Africa: Cause looking for rebels By Alemayehu G. Mariam

May 23rd, 2011 Print Print Email Email

This commentary is based on talk I gave at the first annual University of California, Los Angeles Habesha Student Association[1] Networking Night event held at Ackerman Union on May 14, 2011.]

I have been asked to comment on youth political apathy and how to transform apathy into constructive action. That is a very tall order, but I am glad to be able to share with you my views on a subject that has defied and puzzled political scientists and pundits for generations.

The general allegation is that young people are uninterested, unconcerned and indifferent about matters of politics and government. Political apathy (crudely defined as lack of interest and involvement in the political process and general passivity and indifference to political and social phenomena in one’s environment) among youth is said to be the product of many factors including lack of political awareness and knowledge, absence of civic institutions that cultivate youth political action and involvement and the prevailing cultural imperatives of consumerism and the media. Simply stated, young people are said to be self-absorbed, short attention-spanned and preoccupied and distracted by popular culture, social networking, leisurely activities and the ordinary demands of daily life to pay serious attention to politics.

Longitudinal studies of youth political apathy in the U.S. suggest that many young people are politically disengaged because they believe politics is about “money and lying and they don’t want to involve themselves in it.” Many young Americans complain that politicians ignore young people and have little youth-oriented communication. They accuse politicians of being in the back pockets of big money and that their votes are inconsequential in determining the outcome of any significant issues in society. Feeling powerless, they retreat to cynicism and apathy.

In contrast, in the 1960s, young Americans led the “counter-culture revolution” and were the tips of the spear of the Civil Rights Movement. The Free Speech Movement which began at the University of California, Berkeley was transformed from student protests for expressive and academic freedom on campus to a powerful nationwide anti-war movement on American college campuses and in the streets. Young African Americans advanced the cause of the Civil Rights Movement by employing the powerful tools and techniques of civil disobedience staging sit-ins and boycotts to desegregate lunch counters and other public accommodations. On May 4, 1961, fifty years to the month today, young inter-racial Freedom Riders set out to challenge local laws and customs that enforced segregation in public transportation in the American South, and succeeded in eliminating racial segregation in public transportation at considerable personal risk. Young people in the Black Power Movement in the late 1960s demanded racial equality dignity, economic and political self-sufficiency and advocated black nationalism.

A similar pattern of youth activism is evident for African youths. In many African countries, students and other young people have been in the vanguard of social forces demanding political changes. University students in Ethiopia agitated and mobilized for the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1974. It is ironic that the very individuals who hold the reins of power in Ethiopia today were among those university students who fought and died for democracy and human rights in the early 1970s. In 2005, these former university students ordered a massacre which resulted in the killing of at least 193 unarmed largely youth protesters and the wounding of 763 others. In 1976 in South Africa, 176 students and other young people protesting apartheid were killed in Soweto. In recent months we have seen young people leading nonviolent uprising in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries to remove decades-old dictatorships. In Uganda today, the young followers of Kizza Besigye, (Museveni’s challenger in the recent elections) are at the center of the Walk to Work civil disobedience campaign protesting economic hardships and a quarter century of Museveni’s dictatorship.

The African Youth Charter

Africa has been described as the “youngest region of the world”. The African youth population is estimated to be 70 percent of the total population (nearly 50 percent of them under age 15). Virtually 100 percent of the top political leadership in Africa belongs to the “over-the-hill” gang. Robert Mugabe still clings to power in Zimbabwe at age 86. It is manifestly hard to demand higher levels of political participation and involvement among African youths when they come of age in societies controlled and stifled by dictators long in the tooth. But there is no question that youth apathy is the greatest threat to the institution and consolidation of democracy in Africa.

There may be a glimmer of hope for African youths in the African Union’s “Youth Charter”, which provides comprehensive protections for Africa’s young people. Article 11 (“Youth Participation”) is of special significance. It requires signatory states to ensure “every young person” has the “right to participate in all spheres of society.” This requires state parties to “guarantee the participation of youth in parliament and other decision-making bodies”, access to “decision-making at local, national, regional, and continental levels of governance” and requires “youth advocacy and volunteerism” and peer-to-peer programmes for marginalised youth”. States are required to “provide access to information such that young people become aware of their rights and of opportunities to participate in decision-making and civic life”. Africa’s youths should hold their doddering dictators accountable under the Charter.

Transforming Youth Apathy Into Youth Action?

