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Wiring the Ethiopian Diaspora through civic dialogue and consultation

February 24, 2009
By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam
February 24, 2009

Seeking Paths to Ethiopian Diaspora Dialogue and Consultations (wu-yi-yit and me me-ka-ker)

At the beginning of the year, we pledged to help initiate and sustain an Ethiopian Diaspora dialogue and consultation process with the aim of building broad consensus for collective action. We expressed our hope that with the proper groundwork it is possible to clearly identifying a set of issues over which pro-democracy Diaspora Ethiopians could take a unified position and speak in one thundering voice. We boldly proclaimed the inspirational theme, “Ethiopian united can never be defeated!”

For the past several weeks, we have been hard at work seeking ways of wiring Ethiopian Diaspora worldwide through dialogue and consultations. Our preliminary efforts to this end have involved exploratory dialogues and consultations with numerous progressive and forward thinking Ethiopians who are not only committed to creating a just and humane society in Ethiopia, but are also keenly aware that the most effective method to bring that outcome is to broadly engage in dialogue and consultations groups and individuals from diverse backgrounds who are equally committed to the survival and progress of the Ethiopian nation and people.

What We Mean by Civic Dialogue and Consultation (wu-yi-yit and me me-ka-ker)

We define Diaspora civic dialogue and consultation as a creative process of communication and exchange of ideas for the purpose of enhanced understanding of issues of common with the view to taking coordinated collective action. We regard dialogue and consultations as the methodology of the oppressed who seek to develop a common language of struggle for their ultimate liberation. In dialogue and consultations, we aim to learn to reason and think together and harness our collective intelligence for the good of the motherland.

Our conception of civic dialogue and consultation (wu-yi-yit and me me-ka-ker) among pro-democracy Diaspora Ethiopians is based on four simple ideas: 1) Ordinary Diaspora Ethiopians can be effective agents of change in their motherland if they share a common understanding of the problems and challenges, and collaboratively and decisively act to address them. 2) To be effective agents of social change, Diaspora Ethiopians need to unlearn ingrained habits of debate and argumentation and re-learn skills of civic dialogue and consultation. 3) The dialogic and consultative processes require openness to perspectives and views that are very different from our own; and stakeholders must make a commitment to respectfully and genuinely engage others with different ideas, backgrounds and communication styles. 4) The outcome of Ethiopian Diaspora dialogue and consultations depends on building trust, dispelling stereotypes, and the creation of an environment of teamwork and partnership founded on fairness, candor and honesty.

The Year of Dialogue, Consultations and Action

We believe most ordinary pro-democracy Diaspora Ethiopians have come to realize that they can play a direct role in helping to bring about major changes in Ethiopia. Many Diaspora Ethiopians seem to agree with the inspirational words of Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund: “You just need to be a flea against injustice. Enough committed fleas biting strategically can make even the biggest dog uncomfortable and transform even the biggest nation.” We believe that in 2009 there are enough committed ordinary Diaspora Ethiopians who are willing to “bite” strategically to bring about substantial improvements in Ethiopia by working to prevent human rights violations and bringing to justice those responsible for past violations; by mobilizing resources to secure the release of hundreds of thousands of political prisoners currently held throughout the country; by working together with pro-democracy elements in Ethiopia to re-establish democratic rights and facilitate the free operation of the independent media and civic society institutions; by promoting free political competition and helping to ensure free and fair elections are held; and by exposing corruption and exploring legal mechanisms to bring to justice those who have violated international law. In the past, we believe, Diaspora Ethiopians have lacked the dialogic and consultative mechanisms to achieve these values through collective action.

Today, many in the pro-democracy sectors of the Ethiopian Diaspora have come to appreciate the futility of rancorous debate with each other, and have chosen the path of dialogue and consultation. They are willing to transcend the “culture of argumentation” of the past in which we have engaged in political and social discourse principally to prove the legitimacy or correctness of one viewpoint over others, or to use strategic verbal encounters to outwit and belittle our “opponents”. Polarized debates and personal attacks have rendered pro-democracy Diaspora Ethiopians weak, divided and ineffective; and we must grudgingly admit that we have made ourselves the laughing stock of dictators. In our dialogue and consultations, we aim to change the terms of Diaspora engagement from debate to dialogue, from competition to cooperation, from criticism to appreciation, from secrecy to openness and from distrust to collaboration. We have chosen the path of dialogue and consultations because the motherland is crying for her children to work together to deliver her from evil.

Our Fierce Urgency of Now: Preliminary Step 1 – Dialogue and Consultation to Consensus Building

We regard ourselves as one of many facilitators in the ongoing Diaspora consensus-building process. “We” are the face of Diaspora Ethiopians from all backgrounds: academics, professionals in a variety of fields, business entrepreneurs, members of political parties, community and civic society leaders, political and social activists, journalists, students, women’s group members, service workers, retired public servants, senior citizens and ordinary concerned Ethiopians who wish only the best for their country and people. For the past several weeks, we have actively engaged a broad cross-section of the Ethiopian Diaspora activist community and others to identify potential stakeholders to engage in dialogue and consultations for the purpose of consensus-building and collective action. We have had numerous brainstorming sessions. We have held small group discussions using available internet technology, and we have done myriad one-on-one interactions.

