Chapter 5, “Fed Up” in Ethiopia: Emotions, civics education and anti-authoritarian protest
by Jennifer Riggan, Associate Professor of International Studies,
2016 was a turbulent year around the world. Through the latter part of 2016, just as the Trump candidacy was gaining ascendancy and Britain was voting to exit the European union, Ethiopia was also embroiled in political tension and widespread protest which continues as of the time of this writing. As populist, ethnically-based protests and the government response to them escalated, often becoming violent, the government oscillated between declaring wide-sweeping States of Emergency (first in October 2016 and again in February 2018) and acceding to protestor demands. Although initially these events were analyzed as indicative of distinctly Ethiopian political cycles of everyday repression, unrest and violent state crackdown, they are increasingly being understood as representative of a sea change in Ethiopia that ultimately resulted in a new, reform-oriented Prime Minister taking the reins of the ruling party and the country in April 2018. These events may also be seen as part of a global trend towards challenging established forms of authority around the world. While right wing populist movements have come to dominate this trend in Europe, the US and elsewhere, across the African continent popular protests have brought down several long standing dictators, challenged the long-term reign of autocratic governments and demanded more accountable forms of democracy. However, these processes are multifaceted and their ultimate outcomes far from predictable as mass protests entangle in complex ways with entrenched power structures and the powerful forces exerted by processes of identity formation.
Emotion plays a complex role in mediating, configuring and complicating these anti-establishment/anti-authoritarian movements. Scholars of emotions and social movements note that emotions are an essential catalyst for social movements. Writing about the Arab Spring, Bellin notes, “…ordinary people do not take to the street in mass numbers thanks to protracted intellectual meditation on policy alternatives or ideology. Rather, ordinary people take to the streets when they feel compelled by some strong emotion such as anger, fear, or euphoria” (Bellin 2012: 136). A growing body of literature explores the importance of, and variation in, emotion for social movements, but despite a consensus that emotions are essential in effervescent social movements, less attention has been paid to unraveling the specific political and cultural context and logics of emotion. Jasper differentiates between are emotions that “are a transitory response to external events and new information (such as anger, indignation and fear)” and the affective elements that “help shape responses” to such events and information (1998: 399). In a later piece of writing Goodwin, Jasper and Polletta distinguish between “reflex emotions” such as anger, fear and joy; affective commitments to a community; moods; and moral outrage (2004). All of these categories of emotion can be mobilized by organizers and are essential to get people involved in mass protests. However, they are also highly contextual, variable and unwieldy.
The political logics of emotions under conditions of authoritarianism, and in anti-authoritarian protests, are little understood. The way in which emotions operate and are mobilized is quite different in a liberal democracy and in an authoritarian regime, among those who are direct victims of violence or oppression and among those whose experience of it is secondary. So, too, fear may mobilize or silence, serve as a catalyst to protest or curtail it. This brief reflection explores some of the political logics of emotions in authoritarian contexts and anti-authoritarian protests.
This paper explores emotion in the Ethiopian uprisings from 2015 to the present from a somewhat odd vantage point—an analysis of civics education in Ethiopia in the wake of the declaration of the State of Emergency. The Civic and Ethical Education (CEE) curriculum finds itself centrally situated in debates about the plight of youth, the nature of citizenship, and the appropriateness of forms of civic participation, such as protests. CEE in Ethiopia is a blue print for ruling party’s ideal model citizen and calls for good patriots to behave in a cool manner, to be tolerant peacemakers, and uphold the core tenets of the constitution. However, the CEE curriculum also teaches students that the constitution upholds standards of democracy and human rights that have regularly been flouted by actions of the military and security forces, in general, and undermined by the sweeping powers allocated to police in the State of Emergency, in particular. This contradiction between the taught ideals of democracy and human rights and lived experiences under the state of emergency has evoked tremendous anger. This contradiction also challenges the legitimacy of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Federation (EPRDF), the party which both authored the curriculum and put in place the State of Emergency.
I also observed during the course of my research on the CEE curriculum between fall 2016 and summer 2017, that many Ethiopians including party members, party supporters and even many moderate non-party supporters blamed the failings of the CEE curriculum for the unrest. A common discourse, which I heard echoed among University professors, high school teachers, ministry of education employees and in the media, claimed that the curriculum emphasized rights instead of duties leading the young people who were protesting to fixate narrowly on their human rights at the expense of their patriotic duties. These rights bearing youth, the argument followed, were behaving in an increasingly unruly and violent manner and disrupting the country’s progress. Civics teachers found themselves straddling fault lines between students who asserted their human and democratic rights, on one side, and their official roles as state functionaries in increasingly authoritarian government, on the other.