I have no ready prescriptions to convert youth apathy into youth action. My view of the issue is very simple. The word apathy has roots in a Greek word “apathea” denoting lack of emotion. Young people in America, Africa or elsewhere are apathetic because they are “not fired up and raring to go.” They lack that “fire in the belly”. They find themselves in a state of political paralysis unable to act. So, how can African youth escape the political doldrums of apathy on a sea of cynicism, pessimism, negativism and disillusionment? The short answer is that they need to find the issues in society they care about and pursue them passionately. The long answer revolves around a few basic principles:

Be idealistic. Robert Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things and ask why. I dream of things and ask why not.” Nelson Mandela said, “I dream of an Africa at peace with itself.” Bob Marley said, there will be no peace until “the philosophy which hold one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned”, “there no longer are first class and second class citizens of any nation” and “basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all.” Young Africas should dream of an Africa free from the bondage of ethnic politics, scourge of dictatorship, debilitating poverty and flagrant human rights violations. Why are these youthful dreams not possible? As Gandhi said, when you are idealistic, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Examine your lives. When Socrates was put on trial for encouraging his young students to question authority and accepted beliefs, he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It is important for Africa’s young people to question their beliefs and actions. If they are indifferent to the suffering of their people, they should question themselves. Part of that self-examination is knowing if one is doing the right or wrong thing, and making corrections when mistakes are made. Unless we question our values and actions, we end up doing things mechanically, impulsively and blindly.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Gandhi said these simple but powerful words. The revolution we want to see in the world begins with us when we strive to relate to others on the basis of high moral and ethical standards. If we want to see a just, fair and compassionate world, we must begin by practicing those values ourselves. I want to congratulate the UCLA Habesha Student Association for bringing together young Ethiopians and Eritreans in one organizational setting to work cooperatively and harmoniously on issues of common interest and concern. Such collaboration sets an extraordinary example for all young people in the Horn of Africa to follow because the UCLA students have been able to relate with each other at the most fundamental human level instead of as members of opposing camps nursing historical enmities. It is a great mindset to be able to see beyond ethnicity and national boundaries; and most importantly not to be sucked into the vortex of historical grievances kept alive by the older generation.

Be independent thinkers and empower yourselves. Always ask questions and follow-up questions. One of the things those of us in the older generation do not do well is ask the right questions. Often we do not base our opinions on facts. Africa’s young people should think for themselves and creatively. The Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” It is easy and comfortable for others to do the thinking for us. The alternative is for the older generation to do the thinking for the youth. Do Africa’s youths want that? To think independently means to keep an open mind and tolerate opposing viewpoints. Africa’s dictators fear young independent thinkers because the young trumpet the truth.
Stand for Something. Rosa Parks, the great icon of the American Civil Rights Movement, is credited for modifying the old adage by saying: “Stand for something or you will fall for anything. Today’s mighty oak is yesterday’s nut that held its ground.” Young people of courage, character and determination today are the seeds of great leaders tomorrow. Africa’s young people need to take a stand for human rights, democracy, freedom and peace. They also need to take a stand against all forms of violence, ethnic politics and the politics of intolerance, hate and fear.

Network with other young people and learn techniques of grassroots organizing. The UCLA HSA is committed to self-help through networking. That is important and very useful. But networking can be used for political activism and advocacy as well. Using technology and social media, young people can create effective virtual and actual communities to enhance their political participation and be more actively engaged in the political process. Grassroots organizing is the most elementary and one of the most effective methods of youth political action. Youth grassroots organizing won the day during the Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago, and it won the day in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria.

Become a voice for the voiceless. There are hundreds of millions of Africans whose voices are stolen at the ballot box every year and remain forgotten as political prisoners in the jails of Africa’s dictators. Corruption, abuse of power, lack of accountability and transparency are the hallmarks of many contemporary African states. Young Africans must raise their voices and be heard on these issues. The great international human rights organizations are today the voices of the voiceless in Africa. They investigate the criminality of African regimes and present their findings to the world. Africa’s youths must take over part of the heavy lifting from these organizations. It is not fair to expect international human rights organizations to be the voice boxes of Africa’s masses.

Never give up. It is important for young people to appreciate and practice the virtues of tenacity, courage, determination and perseverance. In 1941, Winston Churchill speaking to young people at a school inspired them with these timeless words: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Churchill’s words ring true for every generation of young people everywhere. For Africa’s youth, the message is simple: “Never yield to force.”

