Commentary: The pitfalls of Ethiopian elites’ war of narratives

Commentary: The pitfalls of Ethiopian elites’ war of narratives

Caption: “The elites with the loudest voices use low-trust and high-reach communication mediums like Facebook, Twitter and other social media to peddle their own facts and pursue their own agenda.”
Graphic design: Addis Standard

Shimelis Mulugeta Kene, PhD &

Solen Feyissa, PhD

Although seldom framed and understood as such, the current political conflict in Ethiopia has its roots in disagreement among the elite on how to narrativize Ethiopian history.

Addis Abeba, September 30/2020 – There is an enduring disunity among Ethiopian elites
regarding its history and future. Informed by its long, and contentious
multi-ethnic history, and fueled by recent shifts in the political landscape in
the country, a war of narratives has been reignited. As we explain in this
article, the narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed
“Pan-Ethiopianists” and “Ethno-nationalists”. The spillover effect of this
increasingly toxic debate has had a negative impact on the lives of everyday
Ethiopians and continues to destabilize the country. Indeed, narratives
surrounding ethnic identities and ethnic politics in Ethiopia is the one thing
that demands the most attention. As it stands today, the way and environment in
which the debate is occurring, and the actors involved in it indicates we may
be approaching a threshold that cannot be uncrossed.

Nation-building narratives in the Ethiopian body politic

is a contested process of narrative construction. In his book, Imagined
, Anderson reminds us that nations are
“imagined political communities”. Common to all political communities is a set
of beliefs in unifying narratives about community special characteristics.
These narratives provide explanations to the participating individuals and
their leaders what make their community unique, especially when compared to
others. Nation-building in the Ethiopian context follows a similar

with the burden of justifying maintenance of the Ethiopian state and their
place at the top, Ethiopian rulers of the past relied on religious texts and
edicts of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Written in the 14th
century, the Kibre
, or “Glory of the Kings”, provided detailed
accounts of the lineage of the Solomonic dynasty—the former ruling dynasty of the
Ethiopian Empire—according to which Ethiopia’s rulers were descendants of King
Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It told the story of Ethiopia and Ethiopians as
God’s people; a chosen people. It declared: 

The people of Ethiopia were chosen [from]
among idols and graven images, and the people of Israel were rejected. The
daughters of Zion were rejected, and the daughters of Ethiopia were honoured;
the old men of Israel became objects of contempt, and the old men of Ethiopia
were honoured. For God accepted the peoples who had been cast away and rejected
Israel, for Zion was taken away from them and she came into the country of
Ethiopia. For wheresoever God is pleased for her to dwell, there is her
habitation, and where He is not pleased that she should dwell she dwelleth not;
He is her founder, and Maker, and Builder, the Good God in the temple of His
holiness, the habitation of His glory, with His Son and the Holy Spirit, for
ever and ever. Amen.

the 12th
century text Fitiha
, or “Laws of the Kings”, served as the
country’s oldest traditional legal code. The Fitiha Negest insisted that
kings must receive obedience and reverence. It justified the Kings’ power using
scripture, specifically the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 17:15,

Thou shalt in any wise set him king over
thee, whom the Lord thy God shall choose: one from among thy brethren shalt
thou set king over thee: thou mayest not set a stranger over thee, which is not
thy brother.

rulers used these texts to justify the state’s existence and their own power.
But more importantly, as much as Americans take the Declaration of Independence
as their founding moment, the Kebre Negest provided a similar “origins”
story, albeit a contested one. For Ethiopians, while Fitiha Negest
served as a constitution of sorts by laying out a minimal set of rules that
bound the Kings and their subjects. As such, the Kebre Negest and the Fitiha
could arguably be taken as the most important founding texts of the
Ethiopian state.

