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HomeOpinionThis is not the Time for Pessimism

This is not the Time for Pessimism

Ethiopia _ Ethnic politics
Ethiopians protesting in Washington in November 2021 (Photo : Reuters via CNN)

Leo Okere

The ethnic disintegration of Ethiopia seems, as Jawar Mohammed triumphantly declared recently, unstoppable, giving rise to the pessimistic feeling among Ethiopians that nothing could be done to stop it. In the face of this creeping pessimism, one must ask: Why? 

Four reasons: first, the mind-boggling lawlessness of the security forces of Dr. Abiy’s regime; second, the regime’s treatment of Ethiopians who oppose ethnic politics and support Ethiopian unity as enemies; third, the pauperization of the people while select ethnic elites are getting richer by the day; and fourth, the regime’s disdain for and betrayal of the sacrifices the Ethiopian Defense Forces have made in the war and rewarding the TPLF with a political victory that ensures its survival and its reconquest of Raya and Welqait. 

Government lawlessness is lacerating the bodies and souls of Ethiopians, be they Amhara, Oromo, Gurage, etc. The diet of Amhara-hatred on which government officials feast daily has led to ethnic cleansing in many kilils. Add to these the persecution of journalists, and the government’s disdain for the Electoral Commission and the Human Rights Commission. The two Commissions’ demands that the government respect and protect freedoms of assembly and expression are scorned. 

No wonder then, fear is stalking the country and pessimism among Ethiopians is growing. At first blush, pessimism seems to be justified, given the appalling situation in the country. However, pessimism must be overcome if Ethiopia is to exit from the present political disaster. Ethiopians must handle pessimism as a critical category that could enable them to overcome ethnic politics and usher democracy. To quote a philosopher, Ethiopians need to practice pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” 

Pessimism of the intellect:  Ethiopians must avoid wishful thinking and see the present situation in Ethiopia as it really is:  (a) a country strangled by the mortifying grip of ethnic politics and being demolished by Dr. Abiy’s regime, and (b) the absence of a credible opposition capable of stopping this demolition. Indeed, the situation in Ethiopia is so dire that the intellect recoils with pessimism at the enormity of the tasks Ethiopians face to change the present situation and install democracy. 

Optimism of the will: It is said that the intellect, in making a problem knowable, takes the first step towards making it solvable. However, solving a problem means going beyond what the intellect discloses and making decisions on how to tackle it. Making decisions is a matter of “the will” or what Ethiopians call ወኔ (wäne), and not a matter of the intellect. Knowledge does not lead necessarily to action. Only the will has the capacity to make decisions to change reality. Hence, the optimism of  “the will.” 

The intellect tells us that the core issue of contemporary Ethiopia is the TPLF instituted politicization of ethnicity. The original sin that tainted Dr. Abiy’s accession to power in 2018 is his failure to challenge TPLF’s legacy of politicized ethnicity. His regime emulated the ethnic politics of the TPLF, but with a new twist—it replaced Tigrayan with Oromo supremacy. Dr. Abiy thus left intact the issue of the politicization of ethnicity. This problem must be tackled if democracy is to exist  in Ethiopia. But how? one may ask. 

The oft-discussed line from Wagner’s Parsifal, could offer a path of reflection: “The wound can be healed only by the spear that smote it.” The “spear” that wounded Ethiopia is politicized ethnicity, and only ethnicity could heal ethnicity from its political disease and restore Ethiopia to political health. Thus, one could see ethnicity as a pharmakon. In the same way that the wounding “spear” is transformed into the healing “spear,” the wounding “ethnicity” could be transformed into a healing “ethnicity.” So, if ethnicity is a pharmakon, what is the democratic or healing  kernel of Ethiopia’s politicized ethnicity?

This is a complex question that is beyond my intellectual resources to answer. I will leave it in the hands of Ethiopian Ph.Ds., who are numerous. Below, I sketch tentative replies to the question, based on the notions of “time” and “space,” that I hope could serve as starting points for reflection, and eventually for action. For “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” action without reflection is blind.

