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Ethiopia – In search of a common ground

By Yilma Bekele

How to manage and resolve conflict has always been our Achilles Heel. That is part of the reason why we stumble from one crisis to another. Last week was a perfect example of an attempt to try to find out a reasonable solution to a problem that arose in our region here in Northern California. I hope it will give us an insight into an exercise in positive behavior that will probably end up in a win-win situation. It made me realize that the scorched earth policy we seem to favor when it comes to resolving differences between us is not a winning strategy and it has not brought us any positive results.

The public transit system serving our area (BART) has been facing mounting criticism from the public due to the strong arm tactics used by the Transit Police. A few weeks ago BART police fatally shot an individual during an arrest. People were not happy about that. A public demonstration was held, a BART station was temporarily closed, and rail service disrupted. The organizers who were using social media as a tool to come together vowed to return the following Friday to continue their public demonstration.

How BART responded to the imminent gathering of angry people is what brought this important discussion into the forefront. BART management decided to meet the threat by pulling the plug on cell phone service for a portion of its stations to disrupt electronic communication. That act completely changed the nature of the problem. Folks wanted to know under whose authority those in charge are allowed to shut down a communications system. It opened a lively constitutional discussion regarding the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment.

Public discussions were held to define the problem. Experts in Constitutional Law were called to clarify the issue. BART board of Directors called a hearing to discuss the ramifications. The people demanded clarity. The core issue became how the First Amendment of the US Constitution was interpreted in action. I will present you the text of the First Amendment as well as two opinions by experts on the Constitution.

Here is the text of the First Amendment “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

According to Michael Risher of ACLU of Northern California “To be clear, the First Amendment doesn’t protect the right of people to disrupt train service, and the government may impose reasonable restrictions on protest. But they can’t simply shut down a park because they don’t want an unpopular group to come protest there; they shouldn’t be shutting down a communications network just because they don’t like what’s being said on it. That’s contrary to the First Amendment.”

Professor Eugene Volokh of University of California at Los Angles (UCLA) response was “As to the federal constitution, based on press accounts of what the facts are, it seems to be that BART was acting within its constitutional power. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea… but the important thing is that BART was turning off cell phone hardware that was on its property that it either owned or had control over. That’s very different from the government shutting down private networks or interfering with communications on private property or for that matter on streets and parks, which are treated similar to private property in this respect under the First Amendment.”

Watching the discussion and trying to digest the information to make a reasonable assessment has been a teachable moment for me. I noticed the language that the participants used to make their respective points were measured and non-provocative. There were no good guys and bad guys, but people trying to resolve a common problem. There was no anger and none questioned the motives of their opponent. The task at hand was to try to find a lasting solution and avoid future problems. BART directors were not vilified while their decision making process was brought under public scrutiny. This type of environment creates a fertile ground for good ideas to blossom. It brings out the best in all of us and enhances possibility of a positive resolution of the problem. Might I add that the existence of a free and equal environment is what made it all this possible?
I believe that is what is lacking in our social discourse. A civilized way of handling conflicting ideas to be able to reach a reasonable and common ground. Why do I think we suffer from this disease of rigidness and lack of respect for other people’s ideas and opinions? I have two examples of the weakness of our system when it comes to dealing with ideas different than our own.

I wrote an opinion regarding the wisdom of our independent Web sites disseminating interviews with Shaleka Mengistu. I was not dealing with the individual’s right to grant an interview. I believe that is a different issue. Here in California the law does not allow a criminal to profit from his misdeeds. I understand the Shaleka has written a book and part of the interview was to market the product. My issue was the fact of our inability to say enough! That was what I questioned. On the other hand, the discussion that ensued was full of insults, hatred and unreasonable diatribe. I found out folks just don’t disagree and let it go but they take the extra step of questioning my lineage, my integrity and everything associated with me. Unfortunately, the original issue gets lost in this acrimonious festival.