Analyzing the axes of the debates over the effectiveness of the civics curriculum in light of populist political unrest in Ethiopia and the ensuing authoritarian state crackdown reveals a complex and multifaceted national dialogue and a complex range of emotions that we often don’t consider when we think of anti-authoritarian uprisings. The debate over civics critiques both rising authoritarianism and populist, ethnically-based nationalisms while also expressing anxieties about how youth will navigate their future in Ethiopia and how Ethiopia will manage its restive youth. The debates over the civics curriculum, in particular, and Ethiopia’s populist political protests more broadly, illuminate and complicate our understanding of this moment of global political “crisis” by reconfiguring our understandings of how the architectures of authoritarianism bisect sentiments of populist nationalism in a context of growing concerns about economic disparity and youth unemployment. This paper is organized around a series of different emotions, or affective states, related to the current political climate in Ethiopia. I discuss each one and then conclude with some general thoughts on the political power and unwieldy nature of emotions in countering stable authoritarian regimes. I conclude with some brief thoughts on how Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who came to power in April 2018, elicits and choreographs emotions. He seems to move away from both the cool, intellectual citizenship laid out in the civics curriculum, and from the narrow outrage of ethno-nationalisms instead evoking passions in all Ethiopians for a common, unified sense of Ethiopianess blanketed and buttressed by sweeping political reforms.
From anomie to anger: A brief history of a multi-faceted uprising
Ethiopia has either a long or less long history as a state, depending on how one wants to define a nation state. Since Ethiopia began a process of modern state consolidation in the mid to late 1800s, the country has been a lot of things-- a pre-national set of kingdoms and fiefdoms vying and fighting for the power to consolidate ever larger territories; a feudal empire, transitioning to a modern empire that attempted to consolidate control and exert sovereignty over populations within more or less fixed boundaries that would eventually become a nation-state; a communist autocracy; and, since the mid-90’s, a system of democratic federalism in which decentralized ethnically-based states are ostensibly self-governing within the larger country. More accurately, I think the regime can be categorized as a neoliberal, competitive, or hybrid authoritarian regime (Levitsky and Way 2010; Brownlee 2007), but one that is both built on the vestiges of earlier forms of authoritarianism (imperial, communist), and wrapped in the combined ideology of developmentalism, democracy and the ruling party’s diverse ideological lineages. Ethiopia’s leaders and many of its people still believe that the country is a burgeoning democracy despite often-violent centralizing tendencies and strategies used by the ruling party to maintain single-party control, which it has done effectively since 1991. One thing that is important to note about Ethiopia is that throughout its history it has always had some form of authoritarian governance. I think this raises an important question for looking at cases like Ethiopia—what can we learn about this particular historical moment from places where authoritarianism is not rising but really has never gone away and yet is changing in light of shifting assemblages of governance, politics and resistance to forms of governance?
One of the byproducts of long-standing authoritarian regimes is often an affective state referred to as anomie. In their work on Eritrea, Hirt and Mohammed, draw on Durkheim’s concept of anomie to explore how pervasive authoritarianism results in a sort of societal malaise and inability to move forward (Hirt and Mohammad 2013; Durkheim 1965). Anomie, indeed, is characteristic of the affective state of a number of authoritarian regimes in which extremes of surveillance, control, coercion, arbitrary state harassment, and the ever-present threat of state violence immobilizes the population. Although in depth ethnographic accounts of lived experiences under conditions of authoritarianism are few and far between, anomie as an affective characteristic has been described in several authoritarian regimes including Burma (Skidmore 2004), Syria (Wedeen 1999) and a variety of African countries (Mbembe 2001). In order to depict a similar condition of “stuckness” in my own work in Eritrea , I have drawn on Achille Mbembe’s concept of impotence to explore the ways in which authoritarianism and the response to it renders both ruler and ruled “impotent” and incapable of political progress (Mbembe 2001; Riggan 2013, 2016).
Although this condition of anomie is not unfamiliar in Ethiopia, given its long succession of authoritarian regimes, interestingly, Ethiopia does not seem to be permanently stuck in this condition as is its Northern neighbor, Eritrea. Beginning with student movements in the late 60s that eventually led to the overthrow of Haile Selassie in the mid-70s, Ethiopia has oscillated between periods of outraged street protests (and at times armed uprisings) followed by brutal government crackdowns, and periods of calm and anomie in which authoritarianism seems to be widely accepted (Milkias 2006, Kebede 2006). This suggests that Ethiopia may be an interesting place in which to explore the capacity of public anger and outrage to shake off anomie and the capacity of governments to restore authoritarian order by culling this anger.
