By Maimire Mennasemay (Ph.D.) / July 8, 2010
In his victory speech on May 25, 2010, Meles said, “We will work day and night to obtain your support in the next election”, that is, in 2015. The question is: Will the democratic opposition work as hard to ensure a historically significant political outcome in 2015, or would it continue indulging in interpassive activities, as it did between 2005 and 2010, and make itself irrelevant? The democratic opposition could choose to be a force for advancing democracy in 2015. To do so, however, the opposition has to be able to give democracy an Ethiopian home. Of course, such an act assumes that Ethiopian history is not a blank slate or all evil; that universal ideas and values, i.e., a civilizational dimension, gestate within it, giving it the potential to provide a home for democracy. Some may question this idea.
Some reflection shows, however, that one cannot reduce, for example, the history of England or France to the sufferings that their ruling classes inflicted on their own people and the crimes they committed in their colonies. One cannot reduce the history of Germany to Nazism; nor reduce the history of the USA to slavery, racism, and its massacre of natives. Side by side with these barbaric dimensions, the history of these countries have civilizational dimensions in which their peoples anchor their democracy, and which citizens use as sources of ideas and values whenever they engage in social and political criticisms.
The same is true of Ethiopian history. It cannot be reduced to the atrocities committed by its ruling classes. Side by side with its barbaric dimensions, Ethiopian history has a civilizational dimension that meets, in the universality it expresses, the aspirations of humanity for a better world. Indeed, it provides Ethiopians with moral, political and social concepts they need when they engage in self, social and political criticism. The civilizational dimension of our history emerges, on the one hand, from the sacrifices, creativity, struggles and revolts of the dispossessed, and , on the other, from the discourses, creativity and deeds of secular and religious thinkers and leaders who defended the dignity of Ethiopians against the injustices of the ruling classes.
Emancipatory ideals emerged early in both Northern and Southern Ethiopia. From the 15th century Stephanite claims on the primacy of the “rule of law”, “autonomous thinking” and “gender equality” to the practices of deliberation, solidarity and civility in the age-old practice of Gada among the Oromo, one could enucleate from Ethiopian history a multitude of ideas and values that express universal principles. These historically emerging values and ideas, one of which is the emergence of Ethiopians as a people, indicate the historical orientation of Ethiopian culture towards principles that transcend horizontal fragmentations (ethnicities and so forth) and vertical divisions (social antagonisms). These principles constitute the civilizational achievement of Ethiopians in that, as universal principles, they posit Ethiopians as universal or free subjects, negating therefore the reduction of Ethiopians to ethnographic categories. One may call this civilizational dimension of Ethiopian history the “people’s history”. It provides a historical home for nurturing democracy. This is a historical achievement that the opposition party must bear in mind in preparing for the 2015 elections. The struggle for a democratic Ethiopia does not start from scratch.
Let us note that without a historically rooted home, democracy is impossible. Such is the lesson of the history of democracy itself. Every self-renewing democracy is rooted in the civilizational dimension of the history of the country concerned where it finds a home that nourishes it. (Consider, for example, the South African Interim Constitution reference to ubuntu). Democracy cannot be rented like a car, nor borrowed like money. The preparations for the 2015 elections require then the activation of the civilizational ideas and values of Ethiopian history, or the “people’s history”, if you will, so that democracy could find a nurturing home in Ethiopia.
2015: Ordinary or extraordinary election?
But, one may still persist and ask: Why does the democratic opposition need to link itself to the civilizational dimension of Ethiopian history? Could it not simply limit itself to winning the elections in 2015? Let me briefly answer these questions.
First, there are two kinds of elections: ordinary and extraordinary. Not all elections are born equal. Ordinary elections do not raise foundational issues. They revolve around interpretations and applications of principles on which all the parties agree. Such is the case in established democratic societies. But there are also elections that are extraordinary. These take place in places such as Ethiopia where democracy and dictatorship are confronting each other. Such elections are extraordinary because their goal is to bring about foundational changes in the very political, economic and social structure of society.
Extraordinary elections share important features with revolutions. Unlike ordinary elections but like revolutions, they require critical reflection on one’s history, on the ideas and values that inhibit and foster democracy in a manner that shows the way towards a foundational change. An example could be the questioning and critical work—sometimes open, sometimes clandestine—that preceded the peaceful collapse, through extraordinary elections, of most communist regimes in Eastern Europe. One should note that East Europeans mined the civilizational dimensions of their own histories in their successful struggle against dictatorship.
