Ethiopia: “The Homeland is Agony and Duty”

By IndepthAfrica
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Feb 15th, 2014
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Teshome Abebe

Many will note that the phrase in the title of this essay represents the famous words of Jose Marti, the Cuban patriot and national hero, an important figure in Latin American literature, a philosopher, poet, political theorist, professor, essayist, and one time leader who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain (1853-1895). It was his summary refrain that the work at hand entailed suffering as well as duty, both in equal measure. It is a refrain that I shall employ as a reflection of our reality, and wherever we might be, as a statement of the ties that bind us to the country we love, and the particular peoples we call our own.

The attachment to the motherland is not unique to us; rather, it is the clarion call of every nationality whoever that might be. What makes ours unique, interesting and worthy of reflection from time to time is the enormity of both the challenge of the unfinished task and the requirement of duty and obligation that must endure. In an essay that I wrote earlier and titled “Factors of Change and Transformation in Ethiopia”, I suggested that the restive sixties and the tumultuous seventies have left indelible marks on our country and on its patterns and pathways of development. The cry for democracy and reform by the likes of Mengistu Neway and his brother Girmame; the sacrifices made by the student movements of the time; and the many sacrifices made by peasant farmers and citizens are all examples of the agony and duty upon which we might reflect. And before them, were the great leaders of this multinational land: Tewodros, Yohannes, Menilik, Taitu, Haile Melekot, Michael, Alula, and Haile Selassie, to note just a few.

Notwithstanding the spiky-tempered antagonists and detractors of these and other notable leaders of the past, one can accurately state that these leaders exemplified duty and sacrifice according to the norms of their times and place. No version of their individual history is right or wrong (particularly the ones written by those who vanquished them); they are rather all appropriate to the culture that produced them. Indeed there are those today who would consider any one of these leaders as a cast of miserable characters of men who can’t turn their backs to evil. Correctly read history will say otherwise. That is not to argue, however, that there is neither right nor wrong, and that all that matters is the consequence of the action. We once trusted Mengistu Haile Mariam too. He turned out to be our pain, our misery and, now, our past.

Some one of a different generation will write about Meles Zenawi as well. He too, was a part of our collective experiences for at least 21 years—a period longer than the rule of Mengistu or even Menilik. What was accomplished during his time, the pieces that turned out to be brilliant or colossal mistakes, and the visions that manifested themselves as genius or national nightmares can only be judged after sufficient passage of time when appropriate evidence can be accumulated and objectively examined.

Why did I take a snapshot of the most recent past as I did in the previous paragraphs? I did so for two reasons. First, to point out that people remember and forget the past all the time, and that is usually for political end. Personal preferences can skew judgments too but there is always an agenda: it is about positioning, it is about economic and political power, and it is about leverage and control in the particular society of which one is a member. Second, it is to simply point out that every real or perceived success was followed by failure, and in the extraordinary case where fortune smiled, every failure was followed by another shot at success. This is not unique just to us—it is the natural way of things. Those of us in the academy know too well that no sooner has one written what she thought was her magnum opus than some one comes forward and points out where she has failed to do this or that. Failure following success is true in almost all walks of life. And that is simply because life is rarely linear. And sometimes we fail because we just fail.

Ethiopia has witnessed considerable change over the last fifty-five years, and even more so over the last ten or so. No longer are the church and the king the all-knowing authority. And beginning in the early 1970s, people no longer accepted the political order they were born into. Though we are still relatively far behind, the democratic nature of the scientific method is gaining ground in some parts of society. What should be both worrisome as well as encouraging is the speed at which such state of affairs is moving. Worrisome because there will be demands for more accountability and transparency from policy makers; encouraging because policy makers would have a relatively easy means of presenting evidence and relaying information which would reduce the need for control, censure and the stifling of desent.

