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Ethiopia: Elitism and Authoritarianism: A Rejoinder to Tesfaye Demmellash



  10:39:53 pm, by admin   , 1057 words  
Categories: Ethiopia

Ethiopia: Elitism and Authoritarianism: A Rejoinder to Tesfaye Demmellash

mesay kebede

Ethiopia: Elitism and Authoritarianism: A Rejoinder to Tesfaye Demmellash

By Messay Kebede

One of the reasons that prompts me to post this reply to Tesfaye Demmellash’s interesting article, “Toward Ethiopia’s Democratic Renewal: Dismantling Authoritarian Ethnicism” (see, is that the article he wrote in 1984, and which was published by Monthly Review under the title “On Marxism and Ethiopian Student Radicalism in North America,” was inspirational for my own study of the Ethiopian student movement. Since my study culminated in the publication of a book titled Radicalism and Cultural Dislocation in Ethiopia, I reasoned that one way of recognizing my debt was to make public my reactions to his article.
Let me begin by saying that I like the new article and agree with some of its views. Thus, I concur that the fixation on ethnic conflicts and its historical causes has become paralyzing to the extent of blocking forward movement. Also, the rejection of Meles regime in the name of what Tesfaye rightly call “defensive patriotic position” is not enough. The framing of an alternative vision that marries unity with equality and freedom for all Ethiopians and ethnic identities should be an essential component of the struggle against ethnonationalism and the hegemony of an ethnic group.

Where Tesfaye’s article becomes intriguing is when he raises two questions related to the rise of a brand of radicalism unintended by the Ethiopian student movement. While the latter incorporated the nationality question into the framework of class struggle, the TPLF went in the direction of “radical tribalism.” Tesfaye pins the deviation on the adoption of the Leninist-Stalinist doctrine. Tesfaye’s second question has to do with the contradictory outcome of the ideology of the TPLF, namely, that a movement born to protest against ethnic hegemony ended up by implementing the same hegemonic policy.

I break rank with Tesfaye when I ask the question of knowing whether it is sound to characterize the deviation and the contradiction as unintended developments of the student movement. That is why his appeal to “get over history” seems to me a bit hasty. Yes, we should leave the past as past, but only after we have understood it properly. The irony here is that we cannot get over past history unless we have a clear grasp of it. So long as we do not understand it, it will stick to us as an unconscious force, the very one reducing our attempt to change to be nothing more than a repetition of the past.

What this means is that the TPLF is a product of the radicalism of the student movement, and that the crucial issue is not so much its particular nature as the primary adoption by the pioneering movement, to wit, the Ethiopian student movement, of a radical and imported ideology. The shift from class struggle to ethnonationalism is not hard to understand if, going beyond the paraded goal of liberating the oppressed working people or ethnic groups, we grasp what they have in common.

I see no better way to point out the common inspiration than to agree with Tesfaye when, in his 1984 article, he typifies the student movement by its “over-eagerness to be a protagonist in revolutionary struggle on behalf of the masses rather than with them.” The categorization reveals the elitist inspiration of the student movement, the self-definition of the educated elite as a savior that brings change to the masses from above. We find the root of authoritarianism in this messianic vocation of the educated elite, since liberation from above never promotes a democratic outcome enabling the masses to acquire those rights necessary to defend their own interests.
The goal of achieving political ascendency through the control of state power and in the name of the downtrodden masses constitutes the substance of class struggle politics and ethnonationalism. In both cases, elites utilize highly populist and mobilizing ideologies to unseat entrenched rival elites. In effect, the source of ethnonationalist movements in Ethiopia is not the recently conquered southern part of the country, but the northern part of traditional Ethiopia characterized by the age-old rivalries between Amhara, Tigrean, and Eritrean elites. It springs to mind that scarcity of resources or underdevelopment drives elites toward an absolutist control the state, given that such a control allows the marginalization of competing elites.