The opposition could make the 2015 election an extraordinary election by transforming it into a clear choice between democracy and an ethnically mediated dictatorship. However, such a clear choice is not possible unless the major opposition, which organized itself as a forum of ethnic parties in the 2010 election, abandons the anti-historical conception of Ethiopians as ethnographic entities and creates a political movement based on universal principles that recognize Ethiopians as a people. This is an indispensable step in making 2015 an extraordinary election.
Second, treating the 2015 election as an ordinary election is succumbing to the historical amnesia the ethnographic approach to politics cultivates. Those who are committed to democracy must resist the current politically driven trend for historical amnesia, because a people that forgets its history is like a person who suffers from Alzheimer. Both are no longer masters of their homes and lives. Not knowing their past, their future becomes rudderless. Both become dependent on others, even for feeding themselves. Without a historical consciousness that gives it a home and nurtures it, democracy starts wilting right from the first day, as we could see in countries that ignore their history and reduce democracy to a recipe borrowed from the West. The 2015 election could not become an extraordinary election if the opposition’s organization and strategies feed at the trough of the historical amnesia that informs the TPLF/EPRDF’s ethnographic approach to politics.
2015: Scaling Ethiopia’s history
Ethiopians do not need another regime that continues the mistakes and crimes of the past to emerge from the 2015 election. Yet, forgetting one’s history makes such an outcome possible, for forgetting one’s history leads to compulsive repetitions of the errors and atrocities of the past. The Meles regime offers many examples of such compulsive repetitions. Consider, for example, the increasing centralization of power, the intensification of the private appropriation of public wealth, the co-presence of famine with “economic growth”, the replication of the errors of former emperors who made Ethiopia land-locked, the alienation of productive land to foreigners, the ever increasing dependence on foreign aid, and so forth.
Moreover, forgetting one’s history entails the loss of the emancipatory ideas, values and practices that Ethiopians have developed despite bone-breaking oppression.Throughout Ethiopian history, the dispossessed of Ethiopia have, in their daily and collective lives, struggled against injustices; struggles that through the centuries have accumulated to create streams of ideas and values of and aspirations for a life without unnecessary sufferings.
To discard this civilizational dimension of our history is to render ourselves squatters, to borrow a metaphor from an Ethiopian 15th century text, camping at the foot of the mountain (the ethnographic level) of our history. It is, to paraphrase this old text, to refuse to climb to the top of the mountain (of our history) and discover from the summit the new horizon of new possibilities that historical consciousness opens to us. The election of 2015 offers the opposition the opportunity to scale our history and show Ethiopians that a self-renewing democratic Ethiopia is possible.
Ethiopian democracy needs Ethiopian history
Allergic reactions to historical thinking kill ideas. We know
that actions without ideas are blind, and wrong ideas lead to catastrophic actions. A political party based on ethnographic or anti-historical assumptions is a party based on wrong ideas. On the other side, the opposition must understand that democracy is not something that can be achieved without awakening the emancipatory ideas, values and practices present in the history of Ethiopia. For example, the civilizational dimension of our history suggests that regionalist sentiments, which pervade Ethiopian history, harbour a critique of centralism as oppressive as well as the emancipatory ideal of regional self-determination. The critique and the ideal imply federalism, not as a borrowed answer from the West, but as an emancipatory answer that emerges from within our history’s civilizational dimension. At the same time, however, federalism will provide a nurturing home to Ethiopian democracy only if it is based on the recognition of the historical emergence of Ethiopians as a people.
The idea that we can treat Ethiopian history as a blank page or completely wipe the historical slate and build democracy from scratch is a recipe for the creation of political Frankensteins. We already had two such political monsters, Mengestu and Meles, who denied the civilizational dimension of Ethiopian history and tried to remake Ethiopia from scratch, the first in the name of communism, and the second in the name of ethnography. Do we need a third political Frankenstein? Ethiopian democracy needs Ethiopian history.
Therefore, from the perspective of the Ethiopian people, the question regarding the election of 2015 is clear. Will the opposition simply continue to play a part scripted for it by the TPLF/EPDRF and make the 2015 election an ordinary election, or will the opposition transform 2015 into an extraordinary election by writing its own democratic script wherein Ethiopians are recognized as historical and not ethnographic beings? Depending on which option the opposition chooses, the 2015 election could become either a historical watershed or a farcical repetition of the 2010 election.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com.