1700s witnessed an emergence of a new political structure where disparate
noblemen usurped power away from Emperors of the Solomonic dynasty and began
ruling over their own regions, a period known among Ethiopian historians as Zemene
, or Age of the Princes, named after the Book of Judges. In 1855, Emperor
Tewodros II
, born Kassa Hailu, rose to the throne after
defeating regional noblemen. He recognized the need for a newer narrative that
was closely aligned to his vision of Ethiopia as a modern, forward thinking
nation. In line with that vision, his first step was to separate Church and
State, shift its narrative and establish the state on a more secular
foundation. To do so, he needed better educated Ethiopians, and thus began an
elite-led nation building process. His efforts however did not bear fruit due
to fierce internal opposition driven largely by disgruntled clergy, who,
fearful of losing their own privilege and power, were unappreciative of his
radical ideas.

rulers of Ethiopia mended the “glitch” and followed the path that almost was
dismantled by Emperor Tewodros II, and, as a result, the Ethiopian Orthodox
Church remained inseparable from the Ethiopian state, and, with that, the state
narrative. That, however, changed with Emperor Menelik II assuming the throne
in 1889. Although the historical Ethiopia dates back to millennia, Emperor
Menelik is widely considered as an architect of the modern Ethiopian state. His
epic defeat of the Italian colonial power at the Battle of Adwa added another,
if not stronger, element to the myth of God’s-chosen-people identity to Ethiopians
and the Ethiopian state. As the Ethiopian historian Bahru Zewde recounts in his
book Pioneers of Change, eager to modernize Ethiopia, Menelik sent
Ethiopians to Europe and the U.S. for higher education. Unlike the
church-educated elites that preceded them, these early Western-educated
Ethiopian elites broke with tradition and became critics of the state. It may
be argued as such that Emperor Menelik could be credited with spearheading the
creation of a new intellectual-elite class and with bringing the same to the
center of state politics. Unbeknown to him, with that he laid the groundwork
for the creation of a new elite class that would later challenge the very
essence of Ethiopia as a nation state.

Walleligne and the birth of Ethno-Nationalism

When Emperor Haile Selassie rose to the throne in 1930, he
was acutely aware of the shortage of educated Ethiopians to build Ethiopia’s
nascent civil service and bureaucracy. In order to fill in this gap, like his
predecessor, he sent many Ethiopians to Europe and the U.S. for higher
education that in the words of Jon Abbink produced “a generation of daring, innovative intellectual
leaders and thinkers”. However, sadly many of these intellectuals were
annihilated by the Italian colonial power in the late 1930s. This loss of its
brightest left post-war Ethiopia with deep psychological scar and decades of
stagnant time devoid of social and political change. With the founding of the
University College of Addis Abeba in 1950, the future Haile Selassie University
(now, Addis Abeba University), Emperor Haile Selassie’s dream of producing
educated Ethiopians amass finally came true.

196o’s is when the role of Ethiopian intellectuals in the country’s politics
probably got its most consequential phase. Starting in the 1960’s, with the
backdrop of broader social unrest, university students started to oppose Haile
Selassie’s single-man authoritarian rule and the oppressive socio-economic and
cultural structures within which the students said the Imperial government and
its predecessors functioned. They demanded rights and freedom. It was until a
more radical wing of the movement sprang that, concurrent with the more mundane
demand for reform, started to question the very essence of the Ethiopian state
as a nation. Compared to the reformist intellectuals of the previous
generation, Ethiopia’s newly minted intellectuals displayed impatience and
lacked foresight in their calls for radical social and political reform. Jon Abbink might not be far from the truth when he observed these
intellectuals’ “wholesale adoption of unmediated Western ideologies and
abandonment of Ethiopian values” had had “quite disastrous consequences.”

