Ethiopians Have Yet to Learn How to Disagree

Building a nation with various opposing forces within it remains easier said than done. We have to resort to an old tradition of conflict resolution, Shengo, which is appropriate today given the divergent voices that are coming, writes Ambessaw Assegued  (

An American in the Diaspora in 1992 met two senior officials of a rebel government, newly installed in Addis Abeba.

The high officials, accompanied by a low-level one, were at the home of the widow of WeldeGiorgis Tedla, a decorated patriot of the war against Fascist Italia and a respected friend to some in the imperial court and ministries. The American is a close family acquaintance and joins a polite conversation which quickly turns to the restive situations of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) and the grumblings being heard from the interiors.

The two rebel officials are dismissive and disparaging of any dissent in the hinterland, effectively arguing that they have the means and force to deal with it, and they know what to do.

This chance encounter is a harbinger of the political and economic turmoil that Ethiopia is facing today. The low-level official continues parroting his leaders when he returns to the conversation after seeing the two ministers off.

Questions were raised later by the American about the alleged confiscation and removal of public properties including typewriters, guns and vehicles from government offices during their march south to Addis Abeba. The official defends such actions by saying that it is the price paid for the bloodshed by the rebels in freeing Ethiopia from the grips of the Dergue.

Little did this official understand that rebels are not mercenaries and a struggle to depose a tyranny is not a commercial transaction where rewards are expected and extracted by the victor from the populace.

In describing the events of the time, Merera Gudina (PhD) writes in his paper, “Party Politics, Political Polarization and the Future of Ethiopian Democracy”: “contrary to the expectation of many, the [rebels] set the rules of the game and invited others to accept the rules.” He continues, “to date, neither there has been any real negotiation over the original rules set by one party nor did the party fully respect its own rules. What is happening is that, the party easily changes the goal posts at any stage of the game and at any time of its choice.”

The man who the rebel leaders have come to pay their respects to, WeldeGiorgis had cultivated, educated and shaped some of the rebels. He does not live long enough to see them enter in to Addis Abeba. Had he lived, in much the same way as he used to advise and correct his influential friends in imperial Ethiopia, he would have guided them on how to more delicately manage the nation and treat the venerable city.

He would have been offended by any idea of entitlement and compensation demands of the rebels for acts they carried out in defence of Ethiopia and its people. He would not have accepted ethnolinguistic federalism that has created the divisions within the country.

WeldeGiorgis goes to war to defend his country and people against an aggressor and returns to the capital to help push the nation into the modern world. He paves the way for young parochial men from Adwa to enter Addis Abeba University, gives them stipends and other material help and encourages them toward enlightenment.

He contributes to the independence and modernisation of Ethiopia without seeking any reward for himself, and without sullying himself in narrow tribalism and clamouring for partisan interests.

On his victorious return from the war, he did not roam the capital or raid the countryside seeking recompense for his struggles in freeing Ethiopia from Fascism. In fact, none of the patriots who fought with him in that war came back clamouring for compensation for their efforts. Their reward is the independence of Ethiopia and keeping their fellow citizens free from foreign dominations.

WeldeGiorgis does not demand grants of land and payments of cash for his patriotic services or a sit in the high offices of government nor special dispensations that favours him commercially. Instead, he establishes one of the first public “hot-showers” in the middle of Merkato in Addis Abeba and another one in Jimma.

When he encounters escalating prices for the fuel-wood he uses in his boiler rooms, he switches to using spent motor-oil collected from nearby trucks, vehicles and garages in a practical demonstration of his modern spirit.

Ever the astute businessman, the unused portions of soap bars from his hot-shower enterprises are collected and boiled in large vats and then used to wash the soiled towels of the operation achieving sanitation, cleanliness and efficiency in one fell swoop. His mission is to raise the standards of those around him into self-sufficiency and success by educating them and establishing them in businesses and enterprises.

His legacy and businesses remain today and the ascendancy of the men who he had climbed to positions of power; men like the two ministers who come calling to pay tribute to his widow, are testaments to the success of his vision of a united Ethiopia.

His vision had no ethnic or linguist demarcations. His wise and sober council on freedom, progress, history and nation-building would have benefited the two ministers.

Ethiopia is impoverished when men and women like WedeGiorgis, visionaries and competent citizens, are excluded from the political process. The new bloom of leaders will be wise to open up the stage for dialogue to take place, draw a cross-section of prominent people into its fold and start building a national consensus.

One way to achieve this is by calling a Shengo, grand assembly, in the old tradition of conflict resolution, which may be very appropriate today where divergent voices are coming in from everywhere. The new leaders could invite to Addis Abeba delegations and representatives of community leaders, elders, tribal leaders, businesspeople and civil society representatives from across the country to meet at one place, in one hall and to task the Shengo to discuss all matters of national import with the goal of creating a national consensus.

The technical aspect of accomplishing this including issuing the call to assemble, rules about quorums, votes and documentation should be simple enough to organise.

The gracious widow of WeldeGiorgis has caused the chance encounter of the rebel officials and the American to conclude with civility and decorum. Alas, much remains to be done to restore Ethiopia to what citizens like WeldeGiorgishad envisioned for their country.

By Ambessaw Assegued
He can be contacted at

Published on Jul 07,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 949]



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