Random Walks, Faint Pointers, and the Orphans of the Rich Ethiopian Tradition

January 6, 2008

In his recent article titled "Dialogue or Outrage?," Dr. Messay Kebede calls for an analysis of a deeper cause to the political crisis in the Coalition for Unity and Democracy CUD) political grouping. He points to culture as one of the possible causes of the crisis when looked at a deeper level.

The term culture is believed to have stemmed from the Latin term colere, which means to cultivate. According to a note on Wikipedia, culture "generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance."

On the basis of this definition alone, the call for looking at the crisis from a cultural perspective demands a deeper understanding of how our cultures were cultivated over the ages, and how they have been playing formidable roles in the political activities of our moment. An insightful framework about understanding the concept of culture is the anthropologists' reference to it as "the universal human capacity to classify, codify, and communicate their experiences symbolically."

The quests to appreciate, preserve, and develop their cultures by the various sections of our societies on the one hand and the propensity to impose one culture on the rest has caused confusions among our societies in Ethiopia in the past hundreds of years. The inability to solve this friction led to the formation of the various liberation fronts in Ethiopia, which Dr. Messay Kebede refers to as the ethnicization of Ethiopian politics.

The struggles for the appreciation, preservation, and development of the various cultures in Ethiopia have led to the exploitation of the strong as well as the weak sides of our cultures. The Ethiopian society has produced a civilized culture long before the emergence of the Judeo-Christian-Islam religious establishment. In her review of the Aithiopika, an ancient novel by Heliodorus of Greece, Kathyrn Chew of California State University at Long Beach observed that "... Greek culture takes a back seat to the cultures of Egypt and Ethiopia." In a review of religion in ancient novels, Froma I. Zeitlin of Princeton University makes a reference to a "'hierarchy of religious enlightenment' that leads 'from Greek (good) to Egyptian (better) to Ethiopia (best).'"

While such inferences may not prove anything, it is arguable that the Ethiopian culture must have gone through monumental evolution to have reached the level of reference for the ancient Greek travelers and writers, and it must have been thriving since even though it is also arguable that it has been exposed to external influences that have contributed to the present confusions in Ethiopia's politics.

One of the main values of a well developed culture is the civility with which conversations are conducted irrespective of differences in opinion. If we were to liken the unwritten rules of civil conversations with the signs of traffic flow, we may very well liken civility to the green light, temper or emotion to the yellow light, and insulting the person to the red light. In a civil society, even in times of war or after the end of a war, the leaders of the opponent parties manage to converse with manners acceptable to the society. One need not go farther to find out about this than the book titled The Conquest of Abyssinia. The book makes it clear how even the leader of the adversary party conducted himself in that war in the manners of communications.

While Dr. Messay's observation that a deeper understanding of the culture in Ethiopia may be helpful to find the cause for the current political crisis in the CUD, it may well be a faint pointer in the right direction. That is because, Dr. Messay has not gone far enough as to characterize our cultural values, the limitations thereof, and how they became a deeper cause to the political crisis. Dr. Messay concluded his writing by expressing his dismay and apprehension about how the conflict is being handled.

Some observations about the present day cultural landscape of Ethiopia suggest that the present day Ethiopian polity doesn't draw its culture from a single source of cultural evolution. The Ethiopian culture proper is endowed with civility, honesty, bravery, and heroism. Such traits are more likely to be found in the rural areas across the country and the cross section of the population than in its urban settlements.

To support this thesis, we only need to revisit the sources of the culture of political conflicts since the emergence of the Ethiopian student movement on Ethiopia's political landscape. It is true that this movement has brought about some positive changes, but it is likely that if it drew enough of its mode of operation from the culture of the society it was drawn from, it would bring a more meaningful change by minimizing the political chaos it has been going through for a long time.

The rural-urban gradient in the Ethiopian political cultures may well be likened to the difference in the guiding stars of the countryside night and the glitters of the street and bar lights of the city life. While the guidance of the stars is slow but predictable, the flickers of the city lights are glittery and attract the random walkers. Mature politics is a slow process with a predictable political trajectory. Immature politics, on the other hand is boisterous and fast paced but it doesn't seem to travel far enough.

One Oromo adage goes "warri gowwaa dudubbataa oola." Roughly translated, it means the family of fools spends the day talking. "Ha bultu dubbiin," which roughly means let the issue stay for another day, is an Oromo wisdom call that is used when the issue of the day could not be solved that day. This is a tool that leads the parties in dispute to take a longer time to analyze the issue in dispute whenever it could not be solved quickly and it helps reduce frictions between the disputants.

For those who understand Oromo culture at a deeper level, it provides ample guiding stars of wisdom for Oromo political movement activists. This may be because compared to some other cultures that have been at the forefront of Ethiopian cultures, due to its geographic setting, it may be the oldest and the less exposed to confusions from external sources. What it lacked in the past is a deeply conscious group of educated people who could connect it to our "modern" day anthropology. However, enough access to modern education from the rural parts of our society has led to the emergence of a conscious group of political activists from this section of our society. This group seems better positioned to tap into both areas of knowledge to its advantage to play a very important role in today's politics in Ethiopia.

Yet, this part of our culture is not free from the influence of cultures brought to it from without. Decades ago, when Ethiopia's rulers allowed the western missionaries to go to the remote corners of Ethiopia to teach at schools, the missionaries must have come with the culture of the society they were drawn from. Exposed to the renaissance movement in Europe for several centuries, and as companions to those that came to colonize Africa, the missionary teachers may have impressed upon their students certain characteristics, such as the art of manipulation and the exploitation of simple words, which is an antithesis to Oromo culture.

