What Do “WE” Want and Do Now (that “WE” Have the Opportunity to Do it)? (Part VI) [Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam]

Author’s Note: This is the sixth installment in a series I have called “What Do WE Want and Do NOW?”.  The serialized commentaries have three aims: 1) take stock of the impact of the recent uprisings in Ethiopia against the backdrop of the extreme repression (“state of emergency”) unleashed by the Thugtatorship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (T-TPLF); 2) challenge Ethiopians, particularly Ethiopian intellectuals, to think outside the box, indeed with no box at all, about going  forward, and 3) propose some ideas that may be useful in charting a future course of action given current circumstances. “We” have met the enemy and he is us!

Part I, HERE; Part II, HERE; Part III, HERE; Part IV, HERE. Part V, HERE. 

XVII. “WE” never miss an opportunity to miss an OPPORT-UNITY!

Today, we have extraordinary opportunities to work together to bring down the Thugtatroship of the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (T-TPLF) from power and lay the groundwork for the construction of the New Ethiopia. The gnawing question in my mind is, “Will “WE” seize the day?” Will “WE” strike while the iron is hot or fall back into that old habit of never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity?

What saddens and aggravates me the most is that  “WE” never miss an opportunity to miss an OPPORT-UNITY!

What I have personally observed over the past decade among the “opposition” (and even the T-TPLF) is the fact that “WE” never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. There have been many opportunities to get things right and do right by the people of Ethiopia. But every time, “WE” have let the opportunity go to waste. Let me illustrate. Over the past decade, various political parties have formed coalitions and mobilized Ethiopian society for electoral participation and other opposition activities. Their unity to speak in one voice was inspirational. That singular voice raised the hopes and aspirations of the Ethiopian people and struck terror in the hearts of the T-TPLF. For the first time in 2005, that coalition brought a  glimmer of hope for democracy and freedom for Ethiopians. But all that was short-lived. Just as those parties came together swiftly, they also broke up just as quickly and went their separate ways. If that coalition had remained strong and united, the T-TPLF today would be in the dustbin of history where it properly belongs. But the personal ambition of those craving power overpowered the needs of those disempowered by the T-TPLF for so long. Those jockeying for power let down the Ethiopian people hard. Will history judge them among the unforgiven? But that was a generational opportunity that was missed.

Today, we have an opportunity to build a mass-based inter-ethnic and inter-religious coalition to take on a bewildered, alarmed and frightened T-TPLF hiding behind the skirt of its “state of emergency” declaration. The spirit of defiance, audacity and rebellion is visible in the faces of the people of Ethiopia who are sick and tired of being sick and tired of the T-TPLF. The spirit of cooperation and collaboration to rid Ethiopia of the T-TPLF manifests itself more conspicuously every day in the T-TPLF police state. The time is right and the stars are aligned just right to fight the T-TPLF as a unified force.

But it seems “WE” are poised once again to miss another  opportunity of a lifetime. “WE”, particularly in the Diaspora, are bogged down talking about the singular importance of ethnicity and how power should be configured along ethnic lines. The self-appointed ethnic chiefs and champions of “ethnification” of politics are babbling the venomous rhetoric of hate and resentment. Ironically, these self-appointed chieftains are so blinded by ambition and starved for power, they have become political caricatures. They are indeed political jokes, but as we have seen in the recent U.S. presidential elections jokes have a way of becoming cruel ironies.

“WE” must use every opportunity to oppose those preaching ethnic division and sectarianism with as much vigor as we oppose the T-TPLF. The difference between the T-TPLF and those who mindlessly advance the T-TPLF cause of ethnic division is the difference between two sides of a coin. It is the difference between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. They are one and the same. They want to displace the T-TPLF so that they can take over and become the new and improved T-TPLF by another ethnic label. The right opportunity exists right now to sideline the prophets of ethnic division and hatred and build a genuine inter-ethnic and inter-faith alliances to ensure that the hate-mongers and those who sow the seeds of discord, strife and factionalism are exposed for what they truly are.

“WE” now have the opportunity to get real leadership to guide the opposition movement in standing up to the T-TPLF and those who advance the T-TPLF cause by a different ethnic label. Here, I am not particularly referring to “political leaders”. I am broadly addressing civic society leaders – faith and community leaders, academics and activists, youth and women’s groups leaders, leaders of professional and trade organizations, etc.–  who have missed, time and again, the opportunity to provide leadership.

