by Teshome Abebe
January 19, 2018
“From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch…” –Rousseau 1754.
Are these words irrelevant for our times? Hardly! I write this short essay as a cautionary piece on the state of the Ethiopian Diaspora’s penchant for organizing. These are my impressions though they have also been informed by discussions I have had with many others who have expressed both exasperation as well as amusement about the state of affairs. I am in a unique position to write this because I won’t suffer any of the repercussions that come where someone belonging to a political party might encounter. Even if that were the case, I cannot easily be intimidated, as I have also learned to defend myself well. Because the issues I write about are important, I have decided to write this one until someone more qualified does.
In 2016, I delivered a speech at Vision Ethiopia where I stated: “Where we are today can charitably be described as, what Thomas Hobbes referred to as the chaos of competing enemies”, and argued for unity in all aspects of Diaspora efforts concerning Ethiopia. This ‘chaos’ is partly the result of steps taken by well-meaning but misguided individuals and organizations, whose vision of their country is based not on a common cause or purpose, but mostly on self-interest. The essence of my argument here is that when we have so many chaotic factions, they can become isolated and unwittingly opposed to one another as all vie for the attention of an ever dwindling segment of the target public.
As a background, the ethnic stratification we witness in Ethiopia today, is the result of several factors: the introduction and implementation of the Killil system—a hammer blow to Ethiopian unity; the appearance of ethnocentrism; the competition along ethnic lines for resources, power, and for influence; and the emergence of deferential power. These conditions, interwoven with what I will refer to as the policy of ambitious domination, have the potential to produce ethno-national conflicts with existential consequences.
To ameliorate these circumstances and conditions, there have emerged, over the years, all sorts of organizations and pseudo-political parties whose goals and programs have, at best, been questionable. So-called organizations have popped up for one purpose or another, and almost always, representing Ethiopian interests. Most of these organizations are civic organizations, and others are formally political in their nature. In the Ethiopian traditions of savings clubs (Ikub) and emergency assistance (Idir), the civic organizations seem to have done an outstanding job. I, therefore, salute the new taste for activism in many of its manifestations. Yet the extraordinary zeal in creating political and civic organizations has not been matched by a concerted effort to produce results—results that are meaningful to Ethiopian society. This short essay argues that, in the main, three factors have been responsible for this condition, and suggests that, because relatively few fundamental issues separate most of these organizations, cooperation is both necessary and vital. We realize that for any such cooperation or alliance to have democratic legitimacy (particularly in the political sphere), it would have to present itself not just as a coalition and alliance of likeminded individuals and groups, but perhaps as a new political party, with a program to confront realistically the challenges facing the country. What is undeniable is that organizations need people. They also need committed individuals. In return, they have to have focus, articulate realistic and achievable plans, provide able leadership, and maintain uncompromising integrity.
But first, let us first acknowledge where Ethiopian Diaspora have seemingly reached an intellectual consensus.
Over the past four decades, we have debated, acknowledged and grieved what has befallen the country. And the grieving process about Ethiopia’s sorrows continues today.
One can also safely state there is consensus, at least among the commenting class that we all wish to see a Democratic Ethiopia. We wish to see an Ethiopia in which democratic institutions thrive; and an Ethiopia whose leaders have an unflinching commitment to democratic values; and a country whose leaders have purged themselves of all forms of demagogic and prejudicial impulses.
There is consensus that we all wish to see a united Ethiopia. By this we mean one country, one people, with differentiated cultures but a common root. Diversity with a common root!
There is consensus that we wish to have an Ethiopia whose sovereignty is unquestioned—unquestioned by outsiders, and certainly not questioned by its children.
There is consensus that we wish to have an Ethiopia whose integrity is not violated. By this we mean that the assurance of sovereignty is necessary but not sufficient: it must also be respected.
There is consensus that we wish to see a developed Ethiopia: developed socially, economically, scientifically and technologically.
There is some understanding that the threats to Ethiopia are not just from nationalistic forces, but also from the coalescing forces on the horizon that are likely to emerge in the very near future.
There is some understanding that there should be a unified response to the questions of land ownership, religion and ethnic federalism.
While there have not yet been clearly articulated positions on some or all of the issues mentioned above, one can see genuine efforts by many to grapple with them. Diaspora Ethiopians have made significant contributions in all of these areas including intellectually, materially and organizationally.
So what is lacking? And why have sincere efforts not produced desired and stated objectives?
Our country is distressed, and it needs our attention. Each person has an opportunity to contribute their talents and unleash some of their potential. And that is nowhere more important than in the organizations we help create.
Just like Ethiopians in general, the organizations they have created have also been divided on ethnic lines. Ethnicity emerges when it is relevant as a means of furthering emergent collective interests, and changes according to political changes in society. This has also been true of the organizations that have been created. The current generation and the one just before it sees itself as belonging to an ethnic group first, and the prominence of ‘citizenship’ is not as strong as we might otherwise wish to see. This particular issue must be of concern to all because of the challenges it presents, and the fracturing of interests only exasperates it further. The ruling party has also used this as a wedge issue between and among the populous.
