Ethiopia is suffering. It has become a large community of pain. A dizzying daily multiplication of death and violence in various parts of the country, an all-out war and mass starvation in Tigray, a disquieting feeling of a society at war with itself, describes our current situation. The war continues to spread across the country. Mistrust between communities, fear, insecurity, hopelessness, a crushing inflation, a sense of a deteriorating future, and a constantly declining social world, define the mood of our times. This situation, coupled with political and social tensions, has been slowly building up since 2014. A popular upsurge in the following years resulted in an implosion within the ruling EPRDF regime, culminating in the ascension of Abiy Ahmed to power, as prime minister, in April 2018. Inter-communal conflict and political violence continued to put a heavy strain on the country in the years that followed, albeit with a new vigour.
Social suffering as a function of war, displacement, migration, and political and structural violence is, in the main, generated by state and military powers. The un-acknowledged pain and social misery of individual communities by the larger society besets the crisis of the social. “Enemy”-making discourse has pitted organized political actors against each other in wars of negation, injecting and provoking frightening levels of social antagonism between communities. Discursive and actual wars are waged against simplistically defined single enemies who are often constructed as the culprit of all evils, and all social, political and economic problems. Reckless and unhinged political language is crowned as “truth”, while human suffering is often dismissed as hyperbole.
Powerful political players, in and outside the state, with significant sway and influence on political discourse, gave rise to this condition. For that reason, seeking the solution to our predicament must involve the political elite. However, this on its own is not a sufficient remedy; as polarization and hostility between communities is upsetting the social-structure, “fixing” the problem by relying on a narrowly defined political solution would not suffice. Beyond a state that is on the brink of collapse, we are facing a social fabric that is fast decomposing, unable to hold together its diverse constituent parts.
Caustic political rhetoric and insidious political discourse have contaminated the “power block” or the political structure, and have gone further to cause a considerable wound to our social relations. This ubiquitous crisis that is a manifestation of the entrenched, political, social and moral adversity that the country is facing calls for a more imaginative approach, beyond conventional politics. To deal with the implications of the crisis of politics on the social demands that we implore and pay attention to the emotive, to help us connect with one another as a society.
In the absence of a collective outrage, individual communities are left to grieve massive death, displacement and starvation in isolation. The general public is far too divided to speak in unison. This is perhaps most apparent with the war in Tigray—between Federal and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) forces—that has left in its wake atrocities and destruction on an enormous scale. Very few in the larger public are willing to imagine the deprivations of daily life and the feelings of isolation that Tigrayans are undergoing as a result of this ruinous war. Death, hunger, persecution or the violation of the female body as a site of a cruel game do not seem to move the larger public.
Nevertheless, the enormity of the destruction that this war has caused in Tigray does not make the case of Tigray singular. Rather, this war is but a climactic landmark that expresses the debilitating effects of selective outrage on the social. Human fatality, dislocation and the devastation of towns, cities and livelihoods due to political violence have become numbingly mundane and superfluous in the past three years. No regional state or linguistic and cultural communities have been left unaffected. The casualness of suffering has cast aside an alibi for a fundamental crisis that has befallen the country—the social fabric is witnessing the crumbling of its covenants.
The social assets that held the society together are eroded, and appear too frail to avert our downward spiral into a moral abyss. Shared social norms like tur (ጡር) or neg bene (ነግ በኔ) that dissuaded people from engaging in acts of injustice on others, that had long sustained the social compact, despite the historically widespread violence, and the despotism of the Ethiopian state, have been eroded. This glue that has long been the life force of the social-fabric is everywhere desecrated. The social that has been the bulwark of interconnections between heterogeneous communities and groups is fracturing under the weight of the crisis of conventional politics.
The enormity of the destruction that this war has caused in Tigray does not make the case of Tigray singular.
