It has been a little more than a week since my commentary entitled “The Danger of a Single Story And What We Ethiopians Can Do About It” was posted on many Ethiopian Diaspora websites. Since then, a couple of friends encouraged me to take some follow up actions like arranging forums, panel discussions, and conducting interviews to continue the conversation. Even though I couldn’t promise to take the lead in implementing these tasks alone, I concurred with the idea and opened a Face Book page called Standing For Ethiopia and began inviting friends with the hope that we may use this forum to exchange ideas, stories, and even take some actions together. I’ve also got some feedbacks. Some readers suggested that I should write in Amharic, resist using bookish words, and pen concisely, and more. I’m grateful to all who provided me feedbacks that will definitely encourage and also help improve my writing. I’ve also got some constructive criticisms. In this article, I picked one of the critics, who sent me his differing views via email, and decided to respond to some of his points.
The silence of our friends
This gentleman pointed out an oversight. He noted that I should have mentioned the silence of good people by quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “…we not only remember the evils of our enemies but the silence of our friends…”He is right. The silence of educated, capable, and privileged individuals in our community is baffling, to say the least. While the unfortunate majority has been suffering indescribably under a tyrannical regime, the few fortunate are unapologetically quite and preferred inaction. It’s really sad to witness the elites of our society are capable enough to look the other way, fold their hands, and watch from the sidelines as the people of Ethiopia suffer under a brutal regime, which doesn’t have any sentiment to the people it claims governing.
Why we need to dance with TPLF’s rhythm/song?
The gentleman asked, “My main question however is why we need to dance with TPLF’s rhythm/song, if I may say so. Ethnic based politics is theirs; we shouldn’t be like them by pronouncing and echoing ethnic based discussions. I can see the diaspora politics is now even more ethnic based. Where is the difference? Again, as Martin Luther King said, ‘…we can only remove darkness with light’. We can’t remove ethnic based politics by another story based on ethnics…”
I concur with him. Playing ethnic politics in a destructive fashion- the way TPLF has been gambling with it- is counterproductive and we shouldn’t practice it. By now, the experiment is over. TPLF played with fire and got burned badly in the process, and who knows, ethnic politics may finally end its reign in power. As Americans say, “The chickens come home to roost.”That being said, my intention wasn’t to promote ethnic politics- not at all. It wasn’t reflected neither on the tone of the article nor on the final recommendations. It addressed an existing issue, and provided an alternative, which is embracing our diversity- not fanning our differences. That is why I stressed the importance of tackling single distorted stories crafted by TPLF by telling more of positive, diverse, and multiple stories. As far as I’m concerned, we are on the same page about avoid playing ethnic politics except that we differed in terms of strategy. He preferred totally ignoring what has been happening- the damages ethnic politics incurred against our society. I opted to acknowledge it- not embracing it, and suggested constructive public discussions about a disease that is tormenting us. I agree with Hillary Clinton when she said, “What we have to do… is to find a way to celebrate our diversity and debate our differences without fracturing our communities.”
Our case is unique in many ways than our neighbors
My critic wrote, “Well, ethnic based politics isn’t specific to Ethiopia. It exists in our neighboring countries like in Kenya, Somalia, and Sudan. In Kenya it is ethnic. In Somalis it is tribalism. May be a human nature to associate with those people who have things in common. In fact, it is weak people who want to live under the shadow of a certain group to benefit. We know for sure, TPLF wanted it to stay in power. For them it is a survival strategy. We mayn’t avoid it easily and quickly. Or, it may not be all bad…”
Again, he has a point here. Tribalism and/or ethnic conflict exists in many countries in Africa, and even in some European communities. But, our case is unique in many ways. For one, the government in power is using state machineries to promote division, as we have never seen it in the history of our country. Second, we’re extremely diverse than others. Somalis or South Sudanese or Kenyans may have a couple of tribes that have entered into conflict once in awhile but they have many other things in common compared to us. We have more than 70 ethnic groups, most of which have their own subculture, language, tradition, and so on. This diversity is great; it’s a national treasure. It’s one of our uniquenesses. This uniqueness, nonetheless, presents a unique challenge, which requires unique approach. Creating a shared national vision, and synergy among diverse ethnic groups requires genuine interest in diversity, inclusiveness, unwavering commitment to mutual respect, win-win cooperation, wisdom, patience, constructive dialogue, and more.