The capacity and willingness of the state to put into place certain forms of surveillance, coercion and control is central to the question of whether a widespread sense of anomie will prevail or be displaced by an eruption of anger. An affective climate of fear and frozenness is not unfamiliar to Ethiopia nor are forms of government control, harassment, surveillance and violence that produce such a climate. Indeed, fear is central to the production of anomie and impotence. However, what has been striking in Ethiopia over the last few years is the rolling back of fear among some segments of the population. In the following sections I contrast student frustration and anger with teacher fear among CEE teachers. Here I detail the shift toward anger and away from anomie that began with the recent protests.
In 1991, Ethiopia began to reconfigure itself as an ethnic federation. Ethiopia, a country long noted for its centralized, hegemonic, Amhara dominated national narrative, reorganized the country into ethnic “nations” (James et. al. 2002). Although the central state has notably still retained a great deal of power, the redesigning of the country allows for a great deal of autonomy in several ethnic regions (Bariagaber 1998; Mains 2004). In Ethiopia and elsewhere, there has been an increased tendency to articulate belonging to the nation through belonging to a narrowly defined place or people (Geschiere 2009; Geschiere and Jackson 2006; Dorman, Hammett, and Nugent 2007). Whereas the tendency of previous Ethiopian regimes was to impose a hegemonic nationalism on all the nation’s people (including those who did not feel it represented them), with the implementation of the 1995 constitution, the current ruling party requires diverse people to define their positions in the nation and lay claim to being authentically national by virtue of their attachment to the blood and soil of a particular ethnic state. Unlike the earlier phase of nation-building which was intent on creating a synthetic, cohesive nationalism the system of ethnic federalism in Ethiopia was designed to avoid co-opting identity. And yet, instead of truly devolving state power to these ethnic states, the party has retained centralized power, leaving Ethiopia with a centralized state and a decentralized nation.
In May 2014 protests in Ethiopia began in the Oromia state, the ethnic state of Ethiopia’s most populous, and most historically disenfranchised, ethnic group. Protests began with the announcement of a new master plan for the capital city, Addis Abba, which is entirely surrounded by Oromia. According to the master plan, Addis Ababa would expand into Oromo sovereign territory. Security forces used excessive force against protestors at this time, resulting in many deaths throughout the years of protest (Human Rights Watch 2014). Despite the government cancelling the Addis Ababa master plan in early 2016, the protests continued, becoming bolder as they pushed back against a pattern of central government repression and gaining greater support (Fasil and Lemma 2015).
A surprising alliance was forged between Oromo and Amhara opposition (Dahir 2016 ) . The Amhara, Ethiopia’s second largest ethnic group and the ethnicity from which the majority of Ethiopia’s leaders have hailed, including Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile Selassie, and the brutal communist military commander who deposed him, Mengistu Haile Mariam. The flashpoint for protests in the Amhara region also related to incursions into their ethnic state, this time over a border dispute in the Wolkait region, a region which the Amhara accuse the Tigray ethnic group (the group reputed to control the countries ruling party, military and economy) of taking from them in 1995 (Zelalem 2018). Eventually, in the wake of growing protests, the government declared a wide-sweeping six month state of emergency in fall of 2016, which was then extended for an additional three months. During the state of emergency tens of thousands of people were arrested and protests halted.
July 2017, before the State of Emergency was lifted in early August of that year, protests once again emerged (Al Jazeera 2017). The flashpoint for protests this time was the passage of a new tax law, which particularly targeted small businesses and farmers. As with the Addis Ababa master plan, in the wake of protests, the government quickly recanted on the tax law. However, protests continued through the fall of 2017, intensifying and demanding, among other things the release of political prisoners. Ethiopia also witnessed a rise in ethnic violence through this time period as protests acquired an increasingly ethnic slant. Tigrayan students were killed in university protests in the Amhara region. In retaliation Amhara students were targeted in protests in the Tigray region (Addis Standard 2017).
This cycle of protest, unrest, government concessions and crack down has continued. Following a stream of protests becoming increasingly violent and ethnically motivated though the fall of 2017, the government announced the release of tens of thousands of political prisoners. Prisoners were released in January 2018, but days later the Prime Minister resigned and two key moderate opposition leaders were promptly rearrested. The government then declared another, even more restrictive, state of emergency, which seems to have fueled, rather than quelled protests. And the government has responded to those protests with more violence. While the protests are too recent and too volatile for researchers to gain purchase on what is really going on, it seems clear that emotion, in general, and anger in particular are central. Newspaper articles both from Ethiopian and international sources use words like “outrage,” and “anger.” (Shaban 2018). And government efforts to clamp down on protests through declaration of another State of Emergency and through intensifying violence, seem to be failing to quell the anger this time.
