Ethiopia, Save Yourselves as One People
So a while before I wrote this, BBC World just gave maybe five to seven minutes to the 166 reported dead so far from the violent protests. A smart, young Ethiopian reporter, Zecharias Zelalem, presented the facts without bias and as candidly as possible, pointing out that free and open journalism isn’t being allowed to operate in the country. He did his best. And because it’s damn television, of course, there was no effort on the producers’ part to ask him proper follow-up questions and get to any depth. The whole segment ended on an easy throwaway of “ethnic violence.” Terrific. How enlightening.
I’ve offered this anecdote before, and I’ll tell it again. For three miserable months in 2000, I worked in London for a major network, during which I wrote up a quick story to go with video about conflict diamonds in Sierra Leone, and a white English producer said to me , “Don’t tell me why the Africans are fighting, just show the Africans fighting.”
I promise you, I guarantee you, that is how it will be done again. The Western media will come with their cameras and their boom mikes, and they will shake their heads and mutter with solemn condescension what a tragedy it is that the Africans are killing each other and can’t get along. And then they’ll move on. They’ll check in on Syria. Or follow up on the Rohingya in Myanmar. Or go to the next bloody circus that’s captured their interest.
I write books. I used to do journalism, but never really got far in the big leagues of it, and it’s way more fun writing books. I wrote one about Ethiopia, and for the most part, Ethiopians in their own country and in the Diaspora like what I wrote. It is wonderful to be recognized in a restaurant over appearing in an old documentary, or having people rush up to me, excited that I wrote Prevail. There are those who say, “We should give you honorary Ethiopian citizenship!” and I thank them and joke, “Would it come with a villa and pension?” And I’m only half-kidding because hey, most writers are poor. And it is a beautiful country.
But it’s not my country, so I should keep my mouth shut most of the time. How you take care of your internal affairs is your own business. But —
Say you’re on a street. You see down the block someone ranting and whipping a mob into a frenzy, telling people to go burn down a neighbor’s house. And then you see the mob march up the road, ready to set that house on fire. But you don’t live on that street. It’s not yours. Do you speak up? “How dare you! It’s not your street! Go mind your own business!”
It would be ludicrous, wouldn’t it?
So now the whole block is an inferno. Flames rising up, consuming everything, smoke blackening the sky.
Even as I started this piece, someone fired off, “I am actually from that country, so I can’t opt out of my interest in what goes on there, which you can at your leisure.” And in this, they’re not wrong. In the middle of some stupid and petty comments, they spoke one singular truth. I can turn my back. I can switch off the TV set. I can ignore the news.
But the flaw in their logic is that in the rest of their criticism, they wrote, “Speak the whole truth or say nothing.” In other words, Be useful as a sock puppet for my version of the truth or shut the hell up. Nope. Sorry. Not buying it. If I’m a privileged poser for one version of the truth then I’m just as privileged for all the other versions.
Yes, you can be a hypocrite by being a “day rebel.” But if you truly, sincerely call for peace, even for one minute, that is constructive. It has to be. Far better than screaming threats and demanding one ethnic group dies.
The only thing that matters is do you care what I think? If not, click away. If vaguely interested, let’s carry on.
People write to me or say, “My God, we don’t want to be another Rwanda.” And they have no idea how apt their comparison is.
It’s important to recognize that with Rwanda, you can blame the Belgians for a lot. During their colonial regime, they forced Hutus and Tutsis to carry identity cards and stacked education and work opportunities in favor of the Tutsis. This isn’t to say there weren’t ethnic rivalries before, but the Belgians actively stoked these resentments, and then as independence approached, the Belgians began favoring the Hutus. It didn’t matter at all that the two peoples had much in common culturally. When the genocide happened, the Western media declared, “Oh, it’s an old tribal conflict.”