We need to come to terms with what’s happening
The gentleman concluded his criticism by stating, “Obama said, what’s worst, ‘ethnic based politics is failure of imagination…it tore the county apart…’ Why don’t we disregard the ethnic based politics by, more of showing the consequences…”
My criticizer believes that talking about ethnicity is as bad as the ethnic politics of TPLF. I disagree. I don’t think that we can just ignore why TPLF uses this card, disregard what is going on, give a blind eye to the consequences, and only focus on the rewards of unity and cooperation so that we may spare ourselves from being associated with TPLF’s ethnic politics. I presume we passed that line. We’re now deep into it and our society is wounded badly after more than two decades of ethnic politics orchestrated by the ethnic apartheid regime.
Remember the story of South Africans. Mandela preferred to talk about racism and the devastating damages it caused before fixing it. That was why he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The latter helped deal with what happened under apartheid regime. This process gave South Africans an opportunity to come to terms with their past, and then move forward to reconciliation. In 1998, the then President Mandela read the Commission’s report and offered his assessment. In that speech, Mandela paid tribute to those thousands of men and women who were subjected to re-living their agony as they shared their story of horror caused by the apartheid system. Mandela was also cognizant of those hundreds of South Africans who ventured and opened up the wounds of guilt so that the people of South Africa purge it from their national politics. We should learn from South Africans. At the moment, the rulers back home won’t allow this kind of genuine and farsighted approach to heal our wounds, and eliminate ethnic politics from our national politics. However, we in the Diaspora, we have a unique opportunity and freedom to begin the process right now, and extend its scope to our country when the right time comes.
The point is? We can’t just ignore our past and present as we move forward to our future new Ethiopia. More than learning from it, we should make sure that this and the future generation wouldn’t repeat the same mistakes again. The Chairman of the South African TRC and Nobel Prize Winner Desmond Tutu explained the importance of forgiveness to South Africans. He openly declared that forgiveness is “a second chance for a new beginning”. Tutu further argued that forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting, it’s rather remembering. He emphasized, “The remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.” True and enduring reconciliation and restoration from the damages TPLF instigated cannot be achieved without the boldness to deal with our past squarely. One thing we shouldn’t do in the process, however, is allowing the past to paralyze and incapacitate us. What happened in the past and now shouldn’t hold us hostage. One thing we cannot afford to do right now, nevertheless, is pretending as if nothing happened. We cannot just fold our hands and do nothing. We cannot simply ignore the big elephant in the room.
Ignoring reality doesn’t help us
For many years, before I changed my position, I’d been thinking like this gentleman for years as a youth, student, and political leader. I learned the hard way, and admitted that ignoring reality doesn’t work and couldn’t bring durable change in our society. It doesn’t enable us to recover from the wounds TPLF inflected on our society. Great leadership experts such as Jim Collins, John C. Maxwell, and former CEO of General Electric Jack Welch constantly emphasized the importance of defining reality. Being visionary, positive, and optimistic is great but we need to be realistic too if our desire is to have genuine cooperation, and win-win partnership on those common issues that make us Ethiopians. Ignoring what is happening back home and here in the Diaspora, for me, is kidding ourselves.