I conclude this section with a couple of observations on the unpredictable outcome of these protests. As I mentioned above, Ethiopia has never had an operable democracy. One of the weaknesses of entrenched authoritarian regimes is that through the same strategies that they consolidate their power, they also consolidate the ire of their opponents. They become a repository for imaginaries of all that is wrong with the country.
Although current Ethiopian politics is veiled in a great deal of secrecy, the current political context seems to operate along several axes, first, there appear to be a number of tensions within the party itself. Ethiopia’s ruling EPRDF (Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front) is a coalition of four parties that represent Ethiopia’s most populous and influential states—the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front), The OPDO (Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization), the ANDM (Amhara National Democratic Movement) and the SEPDM (Southern Ethiopian Peoples’ Democratic Movement). All of these parties are ethically based with the exception of the SEPDM representing the vastly multi-ethnic Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) state. Most Ethiopians and observers of Ethiopia contend that the TPLF has enjoyed economic and military dominance and has exerted disproportionate political control over the party, even though the recently resigned Prime Minister hailed from the SEPDM. The ruling EPRDF has exerted very strong party discipline among its four member parties, but in the wake of protests at times it seemed that there may have been rifts between reformers and hard-liners in the party as well as between the ethnically based parties.
Second, a causal factor of the protests is arguably economic frustrations and particularly a large number of unemployed youth. Despite Ethiopia’s impressive levels of economic growth in recent years, youth unemployment, including unemployment among educated youth, remains a tremendous problem fueling allegations of corruption. Concerns about youth unemployment are often bundled together with concerns about corruption, forming a sense that an elite core is pulling the economic strings of the country, and benefiting from doing so, while the majority of youth are left out in the cold.
Finally, long-standing ethnic grievances also fuel the diffuse protests occurring in different parts of Oromia and Amhara. At the time of this writing, outrage against the regime seems to be forging a coalition between the Amhara and Oromo ethnicities; however, there is simultaneously, evidence of ethnic tensions around the country, which raises questions about the stability of this alliance. Not only have there been ethnically motivated killings, as well as a border dispute between the Amhara and Tigray states, but during the same time period, ethnic tensions between the Somali and Oromo states in Ethiopia were also amplified. While there have been long-standing conflicts between Oromo farmers and Somali pastoralists along the fluid border between the two Ethiopian states, many date the origins of this violence to the creation of the Liyu (special) forces. The Liyu are an ethnically Somali paramilitary group that evolved out of Ethiopian government supported efforts to squash the Ogaden National Liberation Front in 2008 (ONLF). While there is debate as to whether the Liyu acted in the Ethiopian government’s interest, if the government was merely drawing a blind eye to their actions, or if the government opposed there actions, there is agreement that the Liyu forces make use of egregious violence and that this violence accelerated dramatically in 2017 (Zelalem 2017; BBC 2017). These and other more recent trends towards ethnic violence in several regions may suggest an alignment of politics around ethnicity and ethnic borders. Thus, just as the ruling party seems to become a repository for multifaceted outrage and frustration, emotions also coalesce around ethnicity.
As political participation is increasingly attached to ethnic or regional affiliations; citizens are categorized on the basis of belonging not only to a nation, but to a place and a people and notions of national belonging are increasingly articulated through ones autochthonous ties to a particular place (Geschiere 2009). A growing literature notes that when politics is organized around rigid identity categories, such as ethnicity, political struggles over who belongs and who does not are exacerbated. The stakes are raised around questions of who belongs to what polity, who can run for office and who gets a share of scarce resources (see for example Dorman, Hammett, and Nugent 2007; Geschiere 2009; Geschiere and Jackson 2006). Protestor demands to depose the ruling party and demands for rights for ethnically marginalized groups may be on a collision course as protestor emotions coalesce around anti-authoritarianism on one hand, and ethnic identity, on the other.
Cool patriotism: Civic and Ethical Education
Education, broadly conceived, and Ethiopia’s Civic and Ethical Education (CEE) program, in particular, are central to the Ethiopia’s post-1991 nation-making project. Following decades of authoritarian rule, in 1991 Ethiopia introduced ethnic, democratic federalism and began a process of reframing the nation around the rights and autonomy of all ethnic groups and the rule of law. In many respects the CEE curriculum is a blue print for a particular notion of citizenship under the new political dispensation. CEE, is not only a required subject from elementary school through university, but a mandatory subject on the university entrance exams, meaning students have to not only take the civics course, but master the material if they wish to go to University.
