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Ethiopia: The Future of the Future Country, Part I

Alemayehu G. Mariam

Looking Through the Glass, Brightly

“Ethiopia is the country of the future,” Birtukan Midekssa would often say epigrammatically. Ethiopia’s No. 1 political prisoner is always preoccupied with her country’s future and destiny. Her deep concern for Ethiopia is exceeded only by her boundless optimism for its future. For that reason, her maxim echoes not only a manifest general truth, but also makes a profound and complex historical argument that calls for a paradigm shift in the way we understand contemporary Ethiopian politics and envision the future.

To be the country of the future necessarily means not being the country of the past. Birtukan’s Ethiopia of the future is necessarily the categorical antitheses of an imperial autocracy, a military bureaucracy and a dictatorship of kleptocracy. Her vision of the future Ethiopia is a unified country built on a steel platform of multiparty democracy. Birtukan would have been pleased to explain her vision and dreams of the future country of Ethiopia; unfortunately, she can not speak for herself as she has been condemned to “rot” in jail.

As we begin the second decade of the 21st Century, it is important for the rest of us to carry on the conversation that Birtukan has so insightfully sparked. She is concerned about Ethiopia’s future because she understands that a nation without a clear sense of its future is a nation without a destiny, and one doomed to suffer the scourges of tyranny and oppression. When Birtukan speaks of Ethiopia as the country of the future, she speaks of it in the same way as Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of his American dream. He dreamt that one day in the future, America “will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed… that all men (and women) are created equal.” He dreamt that Americans, despite their bitter history of oppression and injustice, “will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood” and resolve their differences amicably and peacefully. Above all, he dreamt of a future where his “four children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Birtukan also has a dream that one day Ethiopians will sit together at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood to discuss their historic grievances and current issues, atone for and forgive each other for past transgressions, and in a renewed spirit of reconciliation, compromise and accommodation, forge a common destiny. She dreams of the day when her 4-year old daughter and the millions of children in Ethiopia will grow up in a country where they are judged not by their ethnicity, tribal affiliation, gender, language, religion, region or wealth, but by their abilities and the content of their character. She dreams of a just and moral society.

Fully accepting and working towards such a future for Ethiopia may sound naïve and idealistic to some given the present grim state of affairs. If the trend projections of the doomsday soothsayers are to be believed, in Ethiopia’s future, there is no future. The scientists tell us that Ethiopia will prove to be a poster child for “environmental determinism” in 40 years. It’s population will double to 150 million by 2050; and overpopulation, coupled with large and growing per capita resource consumption and negative environmental impact will trigger a complete collapse of the society by the middle of the century. These scientists point to evidence of large-scale deforestation and habitat destruction, soil degradation, decline in potable water supply and water pollution, overgrazing, desertification and so on as the unmistakable present warning signals of future collapse.

The agricultural experts express shock and dismay in the sale and lease of millions of hectares of land to foreign corporations who are set on producing food for export back to their home countries while Ethiopians are dying of massive starvation and famines (officially known in the politically correct phrase “severe food shortages”). The economists paint an equally dire picture of a country overburdened by debt to international lenders and a local economy in the chokehold of businesses closely allied with the ruling regime, and whose principal capitalization is derived from conversion of previously government-owned properties through a bogus privatization process. With land and key sectors of the economy such as telecommunications under the control or ownership of the regime or its supporters, without a functional financial services sector and youth unemployment in excess of 70 percent, the practitioners of the “dismal science” predict a dismal economic future for Ethiopia.

There are even those who predict political implosion long before systemic collapse. A research group with expertise in international crises analysis recently sounded the alarm over “the potential for a violent eruption of conflict in Ethiopia ahead of the May 2010 elections amidst rising ethnic tensions and dissent.” The international human rights groups and organizations who have extensively documented the regime’s sustained pattern of crackdowns on dissent, criminalization of civil society groups, persecution of the independent media, election rigging and theft, massive rights violations and implementation of repressive decrees consign Ethiopia to the scrapheap of the most hopeless and wretched nations on the planet. If we are to believe the doomsday soothsayers, Ethiopia is presently in critical triage on life support. They peg her survival without complete societal collapse and political implosion in the first half of the 21st century at much less than 50 per cent.