And I hear you say, but Ethiopia has never been conquered. Absolutely right. I can shout that to the rafters. I say Occupation, I don’t say or write “conquest” or the other erroneous BS you find in old books and even a few new ones. I hate that inaccurate nonsense. But the sad thing is that what colonial powers accomplished over a couple of hundred years in ripping other nations apart in the rest of Africa, the system of ethnic-federalism managed to do within Ethiopia in only a few years. Congratulations, you’re the Balkans. Remember how well that went after the breakup of Yugoslavia?
And it’s insane. As this columnist points out, “the Prime Minister is Oromo; the Defense Minister is Oromo, the army chief is Oromo, and the main capital city’s leader is Oromo.” Do I agree with everything he’s written? No, and he uses the loaded term “tribe” casually in a way that makes me want to cringe, but that’s a minor quibble.
But… I know that trying to rewrite history on how the region was settled and by whom doesn’t help the conversation or anyone’s case. I know that Menelik had partial Oromo ancestry, so those who post on social media on how he was a genocidal monster, etc. need to read more. Was he an imperialist? Of course — it was an empire (duh). He was the Emperor. We can dig into that all you like, and perhaps we should but in a proper calm, historical discussion with properly cited sources.
But… Do Oromo have genuine grievances? I know that Amhara, Tigryans, everyone ought to be talking in part about this.
But… I cannot believe that ordinary Ethiopians of other ethnic backgrounds would be all right with this or even know the full extent of it themselves. What a horrible thought. So maybe start the conversation going on that, too. And even this wouldn’t justify the calls to lock people in their houses and set them on fire.
The fact of the matter is that the peoples of Ethiopia over time have mixed together and blended so much that you’d think folks would be past this kind of self-destructive shit. Apparently not.
You literally have an Egyptian academic and el-Sisi hack now licking his chops and loving this internal conflict, laughing in delight in the mistaken notion that it will help his country over GERD, churning out lie after lie after lie after lie about Ethiopia, claiming he’s in contact with anti-government forces, but of course he’d “never” help them! (Only it’s awfully useful for him to publicize their alleged existence.) He loves this.
Yes, seriously. Your true enemy is loving this. And I’m not calling Egypt the enemy. Ethiopia and Egypt will have to work out their differences one way or the other to keep the peace. I’m calling partisan, divisive, propagandist cretins your enemy. And when the dust clears, and the bodies are getting buried, he’ll move on to his next target where he can cause trouble, because individuals like this don’t even care about their own nation, only about their own advancement.
I’m calling those who demand the “extermination” or the “burning” of anyone your enemy.
I’m saying hate is the enemy.
You came together as one people long ago — twice — to kick out the true enemy. First at Adwa, then years later in 1941.
You came together as one people when the Kagnew Battalion fought bravely in the Korean War.
You died as one people when psychopaths under the Marxist Derg went on their rampages of slaughter, rape and torture. Would you like to hear from the witnesses? Because there are those still alive who recall those dark days, who can tell you Amhara were murdered. Tigrayans were murdered. Oromo were murdered. Stop by the Red Terror Museum and look at the trays of skulls and bones and see what crop is sown from intolerance.
This atheist, your pale, white cousin, is saying to you, people of faiths — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. — people of different backgrounds — Amharic, Oromo, Tigrayan, Afar, etc. — that calling for the extermination of one people just leads to another museum with trays full of bones. Or worse, a landscape of waste, with no marker at all.
And I promise you the cameras will come with their hungry, unblinking eyes, and the correspondents saying, “Oh, the shame of it. What a beautiful country Ethiopia once was...”
Your nation is one of the leaders of Africa. Lead Africa again now. As one people. Please.
Sure, it’s easy to dismiss what I have to say, because yes, I’m privileged and not one of you and far away. But how sad and horrible it will be if when I come back it is to write another history of your nation, about these terrible days, and your children and grandchildren say to me, “Why didn’t anyone speak up? Why did they let it get that far?”
What answer should I give them?
I don’t want to write that book.