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February 27, 2021
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Beyond toxic politics: Overcoming our societal monsters

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

A few days after my write-up “Viral healing for our chronic political disease?” was published, I received several encouraging comments that enlivened my optimism in the future of our country. I also received some pieces of constructive criticism, including one that stood out and got me thinking. This was whether some of the things I wrote were sufficiently pragmatic, particularly those relating to the need to maintain rule of law and follow a democratic path to ensure the enduring peace and prosperity of Ethiopia.

I decided to address this here not just as a ‘response’ or ‘defence’, but as a continuation of the conversation. This piece, though, is not confined to this, but also touches upon some of our other obvious, but deeper, societal problems. This is with a strong conviction that our discussions should move away from reacting to symptoms of our societal evils towards addressing their roots.

Understanding our collective diseases is the first step to finding a cure based on the limits of what we can and cannot do. Furthermore, unless and until the obvious truth strikes us, we are doomed to live with our afflictions, no matter how excruciating they are. This piece therefore urges us to see our problems in such a way that it becomes no longer defensible to answer the question ‘why’ with the common, lazy answer, ‘yeah, well, this is Ethiopia’.

To be pragmatic for what?

No doubt, the idea of being pragmatic is raised against the backdrop of the easing of repression since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power in April 2018—and the anarchy and insecurity that followed. The argument goes like this: we Ethiopians are not accustomed to democracy and exercising freedom; thus, we need to have ‘a strong’ (which often means ‘authoritarian’) government that places strict limits on our actions. This is ‘a pragmatic way’ of reining in our anarchical tendencies.

It is understandable that pragmatism, in the sense of being realistic, is necessary in whatever actions we take, whichever path we follow, and whatsoever approaches we adopt to resolve our multifaceted problems. However, pragmatism is not just an ideology of submitting oneself to the ‘iron cage’ of being ‘realistic’. Nor does it encourage showing complacency to what is unacceptable, even though the ‘unacceptable’ reality is one deeply embedded and so seemingly permanent.

Complacency

Although philosophers conceptualize pragmatism in different ways, what seems indisputable is that the notion is not a reference or guardian to astaticism—the condition of being static, constant, or unchanging. Pragmatism does not mean perpetually tolerating what is intolerable. Pragmatism does not cherish atavistic and backward-looking attitudes, but relishes progressive approaches to dealing with problems.

It demands that we should remain aware of the existence of our problems and the urgency of addressing, not ignoring, or complicating, them. Being pragmatic does not condone leaving our challenges to the mercy of what is known, or to what we are accustomed to.

In this regard, an obvious fact should be stated: Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and its poverty is multi-dimensional. The country ranks very low when gauged against conventional yardsticks of a prosperous society, such as democracy, freedom from want and fear, prevalence of rule of law and the overall quality of life—as exemplified by the average life expectancy of its citizens. Its national cohesiveness is fragile and its nation-building process far from satisfactory.

What is more, despite a rich history, positive self-image, and recent progress, internationally, we are still largely a symbol of poverty. Travel to any country in the world with an Ethiopian passport—of course, if you are ‘lucky’ enough to even get the visa—and it is very rare that you pass border checkpoints without suspicion, often of being an asylum-seeker. Our passport’s global standing is one of the worst in the world, only slightly above failed states.

Admittedly, in this long history of ours, we have never had a culture of democracy and the rule of law, and law and order have always been maintained through repression. We never enjoyed the kind of freedom we deserve, we never had the kind of government we happily put ourselves under the shadow of its imperium, or leaders that we could all call ‘the fathers of our nation’.

Instead, what we have experienced are mostly authoritarian regimes and leaders who created images of themselves bigger than everyone and everything else, including the nation. It is partly for this reason that we often feel as if the sky is falling in when a leader dies or a regime collapses. We seem to have developed a mania for the usual cultural, social and political status quo, and to our usual way of doing things, regardless of their merit.

These all are unacceptable and abasing realities. We should understand that they all occurred not because we are prisoners of fate or because we as a nation are destined to be what we are now. To use the words of one of the most influential historians of our time, Yuval Noah Harari, “our present situation is neither natural nor inevitable” and thus is alterable with will and determination.

Pragmatism should therefore not be an excuse for our apathy and cavalier attitude towards ignorance, dictatorship, and poverty. It is time to realize that our society has no a congenital propensity to live under poverty or continuous humiliation. Rejecting anarchy should not make us settle for dictatorship. Nor should oppression be an alternative to unbridled freedom. In between these extremes, there is always a middle path that is more hospitable and conducive to our enduring security and harmony.