The CEE curriculum outlines a particular notion of personhood oriented around liberal democratic values of constitutionalism, federalism, multiculturalism and rule of law. CEE also educates citizens about human rights and democratic governance (Smith 2013; Wondimu 2008) and promotes the qualities of hard work, industriousness, peacebuilding, and loyalty to the state. Overall, the curriculum promotes a vision of patriotism and duty to the nation that is supportive of the constitution, avoidant of conflict, and affectively cool.
The Civic and Ethical Education curriculum, which has been revised three times since 1991, is taught at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. It centers around three themes—“constitutional democracy” which undergirds a sense of patriotism and government accountability, individual responsibility (which is tightly linked with living peacefully in a multiethnic country) and participating in an interdependent world (which references Ethiopia’s foreign relations) (Yamada 2011, 2012). We might think of these three themes as promoting three different forms of citizenship: constitutional citizenship, multicultural citizenship and global citizenship. In the context of the Ethiopian Civic and Ethical Education curriculum “democracy” refers to a collective understanding of one’s duties as a constitutional and multicultural citizen (Yamada 2012; Smith 2013).
The components of the curriculum that focus on what Yamada calls “constitutional citizenship” fuse an overarching narrative of national belonging with understandings of rights based citizenship and lessons on government and rule of law, thereby laying out a blueprint for how citizens should participate in democracy. Meanwhile multicultural citizenship encourages students to take personal responsibility for engaging in peaceful coexistence (Tafese and Desta 2014). Finally, the global citizenship components situate Ethiopia as a stabilizing force in a troubled region but also critique the unequal relationships between wealthy and poor countries (Yamada 2011). Arguably this emphasis on coexistence and collective effort toward development promotes a peaceful stance towards democratization and collectively mobilizes the population around collaboration and cooperation rather than threat and conflict.
In my observations of civics classes and interviews with civics teachers, I repeatedly heard teachers tell students that their patriotic duty was to “study hard.” They cautioned that the time to become involved in politics would be later in life when they had matured. For example, in a 9th grade civics class, the teacher defined patriotism as follows: “If you work for democracy and human rights you are a patriot. If you are a student, you should study. If you get an “A” you are a patriot. Patriotism is working hard. Patriots work for the community.” The lesson went on to further detail the attributes of a patriot as defined by the text book as including:
Maintaining internal peace and security
Fighting against terrorism, poverty and corruption.
Keeping state secrets.
Promoting the common good.
Respecting the rights of others.
Respecting the laws of the country
After going through the entire lesson and detailing each of these points, the teacher differentiated between patriotism and chauvinism, further setting the affective tone for Ethiopian patriotism, “Chauvinism is blind love,” he told them, “Patriotism is a quality of loyalty and being peaceful.” A few minutes later, in the class, the teacher again encouraged students towards peace and cautioned against “selfish groups” saying, “A community can be disturbed because of many things, because of selfish groups. We are patriots if we restore peace to the community.” Patriotism, thus, was characterized as cool, rational and peaceful in contrast to the blind passions of chauvinism and the “selfish” desires of some communities.
The suggestion here is that selfish groups and chauvinism would result in disruptive activities, such as protests. These so-called selfish, chauvinistic disruptive activities are not well defined in the teachers’ comments, but if one understands the context of Ethiopian politics it seems clear that this is a reference to ethnically based protest movements. Two Amharic words neftegna and tabab began to circulate more broadly during this time period to critique narrow nationalisms. Naftegna, which literally translates as “one who carries a gun” refers to chauvinistic nationalism which considers one group superior to another. A related, but distinct, term, tabab references narrow, selfish nationalism which is only concerned with ones own community’s concerns and issues. The civics teacher’s reference, which was in English, to chauvinism and selfishness appears to be a reference to these terms. These “selfish” groups and their disruptive, emotional, attitudes towards the nation and actions are contrasted with the ideal student patriotic behavior—studying hard and getting “A’s.”
After observing the entire lesson, I probed the teacher to tell me more about the patriotic work of students particularly with regard to human rights and democracy. He clarified and expanded on what he had said to the students earlier, repeating again that students’ patriotic duty was only to study:
Students should work hard and get good results. That is patriotism. If they score ‘A.’ Working hard in school is patriotism. At the grassroots level if they work hard they are patriots. When they grow up, their roles will be diverse. But right now we don’t expect them to do other roles.
The idea that students’ duty was to study, nothing more, was a common theme that I heard among many CEE teachers who seemed to fear encouraging students to take an active political stance.
Notably absent from the civics curriculum is the development of what other scholars of nationalism and schooling have called the “passions” for the nation (Benei 2008). In many ways Ethiopia’s cool liberal nationalism is an interesting departure from other contexts in which schooling provides an opportunity to do more than teach students about national history in a dispassionate manner. Schooling crafts and disseminates notions national personhood and then, through emotionally charged content and rituals, infuses this personhood with embodied passion (Benei 2008).