The mismanagement of class mobilization by the Derg largely explains the final triumph of ethnonationalist movements in Tigray and Eritrea. Even so, the fact that both ethnonationalist movements installed authoritarian and repressive governments is neither an accident nor a deviation. It is a continuation of the inherited practice of empowering elites rather than the people under the guise of elites defining themselves as the champions of the exploited masses or suppressed nationalities. In other words, from Haile Selassie to the TPLF via the Derg, Ethiopia exhibits the same boring, but alas tragic, history of elites seizing power in the name of people reduced to the level of a tutee.
These regimes are best characterized as colonial rules by indigenous elites.

The alternative vision that the article calls for cannot come about so long as we do not recognize that modern Ethiopian politics was, and still is, driven by elite conflicts. The working people as well as ethnic groups have been nothing more than instruments in the struggle of various elites for political supremacy, and this refers to the aristocracy and the military elite of the imperial regime, the Western-educated elite, the ethnicized elite groups, etc. How else could one explain the utterly disconcerting fact that, despite the various “changes” that Ethiopia has gone through, the working people as well as ethnic groups are as devoid of meaningful rights as they were under the “feudal regime”?

In blaming elite politics, I am not suggesting that elite conflicts should be excluded from politics, which would be to deny that politics itself is essentially about elites. It simply means that the struggle should be less about empowering new elites than of arming ordinary people with rights protecting them from elite hegemony or absolutism, regardless of the alluring ideologies by which authoritarianism is justified. As is the case in all working electoral democracies, only when ordinary people assume the right to become the arbitrator of elite conflicts instead of being a supplicant of elites can Ethiopians liberate themselves from the recurring nightmare of authoritarian and repressive governments.


Comment from: demissie [Visitor]

Hmm, is the author somehow confusing or showing the faults of the Ethiopian ruling rigim as well as the disorginised fractions of the Ethiopian diaspora opposion? Anyway, beside I missed mention of some other rights as individual rights in coparision to group rights and the process of gaining and building this rights, I found the article of Messay Kebede very interesting.His arguments are open and sound as well self reflecting leaving a room of self-doubt, not claiming to own the absolute truth. Bravo Messay. Those traits of acadamical sound argumentation is what is totaly missing in most Ethiopian opposions writtings. The most negative example of this is the writtings of the political professoer Alemayehu. Alemayehu, learn from Messay and try not to dump your emotional below any acadamic standard only driven by personal hate writtings on us! And do not underestimate the reader.

07/07/12 @ 23:33
Comment from: demissie [Visitor]


please read: “confessing” not “confusing".

07/07/12 @ 23:40
Comment from: Brook [Visitor]

@ Demissie Aka Hagos come up with your real name first. You got a nerve advising Professor Alemayehu. Tigray lost their damn mind how is it you guys insecure and twisted? Everyone here knows you are Tigre what the hell is with you? Pathetic!

07/08/12 @ 00:06
Comment from: Arambaa fi Qobbo [Visitor]
Arambaa fi Qobbo

Dear Author:

You and other Abysinian scholars time and again preach us the importance of unity, democracy, rule of law, etc. No one, no political group, no ethnic group, …is against this noble idea.

The point is that those who preach us these ideas and the political groups they belong to are not ready themselves to implement it.For example, let’s take “unity". Amhara dominated political organizations such as Ginbot 7 and others are aginst ethnic federalism. Yet, their vision is to see a “united ” Ethiopia. How can they go about it? The organization’s working language is Amharic? How about Tigrinya? Oromo?Somali? What makes the later languages inferior to Amharic?

07/08/12 @ 00:58
Comment from: Demissie [Visitor]

come up also with your real name, Seytan/ Devil. You better call youself seyitan. It’s poeple like you racist A$$hols who are promoting racism and idiotism.Get life, rubbish thing.I didn’t call you even animal.Low of the lowest.

07/08/12 @ 04:36
Comment from: Brook [Visitor]

@ Demissie Aka Hagos take a chill pill! Why do you get irritated? You thought you were invisible? We have learned every devising, devilish tricks of Weyanne Tigray like you who are accustemd to blogg in different Ethnic name to hide your ethnic affiliation. What you guys keep for getting is we know TPLF in real live who are backed by Tigraye looters and chilled killers! You need to come up with a better tricks than that Hagos? You can’t fool me!

