Pondering the power of perceptions, passed and present

In the context of Ethiopian society, one of the commonest misperceptions – and, perhaps, the main reason why society, faced with the choice, did not turn on Abiy and the lies of his regime, but on the people of Tigray – has been that ‘the TPLF’, and – by extension – as it were, ‘Tigrayans in general and TPLF or EPRDF supporters take it all’. This perception of the outsized influence of Tigrayans continues to be as prevalent as it is inaccurate.

To give some simple examples:
A commonly held belief among Amharas used to be that ‘most soldiers’ – or, at any rate – ‘most higher-ranking soldiers are Tigrayan’. And while many higher-ranking officers and generals were, indeed, Tigrayan, many others were not. The ENDF ‘of the before’ – highly regarded internationally – can actually be described as a truly multi-ethnic force. There were soldiers in senior positions from many different ethnic groups.

Similarly, it is often said – including by the regime’s accomplices and media, and echoed by Western news outlets and commentators – that ‘the TPLF ruled Ethiopia for 27 years – until Abiy came to power’.

Alas, that is a grotesque over-simplification. It would be more accurate to state, for instance, that the TPLF was, in some ways, the dominant party in the multi-ethnic EPRDF coalition. In practice, the federal structure meant that, in the regions, the officials were from the regional parties, not the TPLF. They would be responsible for deciding how to allocate resources, areas on which to focus, and would conduct the day-to-day politics, in the interest of the people in their respective regions.

For instance, the politicians, officials, and political appointments or academics in the Amhara region, would be mostly Amhara, and de facto have nothing to do with the TPLF, but with its Amhara counterpart, the ADP. It was similar in other regions; where the EPRDF coalition did not govern, a regional sister party would be in charge, arguably with far too little say in a rather unequal partnership with the EPRDF.

At the federal level, while Tigrayans did doubtless have some influence, there were senior politicians, political appointees, government employees or academics from many, if not all, ethnic groups.

It is, furthermore, essential to understand that the Tigrayan ‘dominance’ had historic, political, and societal reasons.

The TPLF – at the time a partisan army – was, indisputably, the force leading the fight against the brutal Mengistu dictatorship.

When, finally, the EPRDF coalition emerged victorious in the early ’90s, the TPLF got – as it were – ‘the victor’s position’.

Criticising that would be like criticising the US dominance after WWII; in short: rather ridiculous.

Many have argued: ‘Yes, but, then, in the years and decades that followed, that federalism, that pseudo-multi-ethnic democracy – all fake; Tigrayans got it all’. But that simply does not, and did not, reflect reality.

That is not to say that such resentment and sentiments are not completely understandable. But emotions or misguided perceptions of facts and reality are never reality. And attitudes, worldviews, or actions based on flawed perceptions of reality, often irrational, and having little to do with facts, can pose an extreme danger to any society, as they can result in very real damage – illustrated so powerfully in recent history, including in the context of the Trump presidency, its destructive, polarising legacy, and US politics and society in general.

Others have simply not been well informed, or have not taken the time to educate themselves – say, on matters of economic policy.

Many criticised the government for what may be described as anti-neoliberal – or social democratic – policies – such as price controls, or state-owned key enterprises, like electricity or telecommunications – without offering constructive suggestions as to how to prevent basic services from becoming unaffordable for the growing middle-class.

Accordingly, a commonly held belief – seized upon by neoliberals, critical Ethiopians, and Western observers alike – was that the EPRDF was ‘ideologically Marxist’, ‘ethnically dictatorial’, or both.

Many – including international observers – continue to hold such views; terms like ‘anti-neoliberal’, ‘social democratic with regional characteristics’, or the like, would never occur to them, in the context of Ethiopian politics or the EPRDF’s Revolutionary Democracy – let alone the TPLF.

Ultimately, to get a better, more profound, more realistic understanding of what that ‘government of the before’ was actually like, one would have to have basic knowledge of economic models like neoliberalism, social democracy, or the idea of a strong state whose role it is to regulate, while, ideally, having lived the life of ‘the growing middle-class’ – so to speak. Crucially, one would also have to be free from ethnic-based biases -which tends to typically be the case with Tigrayans or former bureaucrats or public servants from all ethnic groups.

In reality, while Tigrayans were doubtless influential, that influence – and the benefits they, and Tigray, got from it – was far less, far smaller, than was commonly believed.

In other words: Many saw a great injustice, a fundamentally unfair society, where one ethnic group takes it all, at the expense of all others. In reality, it was a federal system that – doubtless – could have been made more just, more equitable, but, even when Abiy started his ‘reforms’ – which have since long turned out to be nothing more than the work of a devious manipulator, intent on tightening his grip on power – was simply far less unjust – though, like every political system, far from perfect – than many perceived it to be.

It was, and could have been, a solid basis from which to build, and improve where necessary. But it was not to be. The constructive criticism in the public discourse that would have made that possible remained too isolated, and would be increasingly drowned out by the chorus of emotionalised and emotionalising voices, deviously amplified by Abiy and his accomplices – or those who considered themselves his supporters when he was first elected prime minister by the EPRDF coalition.

Eventually, the flawed perceptions of too many – at home and abroad – resulted in societal dynamics that would sweep this fragile basis away, and, ultimately, turn Ethiopia into a brutal, unstable autocracy – where neither human life nor facts matter – in less than three years.