Alemayehu G. Mariam
The great Bob Marley always sang songs of African unity and liberation:
How good and how pleasant it would be before God and man, To see the unification of all Africans. Africans unite for the benefit of your people! As it’s been said a’ready, let it be done!
“How good and how pleasant it would be before God and man, to see unity among all Ethiopians!”
This past October, I wrote a commentary encouraging all Ethiopians to use the shield of unity against the swords of those who toil to slice, dice, divide and rule them. But that commentary was intended to be not only an exhortation to all Ethiopians to unite around a common purpose and destiny, but equally, a celebration of the very idea of unity among peoples of a nation. I believe unity is the most powerful gravitational force in the life of any people or nation. A nation divided by race, tribe and ethnicity is doomed to poverty, ignorance and strife. I have always marveled at the majestic opening phrases in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a perfect Union…” For all their flaws, failings and imperfections, the Founders of the American Republic succeeded in establishing a United States of America in 1787.
Fourscore and seven years later, when Americans faced a more certain disunion in the Civil War, they incurred great loss of life to keep their unity and national integrity intact. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln, a lawyer running for a U.S. Senate seat in the state of Illinois, had no reservations in defending the indivisibility and unity of the American people, including those who were not included in the original “We the People”. He admonished, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free”. In 1984, another Illinoisan named Jesse Jackson campaigning to become U.S. president explained, “America is not like a blanket — one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt: many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread.” In 2004, yet another lawyer from Illinois, Barack Obama, boldly declared: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.” In 2009, in Accra, Ghana, President Obama blasted identity, tribal and ethnic politics as a canker in the African body politics and blight on the souls of all Africans: “We all have many identities – of tribe and ethnicity; of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century.”
Is it possible for the Ethiopian house to be divided against itself and remain standing? Is there a place for tribal and ethnic politics in Ethiopia in the second decade of the 21st Century? Is there any reason why we cannot declare with pride and determination that there is not an Oromo Ethiopia, Amhara Ethiopia, Tigray Ethiopia, Gurage Ethiopia, Gambella Ethiopia, Afar Ethiopia, Ogaden Ethiopia and so many others, but just one Ethiopia for the Oromo, the Amhara, the Tigrean, the Gurage, the Anuak, the Ogadeni… the Orthodox, the Muslim, the Protestant and so many others? Is it not true that Ethiopia, like America, is also “many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread”? I believe that common thread to be “Ethiopia-nity”, which simply means Ethiopians held together NOT by their tribal, ethnic and religious affiliation but by the bonds of their common humanity, history and culture.
The overlords of divide and rule harangue us daily that we must put our ethnicity above our humanity. They tell us that they do not give a damn whether Ethiopia even exists at all. They shrug their shoulders with depraved indifference and benighted hubris and proclaim, “If Ethiopia disintegrates, so be it. It was not meant to be.” By whom was it not meant to be?!? Certainly not by Providence. Certainly not by the children of Ethiopia.
For the past two decades, they have been repackaging tribal politics in a fancy wrapper called “ethnic federalism.” They have segregated the Ethiopian people by ethno-tribal classification and corralled them like cattle in grotesque regional political units called “kilils” (literally means “reservation”) or glorified apartheid-style Bantustans or tribal homelands. They have auctioned off large chunks of the country for pennies to international land grabbers. They have secretly delivered large stretches of the country to a neighboring country. They have facilitated the breakup of the country and now stand as the fierce defenders of the national integrity and inviolability of the sovereignty of those who have chosen to separate themselves from Ethiopia. Yet these architects of division and partition have the audacity to proclaim Ethiopia’s unity was never meant to be!!
To some extent, they have succeeded in fraying the delicate fabric of Ethiopian society and ripping out the sinews out of the Ethiopian body politics. They have sown the seeds of ethnic hatred and watered it with violence, corruption and repression. They have destroyed the peace and harmony of the Ethiopian people and replaced it with the jangling discord of suspicion, distrust and fear. But the times, they are a-changing! Ethiopians are standing up and declaring kilil-ism, tribalism and ethnic antagonism were never meant for Ethiopia. What was meant for Ethiopia, they say, is liberty, equality and fraternity in national unity. They say Ethiopians are ordained to enjoy their Ethiopianity; they are not destined to be the helpless victims of the politics of identity and ethnicity or of the criminal practices of brutality and inhumanity.
