“Fed Up” in Ethiopia: Emotions and anti-authoritarian protest
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 populist uprisings. Ethnically-based protests surrounded the capital city, targeted businesses (particularly foreign owned) and were met by staunch government crackdown which often became violent. The government oscillated between declaring wide-sweeping States of Emergency (first in October 2016 and again in February 2018) and, when these failed to quell popular anger, 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, there are paralells with anti-authoritarian, populist uprisings elsewhere.
Protests ultimately resulted in Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed taking power in April 2018. Although Prime Minister Abiy is a leader in the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Federation (EPRDF) that has ruled Ethiopia since 1991, he is regarded as a reformer within the party and his taking leadership is often referred to as a coup within the party made possible by populist uprisings from outside of it. Abiy Ahmed is also the first leader in Ethiopia’s centuries-long history to come from the marginalized, but majority, Oromo ethnic group. Thus, Abiy Ahmed’s leadership simultaneously represents internal reform of a ruling party that many believe had grown corrupt, anti-authoritarian struggle in a country that has never had democracy and an ethnically-based liberation movement. Thus, events in Ethiopia bring together the elements discussed in many of the chapters in this volume—angry politics that emanate from frustration with the nexus of neoliberal globalization and authoritarian governance but effervescently coalesce around identities—racial, ethnic and religious. The case of Ethiopian angry politics discussed in this chapter complicates our understanding of these global populisms in several interlocking ways.
First, the case of Ethiopia helps us distinguish between anti-authoritarian movements in places where authoritarianism is not rising but well established and, perhaps, in decline. While populist movements that appear to support a rightward moving state have come to dominate angry politics in Europe, the US and elsewhere, this is not the case everywhere in the world. 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. In Ethiopia, ire at a long-standing authoritarian regime that was increasingly willing to use force against its people sparked this new wave of angry politics. The presence of a long-standing authoritarian state, may configure angry politics in different ways than it does in places where authoritarianism is on the rise. Authoritarianisms that have already established the capacity of the state to use force with impunity yield a different emotional response than those where this is a new phenomenon (see also Theriault this volume). One of the key differences is in the emotional response to established authoritarianism and the utility of emotion to unravel it. 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.
Second, exploring the crises of neoliberalism from the vantage point of Ethiopia challenges the relationship between neoliberalism and our conventional understandings of the right-left spectrum in politics. Policies of both the previous and the current leadership in Ethiopia elide placement on this spectrum. While the previous leadership in Ethiopia merged right and left positions by courting investment and embracing the Asian model of neoliberal developmentalism and echoing long-held Marxist ideology, the new prime minister simultaneously privatizes state-held businesses, courts the industrial sector and promotes the development of a regional economic block, on one hand, while moving in directions that might be thought of as socially progressive on the other, for example by promoting the concerns of women, minority groups and refugees. In some ways this resonates with the “pink tide” in South America in which political positions hybridize in order to adapt to the exigencies of global neoliberal economics (C. Bjork-James this volume) and also with the case of “green authoritarianism” in the Phillippines (Theriault this volume). One might characterize Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s approach to governance not as oriented towards the right or left, but around a principle of openness—open hearts, open borders, open politics, open opportunities for women and marginalized groups, and also open for business. However, it is unclear how Prime Minister Abiy will balance this principle of openness with regulation, rule of law and protection of vulnerable populations. One of the questions around which this volume circulates is why right wing populisms seem to have surpassed the left. But current developments in Ethiopia may indicate the emergence of hybridization of leftist ideologies and neoliberal governance practices.
Finally, the case of Ethiopia raises the question of why it is that when popular uprisings confront the nexus of authoritarianism and neoliberalism, that long-standing identity-based grievances seem to provide the emotional charge needed to fuel mass outrage. I suggest that to understand the role that identity plays in populist politics, an ethnography that dissects an array of emotional states is called for. As noted elsewhere in this volume racial, ethnic or religious identities seem to be the point around which angry politics coalesce even if neoliberalism and frustrations with the enduring or emergent authoritarianism are the underlying grievances (S. Bjork-James; Maskovsy this volume).
