Beyond Fear: Experience of Ethiopian Freedom Struggle

By Tesfaye Demmellash (PhD)

download (6)After noting in a recent writing the “paralyzing” grip of fear on the Ethiopian people, namely, our inability in the face of naked and insidious tribal tyranny “to react and protest” as a nation, Professor Messay Kebede asks, how can we “fight fear?” Why, indeed, have we largely acquiesced in the colonial-like plan of ethnic division and domination the TPLF has inflicted on our country? The terms in which the Professor frames the issue and the answer he gives to his own question may be disputable, but the question itself is worth asking. It concerns an underlying problem in the contemporary Ethiopian struggle for freedom.

I have often wondered myself why the extent and intensity of our resistance against the Woyane dictatorship has not been nearly proportional to our expressed resentment of the dictatorship and to our deep concern for the future of Ethiopia under TPLF hegemony. We are outraged by the policies and actions of the TPLF regime, which we believe are inimical to our national heritage and sovereignty. Yet we have taken offense largely inactively; our outrage remains politically unproductive. While some among us – journalists, activists, members and leaders of opposition political parties, and others – have demonstrated the courage of their convictions, bravely speaking truth to power and paying a heavy price for it with their freedom and lives, the resistance struggle as a whole has been anemic and halting in thought as well as action. Nearly a quarter century after the TPLF’s hostile take-over of the Ethiopian state, our resistance remains so slack, so limited in vigor and strategic vision, so lacking in sustained social force and movement.

This may be simply because we are all immobilized by fear, as Professor Messay asserts. It is arguable that Woyane repression in all its brutally and cleverly divisive forms has sapped our collective hope and vitality right down to our family lives. Messay’s question, what are we to do in order to “defeat fear?” brings with it a demand for “action.” However, the question also shows, I contend in this discussion, that “fear” has not been understood well, particularly in the context of the Ethiopian struggle for freedom. In actual struggle, you come to know fear by experiencing it in real time and place. To know fear is also to understand what to do about it, how to contend with it. So the challenge is not how to “defeat” fear in the abstract, as if it were an external adversary. Instead, it is one of struggling with ourselves in working through and beyond our anxiety as we develop collectively a more effective and fulfilling experience of resistance worthy of our national heritage.

I also argue that, viewed more broadly and deeply in the context of our freedom struggle, the case for action that Professor Messay makes following a trend common within the opposition is overstated and one-sided. It signifies an underlying deficit of national shape in the struggle. We seem to have here an overly hurried approach that wishes to wrest Ethiopian patriotic and democratic resistance from its constitutive meanings, ideas, and values, to dissociate the practice of freedom movement from conceptual and strategic thought. In effect, if not in intent, the demand for action is made in a way that pre-emptively denies our experience of struggle vital and sustainable form.

Formless Action Born of Anxiety

We recognize painfully that our movement as a nation for freedom from Woyane tyranny remains as fractionated and shapeless as ever. Yet the awareness of our inability so far to change the situation is even more painful. The formlessness or inadequacy of the national movement has less to do with our fear of Woyane repression than, ironically, our anxiety about the fate of the nation and the sense of urgency we feel about saving it from possible disintegration. But, before I go any further in discussing the shapelessness that marks our resistance to Woyane domination, let me first touch on form as a basic constitutive and regulative force in collective struggle.

There is form in every activity, be it social, political, cultural or aesthetic, insofar as the activity is more or less organized in imagination, thought, execution, and development. The elements of form include vision, ideas, values, beliefs, and strategy. Form is not something extra that is added to practice or that merely supports action. It is what gives action coherence, completeness, clarity, direction, and continuity. In more specific terms, it affords us an integral experience of freedom struggle. As our revolutionary tradition, flaws and all, attests, form emboldens us to take demanding, even potentially life threatening, action on behalf of causes greater than ourselves, enabling us to thrust aside doubt, insecurity, and fear.

Furthermore, form could be crucially involved in the establishment and maintenance of a nucleus of value and a strategic center for the contemporary Ethiopian freedom movement. Vision, imagination, and thought are vital formative forces in this respect. They help regulate the flow of activities in the movement, not letting tactical undertakings take place in isolation or too rapidly, lest they get away from the strategic nucleus. They also ensure that long inactivity is avoided after gains are made in the struggle so that what has been achieved is not lost but consolidated and cumulative forward movement is maintained.

