Political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued the desire for fulfillment of human needs would lead people to fight over material interests, such as food, drink, shelter, and, above all, the preservation of their own bodies. Humans have fought over desires for the fulfillment of these material needs since antiquity. Imperial expansion and colonialism were inspired by a vision to amass as much resources as possible. A closer analysis of Ethiopian history shows a similar pattern at work.
Conflict over economy and political power adds up identity dimension when the scarcity affects singled out group of people. Hence, in the scramble for scarce resource, successive Ethiopian rulers used ethnic identity as a mobilizing force. Wealth enables the group that accumulates more of it – allowing them to control and sustain the political power. The interplay between identity, economy and politics is at the core of the current regime in Ethiopia. Destitute individuals – with good connections to power or from a favoured ethnic background – have become millionaires overnight while others are seeing their millions evaporate at the same speed.
Prominent conflict analyst William Zartman argues that, without identity element, distributional inequality is unfocused and cannot be a mobilizing force. In the past, resource scarcity forced Abyssinian rulers to invade adjourning kingdoms inhabited by different identity groups. Subsequent accumulation of capital helped them sustain dominance over the rest of the people – for a long period of time. Ethiopia’s current rulers enhanced this formula by giving some semblance of recognition to different identity groups, while still maintaining a tight lid over economy and politics.
In theory, the acknowledgment of ethnicity dovetail what Hegel calls man’s innate desire to be recognized as a human being with a certain worth or dignity in addition to the quest for fulfillment of material needs. Identity and recognition exist in a comparative relationship. Our humanity is interrelated in a way that our psychology desires recognition from others. A group’s identity does not become an issue until it is denied recognition or undermined by others. Wherever there is recognition for equal rights and opportunity, there is less identity related friction among groups.
In the 1960s land ownership (economic) and ethno-national claims (identity) were the twin burning questions in Ethiopia. They fueled an already debilitating economic situation and led to the demise of Haile-Selassie, Ethiopia’s last monarch. His successor, Mengistu Haile-Mariam ruled the country for 17 years by promptly addressing the land issue. His communist and militant approaches to the identity question shortened his Dergue regime’s days.
Ethno-national rebels, including the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – Ethiopia’s current rulers, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and many more fled to the mountains to fight for the recognition of their respective groups by the ruling Amhara elite. In 1991 they ultimately orchestrated the Dergue’s demise by using group identity as the primary mobilizing force.
With Dergue’s downfall, for the first time in that country’s history, identity was championed as fundamental for organizing national politics in Ethiopia. More than two decades after the adoption of ethnic-based federal structure, identity questions remain unsettled in Ethiopia.
What Went wrong?
After Dergue, following a brief transitional period, the TPLF transformed itself into a new band of oppressors denying other ethnic groups the same freedoms they had fought to win for their Tigrayan constituency. They maliciously organized satellite organizations and individuals to control rival ethnic groups, especially the Oromo.
During the transition, the OLF and rebels from other ethnic groups joined the new political framework with the assumption that all identity groups in the country would have an equal voice on the fate of the country. Soon, Tigrayan elites unleashed their hidden Machiavellian agenda – concentrating political power in the hands of few and forming state-affiliated extractive economic powerhouses.
Once their material and political interests had been fulfilled, the Tigrayan elites began denying the existence of similar demands by other identity groups. To justify the ethnic hegemony of Tigrayans, they noted 60,000 ethnic Tigrayans died in the struggle against the Dergue. In a nutshell, the short-sighted new leaders incited elites from other ethnic groups to go to war again.
Their incitement of war resulted in an unprecedented socio-political crisis. It is natural that people fight for their rights. Conscious people prefer death to slavery. That is why rebel forces, such as the OLF and the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF), returned to armed struggles to challenge TPLF’s supremacy. In its next extreme step, TPLF resorted to using terror tactics to put the genie back in the bottle.
