Dialogue for common ground: pursing a better future for Ethiopia (Part I of III)

Unity of Purpose: changing mindsets to sustain Ethiopia’s democ

Commentary by Kassa Gebeyehu: <Kassag48@gmail.com – December 6, 2008

“We are the makers of our own destiny.”   Mahatma Gandhi


Ethiopia: a “Garden” on the Abbay River.”

Ethiopia has a long history and a rich, diverse cultural heritage. In the view of this author, and in the light of all its attributes, it will not be far-fetched to call our country a ‘Garden on the Abbay River.’ Today, this Ethiopian “garden” faces significant risks unless its political and social elites exercise wisdom to discuss and arrive at a common ground and framework that will serve the varied and competing political, social, cultural, and, economic interests of its diverse citizens. An outdated political tradition of bitterness, animosity, hatred, ethnic division, exclusion and, prejudices will not respond to the hopes and aspirations of the coming generation. The missing link towards a future of shared prosperity for the “garden’s” mosaic of people is lack of political and social leadership to establish the social, cultural, economic and, political infrastructure— institutions and norms— for good and inclusive socioeconomic and political governance.

In discussing the unrecognized potential of the country’s diversity of nationalities, faiths cultures and natural resources, an Ethiopian from a minority nationality who loves his country and, the author discussed a metaphor that best describes its enormous potential. Our image of Ethiopia is that of an “unappreciated garden.” A garden’s beauty resides in the variety of flowers and plants that dot it. Imagine a garden without an assortment of colors. It loses its beauty and appeal. Imagine a garden that lacks water and other nourishments. It dies. Ultimately, the garden will become a desert. A diverse country without wise political and social leadership is similar. Devoid of care, instability, poverty, divisions, dependency and, hopelessness persist. Its young people leave in droves in search of alternative employment opportunities abroad. It loses the vitality, creativity, engagement, enterprising spirit, and commitment that come from youth.

This author’s perception is that a country with diverse nationalities, cultures, faiths and, resources is like a rich and beautiful garden. It possesses a prospective wealth of natural and human resources that all of its citizens can enjoy under the stewardship of wise political and social leadership. Its considerable potential resides in its population and in its natural resources.

In order to bloom, a garden would need constant attention; so does a country. A garden requires water, soil, air, sun and, other ingredients to make it flourish and sustainable. A nation is similar. It needs nurturing and careful stewardship from its political and social leaders. It needs wisdom in leadership to empower its population so that they can become masters of their own destiny. Like a garden that blossoms when given care and attention, the Ethiopian “garden” prospers & remains unified when its various stakeholders make it their responsibility to propagate ‘seeds’ of amity, reconciliation, peace, mutual tolerance, empowerment, participation, civic culture of engagement prosperity for all, the rule of law….. No garden will be worth its name when one flower flourishes and, others vanquish because exclusion from the socioeconomic system.

The resiliency of the Ethiopian “garden” will depend on the realization of political and social leadership that development and growth must serve the interests of all constituents. In this principle lie the theme and argument throughout this paper for shared prosperity. We believe that this can occur when political and social governance opens up the political landscape for all citizens to express their voices and to become creative contributors rather than passive recipients. By definition, ‘passive recipients’ are objects of state policy. They have very little say in policy or program design. Government officials are not accountable to them. On the contrary, citizens are accountable to state officials. For example, service delivery to citizens appears to be a favor rather than an obligation of public institutions and their officials. Disempowered citizens cannot demand services. They wait for them.

Citizens of the Ethiopian “garden” will not thrive and create income and wealth for themselves, their families and for the society without active and unrestrained engagement, participation and, empowerment on all matters that affect their lives. Let us share another example to illustrate the point. A large segment (close to 7 million) people of the “garden” that should feed itself continue to depend on food. The persistence of this dependency behooves us to ask why this continues to happen. There is an apt saying that describes the phenomenon, namely, “Give a man (person) fish, you will feed him/her for a day. Teach a man/person how to fish you will feed him/her for life.” Food aid has made citizens of the “garden” virtual dependents. Providing incentives such as better tools, seeds, information, extension services, and access to credit, land, roads, transport, and markets will go a long way to equip potential producers and consumer “how to fish.” This too is the meaning and application of empowerment.

