Opinion: The new era of transformation in Ethiopia and the Elephant in the room

Kebadu Mekonnen, (PhD), For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, September 05/2018 – We live in and through a story whether we know it or not. If it is in someone else’s story, we probably get a marginal part and that may not be to our liking. Or perhaps we might not have the faintest idea about the story we are in, and as a consequence of that we might be living in a malevolent tragedy unconsciously. There is also another sense of being in a story; it relates to the myth and folklore that our predecessors have labored to produce and preserve. These are archetypal stories that transcend history and as such must be understood as abstractions from the underlying substrate of the human experience. As such they serve as metaphors informing us that some of the chaos underlying our human condition can be set right by adopting responsibility and subsequently set our house in order.

In this piece I will explore our current socio-political situation using, as a magnifying glass, the familiar ancient story of the Book of Exodus in which the Bible recounts the story of the Jews who wandered in the desert for forty years after breaking free from the horrors of slavery at the hands of the Pharaoh. But I have to say from the get go that I have no interest in prophesy; nor do I profess competence in the theological interpretation of religious texts; I leave that to proper religious scholars to grapple with.

My interest in the story, therefore, relates to its symbolic significance for the interpretation of our current political reality. One of the things that makes the story of Exodus compelling is that it describes an experiential journey rather than a geographical one, that it connects particular human experiences otherwise separated by centuries and as a consequence commits moments to eternity. The entire narrative is an allegory to the experiential process of social transformation. It depicts a heroic journey with a penetrating narrative structure (unmatched by any other, perhaps with the exception of Goethe’s Proust or Dante’s Inferno). It tells us that every transformation, social or personal, is punctuated by intermittent deserts, a period of corruption and lost direction until the people found their way back through the adoption of a proper mode of being.

The journey of transformation is essentially preceded by a period of intense suffering, and perhaps our contemporary history bears more scars of horror than the extraordinary tales of suffering that are dreamt of in those mythical stories. The material evidence to that is overwhelming, precisely since horrendous stories of torture, rape, summary executions, deliberate incitement of ethnic and religious violence, and the extraordinary impunity with which these crimes were committed have now come to light. And with the ‘election’ of Abiy Ahmed as Prime Minister, the age of freedom and transformation has begun in earnest. All the suffering that precedes it, however, made adaptation to the new found freedom difficult, leaving us “a house divided against itself” with the ghosts of recent past still lurking behind. Perhaps that is why we must join Lemma Megersa in asking ourselves: “we yearned to be free, must we now fail to shoulder the responsibility that freedom entails?”

The biblical story portrays this process dramatically, describing it as wandering in the desert through the course of which Moses was chosen by the people to serve as judge and mediator between individuals in conflict, which implies making demanding moral judgements about what is right and wrong. In a striking similarity, “it came to pass on the morrow” that, soon after his debut as prime minister, PM Abiy begins to serve as judge and mediator between conflicting value claims, armed to the teeth with two of his most remarkable maxims– the maxim that only love can redeem us, and that we shall perish as individuals should we fail to converge as fellow citizens (‘medemer’).

Moses’ stint as judge and mediator had come to pass courtesy of the revelation of the Ten Commandments. Similarly, PM Abiy’s administration has taken important steps towards reforming the legal system. We have seen encouraging signs of a genuine desire to cleanse the legal system off those elements that are grounded in vengeance, malice and the brute will to crush dissenting views. As a consequence, we now have a legal recourse to pardoning prisoners of conscience and it is my understanding that the  process of amending the much maligned Anti-terrorism Proclamation and the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation is well underway.

The Elephant in the Room

No decent analysis of Ethiopian politics is complete without the talk of the huge elephant in the room–the politics of identity. Identity politics is, I submit, a secular variation to the religious notion of worshiping the wrong idols. It usually emerges from the place of arrogance, deceit and resentment and is fundamentally driven by a toxic sense of victimhood.

Destruction and mayhem follow wherever identity based political puritanism is installed, regardless of its ideological origin. Humanity has played this dangerous game over the course of the 20th Century; the right-wingers played it in Nazi Germany; and the leftists throughout the communist bloc. All what that produced is a pile of corpses estimated to be in hundreds of millions. I find it confounding why we still want to play this dangerous game. In its contemporary form the old game is merely recycled; the only difference being that ethnicity has supplanted race and class as the organizing theme. This is not to deny historical injustices, as political grievances are real and deeply entrenched in Ethiopia; nor is it to deny my fellow citizens their inalienable right to hold, cherish and preserve their identity and cultural heritage, but simply to caution that the wrong solution to the right problem will only make terrible things worse: the likelihood that anything bad can progressively be made worse is probably the reason why hell is often portrayed as a bottomless pit.

