It is often said, correctly I believe, that being entitled to our own opinion or interpretation of the facts of a situation does not mean that we are entitled to our own facts. We may disagree about the sense we make of historical or contemporary facts while still sharing a common recognition of the factuality of what we observe.
Yet much of Ethiopian ethnopolitics today on the opposition as well as the ruling side suffers from an acute shortage of this basic understanding. On both sides, limited, exclusively partisan constructs of identity politics are commonly passed off as “facts on the ground.” Both sides operate on the basis of their own “facts,” construing ethnocentrism as “reality” pure and simple, something which we can’t do anything about. They see it as the basis on which “Ethiopia” has to be created anew, if at all. This view is more or less shared even by some non-ethnocentric, pro-unity groups and parties in the country.
Left poorly understood here are, first, what the facts of Ethiopian national being and experience are as such and, second, the interpretation that is adequate and appropriate to them. So it may be helpful to the contemporary Ethiopian patriotic resistance against nationally divisive ethnocentrism to reflect briefly on the nature of facts and their interpretation, with an eye toward strategic and practical engagement in the resistance.
We may at times be deceived by our senses, as in the case of a mirage, in which objects which are not really present appear to us, but we generally recognize facts when we see them. Still, in a given case or situation, what an individual notices as a fact and what he or she doesn’t is not a matter for the individual’s free choice alone. It is not an absolutely subjective decision.
Instead, socio-economic, cultural, institutional and political circumstances condition what we consider to be factual or true. Data do not come to our attention in a vacuum, but often appear against social-historical background and mediated by religious belief, intellectual tradition, or paradigm of thought and discourse. Commonly, we relate to structures of events and facts through felt and lived experience, including struggles for national survival and change.
Given the interconnectedness and complexity of national and global issues today and the prevalence of clashing interests and opinions, determining facts, let alone agreeing on their interpretation, can be (and often is) a challenging undertaking. One person’s “reality” is often another person’s delusion or political fabrication. So, while interpretation or analysis of social-historical facts can be hard, establishing agreed upon facts is itself no mean task.
An instructive example here is the record of Emperor Menelik II’s achievements and their significance for not only Ethiopians but Africans generally. TPLF and OLF partisans have generally tended, in a fit of overpoliticized ethnocentrism, to denigrate or deny outright the facts of the Emperor’s multiethnic heritage along with his greatness as an Ethiopian leader.
Here it is worth noting that objective or impartial observation of data does not mean looking at the world from no perspective at all. That is impossible; perspective, including that of an ethnic group centered on a narrative of victimhood, is unavoidable. We can only observe and act upon facts from some experience and vantage point or other, doing so often with a definite intention. What is problematic is not perspective as such, but its absoluteness and exclusiveness, its unenlightened, dogmatic closure.
Levels of Factuality/Observation
A simple fact, say, a narrowly circumscribed event, can be adequately identified and known using only basic description. But, in looking at a complex system (say, a social, economic, cultural or political order), distinct yet related domains of facts may be recognized on various levels of observation and analysis. These domains of facts range from the least involved spheres of high frequency actions and events to the most complex zones of slow moving structures, systems, and cultural and institutional practices.
The level at which facts are established and analyzed may vary depending on the questions posed by the observer/actor. For example, questions regarding Woyane identity politics may be posed at the level of the behavior of an individual political organization, namely that of the TPLF, or in the context of a broader paradigm of ethnonationalism that includes but is not limited to the TPLF, a paradigm of political ideology and practice that extends to the OLF and other ethnic parties and groups in Ethiopia.
Alternatively and at an even broader level of analysis, questions about identity politics in the country may be posed at the level of the Ethiopian revolutionary tradition as a whole, going back to the Student Movement within which “the national question” first gained political currency. Issues raised and facts gathered in relation to one level of observation and analysis or one logical type do not necessarily apply to the others.
The important point here is that the idea of level of observation of facts has to do with the perspective adopted by the observer/actor. Complex systems do not spontaneously present themselves neatly divided into various units of observation or into distinct logical categories (individual ethnocentric party, paradigm of ethnonationalism shared by various parties, an entire revolutionary tradition within which ethnonationalism took political-ideological shape). The division is conceptual and analytical only.
Facts and Interpretation
Gathering data or establishing facts is a vital part of knowing, a key ingredient of enlightenment. But, generally and in the context of the Ethiopian struggle for national survival and renewal today, what we value are not so much faceless, impersonal data as their meaning and significance for us in human, social, economic, cultural, and political terms. And informed interpretation can play a crucial strategic and practical role in generating such significance from established facts.
As intellectual, moral, and political practice, interpretation can be more or less adequate to what it interprets. Its adequacy (or lack thereof) reflects the general level of literacy and cultural development reached in a given society. Within advanced, more literate societies interpretation is engaged in with greater autonomy and effectiveness as a complex, relatively open and reflexive system of establishing operative norms and meanings centered on various classes of textual materials, such as constitutional, legal, philosophical, and scientific.
By contrast, what passes for interpretation under TPLF dictatorship in Ethiopia has no fidelity to texts, particularly to the expressed contents of its own “constitution.” Nor is it attuned in any meaningful way to the historical and contemporary facts of the Ethiopian experience. Be it out of sheer cultural illiteracy, “learned ignorance,” or nationally rootless abyotawinnet, TPLF bosses and cadres remain wedded to the error of “nominal realism” in their attitude toward multiethnic Ethiopian national culture. That is to say, they are given to conflating self-enclosed ideological constructs or definitional categories (for example, the Stalinist terms of “nations” and “peoples”) with actual, intersecting and overlapping Ethiopian communities, particularly Amaras and Oromos).
This process of imposition of insular, kililized “identities” by Woyane Tigres on all other Ethiopian cultural and ethnic communities makes sense to us only as a simulation rather than an interpretation or representation of Ethiopian social realities. The real or the factual has been suppressed from within, giving way to its inauthentic, simulated authoritarian reproduction, its unreal, counterfeit copy.
The Woyanes have, for example, used their own construct of “Amhara” in executing a hostile take-over of not only Amara lands, but also Amara self-identification, which is actually integral to Ethiopiawinnet. The substitution of a distorted model of the real for the actually existent real happens everywhere in Ethiopian government and society, since the Trojan horse of simulation has penetrated nearly all sectors of socio-economic, political, cultural, spiritual and intellectual life in the country.
In this light, it is worth noting that, as keenly remarked by Dr. Dagnachew Assefa and others, recent “negotiations” between agents of the ruling party and dissident parties have constituted a make-believe process, hardly anything more or different. What passes for “opposition” has itself been rendered unreal, having become a simulated activity with no bite, a thinly disguised pretense.
The whole process is intended to undermine from within every sphere of free individual and collective agency in Ethiopian society by its manipulated double under the control of the TPLF regime. In what can be characterized as an internal neo-colonial system of domination, Woyane Tigres aspire to make the entirety of Ethiopian society, in all its diversity and national assets and resources, a hollowed out extension and object of their partisan-tribal project, a satellite of “liberated” or “greater” Tigray.
In this fatally flawed aspiration, the Woyane dictatorship threatens to erase the difference between fact and fiction, the real and the imagined. In its neo-feudal regionalism, the tribal dictatorship opposes what is broad-based, promising, and progressive in the Ethiopian national experience with what is politically narrow, discouraging, and reactionary.
But Ethiopia shall rise and rally her people!