December 21, 2018

Ethiopia and the Evils of Ethnic Intoxication


By placing a mirror in front of each of our homes, Abrak reflects the extent to which the…

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Ethiopia and the Evils of Ethnic Intoxication

By placing a mirror in front of each of our homes, Abrak reflects the extent to which the prevalent social mistrust in contemporary Ethiopia is rooted in individual prejudices. By doing so, the book offers our ethnically polarized society a refreshing means to an honest discussion.

“Abrak”: our reality       

Abrak, an Amharic political fiction written by Mulugeta Aregawi, a recognized Constitutional Law Professor at AAU, is a timely book published to inspire a more honest public discourse around the good/evil of Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism. It does so in a way that is relatable to everyday Ethiopians; unburdened by academic lingo and elite theorization. The book simply places a reflective mirror in front of each of our Ethiopian homes. It is a story of two young lovers, Arkani Challa, and Walta Hagos, who fall in love with each other regardless of differences in their ethnic backgrounds. She comes from an Oromo family, while he is from a Tigrayan family. The author’s detailed narration of the scenes paints vivid mental pictures of the characters at play and the familiarity of their interactions brings them to life. Through their lives, their interactions with others, and the hardships that they face, Abrak reveals the deep roots of our moral bankruptcy as a society and how it requires a head-on struggle with our individual prejudices in order to tackle it.  

Arkani and Walta met at AAU Law School. From the very first day, the young romantics saw humanity in each other. Their world views coincided and they hit it off instantly. They both have strong personalities and are used to speaking up for their truth, and they empathize with any injustice anywhere irrespective of who is a target and who is an aggressor. 

But they were not left alone to the enjoyment of their fueling love. As their relationship develops, the matter becomes that of a family, political party and ethnic grouping. 

Arkani’s family raised her to be an independent and rational thinker regardless of the unfortunate loss of one of her uncles during the erroneous TPLF (Tigray People Liberation Front) dominated EPRDF era. This ill-fated family loss, coupled with other factors, propelled some family members to hold grudges against TPLF and the people of Tigray in general. Her uncle Taye in particular, views himself as the protector of the Oromos against the injustices and marginalization for 27 years, and openly proclaims a belief that ‘all Tigreans are TPLF allies and hence collaborators, and equally blameworthy’. He curses Tigreans for all the sufferings of what he refers to as “my people” – the Oromos. 

Taye’s counterpart in Walta’s family is the latter’s elder brother, Kibret, who is an ardent TPLF devotee cadre. Kibret, Walta and their youngest sister, Mebrat, were raised by a single mother, Wzro Tsige. Their father had died during the fight against the Derg. W/ro Tsige, herself a rebellion fighter in Tigray, is a brave woman with an astonishing sense of justice, and raised her children according to those values. Walta took after his mother, growing up to be a man of principle, intellect and character. As the Amharic saying – የእናትሆድዥንጉርጉርነው–goes, Kibret turned out to be otherwise. As a naïve and genuine TPLF worshiper, Kibret became the party’s political instrument. He believes that TPLF is the ‘liberator’ of both Tigray and Ethiopia, and holds a contemptuous view against the Oromo, labeling them as traitors and disciples of OLF (Oromo People Liberation Front). He accuses OLF and the Oromo of being ungrateful people who conspire against the successes of his party, TPLF. 

“We all decry prejudice, yet are all prejudiced”. Herbert Spencer

Living in their own world of narrow lenses, both Taye and Kibret would lose sleep over Arakani and Walta’s relationship. Taye thinks his niece is inviting a danger upon herself and their family, letting “her people” down. Kibret, expectedly, believes that his brother has betrayed the people of Tigray and TPLF who were sacrificed in the quest to liberate Tigreans and Ethiopians at large. To the best of their abilities, both Taye and Kibret move to end the couple’s relationship before it even develops. With Kibret’s powerful position, he uses his connections in the government and the party to sabotage their relationship. The couple would face successive obstacles which include verbal warnings, termination of their employment by the University administration, being arrested, and denial of their rights to livelihood among others. Abrak takes you through the story with a suspenseful flow.

Time for self-reflection? 

At this historic time in Ethiopia when political and other elites are vociferously debating the merits and evils of ethnic federalism as a political system, Abrak uses the power of storytelling to engage us in modest self-reflection. The book’s characters, both in their day-to-day lives and in more intellectual settings, entertain fundamental questions including the meaning of ‘ethnic nationalism’ and what exactly it means to be an Oromo, a Tigrae, an Amhara, Sidamo, or Gambela. We read through Arkani, Walta and their friends’ lengthy arguments regarding different aspects of ethnic nationalism and more. 

Arkani was brought up in a well-educated family known for its tradition of open household discussions; there are no limits to the topics raised. One day, she brought the man she loved, Walta, to the place she called her home and people she called her family. Yet she saw them disrespect him due to the mere fact of his Tigrean ethnicity. She no longer recognized the people she thought she was very familiar with. Seeing them belittle Walta, a respected intellectual adored by his students and a man who loved and respected her, based on a preconceived prejudice wounded her deeply. Walta’s brother Kibert also shows his deepest contempt to Arkani while meeting the couple together.     

In the past three decades, especially what’s called the EPRDF generation, has been taught to think and calculate in terms of a singular identity, ethnicity, and to put others in predefined boxes. As such, the question that lingers readers’ minds when reading Abrak is: don’t we have Taye-och and Kibret-och in our respective families? Did we not grow up with some of our relatives, family members, neighbors, telling us that an Oromo who speaks up against injustice is an OLF echo, or every Tigrean is a default TPLF collaborator, or any Amhara crying over prejudice is an aspirant of the old imperialist system, or when we introduced our friends and partners to be, did they not inquire after his/her ethnicity? 

“Prejudice is a burden that confuses the past, threatens the future and renders the present inaccessible.” Maya Angelou

Abrak also takes us to the other side of the tunnel in the we-versus-them story played by ethnic political gamblers. Characters like Taye expose the prejudice of bundling Tigreans with TPLF and labeling them as willing collaborators. Abrak awakens general wonderings and curious questions on the complex relationship between the People of Tigray on one hand, and TPLF, on the other: during the time where Ethiopia is being shaken by waves of protest, why don’t we hear an opposition coming from Tigray? How about opposition parties in Tigray? Why do some Tigreans unquestionably bow to TPLF denying any wrongdoing? For anyone who dares to ask any of these questions, Abrak offers interesting insights.

For our future

Everything seems in place with PM Abiy’s new administration, but longstanding problems of a nation intensified by ethnic intoxication do not get solved overnight. Abrak gives us the opportunity to take questions surrounding ethnic nationalism seriously and reflect on ourselves – to see the hypocrite within us, that is caught up in the task of pointing fingers on others, while totally blinded by own replication of the denounced prejudices. It reminds us that a mindset designed to calculate in ethnic terms doesn’t flip overnight. To aid current developments in Ethiopia, the way forward is to detoxicate ourselves from the madness of narrow ethnic nationalism, and literature like Abrak serves as a catalyst for honest discourse. Facing the truth as to where we stand would let us look for a solution. Only then can we devote our energy on the proper formation, revision, and functioning of our institutions to build the Ethiopia we all aspire to see. Our faith is in the revival of the shrinking hope we water today. We count on the innocence of the next generation (our Abrak-och), the light we show them while quashing our darkness, and the good hearts of our elderly (W/ro Tsige-och) to be freed from the evils of prejudice and heal our division. Mulugeta Aregawi’s Abrak takes us through our own prejudices and leads us to the light we hope to see. It is a book to be relished and one to grab in Ethiopia this Christmas.