A sequel to Ethiopian journalist Eskinder Nega’s inmate letter

Written by Tarikua Getachew

Somewhat of a prologue:

“But strike against only a handful and copious number of peoples are hypnotized into inaction.”

It is a quote from Eskinder Nega’s “Letter to My Son,” smuggled out of prison and published in March 2014. Eskinder is a veteran Ethiopian journalist whose career spans over 15 years. Since his first newspaper was founded in 1993 Eskinder counts a PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write and several other awards to his name. Yet, his life as a journalist in Ethiopia, like that of so many of his colleagues, has been one also marred by persecution- including eight instances of imprisonment, torture and trials for treason and terrorism. His only child, Nafkot, was born in prison where Eskinder’s wife was held at the beginning of the latter’s latest incarceration which lasted seven years before he was released, on general pardon, on 14th February 2018.

In Letter to My Son, Eskinder tries at once to explain and to understand the “reasons for his imprisonment” examining events, personal and national, going as far back as his childhood. He delivers a perspective on Ethiopian “modern political history” – which he dates to the 1960s- extending from the student movement that preceded the advent of the Derg regime, a “nihilist”, unrooted and unguided effort with dire consequences, to the passing of the Prime Minister of the government in Ethiopia in 2012. Eskinder’s intimate and saddened look at the “mediocrity” and the persisting penchant for violence which it eventually has come to, reveals nonetheless a man steadfast in his belief in democracy and convinced in a bright future for his country.

Every action is personal…

It is a good day to write this somewhat pompous response to Eskinder’s now four years old letter. This letter, for God is indeed generous, belongs to all of us. But I have appropriated this public good from the moment I read it not for the selfish reasons which have guided most of my life decisions but their total opposite. What is the opposite of selfishness? A man once said that “America was his country but Paris was his home”. He was reacting as humans should to something exquisitely beautiful: be filled with hope, derive a personal, deeply secret meaning from it and perhaps, with some luck, be inspired to become slightly better.

It is a good day then. We are a few days into the 123rd year since Adwa, marked this year with an almost frightening, and ironically now permitted, display of fervor. It is a good day too because the inmate is no longer an absent father.

This day, we find Ethiopia pushed to a cross-roads where each individual, scattered or home, needs to make a choice. It is not a rare occurrence. So many of these cross roads have lost their cross to remain roads and we’ve threaded them “tant bien que mal” (equally as good as bad). But as I have done in moments of near despair before I recently returned to “Letter to my son” to mine a bit of its generosity to our society, warmth to the country’s faults and gentle nudge to all of us. To each year that is added to my life this smuggled letter offers one more reward.

Seven years is as a grain of sand for one who maintains “two centuries is but a plunge”. On a personal level, returning as I did in one last attempt to work with Ethiopia (twist intended), just as Eskinder, to my complete oblivion, was thrown in jail, then deciding to leave again… (re?) discovering social media and the hashtag that upstaged my life and then stumbling upon your letter, to this very good day where I find myself still alive, the past seven years have been the same ones where Ethiopia took proportions in my consciousness (transposed with naiveté to the “real world”) which was all consuming.

As long as I considered Ethiopia an accident of my birth about which I knew most but not necessarily will have to make my home, human rights, despite my studies, was like the Bible: a document that is good to know but does not translate into daily life. Like a common convert, I waited until I became affected to start preaching it.

I was there then when a “sports car parliament” took shape, when in a televangelist episode sounding mania about a dam gripped the country, when the “NGO law” took effect, when the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation grew devouring teeth, when Birtukan Mideksa left the country and when the now historical series of imprisonment followed. Yet “all was for the best in the best of worlds.”

I was hopeful. I was hopeful that they will read that report and act upon it; I was hopeful that the note to the prime minister will make that happen, I was hopeful that I have sufficiently exposed my students to the right choices… Perhaps, in the final analysis of a life lived to make proud a worshipping immutable fan of a father and determined not to emulate the woman who gave birth to me, it was in my own self that I believed.

It is a good day too to find one-self looking back ….and to try to take stock of all the signs that I missed. I admit hindsight is a cheat.

…but every reaction is social

For in the background of the excesses which more or less make it to news, or at the very least to the archives of some organization or other, took place the sequel to Eskinder’s letter.

The post-2005 purge of career technocrats from civil service, in the series of vengeful actions against Addis Ababa, first disguised as “business process reengineering” claimed its debt. The universities were first to fall losing their already weak teaching capacity to consultancy. Discarded technocrats themselves licked their wounds and those still of employable age either fled or became consultants. The age of consultancy impoverished an absent knowledge economy by fueling an already highly rent-seeking economy, by cloaking quick information as knowledge and by artificially propping a dysfunctional civil service. It got to a point where people were placed in high levels of civil service including diplomatic positions, academic headship and financial sector leaderships just for speaking a passable English. The state which had so far been ingenious in co-opting multiple levels of the society with all sorts of tactics became within three to four years, fully captured by utter incompetence.

This inorganic layer pumping quick cash into the inflated service sector of Addis Ababa created another form of overnight middle class further overblowing a foul entertainment culture- alcohol, pornography, meat, drugs and even a lowly breed of televangelism.

The state media’s idolatry of reporting any new introduction with comparisons to some country or other is another example. Poor imitation became the order of the day at all levels tragically extending to as far as worshipping all things foreign and discrediting of anything “not from abroad.”