However, recognizing that the crisis of the moment has permeated society or that there are cracks in the social fabric should not hinder us from appreciating the political validity and vitality of the social. While the condition for the proliferation of social suffering is indifference and disregard for loss and pain, collective mourning of all suffering could be a site of possibility for healing. This recognition should motivate us to strive to rescue the social from further degradation so that we can connect with each other—to feel beyond our political affiliations and identities, and to envision a politics of the social that is based on reherahe ርህራኄ (“radical empathy”/radical humanity).
Rebuilding the social
As politicians are taking us down the bottomless pit, there are way too many of us in this society who are too preoccupied with trailing behind and echoing self-absorbed “leaders”. In this epoch of populist un-reason, vitriolic political language heaved in a discursive climate dominated by a sinister, invisible virtual space, seduces its clients to speak without bounds—without care. Politics is condensed into an art of following. The political arena has depoliticized social actors and turned the public into “users” and “consumers”, whose “political” role is largely limited to “liking”, “disliking”, “re-tweeting”, “sharing” and ultimately, doing the bidding of powerful political actors and “social media patriots”. The journey to the precipice continues and the tragedy multiplies, if we as a society continue to refuse to feel the pain that we see meted out everywhere in our common land.
Even if the social is more than its national identification, it is largely reduced to its “political expression”—“the nation”—in this moment of crisis. And the nation, either in its pan-Ethiopian or particular forms, has become the chief arbiter that determines whose pain, agony and loss matters. It has come to define communities in contradistinction against one another. Rather than nurturing and struggling for the positive, free expression of community and publicness, nationalisms of all vintages have mobilized war-making speeches that caricature presumed opponents. Contenders are seen not as adversaries to engage, but as enemies to be annihilated. Simple answers are sought to complex political, economic and social problems. In such a highly polarized context, the instinctive human identification with pain and loss appears to lose its force. Pan-Ethiopian nationalism, or identity politics, while privileging the concerns of some, appears to predicate their activism on the negation of, or insensitivity to, the pain of what they consider to be the other. In our failure to identify, empathize and value all suffering, our society is morphing into a horrifying assemblage of disjointed, antagonistic, mutually cancelling communities.
I believe the question we must ask in this moment of crisis needs to be, what can we do when conventional politics has failed and “love for country” or “love for the nation” is the vector of the war machine? What can be done when jingoism and oppositional nationalism justify war and when they deepen the crisis by excusing impunity and carnage as “collateral damage”? What do we do when speech is muted by “sheer violence” and “rational” deliberation appears impossible? What can we do where politics is held hostage by political elites? Where do we seek our answers when structural decline and calls for more war are threatening to engulf us all?
In our failure to identify, empathize and value all suffering, our society is morphing into a horrifying assemblage of disjointed, antagonistic, mutually cancelling communities.
To my mind, from the vantage point of society and social actors, the remedy is to be found in the effort we make to rebuild and reconstitute the social. In a society that is so intermingled, where interconnections are far too many to disentangle and a common future is unavoidable, recognizing suffering is imperative to re-build the social fabric. Our survival as a society depends on our ability to empathize with one another. First and foremost, recognizing the social demand that we “bear witness” to pain to reclaim and take back our human ability to empathize with others. Through reherahe (ርህራሄ)—a term that is often used in Ethiopia to describe the radical humanity of mothers— we transcend the limits of our supposed inability to identify and reconnect with the anguish and distress of others. Hence, if we were to allow reherahe as a shared sentiment for all, we could open it up to reshape society and repair our disintegrating inter-communal relations. As a “civic virtue”, it would be freed from its narrow confines as the “natural” preserve of our mothers, and could be used to govern this polity and transform our political life.
The poesis of collective mourning and the politics of the social
We need to reaffirm our connectedness through an act of collective mourning. Our survival does not depend on our commitment to die or sacrifice for “the nation”. Rather, the survival of the social fabric depends on our ability to recognize suffering in the entire society. This demands the unequivocal rejection of the conditions that engender the explosion of social misery. And the precondition for this is the rejection of all wars of negation fought in the name of “the survival”, “unity”, or “the love of” the nation. Instead of relying on political actors, or sinking into the passion of our hearts, we must insist on relating to one another with the depth of our humanity, our wailing guts and emotive faculties.
