June 13, 2024

Decolonizing Identity Politics Through Subjective In-Betweenness, Part 3 (Rode Molla)

The following is the second of a four-part series. The first can be found here, the second here.

Churches in Africa do not question the postcolonial and neocolonial imagination of tribes in Africa; instead, using the example of Rwanda, they “reproduce the same tribalization and racialization of the Rwandan society as the colonial and neocolonial politicians.”67 According to Katongole, the ethnic and tribal conflict in the postcolonial and neocolonial era is caused by the political elites’ need for power and representation. So, Katongole calls for an African political theology and imagination that transcends ethnic and tribal politics in the African context. He argues that the African elites who used Western ideology are alienated from the African historical and contextual belief system. The Western religion and education systems labeled Africans’ myths and religious practices as barbaric. However, for Katongole, myths that come from African religions, Christianity, or the Muslim tradition are a way to change the recruiting political system that made Africans lose their agency. The political theology that comes from religious beliefs and myths of Africans is the power that will enable Africans to imagine their politics and to regain their agency to work for the common nation-building of Africans and for a new social and political imagination.68

At the same time, in the Ethiopian context, the politics of representation created a political governmentality that denies Ethiopians’ subjectivity and agency and eliminates the in-between spaces that bring the diverse identities of Ethiopians together. Maimire Mennasemay, in her article “Ethiopian Political Theory, Democracy and Surplus History,” articulates that the Ethiopian political theorists impose the Western political system without contextualizing it to the Ethiopian context. Mennasemay seeks an Ethiopian model of political theory that comes out of the Ethiopian lived experience and knowledge, what she calls “surplus history.” Mennasemay’s surplus history uses lived and contextual experiences of Ethiopians to interpret the contemporary political struggles of Ethiopians. Mennasemay argues that Ethiopians have not appropriated the knowledge that they borrowed from the West to the Ethiopian social and political situation; instead, they directly apply Western theories, not allowing Ethiopians to claim their agency and subjectivity.69

Mennasemay also articulates that the Western theorists who wrote about and studied Ethiopia were not using Ethiopians’ lived experience. Mennasemay writes, “This knowledge is produced within the historical horizon of the West and contributes more to the West’s self-understanding of Ethiopian society.”70 Western comparative studies created knowledge about Ethiopia that illuminates the West, but is opaque for Ethiopians. So, Ethiopians experience a Western ideological oppression and domination due to their lack of self-understanding about their political theories. Mennnasemay writes:

To overcome this radical lack of political self-understanding, Ethiopians needs a political theory rooted in a critical appropriation of their history, capable of formulating political questions and answers in way that posit Ethiopians as active historical agents rather than as more recipients of their intellectual and material productions of others. 71

Mennasemay recommends Ethiopian surplus history as the source of Ethiopians’ political theorization and practical actions. She claims that a political theory that comes from the surplus history of Ethiopia enables Ethiopians to co-create shared spaces in which Ethiopians will be able to live in ethnic, social, and cultural differences. She uses some of the Ethiopian regions as an example to show the hybrid religious, political, and cultural shared spaces among Ethiopians. Wollo, Harer, and Shewa are primary hybrid states in the Ethiopian context. Mennasemay’s surplus history approach emphasizes that Ethiopia and Ethiopians are not only ethnic beings or homogenized national identities: “Ethiopia is neither an aggregation of ethnicities nor a homogeneous nation. It is a composite nation of overlapping identities, a commonly shared space wherein the basis of politics has moved from shared ethnicity to shared pan-ethnicity.”72

However, Ethiopian politics that does not come from the surplus history of Ethiopia creates two main problems in the Ethiopian history: nation-centrism (centralization model) and ethnocentrism (fragmentation model). The ethnocentrism focuses on deconstruction in order to resist the political identity that was created by imposed ideologies. On the other hand, nation-centered politics focuses on universalizing the history of Ethiopia by eliminating Ethiopians’ diverse religious and cultural markers. So, Mennasemay claims that surplus history is not focused on ethnic diversity and hegemonic nationality, but it leads us to “the dynamic nature of diversity in Ethiopia.”73

The fragmentation model keeps the historical wounds open and uses the past as the event that happened now and at the present to create hatred and division among Ethiopians. Instead of using history as an open wound to create division and hatred, Mennasemay recommends a new historical approach that comes from the lived experiences of Ethiopians. As a model for Ethiopian historical interpretation and analysis, Mennasemay uses merdo, a practice Ethiopians use to mourn the memory of the past for the death of the loved ones in connection with the present. Mennasemay writes, “By historical merdo, I mean a critical historical awareness of the suffering of the past that permits a similar ‘work of mourning’ so as to settle Ethiopia’s account with her past in order to meet successfully the present challenges of poverty and oppression.”74 The merdo approach will enable Ethiopians to avoid the hatred that makes pain a tool of interpreting Ethiopian history. Merdo exposes the past pain so that Ethiopians can connect with the past to mourn and heal from the present political and social poverty and oppression.