The most plausible way of structuring the state is not by looking at what tribe people belong to, for it isn’t obvious which one of the person’s (possibly multiple) tribal allegiances should be canonical. But if one needs a concise view of the world and our proper place in it, the most plausible view is one predicated on the idea that the individual is of intrinsic value: it isn’t the view which gives precedence to the notion that you’re a member of a tribe although in many ways you are. To see the world through the tribal lens will have the adverse effect of reducing the political space to an oppression Olympics (where groups compete over who is the most oppressed, and unfortunately that’s precisely where we are). Ethnic-baiters resemble what Carl Jung described as Zauberlehrling (the Sorcerer’s Apprentice), “who learned…how to call the ghosts but did not know how to get rid of them again.”

What does the future hold for Ethiopia, if tribalism is finally catapulted as the only game in town? I don’t think ethno-nationalists of the non-secessionist stripe have thought through the real implications of their game for the continuous existence of Ethiopia as a viable nation, not to mention the inherently undemocratic nature of tribal politics. The very notion of Ethiopia will suffer irredeemably as a consequence. It is easier to put off what needs to be done for the sake of gaining short-term and short-sighted political advantage; many ethno-nationalists in fact state that (discourse on the vision of) Ethiopia can wait until the struggle for justice to ‘their people’ is won. We can bury our heads in the sand and pretend to evade responsibility, but we’ll pay for it dearly. As Homer Simpson, the notorious head of the Simpson clan puts it, moments before binging mayonnaise and vodka, “That is a problem of future Homer. Man, I do not envy that guy!” It has also been argued that the recognition of group identity (ethnic or otherwise) as a ground for political mobilization can help protect minorities from oppression and dominance.

A Way Forward

 PM Abiy must recognize that his message of love, convergence and hope must be grounded on a concrete structural reform capable of shaking, if not tearing-down, the ethnic wall. For a republic worthy of its name to emerge and a genuine civic solidarity to take root in Ethiopia, I believe that we need a constitutional amendment prohibiting the founding of political parties on the basis of ethnicity or religion (eg, the 2000 Political Parties Act of The Republic of Ghana). Unlike Ghana, ours seem to require a constitutional amendment simply because the preamble to The Constitution of the Federal Republic of Ethiopia clearly states that “We, the Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples of Ethiopia” are the ultimate locus of legal concern. If I, for example, pledge no allegiance to any given nation, nationality or people (as defined in ethno-linguistic lines), would there still be a conceptual place where my value of being an individual with inviolability can be preserved?

I believe, only a new social contract can properly redeem us; one that is predicated on the notion that the ultimate units of concern are the individuals. This idea is nested within a deeper truth about the nature of the state: the proper functioning of the state is inherently dependent on the proper functioning of the individual, rather than the other way round.  Classical Greek philosophers were on point when asserting that the virtue of individuals is the precursor to the justice of the state. Socrates, arguably the greatest Greek philosopher, is portrayed in the dialogues of Plato as being distrustful of Athenian democracy. His reason was principally that granting voting rights to the citizenry without an equal importance given to their education is foolish and irresponsible. Similarly, if we do not prepare our youth to treasure the value of truth and critical thinking, sooner or later they will find refugee in the herd mentality and start to act out what Alfred Adler, an Austrian psychiatrist and an associate of Freud, called a “life lie.” A “life lie” is a form of (social) psychosis that manifests when the individual use self-deception as a way of disguising prior failure as a consequence of which one has become bitter, vicious and resentful. Obviously, not every case of identity politics is underpinned by a “life lie”; but the probability that it could be is much higher than we’d normally like to admit.

Finally, the architects of this new era of transformation, namely PM Abiy Ahmed, Lemma Megersa, Demeke Mekonnen, and Gedu Andargachew must recognize that they can only take us to the walls of Jericho. Their truly heroic act carried us through the storm, and the spirit of hope that they helped rekindle has the ability to weather another political storm.   However, we must not forget that as long as the tribal structure is still in place, a truly democratic Ethiopia will remain to be a pipe dream. Despite their stature as transformative figures, as leaders within the ethnic coalition (EPRDF) PM Abiy et.al. still symbolize the old ways of political praxis. They are the right men with the wrong tools–ethnically structured state machinery. For their old ways is not tailor-made for the challenges of the future, they must voluntarily pass the mantle of leadership and responsibility on to the future generation. My hope is that, as the Biblical tale has it, it won’t take us 40 years or that our Moseses had to die before we enter into the Promised Land. It doesn’t have to be that way. We only have to let our ideas die instead of ourselves. AS

Editor’s Note: Kebadu Mekonnen Gebremariam, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor, Addis Abeba University College of Social Sciences, Department of Philosophy. He can be reached at kebadum@gmail.com.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are entirely that of the writer’s and do not necessarily
reflect the editorial of Addis Standard.

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