It is not business as usual in Ethiopia these days. Things are changing in a fast and furious way.
There is a sense of euphoria taking over a large portion of the population. There are dread and apprehension for some, fear and confusion for others. Interesting times are here. In the eternal words of Bob Dylan “the times, they are a-changing”.
It is a time of reform and transition, if not a revolution. Living in such times is not easy. The old order is not entirely gone and the new has not yet arrived. There is unpredictability even in the simple daily tasks of life. We are creatures of habit, even these simple disruptions cause disproportionate irritability. Left unchecked, they could grow to be causes of conflict, first in the family, then in the neighbourhoods.
With institutions of law and order slow to act because they are caught in their own reform-induced paralysis, these points where conflicts can flare up in neighbourhoods could conflagrate into uncontrollable events.
How should we then fare in these interesting times?
We have to acknowledge change and accept reality. This sounds simple and obvious in theory, but deceptively tricky in practice, especially for the architects of the old order. It is never simple even in ordinary family lives where parents work so hard and invest so much to raise their children to be independent and successful. And yet, they fail to recognise when time comes for their children to assert their independence and go their ways.
In fact, they resist with tooth and nail. Of course, this is bound to fail. But that resistance and inability to accept change early on causes damage to the relationship. It disrupts the family dynamics. The wiser course would be to realise that the children have come of age, to take pride in the work that has been put in preparing them for this day and having confidence in them to do well is crucial.
Sure, they will make their share of mistakes. But it is equally compelling to trust them to do the right thing eventually, most of the time anyway. If the parenting has been done right, it is now time to reap the fruit. But that requires faith. It requires courage.
The architects of the current Ethiopian republic have shown ample courage in their youth to resist tyranny. They have dared to imagine a different state structure that has changed the country irreversibly. That system has shown itself to be capable of reforming itself. This reform may require of them to gracefully take a backseat.
This may not come easily to any human. Reform is a call for self-sacrifice and does not come easy, nor is it for the feeble-minded.
Wouldn’t it be tragic for a generation of revolutionary leaders to fail this test of courage in their old age? The same test they passed in flying colours in their youth?
The challenge of living right in times of change is not limited to the incumbent. In fact, the reformers have the toughest test to pass. The intoxicating inertia of change, the nearly religious public adulations and the seductiveness of power have failed many good men in history. It is wise to note that dictators are not born, rather they are made and they never start that way.
Today’s worst dictators are yesterday’s liberators. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Leadership in times of change and transition pauses the severest test of character. It requires moral courage to do the right thing even when that is not necessarily the popular thing. It requires the self-discipline that resists the urge to change things just for the sake of change. It requires the humility to show the proper respect for the past, even in the midst of revamping its excesses.
Of course, it also demands the courage to be a trailblazer. The lessons of history are that successful reformers have paid dearly for it, some even with their own lives.
But the test of character paused by life in times of transition is not limited to leaders, old or new. The entire population will also be tested.
What is the response of the society when sensing the weakening of the central authority? Is it to set upon its neighbours to settle old scores? Or is it to use the momentum of change to build new bridges between peoples?
It is one thing to brag about a 3,000-year history and civilisation. But the burning question of the 21st Century is how do we handle conflicts today.
With bayonets and machetes or with dialogues and discussions? Do we use the momentum of change and the freeing of public forums to build better understanding between people or do we sow the seeds of hate? Do we use the liberalisation of the economy to start dynamic companies that will advance sustainable growth both for the country and ourselves or do we use it as an opportunity to become oligarchs?
Have no illusions about this, times of change and transitions test the mettle of an entire society. And not all societies take advantage of the opportunity to build a better future. Some have ended up in worse conditions than before. It is important to learn the lessons of history. To remain calm and not to be swept up in the euphoria of mobs is as important as supporting the change.
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