It is departing from this understanding of the overall arrangement of effective social and political struggle that I talk about the challenges of the Ethiopian patriotic and democratic opposition to TPLF dictatorship. Shapelessness marks the hurried, fractionated, and episodic activities of many dissident parties and groups and the political environment in which they operate. We see a glaring lack of underlying form in the anxious pre-occupation of opposition factions with “unity,” construed often as little more than the additive aggregation of various parties and ethnic outfits. We notice it in our desperate attempt to remove from power the Woyane demons in our midst by forging an alliance with the old EPLF, the TPLF’s demonic cousin and erstwhile partner in crimes against Ethiopian nationality and territorial integrity. This naively realist obsession is so prevalent that it has in effect become the norm within the opposition, regardless of partisan differences. Nothing is more common of the opposition than its philistine fixation on practical action, its unwitting or intended suspension of transformative thought and vision.

Thus one issue or one organization or one ethnic party adds itself to another; one practical action is taken after another; one coalition of political entities is replaced or multiplied by another; but there is no emergent nucleus or core of national-political struggle. There is no strategic form that incorporates or governs varied issues, interests, groups, and activities that in themselves would be characterized as limited, tactical or local. We take various actions against Woyane domination without an overall design for the long-term, without a framework of purposes, ideas, and movements centered on Ethiopian freedom. Our varied activities cannot develop into a unified experience of struggle for freedom as long as a governing whole is not present in them, as long as they remain incapable of assuming broad-based integral form.

As it is in the domain of practical struggle, so it is in the domains of feeling and thinking. Various sense contents in our experience of resistance against TPLF tribal tyranny, like emotions, reason, ideas, and beliefs lack adequate governance that integrates them dynamically into a common stream of national consciousness. We reason without passion for thought or enlightenment. As believers, we shun curiosity, honest doubt, and innovation of faith. Our practices are often incapable of absorbing into themselves the “ideal” or “spiritual” values we ritually embrace. Our progressive commitments and our national sentiments tend to work as tangential forces or, worse, at cross-purposes. So, in the Ethiopian struggle for freedom, lack of integral form characterizes our consciousness no less than our actions.

It is worth remarking here on Professor Messay’s assertions regarding ideas and action, which he discusses in relation to fear and other emotions. The claims are more than the contentions of a single intellectual; basically, they represent views and perspectives prevalent within the opposition camp and are symptomatic of the problems I am talking about. The claims evince the lack of form that broadly characterizes our struggle against TPLF domination.

To consider what Messay says concerning fear first, he asserts that we are so overwhelmed by the emotion that our thinking is incapable of moving us to “action.” We cannot reason our way out of fear. The feeling is said to have paralyzed the Ethiopian people, including opposition groups, turning all of us into relatively easy prey to the domination of a minority party based in a minority community. Fear is said to be such a pervasive emotion that it underlies the behavior of the TPLF regime itself, which remains ever anxious about losing power. The anxiety is manifested in the regime’s self-serving, corrupt economic policies and actions as well as in its predatory tribal politics. Fear prevents the regime from acquiring the “wisdom” of political and economic reform, says Messay. That is not all. The emotion is so potent in its paralyzing force that it “dissolves” other emotions in the resistance, including anger.

The upshot is that the Ethiopian people have become passive and apathetic, and the opposition camp, also said to be fearful, remains divided and weak. Yet, for all this overstatement of the paralyzing grip of fear on everyone and everything, Professor Messay also claims, incongruously, that it is only when the TPLF regime is subjected to a “maximum level” of fear that it is able to show “readiness to negotiate.” Putting aside the apparent incoherence in the Messay’s argument here, what he says about fear invites broader critical remark. Singling out fear as the sole or primary explanation for limitations in our resistance to TPLF domination is questionable in itself, even if Messay’s understanding of the emotion is beyond reproach, which it is not. No single factor – psychological, social, political, economic, or cultural – can adequately account for the complexity of the trouble with our opposition to Woyane dictatorship.

