Obama and Ethiopia: Time for new visions – By Donald N. Levine

May 26th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

At a session on African development a couple decades ago I spoke about the damage Ethiopia suffered from having imported a Marxist-Leninist ideology. One colleague, a respected Africanist anthropologist, objected: “We are not here to engage in paradigm-bashing.” Like so many American academics, my colleague simply had no idea of the enormity of the bloodshed, political repression, economic regression, and cultural derangement that that misguided Western ideology brought to a country that had been modernizing in ways congruent with its longstanding national traditions. (more…)

At a session on African development a couple decades ago I spoke about the damage Ethiopia suffered from having imported a Marxist-Leninist ideology. One colleague, a respected Africanist anthropologist, objected: “We are not here to engage in paradigm-bashing.” Like so many American academics, my colleague simply had no idea of the enormity of the bloodshed, political repression, economic regression, and cultural derangement that that misguided Western ideology brought to a country that had been modernizing in ways congruent with its longstanding national traditions.

The wholesale adoption of a Leninist creed by so many progressive Ethiopians of the late 1960s continues to have deleterious repercussions, much as the slaughter of a generation of modern-educated Ethiopians by the Fascist Italians had repercussions for the generation after Liberation. It meant that all militant progressive forces of that Generation took cover behind a worldview that considered itself scientifically corroborated, thus legitimating the forceful imposition of collectivist values by an “enlightened” elite. Besides the Derg, many have noted, most dissident movements of the time subscribed to such a doctrine, the difference being that they extended it to a derision of Ethiopia’s national history on behalf of Eritrean, Tigrayan, Oromo, Somali, and other irredentist claims.

The present regime in Ethiopia is the hapless heir of those days. This means that however much they would like to implement a liberal democratic regime-and I am convinced that many EPRDF members want very much to do so-they are stuck with certain policies and procedures that derive from their Leninist origins.

(And to make matters worse, although many who oppose them are now committed to a liberal democratic ethos, the rhetoric and tactics used by a vocal minority recall the arrogance, Manicheanism, and ruthlessness of the Leninists who indoctrinated them years ago.)

Some of this is all too familiar to those of us who have lived in the United States during the Bush administration. In place of Marxist-Leninist certainty, read right-wing ideological certainty. In place of the messianic vision of a classless society, read the messianic vision of a world made safe for American-business-led democracy (if not the vision of the grand Apocalypse of the Second Coming.) In place of harassment of opposition parties, read what many regard as the theft of the presidency in 2000 and possibly in 2004. In place of the imprisonment of journalists, read anxious self-censorship. In place of the wanton assassination of innocents and brutal tortures in out-of-the-way prisons, read the monstrosities of Abu Ghraib and Guantanámo.

In place of an invisible inner politburo, read an invisible White House clique. Yet it is easy to focus on miscarriages of liberal democracy in the United States in order to deflect attention from Ethiopia’s failure to move faster toward liberal democracy and then, after a glorious springtime of freedom, to regress in crucial respects afterward. Or else, to give up all hope. When I spoke in Addis Ababa in January of this year, in a talk entitled “The Promise of Ethiopia: Public Action; Civic Forgiveness; Creative Power,” a group of journalists I met with asked, “Is there any promise for Ethiopia?” Since then, leaders of parties who sincerely wanted to conduct themselves as a loyal opposition felt constrained to withdraw from local elections due to a parade of harassments and worse affecting their followers. Meanwhile the EPRDF leaders, in some respects like the Bush regime, find themselves embattled at home as well as mired in a war against perceived terrorist enemies. In this worsening political situation, can we find the Audacity to Hope?

Barack Obama’s message has appealed awesomely to a majority of Democrats and numerous Republican voters in the U.S. and to citizens all over the world. Ethiopians in the U.S. responded with enthusiasm to calls to action from the likes of Mike Endale and Yohannes Asssefa, Emebet Bekele and Teddy Fikre. Like other nationals, they resonate with Obama’s call to stop endless rounds of animosities old and new, of blame and counter-blame, and get on with solving the world’s compelling problems: poverty; disease; famine; overpopulation; environmental damage; gender violence; loss of species; wars; terrorism.

Ethiopian culture includes many ways to move toward inclusiveness, open communication, and consensual action. Perhaps these ways can be invoked to consider items like the following:

. Diaspora Ethiopian doctors, like the many hundreds in Dr. Ingida Asfaw’s Ethiopian North American Health Professionals Association, go regularly to Ethiopia to offer medical services, provide advanced training, and improve maternal and child healthcare.

. Dr. Sisay Assefa has initiated an organization of social science professionals-from ye-bet agar, ye-wutch agar, and ye-cyber agar-to develop and exchange critically tested ideas regarding Ethiopia’s development potential.

. The Government has undertaken big initiatives on long-standing issues like expanded schools, health clinics in each village, vast road projects, expanded power generation, and now, forced marriage of young girls.

. Opposition political parties are taking a long view and rebuilding their strength.

. The quest for a free press and fair elections has suffered severe setbacks but still goes on.

. After decades of abuse and decay, Addis Ababa University is striving to regain and surpass its the high quality it achieved as HSIU. Under the leadership of Dr. Abye Tasse and Prof. Tsige Gebre-Mariam, AAU has just embarked on a multi-national initiative, directed Dr. Abye Tasse to provide highest-level training for new cohorts of Ethiopian academics.

. The millennium celebrations stimulated some serious initiatives. In Addis, the InterAfricaGroup organized two symposia on ways to promote communication among Ethiopia’s different constituencies. In DC, Abiyu Berlie and Samson Teffera organized a video conference on Information and Communication Technology for many kinds of IT professionals in Ethiopia and the United States.

You tell me more.

Tadia, yagere sewotch, min zefan yishalal:
Al-chalkum! weynim menalbat, YICHALAL?

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