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The Political Economy of the Emerging Neo-Neftegna State in Ethiopia

By Makonnen Tesfaye
Tigrai Online July 18, 2020

1. Dictatorship and the Neo-Neftegna State Capture

1.1 In the political economy and history of Ethiopia the Neftegna State and Order was the socio-economic and political system that prevailed in the Southern, Eastern and Western parts of the country (also extending to parts of the Welqait and Raya lands of Tigray) for over 100 years, spanning from Menelik to Haileselassie imperial eras. The political economy was based on modes of production and relations characterised by serfdom intermingled with features of slave economies. Serfdom was the dominant form of production and relation between the Southern nationalities and peoples and the Neftegna nobility and their armed enforcers. Serfdom was a form of feudalism based on an agrarian economy, where day after day serfs worked exploitatively on their annexed land. Children born to serfs inherited the status of their parents and were born into serfdom. Moreover, serfs bound not only themselves but their future progeny and offspring. The distinguishing features of the Neftegna system was the bloody annexation of many independent kingdoms, lands and peoples; brute feudo-military annexations and occupations (alternatively characterised as “feudo-military colonialism”) of the peoples and lands of oppressed nationalities; only second or third class citizenships were conferred on oppressed nationalities; the prevalence of enslavement, slave trade and feudal exploitation; and the suppression of the identities, languages, cultures, traditions, histories and religions of the annexed lands and conquered peoples under  One-Nation, One-Language, One-Religion imperial rule.

1.2 The February 1974 Revolution of the peoples and nationalities of Ethiopia dealt a blow to the feudal economic base of the Neftegna land tenure system by granting  land to the tillers, but without politically liberating the peasantry democratically or improving the backward mode of production of agriculture.  Moreover, the demands of nationalities for democracy, self-determination, and peace and development were brutally suppressed by the dictatorial regime of the Derg that waged wars (under the Neo-Neftegna banner of “Ethiopia Tikdem”) against the peoples and nationalities for 17 years until its demise in 1991.

1.3  The advent to power of the EPRDF and OLF and the proclamation of the Ethiopian Federal Democratic Republic (EFDR) Constitution in 1994 herald the victory of the struggle of Ethiopian nationalities for democracy and self-determination; unity based on diversity; and the equality of all religions.  For most parts of the 27 years, the EPRDF pursued the economics of a “developmental state” and the politics of “revolutionary democracy”, which was a pro-poor partisan class politics of safeguarding the interests of the broad masses during the process of the building of a capitalist economy in a nascent, work-in-progress democratic experiment; and within the context of an emerging multi-polar global order that enabled the pursuit of a relatively non-aligned foreign policy. To its credit, the EPRDF registered significant and sustainable progress in promoting social cohesion and peace; developing the economy; and building vital hard and soft infrastructure of the country, making a difference to the livelihoods of tens of millions of hitherto downtrodden masses. It pursued a successful, relatively autonomous and non-aligned foreign policy that straddled major global and regional power divides, often successfully defending the sovereignty of the country.


1.4 Yet, the democratic developmental state experiment has come to an end due to the gradual ascendency of rent-seeking capitalism and economic injustice; the spread of systemic corruption; the growth of alienated masses, youth and intelligentsia; lack of democracy and mal-governance; and the growth of external neoliberal and dependency influences, which engineered the development and realignment of classes and forces that facilitated and enabled a Neo-Neftegna State Capture.  Furthermore, the over centralisation of the Ethiopian Federal Government and State at the expense of the Regions and nationalities, and the undermining of the demands  for Regional Statehoods by nationalists in Southern Ethiopia further alienated  nationalities creating the conditions that weakened  democratic federalism. Moreover, the EPRDF ignored and failed to combat the entrenched and hegemonic Neo-Neftegna ideology, bureaucracy and politics within the state superstructure and the society at large (including amongst the toxic Diaspora) during the 27 years of its rule.  Furthermore and above all, the internal ideological and political decay of the EPRDF facilitated and enabled the advent of rent-seeking bureaucratic class and capitalists within its ranks; let loose widespread corruption; and opened wide the gate for the ascendency of neo-liberal and dependency ideologies and interests. These developments within the EPRDF and within the state were critical to the demise of the democratic developmental state experiment. On the back of a popular movement led by the youth, in particular the Oromo Qeerroo, who demanded democracy, self-determination and justice, the EPP Cliques assumed state power initially promising “reform”, “change” and “democracy”.  The promises soon proved empty; instead they have become profoundly anti-democratic and dictatorial like the previous regimes of Haileselassie and the Derg. Over the last two years the Abiy dictatorial rule has undermined the fundamental pillars of the Federal Constitution, including the illegal and unconstitutional usurpation and extension of power; undermining the self-determination and sovereignty of nationalities; and creating a political environment that encourages insecurity, civil strife and dislocation and the breakdown of law and order. Hoodwinking global public opinion (including farcically managing to secure the Nobel Peace Prize), the EPP Cliques have been aided and abated by the emerging domestic ruling classes and elites and external hegemonic powers and regional dictators, in the particular Isaias Afewerki’s regime in Eritrea that has  similar anti-democratic federalist agenda.

