The (civil and armed) struggle against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF)-led system in Ethiopia seems unabatable. The notorious Federal Police and even the military cannot so far stop it. Even those in power painfully and publicly acknowledge that something significant and consequential is closing in against them. The regime that strangled the nation for over two decades now seems derailing off track.
The more significant point to raise at this point in time is thus whether the struggle concludes with a genuine democratic and an all-inclusive system. There is no guarantee that the demise of the TPLF per se would result in desired changes. In fact, if one considers the very nature of the TPLF and the ethnic-based tensions we are painfully witnessing, the transition we expect may turn out to be long, costly, and unfulfilling.
The current struggle for freedom must not repeat the miserable failures of the previous revolutions which toppled down the Imperial system and the Derg. We must characterize the transition in qualitatively different terms than we did hitherto. One, the current dictatorial regime must be the last of its kind in Ethiopia. Genuine democratic systems and the rule of law must be the norm henceforth. Two, the transition must be free from bloodshed and any form of inter- or intra-ethnic conflicts or tensions. Every element of society must demonstrate trust and confidence in the transition and the democratic system to be installed. Three, the transition must not be a long, protracted process of deliberations and skirmishes. The sooner a democratic system is put in place, the better. Four, the transition must be all-inclusive, genuinely representing every section of Ethiopian society both at home and in the Diaspora.
All these implicate that something paradigmatically different must be done to ensure a fulfilling and lasting socio-economic and political change. To bring that kind of change, there has to be a clear conception of the struggle in terms of its persona, goals, strategies and possible challenges. Articulations of this sort will inform and guide the struggle. This piece aims to contribute toward the concrete problematization of the struggle. It has to be made clear that this is not an academic-like discussion of social change; it is more of a reflection of my desire to see an empowering and lasting change in Ethiopia based on what I experience daily. I believe that simple, clear, and bold thinking embodies courage and commitment which will then lead to action and change.
The philosophical underpinning to my piece is Paulo Freire’s famous Pedagogy of the Oppressed conception of humanity, oppression, empowerment, and change. The late Brazilian philosopher Freire received numerous awards for his works which influenced popular struggles for freedom in Latin America and worldwide. I believe that any struggle for freedom can benefit from Freire’s philosophy. My use of his conception is but limited to conceptions of humanity, goal of struggle, and possible challenges. If we Ethiopians dare to think higher and clearer, we can ensure that poverty, dictatorship and war kiss the abyss of history for good.
The target audience for my piece are the silent but highly educated Ethiopians at home and abroad, the youth, activists and commentators, the media (social and broadcast), opposition parties, civil society organizations, religious institutions, and EPRDF members and active supporters. Considering the Ethiopian population, these are obviously the minority but they have been and still defining what trajectory Ethiopia takes. They do have the means and the capitals needed and can easily get the trust of the majority. That these sections of society seem to have differing and competing worldviews also further justify the need to target these audience in my piece.
My assumption is that unless these groups share common or at least comparable views on the goal of the struggle and the possible approaches to be taken, it is unlikely that we will be bringing and sustaining desired socio-political changes. This piece briefly highlights the sort of thinking, conviction, attitude, and action required for a meaningful change.
ALL are dehumanized
As an Ethiopian or one of an Ethiopian origin, do you think that you are a complete human being? By “complete”, I do not mean whether you do have all the body parts that make you move around and function properly. I rather mean the extent to which you are free from any form of exploitation, oppression, injustice, harassment and these sorts of social evils. The evils could stem from you yourself, your friends and family members, colleagues, your culture and history, political and civic organizations, religious institutions, and the government generally and the ruling party- technically the TPLF. A complete human being is one who 1) freely thinks and acts responsibly to actualize her/his dreams, and 2) does not limit or challenge the free will and action of others.
My argument is that so far ALL Ethiopians are incomplete human beings. They are dehumanized by the political machinery running the country. Although the extent of incompleteness or dehumanization varies from person to person, we are all victims of state-induced exploitation, oppression, injustice, and harassment. Even those Ethiopians who vigorously challenge the oppressive system, both at home and in the Diaspora, are not immune from these; they all are denied their right to actualize themselves in their own country. They are not accepted or tolerated as conscious, complete human beings having alternative views of society, governance, and development. Irrespective of our demographic characteristics, we are the oppressed majority. You may be highly educated, popular, and/or wealthy but you are sadly made subhuman by the system running your country. To really make the current struggle fruitful, all must first understand this state of being (i.e. we all are dehumanized). This state of being dehumanized also applies to the minority who are (mis)leading Ethiopia.
