Tear down the wall! – Prof. Alemayehu G. Maiam
We came together in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood! We met in common purpose and in an atmosphere of conciliation. We conquered! That is, together, we tore down the wall! That invisible wall of division, distrust and prejudice that had kept us from talking to each other for so long. Yes, we overcame the paralyzing fear that had left us deaf-mute and numb to each other’s pain and suffering. We exchanged ideas freely with goodwill towards all and malice towards none. We searched for genuine understanding so that we can move forward into the future together untethered by the antagonisms of the past. (more…)
We came together in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood! We met in common purpose and in an atmosphere of conciliation. We conquered! That is, together, we tore down the wall! That invisible wall of division, distrust and prejudice that had kept us from talking to each other for so long. Yes, we overcame the paralyzing fear that had left us deaf-mute and numb to each other’s pain and suffering. We exchanged ideas freely with goodwill towards all and malice towards none. We searched for genuine understanding so that we can move forward into the future together untethered by the antagonisms of the past.
But there was one thing we did not do: We did NOT talk politics, that is the politics of ethnic rivalry, division and separation. We refused to voluntarily broil ourselves in the tired politics of recrimination, victimization, finger-pointing and blame. We had better things to do with our time. It was time to talk about us as members of the same family, and the things that matter to us the most, like human rights, the need to build democratic institutions that reflect our traditions and customs, how best to maintain genuine diversity in national unity, how to ensure political and legal accountability under the rule of law and other similar things. It was the right time to talk about the one burning question in our minds and in our hearts, that question that had given us so much headache and heartache for so long: Can we work together now and in the future to build a just and equitable society for all on that small piece of God’s earth we call our home, our Ethiopia?
Yes, We Can!
That is what we talked about in Minnesota during the last few days of July, 2008. We assembled formally at the University of Minnesota to answer a challenging question put to us by the Oromo American Citizens Council (OACC): “Can A Democratic Government Work in a Multiethnic Society?” It was a question thoughtfully framed by the dynamic young men and women of the OACC to deal with the core issues at the heart of our national political life in Ethiopia, and in the Diaspora. It was a question keenly directed towards our common future. But it was a very hard question, pregnant with other equally difficult sub-questions: What kind of democracy can we build together in Ethiopia? What kind of government is best suited to help us achieve a just and equitable society? How will government work to secure the rights of every individual and hold itself accountable under the rule of law? How do we guarantee ethnic diversity while cementing our national unity? And so on. The question posed by the OACC elicited thoughtful and passionate responses by a panel of able academicians, human rights advocates and activists; and stimulated insightful commentary and more probing questions by concerned attendees.
It was in the informal conversations that we were able to drill down to the fundamental questions that held the keys to our collective survival in the family of the Ethiopian nation. A democracy that is built on the arid landscape of political expediency and transient accommodation will wither and die on the vine. A democracy founded on gamesmanship and one-upmanship will inevitably fail because it is a game that is a non-starter. So, if genuine democracy is to flourish in Ethiopia, we had to face more fundamental questions: Can we put our humanity before our ethnicity? Can we find our identity in our humanity? Can we act in unity to cherish our humanity in a single nationality? Can we transition from the battle ground of recrimination and blame to a common ground of mutual concern, caring and respect? Can we work on the things that unite us and leave behind those issues that divide us? Can we find our destiny in harmony?
The answer is a resounding, “Yes, we can!” to all of the questions above. Yes, we can because we belong to the same family, the extended Ethiopian family. It is true that our family members had been estranged from each other for a very long time. We had not talked or communicated for years. We are not sure why that is so, but someone must have convinced us into believing that the mistakes and wounds of the past are so important that we should sacrifice our present and future for them. But now we say, “Yes, we can work together in harmony by putting our humanity before our ethnicity, by finding our identity in each other’s humanity, and our strength and greatness in our unity.” We can work together for a better future because we are willing to stand up and say to our fellow countrymen and -women, “Your pain is our pain. Your suffering is our suffering. Your indignity is our indignity. Your future is our future, and we will travel the same road to get there. And never again will we commit the crime of moral indifference against each other.”
We Were Blinded, But Now We Can See
For the longest time, we were blinded by historical grievances. We could only see each other from the prison bars of history; and penned like cattle behind the political bars of so-called ethnic federalism, we sneered at each other. We did not care much for each other or for each other. Indeed, we held each other in contempt from a distance. But when we opened our eyes shut blind by hatred and distrust and opened our hearts hardened by indifference, we could see that we are members of the same family living in the same home called Ethiopia. We realized that as we wagged accusatory fingers at each other, our home had been set on fire. An arsonist had slipped by and stoked the fires of ethnic hatred which continued to burn in our hearts for so long. We were duped into believing that we are not our brothers’/sisters’ keepers. So, when innocent demonstrators protesting a stolen election were slaughtered in gunfire, we did not cry together because “they” were not part of us. When hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters were warehoused in jail without due process of law, tortured and killed, we pretended not to hear, not to understand the cry for help from “prisons that speak oromiffa”. When our Anuak brothers and sisters were massacred, we asked, “Who?” When our innocent brothers and sisters were bombed in the Ogaden, we shrugged it off as if they were strangers. When the Afaris were strafed because they said the Port of Assab is part of Ethiopia, we pretended to be blind, mute and deaf. When crimes against humanity were being committed by ruthless criminals, we were quick to lump the guilty and innocent together and direct our anger and outrage indiscriminately towards the innocent. When our brothers and sisters are scandalized as plotters of a so-called interhamwe, a genocidal massacre, against their compatriots, we failed to collectively object. But no more! We were once blinded, but now we can see. We are all Ethiopia’s children – the Anuak, the Ogadeni, the Afari, the Gurage, the Gomuz, the Sidama, the Welayieta and the rest of us.
Bridge Builders and Fire Fighters Needed, Urgently!
There is new thinking that is beginning to take hold among Ethiopians in the Diaspora. It is new thinking based on the realization that never again shall we become prisoners of the past. We have to start working together for a common future. We need an army of bridge builders and brigades of fire fighters. We need fire fighters to save our homeland from the conflagration of ethic warfare, hatred and distrust. We need bridge builders to get us safely from our present predicament to a future where human rights are guaranteed, democracy is based on the consent of the people and no one is above the law. Not much is needed to qualify for these jobs. You’ve got the job if you are willing to keep an open mind, rid yourself of hurtful bigotry and trust in the good will of others; and BELIEVE that
Our humanity is more important than our ethnicity or nationality. We are not prisoners of the past, but we are captains of our future. We are our brothers’ keepers, and our sisters’ too. Our destiny is in our hands, and we refuse to let others manipulate and magnify our fears. We can tear down the walls of hatred and bigotry anywhere we find them, and build vines of hope and understanding among all Ethiopians. We can achieve far more together than we can ever hope to achieve separately.
We thank the Oromo American Citizens’ Council for initiating this conversation and for getting us together for an extraordinary discussion. Perhaps it will one day be said that the OACC began a conversation that changed the way we look at ourselves and our future. In the meantime, let’s get busy building bridges and putting out fires in the coffee shops, on the streets, in our homes, in our emails, on the radio, on the websites and wherever we happen to meet each other. Bridge builders and fire fighters of Ethiopia, UNITE!
(To Be Continued… )
One Ethiopia today. One Ethiopia Tomorrow. One Ethiopia Forever.
The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org