The Pitfalls of the Ethiopian Elites’ War of Narratives: Part II

In this second of a two-part article, Shimelis Mulugeta Kene and Solen Feyissa analyse Ethiopia’s social and political landscape, and demonstrate that a war of narratives has recently been reignited between the “Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists,” and fuelled by social media.

In Part I of this two-part contribution, we discussed the deep-rooted narratives that founded and shaped Ethiopia as a state, and how a radical element within the Ethiopian student movement of the 1960s catalyzed the erosion of these founding narratives, thereby questioning the very essence of Ethiopia as nation-state.

As an influential article by one student argued, Ethiopia was built on an imperial impetus with the Amhara from the north imposing their linguistic, cultural and religious norms on other “peoples” of Ethiopia. The student movement eventually led to the overthrow of Haile Selassie’s government in 1974, and the Dergue clinched state power and ruled Ethiopia for the coming 17 years. The 1960’s and ’70s saw the emergence of several ethno-nationalist movements that challenged the very essence of Ethiopia as a nation-state.

Of these movements, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a coalition of four ethno-nationalist parties took state power in 1991. Dismantling the notion of Ethiopia as a nation-state, the 1995 constitution introduced ethnic federalism and reinvented Ethiopia as nation of nations, dividing the country into nine regional states based on the ethnic identities of residents of those states. In Part II of this blog series, we discuss how and why a new narrative war has reignited among Ethiopian elites regarding the history and identity of Ethiopia; and how this war of narratives is affecting everyday Ethiopians and the future of the country itself.

The Unlikely Emergence of Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia’s Premier: The Return of Pan-Ethiopianism?

Meles Zenawi – the ex-guerrilla fighter who, as a Prime Minister, reportedly made authoritarianism respectable – died in a Belgian hospital in 2012. Although political pundits thought Ethiopia would plunge into crisis immediately after Zenawi’s absence, his successors managed to stave off social unrest until protest rallies following the unveiling of the so-called Addis Ababa Master Plan in April 2014, which sought to expand the Ethiopian capital city, Addis Ababa.

According to the present constitution, Addis Ababa is the seat of the federal government and surrounded by the Oromia Region, which is home to the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo. The protesters opposed the master plan, which they claimed was designed without consultation of Oromo farmers living in the surrounding areas of Addis Ababa. They felt that that the plan, if implemented, would propel the eviction of farmers from their lands, undermining their livelihoods, economic and cultural rights. Months of sustained protests resulted in hundreds of deaths and even more imprisonments. However, the draconian measures barely decreased the frequency and fervor of protests. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) government eventually backed off from its aggressive actions against protestors and shelved its ambitious master plan, but it was too late. The protest had picked up steam and expanded to several other regions, including the Amhara region. Protestors demanded rights, representation and economic justice.

Tellingly, these protests erupted less than a year after Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) claimed to have won 100% of the 2015 election, and only months after President Obama praised the government as being “democratically elected.” The EPRDF government could not sustain its political power, and Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned from his position as Prime Minister of Ethiopia and leader of the EPRDF coalition in February 2018. In the backdrop of a fierce intra-party scuffle, Abiy Ahmed, an ethnic Oromo, and member of the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO), was appointed as leader of the EPRDF and Prime Minister of Ethiopia in April 2018.

With his promise of leading Ethiopia through a transition to democracy, Abiy immediately began introducing a plethora of reforms, including releasing political prisoners, inviting all opposition parties home, and appointing some prominent public figures to key positions within his government. These measures and many other earlier reforms won him almost universal support from Ethiopians and the international community. In 2019, he won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, ending a two-decades-long stalemate, following the 1998 border war between the two countries that claimed over 100,000 lives.

Despite the indisputable positive changes he introduced and consequent results achieved, Abiy’s Ethiopia subsequently experienced its most turbulent years in recent history, including internal displacements, widespread violence that claimed the lives of hundreds, high-profile assassinations, a attempt on the premier himself, and skirmishes with a splinter military wing of the Oromo Liberation Front in western Oromia region. Abiy’s decision to indefinitely postpone the August 2020 general election due to COVID-19 has further destabilized the country and left his promise of transitioning Ethiopia into democracy in tatters.

There also persists an ongoing tension with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which governs the Tigray region and recently held a regional election in defiance of the central government’s ban on all elections due to the pandemic. As a result, the Ethiopian parliament voted to cut ties with Tigray region leaders, which has the potential to erupt into a full-blown war with the federal government. Further complicating Abiy’s agenda of stabilizing Ethiopia is the tension with Egypt concerning the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD) and broader geopolitical issues.

