By Messay Kebede
A friend recently sent me a video presenting Sebhat Nega’s defense of the TPLF constitution. My friend was rightly amazed at the dismissive and arrogant nature of the defense. My reaction wandered a bit in the direction of assessing the origin of the defense: I could not help but ask what torturous path led a Tigrean to a defense erasing the shared legacy of a very long history. Let me first briefly summarize the content of Sebhat’s discourse.
Sebhat refers to a hypothetical situation where opponents intent on dismissing the TPLF constitution succeed in seizing power. Sebhat emphatically predicts the inevitable disintegration of Ethiopia and the outbreak of war. According to him, the TPLF constitution is the foundation of Ethiopian unity. It originated from a consensus of all the peoples of Ethiopia and remains the sole guarantee of equality. Since equality is the basis of unity, any change altering its main principles inexorably entails the collapse of unity. In his assumption, this almost happened in 2005 when forces inimical to the constitution scored important electoral gains. If the movement had not been violently crushed, it would have certainly resulted in war and disintegration.
By way of illustration, Sebhat takes the case of the United States. The foundation of the American federation is the Constitution, which, if changed, will entail the disintegration of the country. For Sebhat, what Ethiopians have in common with Americans is precisely that for both of them constitutional consensus is the source of nationalism. Just as American nationalism is tied to a constitutional document, so too Ethiopian nationalism derives from the TPLF constitution.
I leave out Sebhat’s illusion that the TPLF constitution originated from a consensus of all the peoples of Ethiopia when we know too well that said consensus was imposed on powerless peoples by the victorious Tigrean and Eritrean guerrilla armies. However, the illusion metamorphoses into arrogance when Sebhat compares the TPLF constitution with the American Constitution. The latter promotes individual rights while the TPLF constitution gives primacy to group rights, that is, to ethnic belonging, the consequence of which is that it works against national integration by isolating and nurturing ethnic states. States in Ethiopia are not administrative units that decentralize power and empower local communities but ethnic enclaves that create national borders within the nation and grant them with the right to secede.
What is most appalling and utterly false is Sebhat’s declaration that the fundamental act of being Ethiopian is an outcome of the TPLF constitution. How could it be so when what we all know so far is that the Ethiopian state and society have their origin in the distant history of the Aksumite kingdom and that their cultural features and history testify to a long and uninterrupted legacy that equally involved Tigreans and Amharas? Even our recent history defines Yohannes, not as the emperor of Tigray, but as the emperor of Ethiopia. The unequivocal reality is thus that Ethiopian nationhood is defined by history, and not by the acceptance of the 1994 constitution. Here we can extend to Ethiopia Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement, to wit, “Europe was created by History; America by Philosophy.” Rather than the constitution begetting Ethiopian nationhood, it presupposes it as the object of its rectification. This reversal of the correct order is typical of the thinking of the TPLF and is reflected in the first statement of the preamble in the form of “We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.”
Let me ask a question: when the guerrilla army of the TPLF marched into Amhara territory and finally into Addis Ababa and seized state power, were we supposed to assume that Ethiopia did not exist yet? But then, there is nothing that prevents us from qualifying the march as an invasion of foreign troops, nay, as a colonial conquest. Since I am sure that Sebhat will contest such a characterization, then why does he keep defining Ethiopianness by a constitution when the country existed for a long time prior to the writing of the constitution?
What Sebhat is in reality revealing is the conditional nature of his Ethiopianism. He is Ethiopian so long as the constitution, imposed by the TPLF and conducive to its hegemony over Ethiopia, is the supreme law of the land. What this means if not that Tigray will not agree to remain within Ethiopia if the TPLF loses its hegemonic position. I cannot speak for all Tigreans, among whom many are dedicated Ethiopians, but Sebhat’s position shows that the leadership of the TPLF has been and still is appropriated by individuals who have always posed the issue of Ethiopian unity in conditional terms.
This conditionality explains why many pro-Ethiopian activists and intellectuals consider Sebhat and his likes as nothing more than stooges of the EPLF. Yet, their support for Eritrean independence is just a logical conclusion of their conditional Ethiopianness. One cannot be conditionally Ethiopian while being a resolute defender of the territorial integrity of Ethiopia. Moreover, the hegemonic goal of the TPLF could hardly accommodate a rival organization like the EPLF. Both ideological consistency and interest dictated the TPLF’s determined effort to oust Eritrea from Ethiopia.
Obviously, the perceived fragility of the system subsequent to the demise of Meles Zenawi now drives TPLF people to blackmail Ethiopians. If the TPLF does not rule, Sebhat promises the deluge. Is this not to admit that two decades of forceful enforcement of the constitution were not enough to generate even a semblance of consensus? What a brilliant achievement! Sebhat sounds like those children who agree to play with other children provided they always win.