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Making Nice on Ethiopia: Believers, Heretics, and the Post-Imperial Transition
Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War African State. Theodore M. Vestal. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999. Pp. 229.
Ethiopia: A New Start ? Kjetil Tronvoll. UK: Minority Rights Group International, 2000. Pp. 36.
Both volumes reviewed in this essay examine the politics, economy and society in Ethiopia over the 1990s. Yet it would be excusable, if slightly far-fetched, if some readers were to argue that Vestal and Tronvoll are concerned with two different societies, or with distinct historical periods in the same society. Consider the sub-titles of the works. Vestals A Post-Cold War African State [hereafter VE] hints at a description of the "historical present" with or without particular analytic-theoretical commitments. On the other hand, Tronvolls A New Start [hereafter TE] implies there had been some old, probably false steps. This in turn suggests both localized, cumulating experiences against which progress can be measured, as well as some institutional order-in-the-making.
The focal issues overlap yet differ, albeit slightly. A Post-Cold War African State is all-encompassing and ambitious, its arguments elaborated in eighteen chapters of varying lengths and analytic depth. Vestals audience is no less varied among them Africanists of all hues, as well as analysts of American foreign policy on the developing world. By contrast Tronvolls subject, the condition of minorities in post-imperial Ethiopia, is more focused, as is the primary audience for A New Start: civil society organizations, minority groups rights activists, and advocacy communities in Ethiopia and elsewhere served by Minority Rights Group International, a non-governmental body based in the United Kingdom that commissioned the report. Notwithstanding the variations, both works have considerable appeal for students of transitions to democracy in non-Western societies.
The basic pre-analytic question concerns the applicability of dominant conceptual-analytic categories. As Thomas Kuhn (1962 , p. 113) counsels, all perceptions depend on both the object and the perceptors training and experience. Put differently, observers impose order on reality by discernment effected variously, through prisms molded as much by societies under observation as by the attributes particular observers bring to bear on the problem(s) at hand. Of course, non-compliant situations are only to be expected from efforts to blend general abstracted statements with particular experiences. Still, Ethiopia is always likely to raise peculiar difficulties. Africas oldest autochthonous state is also "a warehouse of images, a repository for obsessions and projections of various identities both from within the [African Horn] region and from without (Sorensen 1993, p. 3)." While each image and identity frame parades more or less well-articulated positions on distant and recent pasts alike, there is very little in form of a grundnorm on Ethiopias present institutional frame or road map to a shared future.
Scholars and observers are no less divided, either. Vestal and Tronvoll also bring contrasting experiences to their tasks. Vestals engagement with Ethiopia dates back four decades to the 1960s. As a young volunteer in the American Peace Corps program, Vestal saw in Ethiopia both "a heaven-blessed land of natural beauty and potential abundance (VE, p. xi)" and vast opportunities for the United States to extend its vision of modernization and progress around the world. Those early encounters would generate life-long friendships and social contacts, including with Ethiopians in residence in the United States. Now a political science professor, Vestal would also serve as advisor to the ruling Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) in the early 1990s (VE, p. xv). Thereafter, he would publish critiques of the post-1991 transition in Ethiopian Register and the Ethiopian Review, two U.S.-based newsmagazines opposed to the Addis Ababa régime, and to which he has been editorial advisor. The move from advising EPRDF to advising opposition media might be deft politics, but there is no doubt Vestal is a true believer in Ethiopia and a well connected observer-cum-participant in its affairs. In turn Tronvoll belongs among new-generation Ethiopia observers, a Norwegian anthropologist who cut his scholarly teeth on the Horn region in Eritrea, on which he has done fieldwork on land tenure, served as observer during the 1993 referendum, and remained a noted commentator. Tronvoll has been far less involved with Ethiopia; he is also the more dispassionate of the duo.
Vestal sets out to "bring some balance to description and analysis of events in Ethiopia since the EPRDF came to power (VE, p. xiii, italics added)." In this scheme, history either begins in 1991 or goes back no further than 1974. Nearly two decades of military rule under the Derg does not appear to have adversely affected his perceptions of historic Ethiopia. "The Ethiopia subjected to the power play of the EPRDF and EPLF [Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front] in May 1991," Vestal declares matter-of-factly, "was a shattered remnant of the land of promise that Western donor nations had analyzed and subsidized before the  revolution (VE, p. 5)." The EPRDF government "purposefully intensifies ethnic distrust among the people," while the élite pact under which post-Derg Ethiopia was administered is dubbed the "charter of anomalies" for turning Ethiopias unitary state structure inside out and for conceding Eritrean independence (VE, p. xiii; 7). Since the "carefully orchestrated pinchbeck elections of 1992," the EPRDF has persistently denied space to opposition groups and human rights activists yet managed to keep on the side of the US diplomatic and foreign aid establishment, the donor community, and Africanist constituencies (VE, p. 22; 52; 80; 85). In Vestals eyes, it is not difficult to turn Ethiopia around; EPRDF operatives "beguile" and hoodwink ad nauseaum while major international actors, including the US, make nice, or pretend not to notice.