It was amid this ongoing turmoil that Abiy established the Prosperity Party at the end of 2019, which brought together three of the four ethnic-based parties that constituted the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition and other smaller parties, considered within party circles as “allies” to the EPRDF. Based on his vision of national unity among Ethiopians that he calls medemer, which means “coming together”, the re-branding of EPRDF was meant to stave off ethnically divisive politics, and address the ethnically motivated conflicts that engulfed the country during EPRDF’s 27 years in power. This seemingly mundane action, however, did not sit well with everyone, and brought out an issue that had lain dormant in the Ethiopian formal political scene for the last quarter-century: how to historicize Ethiopia. There is now an all-out war of narratives among Ethiopian elites on the history of Ethiopia.

The War of the Narratives

This narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed “Pan-Ethiopianism” and “Ethno-nationalism”. The ethno-nationalist camp takes Walleligne’s thesis as an accurate representation of Ethiopia as a nation of nations. As we have noted, in mainstream Ethiopian history, Emperor Menelik is considered the architect of the modern Ethiopian state. He is especially credited with expanding the Ethiopian empire to the south from his northern stronghold of Shoa. To the outside world and Ethiopians alike, Menelik's epic victory over the Italian colonial force in the Battle of Adwa is widely celebrated as a key moment in Black anticolonial consciousness. In stark contrast to this picture, he figures as the archenemy in the ethno-nationalist camp. To them, Menelik’s supposedly mundane “nation-building” endeavours were marked by violence, forced assimilation and suppression of cultures of peoples of the south, especially the Oromo. Echoing Walleligne’s thesis, Ethno-nationalists insist that rather than a nation built on the consent of the “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia, Ethiopia is imposed on them through conquest, violence and assimilation by Ethiopian rulers of Amhara, and to a certain extent, Tigre extraction. In their view, rather than an inclusive multicultural state, Ethiopia is made in the image of the Amhara and the Tigre.

Quite contrarily, those in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp embrace the historical Ethiopia and adhere to the idea of Ethiopia as a nation-state. While not ruling out the presence of violence, they reject the “empire thesis” of the Ethno-nationalists, and hold that Emperor Menelik was engaging in state-building when he conquered and brought the south under his Imperial rulership. In the Pan-Ethiopianist narrative, the supposed assimilationist and imperialist expansion of Emperor Menelik and his predecessors to the south is a normal historical process inherent to nation-building. Some within the Pan-Ethiopianist camp insist that Emperor Menelik did not conquer and control “new” territories, but only “re-claimed” territories that hitherto were part of the historical Ethiopia. There are still those in this camp that argue that it is in the nature of an empire to conquer peoples and rule over lands, and hence there is nothing anomalous about Emperor Menelik’s deeds.

Unsurprisingly, many in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp saw, at least in the beginning, Abiy’s formation of the Prosperity Party as a move in the right direction with the potential to dismantle the current ethnic-federalism—that adherents of this camp hold are the root cause of the cycles of ethnic conflicts and other problems that the country faces—and eventually realize a unified Ethiopia, albeit a federalist one. The move did not sit well with the ethno-nationalist camp, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in particular, who openly opposing this merger as “illegal” on the ground that all constituent parties of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) should have consented to the dissolution of EPRDF and the merger. The Oromo activists in particular perceive this merger and Abiy’s other reform agendas as a return to the old Ethiopia, in which they argue Oromos were culturally and linguistically alienated by the Amhara-Tigre elites that had a monopoly on state power.

Social Media and Narratives of Hate

The elites’ reach and impact have expanded as the means of information sharing and consumption has expanded. It is no more only the traditional intellectual-elite class who engages in the production and dissemination of information that advances knowledge. Unlike the closely-knit intellectual class of earlier times, the debate now has a diverse body of actors: activists, political party operatives, and, as oxymoronic as it sounds, intellectual-activists. The elites with the loudest voices use low-trust and high-reach communication mediums like Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets to peddle their own facts and pursue their own agenda. Social media as it exists today rewards absolute claims, purity, good and evil binaries, and unequivocal declarations of truth that leave little room for compassion, reasoning, careful interpretation, and nuance. Fuelled by algorithms that favour combustible content, social media companies orchestrate human interaction that lead individuals to maintain extreme positions and be adversarial towards one another.

Emerging Ethiopian elites in both camps have harnessed social media in ways that have yielded extraordinary influence and power over political discourse that directly and indirectly affects the lives of everyday Ethiopians. They recognize that their charisma is more significant to their audience than the contents of their speech, or the quality of their arguments. Name-calling and ad hominem attacks are their currency, as they invoke current and historical grievances, as well as narratives of superiority to stoke fear and anger. Unfortunately, the narratives that these elites broadcast are not inconsequential; there is a correlation between recent violence in Ethiopia and the supposed adherents of these narratives.

Nothing marks the dangers of the deep division between the two camps as the recent murder of the renowned Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundesa. This incident has clearly shown the tendency of both camps to see and interpret each incident or issue to support their respective narratives. Unfortunately, as is quite common in the current post-truth social media age, it is as though elites in each camp use—no matter what facts on the ground dictate—different truth-filters.