We should have the courage to try a new path, and take the risk of ‘knowing the unknown’ rather than settling for what we certainly know; the substandard and undesirable situation in which we are living. Our nation should not accept the saying that says ‘the known devil is better than then unknown angel’. We must not allow the fear of a new avenue to stop us from exploring alternatives to the old route that has so far led us nowhere.

Love is not blind 

We all grew up hearing the saying ‘love is blind’.  Colloquially, it means we do not care about the looks of someone we fall in love with; we still love that person notwithstanding their appearance or performance. It is a euphemistic way of settling for less. Arguably, this also applies to our love of a nation, for the love of a nation is like that of one’s mother. We often consider our mums as the best in the world, irrespective of their attributes, or social or economic status. The same is true for one’s motherland.

This is beautifully described by the following lyrics in the song ‘Ethiopia’ by the famous singer, Tewodros Kasahun (Teddy Afro),

ተውኝ ይውጣልኝ ልጥራት ደጋግሜ (Please allow me to call its name time and again)

ኢትዮጵያ ማለት ለኔ አይደል ወይ ስሜ (Isn’t Ethiopia my own name?!)

ቢጎል እንጀራው ከሞሰቡ ላይ (Though there isn’t enough food on the table)

እናት በሌላ ይቀየራል ወይ    (How could one trade [their poor] mum for another?!)

The lyrics convey the message that we should always love our country though it’s too poor to provide us even the basic things we want for life. Congruent with this, many Ethiopians claim to love their country regardless of the despairing facts on the ground. This ‘unconditional love’ is the epitome of patriotism and an expression of an ineluctable attachment to the motherland.

There is also, however, both a moral question and reality test, one relating to the need to guarantee a dignified survival for every citizen and building a nation that matches the imagination of its people. Are we as a nation happy with what we have in all fronts, economically, politically, socially, and even culturally? Hopefully not!

The saying ‘love is not blind’ therefore does not and should not apply to the love of a nation. We should rather love our country enough to see it in the eyes of the truth. And the truth is we suffer from abject poverty, a culture of oppression, discrimination, dominance, utter disregard for the rule of law, and a country lagging in many ways behind the rest of the world.

If we truly loved our country, we would and should be dismayed by this fact and feel shame for its shame! We should fight our own nonchalance, reject undesirable normalcy, and acquiescence to our national pains and humiliations.

Respecting our leaders

Ethiopians traditionally used to show an exorbitant reverence to their leaders, largely out of fear, and many ordinary citizens still adhere to this tradition. Among the nation’s elites, however, this reverence has dissipated to almost nothing over the past half a century. This is partly due to the unworthy conduct of leaders that provoked disrespect. On the other hand, there is also an elite problem, as some seem to think that the best demonstration of their intellect is bashing leaders.

Positive engagement is seen as a sign of weakness or parasitism, thereby leaving anyone who shows appreciation for leaders, or attempts to positively engage them, open to accusations of being power hungry. In fact, we should respect and commiserate with our leaders, as they shoulder the heaviest burden of our nation, while also, respectfully, holding them accountable.

We should not worship the ‘irreplaceable image’ they paint of themselves and impose on us. Let alone in a country with a long history of state culture, leaders emerge at every critical historical juncture of any country. Ethiopia’s womb has never stopped giving birth to not one but millions of leaders! So, as much as we need to respect our leaders, it is also foolish to delude ourselves by the usual thinking that the nation will collapse if an incumbent dies, or a government falls.

In it together

The causes of Ethiopia’s precarious national predicament are not exogenous. Unlike many other countries, Ethiopia is among those that sustained, in the words of one of the finest Ethiopian scholars, Teshale Tibebu, “an unbroken chain of historical civilization free of foreign ‘corruption’”. Our long history shows that we have largely been insulated from external influence in both times of national highs and lows.

This means that most of our problems are indigenous, created or exacerbated by ourselves. All our leaders have sprung from among us. Yet, whenever leaders who try to shine their light on to their people emerge, we tend to snuff out their light so quickly that they vanish or become one among us.

There are deeply ingrained social and systemic factors for this, but let me mention just one: the culture of suspicion. A prevalent problem that we have as a society is a default suspicious reaction to anything and anyone unbeknownst to us. Because of this, sometimes good ideas are dismissed and good people rejected outright.

