Pathologizing Political Dissent in Ethiopia

By Messay Kebede

I am surprised that the Woyanne regime does not see how unfailingly the shameful propaganda machine unleashed to discredit Yenesew Gebre’s political message is bound to fall flat. The attempt to describe his {www:self-immolation} as the act of a mentally deranged person and the recourse to testimonies of alleged close relatives of him to back up the accusation, while exposing the vicious methods of the regime, do absolutely nothing to tarnish the political message of Yenesew’s heroic self-sacrifice.

Doubtless, both mental sickness and despair can induce suicidal behaviors. But the real issue here is that such behaviors are associated with personal disorder, distress, or misfortune. More importantly, as personal setbacks, they inspire forms of death that are quick and covert, such as hanging, jumping from height, wrist cutting, drug overdosing, or drowning. The motivation behind such acts is to end a life out of control or judged intolerable. What is missing is the social dimension, that is, the sacrifice of life for the purpose of expressing political protests. Indeed, even when despair is caused by political adversities, the person who chooses to commit suicide by hanging or drowning himself/ herself is acting more as a quitter than a protester.

Not so with self-immolation for the defining reason that burning oneself to death is a public and dramatic act and a form of death that is most painful. The choice of a public stage is clearly associated with the intention to protest or send a message related to a common concern. Unlike the desperate person, the purpose is not to escape distress by ending one’s life, but to use the sacrifice of life to make a political statement. Death is not here an exit, but an instrument to advance a common cause. That is why, unlike other forms of suicide, self-immolation is very rare: let alone despair, even insanity would not be crazy enough to opt for this particularly excruciating type of death. Self-immolation contains a selflessness that can only take us to the higher realm of human devotion.

A contrast with suicide attack further brings out the specific nature of self-immolation. What they have in common is the sacrifice of life for the common cause; where they differ is in their attitude to the use of violence. Suicidal attackers want to cause harm to their enemies, while death by self-immolation causes extreme pain and demise only to the person committing suicide. This absence of harm to others likens self-immolation to hunger strikes, the huge difference being, of course, that hunger strikes rarely end in death and are motivated by the prospect of obtaining some concessions, whereas self-immolation is inspired by the resolution to die and does not expect concessions.

If self-immolation is not driven by the prospect of extracting concessions, what is, then, its purpose? Since death is not used as an exit, both the fact that it is a public act and an excruciating form of death should deliver the purpose. While the choice of a public place attests to the involvement of a common cause, the selection of a very painful death is obviously designed to arouse an emotional response. The public scene of an individual burning himself/herself to death can only arouse outrage. Equally noticeable is the fact that the outrage soon changes into shame: those who watch it or hear about it feels the guilt of their own resignation and cowardice. All face this simple but terrible question: how do we let this happen? At the same time, however, they feel the galvanizing effect of self-sacrifice for the common cause. In other words, by choosing a terrible death, the hero exhorts his countrymen to overcome their fears, thereby reigniting the symbolic meanings of fire as purification, passion, and renewal.

Given the above characteristics of self-immolation, the Woyanne attempt to discredit Yenesew as mentally unstable can hardly produce the intended effect. For, even if (and this is a huge if) we assume that Yenesew was a mentally deranged person, the fact that he chose self-immolation refutes the attempt to empty his death of its political meaning. That he set himself on fire outside a public meeting hall is by definition a political act and a protest, regardless of his mental state.

To be sure, Yenesew would have preferred hunger strike or any other method of public protest to self-immolation. But the truth is that he had no other choice than suicide, given his certainty that the Woyanne regime would not have allowed him to engage in any form of peaceful protest. His endeavor would have landed him in jail, and so made him unable to protest. That the regime has reached the point of not offering any other form of protest than suicide tells a lot about the uphill battle that the nonviolent opposition faces in Ethiopia.

Perhaps Yenesaw may have contemplated the other option of becoming a suicidal attacker. However, though the option was indeed available to him, it would have required an organization and a planning that he may not afford. Most of all, in light of his self-immolation, he would have missed his main intention, which is to cleanse Ethiopians of their fear by provoking their outrage.

What is one to say of a regime that offers no other form of protests than self-immolation? I read in the attempt to demean Yenesew the overriding goal of the regime, that is, the resolution to stay in power by all means. I also read the fear of a popular insurrection. What is more, the attempt reveals the deep contradiction of the regime: though it stays in power by repressing its people, yet it wants this same people and the world to believe that protests in present-day Ethiopia emanate from insanity or terrorist groups. In short, such protests are so bizarre and uncommon that they must come from insane persons or marginal and sectarian groups.

