Africa's socialist legacies

Africa’s Socialist Legacies: Why Americans Should be Wary of ‘Revolutionaries’

Increasing political polarization, rioting, and socialist ideals are becoming the norm for American society, but is this really what we want? While the ideals of socialism can sound appealing to younger generations, it is important to understand socialism in practice and its real-life blowback by studying examples of socialism in other countries.

As the most unusual primary election season in recent American history comes to a close, and as the country confronts again the challenge of reconciling its proud history with some shameful memories, two social phenomena are increasingly evident. The first is the increasing popularity of socialist ideology, especially among America’s youth. The second is the loss of trust in institutional change, coupled with a new revolutionary fervor for social change. Each of these dynamics is, of course, an expected outcome of contemporary political challenges. The former is a result of a skeptical electorate enamored with the fresh passionate idealism of political figures like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. The latter is a result of frustration with the slow pace of eradicating racism in American society. Whatever the case, it is highly likely that these two social dynamics in America will continue to gain steam in the coming decade. Thus, it is useful exercise to consider some lessons from the political history of Africa, a continent that has served as ripe grounds for experimentation with all forms of socialism.

To be clear, critics often point to obvious examples like Venezuela or the Soviet Union to highlight the dangers of socialist ideology. Yet, many are unaware that Africa has also experienced some of the most tragic experimentations with socialism, and some of the bloodiest revolutions. Of course, many of the first independence fighters, from Mandela to Lumumba to Mugabe initially employed socialist rhetoric as a mobilizing tool. However, as the heuristic ineptitude of socialist ideology became apparent, some African countries reverted to Afro-communism, a blend of socialist methods with strong nationalist rhetoric. The countries that experimented with Afro-communism, promising to liberate and empower peasants, often simply ‘doled out’ modernity without implanting any meaningful systems for development. Out of these countries, Ethiopia presents itself as an eye-opening case study on the legacies of socialism in Africa. The case study of Ethiopia allows us to understand how revolutionary socialism reconstructed the only African state to successfully resist European colonization as a third-world and post-colonial state. It provides a fresh look at how socialist ideology decimates national identity and how revolutions often undermine institutional development.

Ethiopia’s Political Crisis

Marxists have often ironically been critical of revolutions. Karl Marx himself is famous for the maxim that ‘history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce’, a rephrasal of his acknowledgment in The Communist Manifesto, that revolutions are always plagued by the trappings of history. This is also a great irony given that Ethiopian Socialists have been singularly responsible for all the ‘farce and tragedy’ of the country’s recent political transitions. After decades of Socialist experimentation, modern Ethiopia maintains very little institutional and cultural continuity with its historical foundations. As a result, the country is now struggling to address ethnic extremism, uncontrolled violence, and severe elite fractionalization, problems that one would expect to find in post-colonial states, rather than Africa’s sole exception to the European colonial experience.

Recent headlines hint that Ethiopia is on the precipice of collapse, structurally conditioned to perpetual ethnic conflict, with its latest democratic transition aborted. Although the Ethiopian state is unlikely to collapse, these conditions for fragility have been constructed over 43 years through the vicious circles of revolutionary socialism, occupying an ugly side of Ethiopia’s political history. When the charismatic young technocrat Abiy Ahmed was elevated to the office of Prime Minister, many expected that he would position himself on the other side, calming the fervors of revolutionary ideology and ethnic extremism. Some of his recent actions signaled a bold move in this direction, including his efforts to separate the military from the party-state, and reduce the political salience of ethnicity in the country. Yet, some observers now speculate whether Abiy is destined to repeat the tragic errors of Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia’s last great reformer. For better or for worse, Abiy Ahmed now ‘owns’ the country’s political transition. His decisions in the coming year will determine whether Ethiopia emerges as the leader of a new decade of African resurgence, or follow the fate of some of its less fortunate neighbors in regressing towards a fragile state.