influential short essay written by Walleligne Mekonnen—who at the time was a
second-year political science student at the university, and who was later on shot
and killed along with fellow activists while attempting to hijack an Ethiopian
Airlines flight–titled, “On the
Question of Nationalities in Ethiopia

became a founding text of the radical wing of the student movement. In his
essay, Walleligne argued that “Ethiopia is not really a nation” but rather
“made up of a dozen nationalities with their own languages, ways of dressing,
history, social organization and territorial entity.” However, this reality,
according to him, was suppressed by the ruling class. Instead, a “fake
Ethiopian nationalism” that is based on the linguistic and cultural superiority
of the Amhara and, to a certain extent, the Amhara-Tigre, was imposed on the
other peoples of Ethiopia, resulting in asymmetrical relations among the
“nations” of Ethiopia. Therefore, according to Walleligne, the Ethiopian state
came to be through the linguistic and cultural assimilation of the peoples of
the wider South by the North—the Amhara and their
junior-partner-in-assimilation, the Tigre. And, that this project of
constructing Ethiopia was aided by the trinity of (the Amharic) language,
(Amhara-Tigre) culture and religion (the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). He was, of
course, echoing arguments Stalin, Rosa
and others made about nations, nationalism
and self-determination. Stalin, for example, lays out his thesis in Marxism
and the National Question
, as
does Rosa in The
Right of Nations to Self-Determination

thus called for the dismantling and replacement of this “fake [Ethiopian]
nationalism” with a “genuine Nationalist Socialist State” that he argued could
only be achieved “through violence [and,] through revolutionary armed
struggle”. To be sure, Walleligne did not see “secession” as an end in and of
itself; nonetheless, he propagated it as a means to building the future
egalitarian Ethiopian state, with the caveat that such secession should be
rooted in and guided by “progressivism” and “Socialist internationalism”. He
closed his essay with what may be considered prophetic: “A regime [Haile
Selassie’s government] like ours harassed from corners is bound to collapse in
a relatively short period of time. But when the degree of consciousness of the
various nationalities is at different levels, it is not only the right, but the
duty, of the most conscious nationality to first liberate itself and
then assist in the struggle for total liberation.” Haile Selassie’s government
did collapse in 1974.

movement, spearheaded by the intelligentsia as it were, was hijacked by the Dergue
– a collective of disgruntled low-ranking military officers in the imperial
army – that not only succeeded in overthrowing Haile Selassie’s government, but
also in ruling Ethiopia with an iron-fist for the next 17 years. But, the
political and armed struggle for “liberation” continued. It was in this
atmosphere of radicalization of the intellectual-elite class that discourses
like “liberation” and the “oppressor-oppressed” took hold in the Ethiopian body
politic and a plethora of liberation fronts mushroomed: the Eritrean
Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF, 1962)—that succeeded in seceding Eritrea from
Ethiopia in 1991—the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF, 1966), and the Tigray
People’s Liberation Front (TPLF, 1975) to name but the most important ones. Dergue’s
17 years in power was marred by the bloodiest times in Ethiopian modern
history, the Red Terror, and a border war with Somalia (1977—1978) and, more
importantly, the protracted civil wars with TPLF, EPLF and OLF. 

17 years of armed struggle, the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Front (EPRDF)
defeated the Dergue and controlled Ethiopian state power in 1991. EPRDF
was a coalition composed of the TPLF, The Amhara National Democratic Movement
(ANDM), the Oromo Peoples Democratic Organization (OPDO) and the Southern
Ethiopia Peoples Democratic Front (SEPDF). It should, however, be noted that it
was only with victory in sight against the Dergue and a desire to expand
its sphere of influence beyond Tigray, that the TPLF formed the EPRDF in 1988.
Otherwise, the actual power holder within the coalition remained TPLF.
Consequently, the EPRDF introduced the 1995 constitution. Adopted in the
immediate context of the post-Cold War, in a way that reflects the politics of
constitutionalism and especially the shrewdness and pragmatism of the man
behind it, the late Meles Zenawi, the constitution was a compromise between
TPLF’s deep-rooted Marxist-Leninist ideological moorings and the post-Cold War
euphoric triumphalism of liberal constitutionalism and human rights. So much so
that the constitution declares the inviolability and alienability of human
rights and freedoms emanating from the nature of mankind. However, as his
building a de facto one-party state would later reveal, this was a move
that seems to have been motivated more by placating the West than a genuine
desire on the part of Meles’s EPRDF to champion the causes of human rights and
democratic values.