In my June 2012 commentary, “Ethiopia: Unity in Divinity!”, I praised and encouraged leaders of the Islamic and Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo faiths in Toronto, Canada who joined hands to show their unity  in defending the ancient monastery of Waldeba in northern Ethiopia from destruction by foreign investor commercial agricultural enterprises. In my August 2015 commentary, “Ethiopia: Our Need for Unity in Divinity Facing Adversity!”, I appealed to members of the Christian and Islamic faiths to come together and fight evil. In support, I cited  divine authority. In Romans 8:31 is written, “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” In the Qu’uran, Surat ‘Āli `Imrān 3:103 is written: “And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you – when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, brothers.”

We are divinely ordained to be ONE people. “WE” must reject the false gods of Stalin and Lenin who said “WE” are “nations, nationalities and peoples.”

Carpe diem! Seize the day!

XVIII.  “WE” must change ourselves before “WE” can change Ethiopia

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us that, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.” But where does change come from? Gandhi counseled, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him… We need not wait to see what others do.” Simply stated, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Change is scary, uncomfortable and difficult. Change requires that we leave our comfort zones. Most people are resistant to change because they fear the unknown, they are risk averse and they doubt themselves. Change is often stressful even when positive. Because change is perceived as inherently uncertain, most people would rather accept what comes to them passively than act decisively and stop striving towards what they want. Change begins  incrementally in the way we think. I believe it comes from asking ourselves tough questions and answering them honestly.

To change one must ACT, that is Attitude Can change Things.

When I decided to become a human rights advocate and defend the victims of the T-TPLF, I had to undergo a radical transformation in my attitude. It was a simple act in itself, but extraordinarily difficult to achieve. I had to change from someone who is indifferent to the plight and suffering of others to someone who is compassionate and caring to those victimized by injustice wherever they may be.  So my first step in my ongoing process of self-transformation was to no longer be indifferent.

But what does it mean to be “indifferent”?  Elie Weisel explained, “For the person who is indifferent, his or her neighbor are of no consequence. And, therefore, their lives are meaningless. Their hidden or even visible anguish is of no interest. Indifference reduces the other to an abstraction…. To be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human being inhuman.” (Emphasis added.)

As I have previously written on a number of occasions, it took a catastrophic event to transform me from an inhuman being to a human being. For years, I watched and intentionally turned a blind eye to the crimes and injustices committed by the late Meles Zenawi and his murderous gang of thugs. It was easier for me to shrug it off, write off Ethiopia and the continent as a lost cause. I shared the abysmal pessimism of The Economist that Africa is a “hopeless continent” facing unending wars, corruption, bad governance and human rights violations. I even shared The Economist’s conclusions, “No one can blame Africans for the weather, but most of the continent’s shortcomings owe less to acts of God than to acts of man. These acts are not exclusively African—brutality, despotism and corruption exist everywhere—but African societies, for reasons buried in their cultures, seem especially susceptible to them.”

When I decided to join the struggle for human rights in Ethiopia in 2005, I consciously decided to change my attitudes, perspectives and views. It was not an epiphany or some great revelation. It was an act of simple introspection. I asked myself why I am so indifferent to the plight and suffering of the Ethiopian people, the people of the continent. Why am I so disinterested, apathetic, uninvolved, nonchalant, uncaring and neutral about the people? A complete transformation in my thinking occurred when I asked myself a very simple question: If I do not speak up against Africa’s murderous dictators, if I do not stand up and defend the victims of those criminals against humanity, who will?  Elie Weisel observed, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

I know I am powerless to prevent the crimes against humanity committed by and continue to be committed by the T-TPLF, but I am never powerless to protest their crimes against humanity in the court of international public opinion.

The Meles Massacres of 2005 were defining moments for me as an individual. I had to make a choice. The easy thing for me to do at the time was to shake my head in disbelief, cover my eyes in horror, roll my eyes in disgust and purse my lips in sorrow and move on to something else. That would have been tantamount to capitulating to evil and turning a blind eye to monstrous crimes committed against innocent human beings. My other choice was to muster the energy and courage to stand up and speak up against the personification of pure evil. I now live by the timeless maxim: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.” Affirmatively stated, I believe all that is necessary to triumph over evil is for all good men, women and young people to do something.

I suspect in the course of human events, most people face their own “defining moments”. Often that “moment” is a point in time when a person gains a certain clarity about things and becomes enlightened to see right through one’s clouded judgment. Those defining moments are often random events beyond one’s control but define us as the persons we truly are. Almost invariably, those  moments come in the form of a clear choice: to be or not to be; to do or not to do; to speak up or to remain mute; to turn a blind eye to keep one’s eye wide open; to stand up for right or lie down with wrong; to be a human being or an inhuman being.  By making the right choice we define the moment; and by making the wrong choice or not choosing at all, we allow the moment to define us.