Btw, Right above your last bashing post is another one of your Tigray blogger in Oromo name bashing G7. If you read the content of his writteng obviously he have a problame about that particular group. I don’t know any Oromo at this critical time would highlight G7 as a concern while both majority Ethincs Amhara and Oromo’s are been killed and robbed their resource would say what he said unless he is indeed one of your own Timb-Lemghn Tigray? I am 100% sure he is that Tigray that is! You can’t fool me!

07/08/12 @ 05:21
Comment from: Rowani [Visitor]

I noticed the same type of boring comment always from you("aka Hagos “) and your rage filled words tell us nothing but frustration from peace and development prevailed across the country.

07/08/12 @ 14:18
Comment from: Alula Yemesker [Visitor]
Alula Yemesker


So what is the problem if Demissie is from Tegray or not? One thing is very sure though. If he is from Tegray–then he is from the land of heroes and humble people. On the contrary, I see you crying and saddened 24/7.
In the first place, Tegray can be insulted with yiu filthy and stinky mouth. If you remember, Tegray did not bend over to your uncle Mengistu and your master Hail Sellasse. Rather, Tigray single handedly showed you how to be a MAN. Where were you when Derg was raping your sister and taking your mother as a mistress? Where were you when Derg killed your father and took you as a cadre? Jackass!
Don’t ever say anymore–if you do, I will give you a lesson through words that you never forget it as I did with Amhara Princess.

07/08/12 @ 17:53
Comment from: Brook [Visitor]

@ Rowani : I don’t give a damn how you feel as long as you people from Tigray Continu with this silliness I’ve a duty to expo you! Your dissatisfaction means a damn thing to me!

Btw, if there is indeed a development in my beloved country I’ll be the first one to be joyful the reality is far from it unless you are belong to modern day overnight millionaires looter ethnic the golden race as your dying melse used to say! For you is everything is rosy and lovely not the majority poor. Don’t dance around the truth any Ethiopian will be happy the seeing development in his/her country.

07/08/12 @ 18:45
Comment from: Alula Yemesker [Visitor]
Alula Yemesker

I like it that way—-when you burn and clueless about what you are trying to say!!!! The good thing is that you do not count by any standard. The other best thing happening is that you and your kind are fading away for good. Believe me, soon you shall see many suicidal from your group.

God is great- we shall see that and still witnessing it.

07/08/12 @ 23:03
Comment from: Brook [Visitor]

@ Alula Ymisker: Ye-ayit misker Dimbit! You are one of the leader using non-tigray name in You thought we forgotten how you posted the same message in two differnt names thats jow much you guys become dumb & dumber! What the hell are you talking about? Your head is in the clouds & you do sound like the male Version of Agazi Women! How is it that you Tigrays are thick? Scientist need to do a study on your crazy A$$! I’m not going to respond to you & burn my energy! You are brick head!

07/08/12 @ 23:24
Comment from: Alula Yemesker [Visitor]
Alula Yemesker

@brood aka brook

Again—the way you say everything and every sentence of yours tell me how desperate rascal you are.

07/09/12 @ 00:33
Comment from: john john [Visitor]
john john

Do you think you are better than any one by posting all kind of miss leading lyses with different names we got sick of your trash pleas keep it to yourself to remind you PM is in good health too not as you wish.

07/09/12 @ 00:45
Comment from: Gondar [Visitor]

from: Brook [Visitor]


07/09/12 @ 03:02
Comment from: Brook [Visitor]

@ Gonder: Thank you for the info and i apologize for mixing you up with TPLF rats Liba Yeleba Ligoch!
Who is that individual you mentioned?

07/09/12 @ 12:38
Comment from: Gondar [Visitor]

He is one of TPLF cadre in US and I have detail info about him. If you informed me your e-mail address I will give you the detail.

