Pathologizing Political Dissent in Ethiopia

By Messay Kebede

I am surprised that the Woyanne regime does not see how unfailingly the shameful propaganda machine unleashed to discredit Yenesew Gebre’s political message is bound to fall flat. The attempt to describe his self-immolation as the act of a mentally deranged person and the recourse to testimonies of alleged close relatives of him to back up the accusation, while exposing the vicious methods of the regime, do absolutely nothing to tarnish the political message of Yenesew’s heroic self-sacrifice.

Doubtless, both mental sickness and despair can induce suicidal behaviors. But the real issue here is that such behaviors are associated with personal disorder, distress, or misfortune. More importantly, as personal setbacks, they inspire forms of death that are quick and covert, such as hanging, jumping from height, wrist cutting, drug overdosing, or drowning. The motivation behind such acts is to end a life out of control or judged intolerable. What is missing is the social dimension, that is, the sacrifice of life for the purpose of expressing political protests. Indeed, even when despair is caused by political adversities, the person who chooses to commit suicide by hanging or drowning himself/ herself is acting more as a quitter than a protester.

Not so with self-immolation for the defining reason that burning oneself to death is a public and dramatic act and a form of death that is most painful. The choice of a public stage is clearly associated with the intention to protest or send a message related to a common concern. Unlike the desperate person, the purpose is not to escape distress by ending one’s life, but to use the sacrifice of life to make a political statement. Death is not here an exit, but an instrument to advance a common cause. That is why, unlike other forms of suicide, self-immolation is very rare: let alone despair, even insanity would not be crazy enough to opt for this particularly excruciating type of death. Self-immolation contains a selflessness that can only take us to the higher realm of human devotion.

A contrast with suicide attack further brings out the specific nature of self-immolation. What they have in common is the sacrifice of life for the common cause; where they differ is in their attitude to the use of violence. Suicidal attackers want to cause harm to their enemies, while death by self-immolation causes extreme pain and demise only to the person committing suicide. This absence of harm to others likens self-immolation to hunger strikes, the huge difference being, of course, that hunger strikes rarely end in death and are motivated by the prospect of obtaining some concessions, whereas self-immolation is inspired by the resolution to die and does not expect concessions.

If self-immolation is not driven by the prospect of extracting concessions, what is, then, its purpose? Since death is not used as an exit, both the fact that it is a public act and an excruciating form of death should deliver the purpose. While the choice of a public place attests to the involvement of a common cause, the selection of a very painful death is obviously designed to arouse an emotional response. The public scene of an individual burning himself/herself to death can only arouse outrage. Equally noticeable is the fact that the outrage soon changes into shame: those who watch it or hear about it feels the guilt of their own resignation and cowardice. All face this simple but terrible question: how do we let this happen? At the same time, however, they feel the galvanizing effect of self-sacrifice for the common cause. In other words, by choosing a terrible death, the hero exhorts his countrymen to overcome their fears, thereby reigniting the symbolic meanings of fire as purification, passion, and renewal.

Given the above characteristics of self-immolation, the Woyanne attempt to discredit Yenesew as mentally unstable can hardly produce the intended effect. For, even if (and this is a huge if) we assume that Yenesew was a mentally deranged person, the fact that he chose self-immolation refutes the attempt to empty his death of its political meaning. That he set himself on fire outside a public meeting hall is by definition a political act and a protest, regardless of his mental state.

To be sure, Yenesew would have preferred hunger strike or any other method of public protest to self-immolation. But the truth is that he had no other choice than suicide, given his certainty that the Woyanne regime would not have allowed him to engage in any form of peaceful protest. His endeavor would have landed him in jail, and so made him unable to protest. That the regime has reached the point of not offering any other form of protest than suicide tells a lot about the uphill battle that the nonviolent opposition faces in Ethiopia.

Perhaps Yenesaw may have contemplated the other option of becoming a suicidal attacker. However, though the option was indeed available to him, it would have required an organization and a planning that he may not afford. Most of all, in light of his self-immolation, he would have missed his main intention, which is to cleanse Ethiopians of their fear by provoking their outrage.

What is one to say of a regime that offers no other form of protests than self-immolation? I read in the attempt to demean Yenesew the overriding goal of the regime, that is, the resolution to stay in power by all means. I also read the fear of a popular insurrection. What is more, the attempt reveals the deep contradiction of the regime: though it stays in power by repressing its people, yet it wants this same people and the world to believe that protests in present-day Ethiopia emanate from insanity or terrorist groups. In short, such protests are so bizarre and uncommon that they must come from insane persons or marginal and sectarian groups.

The strategy of presenting opposition as the position of negligible groups, as opposed to the 99 percent of the people that are happy with the regime, is indeed the abyss of contradiction. So presented, political dissent becomes abnormality, the work of sociopaths or deranged people opposing a popular government. This belief that the regime represents and defends popular interests, in addition to betraying the prevalence of Stalinist thinking, shifts insanity from Yenesew to the regime. As I have reiterated in previous writings, the reasonable road to a lasting and win-win alternative for all is the agreement to a grand coalition, not the path of criminalizing or pathologizing political opposition.

(Prof. Messay Kebede can be reached at [email protected])