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Humanity before Ethnicity

Mr. Obang Addresses Ethiopians in Melbourne, Australia:
“Making Ethiopia a Livable Home for All Its People”
Empowering People to Build Institutions to Fairly Represent the Diverse People of Ethiopia

July 17, 2011

Obang Metho

Good afternoon brothers and sisters. I am very honored and delighted to be here with you in this great city of Melbourne. I have wanted to visit Ethiopians in Australia for a long time and I am thrilled to be able to do so now.

I especially want to thank Sisay Tsegaw, Frezewed Tesfaye Antachew, Endalamaw Woldemichael, Jamma Farrah, Anteneh Mulugeta, Abebe Tsegie, Yonatan Gedada and many others of you who have helped make this all possible. I also want to thank the support group for democracy committee members: Abebe, Berhe, Tatek, Mulugeta, Gashew and Tegegn for organizing this event. I want to give recognition to Samson Asfaw for the excellent work he is doing as editor and chief of Quatero website: http://www.quatero.net/, a leading and much utilized source of Ethiopian news in Australia and around the world. I look forward to personally meeting many of you as we examine ways to cooperate in building a more livable Ethiopia for our people and future generations.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit rankings, Melbourne is the second most livable city in the world and other Australian cities like Sydney, Perth and Adelaide are not far behind. These cities have now become home to growing Ethiopian communities. What can we learn in these places that we could use to make Ethiopia more livable?

Right now, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa is one of the most unlivable places in the world. No wonder why so many of us Ethiopians have left the country and are scattered throughout the world; not by choice, but in an attempt to find the safety, sustenance, freedom, justice and opportunity outside the country that was not available inside. Even though Ethiopians risk death, human trafficking, detentions and extreme hardship—sometimes for years—many Ethiopians back home; especially the young, would rather go abroad to live if they had the chance than face such a bleak future.

Currently, unless you become an avid party member in Ethiopia, you will never have the opportunity to reach your potential. I am not speaking of only opportunities for advanced education and good jobs; I am talking about access to child and maternal health care, adequate food, clean water, medical services, basic education, community resources and employment.

We are seeing a large–scale brain drain as most of our most educated people have left the country and are now using their knowledge to serve people in other nations. It is for this reason that although people claim that Ethiopia has a rich 3,000 year-old history; yet, it seems like we have gone nowhere and are actually now going backwards. 

Currently, if one is live to their potential within Ethiopia, you can only do so in one of two ways;

  • You must be from the same ethnic group that dominates the government as well as be a supporter of it,
  • If you are of a different ethnicity, you must change your allegiance from your ethnic group to the ruling party in order to access resources and opportunity.

For the many who refuse to do either of these, you have one or more of the following options: 

  • You can leave the country in search of freedom and opportunity; often at risk to your life,
  • You can fight for regime change; oftentimes with the goal of primarily advancing one’s own group
  • You can fight to separate from the country; particularly if you come from an oppressed and marginalized group
  • You can try to make changes within the country; knowing you may face threats, repercussions and possibly, imprisonment or death
  • You can suffer and endure in silence; waiting in hope that something or someone will bring the change you seek.

The focus of my talk today will be divided between:

  • expanding upon what I presented to Ethiopians in Geneva, Switzerland about how the empowerment of Ethiopian citizens can build the foundation for the unity necessary for change; and,
  • what we Ethiopians must do to change; not just the regime, but the entire model that is based on favoring a strange blend of feudalism and “my own ethnic group” or as some have put it; highlander politics and lowlander separatism politics; all of which has kept us stuck in our misery for decades or more. 

As I said it in Geneva, giving up is not an option and if it is not an option; we should be sure that whatever we do to salvage this dying and starving nation is based on principles that engage and empower the people; making it easier to build durable and effective institutions. 

Some of you may disagree and say that this is not possible; however, I would say yes, it is possible to be done to a much greater degree. People will not be perfect, but it could be much better. How many peoples and nations have risen from the ashes of war or feudalistic systems to become healthier and more prosperous nations? There are many examples on every continent of the world; including in Africa. We must become another example; but it will only be possible if people are willing to change.

Today, the title of my talk is: “Making Ethiopia a Livable Home for All Its People” Empowering People to Build Institutions to Fairly Represent the Diverse People of Ethiopia Let us first consider what we have now?