Cause looking for Rebels

If I have any words of wisdom, it is that young Africans must rebel against apathy itself through a process of self-examination. I believe a successful rebellion against one’s own apathy will be the defining moment in the pursuit of the greatest cause of this generation, the struggle for human rights. The cause of human rights in Africa and elsewhere needs armies of young rebels to stand up in defense of human dignity, the rule of law and liberty and against tyranny and despotism. To stand up for free and fair elections is to stand up for human rights. To fight for women’s rights is to fight for human rights. To defend children’s rights is to defend human rights. To uphold human rights is to uphold ethnic rights, religious rights, linguistic rights, free press rights, individual rights….
Ralph Nader, the implacable American consumer advocate warned: “To the youth of America, I say, beware of being trivialized by the commercial culture that tempts you daily. I hear you saying often that you’re not turned on to politics. If you do not turn on to politics, politics will turn on you.” That can be said equally of African youths. I say defend human rights, speak truth to power!

Think global, act local. Think local, act global.

[1] The HSA “aims to bring together people of Ethiopian and Eritrean descent (a/k/a Habeshas) at UCLA “by jointly organizing and sponsoring “cultural events, college workshops and community activities that promote the success of Habeshas at UCLA and the surrounding community.” It also aims to provide a “forum to discuss issues, share ideas and simply connect on a peer-to-peer level.” I thank the UCLA-HSA for the opportunity to dialogue with them.]

  1. tewbel
    | #1

    What is this Habesha business ?? another race ? or what ?
    wht is wrong to be an Ethiopian??

  2. Samuel
    | #2

    In an attempt to smooth relations with Eritrea, some Habeshas are opting for an Habesha association that does not include Kembatas, Oromos, Somalis….etc. That is not an over look. It is strategic for some far looking politicians.

  3. tewbel
    | #3

    I wouldn’t call them far looking rather the contrary. Amateurish politics. Eritreans choose to be “Free” instead of being “Slaves” the rest of the Ethiopian people did not ask them to leave it was their own free choice. (Personally I have never seen or known an Eritrean “slave”)
    I think that we should stop fabricating Ethiopian history, there is too much of it that it has an Albatross to our politics. Lies can never be truth.

