Ethiopia: The Land of the Undemocratic Democrats

An excerpt that summarizes the gist of the article:

…In the toxic Ethiopian political landscape, you are essentially expected to shut up and accept what the ruling party or anti-ruling party groups say. You are supposed to take what either group says as an unchallengeable truth. If you resist, you become a target for both sides to attack you. You cannot stand in the middle. There is no middle. There cannot be middle ground. You are not even allowed to wish for it; let alone demand it. The space is only permitted for pro and anti government voices. Your voice is pointless and has to be hushed, you face verbal abuse if you go against the wind. You would more likely face physical abuse too, were there not a cyber barrier. You are considered a fool to think of such a thing. If not a fool, then a partisan disguised as a moderate that indirectly endorses the government. Smear campaigns or character assassinations are the tools used to twist your arms to join one of the camps. You already know what to expect from the government: imprisonment, or torture. But what you don’t expect is this, which happens: People who promise a better and democratic Ethiopia relentlessly trying to silence your voice because you question, criticize them. Basically you fall prey to pseudo democrats. They preach it, but they fail to walk it. They accuse the government of repressing freedom of speech, you see them denying that same freedom to anyone that happens to disagree with them.You come face to face with undemocratic democrats.

***

Ethiopia: The Land of the Undemocratic Democrats

By Elyas Mulu Kiros

Can you stand self-righteous priests or sheiks that preach about moral standards but they themselves never practice those standards? In other words, can you stand hypocrites? And that is exactly how I feel about Ethiopian politics.

On one side, you have the government, which has increasingly become allergic to criticism and is totalitarian in nature, more and more going down the road of dictatorship. At least the party that runs the government openly admits that it is guided by “revolutionary democracy,” an archaic ideology, which simply means you are with me or against me. So despite the pretension of multi-party democracy, one fact is clear: This dominant party will fight hard to stay in power. The hope was that revolutionary democracy would eventually transition to genuine democracy by reforming itself. But it has been more than two decades and there is no sign of transition, but a deterioration of progressive goals.

On the other side, you have the oppositions that claim they are for democracy, but some among them want to change the government through violence—the same kind of violence that brought the incumbents to power. The violence advocates believe that there is no hope for non-violent struggle or constitutional change in Ethiopia.

Nevertheless, they have no problem when they quote people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi all the time, which obviously is not only an irony (or a cliché), but also makes you wonder if they truly understand what non-violent struggle actually entails. They want to be seen as progressives like Gandhi, but they act like Mao and other radicals that left authoritarian governments behind.

The oppositions blame the government for fracturing the country based on ethnicity. Yet they themselves are fractured along ethnic lines. That includes those that hide in the “Ethiopia first” slogan and want to strangle anyone that talks about ethnicity. In diaspora, for example, where the oppositions have more influence, even some churches have been split as a result of political division and ethnic loyalty (the loyalty issue also goes down to provincial level for those with similar ethnicity); forget other social venues.

Political tolerance largely exists only in the form of empty talks, flowery speeches, or Internet ramblings. Even after living in America for decades, there are so many Ethiopians who haven’t yet internalized democratic principles as much as they talk about them. So many organizations, community associations, and churches have fallen apart because of political differences and dictatorial management styles. Not to mention friends and families that have let politics come between them.

Agreeing to disagree and still maintaining friendships is almost as alien as democracy itself in our mainstream culture. Shaking hands after going through an intense political argument is a rare outcome; in most cases, disagreers start seeing each other as bitter enemies. Perhaps, the reason is that most of us think we can’t be wrong, but the other.

It is a tragic comedy.

Some desire to rule Ethiopia from across the ocean. As I have always said, if one is damn serious about bringing social change in Ethiopia, the best option is to be there and struggle against the system; if not, the alternative is to empower those domestic activists both morally and financially, but not to dream that one can unseat the ruling party from afar and can fly to Addis Abeba the next day to be the new master.

Marin Luther King Jr. was right at the center of it all when he fought injustice: the abuse, the chaos, the crackdown, the dog bite, the force, the humiliation, the house on fire, the physical and verbal assault, the police brutality, the prison, the systemic oppression of the U.S. government, and then eventually the mountaintop where he gave his memorable “I’ve a dream” sermon. He achieved his goal and lived his dream without firing a single bullet, fighting fire with water.

The harassment and intimidation you, as an individual, face when you oppose or criticize the opposition or government groups is really alarming. These groups apply the same methods of silencing dissent. There is name-calling. You are either called a government sympathizer or an anti-Ethiopia (In my case, what I often encounter, for example, from the supposed “anti-ethnic division” advocates is that they look at my name and assume that I must be from a certain ethnic group to have expressed a certain opinion; therefore, I am a sympathizer of this or that who mustn’t have the right to express himself. Sadly, they barely look at my argument when they waste time splitting hair based on who they think I am. What do you call that? Reverse ethnocentrism?).

And what if one is a sympathizer or a supporter of an undemocratic government? Shouldn’t an advocate of democracy try to win the sympathizer over to one’s cause as opposed to threaten, intimidate and harass him or her? Isn’t a person supposed to have the right to support whoever he or she wants? Isn’t that what democracy is all about if one truly wants to make it happen? How can one promise to build a democratic state while from the start one categorizes those that are on the other side as “enemies?”

