By Assegid Habtewold
“Our Insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different outcomes”- my latest commentary, addressed the importance of carrying out cultural reforms to defeat dictatorship, lawlessness, and poverty that have been plaguing our country for so long. When it comes to reforming our culture, we have two big tasks ahead: To undo the counterproductive cultural reforms TPLF has already carried out (The theme of this article), and To implement additional cultural reforms that may enable our country to advance in the 21st C (Next article’s theme).
TPLF carried out many counterproductive reforms to advance its sinister agendas that must be reversed. Using state sponsored corruption, state owned media, and other state machineries, TPLF succeeded in inculcating corruption, fabricating false information to mislead the public, and planting hatred in our culture. No question. There had been isolated incidents of corruptions, and state sponsored misinformation here and there by the previous regimes. Some discords among some ethnic groups and regions had been there too. The issue of ethnic strife had existed in certain parts of the country except that TPLF magnified it and used it and still is using it for its own advantage. Though there had been ethnic grievances before the reign of TPLF, at no point in our history, we were disintegrated like we are now. Never in our past these things were espoused as formal policies by former governments.
The current regime had recognized the need to circumvent the conscience of our people who were loyal to those cultural attributes that weren’t favorable to TPLF’s agendas. The regime was very clear from the onset that if it doesn’t get the critical mass support it desperately needs to carryout its schemes; it fails miserably and therefore losses power and influence to bring changes that were aimed at benefiting the regime and its inner circles. That was why soon after they took power, they waged attacks against prominent individuals, community organizations, and religious denominations they considered threats. TPLF understood that it couldn’t easily gain support for its divisive, shortsighted, and misguided policies without disarming our culture and in turn making what they say and do normal and acceptable by reasonably enough people. They had figured that out early on before they even took power. They were convinced that it’s unlikely to avenge, amass wealth, gain the cooperation of some key players, and stay in power long enough without using the state machineries to misinform the public, create division, and plant hatred in the soul of the nation. They knew that they must invest millions of dollars to break our societal fabric that detests these things.
In this article, however, I’d like to talk about just one of the unproductive cultural reforms TPLF successfully carrier out- resentment, mistrust, and hatred among ethnic groups (and regions within the same ethnic group). I’d also like to suggest for us to do something to reverse this perilous reform beginning now. It shouldn’t wait another day, let alone until TPLF is removed. Undoing this cultural reform isn’t only beneficiary in the long run and for the holistic health of our country; it’s mandatory for our current struggle to succeed in removing TPLF and undoing so many other misfortunate things that have happened against our great country. Using the state owned media, the ethnic based apartheid style federalism, the education system, corruption, and also brute, TPLF finally won this battle, and disarmed one aspect of our culture that had been promoting harmony, unity, and cooperation among the peace loving diverse people of Ethiopia. Regardless of sharp criticisms from global figures including the former Secretary General of UN- Kofi Annan, TPLF executed ethnic politics. TPLF knew the risk. They were warned that it would one-day backfire in their face if they take this road. They took the risk any ways, and went ahead to create ethnic strife as a means to survive, divide, and conquer.
Those few initial state sponsored ethnic frictions had led to more conflicts, and finally drove individuals in one ethnic group (and regions within the same ethnic group) resenting- even hating- other people from other ethnic groups (and regions). Though this radical change in our culture began small scale with few people, slowly but surely, it reached a tipping point and has become part of our culture. Sad! In his classic book, ‘The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference’, Malcolm Gladwell wrote,
“…Rain had become something entirely different. Snow! We are all, at heart, gradualists, our expectations set by the steady passage of time. But the world of the Tipping Point is a place where the unexpected becomes expected, where radical change is more than possibility. It is- contrary to all our expectations- a certainty.”
One of the signs that show you there exists a reform in a culture is when a thing, which was once a taboo in that culture, becomes a norm- when a thing that was once despised becomes the standard. The reverse is also true. Talking against the new cultural attribute also becomes a taboo. I posit, many of my readers may feel uncomfortable, and even some may get irritated as I challenge the new normal.