  4. wedi samre
    | #4

    A living example of intellectual unpatriotism
    Dear Ato Alemayehu,
    I don’t know if there will come time when I will chime in with your ideas. You write: “I want to congratulate the UCLA Habesha Student Association for bringing together young Ethiopians and Eritreans in one organizational setting to work cooperatively and harmoniously on issues of common interest and concern. Such collaboration sets an extraordinary example for all young people in the Horn of Africa to follow because the UCLA students have been able to relate with each other at the most fundamental human level instead of as members of opposing camps nursing historical enmities. It is a great mindset to be able to see beyond ethnicity and national boundaries; and most importantly not to be sucked into the vortex of historical grievances kept alive by the older generation”.
    This is the most telling example of how someone with no real emotional attachment to the Ethiopian nation sees things. Can/should Ethiopians deprioritize their Ethiopianity in favor of their humanity? Or is it your naive cosmopolitanism which leads you to belittle the importance of national boundaries? Have you forgotten that Ethiopians attach a great importance to the defense of their Red Sea national frontier? Or are you trying to tell young Ethiopians that they can be befriended with Hamasin while their country is constrained to pay annually billions of dollars for use of Djiboutian port? You should not have ducked telling the Ethiopian youth that they are victims of the unpatriotic behavior of their fathers and grand fathers who did nothing to pass on to them a respected and united Ethiopia. You seem to forget that what you call “political apathy”in Ethiopia has nothing to do with the political apathy that we witness elsewhere in the world. In Ethiopia, the unnatural alliance between Shabia, it’s hirelings one the one hand and anti-Tigray Amhara intellectual tribalists, democratists and human rightists on the other has led to an alarming erosion of the spirit of Ethiopian nationalism. Although you are not an anti-Tigray tribalist, your human-rightism has led Ethiopians in general and the youth in particular to consider that Ethiopia’s problems are the same as the problems faced by Ben Ali’s Tunisia and Mubarak’s Egypt. That explains why Ethiopians have published a deluge of articles predicting a possible Egyptian like “Revolution” in Ethiopia. As for the Ethiopian nationalist, s/he knows very well that the problems of Egypt/Tunisia are qualitatively fundamentally different from that of Ethiopia. Unlike Tunisians and Egyptians, we Ethiopians are half in grave, half out. That is, we are above the dead and below the living. What could be the worst for the Ethiopian than accepting passively the lose of her/his national dignity? It is because the humiliation of Ethiopia has started to be seen as a “normal” thing that young Ethiopian students have decided to create an association together with the citizens of an enemy neighboring country and to christen it “Habasha”
    Yet you know very well that there is no supra national identity called Habesha which includes Eritrea (Hamasin) and Ethiopia (Amhara). You know also that the overwhelming majority of Ethiopians and Eritreans don’t accept to be called Habesha. Why has it not occurred to you to advise your audience to please disband the “Habasha” Student association because it goes counter to the very idea of the Ethiopian nation? You could have advised them to create a student association of north-east Africa? It could be less unpalatable for me if the student association called itself Ethio-Eritrean .
    Ato Alemayehu, don’t you see the blatant contradiction in which the Hamasin find themselves? They said that they were colonized by Amhara and even prided on having “defeated” the “Amhara”? If the so-called “thirty years “ of war against Ethiopian “colonialism” was underpinned by the belief that Amhara and Hamasin were as foreigners to each other as are the Japanese and the Koreans, how is it possible now to talk about an Amhara-Hamasin “supra-ethnic Habasha common identity”? If young Amhara and Hamasin students can call themselves “Habesha”, why did the Hamasin describe the Amhara as their worst enemies?
    In our high school days, we were told that the Habesha were Arabian immigrants who arrived in the 6th century BC in Tigray( which had included until 1890 today’s Tigray and high land Eritrea which is the geographical, religious, cultural and linguistic extension of Tigray). Some pro-Shabia historians like Gebru Tareke also assert that Habesha is a supra ethnic identity of Amhara and Tigray. Some Western scholars consider the Tigrigna speaking Eritreans (the Hamasin a word to be understood in Tigray acceptation of the term ), Tigrigna speaking Tigrayans and Amharigna speaking Ethiopians are Habesha. But we know that only the Tigrigna speaking populations of Seraye and Akkele Guzay are Tigrayans. The Anseba (Hamasin) around Asmara are of Beja origin who migrated from Gondar to Eritrea. They have the same common Beja ancestry like the Amharic speaking population of Gondar and the Tigrigna speaking population of Welkait and Tsegede. The Hamasin speak a bastardized form of Tigrigna sensibly different from that spoken in Tigray and in the former Tigrayan provinces of Seraye and Akkele Guzay. This means that speaking Tigrigna or Amharigna does not mean necessarily that one has “Habesha” ancestry. That is why I think that christening the association “Habesha” is incorrect because it does not have any historical basis. I suspect that it is a Shabia (EPLF/TPLF) organization intended to divide Ethiopians. If young Ethiopian students born after 1991 or some years before are willing to create with young Hamasin an associating known Habasha, it is a bad omen for Ethiopia. It shows that Shabia’s (TPLF/EPLF) two decade old crusade to destroy the Ethiopian nation has started to bear it’s fruit. Contrary to what argues Alemayehu Gebremariam, it shows that the problem of Ethiopia is not political apathy but the alarming Shabianization of Amhara intellectuals and politicians. Alemayehu talks about political apathy without demonstrating first the existence of politics in Ethiopia. He compares the problem of the Ethiopian youth with that of the American or African youth. May the Almighty forgive our sins! How on earth can one reasonably compare the Ethiopian situation with the American situation? America declares war to distant lands to defend it’s strategic interest, while Shabia steals our land and out sea outlet and gives it to Eritrea, to the Sudan and to other neighboring countries. Assuming that Ethiopia has a problem of democracy and human-rights, it will be solved tomorrow. But I would like to argue that if Ethiopia defended it’s independence for two thousand years, it was not thanks to democratism and human-rightism. It was thanks to Ethiopian nationalism. This is a historical fact which no one of sane mind can dispute. What lessons can we learn from our history to solve our current existential problems? The lesson is that we should work hard intellectually for the revival of Ethiopian nationalism by combating democratism, human-rightism and anti-Tigray Amhara intellectual tribalism.