The TPLF is the dehumanized
A less discussed idea is that our oppressors such as the TPLF and their entourage are also the dehumanized, according to the definition of humanity provided above. One, there has been no moment in their tenure history when they have been free to think and act responsibly. They have been constantly challenged by the various sections of the society including the media and foreign powers. Their existence to date is the result of sheer exercise of brutal force. Two, using their machineries such as the intelligence facilities, the police, the military, public media, and other institutions, they have been castrating every free move of the citizenry. They have been systematically and randomly dehumanizing everybody who thought to have a different conception of life and living than theirs. Based on the two arguments, it can be concluded that both the populace and the government are the oppressed and are dehumanized, albeit the modality differs.
This is the most significant idea I would like to share with my fellow readers. The current leaders and their associates in Ethiopia are both the dehumanizing and the dehumanized force. Their thoughts, convictions, and actions orchestrate irresponsibility, dominance, ignorance, oppression, suppression, exploitation, and generally subhumanness. Any form of struggle which is thought to bring and sustain genuine democratic change in Ethiopia must take this troubling conception in to consideration.
Past movements and revolutions aimed at bringing desired change all ended in fiasco partly because of lack of clarity about the subjects and objects of oppression and exploitation. The nearly incredible demise of the Imperial regime filled the air with hope until it was effectively dashed out mainly because those who were leading the revolution turned themselves subhuman and dehumanized millions. They assumed that those officials of the Imperial regime and even the ordinary citizens who own properties are the oppressors who deserved extinction. Instead of considering them also as part of the oppressed, they summarily executed many of them and the agonizing dehumanization lasted for 17 bloody years. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians were killed, persecuted, tortured, and excluded from productive life. The rest of the population was successfully indoctrinated and/or forced to stay indifferent, another form of being incomplete.
The forces who claimed to oppose this degree of dehumanization by the Derg came victorious in 1991. Another hope for completeness, for being human. Unfortunately, the new era begun by dehumanizing the portion of the population who the new leaders considered was associated with the Derg. Plus, language and ethnicity are used as new instruments for dehumanizing the Ethiopian population at scale. Projects and ideas cherishing Ethiopia as a proud nation are dubbed by the leaders as obsolete, irrelevant, anarchist, and even threats. Countless Ethiopians are dehumanized, literally. Those who stand to be fully human are systematically killed, tortured, persecuted, demoted from their positions, fired from their jobs, and jailed. The rest of the population has until recently largely remained indifferent.
If we really love our people and would like to end this cycle of retaliation, dominance, oppression, and subhumanness generally, we need to think qualitatively differently. We need to understand that those in political power deserve emancipation from their own defeating thoughts, convictions, and actions. In a way, they need to be reminded, challenged and supported to be complete human beings. The goal of our struggle must consider this responsibility as well.
As explained above, both the oppressor (the regime in Ethiopia) and the oppressed (the people) are dehumanized. The former dehumanizes the latter and also dehumanizes themselves- they are dehumanizing and dehumanized. The goal of any responsible struggle should thus be to humanize both. Humanizing or emancipating the oppressed only can bring immediate reliefs but it may not last long, refer to the above section for examples on this. We need to dream higher and better this time around; we the oppressed must liberate ourselves and our oppressors. The oppressed can and should help the oppressor to restore their (the latter’s) lost humanity, for the oppressors have the power to oppress but they clearly lack the strength to liberate themselves and the oppressed.
It is admittedly painful to forgive our killers and to help them to set themselves free. But for the sake of our people, for the sake of making war and poverty and oppression our history, we need to aspire more. All our programs and projects in the process of liberation need to clearly articulate that the oppressors do also have the chance to live once again as complete human beings.
Doing this has multifaceted advantages. One, all or some of the oppressors and their supporters and sympathizers (including their families) may realize that the struggle is not against them personally; it is against evil thoughts and actions. They may understand that the process is giving them a golden opportunity to restore their own humanity. Two, this realization and understanding on the part of the oppressors may substantially shorten the struggle, make it less costly (both in human life and resources). Third, this will then facilitate the creation of a transitional structure to roadmap the future. Four, it will contribute to the creation of a genuine democratic system inclusive of every section of the society including the current oppressors. Five, the youth and future generations will learn a lot from the legacy this will create. War, poverty, dominance, and injustice will be made history. Generally, as Freire eloquently explained, this kind of all-inclusive liberation is like child birth- a completely free human being joins the world following immense pain (labor). A successful liberation is one which sets both the oppressed and the oppressor free. We have to however face and overcome several challenges in our effort of meeting this grand goal.