In addition to merdo, another practice to link past and present and claim subjective identity is yetarikawa adera. Yeterkawi adera means historical accountability that Ethiopians received from their ancestors. This responsibility bridges the gap between the past and the present by reviving the adera, or “accountability.” Both yeterikawi adera and merdo are a dialectical recognition for the past and the present. They connect Ethiopians. To recognize the dark side of Ethiopian history is to make a transition from a spontaneous to a critical historical consciousness that throws light on the past as a period of shared hopes and struggles of a better life, hopes, and struggles that Ethiopians inherit as uncompleted tasks.75

Mennasemay critiques the Ethiopian political system that imposed Western political ideologies, and she believes that, for Ethiopians, the only way out of poverty and oppression is through universal democratic principles and practices. I argue that Mennasemay does not articulate how those universal principles and practices were created, and how those practices made Ethiopians and other postcolonial nations to be the object of their universal principles. While she proposes Ethiopian traditions and community practices such as merdo and yeterikawi adera, she does not address how those ideas could be accepted by diverse ethnic groups in Ethiopia. There are so many political and social practices in Ethiopia; indeed, some of the traditions she mentions are dominant practices in the Amhara region.

At the same time, even though she suggests lived Ethiopian practices and experiences to be the source of Ethiopian political practices, her theory does not put Ethiopians’ lived experience in conversation with other African and postcolonial nations. What does it mean for Ethiopians to exist in the world of the postcolonial? How can Ethiopians use their lived experiences in negotiation with their hybrid experiences and realities due to imported and imposed colonial ideologies? In the following, we will discuss the postcolonial theories and their application in the Ethiopian context in order empower Ethiopians to use their lived experiences to be subjective agents.

Postcolonial Discourse and Its Application in the Ethiopian Context

Though Ethiopia has never been colonized geographically, I argue that Ethiopians’ bodies are colonized by internal feudal systemic oppression and imported Marxist and neoliberal governmentalities. Ethiopian modern emperors used religion and politics to create a centralized government, and that did not allow Ethiopians to claim their agency and subjectivity. At the same time, Ethiopian elites resisted these imposed ideologies through the Marxist Western political praxis that made Ethiopian bodies docile. Most theorists have divided the Ethiopian colonial and postcolonial conversation into two parts: some theorists focus on the “inside” colonial discourse, analyzing how the Amhara feudal emperors created a country that did not include all. Others emphasize the “outside,” exposing and analyzing how the Western discourses have created a racial and colonial category for Ethiopians. I will integrate both “inside” and “outside” colonial systems and practices in the Ethiopian context to show how colonial ideologies work to create a political and religious system that does not allow Ethiopians to grow and flourish in claiming their agency and subjectivity.

Postcolonial theorists claim that the Western religious, political, and racial categories are integrated to create the colonized “other” that needs to be modernized through Western progressive religious and political ideologies and practices. In Empire of Religion, David Chidester argues that, in the era of the empire, the production and circulation of the knowledge of religion were authenticated through the “triple mediation” between the imperial theorists, colonial middlemen, and indigenous people.76 Chidester claims that the triple mediation was the source of power and authority for the empire of religion to justify colonization, slavery, labor, and resource exploitation in South Africa and other African countries. The imperial colonial theorists and the missionaries fed each other for the development and the growth of their empire.77 The missionaries collected data, research, and raw materials, and the theorists—in their ethnological, anthropological, philological, and psychological studies—associated, classified, and presented Africans and their religions as savage, irrational, childish, and animist. These imperial comparative religious classifications of Africans were the source of justification for colonization, African labor, and slavery. Africans suffered and still suffer due to the aftermath of colonization.78

Achille Mbembe, in his book On the Postcolony, addresses both the impact of the universal globalizing ideology of modernity and neoliberal governmentality in the lives of Africans. Mbembe is a postcolonial theorist who critically addresses the colonial discourse and its interpretive and practical impact on Africans’ lives. According to Mbembe, modernity and globalizing discourse are negative in that they make Africans the objects.79 Western philosophical and political tradition always creates a category of otherness through speaking “I” (meaning the West) and “the Other” (Africa). Those traditions deny the humanity and the consciousness of Africans. According to Mbembe, otherizing discourse denies African consciousness.80

Mbembe’s postcolonial theory challenges the false dichotomy that much African literature failed to address because some of the African discourse addresses identity, and other discourse focuses on material and economic justification. However, Mbembe creates an African discourse that integrates both identity and the material and economic colonization of Africans. Mbembe’s postcolonial discourse resists Afro-centric concepts that want to create an African utopia through the new black and African history. The reason that Mbembe resists that type of discourse is that “both the asserted denial and the reaffirmation of that humanity now look like the two sterile sides of the same coin.”81 He claims that neither the colonial ideology of colonization nor the utopic “recovered” identity can enable Africans to claim their humanity and subjectivity; instead, they are both methods of globalization and colonization. So, Mbembe claims that, in the postcolony, Africans need a complex understanding of themselves with the past, the present, and the future.

