March 17, 2014
But rejection is virtually a carefree venture. There is little strenuous intellectual effort involved. The demanding undertaking lies in the pursuit and nourishment of an alternative consensus. Ultimately, this is where the students failed calamitously. Singularly transfixed with rebellion, and only perfunctorily with its aftermath, they were governed by no moral codes, were disciplined by no hierarchy, and were direly lacking sense of proportion to temper emotions. In this sense, they had no analogue in the Americans or the French. Nor indeed in the Iranians. The Americans and the French were ultimately anchored by nationalism and ingrained identity. The Iranians of course had religion. Having rejected both nationalism and religion, Ethiopian students had nothing durably satiating to replace them with. This was the pristine environment in which militancy thrived. Extremism thus became not a mere idiosyncrasy, but rather the structural building block of the movement. Tragically, what the Ethiopians radicalized was really nothing more than nihilism. The mania was to tear down an existing order. In the end, after the collapse of the imperial order, only a small minority, by now metamorphasized into armed insurgents, had the energy to tread o. The majority was too exhausted to continue, opting for exile and a well-earned rest in the West.
Of [A] multitude of vague memories from my distant childhood, the sense of dread that permanently enveloped my grandmother’s home, where my mother and I lived intermittently after the divorce, still lingers with me. Years later, in the 1990s, I was to learn, rather to my shock, ours was only one of a handful of families in the neighborhood that mourned the fall of Haile Selassie, the diminutive king who had held sway over the nation for over half a century. Initially I thought it was loss of privilege that explained our anomalous. But I know now there was more.
If one word was to render the spirit of the revolution, it would certainly be equality. An inordinate passion for equality suddenly bewitched the public—what in theory could only have meant equality of opportunity was in practice subverted to imply equality of merit. Not even the elderly, the repository of wisdom in traditional thinking, were to be deferred to anymore. The nation’s best and brightest, whose income, lifestyle and manners marked them from the majority, became more subjects of derision than role models. They were no more in vogue. It was time to celebrate mediocrity, to artificially elevate it to a higher podium. This atmosphere endured, with disastrous consequences for the entire reign of the military dictatorship, the guardian of the revolution and still influences the present. It is this pauperization of value that lies at the provenance o fthe national malaise that has numbed the intellectual elite.
To be fair, many nations, including the meritocratic U.S., where guilt-ridden 2008 (2012?) presidential candidate Mitt Romney was bullied for his wealth, occasionally toy with debased populism, but rarely has it persisted with the kind of intensity evident in Ethiopia. It was this slide to debauched populism that distressed grandmother’s household. It was a prescient reserve that anticipated an impending moral morass.
The ultimate failure of the military dictatorship, including its gross human rights violations, is the failure of Communism. But even within the narrow constraints of communism, more was possible. The Soviets failed broadly but compensated with a world-class military-industrial complex. Nothing works in Cuba except health services, one of the best in Latin America. Mao’s China at least liberated a billion plus mass of humanity from worry about its quotidian meals. Ditto for many Communist countries, where a lone bright spot attested to the restrained potential of an oppressed people. But because the principal consensus in post-revolutionary Ethiopia had been an unremitting joy derived from the leveling of society, a culture against exceptionalism gained traction. Blending became the default modus operandi both at the individual and group levels. No distinction was made between superiority stemming from privilege and superiority attained by merit. For a government fighting multiple insurgencies, this was a fatal shortcoming. Unable to build a professional army based on merit, it eventually succumbed not to superior force but to weaker adversaries who had assembled meritocratic fighting machines. It took seventeen years, but there was no avoiding it: grandmother was vindicated. And she lived to see it all. God bless her soul.
Sadly, the implosion of the military dictatorship did not necessarily entail reorientation of national disposition. On the contrary, unlike their less fortunate, American, French and Iranian brethren, Ethiopian students, untempered by outside influence, ascended to power in 1991 and had their nation at their complete mercy. And they did what was unthinkable to everyone but the puritan nihilist: facilitated—nay, promoted—the secession of Eritrea, the heartland of historical Ethiopia. Whether the nation will survive the shock that ensued is still an open question.
But while this is where we are, our future is not predestined. The future is malleable, at least in its mid to long-term facets. This is God’s way of internalizing hope into our existence. And best of all, the age of the students is fading. Consider recent events.
Even in sane democracies, the death of a nation’s leader can be the slow motion drama that it customarily is in autocracies. In contentedly democratic Ghana, where the specter of succession no more bodes the possibility of bloodletting, the president’s ill-health was the state’s most guarded secret. When John Atta Mills finally spoke of his illness, it was to insist of a successful cure. In the spirit of the famous adage, he wanted a return to normalcy. What he lacked, though, was an obliging public. This is Ghana, after all. Cynicism, one could argue plausibly, is a national brand. But in the end, even his deputy and successor, John Mahama, could not help but be caught unawares by his boss’s abrupt transition.
In increasingly Orwellian Ethiopia, the mere mention of the leader’s ailment required a radical departure from an entrenched—and prized—ethos of opacity. The enduringly hapless Ethiopian public does not expect to be told the truth by its government. The absence, not the histrionics itself, would have surprised Ethiopians. Thus only the hopelessly guileless were surprised by the delayed news of the leader’s death.
The paranoia is hardly misplaced. The death of despots has altered the course of national histories scores of times, and sometimes even world history.
One of the greatest empires in world history, that of Alexander the Great, simply collapsed with news of his early death; clearing the path for the rise of the Romans. The inopportune death of Odedai Khan saved Europe from an unstoppable Mongolian invading army in 1241. Had the Mongolians overrun Europe as they did China, world history would have changed beyond recognition. Along with the body of Oliver Cromwell was buried the political prospect of republicanism in 17th century England. Ominously, cautionary tales from local history are hardly in want. The legacies of Ethiopia’s last four kings, stretching from mid-19th century to mid-20th century, have all been marred by lack of continuity. And now there is the instinctive inkling by Ethiopia’s ruling party that history is about to repeat itself. But this time, absence of an enduring legacy awaits not merely a leader or party but an entire generation, the spirited students of the 1960s. Theirs will mostly be a legacy of infamy. To paraphrase Reagan, a legacy meant for the trash bin of history.
Life is tragically short. But only when challenged by a mid-life crisis, or when shock is triggered by illness or accident, does existence’s fleeting status dominate consciousness. How people react to the challenge is a measure of character. The broad motions people go through, however, are well established. There is the initial dazed realization of how disloyally momentary life is, then a reaction abounds, and finally, either stoically or grudgingly, acceptance of the inevitable assumes primacy. Prison has been the triggering element for me. And however exalted, the cause of justice is that has landed me here. I miss you and your mother terribly. The pain is almost physical. But in this plight of our family is embedded hope of a long suffering people. There is no greater honor. We must bear any pain, travel any distance, climb any mountain, cross any ocean to complete this journey to freedom. Anything less is impoverishment of our soul. God bless you, my son. You will always be in my prayers.
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