Better to Light a Candle than Curse the Darkness
By Tecola Hagos
May 20, 2013

I. In General

Much is going on in Ethiopia if just one considers events taking place in these last two weeks.  As usual I stay glued to my set watching Ethiopian news and documentation on ETV.

Even with my built-in reservations on this state run TV, I still remain captivated by the ETV news and documentation portraying dramatic change that is taking place in the new Ethiopian administration, a reality that seems to elude the scrutiny of very many Diaspora Ethiopians.  It is tragic to read essays of people who should know better still writing as if Meles Zenawi is alive and there is no change taking place in the new Hailemariam Desalegn’s administration.  In saying thus, I am not blinded by may own overwhelming desire to see Ethiopia progress in all aspects of human endeavors and as a result only see pieces of my own imagination for the reality out there in Ethiopia.

The arrest of high officials and prominent businessmen, the visit of high level delegation from wealthy Arab States, the trade delegation from Egypt of industrialists, Hailemariam’s State visit to Kuwait, the business tours of World Bank and African Development Bank executives to Addis Ababa et cetera are very serious and quite impressive events. But more so for me, I observed very subtle but profound changes in the ETV presentation of the Kilil TV programs, where the national image is now foremost superseding Kilil identities. The national Ethiopian Flag is hoisted often by itself prominently without the irritating in your-face “State” Flags and symbols displayed in Kilil programs. These forms of promotion of the national image of Ethiopia are not small steps, but major displays of the consolidation of nationalist forces, which in a way validates and reinforces further Hailemariam Desalegn’s statements of a few weeks ago on the shift of policy on the Constitutional rights of Ethiopian Citizens’ freedom of movement and freedom of choice of abode and work place of settlement.

As far as I am concerned such events are excellent indicators of a solid starting point for a new government trying to have some traction on such slippery and volatile political and economic conditions left behind by Meles Zenawi. Nevertheless, my cup would have overflowed with joy and admiration if the new Ethiopian Administration had released Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie, and several other prominent Ethiopian journalists and political leaders. As long as these courageous Ethiopians continue to be in prison, their incarceration would continue to undermine all political and economic positive efforts of the new Hailemariam administration.

One must take into account the possibility that the Ethiopian Government is afraid of the impact of such courageous Ethiopians on the population if it frees them. However, there are other less inhumane solutions to such predicament than imprisonment on trumped-up charges. If such is the case, in my desperation I suggest to the new Ethiopian leaders a more humane way of solving the impasse by repudiating the criminal convictions of Eskinder and Andualem and by ostracizing them into exile to countries outside of Ethiopia. The ancient Greeks used to have a practice when an individual becomes too powerful for the society even though such individual has not committed any crime, they used to send such an individual in to exile to a foreign country. To a limited extent our past rulers had used similar process, for example, Emperor Haile Selassie exiled Yohannes Eyassu, the son of Lij Eyassu Mikael, for no reason except for fear of possible challenge to his Throne. Yohannes Eyassu was a patriot leader who fought the Italian occupiers for five years winning the admiration and respect of tens of thousands of Ethiopian Patriots and ordinary people while the Emperor went on exile to England. “A possible measure to protect democracy would be to exile the man who was too influential, but although a very common way to protect the city from rivalries, this was a harsh measure that was only taken by the community as a whole."* My only interest is to get such good men out of Hellhole.

II. Haste Makes Waste

There is much truth to the idiomatic expression that haste makes waste. I witnessed two monumental changes taking place in Ethiopia in 1974 and in 1991. Sadly in each of those changes I also witnessed serious flaws that affected the course of the two regimes formed after each social convulsion. In both monumental changes, there was hastiness that blinded very many Ethiopians into supporting and enabling narcissistic individuals to climb up types of political structures that lead directly into the coming into form of tyrannical political strong men. How did such changes take place in a traditional social and political structure? I had argued for years that the problem started way back in time with the breakup of the traditional courtiers’ power to elect the kings and emperors of Ethiopia due to the infusion of massive slavery into the system and the courtiers losing their grip on power.

