By Aklog Birara, Ph.D.
“He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love.”
“We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
I am not sure which of the above enduring quotes from one of the foremost leaders of change for an inclusive, just and democratic society best describes Ethiopian political and social culture today. I suggest that it is both. Each of us must be ready and willing to “forgive” but not necessarily forget the past if we wish to establish a better alternative to TPLF Inc. We forgive in day to day life with family and friends. However, we seem incapable of practicing forgiveness with regard to public discourse and our common future. Equally, we seem to be trapped in a culture of permanent fear that incapacitates our capacity to change and help toward the transformation of Ethiopian society. What we have in common is detest and rejection of TPLF Inc. governance. I am afraid that hate of a regime is not a sufficient condition to frame the future.
I believe that we should now approach events in Ethiopia with a sense of urgency, reject fear, embrace forgiveness and mobilize a coalition of stakeholders who want constructive change, agree on a shared vision and come up with a road map that will lead to a just, fair, inclusive and democratic society. If we don’t, seize the current intolerable crisis as a window of opportunity, we have no one to blame but ourselves. No one else will do this for us. Whatever we do must be anchored in Ethiopia with the Ethiopian people. Each day, we witness the unfolding of human tragedy and the undoing of Ethiopian society: loss of identity and citizenship; dispossession from lands and cultural icons; and humiliation wherever we might be. A friend reminded me of this when he said that “he cannot sleep at all “after watching the beating and humiliation of Ms. Alem Dechasa in Beirut, Lebanon. She later died under circumstances that anyone with conscience would find suspicious. Ms. Dechasa’s humiliation and death is our humiliation and death as Ethiopians. We can no longer, in good conscience accept governance that leads us to dishonor and humiliation no matter our educational status, our individual wealth, our village, ethnic or religious group or our ideology. We are in this together. The only way out is if we reject selfishness and fear and stand together as Ethiopians no one in our country suffers any more.
The purpose of this article is to suggest that we have fallen into a formidable trap: the trap of fear that leads to submission to a cruel, divisive and corrupt system; rather than the courage to fight back in unison. We admire Tunisians, Egyptians and now Syrians who sacrifice their lives in search of justice; but are not willing and ready to do the same. We spend considerable time, creativity and resources attacking TPLF Inc. but have done little to examine what behaviors and attitudes reinforce fear and inability to forgive and move on to achieve a common goal. We know more about the system that keeps us captive; but know little why we allow it to do this to us. I suggest that it is only when we conquer fear that we will become confident not only in ourselves but will also will have confidence in the capacity of the Ethiopian people to achieve justice. This is where wise leadership and organization make a huge difference. I believe time is of the essence.
In light of the above thesis, I contend that we (individually and as groups) must conquer our own fear first if we are going to collaborate with one another; and if we are going to make material difference to the Ethiopian people and contribute toward the formation of a just and all inclusive system. Given the desperate and destitute conditions in which the vast majority of Ethiopians live, I have no doubt that they will standup in defense of their freedom the same way as Tunisians, Egyptians, Yemenis and Syrians have done and are doing. What I learn from the Arab Spring on which I have written a bit at the request of Al-Jazeera, is that there is more of us on the side of justice compared to the few who rule by force. This is the power of sheer numbers if we harness it systematically and strategically. I am concerned that we cannot take advantage of our numerical superiority if we are scared and or selfish. As a first step, we may need to appreciate the notion that, both revenge and fear are entrapments that TPLF Inc. uses as instruments of control and to sow seeds of suspicion and mistrust among us. It will continue this political culture that reinforces permanent submission if we let it. This suggestion is not as simple as it seems. Those who reject ethnic divide and repression must be bold enough and ready enough to come up with a unity of purpose that stimulates the hearts and minds of all stakeholders or at least the majority. I heard a spiritual leader who informed the Voice of America that, he and his colleagues are ready to “sacrifice their lives in defense of Waldiba,” and the more than a dozen churches and monasteries that TPLF Inc. intends to destroy and make room for a sugar plantation. If these spiritual leaders have the courage to do this, why can’t we?
