Ethiopia’s Political Problems Reside in Its Mythological National Identity

Ethiopia’s national identity that is inspired by mythological stories and weaved from spiritual articles of faith is the origin of her indomitable spirit to protect her from enemies foreign and domestic. But this comes with detrimental consequences.

Dr Yonas Biru – Opinion Analysis

Ethiopia is mentioned in numerous verses of the Bible and the Quran. Ethiopian Christians insist their homeland is the Mecca of Christianity where the Arc of the Covenant is housed. Their Muslim brethren believe the first Islamic call for prayer was made by a man who was originally from Abyssinia (modern-day Ethiopia). In Greek mythology, King Memnon, a king of Ethiopia, was considered to be superior of all the Greek heroes, except for Achilles. Greeks mythology also suggests Ethiopia was where the gods lived when they were not in Greece.

Such is the venerated spiritual and mythological Ethiopia that resides in the minds of the contemporary Ethiopian elite. Whatever mythology and theology have not covered, Ethiopian historians used their imaginative mind to further bolster their nation’s position in world’s history of war and peace. Elias Wondemu, the CEO of TSEHAI Publishers, challenged the “eurocentric narrative of world events” that puts Europe at the center of the first and second world wars. He argued: “Ethiopia is where the two world wars began and where the third is brewing.”

Religion, mythology and historical aggrandization of a nation’s importance have served pivotal roles in human history in fostering social cohesion and building strong nations. However, as nations advanced through time, the notion of the sovereign God in nations’ polity gave way to the sovereign Man, which required the separation of religion and politics. In due course, rational dialogue reined over mythological and historical fantasies and consensus-building replaced dogmatic articles of faith as the guiding principles of political governance. This was the age of enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries – a phenomenon whose seeds are yet to be sown in the 21st century Ethiopia. Ethiopia, a nation with 13 months of sunshine, continues to live in perpetual darkness.

Why has Ethiopia Failed to Produce Thought Leaders and Nation Builders?

Ethiopia’s national identity that is inspired by mythological stories and weaved from spiritual articles of faith is the origin of her indomitable spirit to protect her from enemies foreign and domestic. But this comes with detrimental consequences.

Ethiopia’s contemporary elite’s thought process is driven neither from an enlightenment of thought, nor guided by the light of reason. Instead, its mindset is built by extrapolating its spiritual and mythological narratives in perpetuity, making spirituality and mythology constant features of its identity. Such an identity is not prone to adopting new ideas and reconciling emerging differences in views.

The consequence has deprived Ethiopia of the ability to develop a deliberative conflict resolution culture and redemptive character. Ethiopia’s modern-day elite still relies on endogenous conflict resolution methods such as the Gedaa system borrowed from the 16th century Oromo culture to resolve 21st century political problems. This has proven futile akin to fitting a square peg in a round hole.

In the absence of a robust conflict resolution system, matchets, guns, bazookas, and tanks have become Ethiopia’s political lingua franca, making mutual destruction it’s social contract for conflict resolution. Such a culture brings to the fore conflict entrepreneurs and alienates thought leaders and nation builders.

The Current War Between the Federal Government and Tigray Regional State

As parochial as the Ethiopian elites outside of the Tigray region maybe, their parochiality pales in comparison with that of their brethren Tigrayan elites. Tigrayans believe what is often touted as Ethiopia’s glorious past is the history of the civilization of the Axumite empire to which they lay monopolistic claim as a sole heir. They say the empire ruled a vast land of nations outside of Ethiopia and Eritrea, including much of the present-day Egypt, as well as parts of the Middle East and Europe. Further, they claim Axumite coins served as international currency, much like the US dollar is today.

A prominent Tigrayan Professor at Michigan University gave a lecture stating the philosopher John Lock’s (1632-1704) influenced the US Declaration of Independence (1776). He suggested Tigrayan philosophers were ahead of John Lock. Added to this is the spiritual and mythological identity of Ethiopia which they insist originated from the Tigray region.

