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Voltaire and the politics of the Ethiopian elites

Ethiopia Freedom of expression-Voltaire
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 Awol Endris ADEM

I’m prompted to write this after I witnessed the endless mutual recriminations of the so-called Ethiopian elites on the politics of the country. It’s very sad to see that almost all the positions the elites take end up with a zero sum game where you either win or lose. There’s no middle ground in the politics of the myopic so-called intellectuals who only want to listen to what supports their stands, and loudly proclaim that everybody else who has an opposite view from theirs is a traitor, a sellout or a saboteur. There’s nothing more depressing than to see Ethiopians who are eager to jump at each others’ throats if they subscribe to an opposite view than theirs. 

I mentioned the French philosopher Voltaire in my title for a reason. Volataire (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778) was a very prolific writer, philosopher and historian of the Enlightenment period of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The Enlightenment period produced very many writers, artists and philosophers who have left a lasting influence on the thinking of the modern age. It’s for this reason that the Enlightenment period is also called The Age of Reason. 

Voltaire is famous for his staunch defence of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. And because of this, he’s now remembered as the staunchest advocate of freedom of speech. For Voltaire, freedom of speech is not only tolerating an opposing view from one’s own, but defending that right with even a personal risk to oneself. This is beautifully expressed by Voltaire as follows. “I don’t agree with a word you say. But I defend, till death, your right to say it.” You see? A mature individual does not attack or condemn another only because they have a different opinion from them. In fact, they defend that person’s right to say what he feels without any limitation whatsoever and will go to any length to defend that right – even up to death!! Can you imagine what our politics would be like if we all have such an attitude towards fellow citizens with regard to our politics? Think about it. How many of those who are now behind bars would have stayed free? How many of those who fled their country due to political opposition would have remained in their country with their family and friends? How many of the victims of torture and inhuman treatment would have been saved from the degradation and pain inflicted on them? And how much more love and brotherhood would have existed among us Ethiopians, even when we differ in our political views and opinions. 

This intolerance to opposing views is not limited to the Ethiopian elites in Ethiopia. It’s also very widespread and equally acrimonious among Ethiopians in the diaspora. What’s upsetting is that the elites in the diaspora do witness the level of freedom of speech and the strong language politicians use to argue their case in the chambers of power and in the streets and yet remain peaceful fellow citizens. Our compatriots are impervious to this influence and jump at each other’s throats when discussing their country’s politics played out thousands of miles away. What a shame!! What immaturity!! What disgraceful behavior!! 

Awol Endris ADEM would be reached at

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


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