“THE FAULT… IS NOT IN OUR STARS / BUT IN OURSELVES.” By Tecola W. Hagos
“Men at some time are masters of their fates.
Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2,
The above quotation is from William Shakespeare’s great play Julius Caesar, wherein Cassius speaking to Brutus, is trying to convince him that Julius Caesar is a danger to the Roman republican system of government. What moved Cassius to a point of frenzy against Julius Caesar was his intense jealousy of Julius Caesar, and not so much the love of Roman republicanism. In Ethiopia also there seems to be skepticism and doubt about the motive of a number of our politicians whether it is their patriotism that is behind all their effort or greed and individual ambition. I try to think otherwise. Nevertheless, I am not discounting the value of intense personal ambition or hatred as a formidable force that might lead individuals to great deeds that benefits society. A number of my fellow Ethiopians might think that such results derived from hate and personal motives would only breed even more complex problems for future generations of Ethiopians.
Our compounded and multi-layered social, political, and economic problems could be overwhelming for any one person to tackle or even identify properly. I see in our activities and in our discourses the manifestations of such deeply entrenched underlying problems. In general terms, they maybe due to our distorted understanding or perception of our individual lives. A year ago, in reviewing Dr. Aklog Birara’s outstanding book Waves, 2010, I wrote, “One must look at the Ethiopian people themselves not just the leadership in order to read correctly why Ethiopia is underdeveloped and in perpetual shortage of food.” I do not want to simplify a complex problem for the sake of clarity. But there are certain facts that must be stated in order to have a clear understanding of our problems. We all did fall into the same trap of heaping all the problems of Ethiopia on the rulers of Ethiopia; such is the trap that is often overlooked by many Ethiopian scholars critical of the rulers of Ethiopia. When Haile Selassie bombed areas in several places in Ethiopia, we did not protest. When the Derg murdered the sixty high Government Officials of Haile Seassie, we in fact applauded. When Meles Zenawi fired on the first Demonstrators, we sheepishly returned home. What do we expect from our leaders if we have such a history of cowardice and appeasement? We must be able to consider the possibility that Meles Zenawi may well be the symptom of a very sick society rather than being the cause of its problems. Such understanding would only add to our strength in order to engage successfully all those who hurt us, including Meles Zenawi.
Some bloggers have considered my form of critical evaluation as beating on the victims; I call it facing up to reality and seeking fundamental solution to Ethiopia’s perpetual suffering, in a process of thinking outside of the box. I believe the most pressing problem in Ethiopia is the level of knowledge (awareness) available as a general factor in the Ethiopian population. One may explain this singular handicap in several ways without ever resorting to IQ Bell curves and Galtonian statistical correlation between cranium sizes and intelligence. One must ask serious often unpleasant questions. Anything less is a betrayal of the people of Ethiopia whom we all prophase to love. Thus, I often write on sacrosanct issues, and I ask questions that may tear right through a person’s ego. How could I be of help if I simply write to please people?
II. The Problem: formulating the right question
It seems to me that we have started at some point in the past with the wrong foot first, which means no matter how long and how far we travel, we will always be marching with that wrong foot first. In another article titled “Lacrimosa for Ethiopia,” I lamented on the state of ordinary life in Ethiopia, how poor and deprived it has been of creature comfort—obvious poverty of material acquisitions and now exceedingly showing great depravity of moral and civic virtues. From my observations and encounters of fellow Ethiopians, I have concluded that there is an acute situation of the erosion of ethical standards. “It is particularly disconcerting and debilitating to come to the realization that our ‘Ethiopian life’ is a life that I can only describe as anecdotal, a life that lacks authenticity. The quality of social relationships is deformed and destructive in most of its aspects, such as gender relationships, family and children related interactions, teacher-student relationships, communal participation et cetera. I cannot understand how anyone with his right mind would conclude that life in Ethiopia to be civil when we see that most Ethiopians live in extremely hostile social environment.” Most problems that Ethiopians endure are very much that of the individual type as opposed to public situations of disfranchisement.