The teaching of cool, liberal nationalism is particularly interesting in Ethiopia given the passions that emerged in the time of protests. CEE was depicted as politically neutral and cool; however, many Ethiopians regarded it as anything but neutral. Many people referred to it as a “political subject” and the teachers as “political teachers.” In everyday conversations, Ethiopians would comment to me that the CEE curriculum promoted the ruling party’s vision of the country. They complained that it demonized previous regimes (Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam) as brutal and authoritarian while depicting the current regime as democratic and tolerant. In 2006 the ministry of education did an assessment of the CEE curriculum and found that there were a number of widespread critiques of the curriculum. One of primary critiques was that the curriculum was “too political.” Ministry of Education officials who I interviewed seemed a bit baffled about this critique noting that the curriculum was not political because it was based on the constitution. However, as other scholars have noted, the constitution itself is politically contentious (Smith 2013). Particularly controversial in the constitution is Article 39 which guarantees ethnic states the right to self-determination up to and including the right to secession. Although it seems highly unlikely that any of the ethnic states would actually secede, this clause in the constitution significantly challenges most Ethiopians sense of a unified nation.
In many ways the CEE curriculum became a centralized repository for complaints about the party’s vision for the country itself, and, particularly in the wake of mass protests, a repository for anger and frustration with the ongoing control of the ruling party. As I noted in my discussion of the protests themselves, anger and frustration presented an emotional alternative to the affective coolness required of a good, patriotic citizen by the CEE curriculum. However, anger was not the only counter-emotion to CEE coolness; fear also arose as a feeling affiliated with the teaching of CEE.
Teacher fear and student frustration in the CEE classrooms
A number of writers have discussed the state’s construction of fear (Taussig 2012; Feldman 1991; Green 1995; Skidmore 2004; Sluka 2000). However, an affective tone of fear is complex particularly under conditions of authoritarianism. Fear mixes with a number of other powerful emotions, such as anger at being coerced and is tempered by frustration and disappointment. In my work on Eritrea, I draw on Begona Aretxaga’s notion of the “maddening state” to explore how subjects simultaneously experience of fear of the authoritarian state’s absolute capacity to act on bodies coercively and violently while also desperately wanting to believe in state benevolence (Riggan 2016). A similarly maddening condition arguably existed in Ethiopia throughout the protests and manifested itself in a desire to believe that the regime cared and because it cared was trying to stabilize the country and maintain calm in the face of volatile and emotional protests. But this desire to believe in the caretaking state was coupled with fear in the face of evidence of the state’s capacity to do violence and act on citizen bodies. CEE teachers found themselves situated centrally in this maddening state; they were charged with teaching about the government and presenting a picture of its benevolence but were also targets of its capacity for violence and coercion. Fear played a complex role in the CEE classroom.
In May 2018, I had been observing CEE classes for over a month. My research got off to a late start because when the state of emergency was imposed I decided that it might put people in danger to ask them about teaching civics. However, once things calmed down I started visiting schools, observing civics classes and talking with school directors and teachers, most of whom talked to me openly about the challenges with teaching civics and let me observe classes. My experience in one school was particularly striking. On my second day in the school, I observed a class taught by a young, dynamic woman. She was teaching a class on the topic of the value of saving. The students were reasonably engaged and she seemed far more energetic than many of the teachers. She had a good rapport with her students who seemed to enjoy her class.
As we walked back to the staff room where I was to hold a focus group with her and some other teachers, she told me rather off-handedly that she was a bit behind in the curriculum because she had been in jail for five months. I asked her why she was arrested. She told me that just after the state of emergency was declared, one of her students asked her why the government was arresting people who were protesting given that, as they had learned in their civics class, it was their right to protest. The teacher explained to me that in her answer to the student, she tried to distinguish between non-violent protests, which are allowed, and violent protests, which are not. Shortly after that two police officers came to the school and told the teacher they wanted to ask some questions. She was subsequently arrested without trial and released four months later. She suspected that some of her students reported the exchange she had in response to the student’s question about the protests.
Many of the CEE teachers I spoke with described a strong feeling of being caught in the middle of the political system- they believed in the values enshrined in the text and believed in the importance of continuing to teach those values, but were also aware that many Ethiopians’ experiences belied those values. The conflict this created for teachers was amplified in the face of increased student frustration for a few reasons. First, teachers were under increased pressure under the state of emergency and could face very real consequences, including imprisonment, as illustrated above. Second, frustrated students challenged teachers with greater frequency.