1.5 The emerging dictatorship of the EPP Cliques led by Colonel Abiy Ahmed and the political economy order that is being instituted is often characterised as Neo-Neftegna State, which is the off-spring of the political economy that was dealt major blows by the 1974 Revolution that gave land to the tillers and the 1994 EFDR Constitution that enshrined the multi-national democratic federalism. The Neo-Neftegna politics of present day Ethiopia is the result of the counter-revolutionary reversal of these two historical victories of the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia and the revival and ascendency of the supremacist, expansionist and irredentist Amhara ruling class politics and ideology. The Neo-Neftegna ideology and politics is right-wing and authoritarian. It is profoundly anti-democratic, with a disdain for the recognition of human rights, whether group, or individual rights. The principal characteristics, traits and anatomy of Neo-Neftegna ideology and political economy are briefly discussed next.

2. Centralised and Unitarian State: One-Nation, One-Language, One-Religion Polity

2.1 The Neo-Neftegna State is the counter-revolutionary restoration of a centralised and unitarian state, which is the Menelikian Project of nation state building based on a polity of One-Nation, One-Language, One-Religion country. This is the very anti-thesis of a Democratic, Multi-National Federalism that accommodates diversity with unity. The plan to institute the Amharic language as a compulsory language in elementary schooling (in lieu of mother tongues) in all nationalities is a clear example of the mission to create a One-Language State at the expense of the other nationalities’ languages. In the same vein, the Neo-Neftegnas strongly object to other nationalities’ languages becoming working languages of the Federal Government. Similarly, the ideological and political association by Neo-Neftegna elites (e.g. by Mahibere Kidusan) of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church with one nationality and language undermines the separation of politics and religion as stipulated in the EFDR Constitution. For example, the Neo-Neftegnas accuse the Oromos as “Anti-Orthodox Tewahedo” and they object to the Oromos using their language in their church liturgy, or administering their ecclesiastical or clerical affairs in their Region without undue church bureaucracy. Furthermore, the Abiy Cliques are surrounded by Neo-Neftegna advisors, the likes of Deacon Daniel Kibret, who flagrantly violate the separation of religion and politics, and who are known for promoting state religion and preaching division between Christians and Moslems in the country.

3. Neo-Neftegna Expansionism, Revanchism and Irredentism

3.1 In line with the Neftegnas of the Menelik and Haileselassie eras, the present day Neo-Neftegnas are profoundly irredentists and expansionists claiming over lands of non-Amhara Ethiopian nationalities and peoples based on past conquests by Amhara ruling classes and elites and their juniors.  This is best shown by the Neo-Neftegnas claims over the Oromo lands incorporated under the imperial and Neftegna provincial boundaries of Shoa and Wollo;  the claim over the feudal-imperial  conquered  Tigrayan lands of Welqait and Raya Azebo;  and the Neftegna claim over conquered Metekel land of the Benishangul-Gumuz people. The expansionism and irredentism is of Menelikian proportion and goes as far as claiming Addis Ababa (the so-called Berera in lieu of Finfine), Adama and other cities in Oromia,  Dire-Dawa and Harrar,


4. The Expropriation of the Peasantry through Land Privatisation and Rent-Seeking Capital

4.1 The Neo-Neftegna parties, in particular EZEMA, ANM and EPP,  seek to consolidate the Neo-Neftegna State’s  economic base by expropriating the  Ethiopian peasantry through land privatisation and by employing the forces of rent-seeking capital that has been accumulated through corruption and mal-governance over the last two decades.  This will further accentuate the already rampant process of the uprooting of the peasantry from their land, in particular those who live around Addis Ababa and other urban areas in the country. Having exhausted the acquisition of urban land and failing or unwilling to invest in productive sectors, such as in manufacturing, the presence and abundance of rent-seeking capital accumulated corruptly is seeking new and  fertile ground for the acquisition of land on massive scale and country-wide, which can only materialise when land is privatised and is available for sale. Hence, the privatisation of land is at the top of the agenda of the Neo-Neftegna political manifesto.

5. Undermining the Rights of Nations, Nationalities and Peoples to Commonly Own their Land

5.1 Article 40 (3) of the EFDR Constitution stipulates that “...land is a common property of the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples and shall not be subject to sale or to other means of exchange”.  By advocating land privatisation and by using capital accumulated through rent-seeking and corruption, the Neo-Neftegna ruling classes and elites seek to expropriate, or buy-off the land of the peasantry cheaply through asymmetric market, bureaucratic and political power, resulting in tens of millions of pauperised and landless peasantry. This process would throw back Ethiopia’s political economy to the Haileselassie era.  Moreover and more importantly, with the lands of nationalities and peoples in the hands of the Neo-Neftegna classes, this would essentially mean the complete undermining of the economic base of the self-determination of nationalities and a complete throw-back to the political economy of the Haileselassie era where the national and land questions were inextricably linked.

