In Defense of Prof. Mesfin W. Mariam
By Tebeje Molla (PhD)
March 26, 2018
We live in a time of extraordinary change. In liberal democracies and illiberal authoritarians alike, tribal politics has become a prevalent feature. In Ethiopia, political aspirations of ethno-nationalists and civic nationalists seem to be set in a parallel universe. As time goes by the intersection point of these two lines of political positions becomes a distant mirage. The situation has been further complicated with the emergence of a new wave of Amhara nationalism.
I am not here to deny the existence of Amhara as an ethnic group or to judge the importance of Amhara nationalism. In fact, my reaction is that of repentance. In the last 25 years, the Amhara people have been a victim of hate and violence from those who are in power (namely TPLF) and those who seek power (namely OLF and its new breeds). Hence organising the Amhara people around a common cause/or identity to defend itself is a commendable mission.
However, what is worrisome is that at the moment ethno-nationalists have increasingly become political zealots who would attack anyone who appears to stand on their way. Even worse, their preys are advocates of civic nationalism who wish to see the triumph of citizenship politics over ethnic/tribal politics. The latest victim of this army of vendetta is the country’s lone public scholar, professor Mesfin W/Mariam – a fearless human rights champion who has fought against three generations of tyrants and has been speaking the truth to power.
A couple of days ago, this giant scholar restated his opposition to the emerging trend of ethnicization of the Amhara people. The response of the distractors was predictable and yet shocking. They immediately rushed into dehumanising him and trashing his dignity. They threw all the insults at him. The savagery of the group is meant to frighten him off – and to deter anyone from raising legitimate questions on the future of the Amhara people and the country in general. For them, Ethiopian nationalism is inherently antithetical to Amhara nationalism. As such, prominent figures in the first camp (including Mefin W/Mariam) are enemies of the movement. This is a dangerous representation that needs to be challenged. Here I outline five reasons to specifically defend professor Mefin W/Mariam:
By its very essence, politics induces those who work in it to focus their attention on short-term issues that have a direct bearing on the next elections instead of on what will happen a hundred years from now. It compels them to pursue group interests rather than the interests of the human community as a whole, to say things that please everyone […], to treat even truth itself with caution.
In their public performance, public intellectuals always stand between loneliness and alignment – that is what we learn from the lives of James Baldwin, Randolph Bourne, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and so on. Nonetheless, to expand our intellectual resources, we should defend free thinkers from unjustifiable attacks of zealots and ፊደላውያን (to use prof. Mesfin’s word).
The intellectual is neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made cliches, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to s ay, and what they do. Not just passively unwillingly, but actively willing to say so in public.
By virtue of his/her training, commitment and responsibility, the intellectual is in a better position to critique societal ills, and reimagine the transfiguration of political systems and cultural practices. The role of the public thinker is to ‘observe and interpret’ society. In his introduction to Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, former Czech president and playwright Václav Havel sees real intellectuals as the ‘conscience of society’ who would hold up “a much-needed mirror to politics and power”.
Relatedly, his reluctance to define the Amhara people as an ethnic group emanates from his unyielding commitment to civic nationalism. For a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as Ethiopia, civic nationalism is a viable political arrangement because it accommodates all those who pledge to a defined political creed – regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or language. This principle does not undermine the existence of ethnic identities though. The formation of the British nation-state does not reduce the Scots or the Irish into non-existence. As renowned Canadian scholar of nationalism Michael Ignatieff states:
[Civic] nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values. This nationalism is necessarily democratic, since it vests sovereignty in all of the people.
More often than not our political debates are void of substance, and quickly devolve into violence. The proponents of ethnic politics seem to be in a state of deep disillusionment regarding the truth-value of their arguments. It is evident that they suffer from a loss appetite for facts and rationality. It is hardly possible to engage with them in a productive debate on matters of collective interest. My own intermittent attempt to discuss with people in the ethnocentric camp proved to be futile. There is a rush to name calling and labelling. They hate to be confused with the facts – to use a well-known The New Yorker cartoon caption, their motto is: “I say it’s spinach and the hell with it”.
In closing, it is counterproductive to mercilessly attack those who dare to challenge our taken-for-granted assumption and to question our world of appearances. It only extends our misery in the hands of opportunists and tyrants. When Mesfin W/Mariam gazes on our collective lives, he does it with intent and intensity. His intellectual engagement is essentially anti-authoritarian, both in political and cultural senses. Who would benefit from silencing such a thinker? We cannot achieve freedom for others while we live within a lie.
The writer, Dr Tebeje Molla, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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