I changed from an inhuman being to a human being as a result of the inhumanity of Meles Zenawi and his murderous gang of inhuman thugs.

There is a great lesson and warning to future generations of Ethiopians in the Meles Massacres of 2005.  To forget the crimes of yesterday is to invite new crimes tomorrow. To paraphrase Elie Weisel, we must seek justice for the victims of yesterday not only because it is the right thing to do, but also to protect the youth of today, and the children who will be born tomorrow from similar injustice and wrong. We do not want the past to become the future of our children and grandchildren. That is why all of the criminals responsible for the 2005 massacre must be held accountable. That is why all of the criminals responsible for the 2016 Irreecha Massacres and all of the other massacres must be held accountable. Delaying justice to the Ethiopian massacre victims is to invite the harsh verdict of history upon ourselves and future generations: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

On a lighter note, to change oneself, all one has to do is to look at the (Wo)man in the mirror as the late great Michael Jackson sang: I’m starting with the man in the mirror/ I’m asking him to change his ways/ And no message could have been any clearer/ If you wanna make the world a better place/ Take a look at yourself, and then make a change…

“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

XIX. “WE” must be independent thinkers and “non-conformists”.

Over the past decade, one of the most perplexing things I have noticed is that “WE”, the vast majority of “US”,  are not independent thinkers. “WE” lack intellectual autonomy. By that I mean several things. “WE” tend to be conformists. “WE” tend to venerate and trust authority figures and those with all sorts of acronyms after their names. “WE” tend to follow cultish personalities. “WE” tend to let our friends and others dictate what “WE” should believe and do. “WE” tend to be easily led by others with strong opinions.

Simply stated, the vast majority of us are conformists. Even “OUR” leaders are conformists. They remain followers. “WE” do not show confidence in “OUR” beliefs, values, and way of thinking. “WE” tend to be dependent on others for the direction and control of “OUR” thinking.

When I say we must be independent thinkers, I mean several things. “WE” must be critical thinkers and must never passively accept the beliefs of others. We must never mindlessly accept what we hear and read. We must always question and demand to see evidence and never accept simply on representation. Independent thinkers are evidence-based thinkers. “WE” should always consider alternative perspectives and value other points of view, but in the end “WE” must make a critical analysis and evaluation and make informed judgment on issues.

When we are not independent thinkers, we become susceptible to group think and herd mentality. This well-known psychological phenomenon often occurs when individuals seek harmony or consensus in a group setting. This often results in avoidance of  critical evaluation of alternative viewpoints by actively suppressing dissenting viewpoints, and by isolating the group’s view from outside influences. Individuals avoid raising controversial issues or alternative solutions. It leads to dysfunctional decision-making and those with influence in the group present themselves as having special abilities and competence and undermine those who question and offer alternatives. The independent thinkers who challenge the group leadership are often persecuted and driven out.

Groupthink and herd mentality are dangerous. Collective rationalization leads to closing of the mind and blind righteousness in one’s cause while being blindsided to what could be wrong. Dissenters are ostracized and new ideas that do not conform to the prevailing orthodoxy are suppressed. Individuals exercise self-censorship out of fear and expression of doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are strongly discouraged. Individual members are pressured into accepting the illusion of unanimity.

I have observed the pressure to root out independent thinkers and nonconformists in a variety of social and political settings in the “opposition”.  I have observed it during the student movement decades ago and I continue to observe it in many “opposition” group settings today.  It is a self–defeating practice and eliminates the possibility of a new generation of leaders and political activists from rising.

I cannot understate the importance of becoming and cultivating independent thinkers and “non-conformists”. When I speak of being a “non-conformist”, I use the term in the sense of Dr. King who challenged those struggling in the civil rights movement to become “non-conformists”. Dr. King was not concerned about “non-conformity” for its own sake. He said, “Nonconformity in itself may not necessarily be good and may at times possess neither transforming nor redemptive power.” But he was concerned about the “crowd pressures [that] have unconsciously conditioned our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo.” He complained of the “mass mind” that has “cultivated” the herd mentality.  He declared, “We are not makers of history; we are made by history… ‘In this world a man [woman] must either be anvil or hammer,’ meaning that [s]he is either a molder of society or is molded by society.  Who doubts that today most [wo]men are anvils and are shaped by the patterns of the majority?”

Dr. King proclaimed, “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists, who are dedicated to justice, peace, and brotherhood.  The trailblazers in human, academic, scientific, and religious freedom have always been nonconformists.  In any cause that concerns the progress of mankind, put your faith in the nonconformist!”

To be continued…

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