The missing link:

In the view of this author, political ‘elite capture’ and a ‘rent-seeking’ mental model of political and social governance continue to be primary sources of underdevelopment, continued dependency and hopelessness, especially among the “garden’s” youthful population.

Past government policies, programs and leadership and, current political elites and intellectuals have failed to acknowledge the vitality and variety of this “garden” as fundamental strengths for its evolution, employment generation, business expansion, all inclusive development and, growth. They have been unsuccessful to promote a cohesive social and political culture based on individual and collective acknowledgement and recognition that past and current discriminatory and exclusionary political, social, cultural, and economic policies and practices have diminished trust and confidence in Ethiopia’s body politic. They have failed to exercise wisdom, ability and capacity to accommodate the aspirations of all those who consider this “garden as their home.” They have not lived up to the promise to the Ethiopian people that no past history, tradition, culture or criteria should make any citizen to feel that she/he is a stranger and, does not belong to this “garden” or mosaic. They have not recognized the need to obliterate from our ‘lingering collective culture’ that no Ethiopian should feel obliged to justify her/his belonging to the community of citizens because of color, language, religion, disability, gender or ideology. In sum, political and economic policies, institutions and, public sector leaders have not created an enabling environment for citizens of the “garden” to “fish,” and, to become self-sufficient.

Today, the world is changing at an unprecedented rate. Changing times require changes in mindset and attitudes to cope with complex problems. Current civic leaders, political elites, intellectuals and, opinion makers have lead responsibility to pave or at least to show the way that the “garden’s” youthful population can cope and thrive in this changing world. Perpetuating a culture of ‘greed, personal and individual glory, self-centeredness, what is in it for me…” will not do it.

Changing times call for political and social leadership to help eradicate cultural and other lingering norms that deter citizens from collaborating with one another. In an age of interdependency at the global level, the pursuit of internal trust, cooperation, collaboration, learning and, support of one another based on a spirit to serve the common purpose are not luxuries. They are social and economic necessities for peace, national reconciliation, shared development and, growth. Tackling perceived or real barriers of the past strengthens clears the way towards mutual confidence and trust. For some, these may seem just academic concepts and platitudes, but we ignore them at our peril.

Elites cannot expect the Ethiopian “garden” to thrive if individuals and groups continue to suffer from indignities associated with terms such as “shiritam, baria, koltafa” or any other derogatory term. Words convey values, attitudes, a sense of superiority and arrogance. Such humiliating terms are demeaning. They devalue persons and groups. They cannot and should not be condoned and/or tolerated. These and other similar terms convey prejudice. Future generations should never inherit or accept them as normal values. They do not and cannot promote unity in diversity that all Ethiopians want. Debasing of any segment of the Ethiopian “garden” should convey moral outrage because it degrades and shames all of us.

Current reality tells us that cleansing remnants of the past and present will not occur through prescription or wishes. They will not happen without self- examination and acceptance of responsibility for mistakes of the past and, without agreeing on a common vision for the future. They will not take place by continuing the current political stalemate of mutual distrust, vilification, badmouthing of one another and attention grabbing. The people of the Ethiopian “garden” do not deserve inconsequential political elitism whose tradition has been to ‘manufacture’ political organizations and coalitions and to dissolve them periodically.

Instead, the people of the Ethiopian “garden” want to see mutual tolerance, acceptance and, cooperation among different groups. They are keenly aware that growth and development will not be possible without peace and reconciliation. They want to see practical applications of mutual respect and inclusion based on honest, open, non-judgmental dialogue and discussion. To begin with, they want current political and social elites to stop the ideology of internal strife and arrive at common ground. Bitterness, animosity, mistrust, vilification of one another, and, personal grudges reflect outdated practices that will not lead the society anywhere. These behaviors and attitudes will not solve poverty; they prolong it. They will continue to prevent citizens of the “garden” from becoming independent and self -sufficient materially. Attitudes, behaviors and, values that have kept citizens of the “garden” dependent and poor will not change unless there is singular focus on constructive dialogue to solve common problems. This is common sense.