Some said I should stop being angry, a few have forgiven him and they want all of us to do so while others championed his right to speak. I do not agree at all. I believe anger is a reasonable response. Remember, we are the victims. I think a certain amount of disgust is good for the psyche; otherwise, one is bound to be treated like a door mat. You know everybody stepping on you kind. ____ I almost said that is so like us, but I won’t. I will consider the possibility of forgiveness when the criminal shows remorse for his actions and confesses for his untold crimes. I also believe it is my responsibility to speak for my dead people and it is not my place to forgive on their behalf. I truly believe the Shaleka does not have any right to speak. He lost that right when he committed crimes against humanity. Justice demands that he be put on trial, and be hanged until he is dead. His death will serve as a deterrent to future tyrants. That will leave a lasting impression on how not to treat Abeshas. I also believe that asking the Shaleka to advise us in the intricate art of Nation building is the same as asking Ato Meles’s advice on economic growth and the best policy to achieve that goal. Good luck my clueless friends.
The next example is the discussion that has been going around the question of creating a united front against the common enemy and whom to include in this tent. I am assuming we all believe that our country is being mis-governed by the TPLF mafia and that we all want to change that. Please bear in mind the current abusers have been in power for twenty years and we have tried different methods to get rid of them. No one can accuse us of not trying. Failing yes, but definitely most have been doing their best to get rid of this cancer. Reasonable people will look at this situation and try to find out why a very tiny minority of criminals have succeeded in routing the many freedom seekers.

Well some are trying to find the formula that will succeed where others have failed. As the concept implies ‘United Front’ means an amalgamation of those that have a common goal and their attempt to find a way to work together. Organizations have a life of their own. They have their own peculiarities, needs, strengths, and weaknesses, and that is why it has been difficult to achieve unity. It is difficult but not impossible. It has been done before by others and they have succeeded. Why are we having this difficulty time and time again? Is our enemy that formidable or are we that dysfunctional? Is this our first instance to try to unite together, or have we done it before? Is our goal so unappealing that we have problems attracting the many, or does our recurring inability and failure turn people off? We have to mull over all of these are reasonable questions and come up with answers so we can move forward.

Some organizations are in the process of working on such issues to come up with answers that will enhance our ability to confront our abusers. It seems like the folks of Ginbot7, Oromo Liberation Front, Afar Liberation Front and Ogaden Liberation Front are in deep discussion to find a common ground. I am sure the TPLF mafia group is not happy with such a prospect. Reasonably so too! The part I find a little puzzling is the anger by those that are supposedly working to get rid of the same Woyane cancer. One would think they will be overjoyed others are getting together to help them in their common quest. It is even rational to think that they will probe ways of becoming part of such group and try to influence decisions in a democratic and equal manner.

True to our character a few organizations are contorting into knots and showing signs of hysteria beyond reason. Some claim to love Ethiopia more than others and are willing to destroy it to save it. A few are purity police and are constantly on guard to avoid pollution by others whoever they are. The Amhara super Nationalists and the Oromo steroid enhanced separatists are the two interesting groups to watch. When you consider it is these two groups that will greatly benefit from the demise of the mafia system, it is sort of difficult to rationally understand their respective hysteria.

For some of us without any ethnic identity other than being an Ethiopian the whole exercise is a little difficult to digest. For a Nation that is as old as the universe, it is a disconcerting to think today’s arrivals who are questioning the work of their forefathers. When you consider the fact that our country was there before others and by all acceptable standards have a set of internationally recognized boundary; why its own citizens are trying to tear that apart is not clear to many. When the current rulers are in the process of holding a garage sale of our fertile land, and when millions of our people are facing the scourge of famine, is this a good time to come together and avoid catastrophe or revert back into drawing imaginary lines on imaginary Oromia, Tigrai or Amhara enclave?
The lesson I learned from the BART incident in our area is that reasonable people do disagree, but reasonable people hold a quiet and balanced discussion to come up with a solution that might not satisfy all, but that has a reasonable chance of being accepted by many. The point of the exercise was not to win at any cost but find a solution that will bring peace and harmony in the community. All the parties were willing to listen to each other’s concerns and addressed the issue in an even handed manner. There were no losers or winners in this equation. Why couldn’t we do that? Why do we allow the nay Sayers and the belligerent amongst us to hijack the issue and define it in such a way that states that either I am for or against it. Can I be left alone to find a common ground where I can work with all Ethiopians to bring peace, harmony and love to all her children? That is not too much to ask, is it?

