“A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power… which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion… condemns itself to death.” Chris Hedges
One chilly summer evening, by what I can only recall to be a random chance, I found myself at a party at the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa. I had recently graduated from college and was enjoying a summer in my hometown. Unemployed yet very much enthusiastic, I had joined a group of well-dressed, well-educated, and impressively self-assured individuals who were inclined to say things like “where are you based?” instead of “where do you live?” or tell you passionately about the importance of giving back to their country as they provide a detailed account on how they happen to be doing so at the moment.
While I felt a little out of place being surrounded by mostly ambitious and well-accomplished people, I had no problems mingling with ease. You will be surprised where properly articulated English sentences and the right pair of tasteful high-heels can get you in life. Throughout the evening I met and conversed with many individuals, some of whom frequently grace us with their presence on our national newspapers and TV channels today. I met and chatted with a handsome young banker (not of your local variety), the type of man my mother wants me to bring home for dinner. He told me about his job which involves extensive international travel & frequent run-ins with important men I only know of in the media. “There is no reason Ethiopia can’t be the next China!” he had said excitedly, explaining how state led capitalism was the answer to our nation’s economic ills. I listened attentively to his invigorating talk with the occasional water sipping, making a mental note to myself to frequently glance through the pages of The Financial Times to further ease such conversations. Thankfully, my ignorance of the international financial world did not show, since after some minutes of having met me, he started calling over his friends to make introductions. “Come meet this brilliant young woman,” he had said to his friends, whose hands’ I shook politely. In case you are wondering, be assured this statement is not related to any objective assessment of talent or cleverness I may possess. It is simply that when one is in such a room, it is assumed that the fellow he or she will interact with is very much like who he assumes himself to be. So, of course, such rooms are crowded with the “brilliants,” the “trailblazers,” the “change makers,” and the “jegnits” of Addis.
I also talked with a fellow jegnit who had gone back to school after a stint at Oxfam and was now doing her PhD dissertation on the societal perception of domestic violence on women in Addis Ababa. I listened and encouraged her passions full-heartedly, not forgetting to remind her of her brilliance before our conversation came to a close. I met another older woman who headed one of the big International NGOs’ East Africa offices, who was also kind enough to give me some advice on networking, including some names and phone numbers I should reach out to in the field. She narrated how she came from humble backgrounds to be a success and assured me I had all it takes to be an asset for my country.
By the end of that evening, while tired from all the talking, smiling and polite nodding, my enthusiasm had not waned. It was clear much was required to join the who is who of the Addis professional elite. It was not too clear to me if I had what it took to reach the ranks and do what they call giving back. Most of the people in the room were smart; they had solid credentials to prove it, they were financially successful; talks of weddings at white sands beach resorts had already started to become a norm; they were assumably cosmopolitan; their language skills and agreement on the dullness of London’s weather hinted at it. Could I really join their rank? I was not too certain. My failure to take home to my mother even the banker who thought her daughter “so brilliant” forced me to not answer in the affirmative.
Politics is discussed little in such settings, if at all. Globally, at the time Ethiopia was being hailed as a growth miracle, being made the poster child for the Africa Rising narrative. During those years Ethiopia was achieving double digit GDP growth, making people like my new banker friend confidently predict that the nation was destined to become the China of Africa. While everyone in the room was aware that our nation was one of the poorest in the world, they held a strong conviction that our luck was finally turning, and the trajectory now was toward the light. Through their work in civil societies, NGOs, and IFIs, these educated and forward-thinking Ethiopians would help bring Ethiopia into the 21st Century. Ethiopia offered what every young, ambitious and educated person wanted; an opportunity to achieve both prosperity and purpose, and to do so with class, style, and easy access to high end whisky & wine of one’s liking. I was lucky to be amid such a crowd, I had thought.
To be sure, my evening with the vivacious and seemingly cosmopolitan crowd of Addis Ababa paints only a fraction of the full Ethiopian picture of the time. The success stories and the enthusiasm of that evening leaves out a much darker and unconformable side. Being in that room, you would not know that as we sipped on our drinks & complimented each other on our outfits we were doing so in one of the most politically repressive nations in Africa. The 2010 Ethiopian election results reported EPRDF, the then ruling party headed by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, as having won almost a hundred percent of the votes. Journalists and human rights activists were constantly being persecuted, thrown in jails or exiled from the country. Torture of prisoners was commonplace. There was no doubt the government was ruling with an iron fist. But this iron fist was justified by the self-presumed movers and shakers of Addis as unfortunate but necessary. Many agreed that a nation cannot hope to achieve its democratic aspirations until it untangles itself from the stronger chains of poverty.
It has been a decade since that chilly evening in Addis. Several realities have changed since. Ethiopia is no longer led by the EPRDF but by the Prosperity Party, power having been consolidated under the young evangelical & populist Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed (a child of EPRDF himself). Ethiopia has abandoned pursuing a state led economic policy, instead following neoliberal economic policies led by the IMF and World Bank. The relatively secure nation that had managed to attract high levels of FDIs into the nation is now ripe with ethnic conflicts. Most devastatingly, the African Rising narrative headlines, as questionable as some of them were, have been replaced most recently by headlines of a war of biblical proportion – involving rapes, massacres, and famine – in Tigray.
Interestingly, the friends I met that evening and in many other similar get-togethers in Addis, still hold the conviction – while witnessing historical levels of human agony & devastation – that Ethiopia is still moving forward, the future even brighter. Their memory of the past has changed drastically. Now they remember those long-gone days as dark and oppressive, and the former regime as backward. The injustices they had dismissed as unavoidable for economic growth, is now viewed as the epitome of cruelty. “We finally have a modern leader who’ll take Ethiopia into the 21st century,” a “non-political” friend who, as I remember it, was quite satisfied with the nation’s former state, said to me.