We commonly regard sense contents – feelings such as fear, anger, hate, hope, and love of country, and intellectualized notions, like a thought or an idea, as if each one were a self-contained and insular substratum or state of consciousness that comes into play as such. In actuality, various sense contents often flow and merge into one another, doing so often without losing their relative autonomy. For example, soldiers experience anxiety in going to battle and putting their lives on the line, but still exhibit courage in going ahead and engaging the enemy. Fear and bravery are not simply two opposed attitudes, nothing but mutually exclusive emotions. You become brave by facing and handling your fear in action, approaching the feeling with purpose and context, taming and directing it as a motive force of struggle, not letting it make itself felt in the “raw.” We handle fear in struggle by restraining our spontaneous impulses and using the power of ideas and great causes to loosen the grip ordinary anxiety has on us.

In discussing ideas and actions and their relations, Professor Messay treats them like he treats sense contents in the realm of emotion, namely, as simple, neatly bounded elements. We all tend to do this intuitively. The similarity of Messay’s understanding of constructs of intellect to his understanding of sense contents of emotion is evident in his exhortation that we take action to reach ideas instead of “going from ideas to action”. This urging may not be entirely mistaken; practical engagement can, under certain circumstances, help generate political thought, even innovative thought.

But “going” from action to ideas (or vice versa) is not literally like going from one place to another. Our ideas are not in one location and our deeds in another. In the actual conditions of a complex political, social, and national undertaking, namely, in the Ethiopian struggle for freedom, we engage ideas and take action at once, without breaking them down into simple categories as we do for analytical purposes. We do not turn conceptual thought and practical politics into discrete, self-enclosed domains of engagement. In the contemporary Ethiopian movement for freedom, we can expect ideas and actions not only to be dynamically attached to each other but to be integrated with various events, issues, images, emotions, and situations of a whole experience of national struggle.

Note here that the “actionability” of an idea, say, that of democracy, for an entire nation should not be confused with the limited effects that a given political organization or group produces through self-serving propaganda and other partisan techniques, tactics, and devices, including exclusive schemes of social or ethnic mobilization. Such narrow, sectarian effects are by no means equivalent to the broad practicality of democracy for an entire national government and society. Who among us believes that Woyane “democracy” has any practical value or validity in Ethiopian politics and society? Who is unsure that it is counterfeit political currency?

It is also useful to distinguish, as Professor Messay does not, the power of ideas to move us to action from certain forms of ideation or thinking, say, of the dominantly academic and purely philosophical varieties, which do not involve concern for action. The practical limits of such forms of articulation of conceptual thought should not be ascribed to thought as such. Often, it is not ideas in themselves that get in the way of effective action or actual struggle, as Messay suggests, but the manner in which we receive them and attempt to enact them. More specifically, our underdeveloped capacity as intellectuals, formal credentials and all, to actually open our minds to the suggestive powers of ideas, to discuss their forms and contents critically yet constructively, severely limits their practical significance for our people. It is hard to characterize the ritual and mechanical manipulation of ideological categories that goes on among “intellectuals” on both the ruling and opposing sides of identity politics in our country as progressive thought in any meaningful sense of the term. The Ethiopian people deserve better. Amaras, Oromos, Tigres, Afars, Gurages, and all other Ethiopian ethnic and cultural communities deserve better.

Ethiopiawinnet: Integrity of Experience in Struggle

We live in an era of national self-doubt and insecurity. I mean this broadly in political, economic, social, and cultural terms. Ethiopiawinnet, our shared nationality, is hemmed in by willful, calculated tribal fragmentation from within and intensifying globalization from without. In the past forty years or so, particularly in the last nearly quarter century, long-established Ethiopian traditions of family, locality, community, territorial integrity, national solidarity, and spiritual and intellectual life have all eroded. Lack of economic opportunity forces droves of desperate Ethiopian youth, the future of the nation, to massive migration to inhospitable foreign lands, facing horrible suffering and death en route and in the places where they end up.  And most distressingly, efforts of opposition parties, learned strata, and media groups intended to help the nation regain its bearings remain as disparate and ineffective as ever.

To some, including not only the Woyanes but also elements within the opposition, this sorry state of the nation is a welcome change. They see it as a realization of their perennial Stalinist dogma of the “self-determination of nationalities.” But to the Ethiopian people as a whole, it represents a tense, dangerous condition which could plunge the country into terrifying conflict and disorder. What are we to do? How can we as a nation free ourselves from the perilous predicament we find ourselves in?