First, the idea of time or “rotation: I once heard an Oromo lawyer say: “The Amhara ‘ate’ Ethiopia, then the Tigrayans did; it is now our turn to ‘eat’ Ethiopia.” The idea, implicit in this strange remark, that different ethnic groups have a right to accede to power, contains a rational kernel: that (a) power is not the monopoly of an ethnic group, (b) “the seat of power is empty” and anybody could seat in it, and  (c) there should be a “time limit” to one’s occupation of the seat of power, or “rotation” of the people who sit in it. 

We already have here an implicit opening towards democracy-as-the-method for coping with Ethiopia’s ethnic problem. The resolution of the problem seems possible if we could agree that the “rotation” should apply to individuals (citizens) and not ethnic groups. Why should we agree with this idea? Because the move from “ethnic” rotation to “individual” rotation minimizes the role of violence in politics. As history indicates, violence is inevitable in “ethnic” rotation insofar as every ethnic group that tries to monopolize power uses violence against the excluded ethnic groups, and always ends up splitting internally and using violence within and on itself, as Somalia, despite its ethnic homogeneity, shows. 

Moreover, “individual” rotation implies competition between individuals for support, boosting the role of arguments in choosing those who will occupy the “empty” seat of power. Thus, the unforced force of the better argument” supplants ethnic arguments and creates a peaceful environment that copes with political differences through public dialogues and rational deliberations. Ethnic arguments are impermeable to such discourses and are inseparable from violence and distortion of facts, as we see now in Ethiopia.

Second, the idea of space: Ethnic politics in Ethiopia is rooted in a ritualistic conception of space. But more and more Ethiopians are living in urban centers. Unless Dr. Abiy’s regime wants to wind back the historical clock to the 16th century, the urbanization of Ethiopia will continue. Ethiopians will increasingly transit from a ritualistic to a fluid and flexible understanding of space. This implies the desacralization of space, which leads to the de-ethnicization of space. The question then is: since a ritualistic understanding of space is inimical to democracy, what kind of spatial organization is conducive to democracy?

A spatial organization that is conducive to democracy needs an organization of space that avoids the political and demographic supremacy of one unit (kilil) over the other spatial units (kilils). To ensure an all-round equality between the kilils, a linguistic or an ethnic group could be divided into many spatial units (kilils) within a federal structure that offers each kilil or unit a semi-autonomous status. 

For example, Nigeria is divided in 36 states. Each has a semi-autonomous status. Thus one finds the same ethnic groups distributed in various states. The German group in Switzerland is distributed in 17 cantons, and the French in 4. The point is that such a balanced demographic and political arrangement offers a healthy context for democracy in that, in de-ethnicizing space, it depoliticizes ethnicity by minimizing its role as a constituent element in political and economic activities. When ethnicity is a constituent element of these activities, violence and corruption are inevitable

Note that this process does not eliminate ethnicity. On the contrary, by depoliticizing it, the process expands ethnicity’s space and freedom for cultural development, because ethnicity is no longer bottled up by politicized ethnic boundaries, as is the case now in Ethiopia. In this process, both democracy and ethnicity are winners: democracy in the field of politics and ethnicity in the arena of culture.

The above arguments suggest that if democracy is to develop in Ethiopia, the economy to grow, and Ethiopian cultures to flourish, Ethiopia needs a different spatial organization. The present kilil organization is characterized by the ethnicization and sacralization of space, and by glaring spatial, political, and demographic disequilibria; it stifles democracy and the economy, and ethnicity’s cultural development. Democracy, economic development, and cultural flourishing in Ethiopia need the de-ethnicization and de-sacralization of space, and the creation of units (kilils) of comparable weight. 

Thus, there is no reason why Ethiopia cannot have 3 or 4 Oromo kilils, 3 or 4 Amhara kilils, 2 or 3 Tigray kilils, “x” number of multi-ethnic kilils, and so forth. Of course, these are speculative numbers I give as examples. The number of such kilils and the criteria for evaluating their equitable comparability need to be determined by a working group of demographers, economists, geographers, and citizens. 