In these wars of the people against the people, nothing makes sense except mourning all suffering through commonly shed tears. Until and unless we do that, we have no real victories to celebrate, no heroes to praise, no flags to wave. Nothing but the hollow, Pyrrhic victory that is in fact the demise of our social world. The only victory that makes sense is one that expiates and affirms our social ties. And this victory starts with the repudiation of these wars of negation.
The alternative we have is to let these wars continue to not only destroy our future, but also to repudiate the ways we lived in the past. We must acknowledge that despite the injustices and inequities of the past, wrought by successive ruling regimes, the social domain has never seen the levels of polarization and social antagonism that we are currently witnessing between linguistic and cultural communities. The resilience of the social-fabric was such that it was able to maintain, throughout the 20th century, a level of social decorum that retained a sense of community within and between different communities.
Sure, this larger community was not a community where every group was politically alive and treated the same. Nor was it a community that lived “in harmony” and “tolerance”, as some would like us to believe. Nonetheless, it was at the same time a heterogeneous and multi-ethnic community that shared cultural assets, sentiments and experiences, whose common ties nurtured similar socialities. In spite of its in-built inequities, differences, rivalries, contesting interests and conflicts, it was a community that was bound and enlivened by shared values of moral restraint with a deep sense of human fragility, inter-dependent social life and mutual-aid.
Beyond the act of collective mourning to re-build the social fabric, the social field should also be a space for thinking about the otherwise, to envision a better future. Where the social is conceived as a site of political transformation, it could create the condition of possibility for the activation of the affective and moral ties that have long bound the social compact. Social assets such as mutual-aid and solidarity with the aggrieved can serve not only to repair the social fabric but also to remake a more robust social realm.
Our survival does not depend on our commitment to die or sacrifice for “the nation”.
Ritual practices like Leqso (the communal act of mourning with the bereaved) and edir (the mutual aid association of neighbours) that are shared social assets across various communities in the country, could be calibrated to repair our troubled inter-communal relations and our beleaguered social world. Leqso and edir, that form key elements of our social existence, have long forged a sense of neighbourliness among members of heterogeneous communities. Members of edir who visited and counselled mourners, and fed and catered for the bereaved, as well as the leqestegnoch, who gathered to participate in collective acts of mourning, made up the community. This guild of mourners grieved together as a community. Many grieved the dead among them. Some grieved loved ones who were long departed while others mourned the “prospective death” of loved ones as well as their own mortality. Leqso and edir produced the platform for communal care, and prompted the engagement of communities with the human condition. They forged and strengthened communal bonds and created the possibility for collective healing to occur.
In this moment of crisis, a politics of the social that insists on collective mourning and healing is most imperative, as it obliges us to re-think and activate inbuilt social devices to bridge communities pulled apart by hostile political discourse and political violence. The politics of the social that emerges from the sentimental, normative and communitarian practices of everyday people could thus rely on such shared social assets to rebuild and reconstitute the social.
While recognizing that “the political” and “the social” domain are imbricated and that their energies flow into in the constitution of one another, there is also political value in distinguishing the social as a sphere that has its own logic of existence and raison d’être. This recognition entails that the assets of the social must be made more visible to animate, humanize and democratize the political arena. For a political system in a country like Ethiopia that is a “no-accountability zone” for state actors and powerful political elites, the social field as a “site of dynamic [political] possibility” is critical to building a political community that is more democratic and more in sync with the logic and sociality of “the governed”.
The political domain should reflect and respond to the associated life of its heterogeneous groups, as well as their concerns and aspirations. By capitalizing on our social assets, this moment of crisis is a moment when we need to seek to reconstitute society as a field of co-existence and co-creation for a multi-ethnic “labouring community”. Such a society could allow for the emergence of a community that does not just merely co-exist peaceably, but one that strives to create a substantively equal and just political community.