So, what are the main factors that I believe are responsible for the fracturing of our present?
Inability or unwillingness to see Ethiopia as our collective responsibility, and not recognizing that the salvation to the country could only emerge from within its own children.
Does this have to do with the fundamental absence of leadership? The case can be made that not everyone is willing to contribute their share or that it is difficult to avoid free riders. Based on my own limited experiences, I can state that even when there has been adequate leadership, few have been willing to follow, and that not everyone feels the same way in their obligation towards the country. What seems to be prevalent is that in most situations, public appearances are exhibited, pronouncements are made, and efforts dissipate as soon as they are initiated. I will relate this tendency to attendance at a mass. Diaspora Ethiopians see involvement in public discourse regarding the country and the attendant responsibilities akin to attending mass at a religious event: self-expressions are made, silent reflections observed, and pronouncements rendered for public consumption, and every one goes home to continue doing what they did the day before. I believe that such is our attitude, and this requires change.
We need to see the challenges of the country as our own personal challenges as well. We need to envision our collective efforts as efforts that have value for society. We must envision outcomes that will excite people and be useful: useful to government, NGO’s or business. We should envision what we do as creating interest in someone and giving him or her a solution that they can apply or implement. One way that is helpful in this regard is to think of our responsibilities as follows: in a place where there is a respiratory epidemic, we can’t get away from the respiratory ailments of others because we all have to breath! Only Ethiopia’s children can collectively eradicate its problems. True, we may have lost belief in our country, in our leaders, in our talent pool, and in our governance systems. To make matters worse, most of us may not fathom action—we appear to be more interested in self-expressions. We can and should become clear-eyed enough not to confuse our well-intentioned pronouncements with sincere and dedicated commitment to effort. Change occurs when people feel the urgency to commit to effort. I believe it was Martin Luther King Jr. who once said that people of ill will seem to have devoted more time to what they believe in than people of good will do. Perhaps we have a lot to learn from these words.
Capability for people to think by themselves, but inability to think not just of themselves.
To make Ethiopia self-reliant as much as possible; to help Ethiopians to continue to be hardworking and resourceful, so as to build the country into a moderately great modern state; to make Ethiopia moderately prosperous, democratic, culturally and technologically successful; to make the country harmonious and safe for its citizens; and to make the country ecologically viable, requires a level of self-lessness that most may not be prepared to make. Even when such visions exist, the underlying intent is of a personal nature. I concede here that I can only make these observations of my contemporaries, and of those with whom I have interacted. One thing I know is that we will never find out what rectitude commands if we are driven solely by our interests. We should strive to do our duty.
Unmatched levels of commitment to the personal proclamations to making Ethiopia a better place.
No one denies that the most important assets, particularly for political organizations, are time, effort, money (resources) and brainpower. These are essential to building durable and independent political organizations. Depending on the organization or group, some are bereft of all, others lack a combination of some, and almost all seem to lack the effort and commitment required. To be sure, there is no shortage of individuals who take delight in huge pronouncements about which direction the country should move, and what policies are required to accomplish that.
There are no shortages of individuals joining disparate organizations in search of ideas, leadership, and examples of success. There is so much activity and movement between and among organizations and entities that it is mind-boggling. Some organizations purport unrealistic political ambitions; some can’t even bring 50 people together; others remain just an online presence; and still others may not even have political relevance given the realities. Yet they exist, and one would have to assume they serve a purpose. When an organization is created, a counter-organization pops up somewhere. The nomadic-like movement in search of organizations to join; the lack of ethical responsibilities that manifest in that process; and the awkward and uncomfortable explanations provided for such behavior are too common as well as mind-numbing. This explains, at least in part, why there have been failures and ineffectiveness in political organizations that have been created both at home and abroad. A useful point to remember is that those who invest the most are the last to surrender!
As I conclude this brief essay, I wish to acknowledge that there are honorable, dignified and extremely dedicated Ethiopians in the Diaspora who have sacrificed and continue to sacrifice in time and effort as well as materially. Any level of material representation of what is good of the Diaspora is due to the efforts and commitment of these individuals, the organizations they have created and lead, and the untiring nature of their efforts. Yet, it wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine how more successful their efforts would have been had there been minimal disruptions to their efforts as a consequence of these fractures.
My aim in addressing this issue is, to once again, appeal for unity and collaboration as I did in my address in 2016. People should have the freedom to join whatever organization they wish. Yet, the incessant creation of pseudo-organizations, in some cases without real focus, and the ethical questions that arise as people commit to more than one political organization at the same time is not only counterproductive but also helps accelerate the fractures that prevent us from fulfilling our duties. It begs repeating this point: we should applaud all those who have tasted activism and have been reinvigorated by the opportunity to belong and to be a part of something. In my opinion, it is also critical to contemplate the inevitability that differing priorities would emerge, and sometimes, the solidarity that is vital for a sustained effort to achieve common goals could be damaged in the face of and as a consequence of these sometimes unnecessary and unwise fractures.
Dr. Teshome Abebe, Professor Laureate and Professor of Economics, is a former Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, and may be reached at: email@example.com.