Recently, I had a chat with a colleague about this unproductive reform that passed the tipping point. In that discussion, I found out that my colleague wasn’t surprised at all. He had noticed many people leaving the existing diverse groups to join organizations, associations, and parties formed (or led) by people from their ethnic group (or region). He further pointed out, “In today’s Ethiopia, it’s common to witness one’s ethnicity and where he/she (their parents) was born is scrutinized as someone seeks friendship, love, and partnership.” Of course, if people opt to check someone’s bloodline before they make decisions, it’s their right. Nevertheless, the new reality we should understand is that if many individuals identify and align themselves with their respective ethnicity and region publicly, and without fearing other people’s opinion for taking this approach tells us that the issue is no more a taboo. It got acceptance by the majority. It’s now the norm and part of the culture. As we grew up in Harar, for instance, such things like one’s ethnic background had no place to form friendship. Unfortunately, I recently came to realize that this aspect of our subculture in Harar has changed. I was shocked when I found out some of the people that I knew, when I was there more than 2 decades ago, forming alliances with people who share their ethnicity and/or where their parents were born. It’s saddening to witness the old fabric that held our friendship severely broken, and new ties are formed based on bloodlines. My colleague too, though he isn’t from Harar, noticed: “You are right, some years back, I looked around and those friends I’ve had from diverse ethnic groups and regions were gone one by one.” He then mentioned some Ethiopian institutions by name (community organizations, churches, and parties) that we both know very well and asked me if I know the bloodline of the core leaders. I couldn’t! I learned the bitter truth from him. The core leadership (the real decision makers) of these institutions is consisted of people from the same region. What is more? The core supporters of these organizations are from the same region. It was an eye opener exercise but, at the same time, embarrassing since I was unaware while the ground under my feet was shifting. My colleague was generous. He helped me stop beating myself too hard. He pointed out that since I didn’t care about my own bloodline, it was okay if I didn’t know the people I fellowshipped with and the organizations that I joined had some forms of ethnic and region biases. He’s right! This had been one of my blind spots…
For your info, I came to know the origin of my parents as late as end of last year when I was required to fill the last names of my parents on a form. I sought help from my relatives to fill the form. In the process, I came to realize that my bloodline is a mix of Amharas and Oromos from diverse regions. My colleague was wondering whether this new discovery has changed me. It hasn’t! I may be old school. I don’t define myself, and also seek alliances and partnerships based on the blood that runs in my veins. I strongly believe in the oneness of humanity. There are many things that unite us than divide us. It’s counterproductive to beg for what differentiate us and build wall around it, especially in the 21st C where the world is shrinking, thanks to technology and globalization, and becoming a small village. We cannot survive, thrive, and advance as a society unless we downplay our differences and capitalize on what unite us. I admitted to my colleague that I had been too slow to notice the changes in our culture. Though I knew that TPLF had been working hard to reform our culture to introduce hatred, mistrust, and discord, I never for the life of me expected the damage has reached such a tipping point where many Ethiopians align with their ethnic group or the region of their parents to form friendships, partnerships, and alliances. Once we were on the same page about this unproductive cultural change TPLF succeeded implementing, we talked about its implications. We finally concluded that this division along ethnic and region lines created mistrust and is sabotaging our efforts to unite against the big elephant in the room- TPLF.
I don’t enjoy sharing the above negative stories. But I have to show you how culture is powerful- both positively and negatively. There is no way that we can succeed in any endeavor that requires major transformation without taking into account the roles of our culture. If our goal is to defeat tyranny, we need to deny it the environment that allows it to flourish. If our desire is to be where we have never been, a place where each and every Ethiopian regardless of their ethnic, religious, and political view points are treated equal, we need to work on our culture and create the environment. The first place to begin is with our leaders from diverse industries. Unfortunately, we’ve very few leaders who are trying their best to stick out their head above the overwhelming water (culture) that attempts to drown them. My colleague, who is an insider in Ethiopian politics, shared with me a shocking comment he heard a prominent party leader said about another party. The leader said, “We prefer TPLF to stay in power forever, if necessary, than these people to come to power.” While we have this kind of deep mistrust and hatred at the top level, it’ll remain the main roadblock why we keep failing to defeat tyranny. Of course, we all should play our part but our efforts won’t bear fruits if our leaders don’t buy into it. Undoing the hatred sowed by TPLF should be the principal responsibility of our contemporary and future leaders. They should embrace harmonious co-existence among our diverse population. We need our leaders at all levels to refrain from promoting the dominance of one ethnic group and/or region over others both in private and publicly.