Readiness and willingness to discuss honestly, critically and objectively the “big elephant” in the room—- poverty, technological backwardness, cynicism, mutual mistrust, insensitivity to others— may help us pave the way. We say this because these problems affect the entire segment of the Ethiopian “garden.” The country’s youthful population —that is largely unemployed and in total despair– needs employment opportunities, possibilities to create new businesses and encouragement to “fish” and not to be dependent on others. In turn, such a future state and the youthful generation require individual and collective courage to preserve, develop, and, grow the “garden” — Ethiopia, not for a privileged few but for the vast majority.

The footprint of common heritage we can strengthen:

History tells us that foreign intruders had attempted to occupy the Ethiopian “garden” to which we all belong numerous times, but had failed. When its sovereignty, territorial integrity, identity and, culture were threatened, the Ethiopian people closed ranks and defended it heroically and successfully. The Battle of Adwa is a prime example of this. Against formidable odds, the Ethiopian people achieved victory because they set-aside ethnic and religious differences for the greater and common good. Differences in language, culture, nationality, religion, social status, wealth and other factors did not deter them from defending and preserving their “garden” They knew that common problems required common solutions. They applied common sense.

Accordingly, the people of Sidamo, Harrar, Wollega, Gondar, Shoa, Wollo, Gojjam, Arsi, Gambela, Illubabor, Bale, Gamugofa, Tigray, Eritrea, Afar, Ogaden and others made huge sacrifices in lives and property. Citizens brought to the table different assets at different times. These different contributions made them successful in repulsing external aggression. Despite attempts to rewrite history and to establish a new ethnic based organizing principle, there is no evidence to deny the validity of this common legacy.

Differences in national, ethnic, religious affiliation, language, poverty and, technological backwardness did not discourage the people of the “garden” from defending and pass it on to succeeding generations. Their unity of purpose, namely national independence and territorial integrity, was the driving mantra that saved the country. As a result, Ethiopia’s victory became a source of inspiration and pride, not only to Ethiopians but also to people of African origin throughout the globe.

This author genuinely believes that no single ethnic and religious group has the moral authority to claim this victory as its singular achievement. The “garden that is Ethiopia” was defended and preserved by all Ethiopians and, belongs to all who occupy its geopolitical space. In spite of differences, injustice and inequities, the people of this “garden” do not need a reminder about the value of their hard won inheritance of national independence, territorial integrity, identity and, freedom from foreign occupation. They lived and practiced them. The challenges they face are continuity, freedom, social, economic, and political equity, inclusion, the rule of law, shared material prosperity for this and the coming generation.

A looming danger:

One of the most significant dangers for continuity and shared prosperity of the “garden” today is the fact that economic and financial benefits from public investments are not ‘shared’ equitably and fairly. Even in most highly developed nations such as the United States, skewed wealth and income affect employment, further investments and continued prosperity. For sustainable development and growth to take roots, benefits have to spread widely and fairly. Unless this happens, poverty will not be resolved. Concentration of wealth creating assets in a few individuals and creating a privileged group at the exclusion of large segments of the “garden” will inevitably perpetuate economic and financial inequities for which even those who are privileged will pay. Resentments will solidify and class stratification will become the norm. Hopelessness will force youth and others to search for alternatives outside their home country thereby depriving the “garden” of its creative and innovative talent pool.

Fragility and instability will persist. As we have seen in neighboring Somalia, desperate citizens do desperate things. Anticipating what may happen if we do not tackle the root causes of inequity and poverty is not only wise leadership but smart and prudent option to avert potential tragedy that may follow. Blind faith to policies and programs that do not work for the vast majority, that is, policies that do not help a person “fish” will result in the “garden’s” reputation as one of the poorest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In the light of this reality, political and social elites need to recognize and accept the fact that each constituent group in this “garden” has alienable right to expect that its social, cultural, economic, and political interest is respected. All members of the “garden” must have a level playing to “fish.” In this author’s view, mutual acceptance of interests and shared prosperity are key ingredients for the preservation and future prosperity of the “garden.” The “garden’s” future is as good as the political and social leaders who defend a new political and economic governance of inclusion that accommodates and responds to the varied and seemingly competing economic, political and social interests of its constituencies. The motto “divided we will fail and, united we will prosper” will not be a bad one for political elites, intellectuals and members of the Diaspora to internalize and, to promote more forcefully than they have done in the past. Economic, financial, and, political benefits can and, should spread much more widely in order to respond to the “garden’s” mosaic.