    It is because I set great store by Ethiopianism that I disrelish to be called Habesha. Because our ancestors never called their country or their people “Habesha”. Starting from the 5th AD, the official name of our country has been Ethiopia. In no time has our country been called officially Habasha. In Tigray, I have always heard priests saying “Kidisti Hagerna Ethiopia” (our holy land Ethiopia). I have never heard our priests or any one in Tigray saying “ Hagerna Habesha”, or “our country Habesha”. Indeed, the word “Ethiopia” has a special significance. It is sacred, which is not the case of the meaningless term “Habesha”. No where is mentioned the word”Habesha” in the Kibra Nagast. As descendants of King Solomon and negiste Saba, Ethiopian kings would not have accepted to be considered as the descendants “Arabian” immigrants called “Habasha”. Because as Christians, they always believed that they belonged to the tribe of Judah. There is also another very important reason why I loathe to be called Habasha. The reason is that the label Habasha separates me from my fellow Oromigna, Agawigna, Kambatigna, Sidamigna, Afarigna, Kunamigna, Irob, Hadyagna, etc speaking compatriots. They are my people. I cannot live without them as they cannot live without me. I am Ethiopian; I am not Habesha; I am African because I am Ethiopian. I am not Asiatic or Middle easterner, or South-Arabian because I have never been Habesha.
    Having said that, why so much fuss about bringing Hamasin and Amhara together when the most important thing for Ethiopia is to bring the sons and the daughters of Ethiopia together so that they can fight for the liberation of their country from Shabia military occupation? Wouldn’t it be far more important to invest time and energy in fighting anti-Tigray Amhara intellectual tribalism rather than lavishing time and energy in a meaningless attempt to bring Amhara and Hamasin together? Every one knows that if the Tigray people don’t want it, a reconciliation between Amhara-Hamasin will be of no utility for the new northern neighbors of Ethiopia. The Hamasin can say “Zeraf” so long as Ethiopia is under Shabia control, but when the days of Shabia are finished, it will be an entirely different matter.
    What is however so repulsive to me is to see some unpatriotic Amhara talking about reconciliation with the Hamasin while more than one hundred thousand members of the Ethiopian army captured in Eritrea in 1991 by Shabia (TPLF/EPLF) remain still unaccounted. Some say our fellow compatriots have been reduced to slavery and have been obliged during the last two decades to construct roads and other infrastructures in Eritrea. This is a very plausible theory all the more so as Eritrea did not have the means to finance the infrastructures it got built since 1992. Others say Shabia (TPLF/EPLF) killed them as a revenge. For all these reasons, it is too early to talk about reconciliation or about bringing Amhara and Hamasin together. On the contrary we have to do every thing possible so that Shabia (EPLF/TPLF) can be obliged to account for our compatriots which it captured in 1991.
    Yes, I am opposed to any rapprochement between Ethiopia and the renegade province, Eritrea in the foreseeable future. We can have a closer and fruitful relationship with Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti. It is economically more interesting for us. In what way can the rapprochement of more than eighty six million Ethiopians with the Hamasin (less than two million people) be interesting for Ethiopia? I would rather advise Ethiopians to make war with the neighbor enemy while making peace with it’s distant supporters. If Ethiopians are not convinced by this argument, we should keep the Hamasin at bayat least until the liberation of Ethiopia. We will see if Eritrea is willing to have a peaceful relationship by returning the stolen Assab Autonomous Region of Ethiopia, and other Ethiopian territories. If Eritrea can behave itself in a civilized way (by returning to Ethiopia all the money and territory she has stolen), may be a rapprochement will be possible; all the more so as more than half of the Tigrigna speaking population of Eritrea has Tigray ancestry. Their grand parents or great grand parents migrated to Eritrea in search for work between 1910 and 1930. Besides, most of the EPLF leaders are of Tigray parentage. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia not because the ordinary “Eritrean” wanted it, but because the sons of some Tigrayans harbored too much irrational hate against the Amhara that they were led to lie that Eritrea was an Ethiopian colony. What a shame to hear them saying that they are “Eritreans”? They say they had never been Ethiopians. There cannot be an association between Ethiopians and those who hate to be called Ethiopians. The fact the student association is called Habesha is not accidental. It shows how the Hamasin hate the name “Ethiopia”. To please the Hamasin, the Amhara have decided to be called “Habasha” and not Ethiopian. Unbelievable!
    But Alemayehu is convinced to the contrary. The choice of the name “ Habesha” and the rejection of the name Ethiopia is for him, a “positive” thing. That is why he says:“it is a great mindset to be able to see beyond ethnicity and national boundaries; and most importantly not to be sucked into the vortex of historical grievances kept alive by the older generation”. I wonder if Alemayehu would do something to help his country regain the Assab Administrative Region of Ethiopia. Because, in his infinite wisdom, that would amount “…to be sucked into the vortex of historical grievances kept alive by the older generation“. My friend! wake up from the slumber of intellectual unpatriotism.

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