Oromo Liberation Front Embraces Ethiopian Unity
In an extraordinary announcement following a National Council meeting in Minneapolis, MN on December 30-31, 2011, the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) repudiated its “advocacy for the establishment of an Oromo state” and proclaimed its “new vision” and “aspiration to establish one country with other Ethiopians under a genuine federal arrangement that must guarantee the rights, equality and liberty of all Ethiopians…. The OLF would struggle not only for the Oromo people but also the people of Ethiopia suffering under the tyranny and oppression of the TPLF regime.” It seems the OLF declaration makes a simple but powerful statement: “Kilil-ism, tribalism and ethnic antagonism are not meant for Ethiopia.”
The OLF’s reasons for changing its long-held position on establishing an Oromo state appear to be premised on a number of self-evident facts: 1) the need to end the “suffering of the Ethiopian people under the dictatorship of Meles Zenewi” by “working with all democratic forces in Ethiopia”; 2) the necessity of “forming the new Ethiopia that will guarantee and protect the fundamental rights of all peoples in Ethiopia” and 3) the need for the establishment of a “federal democratic republic” that is “based on the free will and consent of all peoples in Ethiopia.”
The OLF’s National Council urged “all democratic forces to work in tandem to make Ethiopia a common home for all its people” and called “on the international community to desist from supporting the tyrannical regime of Meles Zenawi that is engaged in terrorizing the Ethiopian people, selling the precious resources of the country to the highest bidders” and disrespecting “principles of democracy, human rights and rule of law.” It challenged “fellow Ethiopians to work with the OLF in a spirit of trust in order to establish the new Ethiopia, where democracy, justice, respect for human rights and rule of law will be the founding values.”
Unity is the Only Cure for the Destructive Politics of Identity and Ethnicity in Africa
The OLF declaration is surprising, historic, refreshing and singularly instructive. But the historic significance of the announcement can be appreciated only when it is contextualized within the broader framework of contemporary African politics. In many parts of Africa today, we see individuals, political leaders, groups and organizations of all stripes stoking the fires of ethnic and tribal hatred, fanning the flames of sectarian and religious violence and instigating all forms of strife, dissension and enmity. Just over the past year, we have witnessed in some of the most advanced countries in Africa the consequences of ethnic and religious warfare. In Cote d’Ivoire, we saw Laurent Gbagbo divide the country by region and religion and sacrifice the lives of thousands of his citizens in a futile attempt to cling to power. He failed and is now facing justice at the International Criminal Court. In Nigeria today, we see violent confrontations orchestrated by individuals, leaders, groups and militias along ethnic and religious lines. In a disturbing pattern, it is becoming quite clear that increasing numbers of Nigerians are giving precedence to their ethnic identity and subordinating their allegiance to the Nigerian nation. Will these separatist movements eventually dismember the Nigerian nation along geographic and religious lines? Uganda faces threats by a vicious group known not only for its widespread human rights violations, but also for its utterly barbaric practices of sexual enslavement of women and abducting children to become soldiers.
It is in the broader African context that we can truly appreciate and admire the actions of the OLF in dropping its long-held demands for secession and public commitment to work hand in hand with “fellow Ethiopians in a spirit of trust to establish the new Ethiopia, where democracy, justice, respect for human rights and rule of law will be the founding values.” When the trend in parts of Africa is to strengthen tribal and ethnic loyalty and dissolve the bonds of national unity, it is extraordinary for the OLF to boldly declare its mission to work for the common humanity of all Ethiopians and usher in a new era of peace and national reconciliation.
It does not seem that it was easy for the OLF to finally come to this position. There appears to have been a great deal of give and take within the organization on the issues. Some members appear to have had reservations for a variety of reasons; but the leadership deserves much credit for having the vision to see the forest for the trees, for asking the tough questions and for understanding that the stale cynical political arguments of the past must be replaced with fresh forward-looking ideas that can produce results for a durable peace and genuine reconciliation. The leadership deserves much credit for being open-minded and for accepting the fact that it is necessary to change with the times and new realities. The realities today are different than they were ten or twenty years ago. Aligning one’s thinking and actions with changing realities and circumstances is a sign of wisdom and political maturity. It has been said that “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
Is there anything the rest of us can learn from the OLF’s declaration?
I have drawn many lessons about leadership, courage and the need to change with the times. In my thinking, the OLF declaration embodies the simple principle I have always upheld and fiercely defended: “Choose your humanity before your ethnicity and nationality.” Doing it the other way around is downright insanity. With its declaration, I believe the OLF has chosen to replace the old ideology of factionalism and secessionism with a new ideology of unity, cooperation and collaboration. It has chosen to speak not just for Oromos, but just as vigorously for all Ethiopians who have become voiceless, voteless, helpless and powerless. The OLF has chosen to speak for them in the common language of all humanity– equality, justice, democracy and freedom.
