The supra-structural functions of the Ethiopian army

Ethiopian army during a parade (Photo: file/SM)

By Addissu Admas

The conscripted or regular army has played a central role in Ethiopia’s long history and in building its identity as a nation. The way the army was recruited, armed and mobilized may have evolved profoundly over the centuries. Even the reasons that presided over its constitution may have varied from one era to another. However, what has not changed, or perhaps should not change, are its supra-structural functions. Before discussing them, let me first briefly describe the stated functions of the military and the military in general.

The army is constituted mainly to defend the nation against foreign threats and aggressions. That’s why it’s called defense force. We also know that the great powers, as has been very clear these days, use their vast military machinery to threaten or invade smaller nations, to consolidate or extend their hegemony, or to conform exactly to their stated policies. Obviously, this is done in the name of security and stability. This may have been achieved through shrewd diplomacy. Apparently, good diplomacy doesn’t seem to have a “convincing” solution other than war, that is, more than a “good beating” to “teach” a lesson or two to the recalcitrant or presumed rebel side. This has been the modus operandi of every world or regional power since recorded history. However, it remains a principle of the military that the reason for its existence is to defend the nation and not to invade another for one reason or another, and in the process, to preserve the sovereignty of the nation.

The second very important function that the army has played is to preserve national cohesion and unity. A classic example in this case is the American Civil War. It may have been triggered by political, ideological and economic differences, but the aim of the legitimately established power was to put the secessionists under its yoke. In Ethiopia, the function of the army after the Italian colonial war was, with one or two exceptions, to suppress rebel factions within the country. Thus, it is no exaggeration to conclude that in Ethiopia, the military has been used by all regimes since then mainly to preserve the unity rather than the sovereignty of the country. As history shows, it succeeded to a certain extent, and would have succeeded completely had it not been for the myopia and miscalculation of its leaders, namely Mengistu Hailemariam and Meles Zenawi. Needless to insist further on this point.

Beyond these two functions, as I implied above, the soldier has at least three supra-structural functions. What I mean by supra-structural is what is not originally and principally willed, but which emerges naturally from it. Rather than being an undesirable consequence, it consistently produces positive results. At least three or four are the supra-structural functions that often emerge from a well-organized, disciplined, and politically sound army.

The first of these is the power of the army to become a primary instrument of cohesion, especially for a country as ethnically diverse as Ethiopia. As the recent “tribalistic” massacres in Tole clearly demonstrated, for Ethiopia to remain whole and viable, it desperately needs highly trained, ethnically diverse and ideologically committed armed forces to the notion of “Ethiopia”. There is indeed good reason to believe that, for the foreseeable future, Ethiopia will continue to suffer from ethnic conflict inspired and fueled by a misguided, narrow-minded and even malevolent ethnic grievance policy. After nearly two generations since the Ethiopian revolution and the effective abolition of the feudal system under the alleged domination of the Orthodox Amhara people in the Ethiopian government, there is still a Don Quixote, even paranoid, intention to resurrect and actualize the “reality from Amhara Hegemony or Domination. More than two-thirds of Ethiopia’s population were born after the 1974 Revolution, and none of what non-Amharas supposedly suffered under imperial rule was experienced by post-revolution generations. Yet the TPLF, whose top leadership was imbued with a rabid hatred of the Amhara, made it its mission to portray them, not just as a hegemonic ethnic group, but as predatory, oppressive and discriminatory. Not to be outdone, the OLF has structured its ideology on the same premises. However, the fact is that while this may have been true to some degree in pre-revolutionary times, the reality today is that a new generation of Ethiopians have only experienced ethno hegemony. – gross fascist perpetrated by the TPLF. What the Tigrayan and Oromo people need now are young leaders uninfected and unburdened by the politics of ethnic grievances. Leaders who can envision an Ethiopia that is not forged by a history of real or imagined offences. Until such leaders arrive, the Ethiopian Armed Forces must be trained and ready to extinguish and eventually thwart the divisive and centrifugal forces emerging across the country. It should be noted here in passing that the possible involvement of the TPLF in the attempt to destabilize Ethiopia must be the subject of an in-depth investigation; the same with the Western powers.

Until the complete demobilization of the Ethiopian armed forces by the TPLF during Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s flight to Zimbabwe, Ethiopia had one of the most integrated, diverse and patriotic armed forces. The TPLF, as was evident in the recent war, never committed itself to providing Ethiopia with a diverse, well-trained and well-equipped armed forces. His main goal was to reshape the army as simply the armed wing of his party. The same idea prevailed in the reconstitution of the security apparatus. The objective of the TPLF in the “reconstruction” of the armed forces and the security system was above all to secure its power in perpetuity. This “perpetuity” lasted a remarkable 27 years; much longer than if he hadn’t put in place the kind of military and security apparatus he created.

Prime Minister Abiy must “return” and at the same time “go beyond” the fundamentals of pre-TPLF military organizing principles. In other words, the military must not only be committed to the principles of diversity, unity and equity, but it must also be an active agent in shaping the next generation of Ethiopians. This means that, alongside its primary functions of defending the nation from within and without, it must become the primary institution of national cohesion, character formation and practical education.

It must first become again, as General Abebaw Tadesse said in a television interview, an institution open to all Ethiopians and where meritocracy and not ethnicity becomes the criterion for advancement. This is a rather difficult task after the deeply damaging ethnic policy in the military by the TPLF. However, it is a necessary first step. If the army is to become effective, it must actively and openly encourage the spirit of patriotism, without which it is almost impossible to have a committed and dedicated fighting force.

Secondly, in the current abyssal degradation of traditional values, the army could become a veritable laboratory for training or modifying character. To this end, it can even be very beneficial to institute compulsory military service for a period of one year to bring together all young Ethiopians of all ethnicities, social and religious origins, political orientation, etc., not only with stated purpose of training in the art necessary to defend the nation against “foreign and domestic enemies”, but also to provide them with the space and opportunity to learn to appreciate the languages, cultures and mores of the other and, in doing so, to blunt the edges of ethnic animosity. When they really get to know each other, they will most likely stop being hostile towards each other!

Third, as many Ethiopians of older generations have complained, there is a real debasement of character that has been brought about by an extremely corrupt political and economic system, if not promoted at least encouraged by the previous regime. The army could become an instrument of national cultural and behavioral regeneration. If compulsory national military service were instituted, it could become the place where not only martial duties are learned, but also civic duties could be inculcated. Frankly speaking, Ethiopia cannot continue with the dominant ethos that not only corrodes public and private institutions, but inexorably frays the social fabric itself.

Finally, the military could also become the premier institution for teaching life skills, especially for the country’s disadvantaged youth. Ethiopia, despite having a very large potential labor pool, has one of the smallest populations of well-educated labor. The country does not have enough wealth to create as many vocational schools as it needs. One way to address the need for a well-trained and disciplined workforce is to transform the military into a vast network of vocational schools. It would also ensure that upon release from the military, all serving personnel could become productive and contributing citizens. Moreover, their skills would be extremely useful in the event of national disasters of natural or human origin. In fact, this is all the more reason to promote and encourage this particular possible function of the military at this time.

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