July 19, 2024

Decolonizing Identity Politics Through Subjective In-Betweenness, Part 1 (Rode Molla)

The following is the first of a four-part series.

Neoliberalism as Biopolitics

In this essay I claim that imposed religious and political ideologies colonize Ethiopian bodies. I will use Michael Foucault’s biopolitics and the Ethiopian political theologian Theodros Teklu’s fictive Amhara identity or homo aEthiopicus to interpret the elimination of in- between spaces in the Ethiopian context. In his 1977–1978 lecture at the Collège de France titled, “Security, Terror, and Population,” Michel Foucault articulated neoliberalism as the power of governmentality, which emerges from both the pastorate and the state leadership. Foucault’s claim about the pastorate governmentality came from the early pastoral theologian, Gregory Nazianzen, who employed “the economy of the soul” approach to practice pastoral leadership that integrated all needs of humanity, including their salvation.2

Foucault claims that even though Gregory’s soul economy emerged from Aristotle’s concept of oikonomia, Gregory’s practice is different from Aristotle’s. Oikonomia is about the management of the family, which is different from the conceptual and practical definition of Gregory’s economy of the soul that focuses on conduct and discipline. Foucault writes, “If there really is a relationship between religion and politics in modern Western societies, it may be that the essential aspect of this relationship is not found in the interplay between Church and state, but rather between the pastorate and government.”3 According to Foucault, both pastoral leadership and the state use their power to create economic, social, and moral codes of conduct to make human beings objects. Foucault’s articulation of neoliberalism was not only about the economic impact of neoliberalism.

Instead, Foucault wants to show the moral and rational impact of neoliberalism in Western Society.4. At the same time, Foucault, in his Birth of Biopolitics lecture at the Collège de France (1978-1979), notes, “I wanted to study the art of governing, that is to say, the reasoned way of governing best and, at the same time, reflection on the best possible wayof governing.”5 Foucault defines neoliberalism as rational governmentality that the state practices to accumulate economic and political powers: “To govern according to the principle of raison d’État is to arrange things so that the state becomes sturdy and permanent so that it becomes wealthy, and so that it becomes strong in the face of everything that may destroy it.”6

Foucault argues that raison d’État is different from the imperial way of doing government in the Middle Ages. In imperial governmentality, the state fights to control the central government system, but in raison d’État, each state should become strong to claim and defend its border. In this way of doing governmentality, there is no central power.

According to Foucault, the state’s relationship with civil society through micro-power structures creates biopolitics. Totalitarianism, fascism, and war are some of the violent political structures that make human beings objects of these political systems. That is what Foucault called biopolitics. Similarly, the intersection of raison d’état and political economy is the primary biopolitical power that creates neoliberal governmentality. The intersection of raison d’état and political economy is the market.7 In the Middle Ages and later in the seventeenth century, the market functioned as a place of justice in which people could relate and provide goods to one another. Foucault says:

The market was a site to justice to such an extent that it had to be a privileged site of distributive justice, since as you know, for at least some basic products, like food products, the rules of the market operated to ensure that, if not all, then at least some of the poorest could buy things as well as those who were more well- off.8 However, later in the 18th century, the market became a place in which true price became a governing mechanism.9 So, the true, or good, price becomes governmental rationality that controls the market and political functionality of the government. The government, in its relationship with the people, practices the true market system.

Foucault writes, “The market must tell the truth (dire le vrai); it must tell the truth in relation to governmental practice.”10. The true market system silenced the poor by eliminating justice from the market. As Foucault articulates, “The problem of Neo-liberalism is how the overall exercise of political power can be modeled on the principles of market economy.”11 Economic competition, a monopoly of the economic system, and privatization become the known rational governmentality of neoliberalism.

For example, in privatization, neoliberalism does not protect individuals from social risks; instead, it prepares ways for individuals or societies to protect themselves. The government practices, including the juridical system, become economized and financialized systems; they do not work for justice, but for the market. That means neoliberalism as rational governmentality works in the market, in the state, and in theological and religious practices. So, for Foucault, neoliberalism is not limited to economic imposition; it is a biopolitical governmentality that works through different policies and practices of the state in its relationship with the society to make human bodies docile.

The Ethiopian political theologian Theodros Teklu, who teaches at the Ethiopian School of Graduate Education, argues that the strategies of Ethiopian modern emperors Tewodros II, Yohannes IV, and Menelik II were focused on having a central government that acquired much land for their empire rather than creating a homo aEthiopicus, or a national unified identity. Haile Selassie I was the first Ethiopian emperor who integrated rational governmentality with different modern apparatus such as higher education, modern taxation, a national army, and international trade.

