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Perils of Passive Optimism–Ethiopia

Teshome Abebe, The author ( file)

Teshome Abebe*

One might argue that few nations have experienced challenges as profound and multifaceted as Ethiopia. This ancient land is marked by its rich history, diverse cultures, and intricate socio-political dynamics. However, beneath this veneer of diversity lies a nation grappling with persistent challenges, ranging from ethnic tensions to economic disparities. Against this backdrop, the concept of passive optimism has emerged as a contentious issue, with some arguing that it fosters complacency and impedes meaningful thought and action. This essay looks into the notion that, given the current circumstances, passive optimism is indeed a recipe for complacency in Ethiopia, obstructing progress and hindering even rupturing the pursuit of meaningful change.

Passive optimism, defined as a tendency to expect a favorable outcome without actively working towards it, can be alluring in tumultuous times. It provides a psychological escape from the harsh realities by fostering hope, albeit without the necessary groundwork. In Ethiopia, a nation marred by ethnic conflicts, political instability, and economic challenges, passive optimism can act as a sedative, lulling the populace into a false sense of security. This complacency, rooted in the belief that things will automatically get better, stifles the urgency for critical analysis and action.

One of the significant hurdles posed by passive optimism is its detrimental impact on critical thinking. Meaningful thought demands introspection, analysis, and a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths. Passive optimism, however, often discourages such critical examination. Individuals and communities, buoyed by unfounded hope, might shy away from confronting the root causes of their challenges. In Ethiopia, this could manifest in overlooking systemic issues such as corruption, lack of education, and unequal resource distribution. Consequently, the cycle of problems perpetuates, as the absence of critical thinking hampers the development of effective solutions.

Moreover, passive optimism can stifle the impulse for collective action. Meaningful change in any society necessitates the active participation of its citizens. This involvement ranges from civic engagement and dialogue to grassroots initiatives aimed at social and economic upliftment. Passive optimism, however, can breed apathy. When people believe that positive change will materialize effortlessly, they are less inclined to engage in the difficult and often uncomfortable work of mobilizing communities, advocating for policy reforms, or challenging existing power structures.

In the Ethiopian context, passive optimism can exacerbate social divides. The nation’s diverse ethnic landscape has historically been a source of strength, but it has also been a fault line for tensions. Passive optimism, by diverting attention from the pressing need for inclusive dialogue and understanding among different ethnic groups, can reinforce stereotypes and prejudices. Meaningful action requires acknowledging these divisions, fostering empathy, and actively working towards national cohesion. Passive optimism, by ignoring these complexities, hampers the creation of a harmonious society.

Additionally, the economic ramifications of passive optimism are profound. Ethiopia, like many developing nations, faces economic challenges such as poverty, unemployment, and inadequate infrastructure. Passive optimism can dissuade individuals from pursuing education and entrepreneurship actively. When the belief in an automatic, favorable outcome dominates, the impetus to invest in one’s skills or innovate diminishes. Consequently, economic progress stagnates, perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality.

All this to state that, given the current circumstances in Ethiopia, passive optimism presents a significant hurdle to meaningful thought and action. While optimism has its place in inspiring hope and resilience, it must be coupled with active engagement, critical thinking, and collective efforts. To overcome the challenges that Ethiopia faces, the nation needs a populace that is not just hopeful but also proactive, willing to critically assess its problems, engage in meaningful dialogue, challenge existing norms, and work collaboratively towards sustainable solutions. Only through such concerted efforts can Ethiopia break free from the shackles of complacency and pave the way for a brighter, more prosperous future. 

Navigating the Balance between Natural Progression and Societal Responsibility

In the age-old debate of fate versus human agency, there exists a perspective that advocates for letting things unfold naturally, believing that events will inevitably fall into place. While this passive optimism might seem benign, history and current global events, such as those in Ethiopia, demonstrate that blind faith in the natural course of events can lead to catastrophic outcomes. The next few paragraphs discuss the dangerous consequences of complacency, exploring how an unwavering belief in the laissez-faire approach can pave the way for authoritarianism, social chaos, disintegration and ideological violence; and concludes with extraordinary examples of perilous undertakings where society has suffered in part because of passive pessimism. 

A) The Illusion of Natural Order

The notion that events will organically align without human intervention assumes an idealistic, harmonious world. However, reality is far from ideal. Societies are complex, interwoven systems where numerous factors, including political decisions, social policies, and economic disparities, influence the course of events. Ignoring the impact of these factors can blind us to the root causes of societal issues, leading to a false sense of security.

B) Authoritarianism: A Consequence of Apathy

In the absence of active efforts to shape the course of events, power vacuums can arise, allowing authoritarian leaders to exploit the void. History is replete with examples of societies descending into autocracy when individuals remain passive, trusting that things will work out on their own. Authoritarianism often thrives when citizens disengage from the political process, leaving the door open for charismatic leaders who manipulate public sentiment to seize power.