constitution divided Ethiopia into nine ethno-linguistic states that -with the
exception of what is called the Southern Nations and Nationalities Regional
State-are based on the ethnic identities of residents of those states. Most
importantly, the constitution grants the “Nations, Nationalities and Peoples”
within those states the unconditional “right to self-determination, including
secession”. In other words, rather than with a people, sovereignty
resides in a plurality of peoples of Ethiopia. It is these peoples that
came together to form Ethiopia and they are the custodians of Ethiopia, from
which they have the absolute right to secede if they so wish. That way, the
constitution replaced the age-old notion of Ethiopia as a nation with an
Ethiopia as a “nation of nations”. “What are the Ethiopian people composed of?
I stress the word peoples because sociologically speaking at this stage
Ethiopia is not really a nation”, so said Walleligne almost quarter of a
century before and it came to be through the 1995 constitution. 

then on ethnicity became a determinant factor and dominant political currency
in the Ethiopian politics, bringing with it, in the words of the late Donald
Levine of University of Chicago, an “epidemic of ethnic and regional
hostilities”. In addition to changing the way the country organized itself
politically, EPRDF also sought to reframe the very foundation of what it means
to be an Ethiopian and how Ethiopia itself came to be. Not unexpectedly, EPRDF
targeted schools and educational institutions in particular as spaces where new
narratives of Ethiopian history could be inculcated, so much so that Ethiopian
universities became flashpoints of ethnic conflicts among students.
Walleligne’s abstract, and as he himself admitted in his writing, incomplete,
idea found a home in the curriculum. With this entrenchment of a “new” history
of Ethiopia and a generation educated in the new curriculum and the alienation
of “pan-Ethiopianism” from the Ethiopian body politic, it seemed that the “old
Ethiopia” had died and been buried. But, as the 2005 Ethiopian election showed,
a pan-Ethiopian party called the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) almost
clinched power in major cities and rural areas if it had not been suppressed
and finally expelled from Ethiopian political landscape. In fact, it was that
election that gave the close to two decades-long ethnic politics championed by EPRDF,
a real challenge and, more importantly, sowed the earliest seeds of the revival
of pan-Ethiopian politics.

The unlikely emergence of Abiy Ahmed as Ethiopia’s premier: The re-emergence of Pan-Ethiopianism?

Zenawi – the ex-guerrilla fighter who, as a Prime Minister, was reported to
have made authoritarianism respectable – died in a Belgian hospital in 2012.
Although political pundits thought in Meles’s absence Ethiopia would plunge
into crisis immediately, his successors managed to stave off social unrest
until protest rallies started to emerge in the Oromia region following the unveiling
of the Addis Abeba Master Plan in April 2014. Months of sustained protests
resulted in hundreds of deaths and even more people being imprisoned. However,
the draconian measures did little to slow the protests. The EPRDF government
eventually backed off from its aggressive actions against protestors and
shelved its ambitious master plan, but it was too late. The protest had picked
up steam and expanded to several other regions, including the Amhara region.
Protestors demanded rights, representation, and economic justice. Tellingly,
these protests erupted a few months after EPRDF claimed to have won 100% of the
2015 elections and only months after President Obama praised the government as
being “democratically

TPLF-led EPRDF government could not sustain its political power. In the
backdrop of a fierce intra-party scuffle, in April 2018, Abiy Ahmed, son of an
Amhara mother and an Oromo-Muslim father, and a member of the OPDO, ascended to
power. With his promise of leading Ethiopia through transition to democracy,
Abiy immediately began introducing a plethora of reforms, including inviting
home all opposition parties and appointing some prominent public figures to key
positions within his government. These and many other earlier reforms won him
almost universal support from Ethiopians and the international community. In
2019 he won the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering a peace-deal with neighboring
Eritrea, ending a two-decade long stalemate, following the 1998 border war
between the two countries that claimed more than a hundred thousand lives.

