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BOOK REVIEW: Tower in the Sky by Hiwot Teffera

By Selam Beyene, PhD

Following the publication of Hiwot Teffera’s widely acclaimed book, Tower in the Sky (AAU Press, 2012), several reviews have been posted in the Internet and other media, both by government propagandists [1] and others in the Diaspora and elsewhere, see, e.g., [2] and [3]. In this commentary we provide a brief elucidation of how the historical significance of the bona fide message of the book is wickedly tainted by apologists of the ethnocentric regime in power in Ethiopia, and the extent to which a totalitarian regime can go to corrupt historical records for the sole purpose of legitimizing subjugation and repression.

In the literary world, it is a long-established tradition to opine on, express approbation of, or accentuate misrepresentation of facts in the works of others, with a view to advancing a trend of thought, promoting the sharing of knowledge, enhancing the development of a discipline, or bestowing due credit upon the originator of the work. This is generally done in strict adherence to time-honored protocols for critical reviews that have universal allure, regardless of culture, ideology, language or other pertinent persuasions. One exception to the rule often tends to be the practice in totalitarian regimes, where knowledge generation is tolerated to the extent that it is in the service of the ruling elite and the illuminating endeavor of critical reviews is coercively consigned to those mundane tasks performed by paid propagandists.

In democratic societies, seldom is this medium of literary interaction distorted for the illicit purpose of advancing a personal agenda or promoting odious political and ideological objectives. In the singular cases where this happens, the culprits invariably are either individuals of blinkered disposition or those who have indifference to academic integrity or established norms of civilized discourse.

Before we delve into the central themes of some of the reviews by apologists of the ethnocentric regime in Ethiopia, it may be fitting to recognize the contribution of the book to the growing body of knowledge about a turbulent era and an enigmatic generation in the history of that country.

To most Ethiopians who were witnesses of or participants in the tumultuous events that the author so vividly and eloquently narrated, the book conjures up painful memories of a traumatic epoch that was simultaneously defined by unparalleled idealism, youthful gallantry, government brutality, aborted dreams and an insidious disillusionment.

To the generations that came after the harrowing period and grew up under successive dictatorships, the book is permeated with latent messages that the youth, as an engine of social change, have an immutable responsibility and the duty de rigueur to altruistically challenge repression and injustice. Further, the book mesmerizingly underpins the venerable truism that the struggle for freedom is arduous and not without cost, and that in a struggle for freedom there are often unintended consequences. Most importantly, it ominously, but divinely, promulgates the ethereal message that the sacrifices paid by the golden generation would be in vain only if the youth of our time failed to carry and advance the torch of freedom passed to them by their forerunners.

A book about a fateful period in the history of a country is likely to engender angst, apprehension and introspection in a number of disparate circles — and this seems to be the case with this book. To those players who share responsibility for the miscalculations of the EPRP that led to the catastrophic collapse of the party, and who now cohabit with the current tyrants, the book has provided several outlets to vent off indignity and discomfiture. To others, who had played prominent roles in the struggle of yesteryear, but now have closed their eyes to the continued injustice against the very people they had fought to liberate, the book appears to offer an affirmation of their egotistical thinking that, having paid their dues as naïve youngsters, no cause at the present is worth dying for, and that they are justified in turning their backs to the prevailing tyranny.

To the ethnocentric dictators in power, the book indubitably is a double-edged sword that needs to be managed with care and prudence. On one hand, the potent lesson that the current generation can learn from the experiences of those gallant young boys and girls, who selflessly fought a vicious dictatorship with the lofty goal of liberating their people and establishing a utopian state, is a dangerous phenomenon that must be nipped in the bud. On the other hand, the graphic description in the book of the vicious measures taken by the brutal government of the Derge to suppress the popular movement can now complement the scare tactics the Woyane propaganda machinery has effectively used as a means of silencing and thwarting any semblance of resistance to the atrocious dictatorship in power.

It is, therefore, in the above framework that the reviews of the book posted by various individuals should be scrutinized and evaluated. Understandably, most of the reviewers shower the writer with well-deserved accolades for her literary fineness, extraordinary faculty to reminisce detailed events of the era, and cogent elucidation of the follies of the EPRP leadership.

However, a few of the reviewers tended to jumble propaganda with historical facts, sycophantly embellishing the records of a dictator and, hence, contravening basic tenets of critical reviews of a book of this nature. Among the latter category belong some apologists whose brazen remarks were so contemptible as to manifestly put to shame even those in power they are trying to flatter.