I read in numerous articles and essays, by Ethiopian academics, commentators, and politicians, some kind of a demand-formula that revolves around the acquisition of power. To my disappointment they seem to be missing the point. I hear and see our great scholars and intellectuals writing and talking on issues that are not reflective of our fundamental problems of life in Ethiopia. Too often what they are writing about has to do with political power, which subject seems to be an obsession with Ethiopians from every walk of life. There is a real disconnect between the people of Ethiopia and the elites, the scholars, the philosophers, the students and their teachers. We suffer political feebleness because we lack direct involvement in the problems that individuals are faced with in their daily lives back in Ethiopia. A better part of a solution to a problem seems to be the formulating of the exact nature of the problem. In other words, asking the right question goes a long way in solving such a problem. We have failed in identifying the sources of our problems, and also failed in not asking the right question.
III. Good intentions will get us only so far
There is an aphorism that more or less says “the road to Hell is littered with good intentions.” The saying is thought to have originated with Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who wrote, “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs” (hell is full of good wishes and desires). [Christine Ammer, Dictionary of Idioms - the Most Comprehensive Collection of Idiomatic Expressions and Phrases, Houghton-Miffline. 1997, 542.] I do not doubt that Aklog Birara has only the welfare of Ethiopians at heart when he wrote his five part essay (Part V is not yet posted). [See Aklog Birara, PhD, “Why Ethiopians must unite” Part Three of Five, October 31st, 2011, abugida.] However, good intention by itself does not guarantee correct synthesis of facts or of sound judgment.
I am not in any way questioning Aklog’s motives in writing the article, but of his comments on population growth and the challenge it pauses for developing nations [See Part III]. To wit, he wrote, “I should like the reader to understand that it can be one or the other depending on how a society with high population growth is governed. China is the most populous country in the world today. Its population is not a curse but a blessing for one simple economic and social reason. It has overcome the structural and policy sources of famine, hunger and destitution. It is the most dynamic economy in the world today, transforming the rural economy and integrating it with the rest.” The problem with Aklog’s presentation using China as his centerpiece example in order to show population growth as a blessing is not based on candid presentation of all the relevant factual matters surrounding the success of China. He asserts that economic success of China is due to China overcoming “the structural and policy sources of famine, hunger and destitution,” but failed to tell us that China has implemented a harsh birth control policy, which seems to be based on the belief that population growth is a curse than a blessing, which is a direct contradiction to Aklog’s thesis.
The developmental growth that Aklog is applauding China for is the direct result of one of the harshest birth control systems ever implemented by a government in the history of the world. In 1978 China put into effect its one-child per family policy. For over thirty years, China implemented strict birth control therein limiting the birth rate to one child per family. Despite all forms of corruption undermining such a policy, over fifty percent of the population of China fully participated in the “one child” policy of the Government. And it is reported that form of limitation of family size might have prevented an estimated half a billion potential births that would have been surly added to the Chinese population to date. That is not some small number that one might ignore, for half a billion possible lives would have been a tremendous burden even to the richest members of the nations of World. China’s phenomenal industrialization and development is also in the last thirty years, and there is no coincidence in that, but a result directly connected to the actions of the Chinese Government’s birth control policy. Of course, there are other contributing factors also to China’s development, but none as prominently and as effectively as the one-child family policy.
The implication of Aklog’s assertion about population growth being a “blessing” is even more alarming to me, for it can be extended to encourage and to justify the activities of every Ethiopian family to breed without any control or consideration of the availability of resources to maintain such increases. The traditional approach in Ethiopia is to consider the addition of children to a family as a “blessing,” with little or no regard as to the upbringing of the children in proper and nurturing environment. The traditional approach of open ended family expansion with increasing moral decay over the last thirty years has resulted in overburdening a society beyond its capacity to function as a viable survival tool. It is obvious to me that without family planning in Ethiopia, our society will continue to be faced with increasingly horrendous problems. Overpopulation has already resulted in a breakdown of ethical behavior that is breaking down the social safety-valves. It is highly questionable to think that a government development policy, without a policy to limit the birthing rate, would succeed in Ethiopia or elsewhere for that matter. Population growth is the most acute problem in Ethiopia. And to speak out as such is a very tricky undertaking, for one can be easily labeled as anti-people. Let us not forget that Thomas Malthus trumps Adam Smith any time.
