Not Burnt Faces


In the aftermath of Ethiopia’s 2005 legislative elections, a careful observation of the arguments and debates of various concerned political parties as well as the rhetoric of their supporters through various outlets suggest several things, based on a sampling of the arguments, debates and rhetoric. Apparently, not many people could claim to have been informed of all the rhetoric through the various outlets. Therefore, this judgment is made at the risk of not having been informed of some rational analysis. With that caveat, one can judge from the bulk of the rhetoric that many people are spending their time for the sake of argument with evident lack of rationality.


In general, the arguments point to what may be thought as a fundamental shortcoming of many people in our region, including the supposedly enlightened. Such shortcoming may have been subconsciously cultivated over many centuries. A specific characteristic of such shortcoming can be called outward looking culture. It is a culture where people tend to borrow wisdom from their neighbors instead of using or developing their own.


An outward looking culture has the propensity to reduce the self and raise the other self. This culture and how it was subconsciously developed and cultivated in our region is in many places to be seen, but not many people are seeing it or do not admit that they are seeing it. One can start with the legendary journey of the Queen of Sheba. The legendary journey may have set in motion the course for the cultivation of this culture through her wish or choice to meet with King Solomon. The tendency set forth then and subconsciously cultivated since may have led to the ever outward looking culture up to our time.


Perhaps, no one can precisely prove the exact reason for the legendary travel of the Queen. However, three things have been speculated. The first two may be considered personal ambition than national foresight whereas the third one may well be a calculated but weak national foresight. The first could be the Queen’s personal desire to simply meet with the king of the 'chosen people'. The second one could be a family’s monarchical ambition to rule the subject people with the simple claim of biological descent from the king of the chosen people. The third one, as some argue, is that the Queen’s journey may be a metaphor for the intermarriage of Yemeni immigrants with African natives whereby the claim is made to put this relationship on a working political course. Whatever the truth may be in these claims, at least two things are obvious. First, little is heard about the wishes or views of the subject peoples of the time. Second, in whatever form it may be, this legend has created the first chapter in the subconscious cultivation of the outward looking culture for rulers and their subject peoples.


The second chapter was written with the rise of Yekuno Amlak to power in 1270 A.D. He also claimed descent from King Solomon. Interestingly, in this case as well, there is little information about the views and wishes of the subject peoples. We are left with unproven claim for the would-be monarchical family as well as unreported parallel claim by or for the subject peoples. Therefore, we would be left with wondering if Yekuno Amlak’s claim was or was not for a family’s monarchical ambition to rule the subject peoples. According to some accounts, it was during Yekuno Amlak’s time that the Amharic language was developed, which, if proven right, interestingly puts Professor Mesfin Weldemariam’s thesis that historically there were no people called Amhara. Some have argued in the past that Amharic (Amharigna) is Jesus’ mother tongue. In reality, Jesus’ mother tongue was not Amharic but Aramaic (Aramaean). Then, is there any possibility that Yekuno Amlak may have wished not only descent from the king of the chosen people, but also to speak the mother tongue of the prophet that rose from among the chosen people? That would be another very striking hypothesis that favors Prof. Mesfin’s thesis. (This subject will be Voice Finfinne’s next topic of discussion).


Whatever the case, this second chapter of subconscious development and cultivation of the outward looking culture may well have loosened the importance of Tigrinya as well as the language of the subject peoples under Yekuno Amlak’s influence.


The third chapter of the outward looking culture manifested itself during the lifetime of many people living today. It was during Haile Sellassie’s rise to monarchical throne. He also claimed to have descended from King Solomon. In reality, it would make sense to have asserted descent from Oromo than King Solomon since it is noted that his grandfather actually bears Oromo name. Most of the people he ruled have neither claimed a parallel descent nor have any relationship of descent from the chosen people. The claims by the monarchies may well be to have a semblance of legitimacy in the eyes of the peoples they ruled. The critical link here may be the book of Kibre-Negest, which attempted to lay a base for unchallengeable monarchical rule by the wishful royalties.


What is most evident in the current squabbles in the run-up to and aftermath of Ethiopia’s 2005 election seems to be political adventure by the victims of this outward looking culture on the one hand and those that are less affected by such culture and consequently would prefer to cultivate their inward looking culture on the other hand. The first group appears to use the three chapters of outward looking culture as stepping stones to go in a collusion course against all the other groups that are not willing or ready to compromise their identities. It is a stated stance of the quickly organized political party called Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) practically of the Amharic speaking peoples to reverse decentralization based on group identities of the peoples in Ethiopia. Its single reason for taking the risk of going against a constellation of all other groups on this central issue is what it conveniently defines as ethnic politics, yet again stepping on an invented fourth chapter of that outward looking culture.


Because of the overuse of this term in the party’s as well as its supporters’ rhetoric, one would be tempted to read the origin of the term ‘ethnic’ itself. Wikipedia, an online free encyclopedia defines the origin of the term as follows: “Historically, the word ‘ethnic’ signified ‘gentile,’ coming from the Greek adjective ‘ethnikos.’ The adjective is derived from the noun ethnos, which meant foreign people or nations.” The same encyclopedia has also the following to say about the use of the term: “In the United States, the collectivity of immigrants from a region of the world and their descendants are called ‘ethnic groups’ despite their lack of internal cohesion and common institutions and their inability to transmit language to the next generation. Immigrants are socialized into identifying as a member of one of the list of ‘ethnic groups’ provided by the US Census Bureau and with various ‘traditions’ which, although often of recent invention, appeal to some notion of the past. Thus Mexican nationals, upon crossing the border, become Hispanic ethnics.”