I was reminded of the duality of revenge and our entrapment in fear that have stalled Ethiopia’s democratization process as I listened to Professor Donald Levine’s latest interview on ESAT. He reminds listeners that the culture of forgiveness and defiance against fear is endemic to us as people but has been eroded substantially through two successive regimes: the Socialist Military Dictatorship that murdered an untold number of Ethiopians and caused mutual annihilation among Leftist elites and contributed to its own defeat. The scars and mindset have not left us. More important, fear has become a norm under TPLF Inc. that jails, murders or causes to murder and dispossesses thousands each month. One manifestation of this fear that I have often observed is that most opposition political parties, civil society organizations and individuals watch without protest as groups of people in specific localities: Gambella, Ogaden, Waldiba, Oromia and others are raped, killed, starved, forced to flee or dispossessed as if they are not part of the whole. This gives the impression that if ‘If it does not happen to me or to my group or tribe,’ then I do not have to protest. Ms. Dechasa was humiliated and her humiliation is our own. Yet, we show detachment as if this does not really affect us. As Levine put it, “Take them out of their land,” is not perceived as a national threat because land grab and its devastating effects are located in specific places such as Afar, Beni-shangul Gumuz, Gambella, Oromia, SNNP, and Waldiba and so on. We ignore the fact that these lands and people are an integral part of Ethiopia and Ethiopians. We ignore this fundamental principle at our own peril. Fear contributes to this tragedy.
I buy Levine’s argument that the ability to forgive and the capacity to resist fear are part of our tradition regardless of ethnic affiliation. Ethiopia would not have survived as an independent country for thousands of years if its mosaic of people did not reject fear and fight external aggression together. Adwa would not have been possible without Ethiopia’s mosaic fighting together. They had something to fight for, their lands and identity. It is this sentiment that the priest in Waldiba expressed with courage. I also share Levine’s point that this unique tradition of defiance of fear that defines us as people is eroded deliberately by self-appointed ethnic elites, the most prominent being TPLF Inc. that championed the Stalinist principle of the right of nations to self-determination, including secession (Article 39 of the TPLF Constitution). The assumption then and now is that Ethiopia is “A prison of nations, nationalities and peoples.” This dictum that emanates from leftist tradition that embraced Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideology without critical examination of the unintended consequences was put into practice by TPLF Inc. for practical use, namely, to dominate the country, strengthen submission, and leave the society and country in permanent suspense. As it turns out, the EPRDF is a creation of TPLF Inc. and there has not been much progress in creating a level playing field in policy and decision-making that shows that the “prison of nations, nationalities and peoples” is now a paragon of justice and equity. TPLF Inc. uses power to punish and not to liberate; to force submission and not to advance democracy among Ethiopia’s 80 nationality groupings; and to spread fear and undermine courage. Just take one recent example.
It seems to me that, TPLF Inc. propagates the idea that it stands for the liberation of oppressed people under previous administrations without granting them the right to debate, participate and engage in the policy and decision-making process. It perceives itself as the only legitimate group that understands development and bars others from the political, social, cultural and economic space for one reason only, dominance and extraction of incomes and wealth for a small cohort of people. This is why it dismisses outright political and economic competition. As a result, unethical and corrupt behaviors are tolerated for its group. The sale and leasing of millions of hectares of virgin lands and water basins and the destruction of Ethiopia’s icons such as Waldiba are defended without public debate because the end, namely, accumulation of wealth and continuity of power justifies the means. If the means entails jailing, killing, and dispossessing hundreds of thousands, it is fine. If it means destruction of Ethiopia’s cultural icons, it is fine too. After all, the Bolsheviks Revolution sacrificed 10 percent of the population to achieve a perfect society. It turned out that a perfect society was not created. TPLF Inc. is out to prove that, those it perceives had done wrong in the past and those it sees as threats for the future must be dealt with by any means necessary, including ethnically cleansing them. The end justifies the means. Dispossession is part of this strategy. The human toll incurred is a feature that the end is better and that the means justifies it. So, most Ethiopians are likely to pay a huge price for this Soviet and North Korean type of political and social architecture unless they rise up and defend themselves in unison.
Indigenous people in the Omo Valley are among the most oppressed and materially backward in the country. In theory at least, they should be among those to be liberated from national oppression but are not. Their situation and the situation in other land grab regions such as Gambella, suggest that the gang of leaders who manage TPLF Inc. does not care about the welfare of ‘oppressed people” anywhere in the country. Yet, it takes away their primary sources of wellbeing and security in the name of advancing their interests. My take is that TPLF Inc. has no empathy. It only cares for and caters to a small group of elites within and outside its tribe. The human toll of this philosophy- that had purportedly stood on the side of ‘oppressed nations, nationalities and peoples–and used this strategy to unseat the Military Socialist Dictatorship (another repressive system) is immense. A few months ago, Survival International, a reputable Non-Governmental Organization that defends social, economic and cultural rights of affected populations around the globe, reported that the people in the Omo Valley faced the prospect of starvation and dispossession owing to the Ethiopian government’s decision to relocate them forcibly and make room for a sugar plantation; the same way as in Waldiba. Dispossession is countrywide.