The strategy of presenting opposition as the position of negligible groups, as opposed to the 99 percent of the people that are happy with the regime, is indeed the abyss of contradiction. So presented, political dissent becomes abnormality, the work of sociopaths or deranged people opposing a popular government. This belief that the regime represents and defends popular interests, in addition to betraying the prevalence of Stalinist thinking, shifts insanity from Yenesew to the regime. As I have reiterated in previous writings, the reasonable road to a lasting and win-win alternative for all is the agreement to a grand coalition, not the path of criminalizing or pathologizing political opposition.

(Prof. Messay Kebede can be reached at

2 thoughts on “Pathologizing Political Dissent in Ethiopia

  1. Just an external observer on

    This is the kind of crazy talk from our intellectuals that is keeping the mad dog Zenawi in power. What kind of grand coalation are you talking about? with whom? With Zenawi? But Zenawi has told you more than ample times he is not interested in you, or your self-defacing compromises. Zenawi calls Dr Berhanu and Andargachew terrorists, calls Yenesaw mentally deranged, and you mr philosopher want to have a win-win cohabitation with him while he molests the country and every thing we hold dear.

  2. Assta B. Gettu on

    Is it true, according to Dr. Messay Kebede, burning our selves to death will “take us to the higher realm of human devotion”? Is burning oneself to death a kind of prayer, a kind of silent meditation, or a kind of vow acceptable or required by the Almighty God, who created a human body in his own image – in God’s image?

    Like cremation, self-immolation has never been one of the Ethiopian cultures: it is a foreign culture, and at that a dangerous one that can easily be practiced by the Ethiopian young boys and young girls whenever they face some minor or major problems in their lives. When such shameful action is committed in a public arena, it may have some admirers such as Dr. Messay Kebede and others who live in the west and care nothing about the untimely death of a young man who could have easily avoided such a tragedy had he shared his suicidal feelings with his close friends before it was too late.

    Glorifying, instead of condemning, the death of a person who purposely set himself afire is inviting other young Ethiopians to do the same thing. Dr. Messay should know that a man’s body is not his own as the Apostle Paul asks a legitimate question: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1st Corinthians 6:19-20). The Apostle Paul goes farther and says: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1st Corinthians 3:16-17).

    Any political statement, any grievances about one’s own government or one’s own family can be expressed in various and less harmful ways. For example, if a person has a feeling of destroying himself for various reasons, he must first share his suicidal attempts with his friends or with some of his Church members; they may not give him a complete answer that solves all of his problems, but they, at least, can save him from destroying God’s temple – his precious body.

    There are millions of things that make a person unhappy such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, the sight of multitude of desperate and destitute people, the governance of an extremely oppressive leader, and the number of unanswered prayers. All these problems can be solved at their right times if a person is patient. It is our Lord Jesus Christ who said: “ወዘአዝለፈ ትእግስቶ ውእቱ ይድኅን” – “…but he who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

    Indeed, no one is free on this evanescent world from pain, distress, agony, and from some type of stomach ache, headache, and severe depression. The Apostle Paul indeed recognizes our sufferings on this earth when he writes to the Roman citizens: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (Romans 8:37). We are all together in whatever happens on this earth of ours, but we should not be overcome by the excruciating pain some of us receive while on this earth and commit suicide. Again, the Apostle Paul comforts us in his divine message: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18).

    Instead of disparaging self-immolation, Dr. Messay asserts those who watch a person burning himself to death “feel the galvanizing effects of self-sacrifice for the common cause.” To Dr. Messay, a person who burns himself to death for a cause is a hero, and his heroic action takes away the fear of those cowards and encourages them to do the same stupid act – to destroy their bodies as if their bodies were their own.

    Dr. Messay ignores the point that the death of Mahatama Gandhi and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. galvanized the Indians and the Americans respectively because Gandhi and King did not burn themselves and ended their lives without too much sufferings, but they waited and preached their none-violence messages to their own people, and finally some insane persons ended their lives. Ethiopia needs people like Gandhi and King, not the suicidal ones.

    How come a person with Ph.D. sends a wrong message to the young Ethiopians by claiming that suicide is a noble cause, a cause that cleanses their fear from burning their bodies for a noble cause? A noble cause is a cause that sends me to jail; a noble cause is a cause that sends me to exile; a noble cause is a cause that starves me to death; a noble cause is a cause that separates me from my family and from my friends; a noble cause is a cause that humiliates me in front of other people; however, self-immolation is not a noble cause: it is un Ethiopian; it is un Christian, and it is a barbaric and self-inflicted death that undermines one of the Judio-Christian rules: “you shall not commit murder.”

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