Eyob Aselefech Balcha, Special to Addis Standard
Nearly half a century had passed since the Ethiopian Students’ Movement (ESM) rocked the country with the most critical questions of the time: “the Land Question” and “the National Question”. It also levelled the ground for thousands of young people of that generation to get involved in the national politics, pre and post revolution Ethiopia. But what is the lasting legacy of the ESM in present day Ethiopia particularly in shaping the nature of youth political engagement?
After having such an influential generation that have achieved, if not successfully, a radical social change, why do subsequent generations in Ethiopia have remained less effective in both in inspiring and participating in the country’s political processes.
So as to give a logical coherence, it is important to first discuss some of the concepts that constitute the above argument.
To start with, it is more enabling to approach the concept of youth as a socio-historically constructed and contextually negotiated position within society. In doing so, age will be just one factor, not the only factor. It is therefore wise to consider other elements such as gender, socio-economic status, political affiliation and culture as crucial contributing factors in setting-up either an enabling or inhibiting context for youth regardless of their biological age. The socially perceived position of youth which puts them as people that are waiting to be full-fledged adults is more important than being in early, mid or late twenties. “Youth-hood”, the supposedly transitional stage between childhood and adulthood, has now become a prolonged, precarious and uncertain status by itself. This waithood position of youth, as Alcinda Honwana in her book, The Time of Youth: Work, Social Change, and Politics in Africa, argues, is a period of economic vulnerability, political and social marginalization for many young people.
Multiple factors such as the changing socio-economic and political structures of society both at national and global level contribute to the continued and structural alienation of the youth from mainstream political decision making processes. However, it should also be noted that young people are not always on the losing side. There will always be both subtle and deliberate strategies to make themselves seen and heard. Different factors contribute to the nature and content of these strategies. One significant factor is the shared socio-historical position which also influences collective world views and attitudes for people who belong to the same age-cohort and their common opportunities and challenges. Such elements play a major role in defining what a generation is and what generational consciousness constitutes.
That said, in my view, there are four inter-related points that explain the argument of the absence of the youths’ participation in political decision making process especially in today’s Ethiopia. These are: the prevalence of politics of fear; the increasing tendency of taking political engagement as a means to get economic benefits; the fact that pursuing politics, particularly from the opposition side, has become equivalent to playing with fire; and mass organization and mobilization of youth within the ruling party, which is more alienating than empowering.
The politics of fear
Probably one of the most conspicuous legacy of the Ethiopian revolution and the political processes of mid and late 1970s is its influence on how politics is being perceived and practiced. Most members of the younger generation that followed the revolutionary generation took the formative lessons of politics in a context that is heavily influenced by horrendous stories from the red terror period of the late ‘70s. Owing to that most people take the saying that strictly advices avoiding politics the same way as a direct contact with electricity to heart. Indeed, politics of fear is not only because of the early political socialization experienced by many but also from the practical lessons that continued to present in today’s Ethiopia. The unchallenged power of the oppressive state apparatus such as the police, intelligence, security and institutions like Maekelawi, a place at the heart of the capital Addis Abeba where police detainees are put and are made to experience torture, might indicate how dissent is treated in present day Ethiopia and its effect in driving the youth away from politics. Politics of fear is prevalent not only among the youth but also in the wider society where anyone who dares to raise a critical voice against the incumbent is discouraged and warned that crossing the imaginary ‘red line’ is enormously detrimental.
A related common feature within post-revolution Ethiopian politics is “binary opposition” which is characterized by “you are with me or against me” mentality, which describes both the ruling party and opposition politics (especially Diaspora based politics). Such kind of nihilistic political practices are equally important justifications for members of the young generation to distance themselves from politics. In my opinion, the 1974 revolution, the adoption of the constitution in 1994 and the 2005 elections are the most significant political milestones to reckon. Young people who were determined enough to engage in peaceful political processes especially in 2005 have played nominal role in diluting the polarized political sphere. Their significant numerical presence was less substantive and it was nothing but just a decoration compared to the power of the revolutionary generation at that time.
The instrumentalist young politicians
Particularly in the post 2005 Ethiopian politics, and with the emergence of the developmental state political economy discourses and practices, many young people took an instrumentalist approach in doing politics. Likewise, the incumbent is skilfully manipulating the economic vulnerability of these young people and their determination to fast-track their economic independence. In this context, what best explains the interaction between the government and the young people is a negotiation process. The youth that aspire to cut short their waithood period and the government that is desperate to earn legitimacy negotiate particularly within the invited spaces that fulfil the socio-economic rights of citizens. What I call invited spaces are spheres of citizenship interactions whose codes of interaction are dictated by the government. These invited spaces include job and education opportunities, access to finance and loans in the business sector, financial, technical and administrative assistance for those organized in the MSEs. In a context where critical political engagement is considered as a dangerous endeavour or an engagement that needs to be cautiously avoided, finding instrumentalist and less informed young “politicians” is not abnormal.