On March 16, 2012, Praveen Narayan, an Indian Journalist, posted a note on Ethiomedia entitled “Ethiopian tribes face mass eviction” from their ancestral lands and way of life. He says, “A leaked map from Ethiopian Authorities unleashes fears of mass eviction of 200,000 Omo tribes from the Lower Omo Valley to convert available land into sugar plantations.” This same situation has occurred and still occurs throughout the country. Oakland Institute and Human Rights Watch documented the devastating effects of relocation on citizens and the environment in Gambella. By 2015, 1.5 million Ethiopians will be relocated to make room for foreign and domestic ethnic elite investors. On March 13, 2012, AFP reported that “At least 3.6 million hectares (8.8 million acres)-an area larger than the Netherlands-has been leased to foreign investors and state (party owned and endowed and favored firms and individuals) since 2008, with state security using force to drive people from their land.” Imagine the chilling effect or fear this sends to these Ethiopians. Ethiopia’s security system has now formally become an instrument of global capital against the population regardless of ethnic and or religious affiliation. This should send a chill through our spines and offer us the backbone to reject fear.
Part of the explanation of what seems like generational fear is as a result of such uncaring, inhuman, cruel and repressive governance that is willing and ready to sacrifice millions in advancing small group interest. What makes this even more ominous is the fact that there is now a direct marriage between global capitalism and capitalists and TPLF Inc. and its beneficiaries. This liberal development approach that opens-up Ethiopia’s “womb” to foreign investors and domestic capitalists (75 percent Tigreans, according to Oakland Institute) constitutes the greatest natural resource transfer in Ethiopian history. This is happening to our country as we watch with dismay but not an urgent sense of unified thought and action. What TPLF Inc. does is not surprising to me and many other foreign and Ethiopian observers. It is the other side of the equation that defies logic.
Equally damaging to communities that are being disposed, the entire society that suffers from a disastrous economic policy and the long-term security of the country, is our own individual and group behaviors and the dysfunctional way we interact with one another. This is the reason why Levine places much of the burden on us rather than on the repressive government led by TPLF Inc. We may or may not agree with Levine. That is not the point here. The point is that, at minimum, it behooves us to ask why we are generally dysfunctional when it comes to Ethiopian politics and future. I agree that there is no point in going back and ‘beating a dead horse’ with regard to the national question and why ethnic federalism that divides us and keeps the society at bay was institutionalized in Ethiopia; and why it contributed to the land-locked status of the country.
Part of the answer resides in what Levine says. “Everyone has grievance against one another as much as against the regime.” I am afraid that he is right. He is milder in his diagnosis than I was in my book (Amharic), “Yedemocracy meseretoch ba Ethiopia: yealama andinet wosagn naw,” following the 2005 elections. I will not repeat my research based observations here. Instead, I will strengthen Levine’s comments by extracting themes from research findings by Salaam Yitbarek. In “A Problem of social and cultural norms,” he says the following:
• “Ethiopian collectives tend to be ineffective, inefficient, and short-lived.” We tend to focus more on activity rather than results. We also tend to create groups and either let them perish or allow them to bifurcate. Why? This is because we do not focus on the goal but on personalities. Group meetings end up as bickering sessions or as debating societies instead of sources of creativity, innovation and positive change.
• Our communication style is typically adversarial, reinforcing the view that we are there to score points or to prove how wrong someone is. In Yitbarek’s experience, “communication is opaque (not transparent and direct); and “feuding and infighting is rampant.” The greater goal or agreed mandate is thus either sacrificed or compromised in the process.
• It is rare for Ethiopians to exercise openness. It is as if we are trapped in the “Wax and Gold” era that Levine attributes, partially wrongly, to the Amhara group. “Rarely does one observe open and frank communication amongst Ethiopians,” and their collectives regardless of national origin or religion or gender. The young generation does better than my generation. My generation is known for avoiding commitment to and communication on the basis of fundamental principles and values that can be tested in the real world.
