Depoliticizing Ethiopian Renaissance

April 20, 2014

In a 1998 interview with Wendy Belcher, the late Ethiopian poet laureate Tsegaye Ghebremedhin prophetically stated you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.

In his interview about a dozen years ago with a privately owned Ethiopian newspaper, Jean Doresse, a famous French historian of Ethiopia and Egypt, was reported to have said the following: “When I went to Ethiopia I found the life, the ancient culture which was at the origin of ancient Greece. I found this in the vein of people more than the excavations. I found there the exact way of thinking, the clear mentality of ancient Greece. I am very much fond of reading Plato and some of his dialogues but I could not understand those dialogues until I visited Ethiopia”.

In its report of the Genographic Project in its March 2006 issue, the National Geographic magazine talked of what it called the Greatest Story Ever Told, which attempted to show global human migration over tens of thousands of years.

All these anecdotes, which can be assumed to have been made based on independent works and observations, point to a unified story.

The idea of Ethiopian Renaissance was born and published online independently, following an assessment of an independent study. In its July 24, 2005, column, Voice Finfinne wrote: “... the socio-politics of East Africa will develop a formidable new dimension that will have far reaching implications and may become a catalyst for resurrection of Cushitic Civilization”.

In its first analysis published on December 10, 2006, Finfinne Times, a successor of Voice Finfinne, wrote: “... the country may soon usher in Cushitic Renaissance that will have bearing beyond its borders. Cushitic Renaissance may be the best door through which what Joel Bartsch called ‘one of the best kept secrets in the world’ will be showcased”.

At the center of the idea of Ethiopia Renaissance lie egalitarian ideals that, according to some observers, define what it means to be human. Perhaps, one of the best traditional institutions that have organically developed in Ethiopia is the Gada system. According to Professor Donald N. Levine, this system “represents one of the most complex systems of social organization ever devised by the human imagination”. According to Professor Laphiso Getachew Delebo, “... the Oromo people’s great contribution through popular Gada system and movement has not been done by the Aksum Dynasty and civilization in 1000 years, by Christianity in 1670 years, by Islam in 1300 years, as well as by the Amhara Dynasty in 700 (1270-1974) years”.

While these observations are the foundations of the idea of Ethiopian Renaissance and it can be fairly claimed that Voice Finfinne and later Finfinne Times have been pioneering this idea in recent years, it is also fair to say that this idea is now inappropriately being politicized in Ethiopia.

Evidently, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister also used an idea of Ethiopian Renaissance in his speech for the eve of the Ethiopian New Year in 2007. In his speech, he said: “A thousand years from now, when Ethiopians gather to welcome the fourth millennium, they shall say that the eve of the third millennium was the beginning of the end of dark ages in Ethiopia. They shall say that the eve of the third millennium was the beginning of Ethiopian renaissance”.

Arguably, his claimed stance for the idea of Ethiopian Renaissance and political practice, first as the leader of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and later on as the leader of Ethiopia until his death, have been inconsistent. This inconsistency was first publicly noted by Helen Epstein who wrote “... the Renaissance he’s thinking of seems very different from ours”, after her observation of what he reportedly wrote in 2001:

“When ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ permeates the entire [Ethiopian] society, individuals will start to think alike and all persons will cease having their own independent outlook. In this order, individual thinking becomes simply part of collective thinking because the individual will not be in a position to reflect on concepts that have not been prescribed by ‘Revolutionary Democracy’”.

In the 2010 legislative elections in Ethiopia, the party that he was still leading claimed to have won about 98.6 percent of election results. Perhaps, nothing is more telling than this claim about the inconsistency between the Ethiopian Renaissance idea he and his party talked about and the clear absence of a democratic reflection in this 98.6 percent figure, which is claimed to be a result of democratic legislative elections.

To be sure, the idea of Ethiopian Renaissance pioneered by Voice Finfinne and Finfinne Times are unsupportive of the repression of egalitarian values because this idea is not rooted in the rich Ethiopian cultural values that have been independently observed, which have the potential to shine in the years to come.

The latest politicization of Ethiopian Renaissance appears to be evident in a press release by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam National Panel of Experts. In its recent press release titled “A Proxy War against Ethiopia?”, which is a response to International Rivers, a small group of environmental activists, it appears to politicize Ethiopian Renaissance. The idea of Ethiopian Renaissance that is being pioneered by Finfinne Times and Voice Finfinne has nothing to do with naming a hydroelectric dam by that name although any government body that expands a national infrastructure can give any name to that addition. However, an uncalled for argument between a national panel of experts that uses the name Ethiopian Renaissance for a hydroelectric dam and a small group of environmental activists is likely to have an undesirable effect on the Ethiopian Renaissance vision.

It is fair to claim that Ethiopia is one of the best Natural Universities with its oldest Open Field Laboratory, if not the only one. To that extent, the world is yet to have a more meaningful understanding of what this Natural University with its Open Field Laboratory has to offer, magnanimity, including with a small group of environmental activists, is what is expected from an Ethiopian National Panel of Experts on this hydroelectric dam construction.

To its credit, the National Panel of Experts has produced some useful data that would have sufficed to start a meaningful debate on the concerns expressed by International Rivers. The politicization of the response is probably more than what International Rivers bargained for to carry forward this debate. Of particular interest in the National Panel of Experts’ response is the suggestion that environmental activism is biased and intentionally targets governmental efforts at poverty reduction, such as in Ethiopia.

Environmental activism is a recent day phenomenon, which came into being after the fact of environmental degradation due to development projects, including water development projects. These facts have set in motion environmental laws and the mushrooming of environmental activism. These environmental laws have now found their ways in the legislative process in the U.S. Recent legislative initiatives in the U.S. Congress to address a drought emergency in California and the criticisms they have generated from environmental activists are good examples.

The Emergency Drought Relief Bill by the California Senator Diane Feinstein (S. 2198) and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act (H. R. 3964) are good examples of legislative processes, even for managing a declared drought emergency situation, that are not immune to the criticisms of environmental activists.

Perhaps, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam National Panel of Experts and future such panels may gain productive experiences from the recent unnecessary politicization of Ethiopian Renaissance and remain committed to its expertise in responding to activist groups for specific concerns.

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