Prior to 1974, when the Socialist Dergue junta came to power, Ethiopia had been ruled for centuries by a proud African monarchy that traced its lineage to King Solomon of Israel. The Dergue sought to dismantle what it considered Ethiopia’s imperial past. The TPLF-EPRDF regime that took over from the Dergue in 1991 was led by a man convinced that “revolutionary wisdom starts with Marxist-Leninist analysis.” Thus, consecutive revolutionary governments in Ethiopia have targeted their own imagined structural inequities, the first seeking to decimate the aristocracy, the second seeking to dismantle the imagined perpetrators of ethnic oppression. Rather than instituting democracy, both of these revolutions have implanted institutional mechanisms for rent extraction and party clientelism, often employing socialist motifs as propaganda. These institutions and propaganda have indoctrinated two generations of disenchanted youth with simplistic notions of revolutionary struggle, ethnic utopianism, and Abyssinian imperialism. It is not surprising then to see scholars steeped in these flawed ideologies attributing the country’s contemporary challenges to imperial rule or structural oppression. Such ideologically-charged arguments are far removed from reality. In fact, these ideas are based on European colonial propaganda. Indeed, the first scholar who clearly articulated the flawed thesis of ‘Abyssinian Imperialism’ was a professor at the Istituto Coloniale Fascista (Fascist Colonial Institute). Thus, while there is no magic pill for addressing Ethiopia’s political crisis, steering away from abstract proposals for ‘structural change’ would be seen as a progressive departure from the ‘farce and tragedy’ of past decades. Contemporary Ethiopia faces the same growing pains that plagued the Ethiopian Empire, an inability to reconcile its historically constructed national identity with modern instruments of governance and political order. The country finds itself then, not at the precipice of collapse, but at the same type of critical juncture encountered by Emperor Haile Selassie.

The Promise of Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia

In 1930, Emperor Haile Selassie inherited an empire with a tradition of centralized rule dating back to the last Zagwe king in 1270 (with the possible exception of the ‘Era of Kings’). The Ethiopian Empire was carved through personalized patronage networks between the King of Kings, regional kings, and land-owning nobles. Introducing a bi-cameral parliament, two constitutions, professional bureaucratic functioning, modern education, and professionalized military training, Haile Selassie paved the way for the emergence of modern institutions of governance.

Yet, in positioning himself as a reformist in the Imperial era, Haile Selassie faced two immense challenges. First, his more ambitious proposals for reform were repeatedly thwarted by conservative land-owning nobles in parliament. Second, decades of palace intrigue and external European aggression had placed immense strain on the emperor’s exercise of rational government. Despite advice from foreign and domestic allies, he refused to accept that the modern institutions he introduced could function in his absence. This resulted in the attempted coup in 1960, by Haile Selassie’s own generals, who were intent on implanting a constitutional monarchy with the Crown Prince at the helm. The coup failed, but in tainting the fragile trust between the emperor and his ruling allies, it dashed any hopes for the emergence of a British-style Glorious Revolution in Ethiopia. When the revolution did come, at the heels of an uncomfortable alliance between a new Socialist intelligentsia and some dissatisfied lower-ranking officers in the Imperial Army, it was sudden, bloody, and deadly. The Socialist Revolution took Haile Selassie with it, along with all the institutions he sprung into existence, all the educated elites he had minted, and all the hopes and dreams of the ancient empire.

Socialist Legacies and the Vicious Circle

Many contemporary analysts, especially those untainted by the racist tropes of ‘Abyssinian Imperialism’, blame the TPLF (Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front) regime as the root of Ethiopia’s contemporary ailments. As the famous anti-colonial thinker Mahmood Mamdani once wrote, the public perception was that the TPLF effectively “Sovietized and Africanized” Ethiopia. This is not to say that Ethiopia was not African, but to accentuate that Ethiopia had long-evaded the institutional markers of other post-colonial states. Certainly, the TPLF can be credited with reconstructing Ethiopia as a post-colonial state, without the colonial heritage, by increasing the political salience of ethnic identity to ferment ethnic grievances and sustain minority rule. However, the roots of Ethiopia’s contemporary institutional plights were already implanted by the Dergue before the TPLF came to power. The TPLF simply repurposed the Dergue’s extractive institutions to administer its own ethnic patronage regime. The Dergue devalued cultural and institutional capital, seeking to decimate all traditional and educated elites. This meant replacing a culture of administrative meritocracy and academic excellence with a culture of academic apathy. Rather than academic accomplishments, the Dergue prized ideological loyalty in its administrative appointments, turning Ethiopia’s institutions of higher education into indoctrination camps for minting loyal party-cadres. It is these same institutions the TPLF repurposed in order to indoctrinate loyal ethnic entrepreneurs to serve as clients of its patron party-state. The Dergue nationalized all land, decimating commercial investments in urban trade and agriculture. Its land redistribution programs were heavily centralized and far removed from local social contracts. It is this same system the TPLF used to dominate the economic space, creating rents-based mechanisms for administering ‘land grabs’ and misallocating public contracts. The Dergue introduced the militarization of politics, a bastion of revolutionary socialist ideology, and sought to violently suppress the emergence of other elites. It is this same system the TPLF used to suppress political elites outside its own ruling coalition. It is telling then that the current period of transition was catalyzed primarily by the TPLF’s own elite coalition partners, the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM) and the Oromo People’s Democratic Organization (OPDO).