Please note that this discussion for good or bad is held on a free Diaspora Media. Here we are free to discuss any issue in a respectful and reasonable manner. Here ideas are not feared or censored. Just because I disagree with some, the sky is not going to fall. I believe we all are intelligent enough to decide what is good for ourselves without undermining others. Our people in Ethiopia cannot do that. There is a communications department that decides what people should view or hear. The Ethiopian government spends millions to block, jam or interfere with free flow of ideas. When our children are hungry the government spends money on technology to keep them dead or alive in the dark. A few decide for eighty million people. Being silent about that is acceptance of abuse. It is wrong. Encouraging our independent Web sites, giving what we could to ESAT and keeping an open mind and a positive outlook on the discussion for unity is what our country demands. That is if you care.

4 thoughts on “Ethiopia – In search of a common ground

  1. Selam Yilma,

    I am sure you have good intentions, but if you read what you wrote, you will definitely find contradictions.

    1. It seems to me that you have some personal grudge to the former president, you always address him shaleka, when even those who hate him address him Colonel, for any observer your denial of his status would make you unreasonable. Mengistu has many flows, killer, cruel…etc, but many people look at him in a favorable eye when they compare him with their worst nightmare (Meles), I understand you may not agree with this, but it is not a love for Mengistu, it is a simple comparison. You said he should not even speak, but I would say I would love to hear as much as I can, because I want to understand him more.
    2. The cooperation between G7, OLF, and ONLF can be helpful in the struggle, but some people have reservations when it comes to OLF,and ONLF. The simple fact that these organizations are controlled by EPLF and their clear agenda of doing part with Ethiopia concerns many Ethiopians, are you saying those concerns should not be raised and we just have to believe them? Don’t you think this would be another grave mistake after EPRDF? Did OLF and ONLF come out and say our problems can be resolved if there is democracy in Ethiopia?
    3. Why do you call people with reservations about ONLF and OLF “Amhara super Nationalists, and Oromo steroid enhanced separatists”? (In your own words). Why do we have a culture of labeing someone who disagress with us even with a genuine concern? it may not seem a genuine concern to you, but why don’t you have the stomach to consider it before labeling it?
    4. Why can’t we communicate in a civilized manner, an official from Dire Dawa was asked once “you guys have a habit of saying Mother F**** in conversations, why do you think that is? He answered we do not have that culture who the F*** said this about us? Our conversations all look to follow this model,even when we are trying to begin a civil conversation, it is not really civil, but why don’t we entertain other ideas? SAD.

  2. Yilma, this is a comment long overdue to your other essay about Mengistu.

    you have retarded mind. Mengistu’s memoir was published by none other than EPRDf publishing company. You decry the fact that Mengistu got a space on ethiopian free mdedia. It is this kind of thinking that held back the liberation of Ethiopia from Woyanies. look recent intervuiew of Ayalneh Dessie on ESAT. learn how retarded he is. Woyanie got to power by doing what was poliutocally very incorrect.

  3. Yilma Bekele,
    Thank you for presenting this problem solution observation and relating it to our case. This is very informative and instructive piece, again thank you for taking your time and sharing your first hand experience too our community.

    Some of the difficulties we have within our community as you have pointed out are
    Lack of civility in our descourse.I sense there is a reason for this; For instance, some may have already committed to back a certain political party and may feel they have obligation to defend its cause by all means if they sense a massage is directed against the policy of that party or among its leading figures. Now there is nothing wrong defending the position of their party or the personnel if need be the problem is the attitude, name calling, and the disparaging remarks that comes with it.