Most CEE teachers were initially attracted to teaching civics because they genuinely liked the subject matter and believed in its importance. When I asked whether they thought the CEE curriculum was successful, many teachers expressed a belief in the value of the subject:
CEE is a multidisciplinary subject. There is nothing that it doesn’t touch. It is important to make students interactive in their society and its political aspects. It is a laboratory to enhance their education level and participation in their country.
However, in the current political climate, CEE teachers found themselves labeled “political teachers” by students and other teachers even though CEE teachers didn’t see themselves that way. One teacher stated that, “Other teachers perceive us as instruments of the government. We are perceived as political missionaries. But we are citizenship missionaries.”
CEE teachers knew that one of the reasons they were labeled as “political teachers” was because they were required to teach things that did not reflect what students saw and experienced outside of school and therefore were often regarded as spreading propaganda. One teacher noted, “The book is good. The written part is good. The curriculum is good. The challenge is with the practical application.” Teachers themselves saw the contradictions between the ideals presented in the curriculum and the realities on the ground:
I have a mission to transmit civics values. When students understand their rights, some use them, some abuse them. Some have no understanding of them. You have to model character. But they laugh at you because they observe corruption. Honesty is the best policy, but they don’t see this in society, so they laugh at you. There are contradictions.
Another teacher explained how this contradiction resulted in the curriculum losing its credibility: “Initially it was successful but it has lost its credibility. People see corruption. And the government is deceiving people through media. Through time it has lost its honesty. But initially we were very interested but through time it deteriorated. Now there is rampant corruption.”
Another teacher explained that the moment when perceptions about curriculum began to change was in 2005, the year many Ethiopians lost hope in democracy:
Another problem is that the subject has not been changing the attitude and behavior of the students. They consider students as political subjects. The government has been using the curriculum as an instrument of propaganda.
Students do not have a good outlook towards CEE teachers because they think they are political. Students think the country has not been building democracy and peace. Since 1997 in the Ethiopian calendar , the attitude of students towards building a democracy has declined so we can say subject has no contribution.
In parliamentary elections in 2005, opposition parties enjoyed unprecedented support, threatening the ruling EPRDF and leading to a crack down on political openness. 2005 is typically regarded as the year the ruling party firmly staunched political opposition, consolidated its rule and began the country’s progress towards authoritarianism. We also might think of 2005 as the year many Ethiopians began to regard the party not as the legitimate governing power in Ethiopia but as something to be feared
As if it was not hard enough to teach civics values to students who regarded them as dishonest and propaganda, teachers were also under political pressures from the government and the party. Many teachers noted that it was not only the perception of other teachers and students that CEE teachers were “political” but that the government itself exerted a good deal of pressure on CEE teachers:
The perception of people in Ethiopia is that CEE is a means to propagate the political agenda of the government. In some cases it may be true. The government interferes in schools. When I was teaching in rural areas, the woreda [local government] tried to ask me to join the party. “How can you teach CEE without belonging to the party?” They asked. People think that we are members of the party. The government should not intervene in school affairs. But the government is blaming some teachers and can fire teachers.
Many teachers had stories about teachers being coerced into joining the party, being threatened, having their pay docked or even being stopped from working. As one teacher told me:
A teacher was teaching civics. And he raised students’ political consciousness to the highest level and they removed the person. They denied him to teach CEE because he raised the consciousness of the students. They stopped him from teaching.
Given the political pressures teachers were under, they often recounted feeling afraid of students’ challenging questions. One teacher noted, “the students are not afraid, but the teachers are afraid.” Another teacher noted:
What they are learning in the school and what they observe is not the same, so they ask us, ‘what you are teaching us is not what they are doing.’ This is a challenge for the teacher. To say this is very hard.
And another teacher said, “Students ask about what they see outside: ‘Why are police harassing people rather than being peacekeepers?’ ”
Most teachers approach to dealing with challenging questions from students reflected more of the “cool” stance of the curriculum than the heated tone of the protests. They often claimed that students’ frustration and complaints was a result of students’ exercising their rights but not their duties, “Students practice rights not duties. The community wants democracy to be perfect and don’t understand it is a process. One student asked about punishment by police saying, ‘the police don’t punish the right way.’” Many teachers noted that they responded to challenging questions by sticking close to the text and teaching in theoretical, rather than practical ways, as one teacher noted, “In general, what we teach theoretically is different in practice. In the living standard, there is a difference between theory and practice.” Another teacher expanded on these thoughts noting the importance of teaching theoretically in order to stay safe. When asked how he addressed challenging questions, he responded as follows:
You go back to what you are taught. Look at yourself by these instruments. They know it very well. Teachers don’t react to the students. The teacher fears that if they answer that question there will be a problem. So the teacher refers back to what is written. The teacher does not judge. They never say that is wrong. In order for the students to accept them, they have observed what is wrong. The instrument is what is written here.