In this brief essay, I cannot fully address these issues, which continue to unfold and transform at the time of this writing. But I will begin to unravel the question of why political effervescence coalesces around identity politics rather than neoliberal economics or the authoritarian state. I suggest that we need to explore outrage at the cool rationality of liberalism, a rationality which is belied by the everyday experiences of political violence and economic precarity. This chapter explores this outrage from a somewhat odd vantage point—an analysis of civics education in Ethiopia in the wake of the declaration of the State of Emergency in Ethiopia in 2016. The Civic and Ethical Education (CEE) curriculum finds itself centrally situated in debates about the plight of youth, economic and political marginalization, the nature of citizenship and inclusive belonging for different groups, and the appropriateness of forms of civic participation, such as protests.
CEE in Ethiopia was the blue print for the ruling party’s ideal model citizen and calls for good patriots to behave in a calm, cool manner, to be tolerant peacemakers, and uphold the core tenets of the constitution. However, the previous leadership also flouted their own ideals. The CEE curriculum teaches students that the constitution upholds standards of democracy and human rights and yet the previous leadership was known for excessive use of violence, mass arrests, and allocating sweeping powers to police under repeatedly declared States of Emergency. This contradiction between the taught ideals of democracy and human rights and lived experiences under the state of emergency evoked tremendous anger. This contradiction also challenges the legitimacy of Ethiopia’s previous leadership; however, interestingly, Ethiopians are less critical of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Federation (EPRDF), which continues to rule the country, but the Tigrayan ethnic group which was perceived to control the party until the recent Prime Minister was put in place.
Analyzing civics teaching and learning 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, complicate our understanding of this moment of global political “crisis” by illuminating the relationship between authoritarianism, growing concerns about economic disparity and youth unemployment and the emotions of populist nationalism in a context of. This paper is organized around a series of different emotions, related to the 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, particularly sentiments of love. 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, but it remains to be seen if these passions will converge or diverge.
Authoritarianism, Ethnic Federalism and Impotence
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, and perhaps declining, 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 prefer 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, 2018).
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.
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, while ethnic federalism seems to have organized political subjectivities in Ethiopia quite intentionally around ethnicity, the countervailing forces of both authoritarian single-party rule and the illusion of constitutional democratic citizenship (promoted in no small part through the Civics curriculum) have prevented ethnic fragmentation. Instead of truly devolving state power to these ethnic states, the party has retained centralized power, leaving Ethiopia with a centralized state, a decentralized nation and a frustrated citizenry turning towards ethnic organization to shake off anomie and impotence.
From anomie to anger: A brief history of a multi-faceted uprising
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 2017a, 2017b).
This cycle of protest, unrest, government concessions and crack down 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 fueled, rather than quelled protests. And the government has responded to those protests with more violence. Emotion, in general, and anger in particular are central to these protests. 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, failed to quell the anger.
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. Additionally, rather than organizing around policies and political platforms, these movements have organized around ethnic grievances in response to the authoritarian rule of a party perceived as controlled by one ethnic group.1 Thus, identity, becomes the modality through which authoritarianism is challenged leaving the economic issues unaddressed.
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, ethnically based, core has been 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. While outrage against the regime forged a coalition between the Amhara and Oromo ethnicities, that coalition seems to be weakening. Meanwhile ethnic tensions abound around the country. 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.