As a garden would turn into a desert if not cared for, a nation without a common purpose and wise, caring and, compassionate leadership to realize the potential of its citizens will atrophy. It is vital to realize that, the “garden’s” demise is not in anyone’s interest, including those who are running it today. A new ethic of responsible political and social leadership that will place the common interests of the “garden” central to dialogue and discussion is the only way that will avert the current “governance and leadership deficit.”

As noted, the country’s independence, territorial integrity and rich and diverse cultural heritage are the outcomes of the heroic and determined national struggles of all our ancestors. They sacrificed their lives and property and left us with a unique identity that money cannot buy. Ethiopia’s long and glorious history & the cultural values inherited reflect the contributions of its entire population. They are not vested in one or two groups of people or in one single religion. This tribute to the country’s diverse population is a clear testimony to Mahatma Gandhi’s wise and enduring quotation that the Ethiopian people were “makers of their own destiny.” In preserving the country for the future, they expected, from this generation, individual and collective responsibility to focus on common interests and pursue a path of shared prosperity and well-being.

Past exemplary commitments/contributions have relevance:

The current dismal socioeconomic and political landscape may tempt us to be cynical and desperate. The intransigence of the leaders of the ruling party of the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF) and its umbrella wing, the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) may push some to conclude that there is no hope for peaceful transformation. There is ample justification for this world-view. It is important, however, to remember that similar sentiments prevailed concerning regimes in the past. Against insurmountable odds, the educated and the general-public did not give up their struggle for social and economic justice and, political transformation, as we will illustrate in a summarized form below.

The Ethiopian “garden” is not devoid of constructive contributors. Post Italian fascism, Emperor Haile Selassie’s regime made significant efforts to build and promote enduring national institutions and a cadre of educated technical, professional, and, managerial leaders with commitment to advance the country to the modern age. To a large extent, the national university, elementary and secondary school education system, the armed forces and other public institutions, including Ethiopian Airlines, encouraged continuity, common bonds, national identity and, merit based state governance and appointments. An objective review of who is who in state administration of the “garden” at the time will show that meritocracy based on technical and professional training increasingly drove appointments. Education was a key instrument for recognition and advancement. This is by no means to deny that ‘loyalty’ to the Imperial system was not required.

In assessing the generation following the “garden’s” liberation from foreign occupation, we would find that there is a key strand in intellectual thinking that stands out and, that is often dismissed or subverted. Young and promising citizens sent abroad for education and training were most commonly determined to return and to serve their society. The end of education then was not simply to advance self- interest alone, but to bring about rapid socioeconomic transformation to the “garden.” There was energy, engagement and enthusiasm to address social, economic and political backwardness. There was determination to promote social and economic justice; and, to achieve rapid material changes so that the lives of ordinary citizens would improve. The preoccupation was to explore how other countries, for example, Japan, developed rapidly.

The ‘educated cadre” of citizens were fully cognizant of the fact that the Japanese people pursued their development and growth objectives while adhering to their nation’s history, traditions, values, culture and, identity as Japanese. The intent was to examine ways and means to replicate lessons of experience in economic, technical, and, managerial advancement suited to the society while retaining the “garden’s” uniqueness for posterity.

Citizens studying and living abroad made it their social responsibility to reach-out to one another. The “garden’s” civic culture of mutual respect, humility, courtesy, honesty, integrity, support for one another and so on, predominated. They tried to learn from one another and, recognized individual commitments, achievements and, contributions to the society. In making these and other major contributions, the post fascist generation of ‘educated’ Ethiopians made it their responsibility to retain national identity while pursing the path of socioeconomic transformation. They knew that the “garden’s” future depended on economic and social transformation for all. In pursuing larger and common national objectives through reforms, they were not preoccupied with distinctions embedded in ethnic, religious and, ideological differences.

The late mid 1950s, l960s and early1970s brought with them new challenges and new opportunities for a new generation of citizens in general and, the ‘educated’ cadre of the garden in particular. The “garden’s” social, economic, and, political backwardness was a gripping reminder to the ‘modernizing segment of citizens’ that change was essential. The desire for such change did not revolve around a narrow band of individuals or groups. It was a simmering broad gauged mindset.