In our/my own time, Emperor Haile Selassie, despite the fact of his outstanding effort in the modernization of Ethiopia, contributed “inadvertently” to the political turmoil that caused his own downfall and the overthrow of the aristocracy and the atrocities that followed. By creating the modern school system he created a cocoon of elites who had no true connection with the society and thereby he destroyed the remnant of the traditional power structure. The prolific writer and astute observer of Ethiopian life, Professor Messay Kebede,** in books and articles has exhaustively expounded similar points. Emperor Haile Selassie, in addition to the modern education system, also created a national military undermining the traditional military structure of separate armies headed by Rases and provincial governors. Thus both the student movement of the 1960s and the military rebellion of the 1970s were anti-traditional forms of change. Especially the student leaders brought in untested alien concepts that are still creating havoc to our Ethiopian ethos even after forty years.

The artificial cocoon atmosphere created by the modern school system was a disaster. Parents that usually are responsible to guide the moral and social skill development of their children were afraid of their modern-school-attendee-children who were incased in the cocoon of artificial modern schools. There was no real connection between such students and society who grew up in no man’s land to be come Marxist/Leninist revolutionaries. The current dissonance in between Ethiopians is one clear result of such artificial cocoon mentality that persisted and is inherited by generations of students down to the current generation of Ethiopians. In fact such now old former students that we find currently in all kinds of political organizations are holding us all hostages with their pseudo Marxist/Leninist organizations and shallow rhetoric and manipulation. Because of such generational alienations, I believe a number of Ethiopians in the Diaspora are paralyzed with fear from working out their own individual political and economic reality.  For Ethiopians in the Diaspora, the best way to help Ethiopia is to be successful in one’s own life any where in the World.

III. Better Light a Candle

It is never late for any one of us to start out fresh in life fixing past misdeeds, wrongs that we made et cetera. The title of this article is a Chinese/Korean proverb on pragmatism. At times, I feel that it is not even age-appropriate to dive into the discussion of such obvious lack of practicality in living one’s own life successfully. For far too long it seems to me that a number of Ethiopians in the Diaspora have been entertaining unrealistic political ambition that they could effect political change by debating in hotel halls and demonstrating in major western capitals. At times I find positions of some of the leaders of such political organizations quite childish, for they aspire to overthrow the Ethiopian Government through mass organization conducted from foreign capitals. This type of thinking is absurd and stupid, for it has not worked at anytime in our recent history.

It is far better to think small and start helping out the many destitute Ethiopians right here in the West than to dream of becoming leaders of a new Ethiopian government in the distance.  At any rate political alliance cannot be of much substance if it is just a result of meetings in hotel auditoriums. The way to build a solid political base anywhere is to run locally placed social institutions, such as clinics, schools, self help cooperatives et cetera for fellow Ethiopians. In my decades of exile here in the United States, I have not witnessed anyone (including myself) establishing scholarship fund for Ethiopian students here where we have our lives. It seems to me that we talk and write well, but when it comes to practical helpful work, we are no where to be found. True, the building and establishment of a good number of churches and civic centers for Ethiopians by Ethiopians is quite commendable activities, but it very limited taking into account how much more we are capable of doing..

It is important that Diaspora Ethiopians create first a strong network of interdependency before focusing on playing political power game against the current Government leadership in Ethiopia. Some individuals in the Diaspora have expressed in very strongly worded statements that they will not settle for any change in Ethiopia except a revolutionary one. There is tremendous risk of social breakdown and the disintegration of Ethiopia to gamble with revolutionary changes, for revolutions are unpredictable and the social upheaval can easily get out of control or reach critical mass that it becomes totally volatile and unstable.  Compromise is an effective key to harmonious social life and the bedrock of the democratic process and its basic form of government.

IV. Why I am Optimistic

I have solid reasons for my optimism about the future of Ethiopia. I believe Hailemariam Desalign is moving cautiously and constructively shaping Ethiopia as a democratic country. Just two days ago the Auditor General of the Federal Government presented his Report and there was an open discussion in Parliament.  In watching the House debates as reported on ETV, it is the first time I felt the presence of a real government wherein the executive is being put to task by parliamentary representatives. The House Representatives were confronting head long the many Ministries that have not properly accounted for budgetary millions of birr, which included such powerful Ministries such as the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs et cetera. The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Aba Dula Gemeda, expressed that the outcome of such failure of proper accounting will result in none approval of budgetary allocations of funds to those Ministries that failed to make proper accounting. I was very much reminded of the yearly confrontations between Congress and President Obama on the American Government Budget. Such bold parliamentary activities were unthinkable a year ago.