    We must understand it may be readily admitted that the Ethiopian opposition is promoting democratic values and aspirations to be a reality in a post weyane Ethiopia.However, we have to admit when it comes putting the matter in to practice we are far from it. There may be various reasons for this condition.

    We are politically divided therefore it will be easy for us to give defense of our organization or our view with the tone that we think is repellant to the opposing view. Although the matter differs from individual to individual yet this is one area all of us need to improve. Concerning this Dr.messay pertinently remarked the following in one of his piece.

    “What I find questionable is the assumption that genuine democratic forces are already ready not only to lead the popular uprising, but also to institute a genuine democratic government. Nothing is more naïve than this assertion: because people talk about democracy and democratic rights, it does not mean that they are willing to implement them. More often than not, elites use democratic slogans to rally popular support while their real intention is to establish their own exclusive power. All political actors in Ethiopia know this: simply, those who risk losing everything are understandably more suspicious than those who aspire for power. Moreover, democracy cannot happen overnight: it requires a protected process of institution-building, culture change, popular empowerment, and confidence building among political elites. As shown by the history of advanced democratic countries, democracy is made of incremental advances, often interrupted by setbacks.”

    So how do we improve? I think your observation how the California (BART) has solved its public grievances gives the best clue. I quote from your piece the following.

    “Public discussions were held to define the problem. Experts in Constitutional Law were called to clarify the issue. BART board of Directors called a hearing to discuss the ramifications. The people demanded clarity. The core issue became”…

    Personally I want public discussion between any of our opposition parties and say OLF, ONLF, Afar Liberation Front way in advance before any opposition party comes and announce that it has already reached agreement with so and so. This is what G-7 just did. I think this irresponsible act on the part of Dr.Getachew and others to come and announce tot Ethiopians that they have already reached agreement with so and so. The Ethiopian people want to be part of the process, they won’t forgive any party or individual who try to shut them out of the process. In fact I put myself on equal footing, at least in one aspect the right to air my view on an issue concerning my country, with the very leaders themselves. The solution is simple. The leaders, specially the G-7, need to humble itself and involve the people in some public forum before they come and announce their decisions .I don’t include UDJ in this category for I have not seen its leaders committing such error.
    Thank you again for this relevant report.

  4. [Abegaz]
    I read your comment above I feel sad to say this about it.You start your comment by insulting Yelma, because he criticized the former derg chairman’s news coverage in Ethiopian sits. You went on to insult Ayalenhe Dessie for his postion on OLF,ONLF.Yo made it clear you are not about democracy, orderly change or even for dialogue between those who hold the stake in Ethiopian politics, you just want every one without any preparation to rise and remove weyane. I clearly see your position although I disagree with your point of view.
    I argue the important thing, before anything else, for Ethiopian opposition is to reach a consensus or find common ground before it embark on any a plan of action to remove Weyane.You see the burning question confronting the opposition is not whether weyane needs to be removed but how do we reach consensus among diverse parties, what contingency plan do we have after the demise of weyane, assuming all things went as planned?
    Remember, too there is a parallel here, in 1974 the Ethiopian people hastily removed the monarchy, because there was no contingency plan on the ground the Military ,of whom col.Mengistu was the central figure, stole the situation .After 17 years of military misrule Ethiopia find itself in current condition. As in the 1974 today too there will be powers that are waiting on the side just to seize this moment and capitalize on it.By all means, a possibility of such opening door need be left unchecked in current situation. I don’t know which political party you support, and what plan you have if ever when you insist to the removal of weyane without adequate preparation and plan.
    Every political party has a stake in the affairs of Ethiopia. All of them need to engage in debate to find common ground to stage a unified struggle against the regime. Also, part of the discussion of this debate should include about peaceful transfer of power in to the hands of the people, and beyond to see the establishment of transitional government. Cursing individuals, and suri bean get yeweta or if you are not with me you are against me type of attitude should not have any place even in our personal life let alone in the border subject nation building of the new Ethiopia.

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