the indisputably positive changes, he introduced and results achieved, Abiy’s
Ethiopia also saw its most turbulent years in recent Ethiopian history,
including internal displacements, violence that claimed the lives of
hundreds—including the murder of the brother of one of the authors of this
article, an attempted assassination on the premier himself, high-profiled
assassinations, and skirmishes with a splinter military wing of the OLF, Oromo
Liberation Army (OLA) in western and southern Oromia region. There also is the
ongoing tension with TPLF—whose top leaders are now in their stronghold Tigray
region—that has the potential to erupt into a full-blown war with the federal
government or the bordering Amhara regional state. Abiy’s recent decision to
postpone the August national election due to COVID-19 has further destabilized
the country and put in tatters his promise of transitioning Ethiopian into
democracy. Further complicating Abiy’s agenda of stabilizing the East African
nation is the tension with Egypt in relation to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance
Dam (the GERD) and broader geopolitical issues.

It was
amid this ongoing turmoil Abiy established the Prosperity Party at the end of
2019, which brought together three of the four major parties that constituted
the EPRDF as a coalition and five other smaller parties, considered within
party circles as “allies” to the EPRDF. Based on his vision of national unity
among Ethiopians that he calls medemer, which literally means “coming
together”, this re-branding of EPRDF was meant to stave off the ethnically
divisive politics and address ethnically motivated conflicts that engulfed the
country during EPRDF’s 27 years in power. This seemingly mundane action,
however, did not sit well with everyone and it brought to the surface a dormant
issue for the last quarter of century in the Ethiopian formal political scene,
namely: how to historicize Ethiopia. There is now an all-out war of narratives
among Ethiopian elites on the history of Ethiopia.

The war of narratives 

narrative war is fought between adherents of what we have termed
“Pan-Ethiopianism” and “Ethno-nationalism”. The ethno-nationalist camp takes
Walleligne’s thesis as accurate representation of Ethiopia as a nation of
nations. As we have noted, in mainstream Ethiopian history, Emperor Menelik is
considered as the architect of the modern Ethiopian state. He is especially
credited with expanding the Ethiopian empire to the South from his Northern
strong-hold of Shoa. To the outside world and to Ethiopians alike, his epic
victory over the Italian colonial force in the Battle of Adwa is widely
celebrated as a key moment in Black anticolonial consciousness. In stark
contrast to this picture, in the ethno-nationalist discourse, Emperor Menelik
figures as the archenemy. To the ethno-nationalists Menelik’s supposedly
mundane “state-building” endeavours were marked by violence, forced assimilation
and suppression of cultures of peoples of the South, especially the Oromo.
Echoing Walleligne’s thesis, they insist that rather than a nation built on the
consent of the “nations, nationalities and peoples” of Ethiopia, Ethiopia is
imposed on the wider South through conquest, violence and assimilation by
Ethiopian rulers of Amhara, and to a certain extent, Tigre extraction. In their
view, rather than an inclusive multicultural state, Ethiopia is made in the
image of the Amhara and the Tigre.

to the contrary, those in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp embrace the historical
Ethiopia and adhere to the idea of Ethiopia as a nation-state. While not ruling
out the presence of violence, they reject the “empire thesis” of the
ethno-nationalists and hold that Emperor Menelik was just engaging in
state-building when he conquered and brought the wider South under his Imperial
rulership. In the Pan-Ethiopianist narrative of Ethiopia, the assimilationist
and imperialist expansion of Emperor Menelik and his predecessors to the South
is a normal historical process inherent to state building. There are also some
within the Pan-Ethiopianist camp that insist that Emperor Menelik did not
actually conquer and control “new” territories, but only “re-claimed”
territories that hitherto were parts of the historical Ethiopia. There are
still those in this camp that argue that it is in the nature of an empire to
conquer peoples and rule over lands, and hence there is nothing anomalous about
Emperor Menelik’s deeds.

