NES COMMENTARY. No.15
Network of Ethiopian Scholars (NES)
February 3, 2008
”In European countries when people undertake new kinds of work and make cannon, guns, trains, and other things revealed by God, the people concerned are called engineers; they are praised and given more assistants, not insulted on account of their craft. But you are going to leave my country without people who can make the plough…. From this time forth anyone found insulting another on account of his work will be punished by a year’s imprisonment.” (Emperor Menelik II, Proclamation of 1908 quoted in Robin Hallet, Africa Since 1875, University of Michigan Press, 1974, p.127)
“Speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction” Mahatma. Ghandi
“The things that will destroy us are: politics without principle; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity; and worship without sacrifice" (Mahatma Gandhi)
“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility" (J.Bronowski)
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the Gods.” (Albert Einstein)
There is a pervasive and corrosive phenomenon characterised by the gratuitous trading of insults that we believe has been disorientating the Ethiopian opposition lately. Though the opposition is passing through a difficult phase at the moment and life has not been certainly easy, it is clear that it remains (whether it acts fragmented or in a composite fashion!) still strong having entered a state of reflection to find insights with new and invigorated foresight to make realignments that can work better than the alliances that seem to have unravelled with so much public and open hostilities.
On the other side, the ruling parties have not had such open divisions and fights and they seem to hold together well occasionally commenting wryly about the problems that have befallen the opposition camp.
It is often said that every crisis can offer also opportunities provided all concerned can think deep, prepare to change their perspectives on issues, focus on the bigger picture and search for what unites and habituates ideas, systems, institutions and policies to found a politics that builds rather than destructs. There is a need to develop a perspective above and beyond the current irritations that ‘poison political thought’ with insults, as Dr. Mennsasemay perceptively put it, rather than thought that can help to create a democratic and developmental civilisation in Ethiopia.
2. Learning to Debate without injecting Insults!
A perspective to engage in a free conversation and debate on issues that affect all of us to find solutions that can work free from degrading insults is critical for all of us to make an obligation, habit and value. There is a moral obligation on all who have chosen to enter public life to make public political conversation principled and also to be driven by honesty, morality, conscience, knowledge and character. Public discussion is an arena to clarify issues to educate the public to help people to make the choices that they have reason to value and select in order to change their own and their fellow human beings’ lives for the better. That means those who engage in public life should learn to either ignore insults or not respond to the insults but to the issues that matter to the people, the country and the nation. There is no value in personalising issues except to hurt the cause one has solemnly volunteered to stand for. If indeed people have entered into public debate because they would like to contribute whatever they can to make a better Ethiopia for all Ethiopians and indeed the rest of Africa and the world, there is absolutely no justification to engage in the transaction trading insults back and forth and thus corrupting both the moral and political spirit to go down rather than elevating a high moral and political purpose and dedication to prevail over public life.
To engage in insults by those who say they stand for the higher purposes of developing the country, people and nation and not to use the method of civil and reasoned argument is tantamount to undermining the very cause one says one stands for. Away from insults and a way into debates and mature conversations must be found to clarify with imagination and reason to shape a future that lifts the majority in our country that have been losing out for so long when those who enter public life turn their putative concern for the public good into a private good. It is thus critical that a political culture where reflection and consideration guide action is promoted. The habit where people throw slings and arrows at each other and at the same time take no responsibility for their actions must not be condoned anymore. Much damage has been done by people that have taken offensive action whilst disengaging and disconnecting from the consequences of their actions! The culture of learning to debate and converse without contaminating the debate with insults must be vigorously promoted. An insult free culture is very critical to promote in Ethiopia. If we in the NES have been guilty of any error, we give notice to all that we are very willing to learn from others and wish to remain in the public debate from the sole desire to see good done for people, country and nation and nothing else at all!