It seems to me that the Ethiopian Government is heading in the right direction at this point in time. I do not expect the current Ethiopian Government to remedy or fix all of the errors of the last twenty years all at once. It is important that the new Ethiopian government need be taking baby-steps to gain some foothold in the complex structure of the government and its functionaries left behind by Meles Zenawi. Take for instance the Constitution, we all know that it is seriously flawed. However, one cannot start fixing the several errors by throwing out that Constitution right away, to do so would be to lose the minimum base of law and order and minimal rights. I have read in essays and chats people urging the people in leadership to abrogate the Constitution. I too have written repeatedly on such topic, but I prefer now the establishment of a commission first to pinpoint the many flaws of the Constitution and open a forum to the public for debate and discourse. It will be an astute political move by Hailemariam to start such political ball rolling.

This open criticism and identification of lack of proper accounting by the Auditor General, and where the Ethiopian public is fully informed has the added advantage of raising the expectations of the population for much higher standard of governance. Such development in itself is the manifest softening of the political stranglehold of the EPRDF. All good social, political, and economic changes require changes in the mental strength of the Ethiopian people. I just hope that such ray of light of democracy will not be short lived and that the Ethiopian Government will not plunge back into byzantine labyrinth of intrigues and arbitrary arrests and detentions and lawlessness in general. 


Recently a very successful and very generous friend of mine told me that I have wasted my life in the West, meaning that I should have stayed back in Ethiopia where I could have contributed greatly to the success of our beloved nation. I can imagine how much pain it must have caused him to tell me to my face how far I have failed in my primary duty. I know that comment comes from a person who has great expectations of my “talent” and who otherwise heaps accolades on me and yet burning with positive concern for a brother that seems not to make much headway in wealth or in political life. True, my fifteen years of academic fellowship and teaching of college students, or writing numerous articles et cetera would not tilt the scale against a single year of serving in Ethiopia. Thus, I swear to myself that I will always be truthful to my Ethiopia/people and not carry any other hidden agenda than the single agenda to see Ethiopia realize its true potential in great glory, and no matter how unpopular my views may be at any particular time. I apologize to all of my close friends and in general to all who knew of me for not living up to their expectations.

Individuals of the young Ethiopian generation, such as Aman who asked of me to write a book after reading my recent article that he identified as “tebta mar,” are cause enough for me to continue my writing and sharing my ideas. “I read your piece with great interest and calm. I think you need to be congratulated on this watershed piece that put our current predicament into its proper context. I call it ‘tebta mar.’ I recommend you expand this writing of yours into a book, so we the current generation and the future ones have something concrete to refer to.”  [emphasis mine]

In my earlier essay I invited fellow Ethiopians to enter into some form of discourse on the subject of the current political situation in Ethiopia. From some of the postings and also responses, I am able to gleam that there are some who are willing to enter into constructive discourse, while there are others who seem to be trapped in the past unable to see changes and new possibilities in the current Ethiopian Leader Hailemariam Desalegn. I do not see why we have to be hasty in condemning this leader or dismissive in our judgment at a time like this where caution is most appropriate.  I am open to changing my mined, but would like to keep a positive and open mind in trying to convince my fellow Ethiopians in the Diaspora and those at home that we need to engage the current Ethiopian Leaders positively. Let us continue our discourse. God Bless Us All.

Endnotes: It is a snapshot of the page as it appeared on May 7, 2013.

**Messay Kebede, IDEOLOGY AND ELITE CONFLICTS: AUTOPSY OF THE ETHIOPIAN REVOLUTION, Lexington Books, 2011;  - RADICALISM AND CULTURAL DISLOCATION IN ETHIOPIA, 1960 – 1974, Rochester, NY: Rochester University Press, 2008.   - An African-American news and views website.
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