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Open Letter to Thabo Mbeki on Ethnic politics – the case of Ethiopia, by Dimetros Birku

December 9,2014

My name is Dimetros Birku, originally from Ethiopia and residing in Toronto, Canada. Your project of promoting dialogue and creating conscious African generation to achieve the goal of “African Renaissance” is a noble one.
However, I have a feeling, and would like to be explicit about it, that the goal “African Unity” and “African renaissance” will be a mirage without first promoting unity at the level of African nations. While ethnic politics is, actually and potentially, devastating and ravaging to Africa, the fight against ethnic politics does not seem to be given the attention it deserve.

I am writing to you with a great sense of optimism hoping that your foundation would make the fight against ethnic politics as an important agenda of the movement your are leading. It deserves to be an agenda by virtue of its devastating nature, far more devastating than the epidemic diseases, and by virtue of its strategic significance to proactively mitigate conflict in Africa. Early stages of widespread ethnic conflict is coming to the surface in Ethiopia. Albeit hubris narratives of economic achievement, ethnic politics constitutes potential danger to Ethiopia.

I happened to watch a video clip (please click here to watch it) featuring convocation ceremony of Portland State University, apparently a few years old. In the video, young ambitious looking graduating student whom the master of the ceremonies introduced as “…Student leader, born and raised in Ethiopia…and student of black studies” passionately disowned the Ethiopian identity from the podium and introduced himself as “… born in a small village in East Africa, Oromia.” Ironically, as indicated in the quote, that young man is a student of black studies and even dared to quote Nelson Mandela while trying to seize the opportunity to advance his radical ethnic based secessionist political ideology. Imagine a South African student introducing her/himself as “Xhosa” or “Zulu”, instead of as South African, to an American crowed in the US in an occasion as important as convocation ceremony or imagine a student from Kenya introducing himself as “Luo from East Africa” instead of proudly presenting himself as Kenyan.

Certainly, his passion about ethnicity (“tribe” to use the Eurocentric word) politics is not an aberration in the context of Ethiopian politics. Many “distinguished scholars” from different disciplines ,living and working abroad or those in Ethiopia, are articulating and strategizing to indoctrinate radical ethnic politics to young minds so much so that they are making it sound like the exemplification of “revolutionary” quality. And I hope you do know that ethnic politics has got ideological, legal, political and administrative support structure in Ethiopia under the TPLF dominated coalition government of EPRDF.

It does not seem to occur to many African leadership, politicians and activists, that lurking in the narrative of economic growth, “transformation” and “renaissance,” Ethiopia is living a political dark age which may mean extinction of Ethiopia as we know it, and most definitely that will have a negative moral and political implication for the rest of Africa and will set a bad precedent. Because radicalized ethnic politics, everything that Ethiopia was is vilified and belittled. The business of manufacturing ethnic conflict is well underway clandestinely or otherwise. And yet the government pretends to portray an image of “all is well” by projecting a single day annual “Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples” festival as a remarkable example of the success of Ethic politics in Ethiopia. Truth is ethnic radicalism is a problem in Ethiopia.

In most cases, material for the construction of rhetoric and literature to inform radical ethnic politics is drawn from over-interpretation or misinterpretation historical events and processes, especially from the part of Ethiopia’s past when the struggle to maintain its independence was organized. The fact that Ethiopia succeeded to maintain its independence at a great price and inspired the rest of Africa and the black world is overlooked and even denied sometimes. In fact, it is not uncommon to observe an outright nihilism about Ethiopia’s past including its struggle against colonialism, and later fascism, for which millions of Ethiopians paid in life.

The picture that emerges from the radical ethnic rhetoric is not the Ethiopia you know in history but a “colonialist Ethiopia.” This absurd construction is partly a product of mistaking capitalistic expansion process that gave rise to the colonization of Africa with tenets of feudalism in Ethiopia which the Ethiopian revolution of the mid 1970’s did away with. And partly there are indications that the ethnic ideology emerged as a political cultivation, in missionary activity or otherwise, of foreign powers to destabilize Ethiopia and break apart its aspiration stand up in guard of itself and Africa. Much of the allegations vis-à-vis the theory of Ethiopia as a colonial power are related to the period where Feudalism in Ethiopia was reunifying medieval era Ethiopian territories immediately before engaging European invaders at the battle of Adwa. The colonial theory somehow resonates sentiments of ethnic politics as well.

The leadership in what is now independent Eritrea was among the early subscribers of the colonial theory. Yet, after “independence” the leadership ferociously detested ethnic politics and diligently worked to forge an Eritrean identity. Twenty plus years after “independence,” all is not well in Eritrea and as you may know thousands are crossing south along what is now the Ethiopian border in the north. Unfortunately, the colonial theory relating to Ethiopia was ardently championed even by historians, too, who lurked in as Afro-centric scholars. Basil Davidson, for example, was painting the case of Eritrea purely as colonial. He even likened it to British colonial relation with India and explicitly considered Ethiopia as a colonial power.

The colonial theory and the question of secession was not restricted to Eritrea per se. Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) which is now the dominant entity in the ruling coalition initially started as a secessionist political group with subscription to the colonial thesis and to date, even when they are ruling Ethiopia with iron fist with an all-out support from their western backers, the name of the political entity is unchanged. We also have champions of radical (and neo-radical), possibly to where the young man in the video belongs to, ethnic politics from Oromo language speaking Ethiopians which actually constitute majority of the Ethiopian population and which produced in history seasoned military leaders who paid ultimate price to defend the freedom of Ethiopia. The radical ethnic movement in this group is in fact variegated. Some seem to go even to the extent of thinking in terms of blending the radical ethnic movement with political Islam. But what is common to the radical groups is that they are indoctrinating hate all the way deep to the villages which is manifested in the recent inhuman eviction of small farmers from this part of Ethiopia.