Clientalism is a point of cooperation between the political and developmental agenda of the ‘democratic’ developmental state and an economically vulnerable and government-dependent young people. Massive youth participation in procedural democracy may fulfil the political agenda while providing jobs and educational opportunities for the young people. From the youth side, however, it is a mere strategy of survival, of navigating on the sea of uncertain waithood given the government is the main, probably benevolent, source of economic livelihood.
Politics of struggle and sacrifices
One of the most widely used political vocabularies that the ESM and the revolutionary generation passed on to the young generation is the word struggle. It is hardly possible to imagine programs, practices and discourses in Ethiopian politics without the notion of struggle and the associated sacrifices. The notion of struggle among the young politicians varies depending on their political position either in favor or against the regime. As the nature of struggle differs, so is the kind of sacrifices that young people are paying for pursing their political interests. As dominant political practices are conditioned by the governing political economic processes that govern the principles of social change and development, it is inevitable to refer to the inherent nature of a developmental state while exploring the kinds of struggles and sacrifices.
One can argue that one of the principal features of developmental states is their tendency to prioritize the fulfilment of socio-economic rights of citizens at the expense of their civil-political rights. Hence those that opt for the simultaneous fulfilment of their rights or in a reversed order may ultimately face a bitter struggle and pay more sacrifices. There are hundreds of young politicians particularly from the opposition camp, who have struggled for their civil-political rights and paid sacrifices in the form of harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, and exile.
However, it is also wise to note that members of the young generation are creating new spheres of political engagement or struggle. The virtual space, especially the social media, has its own unique features that include the creation of a less hierarchical relation among political actors and a wider network and interconnectivity beyond the limits of space and time. There is also another picture: regardless of the negligible internet penetration rate, there are members of the young generation who have crafted a unique way of influencing Ethiopian politics by revealing alternative narratives and speaking for silenced discourses.
I argue that the virtual political sphere is a created citizenship practicing space by the younger generation to continuously shape and reshape its political orientation and to exercise its constitutionally guaranteed citizenship rights.
As part of the global phenomenon, the Ethiopian face of the “wired generation” is slowly emerging as political actor. No matter how small its number is its effect in introducing new values and practices into Ethiopian politics cannot be ignored.
Blogging, Twitting and Facebooking are now becoming new ways of fulfilling the generational mission and for sure it will continue to have an enormous role in Ethiopian politics in the near future. Regardless of this, however, the political values, believes and attitudes that have been guiding the practices of politics on the mainstream political processes have continued to persist on social media based politics as well.
Politics of mass associations and mobilization
The Marxist-Leninist orientation of the ESM and the revolutionary generation period manifested itself in its unconditional love for mass associations and mobilization. The ruling party has multiple and overlapping structures that are used both to control and mobilize millions of young members. The official document of the party mentions a tenfold increase of political membership from around 700,000 to more than 6.5 million in less than a decade between 2005 and 2013. EPRDF’s youth league alone constitutes more than two million members since its establishment in May 2009. A simple question is how many of these millions of EPRDF members understand the ideology, objectives and strategies of the party? How many are genuine members and how many are just opportunists? It is a public knowledge that the multiple structures of mass mobilization within EPRDF are fertile breeding grounds for rent-seeking behaviour and “politics of the belly”.
Once again, this is hardly the only picture. As there are hundreds who are genuinely pursuing politics within the structures of the ruling party, there are also those who remain loyal to their conscience, have rejected fat salaries and determined to fight back the system. Some struggle for change from within – “within the invited spaces” – and aspire to push the frontiers of their interaction. Some leave the invited spaces and nurture their own created spaces to push from outside, of course, with clear and imminent risks.
In conclusion, I argue that the ESM and the revolution period politics makes today’s youth involvement in political practices to fluctuate at least among three major poles: political apathy and indifference trapped by the politics of fear and despair; depoliticization, where many youth are doing politics engaging in instrumentalist politics; and doing politics dominated by those who believe that their right to criticize is earned but are paying dearly for their beliefs.
Ed’s note: The author is a PhD Researcher in Development Policy and Management at University of Manchester, UK. He can be reached at email@example.com