I had been a slow learner when it came to how deep ethnicity penetrated our society before I finally acknowledged that it has been incorporated into our culture, even got into some people’s ‘blood’. I feel sad when I confess this. It’s very common for us to witness where many (not just TPLFites), if not in public, in private entertain ethnic thoughts and allow such thoughts to dictate their communications, relationships, and partnerships. Ignoring this fact and just focusing on unity and cooperation is unthinkable any more, I presume. It has been more than 2 decades and it has been infecting us badly, and it needs to heal properly. Ethic politics is no more limited to TPLF’s corridor. These days, you can easily spot ethnic biases (and favoritisms)in those organizations that oppose TPLF. These organizations have Ethiopian names but when you come closer, it’s not hard to observe that the organizations, at their core, are a collection of people from one ethnic group/region/hometown.
Authenticity is the alignment of our thoughts, words, and actions
Nothing is wrong with this except that, as I indicated in my commentary, it denies these types of pseudo Ethiopian organizations authenticity and the ability to work with other diverse people and contribute their share in building a united front in the fight against dictatorship, poverty, lack of freedom and justice. If they fake things like TPLF, where is the moral ground to challenge TPLF? Whereas they blame and condemn what TPLF does in dividing us along ethnic lines while they too are doing the same thing is hypocritical and self-defeating. Lance Secretan explained, “Authenticity is the alignment of head, mouth, heart, and feet – thinking, saying, feeling, and doing the same thing – consistently. This builds trust.”If we claim that we are different and better than the king of disunion- TPLF, we should proof it. We should advocate unity by aligning our thoughts, words, and actions, and by doing it consistently. Authenticity is the only way to build trust, and then cooperation, unity, and win-win partnership.
Turning our wounds into wisdom
Once again, though I may differ from the gentleman when it comes to whether we should talk about it, I completely agree with him about the end goal. Yes, we can just badge our wound, cover it up, and hope it heals by itself. Well, we can undermine our pain and pretend as if we are fine. These don’t help us both in short and long term; we won’t get healed properly. When we’re wounded, it is better to tear it up and fix it. Through the process, we may hurt but it heals in the end. Otherwise, we may develop gangrene if we let it stay that way to avoid pain. By the same token, even if it hurts to talk about ethnicity and its consequences, covering it up and remaining silent causes more damages. Discussing about TPLF’s wrongs in dividing us along ethnic and region lines is the first step to come together and exorcise it from our society and culture for once and for all. As we dialogue, we could be able to exchange diverse views, ideas, and stories that may help us heal our wounds. The Queen of Reality Show, Oprah Winfrey was quoted as saying, “Turn your wounds into wisdom.”Let’s not shy away from our wounds but rather learn some lessons from the pain, heal them properly, and move forward once we are healed. We cannot rush this process or fake it.
If a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand
In conclusion, as MLK said it rightfully, we cannot drive out darkness with darkness. We cannot drive out ethnic bickering and division by playing ethnic politics. In the commentary, my suggestion was driving out distorted single stories that divide us by positive, constructive, and authentic multiple stories. I’m promoting discussion than silence. People are already talking about it, if not in public and openly, in their small groups. For that matter, it has paralyzed us, as it has created resentment, suspicion, and hatred among our diverse ethnic groups, and regions within the same ethnic group. We cannot be exceptional. There is an old powerful truth. We cannot stand as a nation and society if we remain divided. “If a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand.”
Co-authoring our own rules
To overcome rifts, animosities, and other ills caused by the ruling party for the purpose of divide and conquer, we need to talk, come together and share stories, strategize, address grievances, set up structures to deal with future setbacks, etc. Of course, the tone should be positive, focusing on what unite us, and how we can turn the past negative experiences into something positive, and enduring. We can turn these unfortunate realities into opportunities. We can harvest great benefits from unity in diversity, and cooperation. We gain nothing from playing ethnic cards in our politics as TPLF has mastered it. We cannot win a game whose rules are authored and enforced by TPLF. We, Ethiopians from diverse ethnic groups, need to co-author our own rules by coming together, discussing, and negotiating to form a lasting union.
Dr. Assegid Habtewold is a leadership expert at Success Pathways, LLC. Assegid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org