Ethnicity in Ethiopia seems to be the vehicle to move populations from anomie to anger. As in many other places, identity seems to be more effective at organizing political emotion than political ideology, economic grievances or anger at authoritarian state violence. 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
Ethiopia’s Civic and Ethical Education (CEE) curriculum is often considered the blueprint for the country’s post-1991 nation-making process. The curriculum which garners a great deal of public and policy attention, has been revised three times since 1991, is taught at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels and 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 curriculum promotes liberal democratic political values and a form of neoliberal developmental economic personhood laced with echoes of earlier leftist developmentalism. Key themes that emerge across units are constitutionalism, federalism, multiculturalism and rule of law. The themes of “constitutional democracy” undergird a sense of patriotism, government accountability and individual responsibility, tightly linking it with living peacefully in a multiethnic country. The curriculum is intent on moving Ethiopia forward and away from past political oppressions and towards democracy, on one hand, and laying responsibility for being peaceful, tolerant and economically disciplined on the individual citizens. CEE educates citizens about human rights and democratic governance and peacebuilding (Smith 2013; Wondimu 2008) and also promotes qualities of hard work, industriousness, savings as well as self-reliance and avoidance of dependency. It suggests that young people should engage with and embrace the global economy by engaging these personal characteristics and not spending frivolously on expensive cultural traditions. Thus CEE outlines the duties, rights and responsibilities of a politically liberal, tolerant democratic citizen poised to respect rule of law and work on behalf of the neoliberal, developmental state.
If the written curriculum clearly details the kind of citizen that youth should be and become, the “hidden curriculum” of CEE, specifies what their role in politics should, and should not, be. Teachers, in their teaching of civics make it clear that the passions of political protest are inappropriate for students whose main patriotic duty is to study hard. 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, ethnically-based 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.
The teaching of cool, liberal nationalism is particularly problematic in Ethiopia given the passions that emerged in the time of protests giving rise to a number of critiques of CEE and its teachers. CEE was depicted as politically neutral and cool; however, many Ethiopians regarded it as anything but neutral.
Beyond impotence: From teacher fear to student frustration with CEE
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. There were widespread frustrations with the CEE curriculum and the teaching of it. CEE was depicted as politically neutral and cool; however, many Ethiopians regarded it as anything but neutral. One critique was that the curriculum was “too political,” meaning that it not only supported and promoted the ruling party but also the values and beliefs of the ethnic clique within the ruling party that held the reigns of power until the current Prime Minister was put in place. Another critique was that it was belied by the on-the-ground experience of joblessness and state repression. Below, I explore both of these critiques and then show how student frustration with the curriculum challenged teachers’ ability to teach it, particularly under increased conditions of repression and State of Emergency.
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 leaders, notably Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu Haile Mariam, both of whom hailed from the Amhara ethnic group, as brutal and authoritarian, while depicting the current regime as democratic and tolerant. The Ministry of Education officials’ concerns about this critique led to a 2006 assessment of the CEE curriculum. The assessment found that there were a number of widespread critiques of the curriculum, namely that it was too political. One Ministry of Education official said to me that this critique was confusing and misguided because the curriculum was not political, but rather, based on the constitution. What is missing in this comment, however, is the fact that 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. Rights allocated to ethnically based states works against centuries of Amhara ethnic hegemony over Ethiopia, but also challenges notions of a unified, centralized nation instead promoting ethnic identity over national identity. The efforts of the curriculum to promote multicultural tolerance were also often interpreted as an attempt to remake, or unravel, the nation. However, another critique of the promotion of ethnic rights, self-determination and multiculturalism was that it failed to work in practice. Indeed there were a number of frustrations with the curriculum because it failed practically on a number of fronts.
People also critiqued the curriculum for imposing a sense of economic personhood while structural barriers to economic success were never addressed. Even more egregious was that values and practices promoted in the curriculum were perceived as contrary to Ethiopian culture, particularly the units that told students to save money and avoid spending on expensive cultural celebrations. Meanwhile, youth unemployment was the norm, good jobs for educated youth were increasingly scarce, costs of living were skyrocketing, and large swathes of the capital city were being sold off displacing both urban populations to condominiums built in previously rural areas and rural populations. The evidence of modernization and progress abounded, but so too did the evidence that these youth were being left off that path.