Homo aEthiopicus, or the national unified identity of Ethiopians, was created by integrating his political policy with the market, tax, education, and army. At the same time, in the era of Haile Selassie, the church’s governmentality and the emperor’s governmentality were integrated to create a unified national identity. Haile Selassie’s policy of integration emphasized adopting the Amharic language and membership in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Amhara became both a hereditary identity and a linguistic fictive identity for those who were assimilated through the integrative policies of Haile Selassie I.12

I argue that the assimilation process that Haile Selassie I and other Ethiopian modern governments employed to integrate religious governmentality and the modern practices of taxation, military, and education resembles Foucault’s understanding of rational governmentality and biopolitics. The integrated governmentality of the Ethiopian emperors colonized Ethiopian bodies. The fictive imposed identity did not enable Ethiopians to claim their agency and subjectivity.

Teklu does not apply theories of neoliberalism to analyze how the fictive Amhara identity or homo aEthiopicus is created. I bring this new interpretation to the Ethiopian political and religious analysis. I claim that the fictive Amhara identity is biopolitical governmentality that colonizes human bodies. Similarly, for the last three decades, the identity politics of EPRDF and the current Prosperity party impose identity politics has caused ethnic violence, fragmentation, displacement, war, and injustice in Ethiopians’ lives.

Theodore M. Vestal, in his book, A Post-Cold War African State, argues that EPRDF came to power acknowledging the class differences that were created by the Ethiopian emperors and the communist government Derge. EPRDF introduced a new political ideology called revolutionary democracy. However, revolutionary democracy did not bring any subjective freedom for Ethiopians; instead, it used the media, schools, religious organizations, and NGOs to propagate its views and political ideologies directly and indirectly. EPRDF believed that its new policy would save Ethiopia from political, social, and economic backwardness. Therefore, any political and social opposition to EPRDF’s document and doctrine was labeled as the opponent of Ethiopian progress against poverty toward prosperity.13

The revolutionary democracy used some symbolic political strategies to get support from Western powers as a progressive democratic state. Veste writes, “The strategy document provides techniques for avoiding conflict with ‘imperialists’ while creating a facade of democracy, the protection of human rights, and free market capitalism.”14 However, in practice, most of EPRDF’s political and juridical programs did not create a state that gives power to the people. Like the previous governments, EPRDF did not answer the self-determination quest of Ethiopians. Even though EPRDF revised the constitution of the Federal Democratic of Ethiopia, it did not create a constitution based on the pre-constitutional values and practices of Ethiopians.15

Moreover, EPRDF’s revolutionary democracy created federal regions based along ethnic lines. Veste writes, “In keeping with EPRDF strategy, ethnicity became the foci of regional government and party activity with basic services and social organization based on tribal affiliations.”16 Even though the states were created through ethnic lines to demonstrate diversity and multi-ethnic political governmentality, the reality does not reflect that goal. EPRDF used monolithic governmentality, but the regional states served as an instrument for showing diversity. The EPRDF practiced devolution by disharmonizing Ethiopians’ unity through ethnic lines and regional practices.

Similarly, the revolutionary democracy controlled the judicial system in the country. Meles Zenawi, the late prime minister of Ethiopia, believed that the entire judicial system in Ethiopia was connected to Derge. He believed that Ethiopia needed a new system that had an awareness about the revolutionary governmentality in Ethiopia. So, the EPRDF assigned many untrained people and political leaders throughout the country as judges. Veste writes, “To further assure that judges can be controlled by the party, parliament passed a law denying legal immunity to judges.

The law is in violation of an international convention on judicial immunity which Ethiopia had signed.”17At the same time, no human rights and non-governmental organizations had power to work outside of the government influence.18 EPRDF passed a Charities and Societies Proclamation in 2009. The 2009 proclamation put administrative restrictions on NGOs and human rights organizations in order to maintain control over them.