surprisingly, many in the Pan-Ethiopianist camp saw, at least in the beginning,
Abiy’s formation of the Prosperity Party as a move in the right direction with
a potential to dismantle the current “ethnic-federalism” – that adherents of
this camp hold is the root cause of the cycles of conflicts and other problems
that the country faces – and eventually realize a unified Ethiopia, albeit
federalist. Quite to the contrary, the move did not sit well with the
ethno-nationalist camp, the TPLF in particular, openly opposing this merger as
“illegal” on the ground that all constituent parties of the EPRDF should have
consented to the dissolution of EPRDF and the merger. The Oromo activists in
particular see in this merger and Abiy’s other reform agenda a return to the old
Ethiopia, in which they argue Oromos were culturally and linguistically
alienated by the Amhara-Tigre elites that in the past had a monopoly on state
power. The recent murder of Hachalu Hundesa, a prominent Oromo singer, and the
steps the Ethiopian government has taken in the aftermath of his death, they
posit, solidifies their claim that Ethiopia has no room for the Oromo people.

Social Media and narratives of hate 

elites’ reach and impact has expanded as the means of information sharing and
consumption has expanded. It is no more the traditional intellectual-elite
class that engages in the production and dissemination of information that
advances knowledge. Unlike the closely-knit intellectual class of earlier
times, the debate now has a diverse body of actors: activists, political party
operatives, and, as oxymoronic as it sounds, intellectual-activists. The elites
with the loudest voices use low-trust and high-reach communication mediums like
Facebook, Twitter and other social media to peddle their own facts and pursue
their own agenda. Social media as it exists today rewards absolute claims,
purity, good and evil binaries, and unequivocal declarations of truth that
leave little room for compassion, reasoning, careful interpretation, and nuance.
Fueled by algorithms that favor combustible content, social media companies
orchestrate human interaction that lead individuals to maintain extreme
positions and be adversarial towards one another.

emerging Ethiopian elites in both camps have harnessed social media in ways
that have yielded extraordinary influence and power over political discourse
that directly and indirectly affects the lives of everyday Ethiopians. They
recognize their charisma is more significant to their audience than the contents
of their speech or the quality of their argument. Name calling, and ad
attacks, are their currency and they invoke current and historical
grievances, and narratives of superiority to stoke fear and anger.
Unfortunately, the narratives these elites broadcast are not without
consequences. There is a correlation between recent violence in Ethiopia and
the supposed adherents of these narratives. 

makes the dangers of the deep division between the two camps as the recent murder of the renowned Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundesa. This
incident has clearly shown their tendency to see and interpret any and every
incident or issue in ways that support their respective narratives. Unfortunately,
as is quite common in the post-truth social media age we live in, it is as
though elites in each camp use—no matter what facts on the ground
dictate—different truth-filters. So much so that, immediately after the news of
Hachalu’s death surfaced, with no evidence at their disposal, elites in each
camp took to social media and started to speculate who might have shot and
killed the singer, and expectedly, started to point fingers at each other. In
the ethno-nationalist camp, a conspiracy started to circulate that claimed the
killing was orchestrated and carried out by “neftegna” and statements like “They killed our hero”
reverberated around social media followed by wide-spread Oromo protests in
Ethiopia, Europe and North America. On the other hand, in what appears to be
due to Hachalu’s pro-Oromo nationalistic political views, in the
Pan-Ethiopianist camp there was either a deafening silence, and, some even
suggesting that the killing was a result of intra power-struggle among the
Oromo elite politicians who just “sacrificed” Hachalu for their own politically
calculated ends. Amidst the confusion and unsubstantiated claims floating
around, even some media outlets broadcasting hate-filled messages, violence erupted in the Oromia region, which claimed the lives of
over 200 individuals, the displacement of thousands and property damage.