The culture of suspicion also has another effect: anyone who makes a mistake is rarely forgiven or gets a second chance. As a society, we do not seem to have internalized that to err is human and everyone is susceptible to making mistakes. The truth is, a society that does not give its children a second chance to rise up above the dusts of their past is unlikely to progress.

Perhaps for this reason, it is also not uncommon for people, politicians or ordinary citizens, to defiantly refuse to accept mistakes, often preferring to cast the sword of blame on others, to shirk responsibilities, rather than admitting any fault. Unfortunately, we cannot take the full measure of our pride as a society if we are not willing to take responsibility for our individual and collective failures.

We should thus forbear attributing a problem to an individual, a group, or particular groups, ethnic or religious, as a justification or shield for our own mistakes. A poignant example where we often fail in this regard is the individual and group contributions to our rowdy politics: individually, by not taking politics as a profession in its own right, and, as a group, by creating a fertile ground and playing an enabling role for the least among us to become the most influential shapers of public opinion.

Political lives

It is sad, but in the recent history of Ethiopia, politics has never been given its appropriate place. Of course, it would be wrong to treat politics as an isolated world revolving on its own axis, independent of the other facets of the societal life. Whether we like it or not, as long as we are members of a society, in one way or the other, we remain under the direct influence of politics.

It is nevertheless equally inaccurate to consider politics as a matter that should cloud everything under the sun. It is also not something that must be invoked as a reason for all our misfortunes, starting from our dismal national crisis to the problem of recurrent flooding in a small village. Politics has its natural role in a society and a healthy polity is one which knows, understands, and treats politics as such; as only one segment of its life, albeit with significant impact on its security, survival, and prosperity.

Unfortunately, in Ethiopia, sometimes it seems as if everyone, regardless of profession, age, academic or social standing, wants to be, or indeed is, a politician. Politics is no longer a mission or a natural calling for the few but rather a daily business of the elite and a means of survival for some. It controls every aspect of everyone’s life. The medical doctor, the lawyer, the sociologist, the trader, the pharmacist, the engineer, the teacher, and everyone else are all political.

It might be an overstatement, but it seems that most professionals these days invest no less than half of their productive time talking, reading, or writing about politics—a politics that is partly stuck in the past, chaotic at present, and disoriented about the future. In the most productive age of mine, scarcely a day goes by when I myself do not think or worry about my country’s future; a future effectively taken captive by the relentless scourge of our politics. What is more pathetic to a poor nation than to lose so much energy of its youth and professionals on the untidy world of politics?

Please do not get me wrong! I am not understating the overbearing nature of our politics. Nor am I saying that there should be an entry barrier to politics for some professionals or that politics should be reserved only for some people. As long as individuals have the passion for not only public office but also public service, the gate to politics should be accessible for them without cost, notwithstanding the nature of their profession. That is not the issue!

The problem in Ethiopia is the lack of passion, dedication and respect for politics as a profession in itself. The absence of the determination to sail on the rough sea to design public policies that bring about national growth, social harmony, and prosperity to every citizen.

Not only is it time for our politicians to take politics as a mission—not as a means of just winning their bread–but ordinary citizens, too, should treat politics as a profession in its own accord as something that should be left for its ‘true and concerned owners’; namely, the politicians. They should understand and play their natural role in it as responsible citizens.

As much as politicians need to live their own purpose, ordinary people should not consider themselves as the centre of gravity, and rather should embrace their own irrelevance to the perpetual tussle among the politicians for power—after all, in its simple form, this is the politicians’ job. The more citizens of a nation know and play their respective natural roles in society, the better will be the opportunity for personal and societal advancement.

Specialized knowledge   

It is also important to note that in our country plenty of us value education and educated people. But rarely do we measure our education and profession by the concrete contribution we make to our society. Some of us are engineers, lawyers, doctors, lecturers, professors, political scientists, etc, on paper.

In reality, however, 80 years after our first engineering school was launched, our farmers still plough the ground and harvest their crops the way they were doing for thousands of years; and seldom do our lawyers fight for the cause of collective justice or that doctors voluntarily decide to go out to serve their people in the villages.

It is also rare that lecturers and professors set themselves as an example to their students in terms of hard work, patriotism, respect for the rule of law, and a passion for the fight against injustice to anyone outside the horizon of their own ethnic or religious groups. And political scientists are rarely seen debating on policy solutions to chronic societal problems.