6. Neo-Neftegna Political Supremacy and Cultural Hegemony

6.1 The ideology and mind-set of “Ethiopiawinet” based on Neftegna cultural hegemony and political supremacy is the anti-thesis of multi-national federalism that accommodates diversity with unity. It is a conception of Ethiopia and “Ethiopianism” based on ahistorical and mystical foundations, but defined and refined over centuries to serve the hegemonic rule of Amhara elites and ruling classes. The narrative (e.g. by ANM) that Ethiopia is constructed in the images of the past Amhara ruling classes and elites and that all the other nationalities must bow to and respect Neo-Neftegna values and norms is undemocratic and chauvinistic. Concomitantly, it is the manifesto of the political and bureaucratic supremacy and the cultural hegemony over all other nationalities in the country.   This lends to their aggressive nationalism (masquerading under “Ethiopianism”) and their visceral hatred of the notion of equal and sovereign nations and nationalities in Ethiopia with equal rights and stakes. This is politically manifested, amongst others, by their vehement rejection of democratic federalism and their espousing of a centralised and unitarian state under the hegemony of the Amhara ruling classes and elites.


7. Neo-Neftegna Repression and Persecution of Minorities

7.1 The Neo-Neftegnas, in line with their political ancestors, have the propensity to deny the national identity of minorities that live in their regions and they actively and routinely engage in ethnic targeting and cleansing as manifested by the widespread and sustained persecution and repression of the Kimant and Agew nationalities as well as the Oromos in Wollo or the Gumuz people in Jawi.  These acts are often deliberately committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against an identifiable part of a civilian population, which is in essence a crime against humanity.

8. The Cult of the Gun (“Nefft”) and Violence – Modus Operandi of Neo-Neftegnas

8.1 The Neo-Neftegna politics, in line with their political ancestors’, is characterised by the political culture of the show and application of force, in particular the “Cult of the Gun” or “Nefft”, for the purpose of intimidating and suppressing subjects under their rule, or against those who rebel. Classic examples include slogans such as “we will conquer this Tigray just like that”; we will eliminate the Gumuz ‘monkeys’”; or recent chauvinistic bravados and insults directed against peoples and nationalities, such as for example those expressed by Brigadier General Kasaye Chemeda’s (a former General of the Derg who surrendered to and pardoned by the EPRDF forces) declaration of war against  Tigrayans and the Oromo Qeerroos, or the recent venomous diatribe by the Neo-Neftegnas (for condemning the crimes committed against the Oromo people by Menelik) against the now martyred Hacaaluu Hundeessaa. In short, Nefftegnanet is the modus operandi of the Neo-Neftegnas, which is nowadays openly expressed and boasted about without shame or remorse. Moreover, Nefft is not about the symbol of patriotism (as alluded by the Neo-Neftegnas) but a chauvinist manifestation of supremacy and expansionism; and a psychological mask of the Neftegnas’  deep fear of the downtrodden people and oppressed nationalities and their guard or shield against those who are prone to rebel against their rule.

9. The Neo-Neftegna Classes and National Sovereignty

9.1 Like past Neftegna rulers, the present day Neo-Neftegna Cliques are treacherous, often selling out national sovereignty for internal and domestic political advantages. Being comprador and dependent, vital national interests are bargained for the purpose of consolidating their internal class rule or perpetuating the oppression of peoples and nationalities. The sell-out of Ethiopia’s interests over the Blue Nile, or the conspiracy with the dictatorial regime of Isaias Afewerki to wage war against an Ethiopia Region and citizens for the purpose of domestic advantages are classic examples of their treacherous ideology and politics, which is consistent with and of Menelikian proportion. This is in sharp contrast with their false mantle and mantra of “Ethiopiawinet”.


10. The Struggle for Democratic Multi-National Federalism Continues.

10.1 In summary, the Neo-Neftegna classes have captured the Ethiopian state, in particular the super structure of the state including the executive, the civil service and bureaucracy; the judiciary; the  mass media; cultural and arts  institutions and the coercive branches of the state. Through their control of state enterprises and institutions and their corrupt links with rent-seeking capitalists they are controlling the commanding heights of the economy, consolidating the economic base of their political hegemony.

10.2 It must be underlined that the Neo-Neftegnas ruling classes and elites are not exclusively from the Amhara nationality. They have forged class and ideological alliances with the Nouveau Riche classes and elites (rent-seeking capitalists and bureaucrats) from non-Amhara nationalities, notwithstanding as junior partners. The broad masses of the Amhara people are as oppressed as the rest of the peoples from other nationalities and have a stake in defending a democratic and developmental state that guarantees peace, democracy, justice and progress for all. The strategic unity of the peoples and all nationalities of Ethiopia is crucial to the successful outcome of the struggle to counter the emerging dictatorship of the EPP Abiy Cliques.

10.3 In conclusion and cognizant of the fact that the Neo-Neftegnas led by the EPP Abiy Cliques have captured the state and are in the process of instituting a dictatorship, the struggle for democratic multi-national federalism continues. The steadfast struggles of the peoples of Tigray, Oromia and the many nationalities in the South (e.g. Sidama and Wolaytta) are testimonies that peoples’ struggles for self-determination, democracy and justice are ultimately bound to make the present day Neo-Neftegna forces history as were the cases with their political ancestors. The Struggle Continues.