The Addis Ababa urban elite have swarmed towards the Prime Minister like bees to honey and he has certainly welcomed the embrace. The Prime Minister, for his part, has rewarded this enthusiasm for the change and prosperity he offers. More than any other time in recent history, he has welcomed into the central government a high number of urban technocrats with minimal allegiance to any specific political ideology. In the first few months of Abiy Ahmed’s premiership, I too had welcomed this change, viewing it as a sign the regime was attempting to open spaces for those who were competent, but not necessarily party loyalists. I was highly mistaken. Months into Abiy’s administration, while many still held hopes of building a genuine political arena representing all people, for those paying close attention it became clear that the Prime Minister was using these urban elites mainly as a front, a way to legitimize his regime as a liberal, democratic and modern one while he solidified his personal power in the most basic authoritarian of ways. Modern being roughly defined as cognac sipping at the Hyatt, walks at Entoto Park, spa days, fancy suits, a degree or two, and some foreign contacts in international institutions. Not too surprising, given complications and nuance rarely leave enough mental space for the “positive mindset” required to achieve prosperity of the Prime Minister’s variety .
As a thank you for the rewards of status and various privileges that come with power, the urban elite for their part have shown their gratitude unflinchingly. Some have gone from cheering Abiy as a true reformer, empathizing deeply with the unimaginable challenges he has inherited (an arguably harmless stance, albeit at times idiotic) all the way to supporting, denying and justifying systemic rape, massacres and an almost total destruction that has taken place in the war on Tigray (a painful failure the consequences of which we will no doubt reap).
To be fair to these urban elites whose need for comfort, money and status has always been evident to the non-naïve, even human rights activists who were once celebrated for remaining neither blind nor indifferent to the abuses of the former regime, stand today alongside a Prime Minister who has openly attempted to downplay war crimes, including systemic rape of women. Today those who used to profess and stand up for ideals such as freedom, justice, and peace remain either mute or are complicit in the face of killings, rape, ethnic profiling, ethnic cleansing, harassment, imprisonment and abuse of their fellow citizens. The same individuals who preached about the inherent dignity and inalienable rights of all individuals are seen sermonizing about the difficulty and complexity of running a diverse nation such as Ethiopia. They are seen arguing openly, for a nation to prevail it might, after all, be unfortunately unavoidable – even necessary – that some groups of humans pay with their very lives. Today we are forced to assume what we thought was a fight for justice, was only a fight for power.
Ethiopian academics and intellectuals have not been any less disillusioning. These individuals, including those working & residing safely in various universities around the world have freed themselves from the basic responsibility a decent society puts upon its intellectuals – to pursue and speak truths. Intellectuals are in a unique and privileged position to expose the lies and deception of the powerful given they can do so with minimal risk of loss of livelihood, imprisonment or physical harm (real fears the average person has). Having spent years in study and training, they have the analytical tools at their disposal to help us differentiate fact from fiction, to help us remove the veil of deceit created by government propaganda. But what our intellectuals have chosen to do is be loyal to their ideological convictions instead of truths. They have chosen to cheer as the Prime Minister declared, “there were no civilian deaths” while engaged in a war, to celebrate as free and democratic an election with virtually zero genuine competition, and to excuse and explain away systemic rape and massacres as unfortunate consequences of war. They sing the songs of liberalism, democracy and morality in the Western classrooms within which they teach in the mornings, to only sit in front of their computers later that evening solemnly spieling to their Ethiopian audience about law and order, Ethiopian exceptionalism and the unforgivable sins of their disfavored groups. If I were not alive to witness it all as it is taking place, I would have certainly dismissed it as cynically written bad fiction.
There is something particularly pernicious about Ethiopia’s current state of affairs. Not only do elite groups of all stripes – technocrats, intellectuals, human rights activists, religious leaders, media – legitimize the actions of such a repressive government through an almost sadistic level of active support, but they do so with an added air of moral superiority. They have managed to sell to the public that a war that has mainly devastated innocent men, women & children is done in the pursuit for justice, to rid us of a special kind of evil that exists only over-there, never with us. Not only are we being told that death & destruction are a necessary evil, but that it is being done for our own good, for the good of Ethiopia. We, for our part, have chosen to believe it.
I do not know how this war, ignited for the sake of power consolidation, will end or how we will manage to move forward as a nation. Our elites want us to believe that this is only the darkness the nation is experiencing before a great dawn. This is simply false (the Prime Minister’s unexpected military defeat and the possible continuation of inter-ethnic war in the region has proved this). There is no darkness that is being experienced by a tangible entity we collectively label as “Ethiopia” that either feels pain or anguish. The darkness is being experienced by individual humans; mothers who are burying their young sons, fathers who are forced to dry the tears of their raped daughters, families who watch as everything they have worked so hard to build destruct in front of their eyes. And even if it were true – if there will in fact be a great dawn after such chaos – which part of our collective consciousness is willing to accept a prosperity that comes at the price of innocent blood spilt and the tears of anguish shed by those we once called our people?
If there is ever hope of a dawn, I know we will never reach it if we remain on our current path ripe with lies, deception, and denials. The powerful will do all they can to remain on this current path knowing full well they will cease to exist otherwise. But you and I have a choice. We do not need any special type of knowledge to know that all other humans feel pain as deeply as we do, that every life is worthy of love and protection, that we all have a right to life and the freedom to do what we choose with it, even those we consider our enemy. There are no complexities that need to be untangled before we confidently say “no” to the dehumanization of our people, no deep thought required to take no part in injustice and no accreditation necessary to speak basic truths to corrupt power. I may not be able to state with full certainty that with truth, love and compassion, we can change the world, but I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt our rejection of them will guarantee us hell.