• It is still not uncommon among Ethiopians to hold grudges and wait for a time to score points. This is the reason for Levine’s comment that revenge is an attribute that deters the formation of a democratic culture that entertains differences as normal. TPLF Inc. has perfected it to rule. We have yet to counter it with a new culture of forgiveness in order to serve the common good better.
• We tend to thrive on what I call ‘destructive’ rivalry that leaves little room for dialogue and compromise, a TPLF Inc. trait. We have observed over and over again that the minority ethnic-elite forces opponents to submit to its power by forcing the innocent to accept guilt. “The zero-sum view of the world leads many to view compromise as a weakness.” This is among the reasons why opposition political parties, civic groups and well-meaning individuals fail to accept the art of compromise as vital in resolving conflicts.
• We rarely use the best techniques to diagnose and resolve conflicts in organizations. “I have found little difference in the propensity and nature of conflicts that occur within collectives in Ethiopia and the Diaspora,” says the author. The Diaspora mirrors the same political and social culture that prevails in Ethiopia. This is exploited by TPLF Inc. to spread divisions, fear and backbiting amongst activists and opponents.
• The impact of these and related behaviors is that cooperation and collaboration, team work and unity of purpose or mandate are undermined.
• Although we do not accept them readily, we often personalize issues and seem incapable of distinguishing between the person and the substance he or she advances. This leads to “parochialism: friend, political party, civic or religious group, professional association, ethnic group,” or even village within a region. Who benefits from this typology? It is self-appointed leaders and TPLF Inc. The cost of these and similar tendencies is huge. For example, mistrust and fear deepen. We treat one another as adversaries and fierce competitors even in situations where we have no country where such competition would lead to power.
• We accuse TPLF Inc. of lack of empathy and compassion for people, including the poorest of the poor. The author says rightly that we ourselves make quick and unwarranted “judgment before reflection.” Quick and non-reflective judgments show a revenge mental model and tend to undermine mutual trust and empathy.
• Following the 1974 Revolution, character assassination was rampant. It still is. I know; I was one of the targets. One spreads unfounded rumors into the system such as “She/he is a member of the CIA or KGB or Mossad” was common among leftists of the day. Today, we hear similar character assassination, for example, those who were members of TPLF Inc. but have now rejected it are often accused of ulterior motives. Even within the most sacred of institutions, such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, character assassination has become a standard practice. Those who propagate this tradition fail to recognize the reputational risks involved; and the message this sends to the rest. Those who tend to do this forget that no person involved in Ethiopian politics is beyond reproach or blame. Therefore, we need to look at the impact and then change our behaviors. Unfounded character assassination deters cooperation and collaboration and harms the common cause.
These deficiencies in our individual and group behavior may seem academic. They are not at all. I will provide some additional examples to illustrate the point. We spend millions of hours of our time talking but have yet produce results that make a difference to the Ethiopian people. We have no measurements of effectiveness. We dwell more on differences rather than commonalties. Have you ever attended a meeting at which Ethiopians express their commonalities as naturally as their differences? Do we listen to one another with respect and civility? Have you wondered if Levine’s and Yitbarek’s statements resonate with political and civic actors? We need to be bold enough and honest enough to answer these questions. Otherwise, there will not be innovation and change in politics.
Assuming we share, at least, broadly, the above, we should not wonder that opposition groups and individuals cannot agree with one another yet. By definition, they work against one another. They see one another as rivals and fierce competitors. They hold one another with suspicion. They harbor grudges. This is why there is little mutual tolerance, respect or trust. We seem to be governed more by our differences than by our commonalties. In some cases, we are reduced to think as someone from a village and not the “Greater Ethiopia” that Levine’s book discusses with evidence. Where we all seem to agree is on hatred of the regime, and on its overthrow. This is not a sufficient condition for change that will lead to peace, national reconciliation, justice, fair play and political pluralism.
What can we do?
It is not sufficient to blame the regime for all our ills. I have done that as much as anyone. Equally, we need to recognize that we are still unable to break out an incapacitating culture of narrow rivalry, suspicion, egos and competition that lead to revenge and fear. We need to conquer our individual and group inabilities to forgive so that we can advance the common good of all of the Ethiopian people. We can start with small steps and not dwell too much on past mistakes by regimes, political groups and individuals. I believe that we can learn to avoid the mistakes of the past and chart a more promising future if we tap into the diverse talent pool that comes from Ethiopia’s rich mosaic. Ethiopia is a huge country with diverse talent. No single individual or group has the answer. Evidence shows that, together, we can come up with solutions. To do this, we, as individuals and groups, should conquer the revenge and fear culture that has incapacitated all of us and that sustains repressive governance.
