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On Culture



On Culture


By Aesop




Gen. Wedi Worede was right when he said: ‘This generation is neither inferior nor superior to its predecessors!’ This is best reflected in Tigrean art: the state of the art music videos we’ve been fortunate to see. The Selamawits’, the Edens’, the Mahlets’, the Kibroms’, the Muse Shakur's’, the Awots’, the Yapi Mapis’, the Solomons’, the Merkebs’, the Waris’, etc, etc. This generation of Renaissance has represented! When Meles said: “Atum menaisei!” this generation listened!! Many say a crisis triggers doubt. But some say crises begets inspiration. I think crises lead to opportunity [not my words but something one senior Tigraean leader (whose name I don’t need to say) mentioned]. When the going gets tough [as Billy Ocean put it], the tough get going! I think Tigrai’s tough are on the go!

I remember being obliged [due to other commitments] to read the so-called ‘autobiographies’ Derg leaders wrote because of democracy that others bled for. Mengistu said the most potent factor left for his kind to exploit was culture. Only if they could replace feudal cause with something appealing, they’d have a fighting chance. Mengistu knew he couldn’t challenge ‘the anointed’ emperor. There’s no way the people would believe that God chose him over his Imperial Majesty. So, he adopted the footnote in Paulos Ngogno’s article: “Ethiopia Tikdem!” Walelign’s article moved university students; Paulos’ footnote moved Mengistu.

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Paulos was a true revolutionary who thought the Imperial claim was a sham! He knew the ‘divine claim’ to power was fabricated. He thought the Imperial claim of ‘absolute monarchy’ is beneath ‘Ethiopia’. In other words, he thought Ethiopia (i.e., the people) should supersede Ethiopia’s rulers (i.e., at that time, Ethiopia's’ monarch). Paulos Ngnongo could have never imagined that an obscure office in Harar would read his article, but he did. That obscure officer was Mengistu. Mengistu became the first person within the junior officer corps to be delivered from the so-called ‘divine will’ that God chose Haile Selassie!

The rest, based on koratu meri’s autobiography’s account, is history. Mengistu attended the officers’ scheme to overthrow the emperor- representing Harar’s troops. But he arrived a changed man. Fisiha Desta, for example (look at his autobiography), was not ready. He showed up in the officers’ meeting (scheming to overthrow H/S-I) as confused as his peers. After all, he didn’t read Paulos Ngnono’s “Ethiopia Tikdem!” Neither did Atnafu (the real Derg leader). Atnafu was a hands-on organizer, not an ‘inspirational leader’ as Mengistu! Mengistu traveled from Harar with a script of “Ethiopia Tikdem filsifina”; while other junior officers like Fisiha and Fikire Selassie had no clue. It was, therefore, only natural for Mengistu to outshine Atnafu.

When Mengistu wrote “Ethiopia Tikdem!” on the board at the Derg secret meeting, everyone was stars truck! All the 100 aleka, the shambels, and the shalekas gave their souls to this 32-year-old shaleka! None of these junior officers thought on such a higher level (which, in fact, was Paulos Ngongn’s idea). I think its important to explain why Paulos Ngogno’s article was profound. His article was as revolutionary as Tom Payne’s common sense before America’s revolution. Ethiopia was a theocratic monarchy before Derg. The feudal class justified its rule via a divine verdict because it was intolerable. The only means of justifying exploitation (i.e., taking over 75% of farm produce) was religion. The strongest feudal lords (or family) claimed the almighty anointed them to rule over Ethiopia by tracing their lineage to Solomon (read Fikre Selassie).

The ordinary Ethiopian folks were religious. They not only loved God but also feared him. So, when the feudal lords robbed them in God’s name, they accepted their plight as Job did. It was unjust; nonetheless, God’s will! So, Mengistu’s challenge was seeking a substitute. And, Paulos Ngnogno’s “Ethiopia Tikdem!” was the answer.

