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Ethiopia’s Trist With History

February 16th, 2007
Prof. Mammo Muchie

Ethiopia’s Trist With History: The moment is now to release the prisoners and open the door for a grand national reconciliation
By Mammo Muchie

Introductory Note

On July 10, 1999 at 8:10 I composed this statement in response to a misreporting of a key note speech I made in Chicago at the ENC annual meeting. An American friend sent it to me last night. I think it is useful to put it out on the eve of a political decision on the prisoners of conscience whose positive or negative outcome has historic dimensions and consequences to the Ethiopian nation, democracy and history.

The debate in constituting with historicity the political framework around the idea of Ethiopia as the foundation for the expression of civil, political, economic, cultural, group self-determination and citizenship rights, opportunities and obligations is also relevant to the current political development in Ethiopia.


I would like to clarify the gist of my message to the meeting in Chicago.

I. Some Points First:

1. It is the EPLF and not the TPLF which has been reported to have considered a proposal to adopt the Latin script for all Eritrean languages, including Tigrigna and Tigre which use the Geez script. The source for this is Tekle M. Woldemichael, “The Cultural Construction of Eritrean Language About Ethnicity”, in Crawford Young(ed.), The Rising Tide of Cultural Pluralism: The Nation-State at Bay?, Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, pp.179-99

What made the Tigrean’s reaction which you justly pointed out of his rudeness is how he threw a tantrum because the EPLF was criticised even when he is a supporter of the TPLF now. This was what baffled many observers.

2. There is a great need for an opposition political organisation and the unity of organisations on the basis of the unity of ideas. I suggested that ENC can contribute to such unity by building clarity on the Ethiopiawinet philosophy around which a political movement can strengthen. A unity of organisations without a unity of purpose or ideas, even if this was to solve a single issue results in performative ineffectiveness if not complete paralysis.

II. Here is the gist of what I tried to communicate at the ENC meeting

What I said in Chicago was ENC will do well to organise itself as an Ethiopiawinet political movement. It will help the fusion of CEOPO and others if it undertakes a political commitment based on the clarity of composing Ethiopiawinet from the politically ethnically fractured present. I was trying to say “charity begins at home.” It is wiser to spend energy by building ENC as an uncompromising Ethiopiwinet movement. It will influence others if it can grow stronger. What is missing is a political movement upholding the wider Ethiopwinet philosophy. We have a lot of politically drunk agitators running amuck by cashing in on their ethnic-vernacular group identity.

Woyanne has lots of them and those who oppose Woyanne like OLF and others have theirs. If any fractionalised group replaces Woyanne, it will have to do something like Woyanne did to inherit the Ethiopian nation and state.

If not, it will remain no more than an irritant to the power holding fractionalised power. Or else the dreadful third option: Ethiopia disperses like a family of fourteen young children whose parents become deceased suddenly with no immediate carer in sight!

There is an alternative for all of us who say we are Ethiopians: to work painstakingly to maintain Ethiopia from break-up by democratising and renewing it by building from its experiences of civilisation and history of proven resistance.

That brings me to the concept of Ethiopiwinet: For me and I noted Messay Kebede has written the book which contains essentially the views I hold on Ethiopiawinet, the latter is composed from the core experiience of:

a) Long history-perhaps as long as Persia’s and China’s,
b) An internally generated civilisation (written, art, architecture, music, religion and so on),
c) A history of resisting and scoring victories against economically and politico- militarily superior forces,
d) A unique psychological make up where the notion of the divine and the sacred graces every activity that the people engage in:

The individual, the state and the nation use for their lives divine presence whether they are Christians, Muslims, Judaic and even Pagans. The state had its own ethos and had its own ‘Fetah Negist’ and ‘Kibre Negist.’ In war we note how the idea of the divine is invoked to give courage to the troops when they charge(e.g. Giorgis’s participation in Adwa!) and in victory the people show humility by referring that all their power is due to the Gods.(NB. this is different from being moral or not!)

Whether we like it or not religion is a way of life to the peasant population. And the change we want, the modernisation we seek is to make life better for the majority of the rural areas. We do not go and preach Jeffersonian democracy or Marxism to them. If we are serious we go and learn from them and build on their beliefs and make modernisation sensible by translating it into the language and way of life they are used to. This is how Japan, Korea and others did it.