We know what insults can do. Those insulted can feel alienated and estranged and the core of politics, that is to forge alliances and push policies and programmes by building majorities to effect change, will be misdirected. In the worst cases it can lead to violence and into organised hostile camps each with a narrative against the other with the possible loss of time to undertake change. Insults that continue unabated over time can lead to the kind of inter-ethnic violence that we sadly witness in Kenya now. In some cases such an atmosphere of hostility can push back the struggle into decades. There is thus merit to learn to fight in a friendly atmosphere, and also in as much an insult free-medium and political space as possible even when there exist major differences. It is a mark of maturity to create an insult free political zone for intelligent debate on policies, issues, challenges, puzzles and problems.
Those that fan rumours and escalate the conflict from the media are also not helping the emergence of debates and political conversations that would be constructive. Self- censorship and discipline from the media would help hugely to ameliorate the exasperation of insults and counter-insults from being traded by the print, image, internet and voice media as it continues to happen now!
3. Some Examples of Big Insults from History!
It makes one cringe to dig some examples of insults from history. But it may provide perspective to the current exchange of insults within the Ethiopian opposition today.
To begin with though, it is interesting to read the amazing perspective of Emperor Menelik on insults. He said his country would be left without ploughs by insulting those who work. He said what Europeans would support as engineers, in Ethiopia those workers doing hands and crafts are insulted. He thought to discourage such insults by imposing one year imprisonment. Whatever ones position on emperor Menelik is, one cannot but admire the wisdom of the emperor then in rejecting and even wishing to punish insults against those who create and innovate the plough to till the land.
Today the kind of insults freely traded against those who entered public life and tried to help the country’s democratisation is baffling. One wonders what emperor Menelik would say if he sees what is happening to those insulted and those who insult them. In Ethiopia today democracy is on the historical agenda. Everyone agrees that it is on the historical agreed from the whole spectrum from the rulers to the armed opposition! Nevertheless within the spectrum, there are people who struggle to bring it about and those who obstruct its emergence and consolidation.
What makes the insult unacceptable is that the fight has broken out from amongst those who have been pushing a democratic agenda together. These are people who should respect each other for struggling for democracy. Instead they have been victims to what appears to be a virulent and insidious political culture that has destructively privileged insults over commonsense. The emperor said his country may be without ploughs, today the country might be without democracy, if one by one those who wish to enter public life are discouraged by fearing the endless insults thrown at them by all and sundry and leave the space to those who enjoy to trade insults and mutual recriminations. If those who are determined to struggle are confronted with tiresome insults constantly and opt to leave public life and their contribution is lost, who is hurt in the end? It is not the persons that leave or opt out; it is our country that will lose. We say it is better to sacrifice the need to insult and change the culture to public debate on issues!!!
4. Emperor Menelik too has not been spared from Insults!
In Ethiopia the generation of today often tends to be condescending to the generations that are long gone. Who has been spared from being demonised, insulted, criminalised, condemned and reproached in Ethiopia that has been in public life in the country? Everyone has his or her unacceptable share of insults thrown at him or her. For example, emperor Menelik has had his share of insults heaped upon him. Ironically, abroad in recognition of Ethiopia’s victory at Adwa in 1896, Emperor Menelik has been appointed as the first honorary president of the Pan-African Association when it was held in 1900 in London. But at home some people have devalued his contribution claiming that his only role is to claim the victory others have achieved by attributing it to him! This myth continues to be replayed to serve the political needs of those who feel they can gain more by distorting his historical record. The sad part is that this is retold by those who are contaminated by the poisonous ethnic politics of the time where they are not able to say their own ethnic heroes have done well as well as emperor Menelik. Instead they have to say contrary to all historical accounts, that emperor Menelik came after the battle is over to claim the victory, despite the fact that historical records and witnesses attest that he was in the battle leading it!!!
The politics of ethnicism has thrived in Ethiopia by a denunciation and insult of the 19th century intellectual and political project of modernisation and unification born in the face of the challenge of the European Scramble for Africa. Emperor Menelik’s name is associated with the insult that he was more a ’colonizer’ rather than a’ unifier’- which he really was, i.e., a unifier and modernizer using force- to bring the various kingdoms into a national entity very much like others, for example, much as the late coming respective unifiers of Germany and Italy did.