Mbembe’s postcolony involves a time, temporality, and subjectivity that integrates many events. Postcolony is complex, not a linear time or age. Mbembe writes:

By focusing the discussion on what I have called the “postcolony,” the aim was not to denounce power as such, but rather to rehabilitate the two notions of age and durée. By age is meant not a simple category of time but a number of relationships and configuration of events– often visible and perceptible, sometimes diffuse, “hydra-headed,” but to which contemporaries could testify since very aware of them.”82

Mbembe’s main inquiry attempts to address the lives of Africans after the end of geographical colonization. He claims that, after the end of colonization, Africans did not create a new world and techniques, but instead, they applied the same techniques and systems of colonization.

In the neoliberal age, Africans experience global warming, world bank debt, internal ethnic and social conflict, and HIV/AIDS. So, for Mbembe, the postcolony is the time of unhappiness and possibilities. Mbembe writes, “We must say that the postcolony is a period of embedding, a space of proliferation that is not solely disorder, chance, and madness, but emerges from a sort of violent gust, with its languages, its beauty and ugliness, its ways of summing up the world.”83 The self-reliance, agency, and subjectivity of Africans in the postcolony is both unhappiness and possibilities. So, the question is: how can Africans claim their subjectivity within this complex? According to Mbembe, the postcolonial people can claim their identity and subjectivity not through subordination, but through a relationship with the command (the colonizer).84 Mbembe writes, “Further, subjects in the postcolony also have to have marked ability to manage not just a single identity, but several—flexible enough to negotiate as and when necessary.”85

Both modern colonization and the neoliberal governmentality of identity politics make Africans “Other.” These two ways of colonization give Africans fixed identities. Therefore, in the postcolony, Africans need to claim their identity and economic and social self-reliance through negotiation with the past and the present. Mbembe’s postcolonial discourse articulates the historical, ideological, theological, and religious power of colonization and their governmentality. The governmentality that Africans face in the postcolony is not only political, but it is also theological and religious. Therefore, there is not an easy way out from modernity. However, Africans should be aware of the complex nature of colonial governmentality. Being aware of the complexity of the neocolonial power will enable Africans to activate their consciousness to relate to the past, the present, and the future.86 Mbembe’s postcolonial method addresses the African discourse from a holistic perspective that integrates identity, economic, and political development.

Similarly, his approach to the postcolony is interdisciplinary; he employs theological, religious, historical, and philosophical concepts. Mbembe argues that, in the age of the postcolony, Africans can be agents who are self-reliant through their conscious relationship to the economic and political global governmentalities of the postcolony. Africans’ humanity enables them to be flexible and negotiate their identity beyond the stereotypical and fixed claim of neocolonial ideologies.

Colonized Identities

The Ethiopian political theologians Mohammed Girma and Teklu analyze religion and politics that normalize fragmentation, centralization, and marginalization. Girma claims that EPRDF’s political system, which focuses on identity politics, disrupts the Ethiopian modern emperors’ theo-political approach as well as the Derge’s homogenizing communist approach.87 In the Ethiopian Wax and Gold Tradition, God was seen as the center, the one who anointed the kings, and the people are ruled by and submissive to the kings. The Derge brought the Western progressive history that eliminated religion and God from the public spaces of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. That was not attractive to Ethiopians. The EPRDF brought a new paradigm that deconstructed both the metanarrative of the Derge and the Wax and Gold paradigm.

The metanarrative of these both paradigms focused on the national identity of Ethiopians or Ethiopiawint. The Wax and Gold paradigm employed religion and covenant thinking as a universal belief for Ethiopia and creating a centralized Ethiopian government. On the other hand, the Derge employed scientific materialism from the Marxist ideologies as a mere principle to create a progressive and united Ethiopia. But according to Girma, because of their focus on universal claims of nationalism, religion and development, neither paradigm was able to work at a grassroots level.88

The EPRDF’s political practices emphasize deconstructing metanarratives by giving more space for the indigenous voices. EPRDF focuses on deconstructing the national consciousness or Ethiopiawinet. Girma argues that the EPRDF and the Derge’s differences were not ideological because they both applied Marxist ideologies. However, their difference came from their definition of Ethiopia as a nation. The Derge’s program wanted to create a universal and communal consciousness for all Ethiopians. On the other hand, the EPRDF focuses on creating ethnic consciousness and religious practices.89