Great civilizations have come and fallen off the cliff without a trace, over the millennia of human history. The Axumite civilization is no different except in one peculiar way. Tigrayan elites feel entitled to a historical IOU that is redeemable in today’s Ethiopia to put them at the apex of Ethiopia’s political pecking order. They want to institutionalize their Axumite heritage as a sine qua non to reenact a 4th century political privilege in the 21st century. It was this Quixotic quest for reviving a long dead thing that the Tigrayan elite plunged the nation into a catastrophic war.

The war was further complicated by the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) involvement, though marginal its impact proved to be. The Oromo elites have their own bone to pick. They see Ethiopia’s history as the history of the Oromo Gedda system, and they want to establish this. In a one-upmanship competition for spiritual and mythological supremacy over Ethiopia’s national identity, Professor Ezekiel Gebissa, asserted the first man that God created was an Oromo and he was made of water and not of dust as Genesis 2:7 suggests.

The Ethiopian Elites Push to Continue the War

The senseless war that the TPLF imposed on Ethiopia shows how a parochial elite class, an unquenching thirst for historical glory, and Ethiopia’s lack of conflict resolution culture conflated and formed a perfect storm of destruction that nearly disintegrated one of the oldest nations on earth. Though the war has lulled due partly to a relentless international pressure and partly to the heavy loss that the TPLF sustained, the humanitarian crisis remains unabated.

Despite the incalculable humanitarian and economic catastrophe, the war has wrought, the Ethiopian elite was disappointed by the federal government’s decision to halt the war. Its disappointment turned into full-blown fury and fire when the government released former TPLF leaders who were captured and imprisoned after the war started.

The elite at home and abroad saw the government’s “treasonous” action as a precursor to peace talks and negotiated settlement with TPLF. Dozens of diaspora organizations called for rescinding the government’s decision and demanded the complete destruction of TPLF to an atomic level – to a point where they cannot be destroyed any further.

Throughout the war, Tigrayan elite exhibited similar behavior. When TPLF was winning, they called for the complete destruction of the Ethiopian army. When the TPLF was on the receiving end, diaspora Tigrayans descended on American and European main streets and laid belly up in sympathy protest. Some rolled in the dirt faking agony. Others spasmed their bodies as if they were in death rattle to display a dramatic reenactment of the death and mayhem of Tigrayans. The moment TPLF rebounced, they retired their reenactment project, dusted themselves up and started calling for the total annihilation of the Ethiopian army. Their street endeavor continued in alternative cycles of calls for war and peace, following the turn of events in the war theater.

These are the warring elites with yester-century’s frame of mind and Twitter accounts that have given us the present-day Ethiopia.

 Beyond the Geographic Proper of Ethiopia

The negative consequences of Ethiopian elite’s parochial culture are not confined within Ethiopia. The nation’s ability to be a part of the global community is impaired by them.

Globalization is not only an economic phenomenon but also a political one. Evidence abound that it comes with enormous economic benefits, not least to smaller and poor countries. It also comes with downsides particularly in the political realm as it undermines the concept of absolute sovereignty and spiritual national identity.

Whether Ethiopia likes it or not, global powers will intervene in its affairs because what happens in Ethiopia impacts the Horn of Africa and beyond. The US led international intervention in the current war between the federal government and TPLF set off an uproar in Ethiopia. The intervention that proved to be myopic and partial in favor of TPLF gave the parochial elite “material evidence” for its paranoic outlook. Consequently, the Ethiopian government retreated into a virtual reclusion, leaving the international public diplomacy arena to TPLF and its’ hired lobbyists.

The public diplomacy vacuum the Ethiopian government created was filled by the diaspora’s #NoMore campaign. Diplomatic dialogue in high offices of foreign ministries gave way to noise making and traffic blocking street protesters. “Stay out of our internal business” became the rallying cry for the #NoMore social media and street diplomacy.