We must categorically reject the dark predictions of the naysayers and the merchants of doom and gloom. The future of Ethiopia is in the hands, hearts and minds of its people, not in the tea leaves read by the experts. As John M. Richardson, Jr. said, “When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who let it happen, and those who wonder what happened.” Birtukan belongs in the first category. Because of the enormous sacrifices she has made, she rightly deserves to be called a future maker, as anyone who chooses to join her in her quest for a better future in Ethiopia would be. What makes Birtukan unique is that she understands that if we do not work together actively to shape the future, the past will assuredly shape it for us. Only when the future makers put their shoulders to the grindstone and do the heavy lifting can we prove the experts wrong and guarantee that Ethiopia’s best days are yet to come.

The future of the future country will be decided in a battle between the “future makers” and “future takers”. We are witnesses to the handiwork of the future takers today. They have taken everything in the present — the rights of the people, their dignity, their daily bread, their land, their hopes and their dreams — so that there will be no future. They calculate the future to be a continuation of the past, and they will do everything in their power to perpetuate the past into the future. Future takers worship at the altar of greed and corruption; and for them fairness, decency, generosity and morality are anathema. The battle between the future makers and future takers will be waged and decided in the hearts and minds of the people. The future takers will wage a war of tears and fears. The future makers will fight back with hope, faith, charity and love.

We should reject the static and deterministic outcomes predicted by the experts because their assumptions about Ethiopia are fundamentally incorrect. Their analytical models are predicated on a flawed postulate that Ethiopians are fundamentally a weak and desperate people who are passive objects of oppression, charity and pity. We must reject out of hand, and without hesitation, any argument that suggests Ethiopia’s future will be sealed in ethnic fragmentation, political dissolution and national self-destruction. We must cast aside any theory that predicts the systemic collapse and the end of a nation whose history dates back 3000 years. We have been a nation of survivors. We have survived and prevailed over the plague of European colonialism when nearly all of Africa succumbed to it. We have survived recurrent famines of Biblical proportion. We have endured conflicts and wars. We have survived autocracy, despotism and kleptocracy. Let there be no doubt: We will survive until the end of time because we are the “masters of our fate” and the “captains of our destiny”.

Philosophers and historians speak of a recurrent cycle in human events. Great nations rise and fall. Governments come and go. Leaders change and are replaced. But nations survive because each generation accepts its responsibilities and forges ahead with the enormous tasks of future-building. When Birtukan says Ethiopia is the country of the future, she means to say that this generation of Ethiopians has a rendezvous with destiny. Whether Ethiopia will self-destruct in ethnic fragmentation and strife is not carved in stone. This generation can avert that dark future by working for and promoting ethnic diversity and national unity. A new generation of statesmen and stateswomen could trump the political expediency and machination of those desperately clinging to power. Whether Ethiopia is doomed to ecological collapse is not determined by the inexorable forces of global warming. Carefully planning and prioritization of societal needs, implementation of creative policies, public awareness, education and mobilization could help steer away the Ethiopian nation from the dangerous shoals of ecological calamity.

The future requires responsibility, creativity, endurance and sacrifice. It can not be left to a few leaders, politicians, intellectuals or experts. If there is one thing to be learned from the recent past, it is that the Ethiopian people know what kind of a future they want. Their verdict in the 2005 elections stands as a final testament for a genuine multiparty democracy. History is also on the side of freedom and the youth. Despite all the setbacks of recent years, the values of democracy, freedom and human rights have taken deep root in the psyche of Ethiopian youth. They will be leading the forward march of Ethiopia into a glorious future. With Ethiopia’s future in the hands of her young people, we have cause to be confident and even to celebrate. Let our youth learn from a wise African saying: “Tomorrow belongs to the (young) people who prepare for it today.”