Other teachers coped with students challenging questions by advising them to wait and contribute in the future, not now: “After you are learning, you have to contribute and solve this problem in the future.” Another told me that he advised a student as follows: “When you see inequality you have to fight and contribute. But not now. You have to fight in the future.” Similar to the teacher in the previous section who advised students that their patriotic duty was to study hard and get “A,” these teachers avoided the political contradictions of their job telling students that it was not their role to get involved in politics now.
As we can see the CEE curriculum, and its teachers, were accused of being political and spreading propaganda. Teachers themselves knew that the ideals they taught about in the curriculum were belied by students’ experiences in the street, something which built frustration in the students. And yet teachers were unwilling to take a strong stance and use their role as CEE teachers to address this discrepancy. Instead, they tended to fall back on theoretical stances, claiming that they were just teaching conceptual material not politics. Additionally, they often blamed the students for being fixated on their (political) rights and not their (civic and ethical) duties. Rights were couched in terms of politics whereas duties were couched in terms of personhood and having qualities that would make them a good student. Teachers also in many cases advised students that their only patriotic duty now was to be a good student, to be peaceful and to stay out of politics reinforcing the cool affective tone of civics and trying to douse any revolutionary thinking that students might have.
In an array of interviews and casual conversations I had in Ethiopia while studying Civics, I became aware that the CEE curriculum was being blamed for the political unrest in the country. I wondered if the protests reflected the success, rather than the failures of the curriculum. The response when I posed this question was usually that students, and the curriculum itself, were too fixated on political rights and not enough on duties to the nation. Protest, not surprisingly, was seen as an exercise of demanding rights rather than as a patriotic duty. As I made clear in my discussion of civics above, there was a widespread attitude that students’ duty was to work hard, study and serve the nation quietly. But whether one sees the protests as a result of the success or failures of the CEE curriculum is dependent largely on one’s stance towards emotion in the construction of national subjectivity. Should citizens be rationale and patient? Or passionate and demanding?
Emotions create a contradiction for nationalism—in order for national subjects to be willing to sacrifice for their nation, the nation needs to evoke passions in its citizens, but these passions can get out of control. Leaders, particularly authoritarian ones, often seek to cool passions and use more banal means to produce liberal, rational subjects who will support the state and its vision regardless of repression. In Ethiopia, the Civic and Ethical Education curriculum detailed and disseminated a vision that required citizens to be calmly tolerant of diversity, to form themselves into a subject of developmentalism and to accept the government’s timeline for democratization. However, the curriculum perhaps also got out ahead of the ruling party itself by teaching students about human and democratic rights, for example the right to protest. It would seem that frustration with these contradictions and with the failure of the government to bring to fruition its own vision of peaceful multiculturalism, development, democracy and a guarantee of protection for human rights led to frustration. The violent and authoritarian response to protests have turned frustration into an outrage that found a vehicle in ethnonationalism and ethnic violence.
Interestingly, Ethiopia’s newly appointed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is a master at eliciting, choreographing and channeling emotions. Emerging from within the ruling EPRDF, he has not yet dismantled Ethiopia’s sole party’s hold on power. But as the first Prime Minister to come from Ethiopia’s majority Oromo ethnic group, he is also dedicated to reform. Since he took power in April 2018, he has welcomed armed opposition groups back to Ethiopia, erased the designation of “terrorist group” from opposition political parties, and released political prisoners by the tens of thousands. He announced publicly that multi-party democracy is the only way forward for Ethiopia.
He preaches a powerful and effervescent message of love and unity. For example, in a speech on June 23, 2018, he stated, “We will win with love. I asked each one of you brothers and sisters to turn to the next person on this ‘Day of Love and Forgiveness’ and embrace them and tell them you love them and forgive them. I ask you to do so in love” (Mariam 2018). A popular slogan “demeregn” meaning “add us in” has appeared on t-shirts in response to his message. He speaks of erasing borders, both between ethnic states within Ethiopia and international borders, and replacing them with love.
Although critics and intellectuals are wary of Prime Minister Abiy’s populist appeal, he adeptly evokes the emotions of the masses and harnesses them in the service of unifying a divided nation and reforming a corrupt one. He seems to have found a way to address, if only temporarily, the emotional contradiction of nationalism. His turn towards feelings counteracts the cool, rational nationalism of his predecessors, which had become the object of anger, but he also avoids inciting the passions of narrow ethno-nationalisms. In doing so, he activates Ethiopians’ affection for the nation as a whole and uses this powerful emotion to create a vision for a new Ethiopia.
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