Even China with its Marxism did not reject Menicusian, Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist values which the population had. They tried to Sinnify their modernist weapon Marxism so that the people can embrace it. Like everything else which came into contact with China, Marxism became absorbed rather than the other way round!

There is an Ethiopian value system which is built from the experiences I described above. What makes the person from the South to those in the North connect mysteriously is this shared experience which was passed on from the wider Ethiopian culture confluence and communication.

Our generation rejected this by mounting two major myths: a) the Dergue employing Jacobin-Stalinist terror tried to force its hackneyed “Marxism” down the throat of the bewildered population, b) the various ethnic based fractional movements echoing rhetorics from China, Albania, Vietnam and so on tried to create ideologies of Tigreanism, Eritreanism, Oromoism and recently Amharism and anything and everything but Ethiopianism. It reminds me of Witgestein’s prescient remark of trying to look by climbing through the chimney and the window, when all along the door was wide open.

What is wrong with holding on and inheriting our Ethiopia and add modernisation, renewal and democratisation without breaking the framework and subtracting the nation and parcelling the state? Do we need to regress by relying on the politicisation of culture, language and blood to blackmail our way into power with Ethiopia as it is or by breaking it up altogether?

I believe the best and most possible cultural rights and expression for all the ethnic communities without subjecting them to ethnic cleansing and other violence is feasible with a healthy Ethiopiawinet. I do not see why we should not organise by affirming Ethiopawinet and maintain active local engagement wherever we come from. The key is to democratise the state, individual and the nation by affirming and not being condescending to the past.

The theory of the nation which decomposes Ethiopia by weaving the myths of Tigreanism, Eritreanism, Oromoism and so on goes counter to the core experience of the people, their long history, tradition, character and above all their historically evolved nationhood and state formation.

The Lenin-Stalin notion of the nation which the fractionalisers have imported their divisive politics from to Ethiopia is too scholastic, mechanistic, and deterministic. Itemising factors of language, territory, psychological make up and unleashing every petty nationalist bigot to search how his ethnic group might fulfil one or the other factor in full or in part is one of the most unattractive ventures which corrupts science and social practice at the same time.

Neither the ethnicism of Tigreans, Oromos and so on and nor Stalin’s shopping list definition of a nation are relevant to the Ethiopian situation. They cannot be a higher reality to the experience of our people. An experience where there was injustice along with civilisation, a history of epic resistance and a unique psychological make up involving the concept of the sacred in the every day living of all Ethiopians. The attack on this divinely graced Ethiopianet ” wukabi gefafi new” (is de-spiritualising/demeaning!)!

This was my message in the Chicago meeting.


Part II – Some Further Thoughts on Ethiopiawnet(16.02.2007)

It has been said that the longer we look back in the history of a nation, the further we can look forward or forge ahead in building a collective future. It has also been claimed that history is to a nation as a memory is to an individual. For an individual to lose memory is to lose a grip of reality. It has been a maxim held by African sages: ’They lost their history, so they lost everything.’ A nation, if it wishes to remain a nation must not be denied its right and indeed privilege to make a conception of history that yields direction and a future and insulates it from falling into a directionless and chaotic path like present day Somalia.

Arguably, contemporary challenges and demands must be taken into account into a nation’s history-making processes, but they must also be confronted to avoid the mindless rejection of Ethiopia’s historical achievements and the intelligent learning from the innumerable failures that is necessary to do individually and collectively as a people. Anything made at the expense of making a nation lose its historical identity, which is not, incidentally constituted from more than the sum of the arithmetic additions of a sum of languages, religions, territory, number of people in an ethnic group, and other variables is to undermine the ontological foundation of Ethiopia as an idea, a dream, project and nation.

Those who wish to opt out make not only themselves suffer, but also those who wish to remain with a positive and constructive rather than destructive and negative appreciation of Ethiopia’s long history.
We have seen what came of Eritrea after leaving Ethiopia? We were told Eritrea would be the South East Asian tiger, but is it that now? Is that what has become of Eritrea by the EPLF’s and TPLF’s gratuitous saying good bye to Eritrea’s core history which is tied with an umbilical chord with Ethiopia’s long social-economic history. History provides self-knowledge to a nation and that self-understanding is a necessary condition to undertake any meaningful development. Lack of consciousness of a nation’s history is not simply an intellectual failure. It can be a moral failure as it can expose unnecessarily a nation to unpredictable danger and suffering. We owe it to our ancestors who bequeathed a nation with history to avoid extremism, negotiate out of our conflicts, and find mechanisms to make social peace amongst individuals, communities and personalities.

