Published On  Dec 11,  2011






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Reason, Tolerance Hallmark Decent Society


Watching a playwright making a confession on a hidden camera recording in a recent documentary on the national television was like watching a car wreck with a drunk driver. Pity, sadness, and embarrassment were elicited all at the same time.

It was evident that the actor-turned politician was double-dipping in successive regimes without a hint of consciousness. It was a typical example of the unlearned man’s idea of what a smart man should look like.

What is the value of growing old if one cannot learn from the past?

Perhaps courage has lost its meaning in Ethiopia, even at that man’s age. However, the ethics of the recording was eventually judged by the viewing public.

Unlike the protracted and unpredictable challenge of building a new political order visible across the world, an emerging confrontation between those who want to maintain an iron grip under the status quo and those who dream of a more tolerant and free society is evident in Ethiopia. Change has always proved to inflict unbearable costs in lives and resources, as the successive regimes in the country’s recent past attest.

Surely, creating new institutions, a new political order and rules that may not be transgressed by others is immensely challenging. These changes have, in the past, created winners and losers and will continue to do so if politics is considered as a zero sum game where the winner-takes-all.

Change is inevitable, and, hence, a viable question can only be raised about the kind of change, and whether it is incremental or radical.

Ethiopia has a constitution that devolves power to the different regions of the country. Although there is a clear provision on how to deal with separatist movements, the nation still has fronts that are fighting the constitutional order.

Could it be that the centre is still too strong and meddlesome in the affairs of the regions? Or is it because the interest of the losers in the new political order was undermined by the winners who do not want to share the spoils of power and privilege? Is there a space for diverse opinions in the political stage that reflects the diversity of the nation?

If development is to be sustained, the political actors in the field have to answer those questions thoughtfully.

It was only recently that ideological purity caused the death of those whose thought was different from the declared ideology of the state. The undue suffering of their families is a recent memory for most Ethiopians. The state was like a blank canvas, and the intellectuals of the day, who were mostly leftist ideologues, spray-painted the state with many strands of socialism.

One of the then-favorite slogans was, “We shall control not only the bourgeoisie but also nature.” As was evident, autocrats are often so out of touch that they think they can control the rain that pours and the wind that blows.

Even today, there are unhinged ideologues that are like used car salesmen, who try to sell old vehicles that are barely moving as though they were brand new.

In the current political circumstances of Ethiopia, the governing party is in a bind. The revolutionary democrats cannot claim absolute control of the political stage and expect the losers to just evaporate into thin air. In a troubled and complex society like Ethiopia’s, those whose interests are undermined by the new political and economic order are not only going to question the new rules and institutions but will also try to undermine their success in every possible way.

If there is no political restraint from the winners, marginalising the losers will have an unpredictable cost. This is just a fact of politics. A political system that is inclusive of those who lose influence can sustain a more comprehensive political reform that can be insulated from popular resistance.

It is important to ensure that people are not trapped into believing that the solution to existing political problems lies in creating the havoc that destroys civil discourse. It is also clear that foreign enemies of the state might use any appearance of internal fracture to destabilise the state.

It is also vivid that the dominant party has intentionally narrowed the political space for peaceful dissent. Spill over effects are showing up in those who can be exploited for purposes other than the love of country.

The Revolutionary Democrats used to be considered subversive revolutionaries at one time. It is not clear why they should be offended if a new generation of idealists criticises and questions their intents. Neither is it justifiable if they end up being the only players in town.

In principle, reason and tolerance are the hallmarks of a decent society. They diminish when those in power try to strong-arm their critics.

In the end, arrogance may be better than ignorance, and one may prefer overconfidence over incompetence, but the folly of the former may be worse than the later. An uninformed public may be easy to manipulate, but the day that they figure out the game, their intuition will be up. Surely, those who think that people never wake up to solve the jigsaw puzzle often have a bad surprise coming.  

BY Mesfin Tekle

Mesfin Tekle is a resident of Toronto, Canada. He works as a derivative specialist and has visited Ethiopia four times in the past five years. He can be reached at



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