Understanding the current protests in Ethiopia: A rejoinder – Prof. Minga Negash

Oromo protests

On February 23, 2016 in a televised interview Prime Minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn announced that the three month long public uprising is accompanied by an armed insurrection. Ironically what the Prime Minister described is the same route that put his regime to power 25 years ago. The Government unsays what it says almost every week and hence one has to wait for the next turn of events. What is clear is that the cost of changing government in present day Ethiopia has become astronomical. University and high school students die and get imprisoned, and peasants get involved in a sustained protest and yet the ruling party claims a 100% win of the seats of the parliament. Evidently the nature of the political question is different.  It is no longer about land dispossessions and the Addis Ababa Master Plan. The message of the students is laude and clear. What they are saying is in both theory and practice a 100% win is unachievable in fairly contested election, and hence the TPLF/EPRDF is illegitimate and therefore it must be civilized and vacate public office.  Interestingly the protest is anchored in the Oromo youth which the rulers claim to have “liberated”.

Commentary after commentary has been outlining the pros and cons of ethnic based movements, forms of future decentralization, and whether other ethnic groups should join the protests. What has been lacking was the understanding of the behavior of the protesters. The only commentary that attempted to understand the behavior of the protesters is the one by Professor Seid Hassan. Using the theory of state capture and the resultant ownership structure, Professor Seid explained the rationalization for vandalism, a phenomenon that is often observed in most civil disobedience activities. Taking cue from the behaviors of decolonization movements, taking away the properties of colonialists or vandalizing them was perceived to be a manifestation of patriotism. In other words protesters find it rational to vandalize an asset that is not their own or when they perceive that they do not benefit from its existence, or feel that it is ill gotten wealth.

Other commentators, such as, for example, Professor Daniel Teferra and Professor Worku Aberra express their fears about ethnic movements. The release of a chilling account of human rights violations against the Amara ethnic group by Moresh must have an added impact to the entrenchment of the fear. In yet another commentary Professor Messay Kebede argued that it is rational for other ethnic groups, more notably for the second largest ethnic group (Amara) to join the ongoing Oromo protest. In this brief note, I remind commentators and readers about differences in perspectives for the understanding of social and political organizations and social behavior.

First thing is first. Those who fear ethnic based movements often emphasize on the negative sides of identity politics. Ethnic, tribal, clan and faith based conflicts are serious and obviously destructive. We see it every day. On the other hand they are also instruments of decolonization and liberation. This line of argument however is old and provides no new insight in resolving the current crisis. In one of my older commentaries, entitled the “Dual faces of ethnic nationalism in Ethiopia” (Ethiopian Register Volume 5, No. 2 1998), I shared those worries. Unfortunately the series of elections have gone from bad to worse, and have not served as remedies for the down sides of identity politics. In 2005 the regime got away with murder. It killed hundreds of protesters and imprisoned tens of thousands including elected parliamentarians. Ten years after the last election crisis the regime surprised the international community as it “improved” its 99% win to 100%. Four months after the formation of the new cabinet, in November 2015, the protests started.

According to human rights organizations over 200 people were killed in the Oromo inhabited areas of the country. Outmigration has reached crisis level and the country is facing yet another drought and famine where about 18 million people are either in social safety nets or requiring urgent international food assistance. What has not yet got the attention of the media is the mountain of domestic and international debt and the foreign currency crisis because of the sharp fall in commodity prices. In short the odds have gathered for a perfect storm, and Ethiopians must brace themselves for another cycle of crisis as the TPLF/EPRDF is finding the country ungovernable and its own institutional structure is unable to resolve the situation. The fact that the crisis is widespread in Oromo inhabited areas is however no surprise as the region is large in both in its geographical area and its population size. Thus understanding the behavior of the current protest, using better  perspectives, as Professor Seid has attempted, is important.

Those who fear the exclusionist character of ethnic and faith based movements, perhaps inadvertently, advance a rather utopian paradigm that underpins most individual rights based arguments, and more specifically theories that are meant to explain the workings of markets. They forget that groups show irrationality and herd behavior during times of crisis even in individualistic societies. For most economists human action gets organized when the individual is induced with reward or faces penalty, evidently under an ethical setting and without duress. For this line of thinking group/social behavior is simply the sum of individual behaviors and much of this line of thought is also observed in Bruno Latour’s actor network theory of social science. In other words heterogeneity in self (in the individual), and in groups are not adequately explained under the conventional paradigm of rationality. In this perspective heterogeneity is often interpreted as an anomaly or an irrational behavior or worse a disturbance term in the models.

Evidently the above thought perspective is not shared by institutionalists, organization theorists and critical social scientists. For instance sociologists routinely classify societies. For Bauman, to classify is to set apart, it is to examine whether adjacent entities are similar or opposed to one another. It is a method of finding the world a structure. Hence, social groups and organizations (including clubs, societies and political associations) can be classified based on any of the demographic characteristics, and by the type of political program that they use to play the power game. In other words, political organizations can be seen as an outcome of the institutionalization of group behavior, and the instrument they create for achieving desired outcomes. Hence, ethnic based movements too have rationale of their own, and may be created for advancing specific interests or serve as a response to collectively perceived or actual grievance(s) or threat to the group. In this respect Ethiopia’s ethnic based movements are not unique.

Group behavior can be both similar and dissimilar. We observe this line up in the Ethiopian political landscape. Reading the first paragraphs of new and old political groupings quickly reveals the divide. Attempts to bring together the advocates of individual rights and advocates of group rights have not been easy as the participants of the discourse attempt to win over the other, and often forget power games and the problems of trust. Heterogeneity in group behavior leads to conflict when one or more of the players elect to play a zero sum game and/or spoil the rules of the game or cheats in the game. Hence the discourse between Ethiopian scholars on both sides of the divide must change, and try to understand social-political games and understand that Ethiopian ethnic movements are not just mimicking the rationality of other ethnic movements. Understanding the changing institutional logics (rationalization) of organizations (including political and other forms of organizations) across institutional orders, as indicated in the works of Patricia Thorton is thus important. Added to this insight is trying to understand the dynamics of power in the creation of “mono ethnic” states in a region as complex as the Horn of Africa. Understanding the Oromo and other collective political behavior through a magnifying lens thus provides a better route rather than relying on a worn out theory and focusing on listing the downsides of ethnic movements.

Finally, Ethiopian scholars need to add empirical content to the ideology they are advocating for. The last few decades have created new cultural walls between ethnic groups and the stakes have increasingly become high. Hence, crossing the fault lines could be more difficult than what most people would imagine. In other words the already collectivist culture has become even more opaque, and the longer this continues, the walls become even bigger. The capture of the Ethiopian state by singular cultural group, has been untenable and sooner or later minority rule has to give way for a more representative and decentralized form of governance. Hence, unity cannot be achieved overnight before the storm subsides, or simply by detesting ethnicity or detesting those whose political platform is ethnicity. When the fear, rational or not, is addressed and mechanisms are put in place so that autocrats and organized groups do not gang up to suppress majorities,  then one may be able to begin sensing the institutional logic of ethnic based movements. The legacy of the injury sustained by the Oromo youth, crushed or not as the Prime Minister vows is here to stay, and will sadly remain a wound in the annals of the history of this age old nation. The task of critical social scholarship is searching for healing medicines that also breaks fear as fear in this case is a social construct.

The author, Prof. Minga Negash, can be reached at minga.negash@yahoo.com