According to this understanding of the origin of the term ethnic and its use in the U. S. and doing a quick survey of the various peoples that call Ethiopia their homeland, one would be left wondering which people to call ethnic group or which people’s political movement to call ethnic political movement. Perhaps, the Rastafarians near Shashamanne in Oromia may qualify for such labeling if they started a political movement for their rights in Ethiopia. Even then, if we would be courageous enough to give up the acquired outward looking culture and adopt the Oromo people’s inward looking culture of Guddifacha and Gada, we wouldn’t call them ethnic group or their political movement ethnic politics.


However, in its manipulative adventure of blowing the exhausted wind of the politics of the victimized peoples, CUD seems to be confusing not only the international community but also some of the supposedly enlightened intellectuals from the nations and nationalities in Ethiopia by appearing as the guardian of these nations and nationalities from the politics of “ethnic intruders.” Strangely enough, even some of the supporters of the TPLF, an organization that has been exercising politics in the name of protecting the rights of nations and nationalities in Ethiopia, seem to have succumbed to this labeling and dance to the tune of CUD in erasing the national identity of the Tigre people and replace it with an ethnic identity for them.


The various peoples in Ethiopia could have been defined in the proper term of nations and nationalities. The encyclopedia mentioned earlier has the following to say about a nation: “The most popular modern ethical and philosophical doctrines state that all humans are divided into groups called nations.” If political parties are ethically wrong and philosophically incapable of understanding the right term, then how much do they have in store for the people they would like to lead. There are ample number of states in this world that constitute more than one nation, such as Belgium, the United Kingdom and Spain, according Wikipedia.  


Then, if certain political parties do not have the courage to call the Oromo nation with a 30 million strong population with the Gada, Guddifacha and Guma culture legacies a nation, the Tigre people that built the Axumite civilization that was ranked the fourth in the world during its time a nation, the Agaw people who built the rock hewn churches at Lalibala a nation, the Amharic speaking peoples who spearheaded the defeat of Italy at Adwa a nation, the Afar, the Somali, the Sidama and so on group of peoples nations, how much of the due respect are they providing to the peoples they would like to lead? What is wrong for Ethiopia to be a democratic state comprised of nations and nationalities just like Belgium, the United Kingdom or Spain?


The adventure of labeling political movements of the various nations and nationalities in Ethiopia may well be imposing the imported notion on the reality on the ground that doesn’t jibe with this imported notion. It just takes us back to the concept of this outward looking culture. The concept might lead to the desire of a self to be the other self or act like the other self. This is a dangerous path that may culminate in the acceptance of what comes from the other self and rejection of what may spring from the self. This has already led to the acceptance of that Greek word, Ethiop, without question or explanation. What is pointed at here is not what the word refers to, but what is actually meant by the adventurer who coined the word. Who was that Greek traveler who first uttered the word Ethiop, effectively saying burnt faces, anyway? Didn’t the people he saw during his adventurous travel to Africa have a priori self identity? What was the motive to call them Ethiop, as simply as that, instead of approaching them and learning the name those people identified themselves with before his arrival? In fact, it doesn’t seem to be the case that he was curious enough to have looked at the whole body to discover the skin color of this whole body. He may have went back with incomplete adventure to only misreport the reality and the subconscious outward looking culture in our region waves this misreport as its banner, thus effectively submitting to the identification defined by the other self. 


Submission to the identification defined by the other self leads to the determination to fight for that identity one is given by the other self at the expense of the real identity of the self. For meaningful change in our region that will pull out our people from pathetic poverty and underdevelopment to take place, it is not blowing the exhausted wind by subconscious politicians, but the courage of the conscious to engage in a healthy discourse to shift our paradigm from outward looking culture to inward looking one and then standing with both feet on this renewed ground. Such shift will certainly favor the replacement of the three thousand years of mythical history that transcends across the Red Sea by five to six thousand years of recorded history on African soil.


It appears that one of the fruits of the 2005 Ethiopian elections is the emergence of a dynamic political landscape that signaled the dawning of a renaissance in East Africa after nearly seventeen centuries of its Dark Age. In this situation, visionary political discourse demands that no group should maneuver for a one-sided short term political advantage that will only prolong the length of the dawning for all. It is evident that the TPLF/EPRDF has been weakened beyond repair partly because of its very nature and partly because of the pressure from various forces and therefore will no longer be a treat to the security or interests of all the peoples in Ethiopia. It is also evident that there is some level of consensus among the careful observers that CUD’s unprecedented victory is weighed by the rejection of the TPLF/EPRDF than the acceptance of this party as a viable alternative. Granted there is pragmatism in this observation, CUD’s current maneuvering for a temporary political advantage will not make it the winner nor will it make the end of the Dark Age in East Africa sooner. A vision for the involvement of all the stakeholders in this process and the opportunity for a dialogue with the peoples in Eritrea will help all stakeholders, including the state of Eritrea, to assess the viability of Cushitic and Abyssinian influenced strong political establishments through healthy political discourse. Such discourse will help not only cooperation among them to pull the region out of social crisis but also check and repulse foreign cultural expansions.