The revolutionary democracy of EPRDF eliminated religious, economic, political, and juridical freedom of Ethiopia and Ethiopians and implemented identity politics that divided the country into regions along ethnic lines. The pan-Ethiopian movements were labeled as oppressive. However, EPRDF used the Ethio-Eritrea War to revive the national Ethiopian spirit. According to Veste, before TPLF and EPLF came to power, there was an agreement about the economic and political relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea. However, there was a disagreement in TPLF/EPRDF on Eritrea’s economic participation in Ethiopia.19

On May 13 1998, Eritrea occupied the Badme Triangle causing the Ethio- Eritrea War that killed hundreds of soldiers and displaced more than 300,000 people on both sides. However, the revolutionary democratic leaders used the war to invite all Ethiopian nations to come together and fight Eritrea. So, war was used as a strategy to revive pan-Ethiopianism, as a fuel to attack the Other.20 EPRDF’s identity politics divided Ethiopians by destroying cultural, religious, and social markers, and it did not enable Ethiopians to claim their subjectivity. Instead, it imposed post-Cold War neocolonial and neoliberal ideologies that controlled the judicial, the religious, human rights, expressive, and spiritual freedom of Ethiopians. It made Ethiopians objects by using identity politics to divide and war to revive the pan-Ethiopianism movement for destruction.

Kjetil Tronvoll, a peace and conflict studies researcher in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Zanzibar, argues that TPLF/EPRDF used identity politics that divided Ethiopia along ethnic lines to create a new republic of Ethiopia. TPLF/EPRDF created an identity politics that contradicts the claim of modern Ethiopian emperors. Tronvoll writes, “Identity politics in the hands of the TPLF/EPRDF thus became the realpolitik of the divide and rule until the new war erupted in 1998.”21 Tronvoll’s claim supports Veste’s argument that describes how EPRDF used the Ethio-Eritrea War to revive pan-Ethiopian ideologies. Tronvoll describes that the Ethio-Eritrea War was used to create allies and enemies in the Ethiopian context. First, TPLF and EPLF were friends and allies to liberate Tigrean ethnic groups from the oppression of Amhara and colony of Ethiopia.

These two fronts created a war enemy: Derge and the Amhara discourse. When Eritrea became independent and TPLF started leading Ethiopia, TPLF/EPRDF’s approach changed from liberating Tigray to liberating all ethnic groups in Ethiopia.22 EPRDF created identity politics to demonstrate its liberating political structure and system all over Ethiopia. The story that created identity politics emerged through categorizing Derge and all the previous Ethiopian emperors as colonizers and oppressors.

So, EPRDF presented itself as the savior of all ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Ethiopian nationalism was categorized as Amhara and colonizing discourse. Trovoll argues that, in 1998, when Eritrea declared war on Ethiopia, the EPRDF initiated the nationalism discourse to get support from the Amhara and Southern nations. Ethiopians were willing to participate in the war to express their national identity and to respond to the call from their government against the Eritreans. Trovoll writes:

Overnight, the internal boundaries dividing the Ethiopian population were subdued in order to facilitate cross-boundary connections between the various groups, thus fostering the sentiments of nationhood. The Oppose strategy was used to make enemies out of the Tigrinya-speaking Eritreans, a group which had until the outbreak of the war been the strategy and most reliable backers of TPLF/EPRDF rule in Ethiopia.23

EPRDF came without any plan for nationalism and believed all Ethiopian nations under the colony of this Ethiopianism should be liberated, so EPRDF implemented identity politics that divided the country along ethnic lines. However, the 1998 war created and revived the spirit of ethno-nationalism.24

Similarly, post-war political scientist Terrence Lyons argues that EPRDF created an authoritarian political leadership in the transition from wartime to peacetime. The guerrilla fighters (TPLF) from the northern part of Ethiopia that eliminated the political and army power of Derge used two strategies to create the war-to-peace transition’s authoritarian leadership that transformed TPLF from one ethnic group to the liberator of the nation of Ethiopia. EPRDF’s first strategy focused on ethnic politics that gave power to diverse ethnic groups in Ethiopia. Despite consolidating the national identity through the strategy of uniting against an outside enemy, EPRDF also gave more power for ethnic identity.

On the other hand, EPRDF focused on centralized leadership that the TPLF learned from its war experience with Derge. According to Lyons, Ethiopians did not experience a leadership that demonstrated constitutional rights; however, TPLF created a strong EPRDF from diverse parties: ODPO (Oromo Democratic Party Organization), APDM (Amhara People’s Democratic Movement), SEPDM (Southern Ethiopian People’s Democratic Movement), and TPLF (Tigrean People’s Liberation Front). For the past twenty-seven years, the Ethiopian people were indoctrinated about the TPLF victory over Derge and its prosperous policies in transitioning from war-to-peace for Ethiopians.