We do not seem to have realised that our problems could be reimagined to propel our advancement. Remember the old adage, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’?

A living example of how our education has failed us and how our knowledge came short in resolving our societal challenges, is the invasive hyacinth affecting Lake Tana, the largest lake situated adjacent to the same city, Bahir Dar, where one of the oldest universities is located.

The university has a reputed engineering school but nine years after the hyacinth was first spotted, no sustainable solution has been found by any of its faculties. This is just one instance, not unique to Bahir Dar University, showing that our desire to resolve our problems remains below our capacity. I am alive to the fact that there are numerous reasons for this, including politics and leadership, but also I believe in the great potential of good and strong-willed citizens to bring about change.

Beyond designating someone as ‘a voracious reader’, ‘incomparably knowledgeable’, or ‘well-educated’, we should question whether that person has contributed something to the society that matches their title or designation. As it is said, ‘the real test of knowledge is not whether it is true but whether it empowers us’; not only us individually but also our community and country. What would education, diplomas, names and titles be worth if they’re not used to make some sort of contribution to the wellbeing of society?

This does not mean that we should ridicule our educated compatriots. Indeed, while avoiding veneration of titles without deeds, we should also reject the notion of omniscience and respect the opinions of experts with specialized knowledge. More importantly, we should honour those who use their skills and abilities to benefit our society. A society that does not respect expertise and ridicules its finest minds cannot edge forward even an inch.

Fertile ground

Whether the problem a nation is facing is bad governance or poverty, it needs a fertile ground to sprout chaos or decadence. In Ethiopia, many of us, in one way or the other, knowingly or unknowingly contribute to our current reality by empowering the least of us to be the best among us. We either openly encourage them or hold values conducive for them to flourish. In a country of more than 100 million, it is very sad to see the least qualified being the main shapers of public opinion. Sometimes, though, I wonder whether this is peculiar to Ethiopia or a new global trend.

Whatever it is, as long as we continue to discount reason and facts, and apply differentiated standards of ethical values and continue to distort our moral judgement by our nationalist sympathies towards our own ethnic and religious groups, we will surrender ourselves to the most incompetent among us and, ultimately, perpetuate our national malaise. If conspiracy theories and emotions, more than knowledge and truth, are the compasses guiding our actions, ruin will be our collective destiny.

This is not to say that our situation is entirely dark and gloomy. It is also not an attempt to preach infallibility or inerrancy, but to urge ourselves to acknowledge our individual and national fallibility and work to persistently redress it. I acknowledge not only our good societal values but also the emergence of a new vibrant generation with immense potential to lift our country to a different level of socio-economic status.

Having more than 75 million young population below the age of 35, Ethiopia is at this rare historical junction where not developing is much more difficult than developing. We only need to kick the ball to the right direction. For this, we should cultivate this generation with the best of our values, proper education, and patriotism.

As part of this endeavour, we should realise that pursuing sub-national gains at the expense of bigger national interests is tantamount to stealing from our capital and calling it profit. If we look at the bigger picture, no region in Ethiopia will swim in solitary prosperity while it remains surrounded by poor neighbours.

I just cannot imagine a prosperous or democratic Oromia peacefully co-existing with poor and oppressed Amhara, Somali, Tigray, Sidama or Gurage and vice versa. It’s impossible! Poverty, democracy or prosperity in one part of the country always has a ‘snowball effect’ in the other. This means that an attempt to build a ghetto of dictatorship or democracy in only one region is naturally doomed to fail.

The future we trust

Trust in the future is an important asset for a lasting peace and health of a nation. If we want to see a better tomorrow, we should build a future we will all trust. In this vein, Ethiopia should stop being a land where loss of political power inevitably leads to loss of ‘everything’. Political power should not be the only means to maintain economic security or physical liberty; citizens should be able to enjoy both by virtue of their citizenship, not by their grip on political power. If we can guarantee this, including by building independent institutions, our fight for power will not continue to resemble the Battle of Armageddon, the last apocalyptic war for those who win to remain winners and who lose to remain losers forever.

Finally, we should also offer ourselves long overdue redemption, forgive our own past sins and collectively claim our hope in the future. This starts from a critical self-assessment of our current situation at a personal level: our role and contribution to the good and evil of the nation. For this, we must have the realization that ‘we are all in it together’ and that our habit of externalizing problems is just a futile exercise in self-delusion.

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