C) Social Chaos and Disintegration: The Domino Effect

When individuals relinquish their agency, societal fabric weakens. Discontent simmers unchecked by proactive measures. This discontent can erupt into social chaos, manifested through civil unrest, violence, and unrest. In Ethiopia, the country has grappled with ethnic tensions and political instability, exacerbated by historical grievances left unaddressed. The failure to actively promote social cohesion and address underlying issues has contributed to the possible disintegration of the nation, tearing apart communities and leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

D) The Role of Responsible Stewardship

Contrary to the fatalistic view, a society’s trajectory is not predetermined. Responsible stewardship involves recognizing the complexities of our world and actively engaging with the challenges we face. It necessitates a collective effort to promote inclusive governance, social justice, and economic equality. Proactive policies that address the root causes of societal issues are crucial in preventing the descent into chaos.

E) Pernicious and Ambitious Ideological Thinking Leading to Disorientation, Confusion and Death.

Wherever passive optimism has paved a way for authoritarianism, social chaos and disintegration, it has also always led to extraordinary tragedies. 

Complacent societies have always bred ideologs with ambitious ideological projects that have a tendency to captivate the imagination of societies, promising grand transformations and a better future. However, history demonstrates that these endeavors often lead to confusion and disorientation rather than triumph. The following, though not complete, are examples that amply illustrate this pattern.

Communism in the former Soviet Union: The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 aimed to create a classless society. However, the implementation of communism under leaders like Stalin led to widespread repression, economic stagnation, and the loss of individual freedoms. The ambitious goal of equality resulted in a regime marked by fear and disarray.

The Great Leap Forward in China: In the late 1950s, Mao Zedong launched the Great Leap Forward to rapidly transform China from an agrarian society into a socialist society through rapid industrialization and collectivization. This initiative caused one of the largest famines in history, leading to the deaths of millions. The ideological fervor blinded leaders to the practical consequences, causing confusion and despair among the population.

The Cultural Revolution in China: Still in China, Mao’s Cultural Revolution aimed to enforce communist ideology by removing capitalist, traditional, and cultural elements from society. The result was widespread chaos, persecution of intellectuals, and destruction of cultural heritage. The ideological zeal led to a fractured society and a lost generation, illustrating how ambitious projects can disorient a nation’s identity.

 The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia: Pol Pot’s regime sought to establish an agrarian communist society, aiming to eliminate all vestiges of capitalism and create a classless society. This extreme ideological project led to the genocide of nearly 2 million people, tearing apart the social fabric of Cambodia and leaving the nation traumatized and disoriented.

 The Arab Spring: The series of uprisings in the Arab world in the early 2010s aimed at establishing democratic governance and social justice. While these movements initially held promise, they often resulted in power vacuums, political instability, and the rise of extremist groups. The ambitious goal of democratic transformation led to confusion and disorientation as societies struggled to find a new equilibrium.

The Introduction of Ethnic Federalism in Ethiopia: The introduction of ethnic-based government in Ethiopia in 1991 aimed to free society from poverty and squalor as well as give it the opportunity for self-governance. As has been demonstrated amply over the past few decades, instead it brought about the uncertainty and horrors of daily life to include, food insecurity, societal chaos, tortures, ideological violence, imprisonment under harsh conditions and control over the day lives of individuals. The promised freedom favored groups at the expense of the individual; and in doing so, it failed to deliver justice. The saga isn’t over yet. The current government has declared war against its own citizens—a war now in its fourth year– with the aim of elevating one ethnic group to exercise control over all others. As a consequence, millions have lost their lives, displaced and/or lost everything in the process. An estimated six million people have either lost their lives or been displaced as a result of an avoidable war which is only getting more vicious as I write this. All this in the promotion of a twisted ideology to make one group superior to all others in a country where ethnic diversity was supposed to be an asset.

In each of these cases, ambitious ideological projects began with noble intentions but ended in confusion, disorientation and loss of lives.  The gap between the idealized vision and the complex realities of implementation led to disillusionment, societal unrest, and in all cases, human tragedies. These historical examples serve as cautionary tales, reminding us of the importance of pragmatism, adaptability, and a deep understanding of the complexities of society when embarking on ambitious ideological or political endeavors.


While it is tempting to believe that things will fall into place naturally, history cautions us against such complacency. The events unfolding in Ethiopia serve as a stark reminder that passive optimism can pave the way for authoritarianism, social chaos, and disintegration. Furthermore, as demonstrated above, passive complacency can lead to ambitious ideological endeavors with unfathomable consequences.  Embracing our agency and actively working towards positive change is essential to steer societies away from these perilous outcomes. Only through responsible stewardship and collective action can we hope to build resilient, harmonious societies that withstand the tests of time. 

*Teshome Abebe, a former Provost and Vice President is Professor of Economics.

