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Moral Decay and the Poverty of Conscience in Ethiopia

Moral Decay and the Poverty of Conscience in Ethiopia

Aynalem Sebhatu 02-17-21

With the ascent of Abiy Ahmed to power, arguably for much longer time; political elites, religious leaders, intellectuals and journalists as people and citizens of Ethiopia seem to have lost their way. They are wavering in uncertainty and they are unsure of themselves in their relations to each other and to the country at large. Their optimism and moral motivation have been largely replaced by an entrenched ethnic extremism, political sarcasm, and disillusionment.

The country is now in a political crisis, its economic activity is in slippery slope, its federal regional states are at war with each other—raising the question whether Ethiopia’s political, social, legal, economic, and historical assets are resilient enough to maintain the pillars of unity of the country.  In a country with a complex ethnic diversity, the cement of moral leadership and a matured political leadership with conscience is vital in keeping the country together—and in fact to counteract the disintegration of the country into shattered and warring federal regional states.

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Ethiopians can no longer afford to be silently insensible and ignorant about the pressing wide-spread and deeper crisis the country is sliding into. This may well mean drastic changes in their understanding of their duties and responsibilities as citizens and what citizenship entails. And this in turn may well demand asking uncomfortable questions. What are the real issues behind the engulfing wars in different parts of the country? Does the country need a more tolerant, patient and mature leadership? Does the country need to resolve the conflicts via national political dialogue? What is the point of incarcerating thousands of Ethiopians who happen to have different political ideas than Abiy Ahmed?

As Gumuz, Oromia and Tigray’s problems are the country’s problems, the people of Gumuz, the Oromos and Tigrayans’ conscience ought to be all Ethiopians’ conscience. It is sad to see Ethiopians turning their back on sufferings of the Gumuz, Oromos and Tigrayans. By waiting for a problem to knock on their doors, Ethiopians are enabling the forces of darkness to destroy the country with impunity.

What is not yet adequately realized in the country is that the largest urban areas—especially Addis Ababa pre-eminently—have not taken a leadership role in the act and practice of national conscience.  Addis Ababa is expected not only carry the burden of the country, but also bear the conscience of the country. But to no avail so far. At best, the residents of Addis Ababa are conveniently silent and acting as if the country is chugging along the rails of peace and prosperity, to the delight of Abiy Ahmed. At worst, Addis Ababa’s residents, if not all, are stoking the lies of Abiy Ahmed and thereby enabling him to lead the country to a cliff. If they do not stand up and speak up their conscience soon enough, …well let me leave you with the famous confessional prose (about Nazi Germany) by the German pastor, Martin Niemoller:

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”


Are Ethiopians losing their ethical and moral compass? One prime exhibit of the decaying of the moral compass of Ethiopians is the invitation of Isaias Afewerki and making a political deal thereby welcoming hatred driven revenge, brutal disregard to human life, looting and rape into the country with open arms. This is unforgivable offense, devoid of any conscience, is by any moral standard is a repugnant political ploy.  

 To offer some context for what we’re living through, and why it feels the poverty of the country is heightened by the poverty of conscience, I will list a few major events that took place which are initiated by political elites, military leaders, elders and religious leaders.  On an otherwise ordinary day in the summer of 2018 (on July 15), the Eritrean dictator, Isaias Afewerki, got a stirring welcome in the Millennium Hall in Addis Ababa. He was welcomed by a thunderous response from the fans who had come to the venue to see Abiy Ahmed and his political cronies. Few months following this political fanfare, the Amhara political elites rolled out a red carpet for Isaias in Bahir Dar and Gondor. It is widely reported that he was greeted by Ethiopian officials, religious leaders, renowned individuals and the two cities residents with exuberant and warm reception. Isaias who was never seen with a broad smile for a long time was grinning from ear to ear.