“The Future of the Future Country” is a special commentary to be offered in periodic serialized future segments by the author.

Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. He writes a regular blog on The Huffington Post, and his commentaries appear regularly on Pambazuka News and New American Media. [email protected]

3 thoughts on “Ethiopia: The Future of the Future Country, Part I

  1. Professor, you call our modern scientists “soothsayers,” and you say their science is “dismal.” You also advise us to reject the dark predictions of the “naysayers.” This means, you want us to hear those scientists who tell us only the good things, not the bad things, only the positive things, not the negative things. For example, you want the meteorologists to say: “This winter is going to be all the time sunny, and there will be no snow here in America.” Even if the weather man predicts that there will be no snow tomorrow just to pleas us, the problem is tomorrow there may be snow. It is just like what Saint Paul said: “When people say, ‘There is peace and security,’ destruction will strike them as suddenly as labor pains come to a pregnant woman, and they will not be able to escape.” (1st Corinthians 5:3)

    My dear professor, remember, we are living with modern scientists such as the cosmologists, the archeologists, the meteorologists and others, and we depend on what they tell us, good or bad, comfortable or painful. The Biblical prophets – Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel – who exactly know what will happen and what will not are not with us today. So, we should respect our modern scientists and adhere to what they tell us that would happen in the future. For example, the scientists tell us that population growth is not good for the developing countries, and I believe them. Ethiopia is one of the developing countries, and if we Ethiopians want to live a comfortable life in the future, we must find an effective way that limits the Ethiopian Arab-Muslim population explosion before all of us perish together due to luck of food.

    When I was in Ethiopia, I heard one elderly person predict that the future of Ethiopia after the death of Emperor Haile Selassie would be የ መ ከ ራ ዘ መ ን. Of course, his prediction is absolutely true: the time of the Derg and Mengistu Haile Mariam was the time of terror, and the time of Meles Seitanawi and his wife Jezebel was the time of blood shed, hunger, greed, theft, and injustices. Therefore, we cannot simply ignore such people who know the future and dub them as “soothsayers” and their correct predictions as “dismal.”

    As you say, it may be true that Birtukan may have a dream that one day the Ethiopian people will sit together and forgive each other their past grievances. But there is an Ethiopian saying: “የወጋ ቢረሳ የተወጋ አይረሳም”

    Do you think the Jews will ever forgive Adolf Hitler? In the same way, do you think the Amharas, the Oromos, the people of Ogaden, and the other Ethiopian tribes who have been suffering all these years will ever forgive Meles and his wife Jezebel?

  2. “To be the country of the future necessarily means not being the country of the past.”
    እ፣ እ፣ This particular statement is a little too strong for me to accept, however hard I try not to be an essentialist. Even one of the most profound existentialist thinker who conceives human being in terms of possibility (“Seinkoennen”) rather than actuality(“Sein”) has once admitted that: one’s origin remains always one’s future (“Herkunft aber bleibt stets Zukunft”).

    Asmuch as I agree with the criticism against the current regime and the previous two or three or four or…; yet, I would like people of Alemayehu’s caliber should not forget to emphasize their full realization of and respect for our millennia old honorable tradition–which tradition is apparently our past that remains always to be our future, the ultimate source of our survival!

  3. Professor Alemayehu,

    Your contributions are diverse and continous and we should thank you for that. In your latest article, Ethiopia: The Future of the Futire, you touched on two points which attracted my attention. The first is your indication we all need a paradigm Shift, and the other is your doapproval of the preachers of doom and gloom. We would like to hear more from you on these two important points. I believe you read about the two topics from others , and it is good you too have realized the need to focus on them. This is a new year and we need a new approach and vision.

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