In the present Ethiopian situation, which is saturated with state lawlessness and ethnic baiting, the “pessimism of the intellect, the optimism of the will” intimates a number of consequences. First, only Ethiopians could solve Ethiopia’s problems. Appeals to the United States and other external powers to solve Ethiopia’s problems is an expression of pessimism regarding the capacity of Ethiopians to solve the problems they themselves have created.  Outside support is secondary and effective only if Ethiopians recognize themselves and act as the primary agents of transition from politicized ethnicity to democracy.

Second, “the will” can be a transformative power only if it is embodied in an organization. Without an organization that embodies it, “the will” succumbs to the pessimism of the intellect. Thus the centuries old slogan, “Organize yourselves” is still potent. The reluctance of Ethiopians to organize themselves to solve the conundrum of politicized ethnicity is a symptom of pessimism. Without organization, “the will” is impotent. The “optimism of the will” acts only through an organization. Thus, without organization, there is no transition from politicized ethnicity to democracy. 

A Swahili saying runs: Simba aliyekufa hawezi kungurama  / “a dead lion does not roar.” The saying advises us not to stop “roaring” against injustice as long as we are alive. For Ethiopians, for whom the lion is a national historical symbol, “roaring” means in the present context organizing and struggling for democracy. This is not the time for pessimism. 

Editor’s note : views in the article reflect the views of the writer, not the views of borkena.com 

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, the solutions that are discussed have been implemented in places noted and have proven to work in those places with little no issues at all, in others places they have not worked as expected and the societies in those places are still going through serious challenges perhaps because there were orchestrated and influenced by external forces for political advantages such as in the former Yugoslavia for instance as we speak.

    I agree, there is merit for your suggestion… and more or less it has worked before the 1991 debacle we find ourselves in. 
      “Thus, there is no reason why Ethiopia cannot have 3 or 4 Oromo kilils, 3 or 4 Amhara kilils, 2 or 3 Tigray kilils, “x” number of multi-ethnic kilils, and so forth. Of course, these are speculative numbers I give as examples. ”
    Managing issues will become much more successful, if and when organized in such a way. 

    The Somalia situation is a good example where a homogenous society is being forced to divide in various section because a few “profiteers” are allowed to running the show to fulfil their own personal ambitions, and we have those characters (mentioned individuals and groups ) in Ethiopia that have created it and those who champion the idea and are actively waging division between our society to advance their own personal ambitions.

    The current conflict in Ukraine is a similar situation gone to its advanced stage… and due to its proximity it has become an inflection point of the “great powers” which has a potential to bring about a far reaching devastation that could go beyond the region and further east  & west.
    As a result “democracies” in the west are turning into ‘authoritarian’ by the day, where rules are change on a dime   and norms are becoming the thing of the past replaced by radical ideas ranging from gender, sex, and the likes… issues never expected to reach mainstream in the way they are PUSHED, particularly when it comes to under age children and how and where by whom they should be exposed to such radical things,  however, pushed forward regardless of parent approval, any regard to public opinion are forced to be accept as normal. It is bizarre.

    So, in general when we look at what is gong globally & analyze these phenomenon’s, it suggests that the time we live in is unique, and can be described as one which is in between to “stages”, wobbling without the balancing effect of the laws of the stages that governs its stability.
    This happens a lot in a lot of places such as in nature, laboratories, industries… etc. even evident in driving a car (noticeable in standard ones) between changing gears there is a ‘space/time’  where the movement is a FREE-flow till the next gear is engaged… like wise, there is a lot of rumbling going as a rocket shots to space till it reaches zero gravity, and again in reentering the Earth environment, shakeups between stages are unavoidable.

    Similarly there are forces beyond human control (universal) that are shifting things, though we ‘think” to be independent of what goes on around us based on how things functioned consistently for centuries, now it has come to the “gear change’ moment we are not familiar with, and things are wobbly, somewhat disturbing & illogical in a sense, but that is what it going on, just like the full-Moon controls thing (ocean rise) on Earth every month, the one we are in has far more powerful influences and effects as it runs though its cycle.

    Sooner or later the calm after the storm is due to come and if we are lucky we will witness that too.