The war-to-peace authoritarian system that focused on teaching the people about victory and ethnic-based regional states destroyed unified Pan-Ethiopian nationalism and enabled EPRDF to stay in power from 1991-2016. However, the centralized war strategy and divided ethnic politics did not enable TPLF and its EPRDF to continue after the 2016 resistance of Ethiopians in different parts of the country. Lyons writes, “The EPRDF struggled to come up with a reasonable plan to deal with the crises. The security forces made mass arrests and caused significant causalities.”25

Since the time that EPRDF came to power, there have been many protests. In 1992 it was the Oromo Liberation Front, in 2012 the Ethiopian Muslims, in 2016 the Oromo Protest, the Amhara Protest, and the South People Konso Protest. The EPRDF declared a state of emergency to ban the 2016 protests all over the country and to restore order and bring reform and changes to the questions that were raised by the people. EPRDF Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne’s resignation demonstrated the limits and incapacity of EPRDF to answer the national and popular movements of the people.26

In February 5, 2018, upon the resignation of Hailemariam Desalegne, Abiy Ahmed came to power. Abiy Ahmed’s leadership came from ODPO, whose leaders focused on responding to the Oromo nationalist movement in spite of their position in the EPRDF’s Executive Board. OPDO aligned itself with the growing popular movement against TPLF, creating the “corrupt other” that needed to be changed. In the African context, creating a narrative of the “corrupt other” enables authoritarians to win the people’s psychological support. Even though OPDO was, most of the time, seen as submissive to TPLF, after 2016, the OPDO resisted being submissive to the TPLF and joined the popular nationalist Oromo movement.27

On March 27, 2018, the EPRDF executive council selected OPDO leader Abiy Ahmed as the party chair and prime minister. Abiy Ahmed’s election was followed by his “shock therapy” called Medemer. The Amharic word Medemer means “addition,” but Abiy Ahmed interpreted Medemer as inclusivity, unity, “the bridge of love.”28 According to Lyons, Medemer’s therapy did not give a chance to opposition parties to mobilize, since it focused on bringing rapid change. Ahmed allowed Ginbot 7, OLF, and ONLF, political parties who were designated as terrorists to come to the country. His policies freed many political prisoners and lifted bans on media and web content. And he continued the peace agreement that was started in Algiers between Ethiopia and Eritrea.29

All the rapid changes that the shock therapy created did not fulfill the needs of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. Ethiopians continued being challenged due to external border conflict and internal ethnic conflict. The first nine months of changes that Ahmed introduced did not focus on policy changes that engaged the parliament. Instead, he focused on leadership through executive proclamation. Despite all the Medemer therapy and rapid change, Ethiopians are still facing instability.

After the state of emergency was lifted, many ethnic and border conflicts between Gedeo and Guji, Sidama, Wolayeta, and Gurage created a shocking narrative in different parts of the country. At the same time, ethnic conflicts happened in Jigiga, Shashamene, Eastern Hararghe, and Burayu (which is on the outskirts of Addis Ababa).30 The Medemer therapy of Abiy Ahmed does not resolve these questions. Lyons writes, “Along with increased violence and political insecurity in the aftermath of the demonstrations and inaugurations of the new leadership, Ethiopia experienced an upsurge in the salience of identity politics.”31

Rode Molla is an assistant professor at Virginia Theological Seminary.


1 Robert Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 198.

2 Michel Foucault, Security, Territory, Population: Lectures at the College de France 1977-78. ed. Michel Senallart, Francois Ewaldad, Alessandro Fontana, Arnold I. Davidson. trans. Graham Burchell, (New York: Picador, 2007), 192.

3 Foucault, Security, Territory, 191.

4 Foucault, Security, Territory, 191-195.

5 Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College De France 1978-1979, ed.

Michel Senellart, Francois Ewald, Alessandro Fontana, Arnold I. Davidson, trans. Graham Burchell, (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2004), 2.

6 Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 4.

7 Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 30.

8 Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 30.

9 Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 31.

10 Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 32.

11 Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics, 131.

12 Teklu, The Politics of Metanoia, 92.

13 Vestal, Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War, 130-139.

14 Vestal, Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War, 80.

15 Vestal, Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War, 95.

16 Vestal, Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War, 125.

17 Vestal, Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War, 122.

18 Vestal, Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War, 157.

19 Vestal, Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War, 193.

20 Vestal, Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War, 194.

21 Kjetil Tronvoll, War & the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia: Making Enemies & Allies in the Horn of Africa (Long House: Cumbria, UK, 2009), 200.

22 Tronvoll, War & the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia, 198-200.

23 Tronvoll, War & the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia, 200.

24 Tronvoll, War & the Politics of Identity in Ethiopia, 205-206.

25 Lyons Terrence, The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics (Lymme Rienner: Boulder, Colorado, 2019),


26 Terrence, The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics, 3.

27 Terrence, The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics, 179-185.

28 Terrence, The Puzzle of Ethiopian Politics, 198.

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