TPLF’s misguided policy relies on satellite organizations and captive military officials to control other people’s desire for equal worth and dignity. They installed captives and POWs (prisoners of war) from the war with Dergue – who had serious rehabilitation issues. When the inefficiency of these officers became apparent, TPLF turned to brainwashing other vulnerable members of the society. So far, these only have served to incite further struggles against their own regime.
The political pursuit beyond recognition as equal has unsustainable and inherent natural fallacy. For its own sake, TPLF should remain loyal to its original cause – free Tigrayan people or work with all concerned groups to free all people in the country. But, only free people can bring freedom. No captives can do it.
The current system has shattered the natural balance of equal relationship among people. The fight against such system will continue until subordination ends. Slowly but surely, non-Tigrayan civil and military officials will continue to defect from the system. The next escapee could well be the Prime Minister himself.
Today, Ethiopia is replete with inter-group conflicts because the identity question is over-sensitized without getting proper recognition. Differences are promoted and exploited in ways it benefits the incumbent party. The Oromo are maybe recognized as an Oromo, but not as equal with the atse of the day. In essence, TPLF substituted systematic discrimination with Amhara’s patrimonial political tradition. Regional officials are equal among themselves. But, when they work with TPLF personalities, they need to waggle their tails – some more than others.
Mistrust among regional satellite organizations is rampant. Denigrating relationship between Tigrayan juntas and the others, so-called leaders from different identity groups, is deepening resentment every day. The Amhara ruling class used assimilation policies to undermine identity questions. The current regime manipulates inter-group relationships to maintain its grip on power.
TPLF’s laws are also creating insecurity around the country. A draconian terrorism law is instituted to silence any dissident against the regime. Pseudo regional officials send thousands of innocent citizens to jail in the name of security with a single clandestine order from a TPLF intelligence agent. They are putting innocent victims on trial based on invented terror charges.
Legitimate questions of rights are changed to questions of security. Absent an independent judicial mechanism, the regime maintains a status that is above the law. There are plethora of cases and evidences, whereby officials have refused to release prisoners sent free by the courts. People now seek refuge in TPLF officials’ armpits to avoid the wrath of their terror.
TPLF is determined to rule by any means irrespective of the lack of consent from the ruled. TPLF leaders proved their disrespect to the people of Ethiopia multiple times. First, they invented satellite organizations, instead of peacefully settling differences with genuine leaders of the people. Secondly, they resorted to rigging votes when the people showed their disapproval through the ballot box since 1992. Ballot boxes are smuggled in daylight like their contraband businesses.
TPLF’s shrewd political goals have contaminated the egalitarian Oromo democratic tradition to unparalleled degree. It has trained Oromo individuals to become mediocre, and give up dignity for limited and temporary gains. They have robbed Oromo businesses, humiliated elders, ridiculed the educated, raped girls, tortured the brave, and persecuted and killed the wise so that no strong leadership could emerge to challenge their rule. TPLF have tried to destroy independent thinking and independent economy among the Oromo – without which freedom is unattainable.
TPLF sustains its current privilege on the disagreement between elites who seek equal rights for all and those who detest identity questions as a whole. Those who seek to reverse even the limited recognition of identity under the current system have two enemies: TPLF itself and elites of oppressed people, who have unsettled quest for recognition. The detesters need to reconsider their stand on identity questions, and join the struggle for equality and democracy.
Pursuing and sustaining superior-subordinate relationship in whatever form will ultimately destabilize the country. No human generation settles for a subservient status. TPLF should stop torturing and killing those who seek equal recognition and accept the equality of all identity groups. TPLF’s approach only exacerbates our differences and deteriorates the chance for peace. In Ethiopia, the pursuit of equality is intractably linked to the question of identity. Democracy will only work if the rights of all identity groups are equally recognized. That is the road to permanent peace in Ethiopia – a road far too less traveled in this multiethnic country.
* Israel Fayisa is a former judge at the Supreme Court of Oromia, and he’s currently living in exile. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org@yahoo.com