07/09/12 @ 16:33
Comment from: Shamsu [Visitor]

Why Prof. Messay is another progressive Walelign? He wrote two fundamental truths that had beleaguered Ethiopian politics for so long: a) ‘the source of ethnonationalist movements in Ethiopia is not the recently conquered southern part of the country, but the northern part of traditional Ethiopia characterized by the age-old rivalries between Amhara, Tigrean, and Eritrean elites.’ b) Messay openly tells us that the current ethnic authoritarianism is a authoritarianism is a ‘continuation’ from the past rather than a novelty introduced by Tigrean elites. Now what is the solution to our troubling ethno-authoritarianism? Messay half heartedly suggests that there must be a an arrangement through which the ordinary people must be protected against the excesses of ‘messianic elites’. But this is not a far reaching proposal. To be specific, northern elites tried their way for decades and the result is dictatorship and starvation. The political culture of the northern elites is a zero-sum game; or the winner takes all. Now let’s see what the southern elites have their disposal for ordinary folks in our motherland. This is not a naive call for handing over of power to southern elites. Rather it is a call for a true transitional moment whereby all Ethiopians take part on making their own fundamental charter: the people are tired of constitutions written by authoritarian elites in their name - that are not honored in practice. If such a new constitution is in place and followed by fair and competitive election the southern elites will take the leadership and steer Ethiopia towards a prosperous course as democracy finally trumps.

07/09/12 @ 18:19
Comment from: [Member]

***To Brook***
አይዞህ ወንድሜ እነኚህ የቀን ማጅራት መቺ የሆነው መሪያቸውን የሚያመልኩ ቅጥረኞች በ ናዝሬት ድረ ገጽ ቢዛለፉም ከቁጥር ውስጥ አታትስገባቸው::
መለስ ክሮቹን እያንቀሳቀሰ የሚየሚያወዛውዛቸው አሽንጉሊቶች መሆናቸውን ካወቅን ወራቶች አልፈዋል::
These bunch of ghetto thugtators can rant and thump their chests and for this they get chum changes from their arch “Beggar” meles the street gang leader. He(meles) loots ,begs and all left over change is trickled down to these “cyber cadres”

meles is on his death bed


07/09/12 @ 22:39
Comment from: Brook [Visitor]

@ Mesfin B: Thanks a lot bro! we must keep fighting this no gooders, trash, Sadistic dark-soul TPLF and their affiliations. Soon they will be history power to the people!

07/10/12 @ 01:42
Comment from: Heny [Visitor]

This Dude, Mr. Mesay Kebede was keeping one to two kilos of Tekateko banana in his bag during his teacher days at Addis Ababa University, in the Dept. of Philosophy. He had the philosophy that a kilo or more of tekateko banana keeps one fit and strong. That is why the tekateko scar is left on his face.

07/10/12 @ 02:10
Comment from: Dachew [Visitor]

Mr. Hypocrite,
Now that you shared your wisdom about “…ordinary people assume the right to become the arbitrator of elite conflicts instead of being a supplicant of elites …,” tell us about how you run your classes when you were at the AAU. Did you ever allow your students to explore alternative view points? Have you ever encouraged them to examine ideas critically? You know that you never did. It is funny that you taught philosophy.

07/10/12 @ 08:19
Comment from: Gogol [Visitor]

Why are people deviating from the topic and insulting each other since the article is not handling the theory and practice of insulting from the classical to the present times.

About the article in short I think that what we need is individual and group righgts,justices and equality for all in all aspects of life somewhat similar to the Nordic Wefare states where natural resources are even rather scarce but education, justice, equalities as well as universalist welfare politics eliminated cinflicts, increased unities and even attracted world refugees and immigrants for better life and and securities.

Writing and reasonings we can keep writing and reasoning as and end in itself even to the end of the planet earth but consensus building and action is the essence for the starving massess reduced to living on shameful periodic international handouts while their own fertile green virgin farm lands are being robbed by force from under their very feet.

07/10/12 @ 19:04



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