Admittedly his record should be criticised and debated. We think such historical debates are better conducted in the spirit of drawing appropriate lessons to help us chart a constructive future for all those who feel hard done by and those who do not. The trouble is when the criticism degenerates into condemnation, criminalising and insults of the person, it spoils any effort to shed as accurate a reflection as is necessary to do and understand in order to draw lessons to appropriate for constructing a better future for all.
In 1991 there were open calls and demands to bring down emperor Menelik’s statue were it not for the brave citizens of Addis Ababa that fought back to rescue the statue from being brought down. A proper assessment of his rule and legacy is of course welcome. But exaggerated condemnation or admiration shows a sign of current polarisation and does not show a willingness to understand, know and learn lessons from history that contains very often an admixture of versions that can be good to some, bad to others, and violent and cruel to still others. What is needed is not to invoke his name and arouse passion to reject, condemn and criminalise him and his record. To do that is indeed to do nothing but to opt out from undertaking a process of real knowledge discovering engagement for truth and history. An honest intellectual engagement that is free from a proclivity to criminalise and condemn is in fact a necessary launch pad for engaging history to shape the direction of contemporary politics.
In Ethiopian history also, when one strong man succeeds to hold power, his priorities often are to destroy the legacy of those who occupied the seat of power before him. It is as if he does not remove both the deeds and spirit of those replaced, his rule would be haunted. So he goes for the broom to remove any record or deed that may compete and overshadow his newly acquired status. The effort to destroy the legacy is more severe, if the previous holder of power left behind some thing worthy to remember. Thus the end of one ruler and the emergence of another always begin with a lie. The emergent feels a need to understate and even criminalise and condemn the record of those preceding its own rule. He too faces the same fate that he administered to his predecessors. So history goes on a Y axis of change of rulers over the X axis over time where what is revealed is a constant negation followed by successive negations to eclipse the passing of one to welcome the overblown imaging of the man of the hour in the throne!
To this day in Ethiopia we have not been lucky to learn from a sober evaluation of the past and a critical scrutiny of the present to develop a constructive direction to shaping the future. There must be a way to solve this problem once and for all. In China all the first generation leaders that contributed to the liberation of China are all recognised. Lin Biao who was designated heir to Mao Tse Tung has been even rehabilitated. His daughter was in tears and thankful for her country to recognise the goodness in her father’s contribution after he fell out so badly and lost his life fleeing as reported officially at the time. There is no reason why in Ethiopia a national approach to see even some positive in the worst persons cannot be tried. It is more putting all those who played different roles and made either contributions or even failed to do so- they need to be preserved. And future generations are made to learn from them- from the good, the bad and the ugly!
The tendency to privilege passion, dramatisation, exaggeration and emotional outbursts and insults and to freely throw them about, on and at the leaders without any concern for conceptual rigour, factual accuracy must be resisted. For example the victory of Adwa has been very significant not only for Ethiopians but also for the black people the world over. A responsible approach to it would thus be to apply a perspective, a curiosity and an inexhaustible willingness to know and learn from the victory of Adwa instead of choosing to scramble to denounce emperor Menelik who led the nation to this historic victory. No matter what anyone says the facts of history record that emperor Menelik was the pen ultimate leader of that historic battle and his political genius lied not so much on whether or not he himself shot enemy soldiers, it lies in the fact that and in his ability to bring all the relevant players to team up and be a champion together. It is in his ability to get all to work for the good of their country together with him from every corner of the country that his leadership quality is demonstrated. And in Ethiopia it is no exaggeration to say uniting disparate forces appears to be in many ways more difficult than developing the unified field theory has been in physics for the leading theoretical physicists!!!
What is even more discouraging to note is this: the insult or condemnation that be- fell emperor Menelik is not an isolated incident. It is a general pattern that has not diminished through time and in fact has become worse and worse as time goes by. The preference to vent insults rather than enrich public life with intelligent debate, factual accuracy, intellectual honesty, moral probity and fair play in politics is continuing to emaciate the Ethiopian human imagination and spirit. Where there is hope for seeing the electrifying brightness of human imagination and intellect, we are treated to the shoddy and perverse pettiness of cantankerous cruelty where people we revered for having the courage to stand up against injustice are trashed before our very eyes as crooks, cheats and embezzlers and self-centred and calculating power-mongers! It is very hard to change 180 degrees against all of them just like that. But we have witnessed this happening right in front of our eyes. We must protest this culture of trading insults and condemnations by creating a new and more honest, responsible, humane and insult- free political culture!