Face the challenges
Creating an all-inclusive democratic system is not an easy feat. We need to identify challenges at various levels and devise appropriate strategies to deal with them. Challenges could come from the oppressed themselves as well as from the oppressors. Based on 1) Freire’s theory briefly introduced above, and 2) Ethiopia’s history and what is happening now, I outlined below several fundamental challenges that could check our progress toward liberation.
Fear of freedom: The oppressed may lack self-confidence in openly challenging the system and may self-depreciate, as they are treated like powerless, lazy, and envious by the oppressor who in turn fear freedom- as they consider liberation is possible only at the expense of their safety and comfort.
The oppressed as oppressor: Due to the dehumanizing nature of the oppressors, it is likely that the oppressed use dehumanizing strategies against their oppressors to arrive at their goal. The oppressed can turn violent in an attempt to defend themselves. Although this resort is justifiable and can even accrue results in the short term, there is no guarantee that it will turn HUMANIZING ALL. It may restore humanity to a significant portion of the population but not to the minority (who are well resourced and networked), who is now the dehumanizing force. If the latter feel that the process of humanization started by the majority is likely to dehumanize them, they may resort to wagging even yet harsher measures. This will make the struggle too expensive (in terms of human life), long, only partially successful (excluding the oppressors and their entire entourage), and difficult to sustain it.
Fanaticism and sectarianism: Destructive fanaticism and sectarianism may challenge the integrity of the struggle and may miscarriage liberation. Ethnic-based political arrangements by the opposition need keep special attention to this challenge.
Identification: A not negligible part of the population may identify with the oppressor. It is known that the EPRDF boasts to have millions of active members. On top of that, a minority group has special and often times economic interests and ties with the regime. These groups may put to the liberation struggle hurdles after hurdles, for they fear for their own safety, prosperity, and domination.
The invisible majority: Many play the role of bandas and the majority of the population is still indifferent. These two groups are nightmares for those in the liberation movement.
Dependence: Some radicals in the struggle may create, consciously or otherwise, in the name of struggle, emotional, moral, and/or psychological dependence on the mass. The mass may then think that it is only the leaders who should decide and act. Plus, the leaders of the oppressed may unconsciously own the struggle. This state of mind is itself equally oppressive, dehumanizing, and castrating.
Convert dilemma: As the liberation moves forward, people from the oppressor side will surely leave their ranks and files and join the struggle. The converts may feel that they are capable and experienced, and hence may want to lead the struggle. Converts may not trust the mass, on the other hand. In a way, converts may not be able to bring a profound change in their world views and actions which may pose a particular challenge to the struggle.
It is argued in this piece that Ethiopians need this time around an humanizing revolution of no kind and proportion seen before. Our struggle needs to liberate both us the oppressed and our rulers, the oppressors. Only this thinking and accompanying action will ensure inclusive, and lasting social change. It clearly looks painful and idealist. Africa’s iconic liberator, Nelson Mandela, believed and lived this very idea. He fought for freedom for all: he liberated both the oppressor (the white minority rulers) and the oppressed (the majority and native Africans). He sacrificed his personal life for creating South Africa for ALL. Mandela is still fresh in our memory; we can be inspired by his convictions and his level of commitment. Yes, we can liberate ourselves and our oppressors!
I would like to make some closing remarks. One, meeting the liberation goal articulated above requires profound love for people, humility, intense faith in people capacity/potential, mutual trust, hope, self-regulation, and critical thinking. Two, confront the culture of oppression culturally (deal with the world views, consciousness, actions, ethics… of the oppressor). Three, oppression embodies violence; the initiator of violence, terror, despotism, dissatisfaction, and hatred is the oppressor. If the oppressor is not willing to come to terms with peaceful struggle, the oppressed have that right of using any means thought to meet the goal- to liberate the oppressor and the oppressed alike. The latter can also restrict the movements of converts and others who appear to castrate the struggle. Four, if the oppressor is willing to have genuine dialogue possibly leading to national consensus and reconciliation, the oppressed MUST participate genuinely. Five, leaders of the struggle MUST understand the fact that they fight not for the people but with the people. Six, the goal of the struggle, to liberate the oppressor and the oppressed, MUST be constantly articulated and communicated to all sections of the society including to those linked to the oppressors. Seven, we can deliberately forget what the current regime has been doing against us and focus on the now and the future.
I finish this piece by quoting from Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (1994), as it mightily summarizes my arguments: “I told white audiences that we needed them and did not want them to leave the country. They were South Africans just like ourselves and this was their land, too. I would not mince words about the horrors of apartheid, but I said, over and over, that we should forget the past and concentrate on building a better future for all” (736 - 737).