By Shiferaw Abebe
Deeply religious, Ethiopians historically trusted each other. They reserved suspicion and caution to strangers, outsiders, and in many cases as a defense mechanism to minimize risks; those that are close and familiar were believed and trusted readily and wholeheartedly.
That changed when the Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), a profoundly secretive organization, took power in 1991. Before this entity reached the capital, Addis, the vast majority of Ethiopians didn’t know its name let alone its agenda. Twenty-six years later, Ethiopians are still puzzled about its inner workings and thought processes. They are suspicious of every bit of its activities because they are afraid it has a “grand scheme” kept hidden within its inner circle.
This level of distrust is unmatched even by internatinal standards. It certainly didn’t exist in our modern history; even under the brutal Derg regime, Ethiopians had a pretty clear understanding of the nature and inner workings of the Derg because it did what it said it would do, good or (mostly) bad.
Over the years, TPLF’s answer for the trust deficit has been causing more of it and spreading it far and wide. It kept the two largest ethnic groups at odds with each other by skillful manipulations, by creating and fanning misgivings, lies and deceptions, even by hiring mercenaries to manufacture incidents that could instigate conflicts and bloodsheds between members of the two ethnic groups.
It created a one-to-five spying web throughout the country, in big cities and tiny remote villages alike, turning ordinary citizens into informants on their neighbors and their colleagues. It dispatches operatives as priests, prostitutes, and beggars to spy on opposition figures, EPRDF officials, business owners, and ordinary citizens. It infiltrates opposition parties to sow discord and mistrust within their ranks eventually splitting them and rendering them weak.
This depraved schems did work beyong TPLF’s own imaginatin, so much so that we now have a very distrustful culture not just toward the regime but toward each other. Nothing is no more taken at face value. Ethiopians, including opposition parties, which one would think would know better, spend a whole lot of time figuring out each other’s “motives”. The natural tendency to trust and count on one another is gone, perhaps not to comeback intact even if TPLF goes away.
TPLF has altered the psychology of a nation in a time span of one generation.
This is therefore the psychological backdrop of the recent Oromo-Amhara conference in Bahir Dar and how it is analyzed and interpreted by people from different sides. The massive conference, organized by the presidents of the two regions, included Aba Geda’s, elders, authors, intellectuals, singers, and politicians on both sides (250 from Oromia alone). By its sheer size, one has to believe the conference was in mind, if not in the works, for months; my own guess is the idea of the conference must have originated during the State of Emergency which essentially incapacitated the two regional administrations for ten months, whch in turn further damaged their relationship with the federal government and, in the end, eroded the federal government’s control over these two regions and their leaders.
There was another another significant event is Bahir Dar that preceded this conference by a few weeks in which, in a defining gesture of Oromo-Amhara solidarity, some 200 Oromo youth crossed the Abay River to help fight the invasive weed that is chocking the Tana Lake. Before TPLF, no one would have given that event much attention, but knowing what happened in the relationship between the two people in the last 26 years, it was a spectacular scene to watch the Oromo youth who were born and/or grew up during this same period, shatter the psychological wall of TPLF’s kilils and claim the Tana Lake their own – Tana kegna, Oromo kegna, Amhara kegna, they sang with their Amhara compatriots!
Yet, thanks to TPLF, suspicious hearts prevailed; many wondered if the trip was orchestrated by TPLF for some hidden agenda, because Ethiopians are convinced that TPLF would not allow such opulence of goodwill and brotherhood and sisterhood between the two people it worked for 26 years to keep apart unless it has something to gain.
Coming back to the Bahir Dar conference, the keynote speeches by the two presidents, Gedu Andargachew and Lemma Megerssa were mind blowing. Like the acts of the Oromo youth, they were a clear rejection of the divisive past and a repudiation of the agents of division that drove a wedge between the two people to the point of staking the unity of the country.
Gedu said the problem of hate and alienation is not inherent to this group or that group; it is inherent in the political system that fosters a hate environment. He didn’t pronounce it but the name of that system is ethnic politics crafted, fine-tuned and operationalized by TPLF.
But no one came close to Lemma Megerssa in poise and eloquence. He said the Ethiopian people are like ‘sergegna teff’, virtually impossible to separate, adding, Ethiopiawinet is an addiction, a description I am sure writers and singers will borrow into the future. I don’t believe he used these expressions glibly to arouse emotions. I believe he meant them.
There were times in the last 26 years when I thought what kept Ethiopians together was geography. I now have a better explanation; it is an addiction to Ethiopiawinet, which follows them wherever they go. Diaspora Ethiopians do two things commonly: as soon as they attain a critical mass, they create a community association and they form a congregation to worship their creator. This is uniquely Ethiopian; no other people look for each other or commune with each other as much as Ethiopians do. We may fight at times, say the wrong things to each other, but we have time and again proved to ourselves that we cannot live away from each other. Because Ethiopiawinet is an addiction, as Lemma put it. We come back to each other for our fixes – in our hugs and warm smiles, in our humors and sensibilities, in our food and music, in sharing our despairs and uplifting hopes for our common motherland, in our Ethiopiawinet!
Now that Lemma and Gedu have done all the good, comforting talk, which in itself is quite audacious, the question arises if they are resolved to walk the talk from here on? Or is it being naïve to expect much from them when we know they are basically a product of the current system; knowing that they didn’t get where they are today – presidents of the two biggest regions – without being loyal to the current regime? How can one hope let alone trust these two to challenge the system in a credible and practical way?
We will not know for certain, but this is not about folding our hands and trusting those within the system to bring the change we all want. But now is the time to lend goodwill, to begin to fill the trust gap and reach out inside and outside the system, to create a broader coalition to expedite the demise of the TPLF regime, to minimize the risks, and smoothen the transition into a new, better future.
This is not also just about the two officials. There is already a significant pressure from behind them, by their party members and the people broadly, to move in the direction they are moving. But I also think Gedu and Lemma understand and appreciate the reality in front of them. Ethiopia’s current state is pretty precarious with the TPLF regime losing its grips and engaging in desperate acts.
I also hope Lemma and Gedu understand their immense capacity, the resources of their respective state machinery that they can use to mobilize their constituencies to frustrate TPLF’s reckless measures to hang on to power even if it means causing deadly damages to the very fabric of the country.
The course of history changes because, sometimes, people who are part of the status quo choose to take a different course by joining change agents . Choices, more than history, define the future. And choices are available to everyone at every moment. Now is the moment of choice for Gedu, Lemma, and many others like them to side with the Ethiopian people and birth a new country whose people are not diced and sliced by what language they speak or which region they come from but one that promotes and celebrates its rich diversity, ensures equality and prosperity to all within a unified and dignified whole.
By Shiferaw Abebe