Likewise, the Italian presence in Eritrea may have impressed on their subjects similar characteristics since they also came from similar source of consciousness the missionaries came from. It is conceivable that the Eritrean students may have inherited some of these characteristics from those Italians who came to Eritrea and stayed there for a long time.

It is also conceivable that the Tigrayan students may have drawn some of the experiences of their Eritrean counterparts, thus leading to the North Tigray versus South Tigray gradient in the political culture of the students from Tigray.

If there is some truth to this thesis, then it may not be a coincidence that a German human rights activist for the Oromo people would write in the 1990s that Meles Zenawi, Lenco Lata, and Isaias Afeworki were the three leaders of the country [Ethiopia]. It may not also be a coincidence that former President Bill Clinton would put Isaias Afeworki and Meles Zenawi in the club of new breed of African Renaissance leaders in the 1990s.

Although it is not clear what criteria President Clinton used to include the two leaders into the club, it has become clear that it was unqualified evaluation to do so. Apparently, the art of political leadership these individuals have provided has led to a clash with the rich Ethiopian tradition. This has become evident in three important events in Ethiopia's politics since the fall of the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

The first one was in the early 1990s when Dr. Merera Gudina came out with an alternative political direction for Oromo political movement from that of the Oromo Liberation Front's (OLF). His political position came against the political tide of the time in Oromo political movement that had set in motion the social divide especially between the Oromo and the Amhara peoples. In addition, it was a sharp criticism against the leadership of the OLF that had put its army in camps after which the Ethiopian government opened a war on it. It was also after that that the German writer included Lenco Lata in the trio of the leaders of the country. The decision of the OLF leadership to encamp its army with the opponent enemy in the open was against the norm of Oromo consciousness and was a cause for apprehension among Oromo political activists.

The second clash became evident when Eritrea opened a war on Ethiopia in 1998, which led to the rift between Meles Zenawi and Siye Abraha. One can argue that the bond between North Tigray and South Tigray was loosened by the outburst of Siye to wage a costly war against Eritrea, which Meles Zenawi claimed that he did not subscribe to personally.

The third clash became evident when more than two million people gathered in the Ethiopian capital in 2005 to attend a demonstration meeting called by Engineer Hailu Shawul. Obviously, the Eritrean issue has had contributed to that huge demonstration Engineer Hailu Shawul's party was able to garner.

Amid these clashes, flickers of Ethiopia's deeper cultural traits are to be found in the works of a few Ethiopian scholars with their at times original thoughts. Some of them are the late Laureate Tsegaye Ghebremedhin, and Profs. Ephraim Isaac and Getachew Haile. One of the main external influences on the local Ethiopian culture may have come with the rise of the Solomonid Dynasty, as Prof. Donald N. Levine suggests. According to Prof. Levine, "The structural features of the Amhara system which we have identified ... appear to have characterized the Amhara system since the fourteenth century." The superstitious attributes with which the Solomonid Dynasty rose may have caused the culture on the ground prior to that time to start the tendency of detachment from the reality on the ground. This tendency that was set in motion a long time ago may unwittingly be playing its roles in the random walks in the current politics in Ethiopia.

In comparison to the untapped local culture or its new trajectory in which the flickers of ancient Ethiopian civilization are evident, there are signs of disconnection between the habits of the orphans of the Ethiopian rich tradition from the local culture of honesty or the western culture of integrity. Seemingly attractive at first, the culture of the orphans of the Ethiopian rich tradition is detached from both the flickers of the local culture in that it lacks honesty and the well developed western culture in that it lacks integrity. It may be such a weak link that, when observed closely, leaves many people with dismay and apprehension. In fact, it may be the manifestation of this weak link that led to the passage of H.R. 2003 by a unanimous vote in the U.S. Congress last year. It is not clear whether a closer observation of this led Meles Zenawi to coin the phrase "dead ends and new beginnings," conceivably an expression of breaking away from the bondage of the culture of the orphans of the Ethiopian rich tradition.

In light of the above arguments, what has been going on in Ethiopia for the last nearly two decades may well be the clash between the actions of the three leaders and the manifestations of the direct reactions to their actions. Interestingly, we can arguably link the reactions of Dr. Merera Gudina to that of Lenco Lata's, Siye Abraha's to that of Meles Zenawi's, and Engineer Hailu Shawul's to that of Isaias Afewerki's.

What characterizes the orphans of the Ethiopian rich tradition is deception and wanton manipulation. A classic observation is one of the comments to Dr. Messay Kebede's article where the commentator may have purposely wrote "Mr. Kebede" about seven times in a few paragraphs. That is unbecoming of the rich Ethiopian tradition but is common among its orphans. That may well be to deceive the random walkers while purposely targeting the individual that common sense or intellect would lead to dismay and apprehension of the political salvo. Ironically, it is with such qualities that are unbecoming of the rich Ethiopian tradition that this group is busy in trying to take the helm of political power in Ethiopia. An admission that criticizes Dr. Messay's critique in that it would put the struggle back by four months appears to reinforce the business of this group.

If this observation holds some grain of truth, the current discourse in the Ethiopian politics, especially in the Diaspora, may well be characterized by random walks and faint pointers among the orphans of the Ethiopian rich tradition. Red lights are flying in the faces of the random walkers, leaving lasting impressions on them. That is not a healthy business for those who want to contribute to the struggle of the people for a long time to come. As Dr. Messay has called for it, understanding the cause of the problem at a deeper level will only make finding a solution to the problem easier.

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