A significant portion of the answer to this huge question lies in the response we give to a smaller but no less important one, namely, how do we shape various activities and movements of resistance into an integral Ethiopianexperience? Currently different interest groups are drawn to matters and things Ethiopian, comprising not only patriotic citizens and strata from all cultural backgrounds, but also insular ethnic parties like the TPLF and the OLF whose association with Ethiopia remains grudging and lukewarm at best and corrosive at worst. To complicate matters more, the Eritrean regime has its own mode of dubious concern about Ethiopian affairs, particularly in its dealings with the Arbegnoch-Ginbot Sebat movement. There is also U.S. and broadly Western strategic interest in the Horn of Africa centered on countering “terrorism”, which has not only resulted in close cooperation between the American government and the Woyane state but has enabled the TPLF regime to crack down brutally on freedom of press and expression in Ethiopia.

In this complex, unsavory political brew, global and regional forces as well as narrow, exclusively partisan and tribal interests insinuate themselves into Ethiopian national affairs, even as they collude and collide in confining our shared nationality to the life of its own regions and localities, exiling Ethiopiawinnet to its own margins and fringes. Yet Ethiopia is not simply a victim, incapable of holding her own. It is becoming increasingly evident that Ethiopian nationality can be a source of power whose energies and resources – material, cultural, historical, political, and social – might be tapped by forces that do not actually have Ethiopia’s interest at heart. The Woyanes and the Eritrean ruling clique, too, might be likened to “flies caught in honey.” They want to keep their hands in Ethiopia’s sweet stuff, and so to remain in Ethiopia without being of Ethiopia, yet their increasing involvement in crass resource extraction brings with it their increasing entanglement with our national struggle.

From this perspective, tension and disagreement within the TPLF and perhaps within the Eritrean regime too do not involve merely quarrels among separatist political partisans; they involve also friction within the Ethiopian experience at large. For, acknowledged or not, Ethiopiawinnet is within as well as around the TPLF and its political counterpart in Eritrea. It is historically and culturally present on both sides of the Mereb River even as the Woyanes and Shabiya deny or suppress it while maintaining their interest in tapping its powers and resources for their own separatist purposes.

These realities raise the fundamental issue of the national integrity of current resistance activities and movements in Ethiopia. It is my contention that the activities do not represent the wholeness of Ethiopiawinnet, that they do not constitute an integral Ethiopian experience of freedom struggle. If I am essentially correct in this assessment, then the task of building some of them up so that they help constitute such an experience becomes paramount. In performing this task, we should correct the common error of the search for unity within patriotic and democratic parties and coalitions in the resistance. As I have noted here and in my other writings, the error is mistaking unity for the mere aggregation of all manner of political and ethnic entities, organizations and groups. We are given to thinking of oneness of freedom struggle solely or mainly in these “pragmatic” or “practical” terms.

In thinking this way, many of us appear to do so in order to feel that we are doing something tangible and direct to come to the aid of the nation in its hour of distress, to make our opposition seem concrete and timely. However, marked by the fierce urgency of immediate action, this habit of thought leaves us with experience of resistance lacking in qualities that shape and advance the struggle over the long-term, that give it moral, intellectual, and political form. We strive tirelessly in search of unity, but we are often prevented from finding what we are looking for by our very “practical” efforts; we are held back by simple minded pragmatism that lacks an operative core of principles, ideas, and values to begin with.

I believe we would do better to seek unity in a different manner, feeling and thinking our way innovatively into national wholeness as we struggle for freedom. The different way I have in mind involves us in developing an integral Ethiopian experience in the resistance, in working from within our common heritage of Ethiopiawinnet. The first step in doing this is a step back from our over-eagerness to achieve simple, immediate unity, the unity of existing, some barely functioning, opposition parties, organizations, and groups. This preoccupation has proven to be politically unproductive and should be de-emphasized, if not abandoned. There is no point in doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. So taking an initial step back is not going backward; in fact, it is a step away from a political environment that obstructs our progress in building integrity into the struggle for freedom. I see the step back as the beginning of a new forward movement in the struggle. Call it strategic retreat or rectification and redeployment.