The Tahisas 1953 EC coup attempt led by Mengistu Neway, Germamie Neway, Workineh Gebeyehu and Germamie Wondafrash– a blend of thinkers and military leaders–was evidence that the status quo was not responsive to the society. These and other individuals associated with the coup attempt broke from a system of privilege, power and influence because the greater good was far more important to them than the benefits they gained. They could have easily lived with conditions as they were because their individual interests were not at risk. On the contrary, the daily material, social, political and, other miseries of citizens made them angry. They sacrificed advantages for social justice. For the young generation of citizens at the time, the coup leaders became the pace setters of political and social thinking. They served as courageous models. They left an indelible mark in the hearts and minds of citizens that never went away. Because of them, the “garden’s” political landscape changed permanently and almost irreversibly.

Tahisas 1953 happened in a political organizational and leadership vacuum. The ‘educated cadre of the generation’ that followed acquired the attribute of left leaning. This may be largely correct, but underestimates the variety of political and social thinking that permeated the “garden” whether individuals were abroad or within the country. In addition to the socioeconomic backwardness of the “garden” that was led by the Imperial system, this generation had one major thing in common. It was angered and outraged by social injustice, a feudal land holding system that kept the vast majority landless and dependent.

It became defiant against all forms of oppression, including nationality and faith based exclusions, discrimination and, repression. It was rebellious against the feudal regime’s link and subordination to imperialism. “Land to the Tiller” became its rallying theme. Despite variations in ideology, strategy and, tactic, this generation was effectively anti-feudal and anti-imperial. This generation was convinced that it would be impossible to meet the social, economic, and, political demands of the people within the “garden” through reform, but through some form of social and political revolution.

In this regard, Ethiopian students within and outside the country became catalysts of social, political and ideological agitation and drive for change. Emboldened by previous attempts to change the system, they turned institutions of learning to centers of debate and dialogue. Students in North America and Europe organized themselves into associations for learning and new political and social thinking. The 1974 social revolution that toppled the Imperial and feudal system took place against this background.

The “garden’s” citizens and others have written a great deal concerning the pros and cons of this generation. It is therefore not the intention of this author to provide a comprehensive history. Instead, we would like to identify the ‘thread’ that cannot be ignored or forgotten regardless of ideological differences. Similar to the post fascist generation of thinkers and donors, the late l950s and early mid-1970s generation desired and fought for social and political changes with persistence, determination and courage. Students and teachers in the “garden’s “campuses articulated ideologies and views that begun to spread to the general public. They were beaten, jailed, and, killed. Many left their homeland and joined the throngs abroad who shared their determination and aspirations for change.

In the ensuing years, and, especially after the l974 ‘revolution’ that was captured by the military elite, an untold number of young citizens, intellectuals, and members of civic society lost their lives. There may be great disagreements about ideological differences, strategies, tactics and, divisions of this generation but one thing is clear. The thread that runs throughout the struggle of this generation is its resolve to bring about socioeconomic and political justice to the citizens of the “garden” members loved. Similar to earlier generations of Ethiopians who wanted the country to be free of material backwardness, bias, discrimination, exclusion, special privileges for the few, members of this generation of Ethiopians paid dearly to save the “garden” from its malaise. This generation was not satisfied with material comforts for itself either.

Matters of self- interest, greed, individual power and glory, material comfort, wealth and status were set aside in pursuit of political and social governance that will free the “garden’s” poor and excluded to thrive and prosper. In the sacrifices made, this generation showed continuity of social and political heritage from previous ones that the common interests of the “garden” were far more important than the narrow interests of those holding political power.

Vacuum in national political organization and lack of a tradition of national political leadership based on dialogue and compromise to sustain change would have helped this generation to succeed in transforming the “garden’s” political landscape for the better.

Sad, but true, the current generation of political elites, intellectuals and, opinion makers has failed to learn the best and the worst from the past. They have failed to recognize the saying that “Those who fail to learn from the past are likely to repeat it.”

Part II of this commentary will identify organizing principles that are fundamental in the search for better and good political and economic governance and, the missing link of leadership for common ground. Part III will offer outside of the box thoughts for dialogue and discussion in pursuit of the unfinished business to tackle the “garden’s” material, social and, political hurdles.



Please Note: This commentary has three Parts. We intend to post Part II in about three weeks.

Feel free to send views and comments to Kassag48@gmail.com


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