Abiy Ahmed and Ethiopians’ praise for Isaias immediately triggered a backlash by those who thought that hailing a brutal tyrant was unworthy of any Ethiopian with a sound moral value and clear conscience.  Eritreans reacted to these developments with shock and disbelief. Facebook, twitter and web sites record their sorrow and sheer bafflement.

The warm receptions were surreal because Isaias Afewerki is indicted, at least in public opinion, for having thousands of Eritreans interrogated, imprisoned, tortured, conscripted, executed and in many cases forced his citizens to exile for more than 30 years. Friendless and paranoid Isaias is also well known for clipping and thinning his comrades in arms using cruel, inhuman and brutal systems of imprisonment. In short, Eritrea under Isaias Afewerki is among the three most repressive countries of the world.

But are Abiy Ahmed, the Amhara political elites and their supporters’ celebration of a brutal dictator unprecedented? After all, there are Ethiopians who were celebrating Mengistu Hailemariam, another genocidal dictator. This is only to give an example from the recent history of the country. If political leaders and their supporters have a long history of admiring and supporting brutal dictators, they have at least sometimes done so for good reasons and mainly for national security reasons. In this regard, Isaias Afewerki is a worthy ally in defeating and eliminating the TPLF. 

But the question is what kind of national security issues are settled by attacking the TPLF and waging a devastating war against the people of Tigray? As far as I could see, thousands have been killed, so many things destroyed, and the country’s political and economic pillars are on the verge of collapse due to the war in Tigray. Hence, the war in Tigray only intensified the national security crisis of the country. Arguably, this war only brought Isaias’s long-held dream of dismembering Ethiopia much closer than he could imagine and it also brought immediate emotional satisfaction for Abiy Ahmed and the Amhara extremists. But is the war worth it? What kind of moral decay and tortured conscience one has to have to put the country through this nightmare?

As the saying goes: the fish stinks from the head down. A significant number of Ethiopians saw the ascent of Abiy Ahmed as a divine intervention.  But he is an immature politician turned crowd-pleaser without any conviction or principle, a man who blurred the boundaries of politics and fantasy and seems to think himself a king beyond the rules of law of the country.

Contrary to the overwhelming evidence of rape victims’ testimonials, Abiy’s Chief of Staff of the military, Berhanu Jula, told the BBC “"Our defence forces don't rape. They aren't bandits. They are government forces. And government forces have ethics and rules of engagements," It is classic denial and no surprise here. But what is surprising is when Berhanu declared he is a proud member of the Derg. Jumping on the bandwagon of revisionists of history and it is abundantly clear that the Derg era of red terror is getting a photoshop and painting the worst human rights record of the country with a positive spin. Perhaps he is expecting the worst human rights violations to come out of the war in Tigray. Clearly the way one understands the past certainly shapes how one understands the present and the future.

Coming to the actions taken by religious leaders and elders, I do not know where to start and end.  In the best Ethiopian tradition, elders and religious leaders play a crucial role in smoothing family, religious and public affairs. This is so due to lack of formal institutional frameworks. Unfortunately, Abiy Ahmed has used the “council of elders” as one of his political tools and played the council like a fiddle and  thereby degrading the respect given to traditional elders. He has sent two “council of elders” to Mekelle since the war in Tigray started in early November of 2020.  With unclear goals and mandates, the mission of the council of elders was doomed to failure.

My understanding is that mediation works best when the two sides are willing to discuss their differences. This raises questions: why did the council of elders go to Mekelle? To meet with the TPLF? Instead of going to Mekelle, why not mediate the raging war in Oromia? After all, it is happening in their backyard. Why not condemn the killings of the increasingly voiceless of the Gumuz? Why not mediate with Abiy about Oromo politicians in a hunger strike?  They do not have nerves or backbones even to condemn the destructions of churches and mosques. They reminded me of a verse from the Bible: these people are “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with hot iron.”  The council of elders could learn about human convictions with conscience and courage under fire from the 28 Tigrayans killed in protesting against the council of elders visiting Mekelle.    

Tigray will prevail!

Eternal glory to our martyrs!

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