Immediately after the news of Hachalu’s death surfaced on social media, with no evidence at their disposal, elites in each camp took to social media and started to speculate as to who might have shot and killed the singer, and expectedly, started to erroneously point fingers at each other. In the Ethno-nationalist camp, a conspiracy started to circulate that claimed the killing was orchestrated and carried out by “neftegna” and statements like “They killed our hero” reverberated on social media followed by wide-spread Oromo protests in Ethiopia, Europe and North America. On the other hand, in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp, in what appears to be due to Hachalu’s pro-Oromo nationalistic political views, there was either a deafening silence or a suggestion that the killing was a result of an intra power struggle among the Oromo elite politicians who had “sacrificed” Hachalu for their own politically calculated ends. Amidst the confusion and unsubstantiated claims, some media outlets broadcasted hate-filled messages, and violence erupted in the Oromia region, which claimed the lives of over 200 individuals, caused the displacement of thousands and property damage. The killings were reported to be gruesome and targeted.

If either camp is ready to bring havoc to Ethiopia, or even worse, to sacrifice precious human lives in pursuit of political ends, or to prove a particular narrative of Ethiopia, then the debate is not so much about liberation and freedom as it is about ideology or some other end. As Edward Said poignantly chastises us,

"[T]he standards of truth about human misery and oppression [are] to be held despite the individual intellectual’s party affiliation, national background, and primeval loyalties. Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performances as much as trimming, careful silence, patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing apostasy."

We also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that, while not denying that there are genuinely invested individuals and groups of actors in each camp, there are still many in this “war” owing to other factors that have little or nothing to do with a genuine concern for Ethiopia and everyday Ethiopians. The harsh truth is that this is not just a debate about history, identity, or self-governance. It is also, if not more so, about the elites’ drive for resource monopolization and the prestige that comes with power and other factors external to the debate.

Abiy’s government, like the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) before it, is attempting to limit internet access, especially to social media, to quell recent unrest. The government's desperate acts to avoid similar incidents are understandable. Expanded internet access to all, in theory, at least, is a positive development in the right hands. And it would be misguided to argue that the broadening of access to free speech that has been made possible through social media is wrong or detrimental. Instead, the detriment occurs with the unchecked nature of social media. As well, the absence of meaningful fact-checking and understanding of local knowledge among social media companies makes it possible for misinformation to spread easily.

Whither Ethiopia? The Way Forward

Nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia. This has become a singularly arduous task, especially now that a generation of Ethiopians have grown up in an EPRDF Ethiopia and are increasingly alienated from actual inter-ethnic-lived experiences of generations of Ethiopians. It is also naive to expect the debate to remain even-tempered. Emotions can run high as communities attempt to reconcile their ethnic identity and group status and as they negotiate the meaning of their shared history with others. However, shared facts and goals are prerequisites to making meaningful progress toward an Ethiopia that reflects its diversity. At the moment, the opposite appears to be true.

Each side accuses the other of positing totalizing narratives, but there is a glaring absence of willingness on both sides to engage in reasoned debates with each other, leaving no room to explore the authenticity and truthfulness of alternative narratives. What is worse, with social media as the dominant medium of communication—which thrives on disagreements and antagonism—it is even questionable if such engagement is possible, or even the intended goal. It is no accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for fostering a one-sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals—are dis-incentivized.

In Edward Said’s words, “aggrieved primal innocence”—owing to past or present perceived or actual violence—or a sense of self-righteousness are the worst of positions to start a debate on a history as long and contentious as Ethiopia’s, which has been even further complicated with the toxic divisive ethnic politics of the last 28 years. Nonetheless, even if we Ethiopians disagree on where we started and how we got here, we could at least agree on where we are heading. To be sure, it may still be argued that we would not know where we are heading if we do not know where we started. That may very well be the dilemma we might have to learn to live with and even the right place to start the debate. But denialism, lack of empathy, and cancel culture are the last traits we should carry into this debate not only because people’s lives are threatened, but also because the future of Ethiopia as a state is at stake. Good faith debate based on shared facts and shared goals is required if the historical Ethiopia is to survive another century.

The first part of this piece was published in November 2020.

About the authors

Shimelis Mulugeta KeneShimelis Mulugeta Kene is a Visiting Fellow and former O’Brien Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, at McGill's Faculty of Law. Shimelis received his Doctorate in Civil Law (DCL) from McGill University in 2020. Previously, he worked at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP); the Human Rights Office of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE); the Organization for Social Justice in Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Federal First Instance Court. He holds an LL.M (Hons) in International Human Rights from Northwestern University and LL.B from Addis Ababa University (Ethiopia).

Solen FeyissaSolen Feyissa is an academic technologist in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. His work in ICT for education strives for balance between humans, technology, and the environment. Solen is a frequent collaborator on international projects in a wide range of fields and disciplines including education, communication technologies and development. An avid photographer, his photos have appeared in national and international publications including Fast Company, Vice, Yahoo! News, and MIT Technology Review. He holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of Minnesota.

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