Part III – Let us all Make a historic motion for the release of the prisoners of Conscience!!

February 19 is a critical moment in history. Will the prisoners of conscience be released or not? All those who understand history and wish the nation to go on with a democratising developmental trajectory will argue for the unconditional release of all the prisoners of conscience. Those now in jail are people with the moral stature that have answered to the call of the best in Ethiopian citizenship. These citizens should be honoured, not put in jail. Those who forced them into jail must be the first to move a motion to get their immediate release and compensate them for getting them into this unacceptable situation in the first place.

The alleged crimes they have been accused of makes absolutely no sense. All they did is engage in what they believed to be a democratic process. Those who invited the Ethiopian people to vote should have known that they too would be also voted out. The powers that are, however, were not prepared to accept the peoples’ verdict. Why did they engineer the election that they knew the outcome was not something they were not prepared to accept? Any power that respects the people would not play such games with history. The people manifested a will to govern. Those in power were unwilling to accept it. Those in jail argued fiercely for the respect of voice and votes.

We from outside, though far away from the scene, joined the criticism. Even we were not spared. We too got accused of crimes for doing nothing but exercise criticism with arguments that stung the power-holders that appeared open to a democratic transition only to discourage it with brute violence and deception.

There is absolutely no justification whatsoever to put the prisoners of conscience in jail for making a stinging criticism of a flawed election arrangement. That is their democratic right, the peoples’ democratic right.

If this nation is to leap into a new contemporary history, it must close the historical chapter by transcending tyranny and dictatorship for good. The effort to bring about a sustainable democratic transition by circulating the elites with the peaceful votes of peaceful citizens remains a top priority. It would have been a historic achievement were these to have come before the Ethiopian millennium on September 11, 2007.

On February 19, history offers a rare opportunity for the nation to unite when justice is served to the unjustly jailed and a grand spirit of harmony flows to create the necessary environment for national reconciliation. The priority of priorities is to release the prisoners of conscience by taking their situation as part of the writing of the long lived historical quest to make this old nation endure in the flowing river of time. Let Ethiopia be is integrally and intimately linked to making the unjustly incarcerated free. I appeal and call on those in power to heed to the call of history and join those in jail to create the grandest possible national reconciliation by creating a system to negotiate out any conflict this nation confronts in a strange and unpredictable world, and even worse living in the midst of a very difficult region the nation finds itself.

Concluding Remark

It is with this larger purpose and depth of thinking, commitment and dedication that we should cherish both the long memory and current meaning to us of being Ethiopian. There is intrinsic merit to preserve this ancient nation, and not give in to the degrading mantra of ethnic enclosures that has degraded civic Ethiopian citizenship to a particularly virulent and limiting concept of the ethnically defined and vernacularly fenced off citizen. This primordially and biologically condemned citizen must be fully liberated to emerge as the Ethiopian citizen par excellence. There can be no compromise on the Ethiopian and African framework for citizen expression and engagement. Everything is negotiable once the framework is accepted. There can be no negotiation with those who arrogantly and impudently call Ethiopia a fiction and an invention. Without the idea of Ethiopia, there is no idea of a future. Let us not forget that Ethiopia was the first non-European country that defeated a European power. The Japanese sent delegations to learn how Ethiopians organised to defeat a European imperial power. Many Africans in the Diaspora from America to the West Indies were inspired to continue the struggle for liberation owing to this historic achievement. Ethiopia can achieve even more by doing away with tyranny and poverty for good provided it overcomes the pettiness of its politics and reach out to the grand vision of historical presence.

I ask all in the nation to join me and say:

The World fears time
Time fears history
History fears Ethiopia
Let the Prisoners Free!!!
And Forever ,
Unite the people of Ethiopia!

Mammo Muchie, Ph.D., is Director of DIR Research Centre on Development & IR
Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark 00 45-98153298

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