Reinforcing this anti-EPRDF outlook are two major considerations. One is Vestals support for diasporic populations in the United States, those "educated cosmopolitan democrats [with] starkly different views of the theory of governance" vis-à-vis EPRDF élites (VE, p. 6). The other is a vision of democracy reflecting admiration by the exiled élites of normative political practices in their host societies, or of the open climate from which they have benefited (VE, p. 6-7). Attempts to project back home values acquired in the West have defined efforts to affect Ethiopia either by taking direct charge, or through relentless criticism of EPRDF and its functionaries.
It is not entirely surprising that diasporic Ethiopians are generally opposed to the sitting régime in Addis Ababa. Many have long been physically removed from their homeland and have not fully partaken in the multiple revolutions and endless internal wars in post-1974 Ethiopia. Moreover, exiled populations generally tend to hold on to versions of national history and sentiments they migrated with, or aspects thereof, which are amenable to memory and recall as conditions in exile permit. In Ethiopias circumstances however, some traditional attitudes and practices are certain to have been swept away by Marxist doctrine or by pragmatic calculations on the part of domestic populations. This hiatus probably explains, at least in part, why some groups failed to transform their elegant rhetoric to real political capital in 1991 (VE, p. 57; 198-199). There is also much infighting within opposition ranks:
When[ever] the opposition gathered, it was like the lively junction of tectonic plates the earth shifted and shuttered, but when things settled down, there was nothing but destruction to behold. Criticism of everyone was de rigueur, but it was not constructive. The more the division, the greater grew the contentions, and the greater the flow of words, the less the importance of what was said. The notion of compromise had little utility to wily strongmen leaders of personality cults, intent on maintaining their personal power, or to ethnic chauvinists who fostered distrust of all except the chosen few of their own kind The clash of groups over questions which elicited radical disagreement engendered paralysis, squandered everyones time, and exacerbated animosities (VE, 49).
While the mix of optimism and frustration in the opposition has considerable merit, the analysis underlying it is problematic. In a sense Vestal is judge, jury and executioner all rolled in one. He has been editorial advisor to Ethiopian Register and Ethiopian Review; his book draws copiously from fourteen of his own essays previously published in both; and his might well be the voice of Ethiopian groups in the US that are opposed to EPRDF! If the same groups are all chauvinistic and politically naïve, as Vestal also appears to suggest, it might well be that the transnational opposition is oversold, or the mantra on historic unity is slightly jaded.
On another level, A Post-Cold War African State rests on avoidably narrow analytic foundations. Apart from private correspondence from eyewitness accounts, mostly partisans or other participants implicated in the processes described, there are few primary sources internal to Ethiopia. By contrast wildcard sources hint casual conceptual specification, one case being a legal decision in the United States cited in support of claims on press freedom in a poor African country without established traditions of division of powers or independent judiciary (VE, p. 58). More surprising perhaps, an analysis of secret EPRDF documents (VE chps. 7, 10) draws on English translations in Ethiopian Register without any backup whatsoever from news and views published in Ethiopia. Yet, since Vestal believes that Ethiopias vernacular newspapers offer credible, in-depth commentary (see VE, p. 134), he could have had some of these translated into English. Such firsthand insights could have enriched the rather formal-structural overview of EPRDF thinking and certainly other issues.
Vestal and Tronvoll agree on the significance of EPRDF's near-total control over the state. However, Vestal is less willing to admit to its deep historical roots. According to Vestal, the desire to monopolize political power drives EPRDF to routinely set one ethnic group against another, disrupt a long Ethiopian tradition where races and ethnic groups had for centuries been inextricably mixed and blended in unity and, in effect, repudiate "the ideology of 'Greater Ethiopia'" (VE, p. 47; 165; 184. Much of this is valid, yet open to distortion and exaggeration. Few will deny available statistics on arbitrary decisions, harassment of journalists and the political opposition, detention without trial and extra-judicial killings under EPRDF watch. On the other hand, the pre-1991 Ethiopia in which Eritrean, Tigray and Oromo élites took up arms against the central authority is not an epitome of unity, only a society at risk from self-destruction. For Tronvoll, ethnic federalism does deconstruct old Ethiopia, but it was also necessary to re-constitute the body politic following the collapse of imperial-type centralization.