5. Concluding Remark!
We believe we all must protest in the strongest terms the saturation of the public arena for the exchange of insults. We know for whatever reason this saturation of public life with insults has an agenda against the energy and mobilisation to discover and create a workable democratic political system that is an alternative to the ethnic based system that we have now. The latter having been built as it is with blackmail and the injection of monumental doubt to the life and survival of Ethiopia itself if the’ nations, nationalities and peoples’ wish to do the Eritrea on Ethiopia! Insults are freely traded and circulated deliberately in order to make all of us victims so that we lose trust in all those that have struggled and entered public life. It is directed against all of us not to be able to create leaders, trust them and support them. It subverts all and none are spared. It is an onslaught against all decent Ethiopians. We must protest in the strongest terms against this threat to deny the country to produce the best committed and able amongst us, create the leaders people can trust. Let us clear the public space from loading it very often with insults that destroy and instead let all try to fill it with knowledge and information that construct a future that endures by creating a political system based on principle, justice and fair play.
Almost everyone seems to fall prey to some attack and rebuke whether long gone or living. There is neither restraint from such behaviour nor encouragement to manifest a generous nature by developing a balanced, moral and intellectually honest perspective on everyone that has been and continues to be involved in public life.
The recent degeneration of opposition politics to a self-destructing exchange of insults gives us much cause to ponder and reflect and call all who wish Ethiopia well to create the broadest possible crusade against insults, condemnation and criminalising accusations levelled freely with moral abandon.
One wonders what Ethiopians collectively must do to discourage insulting behaviour that may cost this nation the early emergence of a political system that can assist the country, the nation and the people to work better and build on their generous and empathic nature and evolve a strong democratic civilisation.
Those who love their people, country and nation will not, should not and would not give in to the easy option of insulting others to achieve what they wish to achieve. We expect them to be open to dialogue with infinite patience and humility. They do this because they have chosen to serve the public and their country. They do this not to please anyone. It is a call of duty and commitment.
Never mind the fact in dealing with the challenges of life; all human beings have weak and strong points. “The strength of a man lies in his acknowledgment of his weakness, and his weakness lies in not knowing that in his strength lies the antidote to overcoming his weakness” J.A.Olowojoba (Aalborg University Nigerian Post-Graduate Student!) But such a balanced take on other humans by those who choose to comment appreciating what is good and criticising what is bad is often ignored. Instead rage and fury is unleashed on what is perceived and considered as a weakness of the one selected for the firing line. His weaknesses are exaggerated and spread all over the media with no regard to truth or accuracy.
Finally, As long as power change is not based on the choices, votes and voices of the people, this problem will recur. It will not stop. That is why a transition based on a democratic will of the people might inject a sensible approach to history, a nuanced approach to the legacy of those who ruled before, and fairness in judging others and oneself with as an objective a yardstick as possible now and in the future. Democracy or the government elected by people must be tried to see if we can bring in honesty to the politics of denial and lie that has done so much to hurt the people, the country and nation for so long. Emperor Menelik after the Victory of Adwa said: “Ethiopia has need of no one. She stretches out her hands to God.” (Emperor Menelik, February, 1890). Ethiopia was united then as one at Adwa’s victory, not as divided as it is right now. Ethiopia needs the unity of its people and social communities, and the freedom from insults, in addition to the help of God. Once it achieves unity it should safely course through the historical contours of the manifold internal and external problems confident that its survival will beat the fear of time.
By: Mammo Muchie, Chair of NES- Scandinavia Chapter
Professor, Director of Development, Innovation and International Political Economy Research (DIIPER)
Aalborg, Denmark: Tel.no. 00-45 9635 9813
fax. no. 00 45-9815329 http://www.ihis.aau.dk/development/http://www.ihis.aau.dk/ccis/