Dislodge and disorder

Behind the scenes, the dislocation of populations was in full swing. It was also the other specter hanging over the people of Addis Ababa. There is no merit in repeating a method of dislocation much discussed. Its impact on community ties, on trust building, on urban consumption, on gainful employment opportunities for the urban rural poor, on community led socio-economic safety nets and on their relationship with the capital’s geography as a whole is not enough analyzed. The blurring of divide between residential and commercial centers had the added nefarious effect of making forbidden material more accessible than say food items seriously endangering child rearing (consider how quickly you get to the next khat shop to the distance between your home and your grocer’s.)

The internally displaced of Addis Ababa attempting to fashion a livelihood in their unfamiliar and remote locations were pitched against their new neighbors, themselves unjustly dislocated, and an emerging rural youth unable to find any exit but an exodus to the capital. As an endearing trait of Ethiopians goes any social phenomenon is first expressed in comedy (my favorite is “we occupy both the top and the bottom”). It slowly turned to pointing fingers: they were dirtying the city, they are responsible for the rise in crime, they have no morals and they are brutes. This vengeful urban “planning” and diseased economy driven demographic movement even plays out now on football fields.

The physical impact on the city is of course too ridiculous in the sheer magnitude of its insanity to whine about here. Even if one feels most of it is done with the purpose of erasing history and eliminating public gathering spaces. How it is once again the urban poor, whether migrant or old, who pay for these foreign named “high” rises is the real tragedy. The craze for unnecessary public infrastructure, viciously greedy for cash, the dependence on imports, aggravated by a changing urban consumption as well as the construction sector, the near stagnation of the productive sector, sickened from the absence of attention and the ignorance of civil service, itself leading to proportions of price inflation impossible to hide with cooked numbers, all decimated the “middle class” Eskinder refers to but made survival strenuous for the poor.

The rural youth, who were the pioneers of “foot migration,” were now joined by their peers from the capital. As another joke goes “we were everywhere before; now we are anywhere.” The state only glorified remittances. An emerging economy of 40 million 18-26 year olds shaped in the acceptance of the fabricated: facilities sprouting overnight, fast cash, fast cures, fast degrees.

Discernment and discrimination

A patronizing state was bound to prompt a top bottom decadence in societal behaviors. This particular state has its tentacles in the lowliest professions, leaves nothing to chance or even to itself. Another lunacy, this time that of slogans, has gripped the state, in a highest level of manifestation of its incompetence. A comparison with the prevailing misconception of hard work devoid motto for cause, historicism for history, transposition of foreign terminologies for synthesis and mobbing behind hashtags and words for activism is inevitable. If the sole purpose of the student movements was “nihilism,” we seem to be living in an age of exaltation of victimhood.

This emerging youth economy, made urban by force or by choice, also had to grapple with global phenomena brought closer by social media: The rise and fall of Obama, the migration crisis he left Europe to fumble with, the rising antipathy for the other powered by ailing economies, the ensuing increase of extremism and a “war for and against terror” gone cyber, the love for sensation motored by the atomic level mincing of media and content generation. The events, movements, concepts and geopolitics that swept to power anti-progressive (to say the least) elements from Hungary to Scandinavia, from Poland to the United States trickled their dirty footprints on Ethiopian social media in the form of words without context- from feminism to so or so lives matter, from fake news to dispossession, from “occupying” to “boycotting” – the sensational trumped the rational. Tragicomically cultivated by a severely paranoid state.

The guidance and structure are still missing today. This generation however is forced to process at an unnatural speed a whole soup of information brought right to its pocket.

To give credit where it is due, those that do the organization, the leg work, the voicing and the pressure also came out from this “generation”. Similarly, the rare bouts of sentiments, as during the slaying of Ethiopian migrants in Libya and the abuses of Ethiopian maids in Arab countries that spill over Meskel Square, would, at times, baffle anyone’s views.

Those are also symptoms of the systematic, sustained elimination of what Eskinder called “conduits” – of reason, of merit, of structure, of (to steal from a friend) “filters”. The death of free press has caused the hijacking of Ethiopian information generation by foreign journalists in turn propagated by a disconnected diaspora and their innumerable media. The death of merit has caused a monopolization of activism by zealots. Social media follower numbers are equated with intellect and hero-ification of ordinary acts is followed by humiliating chastising of minute errors.

“On the ground”, as some remind those who write about Ethiopian social media, and in Addis Ababa, as others remind those who write about Ethiopia, the sentiment is no less fractured. The “them” vs “us”, “us” vs “you” banter of state media has found reflection not just in an agenda setting informed only by action and reaction but also in a perverse competition of fervor- religious and/or patriotic zeal, ethnic and/or clan loyalty. A counter-reaction? What originated as an expression of defiance of divisive state propaganda has muted in this context into a reason defying breed of puritanism, minus the ideology, political correctness, minus the love, romanticizing of rural Ethiopia, minus the most basic knowledge of a farmer’s livelihood and conservatism, minus the belief system.

It remains a good day. It is a good day for one like me who has no other country but Addis Ababa. It is a good day to hope to see how a unifying narrative, weaved from love and reason and not from polarization and much less from hatred for a common enemy, can emerge from this chaos. It is a good day to welcome back home the voices whose silencing had “hypnotized us to inaction.” It is a good day to write this.

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