"Addis Neger": Addis Tiwuld
By Derese Getachew | December 18, 2009

Alan Paton once called his country - South Africa - ‘bewitchingly lovable’. I think Ethiopia deserves to be called one, looking at the consuming passion of her citizens – of all political dispensation - yearning for a just, democratic and developed nation. We have never agreed on how to reach at that much desired stage, but we all dream of it. No generation represents that quest for social justice and democratic transition than the generation of the 60. That generation, which many acclaim as “the generation”, pioneered the cause for the end of feudalism, the cultural and linguistic oppression of various ethnic groups, and proposed a ‘people’s democratic republic’ very much in the lines of the Marxist Leninism. Not only did the generation upheld these lofty ideals, it also fought for them, both from within and without over the last 40 years. Its tenacity and resolve border puritan asceticism. While it radically transformed the political landscape of Ethiopia from 1974 on, it never rested on its laurels. Almost all of the leaders of the incumbent regime - EPRDF and its opponents - are from that generation. Their persistence makes us question whether theirs is a cause that is eternal (ad infinitum) or a failure (moribund political practice).

The recent closure of the Addis Neger and the discussion it raised about the status of the media in Ethiopia is one opportune moment to consider the ‘generational problem’ in the Ethiopian context. As Karl Manheim once argued, it is time to reflect on ‘the generational problem’. Many have already remarked that Addis Neger (unlike many of its predecessors) offered its readers credible and researched viewpoints quite independently. But more importantly, Addis Neger represented the coming of age of a generation with useful ideas and youthful enthusiasm. I would like to take this last point and expand on the notion of generational transition. In so doing I touch upon the ‘dialogical cultures’ that have profoundly influenced the generation of the 60s in Ethiopia indicating the need to move beyond that ‘field of discourse’. I will then discuss the role of Addis Neger in pioneering this task.

The Pedagogy of “The Generation”

The record is clear. Ethiopia is not faring better than it was forty years ago. What factors would explain the apparent failure of the ‘trailblazing’ generation? I believe three domains of analysis are worth looking at to find an answer for this question. First is the world view of Ethiopians themselves which is featured by a stark duality of two forces that explain social change: dark and light, evil and right, good and bad, upright and corrupt. Even before the introduction of modern Education, traditional church and koranic education explain social change as an inevitable outcome of supernatural forces (good and bad) who battle it out in the heavens and impose their will on the natural or created world order. This prism of thinking is linear since it only assumes a single explanan for a single outcome (note the repeated use of the term ‘ye tigil mesmer’). It also has Manichean proclivities since the solution to a problem lies in eliminating the evil/wrong doer. Last but not least, it is dogmatic since belief becomes shorthand for “right”- unfalsifiable, and hence unreformable( note the frequent use of an oxymoron ‘bichejna amarach’).

Second, is the apparent introduction of Marxism Leninism and its dualist class-oriented approach of explaining social conflict. Allow me to quote Dr Yacob Hailmeariam, to explain the impact of Marxism Leninism on the world view of ‘the generation’. In his articles posted on Ethiomedia, he stated:

It is well known that Marxism-Leninism is alien or has little tolerance for civility and compromise. Being civil is a bourgeois nonsense which seeks to blur the real issues and blunt the sharp edges of class conflict thus inhibiting decisive class struggle. It is enough to recall Lenin’s reference to his opponents as scoundrels and vermin to know that Marxists do not mince their words when they deal with their adversaries. Since old habits do not die easily this modus operandi unfortunately informs political discourse in Ethiopia today both on the side of the opposition and more so with the ruling party even after the demise of Marxism-Leninism.

Finally, let us look at the ‘dialogic turn’ that ‘the generation’ made since the end of the Cold War. Today, the debates on the political trajectory of the country revolve around one major issue: nationalism. Two particular signposts are readable on that spectrum. There are many who espouse Ethiopian nationalism and others who rally under ethno-nationalism reacting to the former as hegemonic, exploitative and exclusive. Attempts to form ‘ center right’ or ‘center left perspectives’ always foundered mainly because in a political arena where nationalism is the only common denominator- polar viewpoints become the most celebrated ones.