Reflecting Back  

Looking down the historic lane brings to focus two phenomena. The first is that Ethiopian kings in the 19th and the early 20th centuries routinely settled conflicts and wars through negotiated settlements to avoid bloodshed and economic calamity. Over the last half a century, no conflict has been settled through peace talks or negotiations. The question is why?

One explanation is that, in recent times, the costs of wars and conflicts are mitigated by international aid. The hundreds of thousands of TPLF militia and special forces were fed by international food aid. Over 400 UN aid trucks were converted to TPLF military convoy. The Ethiopia government that spent billions on the war front continued to receive billions to fill its budget gaps, despite the symbolic inconsequential sanctions. Directly or indirectly the war was financed by the international community. So will be the costs of reconstruction projects.

In contrast, external financing and international food aid were not available to 19th and early 20th century kings. The costs of war were borne by them and their subjects. The very existence of their thrones depended on averting catastrophic wars and conflicts. Negotiations and settlements were part of the war and peace calculus.

The second phenomenon is that there were times Ethiopian kings submitted to the hard realities of global power imbalances. Emperor Menilik, who defeated a European power and kept Ethiopia out of the clutches of colonialism, was a consummate pragmatist. He avoided confrontation and settled for a second-best diplomatic solution when the first-best option was out of his reach. The 1902 treaty that he signed with Great Britain that pretty much gave the colonialist a hegemonic power over the Blue Nile River is an example.

Once again, the salient question is why has the current generation failed to realize the wisdom of pragmatic and creative diplomacy? The answer is simple. With the advent of globalization and the proliferation of the information age, the world has increasingly become an integrated global community. Consequently, the concept of absolute sovereignty has increasingly seceded, and international interventions have progressively gained legitimacy and global currency.

The new global order conflicts with the DNA construct of Ethiopia’s spiritual purity and mythological identity. Professor Al Mariam, an Ethiopian American, headlined the conflict as “Clash of Civilizations: Ethiopia and the US at a Cross Road.” He has no doubt that Ethiopia will win because “God is with Ethiopia.” For outsiders, the sentiment that the colorful professor espoused may appear fringe or even a theatre of the absurd. For Ethiopians he is a revered epitome of the mainstream psyche.

 Looking Forward

Sub Saharan Africa is the poorest region in the World. Ethiopia is among the poorest in Sub Sharan Africa. According to the World Bank, Ethiopia’s GDP per capita in 2020 was $936. This is 60 percent less than the average for Sub Saharan Africa. World Bank data further shows, in 2014, per capita electric power consumption for Ethiopia was 69 kwh (kilowatts hour). The corresponding figure for Sub-Saharan Africa was 487 kwh. To put the figures in perspective, the average for the world is 3,128 kwh and 12,994 kwh for the US.

The Ethiopian elite uses Ethiopia’s spiritual and mythological identity as anesthesia to numb itself from the pains of its nation’s abject poverty and its peoples’ never-ending misery from famine, war, and disease. The colorful and hallucinating ones among them see the mythological and spiritual Ethiopia as the leader in the global fight against colonialism, imperialism, and neo-liberalism. This gives them a sense of purpose and moves their mind away from the miserable condition they have put their country in. The gods of misery will continue to bedevil Ethiopia until she addresses the source of its problem. Ethiopia’s maxim should read: “It is the Culture, Stupid!”

On the international front, the #NoMore movement seems to have ebbed, giving way to a stealth #YesMore diplomacy. This is plenty encouraging because Ethiopia’s geopolitical real-estate can be harnessed to finance its development, following South Korea’s path. This requires developing a multifaceted strategic diplomacy along with savvy communication ecosystem supported by lobbying powerhouses.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed needs to be a reliable and predictable partner in the geopolitical theater. Global powers tolerate a geo-political country whose policy they do not always agree with than one that is unpredictable. The Prime Minister must rise his administration’s diplomatic skills to the level that his nation’s geopolitical importance demands. This requires appointing seasoned and experienced foreign minister officials and retiring his mythology-dispensing and spirit-stirring parochial advisors.

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