IV. The Calls for “Unity” and/or “Grand Coalition”
Many of the calls for unity, for solidarity, and for renewed vigor, by Ethiopian politicians seem to have fallen on deaf ears. It seems to me the latest calls for “unity of the opposition” have lost luster and seriousness or emotive dimensions. Even in the hands of our most respected individuals, such as Lt. Ayale-Sew Dessye, the call for unity has become mere pronouncement. I read Ayale-Sew Dessye’s recent call for unity with great interest for Ayale–Sew is my hero of an Ethiopian who truly loves Ethiopia and respects Ethiopians. Moreover, disappointingly the call is addressed to the same groups of individuals who seem to be engaged in some form of struggle for political power here in the Diaspora. Our political organizations, including our civic organizations, continuous infighting reminds me of a parable I learned in grade school, of a couple who end up fighting and filing for divorce due to heated disagreement over the issue where a new born calf of their non-existing cow could be tethered.
The call for unity seems to be misdirected, for the call should be for selected individuals in private rather than a public call to political organizations. Such call should not even mention unity as its goal, but focus on creating a viable tool for fighting against the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi. The call must have a clear purpose in order to form a core that is committed to acquire power. It is a mistake to think of “unity” as a goal that need be in place in order to bring about political power change in Ethiopia. We do not function as a society in order to achieve unity, rather through our pursuit of our individual self-interests, we find some advantages in coordinating our individual efforts—that is the essence of unity. In other words, our engagements in society, in social activities, would be the most important building process of unity among desperate people. Unity will not come about due to staged calls and periodic political conferences, but only through direct social engagements with individuals in their private lives. A general call for unity is also the main theme of Aklog Birara’s articles. In all referenced articles in my essay and several others written over the years, the emphasis on unity seems to be a misplaced call, in my opinion. The issue by now should have focused on why all these authors want unity and yet failed to achieve unity all these years of conferences, rallying campaigns, and countless calls. The simple answer is that because “unity” by its very nature cannot be an object-target, but a relativistic existential experience based on the day to day activities of individuals, it is impossible to target “Unity” as an object-goal.
Another prominent Ethiopian who endlessly tries to engage us in a very positive discourse is the indefatigable Prof Messay Kebede, and he too now calls for a “grand coalition” in his recent article. [As an aside, Messay’s Publisher has just released Ideology and Elite Conflicts: Autopsy of the Ethiopian Revolution, a four hundred pages book of in depth study of the Ethiopian Revolution, a must read for everyone. Messay Kebede, along with Profs Getatchew Haile and Teodros Kiros, is the most productive Ethiopian scholar and educator I know.] His recent article is meant to ignite some form of political engagement between the Ethiopian Government and the opposition, in the best interest of Ethiopia and its people. In a way, it is a continuation of his earlier effort to break the political “stalemate” as he saw it to be the case. Such “grand coalition” structure had been tried and left in the back-burner of our political stove for years now, since its first formulation bite the dust after the disintegration of the political structure formed pursuant to the Transition Period Charter. There have been several such efforts since 1992. In other words, it is not the lack of effort on the part of the opposition to engage Meles Zenawi that is deterring future political engagement for the good of Ethiopia. The problem is with Meles Zenawi and the nature of his Government. Meles Zenawi’s game plan is winner takes all, with nothing left to those who might have lost the first round of engagement. With that type of mind set, there is no room for negotiation or even limited participation as an outside political organization and/or independent individuals. Meles Zenawi has become an arrogant little man with tremendous and corrupt political and financial power.