This suggests two general points. First, regardless of the mode of acquiring state power, an incoming administration has much of its work cut out for it by its predecessor. Second, there is more to EPRDFs reform program than opportunistic restructuring. The 1994 constitution not only "represent[s] a clear breach with former Ethiopian Constitutions," but also that federalism was about the only mechanism by which to keep Ethiopia together as a single unit after Eritrea attained de facto independence in 1991 (TE, p. 18-19). Many of the difficulties Vestal ascribes to EPRDF thus come across, in Tronvolls analysis, less as intended effects than problems in managing structural change in circumstances where nearly all key players are at sea or blinded by self-interest, and politics-as-activity and mutual trust are uncommon currency (TE, p. 16-17; 20-22). Vestal agrees that Ethiopia lacks traditions of limited and accountable government and of participatory politics (VE, p. 45; 87; 89). Still, his analysis of the Constitution suggests the EPRDF could have made the quantum leap to liberal-democratic practice in a few years despite its own military antecedents and threats of violence by the opposition (VE, p. 32).
So which way the Ethiopian transition? Both authors are cognizant of the international influence on Ethiopia, but internal social dynamics are no less critical. Vestal urges disaffected groups such as the Oromo to "avoid" the secession-unity dialectic in favor of inclusive discourse (VE, p. 203). His basic prescription though, is that the US re-assess its hand-in-gloves position: tighter aid conditionality, and constructive engagement with human rights and democracy activists must be applied to EPRDF, as they have to China and Sudan. There also is a moral case for greater US involvement in Ethiopia,
where generations were taught by dedicated American teachers or worked in U.S.-led businesses; and where many Ethiopians, when forced to leave their homeland, demonstrated their affinity for the United States by going there to live in far larger numbers than any other place. Ethiopians literally have voted for the American way with their feet. For such trusting friends, must the United States continue to look the other way when Ethiopias rulers make a mockery of democratic processes and commit gross indecencies against their people (VE, p. 197-198)?
Perhaps not. However, Ethiopia is also an important bridgehead for US interests in the African Horn, where national sovereignty still evokes considerable passion. As such, US preferences by themselves are hardly sufficient grounds to expect a policy reexamination in Addis Ababa.
For example, the EPRDF response to international pressure for economic reform has deepened its domestic clout. Vestal appends a list of business ventures owned or controlled by the ruling coalition, apparent results of a privatization program by which EPRDF elements have been buying with the left hand, what the state it controls has been privatizing with the right. However, the list also illustrates EPRDF is "serious" in its commitment to market-based reform (cf. Ottaway 1999, p. 73-77), and hints at the making of a new capitalist bourgeoisie in Ethiopia whose elements might one day encourage further political liberalization. In the meantime though, state power remains central to economic relations; difficult decisions remain to be made on property relations in land, and the economic implications of formal equality granted to all ethnic-regions. Since unequally endowed entities cannot realistically compete on the same terms, Ethiopia unwittingly might be creating a climate that entrenches group inequality, encourages a new hierarchy of groups, or even denies that minorities do exist (TE, p. 19; 22-23). Ethiopias transition to modern statehood, it seems, has a long way yet to go.
Together A Post-Cold War State in Africa and A New Start illustrate two unexplored themes on Ethiopian studies: how bewitched and/or divided scholars and observers of Ethiopia can be by disparate constructions of their subject, and the costs in unrealized political as well as analytic capital, of visual-conceptual categories from epochs gone by. Vestals concern for what EPRDF has not done to restore the status quo ante is so overwhelming he glosses over the turmoil in Ethiopias immediate past, as well as the law of cumulative incrementalism, by which change takes place as a small, additive process. Tronvoll in turn points to several important attributes of a reform program that, despite its shortcomings, has created a new climate for non-violent political interaction. Surely EPRDF has benefited from Ethiopias situation, but self-aggrandizement by sitting régimes is invariably part of institution building. Without it hegemonization would lack variable political content. Vigorous opposition is equally important nonetheless: by checking abuses and focusing the popular imagination, opposition groups might well energize the quest for a new élite settlement. Ethiopias first steps in that direction, it seems, must include further elaboration of existing mechanisms to redress perceived deficiencies and create an environment more conducive to shared political and organizational spaces.
Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962 . The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ottaway, Marina. 1999. Africas New Leaders: Democracy or Reconstruction?. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Sorensen, John. 1993. Imagining Ethiopia: Struggles for History and Identity in the Horn of Africa. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
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