One quick disclaimer: It’s a reality. Some ethnic groups think that they should have their own advocacy exclusive groups and parties. That is their right. Nonetheless, leaders of these exclusive organizations should discourage some elements within their groups that promote hatred towards other groups both internally and publicly. These leaders should begin reaching out to other groups to protect the house from falling on all of us. Abraham Lincoln is known for his classic speech, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We’re divided gravely! If there are people out there who pretend as if everything is going to be okay, they’re kidding themselves. However, the house (Ethiopia) must equally be for all of its citizens to save it from falling. Unfortunately, in our history, some mistakes were done by the past regimes that created some frictions. These must have been addressed. Unfortunately, not only TPLF failed to tackle past grievances appropriately, but also it shrewdly used past incidents to create further divisions, resentments, and animosity among our diverse people. TPLF had a chance to create a more perfect union but it squandered it. TPLF made a historic mistake. It created state-sponsored classes of citizens, and allowed one group to dominate others. In current Ethiopia, a few (TPLF leaders) are first class who control almost every major sector in the country while some (supporters and sympathizers of TPLF’s rule) are second-class citizens. The majority Ethiopians is third class citizens, rather, slaves. Ethiopia cannot stand while we’re divided like this. We need a country where no one ethnic group, region, or religion dominates others. We cannot correct past mistakes by similar other mistakes. Thus, we must untangle this anomaly from our culture beginning NOW. This task cannot wait. Those who are organized along side ethnic and/or region lines should stop trying to maneuver, upstage, and outsmart one another. What we need is a true, genuine, and unadulterated unity in diversity. That is our competitive advantage, and a win-win scenario for all of us.
The authors themselves or leaders in the opposition camp can undo this counterproductive cultural reform. But, I presume, it is unlikely that the leaders of TPLF to show genuine remorse, and begin undoing their own mess. Due to their built-in nature (molded by the kinds of books they were reading, books that were written by the cunning Italian diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli, to just name one), the chance of current TPLF leaders changing their minds and exterminating the artificially created classes of citizenship, and promoting unity in diversity is remote. It’s also implausible to expect the rise of new blood rank and file TPLFites that could renounce the current faulty policy. Mathematically speaking, it’s improbable for such members to survive, flourish, influence, and lead reform within this secretive organization. The second option is to have Mandela like leaders from the alternative forces. Mandela was black and his party was ANC. His preoccupation was fighting for the rights of blacks in South Africa. However, he was a values-based leader whose hatred against apartheid didn’t blind him to seek the domination of blacks over the minority whites. Here is his famous statement that shows how Mandela was a principle-centered leader: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal, which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” We need principle-centered leaders like Mandela. Regrettably, there’re some elements in the opposition camp that work hard so that their exclusive group to dominate once TPLF is gone. This is unhealthy. It has created mistrust and the lack of cooperation within the opposition camp. We shouldn’t follow the example of TPLF. We must work together to create a shared vision where all citizens are treated equal. Without having this shared vision, we cannot genuinely come together and defeat dictatorship, and in turn reverse the rifts, resentments, and mistrusts it created.
In conclusion, TPLF introduced into our culture ethnic politics to divide and conquer. It cracked down our native culture that had been promoting unity, tolerance, and harmonious co-existence among diverse ethnic groups and regions. TPLF scrupulously reconfigured our culture in order it to favor its evil plans. It allowed the formation of ethnic political parties (discouraged and dismantled multiethnic parties), crafted a constitution without involving the public, designed an ethnic federalism, forged our history, and used the state’s resources and deployed its cadres to create division and hatred among ethnic groups (& regions). It also incentivized and rewarded individuals and groups, which joined TPLF in promoting ethnic mistrust and hatred. What is more, many in the opposition camp joined the ride- not immediately, slowly but surely. As never before, at this juncture in our history, we are divided, not only just along ethnic lines alone, but also along regions within the same ethnic groups. What a low place to find our proud and once the flagship country in Africa that inspired the oppressed people of the world against colonization by coming together as one people. Yes, it took TPLF more than two decades to dismantle our culture and introduce a damning cultural attribute that further disintegrates and divides us. That is why we cannot wait any longer. Reforming a culture takes time. We have to admit defeat, and do something about it and begin inversing the damages beginning NOW. The best place to begin is raising, empowering, and supporting leaders (including those who fight for the rights of their respective ethnic group and region) who won’t promote the domination of one group over others; leaders who believe in unity in diversity; leaders who unite and bring us together; leaders who are principle-centered; leaders we all can trust and follow regardless of whether their bloodline aligns with ours or not; leaders who are visionary. We should also encourage and incentivize the already existing leaders who are promoting unity in diversity both publicly and in private. Even if their number is small, with our support, like a single drop falls into the ocean creates ripples; these few leaders could influence others. And in turn, we could be able to reverse this damning cultural plague TPLF infected our people with. It’s possible, and we can do it!
 Dr. Assegid Habtewold is an organizational and leadership development expert. Assegid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org