The young man who is recognized for his “Black studies” in the video (God knows what their curriculum is like) reminded me of your emphatic remark at Addis Ababa University in 2010 up on joining the University alumni as honoris causa. Like millions of Ethiopians, I treasure your speech. For you, the honoris causa, in your own words, was a “home coming” and a way of reconnecting to Ethiopia. I treasure it not only because it’s an embodiment of eloquence, clarity and a reflection of insight in the tradition of Afro-centric thinking and recognition of Ethiopia’s struggle to protect its freedom and inspire struggle against oppression in Africa and beyond but also you made that speech in the presence of the very politicians, including the late Meles Zenawi, who dared to pick up ethnic based administrative legacies of fascist Italy during its five years of occupation of Ethiopia except that it is given a new look and emphasis. In a way, it resembles British colonial rule based on divide along ethnic lines.

Now Ethiopia has, in terms of administrative structure, much like Apartheid South Africa Bantustan administration. The Federal regions are instituted strictly on the basis of “tribe.” Intermarriage between different language speaking groups is essentially crippled. Mobility from region to region for reasons of livelihood or otherwise is a nightmare and could even cost life. One of the revered Ethiopian Artist, Gigi, lamented in one of her songs “esekemeche” (literally how long?!) about the new administrative and political structure that barred mobility and intermarriage between different language speaking groups of Ethiopia. To move from one region to another, especially in the parts of Ethiopia where radicalism is taking root down to the villages, is like crossing a border to another country, if not worse.

Omens of ethnic based hatred and conflict are already surfacing even among the educated circles. The ideology of ethnic politics and its administration has been enforced for the past twenty two plus years – almost a generation old – now. In consequence, stories of ethnic clashes is now rife in institutions of higher learning in Ethiopia. For instance, news was circulating on social media that in one of the universities in southern Ethiopia a girl was thrown off the building to her death by radical groups. Subsistent farmers who lived all their live as a small farming communities in the countryside in the South, South Western and parts of Western Ethiopia are being evicted from their small landholdings as aliens and foreigners, and often times in an excruciatingly abusive manner in which radicalized youth took part in in a revolutionary like fervor. Government at times turn blind eye and at times give lip service about addressing the issue.

With all honesty, I have a feeling that African leaders, especially in the region, have failed Ethiopia and seem to overlook negative implication of Ethiopia’s failure for the rest of Africa too. There is a tendency to be carried away by the narrative of “double digit” economic growth and infrastructure in the capital, which in most cases is funded by Brettonwoods and Western states. There seem to be failure to see the political fragility of Ethiopia.

Rwanda learned the hard way about the dangers of ethnic politics and constitutionally outlawed ethnic politics. Uganda has a constitutional provision to discourage ethnic politics. Kenya has gruesome experience in recent years and is striving to combat the challenge. The government of Omer Hassen Al-Bashier is recently fighting tooth and nail against sectarian tendencies in his own country and is even harbingering a movement to combat “tribalism” in Libya. Yet, when it comes to Ethiopia, Omar Hassan al Bashir appears to be passionate about ethnic politics. He was in Mekelle, Ethiopia, alongside the late Zenawi to celebrate Tigray Peoples Liberation Front’s ethnic and political festival. And it has become like customary for delegation from Sudan to be part of the ethnic festivals of TPLF in Tigray. All these moves are contrary to the tents of the principles of what has become African Union now.

African Union as an institution is not an exception when in terms of its understanding the political challenges in Ethiopia. It is apparent that there is more interest in purchasing the narrative of “development” by the regime in power and mistaking it as visionary and transformative thereby overlooking the political danger. Even economically, the country is virtually sold out to “investors.” I wonder if there is/are an African leadership at AU level that ever read the current Ethiopian constitution as it relates to ethnic politics, and if there ever was a reflection as to what is happening outside of the capital, the stories of ethnic massacres in South East and South West Ethiopia.

Ethnic politics, so to speak, need to be perceived as a political epidemic and it is the last thing that Africa needs. If it is to be measured on the basis of its potentially devastating nature, ethnic politics is not less challenging than the epidemic diseases haunting Africa. And I have little or no doubt that “Renaissance of Africa” a project you are giving, apparently, your heart and mind, and for which you are mobilizing progressive Africans is unlikely to be successful if ethnic politics is ravaging Africa. Among other things, I imagine that your involvement in the mediation effort in South Sudan gave you additional experience about the devastating nature of ethnic politics in Africa. And it is really high time for African progressives to set the fight against ethnic politics and radical ethnic sentiment as an agenda. And I think you and Africans of your caliber, and your foundation need to play a catalyst role in that regard.

As well, I hope you will communicate this matter to ANC youth and other relevant entities in Africa. In the meantime please join “saynotoethnicpolitics” campaign on twitter with the hashtag #Africasaynoethnicpolitics which I will kick off as off tomorrow.

I look forward to hearing from you

With much respect,
Dimetros Birku
I could be reached at : dbirku@gmail.com
On twitter: @dimetros




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