 Editor’s note : Views in the article do not necessarily reflect the views of

Recent articles by the same author :
The Demise Of Civility In Ethiopia?  
Exploring The Nexus Between Money Supply, Inflation, And The Impact On Poverty: A Compendiary
The Dynamic Trio of Political Economy: Cooperation and Conflict, Scarcity and Surplus, Wealth and Inequality & Ethiopia’s Failures Under Ethnic-Based Governments


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  1. Another masterpiece awash with facts and truths by Brother Obbo Teshome Abebe, PhD! Thank you brother, for telling the truth about this philosophy(if you can call it philosophy) of connivers; Communism a.k.a. Marxism/Leninism/Maoism. When I saw paragraphs in which the brother exposed the fallacies of communism I was like ‘was the brother talking to over the years since the late 1960’s?’.

    Keep writing brother!!! We need to be kept educated by scholars like you, sir!!!

    Blessings to you and your family!!!

  2. We have all failed Ethiopia and must own up to it. I left the country during the Monarchy as a very young man. Though I have kept up with developments there by visiting as often as possible and even spending three months about two and a half years ago to do some work, I feel, like so many of my brethren, to contribute. That contribution for so many of us comes in many different ways and forms. I am delighted that at least a few get to enjoy reading my musings on different topics because of these technologies.

    The best to you, Sir Ittu! With gratitude…

    • Dear Brother Obbo Teshome Abebe, PhD,,

      What happened to the youth of the old country especially to the cream puff of the crop in the 1970’s should be taken as one of its darkest history. It seemed that the best of the best were just put together in a single bunch and handed over for a slaughter. I had received all of my education outside of that country since I was a young boy. When I was in high school one of my British teachers used to get periodicals published in then British territory of Hong Kong. He used to let me read them as soon as he received them. Some of them carried first hand accounts of those who were lucky enough to escape Mao’s slaughter house by swimming across the Pearl Delta to safety in Hong Kong. That was during Mao’s Great Leap Forward massacre spree. They told stories how millions have perished from starvation, disease and executions. One of those first hand accounts told by an escapee still haunts me. He told a story how a mother caught her only daughter chewing raw rice in the middle of the night which punishable by death. That young girl was so hungry that she sneaked in the storage room and grabbed a handful of raw rice and the mother thought it was her duty to report her to the local Mao cadres. She thought she would be heralded as a patriot and her daughter will get a lighter punishment. But the dreaded cadres paraded that little girl in front of the residents and condemned her as a traitor. Then they passed around sticks to their group of demons(they were called red guards) and beat the hungry girl to death. Her mother lost her mind and committed suicide a few days later. Those escapees used to tell horror stories how millions were dying from starvation including large number of their relatives. Many such horrors used to be reported by escapees about the other carnage unleashed by Mao during his Cultural Revolution. So I already had first hand information about evils of Marxism/Leninism/Maoism when I started meeting and befriending my countrymen who were going to school in the Middle East and then when I went to Europe on vacation. I still remember what one of my countrymen enthusiastically told about what Mao’s leadership achieved in China. He told me that there was drought for 5 years in a row and not a single Chinese missed any one of his 3 daily meals let alone dying from hunger. He kept telling me that until I had enough of it. Then I asked him ‘how about these stories of mass starvation and deaths told by those who were lucky enough to escape’. He told me those were agents of imperialism.

      Then after I came here in the 1970’s it took me a little while to get in touch with students from our old country. The only Ethiopian I knew was a person born and raised in Western Hararghe and was married to an American who was living a family life detached to those who were going to school. It did not take too long when protests erupted against the late emperor. It looked like that everyone was to follow Mao’s path to victory. Many of them went back to start a ‘protracted armed struggle’ against the emperor. I still remember the face of one of them when told me he was going back. He told me how his group had formed an army. Three decades later I found out from books written by those who were from that era that the army he told me was none other than a 12-man ragtag which ended being used as cooks by the EPLF for more than 2 years. That young man was a bright fellow and there were many of them like him who ended up being slaughtered by the bloodthirsty Mengistu or during fracas among themselves. Every one of them had the intellectual horsepower to run and giant multi-national corporation if they were still alive today. I can still remember their faces and there is nothing I can do to bring them back.

      So, one could ask the cardinal question: How did this twisted and demonic ideology of communism come to grab the attention of our young men in the late 1960’s? I have a theory for that and you and I can talk about it until the cows come home. I will tell you my own conclusion at another time. But if you had the chance to come across my previous comments on this and other websites, you might have read them already. Sometimes just thinking about them boils my blood. It wiped out a generation. Those who played leadership roles and still alive don’t even have the decency to admit mistakes.

      Blessings to you and your family!!!

  3. A fabulous story as well as a tearjerker. Indeed, it reminded me of a story I read quite a while ago by some whose name I forgot at the moment about a community losing all of its bright people in just a short period of time and the sad consequences for that community. What makes your story poignant is not that there weren’t enough bright people to take care of their society but that they all thought alike and wrongly. That happened in the 70’s 90’s and now in the 21st century. Perhaps this accumulated experience can be shared so that it won’t be repeated and wreck havoc within the coming generations.
    Thank you for sharing that story.


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