Let me flesh out why the discourse on ‘nationalism’ seems to have entered an impasse in all its versions. First of all, nationalist narratives are difficult to work with since they posit one’s interpretation of identity, history, injustice and claims in a very subjective manner. Secondly, nationalism is an ideological project which attempts to conflate political and cultural boundaries of diverse community/communities through homogenization. This was the case for Ethiopian Nationalism that followers of Walelijn criticized as the imposition of Abyssinian culture and institutions over the rest of Ethiopia- hence attempting to homogenize the historic-cultural artifacts of such a diverse multi-ethnic state.. The same holds true for ethno-nationalisms. For example, much of the political agenda of Oromo nationalists draws from the history of dispossession, disenfranchisement and exploitation the Oromo people have experienced following Melelik II’s expansion. While I agree that there is a case for historic injustice against the Oromo people, I believe this history faces fundamental problems when turned to become a political project of decolonization. First, much of the emphasis in this political history has been only about the 19th century Oromo relations with the ‘colonizing’ Amharas and Tigrayans. The role of Oromo principalities in the politics of Abyssinia as early as the 16th century and in places like Gondar, the southern edges of Tigray and Wollo are sidelined. Oromo intermarriage, trade and political ties with their neighboring ‘colonizers’ are seldom discussed. Hence insurgent ethno-nationalisms repeat the same homogenizing tendencies. They harp on an “us- against- them” category and are not easily malleable to the working of a democratic system – one that recognizes plurality, compromises and cooperation.

‘Addis Neger’: ‘Addis Tiwulid’

What did Addis neger represent? An upcoming generation of Ethiopians who are convinced that much of the learning this far done by the political elite of Ethiopia needs to be unlearned. Addis Neger represents the quest for a subaltern generational discourse, struggling to break out of the homogenizing and hegemonizing molds of ‘the generation’. Right from the outset, it set the bar high. It became the most popular, credible and independent voice in Ethiopia. True to the conviction of its founders, Addis Neger represented public reasoning at its best. It featured researched and extensive articles on issues of national and regional importance. Not only the relevance of the issues but the sheer latitude of the coverage was astounding ranging from foreign policy to economic growth and development, from arts and music to culture and society, from celebrating national heroes to covering regional and continental events. Even more, the opinion corners invited civil yet critical and engaging debates between citizens of all political colors and dispensations. Needless to state that, EPRDF members and symphatizers also argued their case on the weekly. This sealed the independence of the newspaper and its conviction that no one idea, ideology or party deserves to be a meta- narrative, a ‘hegemony’, as Addis Neger editors usually refer to it.

In my opinion, dictatorships begin not when ‘liberators’ assume the helm of power but when they begin to convince themselves and others that theirs is an idea that solves everything under the sun!! If thinking is dominated by hegemonic indoctrination then practice would self-evidently follow. That is why the freedom of thinking and expression constitute the core of any democratic franchise. Simply put, democracies cannot operate unless there is a difference of opinions and viewpoints. Addis Neger fought hard to send that message home, sometimes at the cost of being bashed as ‘government supporters’ and other times regarded as “ people who endanger the very existence of the nation and the constitution!”. It was walking on a knife edge path, trying to show all parties concerned that the case for Ethiopia goes beyond party allegiance and acrimonious debates bent on settling short term political scores. Last but not the least, Addis neger represented a break away from the Marxist Leninist litany about class contradictions, the national question and socialist liberation in the literal sense of the term. The feature articles consulted the philosophical works of the Right( the writings of Mills, Rawls, Hume and Kant were household names), African American writers and intellectuals in the Civil Rights movement(Du Bois, ML King), and contemporary writers ( Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz etc). For the teeming youth of Ethiopia, Addis Neger was an introduction to multiple intellectual traditions and perspectives that would help it frame and understand the country’s predicament in more ways than one.

Being a closer friend of the writers, I witnessed how feature articles and opinion pieces emerge out of exciting, enriched, critical but constructive debates in Sheger’s coffee shops and restaurants. Addis Neger represented the public space where the youth of Ethiopia begun to toy with novel and youthful ideas of a brighter future. In other words, Addis Neger represented the birth pangs of an attempt to go beyond the shackles of polarized political viewpoints at logger heads with each other. It represented a broad church of ideas where such competing ideologies could speak to each other and learn to appreciate each other’s viewpoints. This was difficult since all nationalist discourses gravitate towards the us-against-them pattern. They also have very little room to tolerate dissenting opinions, ideologies, or narratives from within or without. The overriding urge is to ‘unite’ against the ‘other’. Addis Neger took up the challenge to domesticate them through encouraging a civil and democratic exchange of ideas. This was a tall order but impeccably undertaken.

The writer can be reached at derese@gmail.com

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