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. 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 government 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?’ ”
There could be very real repercussions for teachers who identified too strongly with students. In May 2018, I had been observing CEE classes for over a month and the State of Emergency had ended a few months prior. 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.
Despite teachers best intentions of instilling democratic, liberal citizenship values in students, teachers were coerced and coopted by the authoritarian apparatus of the state. They were forced to join the party, punished for engaging seriously with student critiques and even arrested. All of this fueled student beliefs that the curriculum was a tool of propaganda and stripped the curriculum, and the regime that put it in place, of legitimacy. Because the curriculum also promoted liberal, democratic, constitutionalism as the modality through which to effect change, I would argue that the delegitimation of the CEE curriculum also unraveled liberal, democratic constitutionalism as a legitimate modality of change paving the way for a violent ethnic politics that is rampant in Ethiopia as of the time of this writing.
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.
But young people, instead of heeding their teachers, have increasingly taken to the streets and instead of cohering around multicultural tolerance, constitutional democracy, they increasingly organize around ethnicity.
Conclusion: Love in a Time of Anger?
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 identifies as a reformer. His critics argue that he is merely paying lip service to reform and intends to consolidate power for his own ethnic group as every Ethiopian leader has done; however, 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.
At the same time ethnically based violence has proliferated and the Prime Minister seems to be doing little to stem it. He has rolled back the coerciveness and use of violence by the state, but, at the same time, Ethipians complain that rule of law is also eroded. His critics and intellectuals are wary of Prime Minister Abiy’s populist appeal and the way evokes the emotions of the masses. But his turn towards feelings counteracts the cool, liberal package that masked the authoritarianism of his predecessors, a package which had become the object of anger. The direction in which these passions will ultimately turn remains to be seen. As of this writing, estimates suggest that ethnic violence resulted in the displacement of up to 2.9 million people in 2018 and 2019. Meanwhile, the government seems to be ignoring the severity of the crisis, insisting that displaced people return home and denying them aid in IDP camps even if they are afraid to return (Gardner 2019).
It is tempting in these moments of political volatility to attempt to create comprehensive explanatory frameworks that analyze and tie things up in a neat package. I would argue that in the current moment of ongoing political volatility, we are left with more questions than answers. The case of Ethiopia, which fits the script of things going on elsewhere in many ways, also challenges many of our assumptions about what, precisely is going on. In this exploratory essay, I have argued that Ethiopia shows us what the rejection of liberalism looks like. Why liberalism is so roundly rejected is a question that requires further analysis—is it because it was seen as disingenuous in the face of a party that, while preaching liberalism, was actually the opposite of liberal? Is it because the promises of liberalism are belied by the dystopian inequalities produced by neoliberalism, particularly in the developing world? Is it because ethnic marginalization and discrimination was ignored for centuries while the imposition of ethnic federalism in the 1990s provided the pretense of equality but also the mechanism to forge a new form of violent politics around the maintenance of ethnic boundaries?
Here I have used the teaching of civics during a particularly volatile period in Ethiopia to explore the intersections of liberalism, neoliberalism, authoritarianism, and the capacity of emotion and identity to mobilize populations that have been immobilized by the coercive capacity of the authoritarian state. In Ethiopia neoliberalism is made manifest through relative and actual deprivation and the visceral presence of wealth, on one hand, and mass unemployment and underemployment on the other. Although the root cause of what troubles youth is arguably rooted in these economic disparities, state authoritarianism, violence and disenfranchisement has been the target of people’s anger, not economic factors. But increasingly, the state is no longer the target. Rather, people, turning inward towards ethnically based factions, blame each other for their marginalization.
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 the liberal state, in theory, also needs to be able to temper these passions. 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 initially led to protest, but that the the violent and authoritarian response to protests turned frustration into an outrage. This outrage coupled has found a vehicle in ethnonationalism and ethnic violence despite the current Prime Minister’s best efforts to preach love, peace and unity.
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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.↩