural and exclusive right to represent oppressed groups by excluding other competing elites. It follows that ethnicity, allegedly rooted in peasant aspiration, is actually a product of elite competition. Alluding to Tigray’s fierce ethnicization, Gebru Tareke rightly writes: “contrary to the TPLF’s claims, the current “˜nationalist’ sentiment has been thrust upon the peasantry by the intelligentsia.”? It is also clear that the promise to uphold the interests of ethnic groups is a disguised way of pursuing elite hegemony in the name of oppressed ethnics. As a remnant of the Marxist-Leninist discourse, ethnicization has the proper function of giving a redemptive and disinterested connotation to the drive to power of elitist groups. Our experience both of the Eritrean and the TPLF regimes fully confirms that the liberation from Amhara rule only gave way to elitist political systems whose main function is to exclude other competing elites. And as the totalitarian control of the state is necessary to suppress contending groups, an ethnicized political system does not easily lend itself to democratization.