From our preliminary efforts to date, we have ascertained two basic facts which we would like to share with all Ethiopian pro-democracy elements. First, we have detected an overwhelming sense of “fierce urgency” to undertake broad dialogue and consultations now, and devise and implement a step-wise plan of Diaspora action to produce positive change in Ethiopia. This sense of urgency, we believe, is supported by substantial anecdotal evidence:

  1. There is widely shared belief that divergent elements in the Ethiopian Diaspora can begin to work together immediately on a common purpose despite their differences. For instance, improving human rights in Ethiopia is one of several issues for which there is broad Diaspora consensus as an action item.
  2. There is evidence which suggests that Diaspora Ethiopians are thinking less in terms of narrow constituencies or group interests, and are embracing the totality of Ethiopians society as their constituency. For instance, there is a clear tendency among members of diverse groups to look beyond special group grievances and injustices to strong support of human rights protections for all and opposition against government wrongs towards any.
  3. There is broad agreement that it is not necessary to wait for the development of a perfect Diaspora political program before taking action. There is a sense of urgency to put values into action (praxis), and a belief that both dialogue and action can be works in progress. For instance, many believe global advocacy efforts can be undertaken in host countries in the short-term while cooperation and collaboration on other issues can be built over time.
  4. There are few issues of importance to the Diaspora that need “redefinition or reframing”, paving the way for broad-based collaboration and development of a tentative action plan. There is manifest complementarity of interests, positions, values on the important issues of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
  5. There is substantial evidence of a general Diaspora readiness to work together on a common purpose and in the process build trust across political, ideological and ethnic lines. We believe pro-democracy Diaspora Ethiopians want “win-win” solutions not for themselves or their special groups or parties, but for the glory of Ethiopia and progress of all Ethiopians. For instance, we are inspired to hear representatives of groups who have long perceived themselves as competitors and rivals resonating agreement on core issues that are vital to the motherland.

Second, we have also come to appreciate in our preliminary efforts that there may be many challenges to overcome: Could we build the necessary collaborative trust, understanding and momentum to begin acting on core issues of common concern in the short-term? Is a centralized coordinating body for Diaspora efforts the most efficient and effective method to proceed? How can we best engage the “silently concerned” Diaspora Ethiopians in the dialogic and consultative process? How do we accommodate stakeholders that are not ready to participate in the dialogic and consultative process? How can we maximize engagement of the of the Ethiopian Diaspora community given traditional barriers of ethnicity, religion, gender, age, class, education, language and other factors? How can we neutralize and marginalize those elements who will spare no efforts to drive multiple wedges among pro-democracy Diaspora elements and work furiously to ensure our dialogue and consultations process will fail? We are confident all of these issues will be adequately addressed in the give-and-take process of dialogue and consultations.

Lessons in Dialogue and Consultations

In the past few weeks, we have learned first hand important lessons in dialogue and consultations. Though none of us are professionals in the field of dialogue facilitation, we have experience in a wide range of professional and human relations areas. Most importantly, we value the life experiences of our many colleagues who have suffered grievously under the current brutal dictatorship. We have learned that dialogue and consultations are two faces of the same coin. Dialogue is a process of understanding and learning from each other. Dialogue becomes silky smooth when we listen to each other respectfully and offer our views with sincerity and civility. We have developed sensitivity to each other’s feelings, hopes, and dreams and have become less judgmental and argumentative and more willing to walk in the shoes of those who may not agree with us. We have come to learn that we have a lot in common, and few differences of great magnitude. We have become more open-minded, and willingly acknowledge that we could be wrong about our long held beliefs. We have also learned about the gravitational power of truth to keep us all grounded in common sense and reality.

Reaching the “Tipping Point” for a Sea-Change

Doing little things over time can make a big difference. Our preliminary survey of the Diaspora activist community suggests that a “tipping point” (or critical mass) has now been reached to bring about a sea-change (massive transformation) in the way Diaspora Ethiopians can work together for the good of Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people. There is a pervasive can-do spirit that is palpable; and there is self-confidence that nothing is beyond our means if we tenaciously pursue our common goals with a clear mind and a clean heart. We have much to be optimistic about the motherland in 2009 and beyond; but nothing will come easy on our long walk to freedom. We should be inspired by President John Kennedy who said, “We will go to the moon. We will go to the moon and do other things, NOT because they are easy but because they are HARD.” And so we will dialogue and consult with each other without end to help our motherland not because it is easy but because it is very, very hard. But none of us should doubt that we are assured of victory in the end if each one of us becomes “a flea against injustice.” And if enough of us “fleas” bite strategically, we have the awesome power to make the meanest, nastiest and most vicious junkyard dog uncomfortable, and transform the Ethiopian nation. Wu-yi-yit and Me me-ka-ker Yasteseryal

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at almariam@gmail.com

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