We cannot afford to blame this on TPLF Inc. alone for our individual and group fear. What about us? Who is going to liberate Ethiopia and Ethiopians if we continue this culture? We can and need to advance openness and transparency; truthfulness and disclosure; and stop to vilify others on whom we have misperceptions. Vilification without cause and character assassination without facts, undermine cooperation and give signal that it is ok for TPLF Inc. to perpetuate the disastrous principle that Ethiopia is still “a prison house of nations, nationalities and peoples” under the guise of ethnic-federalism. Levine –a previous proponent– now admits that this form of federalism of “we the nations, nationalities and peoples of Ethiopia” does not advance peace, security, peace, and democracy. Given his vast knowledge of Ethiopia’s evolution and culture and the variety of federal systems that work, including the US, he should have disputed ethnic-federalism from its inception. Nevertheless, I admire his courage to question its validity today. This is more than the rest of us in the academic world are doing.
Do most of us in the opposition camp and in academia dare to reject the concept of “irreconcilability” of Ethiopians and the ethnic federal government formula that divides the country into 21st century ‘Bantustans’ and leads to ethnic-based killings and removals? Do we dare to ask who has taken advantage of this ideology that leftists and ethnic-based liberation fronts parlayed in the 1960s and 1970s and beyond?
One look at the demographic data of who is getting super rich; being driven out of their lands, properties and country; and is forced to flee the country in droves will provide answers. This is why Levine implied that the TPLF Inc. developmental state accepts the notion that TPLF Inc. finds it acceptable to uproot a few millions and make room for foreign and ethnic elite owned commercial farms. “Taking them out of their land is ok,” because it is being done for the greater good. The greater good serves global capital and the TPLF Inc. ethnic elite and its allies. After all, it is someone’s land that is taken away. It is someone else who is killed or is starved or is in jail or is forced to flee or is dispossessed. I suggest that such occurrences would not take place if we reject the culture of revenge and fear and cooperate for a transition.
Levine reminds us that Ethiopian society continues to pay a huge price from a political tradition that propagates “irreconcilability” of Ethiopians because of their ethnic make-up rather than strengthening the multiple threads (intermarriages, religious affiliation, domestic trade, settlement, unity against foreign aggression and so on) that bind our country together. I have tried to show that this so called “irreconcilability” makes many of us unforgiving and revenge oriented. I can understand why TPLF Inc. rules through revenge and hatred rather than mutual respect, acceptance and tolerance. It provides it the philosophical basis to reinforce submission to its authority. However, I wonder why those who are opposed to it persist in reinforcing the same political culture of revenge–constant fracturing and division of political groups and even churches. Shouldn’t they do exactly the opposite of the oppressive ethnic elite system that denies the vast majority both freedom and economic and social opportunity? This is why I suggest that there are consequences for bad behaviors and retarding culture.
I do believe that political and social elites, opposition political parties and civil society organizations as well as individuals can advance the causes of a just and inclusive system by demonstrating readiness and willingness to “forgive” one another and by focusing on the things we have in common rather than on the things that divide us.
In this regard, I am comforted by the ‘light at the end of the tunnel.” Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora are meeting and conversing on how best we can reach-out to and cooperate with one another. They have begun to surface and debate hard questions that were left out in the past. There is more open dialogue on the kind of alternative future that will accommodate the hopes and aspirations of all Ethiopians rather than self-appointed political elites. A new generation of Ethiopians at home and in the Diaspora is engaged, and in some areas, shows leadership and organizational skills beyond ethnicity, religion, demography and gender. Ethiopian women in the Diaspora have begun to reengage.
Therefore, the rest of us can and should help strengthen the current momentum by overcoming dysfunctional behaviors and ways of dealing with one another; by helping conquer our individual and group inabilities to forgive one another; and by rejecting the incapacitating fear culture that envelopes Ethiopian society—the biggest hurdle of all. This is why we need to remind ourselves constantly that “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” I propose that no one else in the world would save Ethiopia and Ethiopians from the abysmal condition they find themselves in except Ethiopians within and outside the country together.
Our capacity to change depends on our individual and collective will and determination to make a difference and leave an enduring legacy. This will occur if we set aside ideological, ethnic and religious differences and focus on what matters the most: a compelling vision that will lead to a fair, just, inclusive system and serve all; and a robust process that anchors the struggle in the hands of the Ethiopian people.