Democracy: Liberty, Security, & Prosperity

Tigrean Nationalism: From Revolutionary Force to Weapon of Repression (Part III)

Posted by Jawar on January 12, 2010

Part III: Why do Tigreans Continue to Support the Oligarchy?

Why do most Tigreans remain loyal to a brutal dictator and a corrupt oligarchy?   To answer this question we need to investigate how their nationalism has been utilized by the oligarchy to secure political power.

a) Psychological Attachment

Ethno-nationalist struggles have strong emotional and psychological rhetoric designed to draw the populace into the cause. This nature of ethnic nationalism has a positive mobilizing role during the struggle against gross injustices and discriminations. But it can also create an undesirable mental blockage that prevents the populace and activists from focusing on the greater prize of achieving long term justice, prosperity and stability. It may even create a “zombism” effect when the population is exploited by their own authoritarian leaders. Due to their passionate and emotional attachment to the “cause”, when the polarizing and self-serving policy of their leadership and organization is criticized, they become so defensive that they turn a blind eye to the injustice and corruptions committed by their leaders.

By contrast, in an attempt to discredit ethnic-based movements, “centralist” scholars and opposition figures often undermine the powerful role ethnic nationalism plays in organizing and mobilizing people. They fail to understand that such nationalists have unusually strong emotional and psychological attachment to the cause they advocate and that they are ready to sacrifice everything to realize it. Therefore, while trying to contain ethnic movements, by belittling the cause of ethnic nationalists, centralists often push the nationalists to the extreme, and strengthen their determination.

One can clearly detect such emotional bonding between the Tigrean people and the TPLF. Because the organization was heavily dependent on the populace during the struggle, it was able to establish an extended and deeply penetrating network in Tigray. As a result, TPLF’s activities affected a vast majority of the peasantry forcing the Derg to inflict heavy collateral damage. The collective punishment by the government, when added to the rebels’ propaganda, facilitated the condition for Tigreans to strongly identity with TPLF. Hence, an attack on or criticism of the TPLF has been deeply felt by the larger populace. In Ethiopian politics, where sweeping generalization is the accepted norm, opponents of TPLF often throw insensitive accusation and insults that deeply offend Tigrean nationalists. For instance, it is not uncommon to hear people accusing the TPLF as an enemy of Ethiopia. For ordinary Tigrean fighters and the general public, the war was never about destroying other people’s life, but about restoring their own normative conditions. A Tigrean mother who lost a son and a former fighter who was disabled during the liberation war can hardly understand why their sacrifices should be blamed for destruction of Ethiopia. Any accusation that belittles their sacrifices is highly offensive and is considered a personal attack on their martyrs.

b) Naming and Shaming

The other tactics used by the oligarchy against Tigreans who did not fall for the isolation trap is naming and shaming them as sellouts, traitors of the cause and the martyrs, friends of the enemy etc. These tactics are used particularly against the Tigrean Diaspora. Progressive individuals who oppose the regime’s ethno-racist policies and work with the opposition are singled out for smear campaigns designed to isolate them from the community. These kind of tactics have severe social cost to the victim’s daily lives in the Diaspora and to their loved ones back in the country. Given the fact that TPLF is such a wealthy and highly organized party with a very small support base, it has been easy to monitor and control the population of the Tigray state. As such, when a person refuses to cooperate with the regime’s Diaspora associates, his family can be easily identified and targeted – including harassment, denial of social service — in order to exert pressure on him. Fearing these often severe consequences, only a small portion of Tigrean dissidents dare to publicly criticize the regime.

c) Tigrean Elites Interest driven Rationalization and its Irrationality

For Tigrean elites who are loyal to the regime, there are several rationalizations which define their need to continue support for the regime.  First, as previously discussed, is the fear that their people are under threat and need the regime’s protection. Second, they assume that the regime is too strong and the opposition is so divided across ethnic and ideological lines that a regime change is not in sight. According to their estimate, since this regime will be in power for the next several decades, it will be possible to build a strong and sustainable Tigrean economic power. Towards this end, “revolutionary democracy” will be used to amass resources and to establish a liberal democracy that protects the capitalists and will be under their influence. Third, if in the unlikely case of violent insurrection that forces the regime from power, there will be an economic and military superpower state, Tigray, that will defend itself against any aggression from the South. All these assumptions seem sound at first, but upon further examination they are shown to be unrealistic.

i. The First count of Irrationality: Undefeatable Regime

There is no doubt that the Ethiopian military is among the strongest and most capable in Africa. But this strength is limited only to defending the country against foreign aggression. As far as internal threats are concerned, we need to understand that Ethiopia has the most ethnically-divided and fragmented military in its history. Haile Selassie’s military was made up of career soldiers who were recruited by foreign advisors from amongst highly-qualified students. As the wound of the Italian aggression was new and the Somalis posed a real threat, the military was full of nationalism. The Derg was able to fight seventeen years because the military was united behind the idea of protecting the country’s unity. Although ethnic prejudices did exist, identity-based discrimination within the military was rare, as many of the commanders themselves came from economically and socially marginalized south.