I believe a divided nation is a defeated nation. In unity there is victory. When the OLF declares that it “would struggle not only for the Oromo people but also the people of Ethiopia suffering under the tyranny and oppression of the TPLF regime,” I understand that to mean there is no substitute for the victory of democracy and human rights in Ethiopia; but the price of that victory is unity around a common purpose and destiny. Unity is the crucible for cooperation, collaboration and effective collective action.
The process of unifying a people is difficult and the road to unity is often littered with the debris of historical grievances, rancor and bitterness. That road must be repaved and repaired with good will and new values of dignity and equality in a genuine understanding of a common humanity. The search for and achievement of unity does not happen overnight, nor does unity by itself solve all problems. But where there is unity among the people, they are in a much better position to resolve disputes and solve problems. Where there is unity, the disagreement is never about the destination, only about the paths to be taken to that destination.
Unity in a given nation is always a work in progress. The Americans are still trying to make a perfect union 225 years after they began their journey. The work of unity in Ethiopia should be less cumbersome because seventy percent of the population is said to be young people. We can remain confidently optimistic that the new generation will replace the destructive politics of identity of the old generation with the transformative politics of humanity, equality, dignity and unity.
Even utopian Ethiopians know that as we work for unity, they will be working double overtime for disunity. For every act done to create trust, they will fabricate ten acts to create suspicion and distrust. It is said that a thousand mile journey begins with the first step. In making its declaration, the OLF has taken a giant leap for all Ethiopians. Each one of us must now take our own small steps for our Ethiopianity (humanity before ethnicity or nationality).
Fierce Urgency of Now
What time is it? It is high time for all Ethiopians to come together. If there is one thing we can learn from the OLF declaration, it is that none of us can survive without each other. None of us can hope to prosper while the rest are disenfranchised and subjugated. None of us can make progress while the rest regress or stand still. We are now faced with the fierce urgency of creating the conditions of unity now. Why? Because genuine national unity is a necessary precondition to feed the starving masses, those 12 million Ethiopians who survive on international handouts every year. It is the foundation upon which the proper education and nurturing of the youth which comprises sevety percent of the population. Unity is necessary to ensure a vibrant economy that provides equal opportunity to all and guarantee respect for human rights.
All organizations committed to democracy, the rule of law and human rights must unite and become an example for the people to unite. Pro-democracy leaders and organizations should come out, stand up, step forward and make a declaration of faith in the unity of the Ethiopian people and pledge to subordinate their narrow political or other interests to the cause of a strong united Ethiopia. They must pledge to avoid the politics of fear and smear and condemn the politics of identity and ethnicity wherever it rears its ugly head. It is an act of supreme courage to embrace Ethiopian unity on a foundation of our common humanity.
In 2012, we are living in revolutionary times. The “Arab Spring” continues to show the historic struggle people are undertaking to live in dignity– the right to choose their own leaders, to speak freely and to demand accountability and transparency of those who exercise power. People are making great sacrifices to live freely in a country where the government fears the people and not the other way around. Back in 1967, Dr. Martin L. King spoke of similar times: “These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. ‘The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.’”
Revolutionary times demand courageous, enlightened and ethical revolutionary leaders who value the common good over private and narrow interests. Such leaders bring unity where there is strife; love where there is hatred; trust where there is suspicion; determination where there is hesitation; healing where there is hurt; reconciliation where there discord; wisdom where there is foolishness;knowledge where there is ignorance; truth where there is falsehood; tolerancewhere there is bigotry and prejudice; honesty where is duplicity; hope where there is despair and dedication where there is apathy and indifference. There is a fierce urgency for Ethiopian leaders with these very special qualities to come forward. We need “leaders tough enough to fight, tender enough to cry, human enough to make mistakes, humble enough to admit them, strong enough to absorb the pain, and resilient enough to bounce back and keep on moving.”
Some are perfectly willing to cast the fate of Ethiopia to the wind and say, “If Ethiopia disintegrates, so be it. It was not meant to be.” But it is the privilege of the utopian Ethiopian to declare with absolute certainty and pride that the unity of all Ethiopians is divinely ordained. It is the dream of the same utopian Ethiopian to look forward to the day when Ethiopians– men and women, young and old, rich and poor, city dwellers and country folks, the learned and illiterate and those of diverse faiths and languages– will assemble and issue a Great Charter announcing to the world: “We, the People of Ethiopia, in order to form a more perfect Union…”
“How good and how pleasant it would be before God and man, to see unity among all Ethiopians!”
Previous commentaries by the author are available at: www.huffingtonpost.com/alemayehu-g-mariam/ and http://open.salon.com/blog/almariam/