In the Wax and Gold paradigm the idea of what it means to be human beings was interpreted through a theo-political understanding of covenant. In the era of the Derge, being human was defined through the ability of economic productivity and progress. In the era of compartmentalization, self-determination (even to secession) defines what it meant to be Ethiopian. “The self” becomes the center of being human. The EPRDF does not have a theo-political imagination or practices. In the Constitution, religion and state are divided, giving freedom for people to follow their choice, which is different from the Gold and Wax tradition. So, the challenge of the compartmentalization paradigm is that it exposes Ethiopians to find themselves only as ethnic beings or homo ethinicus because the national and common consciousness do not have place in this paradigm. Homo ethinicus exposed Ethiopia for fragmentation and conflict because people think of being human only through divisive ethnic identity, and other markers that bring them together were denied by the EPRDF that focuses on creating ethnic animals. So, Girma writes, “The paradigm of compartmentalization has similarities to the postmodern understanding. The emphasis is not on a universal human nature in a Christian sense of Imago Dei, nor a Marxist sense of homo economicus, but on a particular ethnic identity.”90

Similarly, Teklu argues that the fictive Amhara identity created by the modern Ethiopian emperors, faced resistance from the Ethiopian community and mainly university students who believed themselves to be the voice of the Ethiopian masses. The Ethiopian university students rallied by Haile Selassie’s modern imagination became the power of resistance against the emperor. Their imagination focused on a radical change in claiming the self-determination quest of Ethiopians. Teklu argues that this romantic quest of students featured a lack of ideological clarity about the Ethiopian historical background and Western Marxist ideologies. This led to the quest for self-determination to end civil war. At the same time, the self-determination quest that the university students raised did not question the fictive Amhara identity that the modern emperors created. Instead, it created a politics of identification and ethnicity that created conflictual and even violent ethnic politics until these days in the Ethiopian context.91

At the time, there were disagreements about how to categorize the self- determination quest of Ethiopians as a national inquiry. One group said that the self- determination quest of Ethiopians defined Ethiopia as a state of colony, with the people living under the colony of Ethiopia needing to be liberated to succession. The other group defined the self-determination quest of Ethiopians through the Marxist ideology of class. There were two big questions raised by these groups: a national question and a colonial question. These conversations did not discuss Ethiopia and Ethiopians’ cultural and social markers that bring Ethiopians together, but they focused on categorizing Ethiopia as a colonial state. These self-determination imaginations of radical change created a practice of war for many years, and thousands of Ethiopians were killed. Most of the liberation fronts, such as TPLF, EPLF, and OLF, employed international lexicons and maps that were produced in Europe as a source to justify their practice of war. The ethno-national movements that were born from the claim of Ethiopia as a colony created the current Ethiopian political system that focuses on fragmentation and identity politics.92

I argue that both internal and imported colonial practices and ideologies created homogenized and fragmented identities. They did not allow Ethiopians to claim their agency and subjectivity. I also claim that the hegemonizing and fragmenting identities of feudal emperors, the Derge, and EPRDF need to be decolonized through subjective in- betweenness to enable Ethiopians to live in hybridity and negotiation to claim their agency and subjectivity in the in-between spaces. In what follows, I will describe how different postcolonial theorists propose to analyze how colonized nations could claim their subjectivities and agencies through negotiation and lived religious praxes.

Rode Molla is an assistant professor at Virginia Theological Seminary.


66 Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa, 76.

67 Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa, 78.

68 Katongole, The Sacrifice of Africa, 83-84.

69 Maimire Mennasemay, “Ethiopian Political Theory, Democracy and Surplus History”, International Journal of Ethiopian Studies 2, no. 1/2 (Summer/Fall 2005-2006): 1-2.

70 Mennasemay, “Ethiopian Political Theory,” 3.

71 Mennasemay, “Ethiopian Political Theory,” 4.

72 Mennasemay, “Ethiopian Political Theory,” 9.

73 Mennasemay, “Ethiopian Political Theory, 11.

74 Mennasemay, “Ethiopian Political Theory,” 16.

75 Mennasemay, “Ethiopian Political Theory,” 20.

76 David Chidester, Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), xii.

77 Chidester, Empire of Religion, 161.

78 Chidester, Empire of Religion, 54, 57, 179, 106.

79 Achille, Mbembe, On the Postcolony (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 8-9.

80 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 9.

81 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 12.

82 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 14.

83 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 242.

84 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 102.

85 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 104.

86 Mbembe, On the Postcolony, 103-102.

87 Mohammed Girma, Understanding Religion and Social Change in Ethiopia: Toward a Hermeneutic of Covenant (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 13-16.

88 Girma, “Understanding Religion and Social Change,” 97.

89 Girma “Understanding Religion and Social Change,” 97.

90 Girma “Understanding Religion and Social Change,” 103.

91 Teklu, The Politics of Metanoia, 104-105.

92 Teklu, The Politics of Metanoia, 109.

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