How to think about Ethiopian politics today

Social science and the ghosts of “the nationalities question” in Ethiopia today.

Photo by Daggy J Ali on Unsplash

While much of the world was preoccupied with the elections in the United States, Ethiopia careened toward civil war. Ethiopia’s Nobel laureate, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, appears poised to undo the political settlement of 1991, one that ended decades of civil war and ushered in the ethnic federalist state. During the 2010s, as Ethiopia enjoyed impressive economic growth rates, it appeared that the country had figured out how to create a successful development state while acknowledging the aspirations of the many nationalities that make up Ethiopia. Yet, even as an economic miracle unfolded, many labeled Meles Zenawi’s state as illiberal and authoritarian. Others claimed that Zenawi’s Ethiopia was an ethnic federation in name-only, but in practice that the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front was dominated by the Tigray minority through the vehicle of Tigray’s People Liberation Front. It is for this reason that many inside and outside of Ethiopia cheered when Abiy Ahmed came to power on the back of protests by the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, the Oromo, in 2018. He promised to liberalize the economy, democratize the state and to make peace with Eritrea.

Instead as fighting rages across Tigray, Abiy Ahmed has brought to the fore the central questions of Ethiopian political theory: should the Ethiopian state be a federalist state or a unitary state. The second question of the nationalities includes whether sovereignty lies with the different ethnic groups inside of Ethiopia or with the state itself. The political theorist Elleni Centime Zeleke in her excellent book Ethiopia in Theory: Revolution and Knowledge Production,1964-2016, demonstrates how these questions date back to the debates of the Ethiopian Student Movement in the 1960s and then proceed into the present. Alex de Waal the veteran political analyst of the Horn of Africa has called Zenawi, “the ablest political intellectual of his generation.” If Meles and the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Revolutionary Front were so politically and economically savvy, then the question for many outsiders today is why does the Ethiopian political system appear to be teetering on the brink either of civil war or the consolidation of power by Ahmed?

The TPLF veteran Mulugeta Berhe, in an interview with De Waal, said that part of the reason that the current crisis in Ethiopia is so difficult to understand for outside analysts is our “lack of thought on the role of theory in African rebellions.” Berhe emphasizes the role of ideology in the organizing of the Ethiopian Civil War, and that the aim of the TPLF and its allies was not so much to take over the state, but to fundamentally reimagine it as a multi-national state in which sovereignty rests with the different nationalities. Zeleke’s work shows how the student movement used social science discourse to reimagine Ethiopia, and then how the forms of social science ultimately limited what was imaginable.

In order to revisit the question of what futures the social sciences made possible for the Ethiopian polity and which futures the social sciences foreclosed, Zeleke focuses on the thoughts and writings of the Ethiopian Student Movement, a transnational collection of Ethiopian post-secondary students studying at home, in Europe, and in North America between 1964 and 1974. A close reading of the journals and writings of these students provides the heart of her captivating and provocative book. Zeleke shows how the intellectual culture of the movement and its debates have continued to reverberate throughout Ethiopia’s political culture to this day.

She pays particular attention in chapters four and five to the 2005 federal elections and the 21st century debates about redeveloping Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa in order to propel the developmental state. She writes of the Ethiopian Student Movement that, “if the virtue of the student movement from the 1960s and 1970s was that it attempted to theorize Ethiopia’s place within global structural process … they also used the ‘eternal’ laws of the social sciences as weapons to silence their opponents.” Zeleke creates a fascinating account of how Ethiopian students refashioned Marxist-Leninist categories like the feudal, or reimagined the nationalities question in order to make their own situation fit the rules of historical materialism. In the process, intellectuals writing in journals such as Challenge were taking part in a global process of reimagining Marxism by theorizing at what Stuart Hall calls “the limit case.”

I recently edited an online H-Diplo roundtable on Zeleke’s book. The participants were Samar Al-Bulushi (Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine), Adom Getachew (Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago) and Wendell Marsh (Assistant Professor of African American and African Studies at Rutgers University—Newark). All three reviewers commended Zeleke on the ambition and scope of her work. Marsh writes that he reads the book “as a humanistic inquiry into the social sciences as a knowledge-form.” He goes on to say that reading Ethiopia in Theory provides a way of thinking through “what it means to be human in a world that has been made by the social sciences.” Getachew commends Zeleke for her rejection of narratives of Ethiopian exceptionalism, and for making visible the global circulation of ideas that shaped Ethiopian political and social thought leading up to the 1974 revolution and its aftermaths. However, she argues that Zeleke moves too quickly from a discussion of the intellectual context of the Ethiopian Student Movement to its aftereffects. She asks how we as intellectual historians or political theorists establish relationships of influence. Al-Bulushi writes that Zeleke eloquently demonstrates that the “persistent questions about what it means to decolonize knowledge production in African studies can only be addressed ‘by situating knowledge production in Africa within the historical processes that have led to contemporary political forms.’” Samar then goes on to highlight the ways in which Zeleke argues that there is a “continued association of Western whiteness with modern knowledge and expertise” and that this explains the failure of Ethiopian social sciences to completely grasp its own realities.

Picking up on questions of the Whiteness of the social sciences, Zeleke in her conclusion and her response reminds us how questions of disciplinary standards and objectivity have been marshalled to silence Black scholars, and to prevent the development of social sciences in Africa that were grounded in African and African diaspora realities. In the final analysis, all of the reviewers agree that Ethiopia in Theory is a milestone in the collective project of reimagining the social sciences and reasserting the fundamental connection between theory and embodied praxis.

Finally building on the work of Ugandan political scientist Mahmood Mamdani but stretching it to Hall’s “limit case,” Zeleke asks how should we understand the persistent crisis of the African state? Is its root in the survival of “indirect rule,” the persistence of “customary law,” and the reification of tribe, ethnicity, or nationalities? In the case of Ethiopia, these are not merely academic questions. If the answer is yes, then it is easy to understand the critics of EPDRF’s ethnic federalism and Abiy Ahmed’s attempts to stamp out the intransigence of the TPLF. The politicization of ethnicity becomes the explanations for Ethiopia’s instability. The answer is to create a post-ethnic politics perhaps represented by Ahmed’s Prosperity Party. Yet the frailty of this solution is symbolized by Ahmed’s decision to indefinitely postpone the federal elections another beginning point for the current crisis. Alternatively, Zeleke argues that it is insufficient to isolate “ethnic federalism” and the legacy of European colonialism as the roots of Ethiopia’s crises. Instead, she argues in line with scholars of global capitalism in India and China, such as Andrew Liu, that we must return to a study of political economy in order to see the ways in which capitalism inherently governs through systems of difference and hierarchy.

Therefore, the dilemma of Ethiopia and by extension contemporary Africa is not simply to escape the legacies of colonialism but to transcend its peripheral inclusion into the capitalist world-economy. It is impossible to democratize Ethiopia without addressing the continuing economic marginalization of the vast majority of the Ethiopian people, whether or not the sources of these marginalizations reside within the Ethiopian state or in the wider global economy.

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