    “I know not with what weapons ww3 will be fought, but ww4 will be fought with sticks and stones”  
    Albert Einstein           

    Be well

    • The collective west gone MAD. (Collective stupidity).

      When the collective “Western civilization” hit the wall due to “dump and dumpers” come to the top of its “leadership role” like todays westerns leadership-bunch who keep “Doubling-down on STUPIDITY” day in day out not knowing when to stop when their (Russian) SANCTION-policies fail to achieve the desired outcome & boomeranging & destroying their own economies instead

      Collective Stupidity — How Can We Avoid It?

      Source = youtube.com/watch?v=25kqobiv4ng

      Spain legislators recently approved “human-animal marriage”, soon there will be a “mud-pit” built in the middle of the parliament in expectation that due to the recent legislation “Jose-donkey” could join the Spain parliament and want to take a mud-bath during parliament proceedings…

      Brainwashing Of Children & The Awesome Difference Between Men & Women

      Source = youtube.com/watch?v=KOndUrNU4ak

      Confidence with out CLARITY is DEADLY.

      Be well.

  2. Leo, stop your crocodile tears for Ethiopia! Charity starts at home, with the injustice right in Kenya! I chose to fly back than stay in Kenya even during the Fascist Derg’s Era. Let me ask you some very basic simple questions:

    (1). Does Kenya still belong to Whites & Indians? (2). Are Kenyans still 2nd class citizens in their own country? (3). Is Nairobi still dangerous to walk around after 6 pm?

    In the 1980’s, only the Ethiopian passport was needed [no visa required] to visit Kenya and all I wanted was to escape Derg’s Fascism. So, I flew to Nairobi and stayed in a hotel for 2 weeks [near `Lilian Towers, by the park where citizens air their grievances].

    Mishap #1: At the airport’s exit, some Eritreans greeted me in fluent Amharic and hassled me to go with them. Little did they know that Derg’s Eritrean Dogs were one major reason I left Ethiopia. So, John [Airport Taxi driver] who watched all that, took me by the arm, yanked my luggage from them, and drove me to a hotel he knew.

    Mishap#2: John introduced me to the receptionist and spoke in Swahili (!?). She said, ≈ “He will be fine! Our guests are mostly British students. I won’t let him out after 6 pm…” It was dangerous to move around after 6 pm. Even the 30 g gold Lalibella Cross and chain we take for granted in Addis could get your neck chopped.

    Mishap#3: Almost all businesses in Nairobi were owned by Whites or Indians. Kenyans did menial jobs. Worse, Kenyans lived out side Nairobi at ≈25 km radius. They were using minibuses [Matatu (!?)] to shuttle between Nairobi & home. I was sad to see Kenyans stuffed in them like sardines and driven away with the doors open.

    • I hope the Oromo “elite” read your story and OPEN their “Blocked-Mind” and understand HOW “Independent Ethiopia” where they live freely in today was organized in such a way by all the Kings and Queens of Ethiopia for over 3000 years.
      Today they are ashamed to fly the Glorious Ethiopian Flag and to call Emperor Menelik II their king that kept them FREE and equal to anyone walking the planet Earth with their heads High, without being second-class to NO BODY. I MEAN nobody on Earth.

      But these people have no critical-thinking-mind to realize where they are, who they are, and how they got here, as the only FREE people in the entire continent of Africa.
      In fact the whole world was a colony at one time or another except our motherland Ethiopia. That means a LOT, but these idiots do not understand the enormity of it all, perhaps they NEVER WILL understand.

      Thank you, for sharing such a story of contrast that makes anyone-alive cringe hearing.

      lately though, I come to realize as time goes by, that it maybe too late to revive our beloved Ethiopia and make her whole again, as we watch these wild-Dogs out of the woodwork try to bit her deep in the heart without any remorse or concern to their motherland, and say to myself, Amhara should just give up the idea or hope to come to any sort of understanding with this back-ward-thinkers, and is better to leave them to sort their future on their own, and establish the New Ethiopia along with our glorious Flag and build her anew, Bahir Dar as her New Capita, and leave the dead-weight behind, for good.