Coincidentally and undeniably, Ethiopia has also witnessed enormous difficulties and challenges over the last fifty-five years. Who would forget the difficulties in parts of Wollo in or about 1972; who would forget the difficulties of the White and Red Terror regimes; who would forget what happened in 1984 in Northern Ethiopia? All of these events took place in our lifetime. Why bring up these now? Well, because we do not seem to have learned much from these events. It is said that the most dangerous people in the world are the ones who don’t benefit by their own mistakes. In my opinion, these were our mistakes and we are collectively responsible for them. True, some of these conditions are layered in local, national and international policies and natural causes. But only we are responsible for them. If we were not responsible for them by direct action because we weren’t there or were unable to make a difference, we were still responsible for them by duty. That is why these events continue to be our collective shame and agony.

The conservative columnist Dr. George F. Will once related a story that at the dawn of the 19th century, there were just two cars in the US State of Ohio. And they collided! The moral of the story, he concluded, was that things go wrong more often than they go right because there are so many ways for things to go wrong than for them to go right! That observation aptly describes my view of our collective experiences.

The Crucible of Nations and Nationalities:

What have we learned from the multitude of national experiences? And what then is the way forward? We have always known and have affirmed now that ours is a country of many nations and nationalities—a true crucible of nations and nationalities. And if and when we set our minds to it, we have stood up to adversaries and held our own. Those who have tried to harm us have always had to hide their disappointments. We have learned that we are stronger with others, but weak alone. We have learned that suspicion and distrust are the worst things we should serve at the national dinner table. We have learned that extreme poverty must be eradicated, and that prosperity and progress can only come from within. In this regard, we have learned that self-sufficiency has a way of boosting national confidence. We saw a hint of that with GERD when we decided to leap off a cliff with ‘the confidence that there was no bottom’. In the economic sphere, we have learned that it is not just production that requires infrastructure. Consumption requires infrastructure as well: you need to build theatres, malls, rest areas for highways, restaurants and parks, parking spaces for the ever increasing number of vehicles, sales, promotion, demand creation, and son on.

Our collective agony with the treatment our kin endured in other lands has taught us that we can never afford to give up on ourselves. In an earlier article titled “If We Give Up On Ourselves, We Have No Place To Go”, I argued that we couldn’t give up on the homeland—warts and all. We are not like the ‘resurrection plant’– dead and tumbling around in the desert until hit hard by raindrops forcing it to release its seeds.

We have learned that the absence of voluble mutiny is not necessarily a collective belief that all is well. There should be room for every body in our country without anybody being taken advantage of.

We have learned that it is facile to judge any of our leaders by a narrow list of criterion, which does not include courage, vision, empathy, integrity and boundless energy. But we have also supplemented that knowledge by acknowledging that it is not just the leaders that must exhibit accountability, and shrewd judgment; we too have a duty of good followership.

We have learned, and strongly acknowledge that ours is not a society where half-hearted clapping for those in position of power can be reason for exile, torture or imprisonment or worse. In this regard, our society now acknowledges that the leaders get their authority from us the people, and not from them being either all knowing or the most divine witnesses to history.

We have learned that corruption is inherently corrosive and anti-development as it deprives the poor of justice and of economic opportunities. In this regard, we have a duty to make sure that money and wealth doesn’t mean anything to the corrupt as they will have no place to spend it.

We have learned that governments come and go and that society and its strong institutions last over and across generations. We have also learned that the worst of our failures have not been fatal to the nation state. At times, they have in fact, led us to rediscover ourselves and have helped create new and exciting opportunities for our society. As a result, we have become healthier; more literate and numerate; nominal income is growing though highly skewed; provision of public service is improving though spotty; we are creating new institutions that will improve trade, competition, quality, standards, and measurements; there is improvement in infrastructure even if concentrated in urban areas; and most of us have observed the enormous desire on the part of the youth for knowledge and improvement in their conditions. At the same time, and as pointed out earlier, the absence of voluble protest is not necessarily a collective sigh that all is well. That such is the condition implies that there is yet more to be accomplished; and that is precisely why the homeland is both an unrelenting agony as well as an enduring duty to all!

Dr. Teshome Abebe is Professor of Economics, and may be reached for comments at: teshome2008@gmail.com.

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