Is ‘Elite’ the New Political Dog-whistle for Culture War in Ethiopia?

“Ethiopia Teen spirit” – (by Alula M. Abate)

By Alula M. Abate
June 8, 2020

The college graduation photos that I keep in my office desk announces to all that stroll in here that I am a proud Ethiopian dad of  ‘elite’ children  who earned their degrees from Stanford, Colombia and Oxford respectively.  I tear up each time I see it for our journey, like many Ethiopian immigrants, was a highly-unlikely one. I just wish that their mother, whom we lost 4 years go much sooner than she needed to go, was here to see it as well.  As painful as it is, it’s comforting to know that she’s looking down on us and smiling too.  Our precious youngsters are now alumni of the same intuitions as some of the most powerful people in the world including former presidents and global leaders in business, military, education, journalism, engineering, arts, academia and so much more. So should our beloved kids apologize for being an elite?  

In the context of Ethiopia  tragically the word ‘elite’ recalls  the dark ages of  the Derg era and the red-terror period when the term ‘adhari (elite) was pistolized to justify the “elimination” of the educated class, businessmen and royal family members. The madness reached new heights when it was employed by the notorious Khmer Rouge Communist Party in Cambodia that massacred millions in the name of being an ‘elite’ including anyone that wore an eye glass. Given this ugly history associated with the word,  my parental instinct tells me that ‘no,  our kids will not apologize for being an elite.’

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the word ‘elite’ denotes highly talented and skilled individuals in various fields by virtue of their education and position exercise wide influence. In Ethiopian traditional definition that’s called a blessing.
‘No, our kids will not apologize for being an elite.’

The libertarian-conservative American political commentator George Will said it better than anyone: “ People are fine with elites as long as they aren’t politicians.”  For the talking heads class, of course,  “elitist” may be an epithet, but they take a dim view of “elitism” more often than they are able to define it.  “One kind word can change someone’s entire day.” -Unknown. I say one kind word can change a country forever. “Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” -Pearl Strachan Hurd
The looming danger is that peddling elite-mass conflict within the opposition (now pro government camp) can keep a democracy from flowering as fast as it should be by discouraging independent groups and individuals at a very critical time for Ethiopia. “Drawing on the Chinese [failed pro democracy experience] activists’ own speeches, writings, and declarations, it shows how elitism among opposition intellectuals made them skeptical about popular sovereignty and hostile to workers and peasants as political allies,” states Daniel Kelliher in his seminal peer-reviewed journal article Keeping Democracy Safe from the Masses: Intellectuals and Elitism in the Chinese Protest Movement. “It compares the Chinese case with instances of democratization in eastern Europe and Latin America in order to identify the conditions that make the transition from broad-based protest to a democracy movement possible.”

‘No,  our kids will not apologize for being an elite.’

A few months ago NPR’s Steve Inskeep interviewed  noted American journalist and author Joel Stein about his book: “In Defense of Elitism, Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book.” According to NPR the writer “concludes that President Trump won office by attacking elites. And, in a humorous way at least, Stein set out to defend them. He argues that we really don’t face a battle against the elite but a battle between differing elites. Donald Trump the candidate once said so, noting that his supporters are wealthy in many cases and have bigger boats. So Stein calls it a divide between the boat elite and the intellectual elite.”

In the end, ‘elite’ or ‘not elite,’  let’s not pivot to creating an unnecessary culture war and division among our people. Isn’t our toxic ethnic politics enough?  This time it’s up to the supporters of the ruling party in Ethiopia to lead by example of ‘Medemer’ and  bringing people together, not the other way around.  You and I, all of us, owe it to our children’s future. And in my case I owe it to their mother too!

‘No,  our kids will not apologize for being an elite.’

Thank you and God bless.
You can contact Alula M. Abate at

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