If anyone in either camp is insensitive enough to bring havoc
to Ethiopia, or even worse, to sacrifice precious human lives in pursuit
of political ends or to prove a particular narrative of Ethiopia, then the
debate is not so much about liberation and freedom as it is about ideology or
some other ends. As Edward Said chastises us,

the standards of truth about
human misery and oppression [are] to be held despite the individual
intellectual’s party affiliation, national background, and primeval loyalties.
Nothing disfigures the intellectual’s public performances as much as trimming,
careful silence, patriotic bluster, and retrospective and self-dramatizing

We shouldn’t also lose sight of the fact that, while not denying that there are genuinely invested
individuals and groups of actors in each camp, there are still many in this
“war” owing to other factors that have little or nothing to do with a genuine
concern for Ethiopia and everyday Ethiopians. The harsh truth is that this is
not just a debate about history, identity, or self-governance. It is also, if
not more so, about elites’ drive for resource monopolization and the prestige
that comes with power and other factors external to the debate. 

government, like the EPRDF before it, is attempting to limit internet access,
especially to social media, to quell recent unrest. The government’s desperate
act to avoid future incidents like these are understandable. Expanded internet
access to all, in theory, at least, is a positive development in the right
hands. And it would be misguided to argue that the broadening of access to free
speech that has been made possible through social media is wrong or
detrimental. The detriment, actually, is with the unchecked nature of social
media. As well, the absence of meaningful fact checking and understanding of
local knowledge among social media companies make it possible for
misinformation to spread easily. 

Whither Ethiopia? The way forward

As we
noted initially, nation-building is a contested process and the path to
consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult
to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse as
Ethiopia. This has become a singularly arduous task especially now that a
generation of Ethiopians have grown up in an EPRDF Ethiopia, who are more and
more alienated from actual inter-ethnic-lived experiences of Ethiopians of
present and past generations. It is also naive to expect the debate to remain
even-tempered. Emotions can run high as communities attempt to reconcile their identity
and group status as they negotiate the meaning of their shared history with
others. However, prerequisites to making meaningful progress are high-trust
communication mediums, shared facts and shared goals. At the moment, the
opposite appears to be true. 

side accuses the other side of positing totalizing narratives, but there is a
glaring absence of willingness on both sides to engage in reasoned debates with
each other leaving no room to explore the authenticity and truthfulness of
alternative narratives. What is worse, social media being the dominant medium
of communication—which thrives on disagreements and antagonism—it is even
questionable if such engagement is possible, or even the intended goal. It is
not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media.
Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it
is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of
it, careful analysis and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of
intellectuals— are disincentivized. 

To use Edward Said’s words, “aggrieved primal innocence”- owing to past or present perceived or actual violence – or a sense of self-righteousness are the least of positions to start a debate on a history as long and contentious as Ethiopia’s and a process of nation building, which has been made even more complicated with the divisive ethnic politics of the last 28 years. Nonetheless, even if we disagree on where we started and how we got here, we could at least agree on where we are heading. To be sure, it may still be argued that we would not know where we are heading if we do not know where we started. That may very well be the dilemma we might have to learn to live with and, even the right place to start the debate. But denialism, lack of empathy, and cancel-culture are the last traits we should carry into this debate not only because people’s lives, but also the future of Ethiopia as a state, are at stake. Good faith debate based on shared facts and shared goals are required if the historical Ethiopia is to survive another century. AS


Editor’s Note: Shimelis Mulugeta Kene, Ph.D., is a human rights and legal scholar. Dr. Kene received his Doctorate in Civil Law (DCL) from McGill University where he studied as an O’Brien Fellow at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism and LL.M (Hons) in International Human Rights from Northwestern University. He can be reached at

Solen Feyissa, Ph.D., is an academic technologist at University of Minnesota. Dr. Feyissa’s work in ICT for education strive for balance between humans, technology, and the environment. Solen is a frequent collaborator on international projects in a wide range of fields and disciplines including education, communication technologies, and development. An avid photographer, his photos have appeared in national and international publications including Vice, Yahoo! News, and MIT Technology Review. You can connect with him on Twitter: @solenfeyissa.

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