The Way Forward: Order, Elite Consensus, and National Identity

The current critical juncture was precipitated primarily through elite competition, an OPDO-ANDM revolt of sorts from within the ruling coalition. The OPDO and the ANDM are now dissolved after Prime Minister Abiy disbanded the old ruling coalition in favor of his new multi-ethnic Prosperity Party. Abiy has also placed prominent independent voices at the helm of two key institutions, the Ethiopian Electoral Board and the Federal Supreme Court. Most importantly, he has reintroduced a sense of institutional and cultural continuity in Ethiopia, embracing the country’s historical heritage while advocating for a more progressive future. This indicates that Abiy is well-aware of the debilitating institutional remnants of Ethiopia’s socialist legacies, making him well-placed to lead the country away from the vicious circles implanted by his predecessors.

Abiy’s bold approach to pursuing early reforms have earned him comparisons to Emperor Haile Selassie. Indeed, the prime minister has openly expressed great admiration for the late emperor. If this is the case, then the prime minister may also be well-advised, reflecting critically on the roots of Haile Selassie’s success and demise. Although he introduced the first modern institutions of governance in African history, the emperor refused to allow independent institutional functioning at the highest levels of government. Ultimately then, Haile Selassie succumbed to the maxim that ‘ruling autocratic monarchies bent on modernization sow the seeds of their own destruction.’ Some of the prime minister’s mistakes have seemed to elevate the risks of his following these tragic footsteps. Like Haile Selassie, Abiy is often accused of making decisions unilaterally, sometimes ignoring the very institutional frameworks he has helped create. On the other hand, Abiy has also made some amateurish political miscalculations that would never have befallen the sly fox, a nickname that often accentuated the political cunning of Haile Selassie. For instance, Abiy’s government invited belligerents such as the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) into the country without pre-conditions, allowing ethnic extremists free reign to impose anarchy. In addition, Abiy’s government chose appeasement rather than power consolidation in early dealings with the TPLF, allowing the TPLF to fortress in the north, armed with heavy artillery and supplies. Now, the OLF has produced a militant offshoot that is engaged in open warfare against the government, and the TPLF is flirting with the idea of a ‘de facto’ state. These irreversible political dynamics are clearly a result of grave tactical errors. It is high time for Abiy’s government to acknowledge these errors, reassert the federal government’s monopoly of violence, allow independent institutional functioning under capable ministers, and broaden the ruling coalition to include other non-ethnic and ethnic elites. It was encouraging that all of these sentiments were raised at a recent national security briefing by the government, as well as a recent government meeting with political parties. Following up on these proposals in the coming year will be crucial to achieving Ethiopia’s first successful political transition in decades.

Revolutions and Reforms

In contrasting the revolutions of Socialist and Marxist-inspired regimes like the Dergue and the TPLF with the cautious reforms of figures like Haile Selassie and Abiy, this article clearly articulates why reform, rather than revolution, is more likely to result in actual progressive transitions. Indeed, in Ethiopia, Abiy is well placed to succeed, as long as he places more trust in his allies and the institutions he is helping to shape. Obsessions with past injustices and ethnic grievances will not generate helpful policy proposals for aiding Ethiopia’s last chance at progressive transition. Instead, Abiy’s success will depend on avoiding the mistakes of his reformist predecessor, implementing strategic and pragmatic  policy choices, and ensuring the federal government’s monopoly over the use of force.

This brings the examination of Ethiopia’s recent political history to an end, and it is fitting to return once again to the lessons that Africa’s socialist legacies bear for the future of the United States. Understandably, America’s institutions are far more resilient and have proven capable of whethering figures with revolutionary intent, whether from the socialist left or the populist right. Regardless, institutions are not fixed, and it is important that America’s youth come to believe in the slow, difficult process of institutional change rather than in the empty ideals and abstractions of first-world socialists. It is important for this reason to continually expose actual experiences with Socialism, such as those of Ethiopia, to the American public, in new and meaningful ways.



Kaleb ‘Kal’ Demerew is a PhD student at the USF School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies, specializing in International and Comparative Politics. In addition to pursuing research, he serves as Adjunct Faculty at Concordia University’s School of Business and Communication.

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