Ethiopia may be a land of religion. But it is also a land of history. Ethiopia is a land of valor. It is the one among few nations that succeeded in staving off colonialism. It has an alphabet, historical wonders, and cultural sophistication. Ethiopia was present during major global events in the ancient, medieval, and modern times. The role of Ethiopians in shaping global history rivals (if not outmaneuvers) the role of Ethiopian kings/queens in importing and nurturing religion. Mengistu believed nationalism was as potent as religion. So, he eliminated religion (alongside the claims to Ethiopian throne by the feudal lords) and instilled Ethiopian nationalism. In this manner, Tewordros, Belay Zeleke, Abdisa Aga became heroes because they didn’t descend from the feudal aristocracy. But, the most important issue is not Ethiopiawinet replaced Siyome Igziabher because junior officers (Derg) can’t rule Ethiopia otherwise. The most important question is how? How the Derg did it?!

Again, the most important source is the head dictators’ autobiography. Mengistu knew there was no chance for him to continue with the imperial bent towards capitalism. The West will never deal with a non-aristocracy. Besides, the leftist students would not let him. So, he embraced communism. Communism would kill the fairy tale of ‘divine emperor’. It would appease radical students. It will also secure support from the Soviet empire. But the people need a story. So, Mengistu focused on culture. Most people focus on his destructive role like the Red Terror, etc. while failing to notice his constructive role. Mengistu did build a huge military. But that was not his real power base. Mengistu erected a ‘propaganda machine’.

Mengistu was the first ruler who exploited public opinion. Mengistu sought to change the Ethiopian culture. He sought to replace “Seyoume Igzabiaher” with “Ethiopia Tikdem!” To this end, Derg built strong propaganda machinery. This propaganda corps aided Derg’s project. The Ethiopia Tikdem drama, songs, poetry, statues, paintings, etc. flourished. The propaganda corps behind Derg’s regime became famous. The Derg propaganda corps were not subject to bloody civil wars. They were respected and loved. Some of them traveled in the name of famine relief. Others made money singing about “Ethiopia Tikdem!”

Life was great for Derg’s propaganda corps until 1991 when the chickens came home to roost. Their leader (Mengistu) dropped them and run away without giving notice. Suddenly, the “Ethiopia Tikdem!” slogan was off. Ethiopians were fed up. Let us just say Ethiopians were too busy exhuming the corpses Derg buried across the country. The families of Red Terror dominated the televisions and the radios. They exposed the lies in the Red Terror trials. But the Derg propaganda corps were lucky. The regime that took over had a taste for democracy. It permitted people to publish. It wasn’t interested in censure (as Prof. Mesfin thanked it!) The post-1991 regime permitted everyone, including the Derg propaganda corps, to talk, write, organize, etc. This democratic platform enabled the Derg propaganda corps to launch their Iskra.

Eskinder Nega talked about this on LTV (of course, unintentionally). The former mastawekia minister serategnoch launched private newspapers. They fought for Derg with their pen. They flooded cities with Derg propaganda. And, when the price got steep, some of them fled while others focused on non-publishing industries like film and music. The shameless among them left Ethiopia and applied for protection in democratic countries. I call them shameless because they participated in inciting genocide, hence, they were unworthy of protection to begin with. In any event, those who fled solicited money from Ethiopia’s rivals and resurrected Derg’s ETV. They continue to preach “Ethiopia Tikdem!” that Mengistu plagiarized from Paulos Ngogno.

The point is this: TPLF defeated Derg’s military. But it overlooked the propaganda corps. This is the very corps that are currently dictating terms to the incumbent regime in 4kilo. But this force in no longer effective in Tigrai. This is because propaganda is defeated in kind- just like a force is defeated with force. This is where we ought to praise our young generation. They have nurtured Tigrai’s culture to an extent it has become impervious. Tigrai’s cultural renaissance is growing at a breathtaking speed that it might become a global phenomenon. State of the art-new generation artworks like Yapi Mapi’s “Bitsai’ye” reflect this!

The propaganda-corps spared in 1991 shall have no fighting chance for Tigrai is nurturing its culture. This is worth talking about because culture is indispensable. If the body is the hardware; culture is the software, i.e., how the processing unit is programmed. The literature, the music, the drama, the sport, and all aspects of our culture are reflections of our identity that we derive meaning, solace, and inspiration from. They dictate our passions which fuel our reason. Contemporary science has shown that cognition is disembodied. We can’t think about things we don’t care about. So, what we care about matters. Culture shapes what we care about. Let us, therefore, nurture, embrace, and celebrate our culture!


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