This call of Messay for “grand coalition” also suffers from the same problem I have identified above commenting on Ayal-Sew’s call for unity of the opposition. In addition, what will stand out in people’s mind in bold is not going to be the poignant reasons offered leading up to that conclusionary calls, but the key phrases and words, such as “grand coalition,” “unity of opposition” that conjure up failed notions and negative images that will figure prominently in people’s minds. One must understand that it is the up-swell of “necessity” created by dynamic social discontent and outrage that gives birth to revolutionary outburst, where by timely ideology provides the guidance and the process of change. Thus, it is the unity of purpose and the coalition among fighting factions that will ensure the success of all large scale social changes, and not the inspired simple individual calls from individuals or groups. To be fair to both authors, I do want to state clearly that both have stated the need for strengthening the opposition. However, I do not see such up-swell of “necessity” in the making in the Ethiopian situation in the Diaspora or back home in Ethiopia. As far as I can tell, the Ethiopian political field seems to lack gearing up for a revolution. What we have in the general public, instead, is a sizzling discontent (not yet an outrage) that has no coherent form whatsoever and manifests itself in sporadic outbursts now and then that also die out as fast as they are ignited—such movements are volatile and very dangerous. If violence breaks out, due to some incident similar to the Tunisian case of a young man torching himself in protest, the reaction of the Ethiopian public could lead to serious atrocities.
I do not see how individuals who could not even form a united front as an opposition, which is far easier to form compared to forming a compromise, would be any better situated to be a part of a grand coalition with a well organized well armed, well funded Government and its leaders. We have witnessed the fate of Hailu Shawel, Lidetu Ayalew and Ayele Chamiso who were truly attempting to work with Meles Zenawi a couple of years ago. There is no such thing like a viable coalition without a fairly distributed and decentered political leverage among the parties. It seems to me it is better to let Meles and his associates decompose on their own than give them well intentioned structural engagement that could be easily turned into some form of cover to confuse us even more. In fact, I could even go to the extent of declaring Meles a non-person, and that we go about our way building the Ethiopian society one individual at a time. To use an old cliché, it is a futile attempt to try to improve some bad wine by mixing it with good wine. At any rate, even though I may be criticizing some aspects of their ideas (calls), I want people to know that whether it is Aklog, Ayale-Sew, or Messay, my respect and appreciation of these exemplary Ethiopians is profound and enduring.
V. The possible reactions of Meles Zenawi and our follow-up
Meles Zenawi, if he is as smart and as crafty as many believe him to be, would go along the “grand coalition” route. This political chess opening would give him another opportunity to confuse the Ethiopian public and also provide him with a safety valve and the release of pressure from the prevailing social stress and economic pressure. Meles could easily say let us form a “grand coalition” and suggest who should be part of that coalition. He might even appoint Prof Endras Eshete as his roving ambassador for such purpose. Immediately after such announcement there will be dissenters who would anticipate whether they would make the grades and others that are skeptical and often nihilistic. And a year would pass just bickering over the formation of the “grand coalition.” The process of “grand coalition” in itself would also undermine the political organizations that are already in Ethiopia, some of whose leaders are imprisoned and harassed. For Meles, this formation of “grand coalition” would be like throwing a piece of meat into a den of lions to fight over. It will be just a replay of past theatrics. He will also further ender himself with the West claiming that he is trying to democratize and open his government to a pluralistic structure. All that trickery would undermine even frustrate all genuine democratic movements.
A year ago I wrote in my long article “Lacrimosa for Ethiopia, Part V” that there is an Ethiopian aphorism that is always a source of fascination to me every time I think about Meles Zenawi and his close associates how well they perform their destructive version of political games: When ጦጢት Totit (a young agile ape) was asked what type of contest-game she liked best to play, she answered, “የዛፍ ላይ ትግል” “Ye zaf ly tigle.”
[Trans.“Wrestling on tree branches.”] What Meles does best in politics is the equivalent of wrestling on tree branches, where he is adept with arboreal acrobatics of lies and deceptions. To counter his form of contest is not to go after him to tree tops up in the air, but to pull him down to Earth with pragmatic strategy and short term tactics. Our Ethiopian community is almost dysfunctional in many areas of social activities. Let us concentrate first in rebuilding our fractured society through social and economic involvement before doing politics. Let us ignore Meles Zenawi as if he does not exist and focus our effort in shoring up and healing our fractured community. Let us use the “satyagraha” of Gandhi effectively first. I do not want to be misunderstood here; I am not shy to use violence to achieve political ends, but such activity must be assured of winning and must not unnecessarily expose individuals to prosecution and extra judicial executions by Meles Zenawi and his Government.