      The more I see the disintegration of the current reality, the better & better the vibrant, prosperous, strong, & peaceful New Amhara-homogenous-Ethiopia with all its world acclaimed iconic historical ancient sites and all its artifacts , churches, monasteries, castles, that spans thousands of years is nowhere-else but here all in one site, comes to an ever brighter FOCUS; in comparison to the malaise we have been nursing for the last 50 years or so.

      I am convinced this is the only and best solution, to revive our Ethiopia, and Pure-Ethiopiawinet with all its Glory & History, with undeniable total pride celebrating what our ancestors were able to achieve for thousands of years and passed on to us so that we can do the same without any “blemish” from these demwits we seem to be struggling with, without making any tangible progress or headways to a binding-future that is comfortable to everyone involved.
      You cannot have antagonistic realities in one basket, one an Ethiopian-through and through & the other something-else that does not believe in its Ethiopiawinet & the nations true & proud past history and its glorious FLAG; which means, there is nothing binding us together any longer, perod.

      Only “A civilized” separation is the best we can put together and wish them all well and say goodbye!
      Like the former Czechoslovakians, were able to achieve by becoming 2, Czech Republic & Slovakia .
      In our case it would be our Ethiopia and whatever the rest of them want to call themselves, going forward.

      Smaller and Unified Ethiopia is a lot more healthier & prosperous than a bigger and sick-one, that is out of control, becoming dumb and dumber collectively and its offspring’s even becoming alarmingly dimmer than before, and unmanageable all together.

      Its time to bailout, before it gets worse.

      Be well.

  3. Hi, T! You are back to promoting your monarchy again! That’s very petty of you! ALL Ethnic Bigots are ALL Petty Dogs advancing Egypt’s and the White Supremacist West’s agenda to make Ethiopia and themselves the laughing stock of the world. Dumb Chimps!

    1). Haile-Selassie Era Monarchy [HSEM]: Were they Dumb or Heartless? The Wollo Famine which claimed millions of lives [that brought the HSEM down] could have been averted by just air-dropping bread. No word can describe my revulsion for that failure!

    I even saw Tilahun Gessesse shedding tears singing “ዋይ! ዋይ! ዋይ!” ሲሉ – “የረሃብን ጉንፋን ሲስሉ ….” Adding insult to that injury, worse song was yet to come under the Fascist Derg: “We are the World” [World’s National Anthem for Ethiopia]. Hello???

    2). Menelik’s Cavalry [MC] & ‘Royal Guards’ were ALL Shewa Oromos [SO]. He used them last AND they turned the tide against the advancing Italian Invaders & their Eritrean Askaris. The Italian War Chronicler wrote: ≈ “The advancing Italian Officers shot themselves at the sight of Menelik’s Oromo Cavalry – than being slashed to pieces.”

    3). Oromos & Ethiopian History: Most Oromos don’t know that MC was entirely SO and Menelik’s Chief of Staff [Dejazmatch Habte-Giorgis Dinegde] was Oromo. Well, blame ‘White Historians & Amara Historians’ for their Skewed Ethiopian History that portrays Amaras as the Custodians of Ethiopia overwriting/belittling the roles of the other ethnics.

    4). Gojjam & Gonder [G&G]: Good luck with Bahir-Dar as Ethiopia’s Capital. MOST Ethiopians are UNWELCOME in G&G while Whites & Arabs are MOST WELCOME [Go & See]. While no Oromo lives in G&G, ≥90% of the 15 million Amaras in Oromia are from G&G. When I was in Bahir-Dar, raw sewage was flowing in the open-air canals.

    5). Boycotting Ethiopian Airlines [BEA]: I have had no clue about the Oromo BEA. I was aware of the Amara BEA. Some Amara Thugs [who don’t represent me] reiterated that in their last week’s Anti-Oromo Grand Amara DC Convention. The Oromos I know are the OLF-IFLO* Oromos who attacked me [with their TPLF-EPLF masters] at the university I went to. It’s a shame to see Oromos still being manipulated like 3 year olds.

    *IFLO: Islamic Front for Liberation of Oromia [Defunct but embedded in OLF/OLA].

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