As I envision it, Ethiopiawinnet as a set of broadly shared sentiments, attitudes, values, ancestral legacies, and contemporary social and political relations would be a constitutive and regulative force of the struggle for freedom. It would have a strategic-political nucleus that prioritizes issues, ideas, goals, tasks, and activities, or determines how these shall organize our involvement and experience in the struggle. The strategic whole or core shall actively help articulate and keep parts and localities of the freedom struggle together and shape their relations so that they create a broader and deeper unity. In this way, the nucleus of the struggle not only generates its own priorities and movements but also constitutes a strong force field or center of gravity morally, intellectually, and politically capable of attracting support from a broad range of Ethiopian social strata and groups at home and abroad. These include patriots, reconstructed progressives, activists, media groups, young people, literati, cultural and spiritual communities, and mass organizations.

I see Ethiopiawinnet operating and making itself felt in three key interrelated modalities: as a program of dissent and resistance, as affirmation of values and lived experience, and in terms of political thought or reason. This is not the place to discuss these matters in any detail, so I will limit my observations to a brief concluding outline.

As a program of dissent, Ethiopiawinnet would draw and innovate on the tradition of systematic critique of repressive, dictatorial rule that developed in the course of the Student Movement. Saying No unequivocally to TPLF’s colonially inspired divide-and-rule, it would call the tribal party in power on its lies and pretenses, debunk its democratic and progressive conceit. It would question, challenge, and deconstruct the political dogma and social beliefs of the TPLF regime, dismantle the regime’s culturally barren, morally vacuous, one-sidedly technocratic developmental ideology. Ethiopiawinnet would exert its influence by laying bare the contradictions of ethnic or national “self-determination” that is recognized only in the bureaucratically sanctioned showplaces of authoritarian state ethnicism. Thoroughgoing dissent along these lines will inform and support Ethiopian patriotic and democratic resistance against Woyane domination.

At the same time, Ethiopiawinnet would be yes-saying, an affirmation of our trans-ethnic nationality. It would signify a redemption of national solidarity that is felt, experienced, and lived. The affirmation concerns not merely geography or territoriality but shared values, most importantly the renewable value of our national existence in all its historical depth and ethnic and cultural diversity. This also means acknowledging that we have the capabilities and resources not only to survive but to thrive as a nation. Furthermore, the effectiveness of national affirmation turns on how we value what we value. Saying yes to Ethiopiawinnet involves owning our national heritage authentically, which is not to say unthinkingly or uncritically. We need to kick away what we might call “progressive” defensiveness and rein in political correctness.

Ethioiawinnet is not merely who or what we are as a nation; we not only feel and experience it but also reflect back on it in conscious thought. Represented political ideas enter into our national tradition, particularly in times of crises, to enable us perform tasks of evaluation, critique, and transformation. There is one thing that needs to be made absolutely clear here, however.

Modern political ideology, in whatever partisan or ethnic varieties it comes, cannot be a substitute for our shared national practice. It cannot take the place of historic and contemporary Ethiopiawinnet. The wholeness of the Ethiopian experience cannot be reduced to a merely political or an abstract ideological unity. Universal ideals and liberties, like democracy and civic and human rights, cannot have real meaning or vitality in and of themselves; they cannot spontaneously yield their substantive contents in our country merely as generic global values and categories. They can come to life and acquire practical meaning only insofar as we exercise governance over them so that they come to terms with our national tradition rather than operating outside or against it. While not simply something we experience but a historical and contemporary reality, the Ethiopian national union is certainly perfectible, open in thought as well practice to critique, change, and improvement. This is different, however, from obsessing about the past, never tiring of airing grievances or raising questions about the formation of the Ethiopian state. Which country in the world has undergone state formation that is not open to question and critique?

Seeking freedom and democracy in Ethiopia, you may, as a progressive, or an intellectual affiliated with a particular party or cultural community, have a transformational interest in embracing modern political ideas; but you don’t need to alienate yourself from the rich and diverse national heritage you belong to by adopting an external, over-politicized attitude toward it. Instead, we can all engage, question, and renew what lies within us as the common stuff of our unique national experience.

The writer can be reached at tdemmellash@comcast.net