In one instance, for example, one reviewer [1] wrote a scathing castigation of the EPRP for lack of tolerance of dissent and excessive measures against dissenting members, while praising the late dictator, Meles Zenawi, for his exemplary leadership before and after imposing his vicious ethnic agenda over the people of Ethiopia. This, is of course, a deliberate act of misinformation and a despicable transgression of the fêted literary tradition. In his haste to praise his masters in the guise of a literary exercise, the reviewer has expediently ignored the shameful and bloodthirsty history of the TPLF in which numerous acts of violence were perpetrated by the dictator and his party against their dissenting comrades, both during and after the formative years of the ethnic-based party. Indeed, based on credible accounts of those in the know, the crimes committed by Zenawi and his party have few parallels in their viciousness in the annals of totalitarian organizations.

In another vain attempt to posthumously paint a larger-than-life picture of the late dictator, that same reviewer made perhaps one of the most egregious statements ever made about Zenawi’s role in the student movement of the era. While there is no denial of the early ambitions of the dictator, and his efforts to get visibility as an immature sophomore, it is emphatically and utterly preposterous to suggest that he was ever elected as a congressman to the University Students Union of Addis Ababa (USUAA). His failed campaign to represent the students in his constituency, if anything, revealed early signals of his arrogance that later became his trademark of unstatesmanlike deportment.

The dishonorable reviewer also bestowed upon Zenawi the credit of granting freedom of expression to the people of Ethiopia, unlike the predecessor, Mengistu Haile Mariam. In point of fact, there is no misapprehension about the brutality of the latter; however, it is a travesty of commonsense and a defiance of basic human decency to anoint Zenawi and his party as defenders of basic human rights. In essence, Mengistu’s Derge and Zenawi’s TPLF are two sides of the same coin. As has been repeatedly remarked, both regimes are vicious dictatorships, whose only differences lie in the approaches they follow to suppress the basic rights of the people of Ethiopia. One major divergence between the two is that the TPLF, under the guise of fighting terrorism, enjoys the full support of the West as it hones and perfects the machinery of oppression contrived by the Derge to harass, intimidate and subjugate an entire nation. The reality is that even the recent issue of the U.S. State Department Country Reports was unable to conceal the fact that, in 2012 alone, the TPLF regime had arrested more than 100 opposition political figures, activists, journalists, and bloggers. No reasonable person could deny the imposition of severe restrictions on civil society and nongovernmental organization activities, thanks to the draconian Charities and Societies Proclamation issues by Zenawi’s repressive regime. No human being with an iota of decency would write about the existence of freedom expression in Ethiopia in the face of the continued detentions of journalists and bloggers in the likes of Eskinder Nega and others on trumped up charges. Tragically, this is an example of the dreadful use of a form of literary exercise as an instrument of state machinery designed to misinform, inhibit flourishing of ideas and promote horrendous and venomous ethnic ideology.

“Tower in the Sky” is a veritable monumental contribution to our understanding of the sacrifices paid in those auspicious years with a vision to establish a system of government where individual freedoms would be respected, everyone would enjoy the equal protection of the law, and all citizens would have the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As one admires the intensity with which the writer conveys the true essence of the revolutionary fervor that swept the country at that time, one cannot help but express one’s disenchantment in the lack of interest, on the part of many surviving members of that generation, in the present predicament of the people of Ethiopia. It is indeed mindboggling how any member of that generation who once demonstrated superhuman fits and discipline in their formative years to build a just system, would turn blind eyes to the appalling abuse of human rights by the current regime. Can the follies of a handful of EPRP leaders justify the condoning of the atrocities being committed by the present rulers? Unlike the struggle for personal success, from which one can walk away in the face of adversity, there can be no turning back in the search for justice and liberty. Only hypocrisy, hedonism, vanity and egoism would explain the motives of a person who dithers about a noble cause he or she once embraced. And, there is no cause that is nobler than fighting for justice, equality and freedom; and there is no action that is more pusillanimous and reprehensible than turning away from such a cause on frivolous ruses.

At a time when there is much to be learned from the experience of those momentous years in the search for a solution to the present crisis in Ethiopia, anyone who focuses only on the blunders of EPRP leaders as a central theme of any treatise about the upheavals of the time should be either a political neophyte or a baleful minion paid to prolong the Woyane ethnocentric totalitarianism. Centuries ago, Plutarch observed: “To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future.” Plutarch’s observation is especially germane in the struggle for freedom and justice in Ethiopia — a struggle that requires persistence and continued sacrifice to liberate the people from a pernicious manacle of totalitarianism. Parties rise and fall, and ideologies flourish and perish. However, the lofty ideal of liberating men and women from the yoke of tyranny and authoritarian rule is an absolute dictum that cannot be cloaked in a patina of relative expediency. If there is any message to be drawn from the events of those extraordinary years, or any exposition of them such as “Tower in the Sky”, it is the need to organize, inculcate discipline in the youth, raise awareness of the dangers of ethnic-based totalitarianism, and extol the inviolability and sublimity of paying the ultimate sacrifice for the cause of justice, equality and freedom.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]


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