The challenge to the dictatorial Government of Meles Zenawi or any body else after him would be in a form of social protest to improve social services and the day to day lives of individual Ethiopians. Such form of social engagement would be successful because it has something tangible for the millions of Ethiopians at ground level. No one likes to be told the effort of almost half a century, i.e., since the late 1960 comes down to naught—a cipher. This is my evaluation of our recent history; almost all of it is a painful loss. For anything worth while to preserve in our social life, we may have to skip few generations back to a time when the spirit of Ethiopiawinet glowed and lighted the path to sovereignty and territorial integrity, and with no ambiguity as to our identity.
VI. Leadership Crises and conclusion
Many people point out in all kinds of outlets that Ethiopia suffers from a failed leadership in the opposition. Writers point out often that our political crises are due to lack of enlightened opposition leaders. The way I see it, our problems are not due to lack of opposition leaders, but due to lack of true believers, followers that are not opportunistic predators. In Ethiopia, almost anyone can be a leader; what may be lacking are true believers, individuals who are dedicated followers who could carry out the visions and commands of a leader. Without true-believers it is impossible to be a leader who could bring about effective changes in any social system, politics, and/or the economy. In our recent history, it is clear that Haile Selassie would not have succeeded without his dedicated loyal Courtiers; Mengistu would not have made it to the top without his non-officer Members of the Derg; Meles Zenawi would not have become fabulously wealthy and a dictator without his Marxist-Leninist faction within the TPLF. By contrast, it is clear that there are no true-believers in opposition organizations, for such groups seem to be peopled with aspiring leaders, and/or individuals with free- thinking mind and democratic inclinations who often seek solutions in their own ways.
One might also consider the problem why Ethiopians failed repeatedly to produce good leaders as a consequence of a social and cultural system that systematically eliminated the Alpha-male from the community through brutal leveling discipline right from childhood throughout ones life. And those that survive that form of abuse from family members, teachers et cetera finally would meet their demise in the hands of dictatorial regimes. What might be left behind, after all the negative pruning is a population that suffers from deep seated psychological destructive energy unable to channel properly such energy into constructive social responses. What we have become in general is narcissists—shallow, uncooperative, and megalomaniac individuals suffering from a Napoleonic syndrome of grandeur. Some years back, Prof Yacob Hailemariam made a poignant observation when he quipped that every Ethiopian walks about with a little “Crown” in his pocket in anticipation that he might become a king any day. The evidence is all around us in the intolerant personality of our leaders.
Now, our focus ought to be on how to create followers and true-believers. This is not an easy task, for it requires paradigm shift in social relations and patience. The easiest approach would be for those Ethiopians with wealth to create foundations, trusts, non-profit organizations and adopt particular townships, schools, team sports et cetera in Ethiopia and provide the people there, no matter how limited, with all kinds of goods and services, including medicine, books, scholarships et cetera. In fact, scholarship fund can be established for Ethiopian students in colleges and universities right here in America. Even some rich Ethiopians who have hundreds of millions of dollars can establish endowed chairs on Ethiopian Studies at prestigious Universities. Involvement of such nature of good deeds by wealthy Ethiopians will impact on Ethiopians through the media or by word of mouth throughout Ethiopia as a positive connection between Ethiopians back home with those Ethiopians in the Diaspora. Just calling for “unity” in hundred variations will not translate into real-life close connections between Ethiopians.
On the other hand, just to be reminded how disconnected we are from our reality and each other, consider the fact that in a short time, we already have forgotten our courageous brothers and sisters in prison. No one is forcing us to be forgetful and oblivious so soon of the fate of our heroes. You see, “[t]he fault, dear [Ethiopians], is not in our stars / But in ourselves…”Ω
Tecola W. Hagos
November 12, 2011