Today’s Ethiopian military is different. From the beginning, the army was made up of soldiers contributed by multiple ethnic liberation movements. From the start; these soldiers were highly motivated by ethnic nationalism and believed that they were joining the federal military to represent their ethnic group. Unfortunately, when they came to the federal military they were subjected to domination by TPLF soldiers and the policies that promote Tigrean supremacy. This was a contradiction; the fact that soldiers recruited through ethnic nationalism were subjected to purely ethnic discrimination prevents cohesion. Although the Eritrean invasion brought some unity, it was short lived, as the regime intensified the malicious policy of segregating the soldiers across ethnic lines. Tigrean officers were favored with better housing, different health care services and even better quality uniforms. As the resentment increased the situation was further exacerbated by regular purging, killing and imprisonment of dissenting soldiers.

Today, the military is on the verge of implosion. In the past three years alone, there have been numerous unreported mutinies, and the regime has purged or grounded all  Oromo and Amhara high ranking officers. This was done to prevent the possibility of a coup, but by doing so, the ruling clique has further increased anti-Tigrean sentiment within the military, creating favorable conditions for armed insurrection. Today if an insurgency can mount a sustainable attack for a few months, there would be an exodus of defection from the Ethiopian military and an increased threat of internal sabotage. Although the preemptive measures have prevented an organized coup so far, the tense situation could lead to unpredictable chaos that could be destructive not only to the regime but also to the country as a whole. Simply speaking, the current Ethiopian military is unreliable and cannot protect the ruling clique indefinitely.

The security apparatus, which suffers the same ethnic tension as the military, faces different problems. To increase their loyalty, the regime allows security personnel (the Dehninet) unprecedented access to resources and personal wealth. They are allowed to use intimidation to exhort money from individuals. Selling land, arranging contraband trading and using allegation to terrorize and extort money has been the primary duty of security officers.  A security officer whose priority is amassing wealth has little time and interest to gather accurate information. He will simply invent facts and scenarios and feed it to his boss. We witnessed this during the last election, where imaginary intelligence kept the Prime Minister blind about the level of public discontent against the ruling party. Such corrupted security apparatus is also liable to be converted if there is a party that is willing to pay more.

Thus given these realities of the military and security, it can be argued that the regime’s strength is quite shaky and that makes it vulnerable to a sudden collapse. Those who bank on the eternity of the regime in order to justify their role in the criminal acts of the system need to carefully assess their conclusions.

ii. Second Count of Irrationality: From Robbery to Free Market

Absurdly enough,  the oligarchy had convinced some people to believe that revolutionary democracy – freedom and free market for the selected few –  can be used to amass resources, and build a strong Tigrean middle class that will eventually have the necessary economic muscle in order to protect and advance their long-term interests. Accordingly, after the Tigrean economy is efficiently built, the system will be gradually opened up, liberal democracy will be established and the current rulers will relinquish power to an elected government. By then, not only will liberal democracy protect private property, but also the Tigreans will control major economic sectors. It will then be practically impossible for a new regime to take action against them without facing major economic crisis.

The TPLF regime often cites South Africa’s transition from Apartheid to democracy. They proclaim that although political power shifted from whites to blacks, the African National Congress (ANC) leaders could not redistribute wealth due to fear of capital flight. That is, if treated with nationalization, whites would take their money outside the country and lead to financial crisis. Proponents of this argument felt vindicated when Mugabe took action against white Zimbabwean farmers, an action many say was the cause for the financial crisis the country faced afterwards. Hence, once revolutionary democracy creates wealthy Tigreans, they will be in a position to dictate the nature and actions of the new regime.

This theory has two critical problems. First, it assumes that there will be enough time and stability for Tigreans to amass enough wealth that can sustain their influence even after their political rein ends. It will take at least five decades before that level of economic power can be achieved and it is irrational to think that, in a country where ethnic Tigreans make up only 6%, the rest of the country will remain subordinate to such exploitive system. Secondly, unfortunately, Ethiopia is not South Africa or Zimbabwe, nor are Tigreans white European settlers. Therefore, they cannot blackmail a new regime with a threat of capital flight as they have no other home than Ethiopia where they can repatriate to. Nor do they have a support of big-brothers like Britain that will influence the internal and international actors on their behalf to protect the interest of its descendants.

The point here is not that there won’t be economic disparity between Tigreans and others. The argument is that such disparity cannot be sustained by the so called “revolutionary” democracy formula. It is simply creating a few Tigrean billionaires sitting on the top of the pyramid, a few hundred Tigrean elite millionaires serving as pillars of power, and millions of Tigrean peasants who are getting a tiny fraction out of the plunder but all staying on the line of defense to sustain the pyramid.  The consequence will obviously affect each section but in a reverse sequence. The ordinary Tigreans will pay the highest price, while those at the top of the pyramid will most likely enjoy luxurious life in exile.


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