You would expect the pro-democracy groups, for example, those based in North America, to tolerate political differences; after all, they live in democratic countries. But, unfortunately, some of the diaspora political activists happen to be the worst undemocratic democrats.

In the toxic Ethiopian political landscape, you are essentially expected to shut up and accept what the ruling party or anti-ruling party groups say. You are supposed to take what either group says as an unchallengeable truth. If you resist, you become a target for both sides to attack you. You cannot stand in the middle. There is no middle. There cannot be middle ground. You are not even allowed to wish for it; let alone demand it. The space is only permitted for pro and anti government voices. Your voice is pointless and has to be hushed, you face verbal abuse if you go against the wind. You would more likely face physical abuse too, were there not a cyber barrier. You are considered a fool to think of such a thing. If not a fool, then a partisan disguised as a moderate that indirectly endorses the government. Smear campaigns or character assassinations are the tools used to twist your arms to join one of the camps. You already know what to expect from the government: imprisonment, or torture. But what you don’t expect is this, which happens: People who promise a better and democratic Ethiopia relentlessly trying to silence your voice because you question, criticize them. Basically you fall prey to pseudo democrats. They preach it, but they fail to walk it. They accuse the government of repressing freedom of speech, you see them denying that same freedom to anyone that happens to disagree with them.You come face to face with undemocratic democrats.

Isn’t it scary to have an opposition whose character is a mirror image of that it opposes, the government?

Whether they are from the government or the opposition side, the undemocratic democrats are victims of their uncompromising mind, seeing their opponents only as enemies. Most troubling is that there is always some group or party speaking confidently about what the over 80 million people want; the group or party claims to represent the people without having their mandate. It is as if the people are mute, that they cannot speak for themselves.

When the self-appointed representatives of “the people of Ethiopia” talk, they forget that I, the individual who does not agree with them, am also part of what they call “the people.” “The people of Ethiopia” is not some abstract entity that exists by itself that needs someone to speak for it.

If I were to pick top five reasons that have made Ethiopia the least progressive country in the world, I would certainly mention these: elitism (snobbery), “my way or the high way” mentality (lack of compromise), copycatting (as if just importing foreign ideas will solve Ethiopia’s problems), pessimism (or paranoia), and hypocrisy. I believe hypocrisy beats the rest.

And that is why I call my place of birth: The land of the undemocratic democrats.

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7 thoughts on “Ethiopia: The Land of the Undemocratic Democrats

  1. Great observation, Elyas! Well, we all have turned into eventual tools of our enemies. They have wanted us to be divided and it’s working. The diaspora should have done a better job, as it can see clrealy enemy’s mal-intention. The price will be high!

  2. ..Probably one of the best article to sum up the mental calibre of the majority of our self-elected political elites on both sides (bar one or two individuals associated with one party or another,but will leave that to you to weed-out).! There is no question though as to the origins of this handicap,.and without a doubt, its cultural -“spiced” with traditional systems,peppered with distant ideologies without grasping its true meaning, our political actors are still swimming blindly to nowhere of benefit to the Country.
    -At least,the” traditional”leaders never claimed or had the opportunity of modern-education,but tried thier best to keep a semblance of integrity,be it by geography or by adminstration,ofcourse well short of ideal…..but sorry to say, the lot that are described as the 60`s and 70`s generation are the worst our country could have had been visited on her.They are and were neither here nor there in any field of thought,a confused generation…who are still in the business of `eyaboku,chika`! Lastly, the true democrat usually comes out of a homestead with a similar value system….i think we can agree on the average,..what the typical social norm is in an ordinary household,be it in the diaspora or in Ethiopia.

  3. The writer’s frustration with ‘the way we are’ is shared by many. I could add a few to the five already mentioned in the article: Our zero-sum game, our suspicions, our passive aggressiveness. How we behave, act or respond to the Ethiopian political situation is nothing but an extension of our collective psyche. If we examine our parent-child, boss-employee, husband-wife, teacher-student relationships, it mirrors exactly what we despise on the political landscape. So it is no surprise if the leadership, opposition, diaspora and people of Ethiopia all fall prey to such frustrating, self defeating circular behaviors. After all, our psychological origin is the same. So, it seems to me, there is a larger and more complex issue, namely the ‘tenets of democracy’ – open dialogue, knowing our rights, agreeing to disagree, respect for the law and people, what we wish for cannot be achieved by a miracle. As the writer expressed, they would be empty cliches copied from others. If there is going to be generational, sustainable shift towards the ideal society, there has to be core shift in our philosophy of life and the values. A paradigm shift. And that starts from our homes, how we raise our children. A child that is raised in an open, democratic household becomes a confident, honest, tolerant, and open minded citizen. A child raised by tyrannical parents, becomes a weak, fearful, angry and submissive citizen. I realize, the complexity. It is not easy to change our mindset but I think the place to begin is at least to identify the source of the problem.

    1. Dear esk, I wouldn’t have articulated this anyway better! Thank you!

      I couldn’t agree more with your beautifully said, and one of the best and sensible ways of creating the ideal Ethiopia we all dream about; after all, what we experience as children, we replay them as adults:

      “A paradigm shift. And that starts from our homes, how we raise our children. A child that is raised in an open, democratic household becomes a confident, honest, tolerant, and open minded citizen. A child raised by tyrannical parents, becomes a weak, fearful, angry and submissive citizen. I realize, the complexity. It is not easy to change our mindset but I think the place to begin is at least to identify the source of the problem.”

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