Feudal Tribalism: A Failing Model of Ethiopian Governance

Most of you are familiar with the expression, “It’s our turn to eat,” because it describes a popular philosophy in Africa which is grounded in both the best and worst aspects of tribalism, to which many still adhere. For example, one tribe, in protecting its members, would claim the right to a food source, but instead of sharing it with another tribe or creating ways to expand the food source to meet the needs of both groups; they would fight over it. Oftentimes, whoever won, took it all; something others may have done the same to them. Those who lost, got nothing and would face hunger or even death, while those who won, simply thought “it was their turn” and that they deserved it.

In the past, such a social model may have helped protect and care for family, community and tribal members; however, it also perpetuated conflict and hardship. Additionally, instead of working cooperatively with others to accomplish more than could be done alone, tribes often competed for the same resources. For example, instead of taking all the fruit from the mango tree, they could have planted an orchard. Some might have been great farmers; others could have provided the sustenance to feed the laborers while others could have brought the extra produce to market or found ways to preserve the fruit over lean months and made a profit by doing so.

Here it is 2011, and I ask you, are Ethiopians still fighting over control of one tree or are we planting an orchard to the benefit of many? Although we may appear more sophisticated, is our inability to unite for the common good still as elusive as ever? Are new alliances forming or are new divisions continually hijacking progress? Are we speaking out for those in need of advocacy or are we still ignoring the needs of everyone else outside our old groups? 

Now combine aspects of “tribe” or “ethnicity” with our feudal thinking; which is based on maintaining a rigid hierarchy where only a very few at the top control all the land, resources and every sector of life over everyone else, the tenants or peasants who can work the land as long as they do not protest when it or its proceeds are confiscated. If you then appoint cronies—regime loyalists and beneficiaries—to maintain harsh control over all its workings, we get the Meles regime. 

Even though the Meles regime as well as other past regimes are also based on tribal ties, the feudalistic underpinnings create a sort of caste system that relegates all but a few, even within the same “tribe,” to merely supportive roles that are meant to keep the power-holders in place. Resistance from any must be suppressed; including losing land, jobs, rights or life. Economic progress rarely is shared with the vast majority of those “on the bottom.”

To the extent the people accept the model of feudal tribalism, the people are totally disempowered and feel stuck in their misery.  Disunity based on tribe or some other distinction only worsens the paralysis. Believing they cannot do anything on their own, they wait for “worshiped leaders” to do it for them; giving over all power and initiative to others. Of course these leaders—like Meles when Mengistu was overthrown—may or may not have the best interests of the people at heart and the end result may be no different or worse than what they had before!

In light of this, here are some additional reasons why Ethiopians continue to work independently of each other; in factions and mini-factions, rather than coming together to work people-to-people:

  • Groups of disempowered people, divided by favorite leaders, are easier to control
  • As long as the leaders do not come together, the people go nowhere
  • You don’t really know any people outside your own group.
  • You don’t really care about people outside of your own group.
  • You don’t really want to share the spoils with people outside of your own group.
  • It’s risky to unite with others unless you can hijack the work for your own group later.
  • All of this can be applied on the large scale but also within groups as polarized factions can compete and undermine each other in a race for the “winner-takes-all” benefits.

Instead, a government should be like a mother who cares for the wellbeing of the whole family, not just picking one out from the others to favor or even worse yet, taking everything for herself. 

Change in Ethiopia Must Begin in the Hearts and Minds of Ethiopians!

Change in Ethiopia starts in the hearts and minds of each individual and is then translated into actions; consistent with God-given principles. As increasing numbers of people spread this to others at the ground level, it will impact families, communities, organizations, institutions and our society as a whole. It will require that we discard our old prejudicial attitudes about others and embrace the principles of putting humanity before ethnicity and caring about our neighbor for this alone will bring unbelievable change to our country, our region, our continent and beyond. Real and lasting change begins with individual people. These people have to know that for the sake of our children and our future we must give up something and sacrifice. There is no reason that Ethiopians cannot do the same as people from other nations who have created more caring and accountable societies.

Today, I would like to change our model starting with each of you beginning with two words that sums it up: REMEMBER OTHERS! Each and every human being was created by God with inherent value, rights and dignity. In Ethiopia, we have given different groups different percentages of human-ness, but there are no 99.9% humans; we are all 100% human. Societies that uphold such beliefs become livable societies where people can flourish.  

Today, I will be recruiting all of you to become part of a movement to turn Ethiopia into a livable home for Ethiopians where we REMEMBER OTHERS and see every person as being a 100% human being! This movement is not a leader-to leader-movement or an organization-to-organization movement, but instead, a people-to-people movement where the people of Ethiopia take ownership for the problems we face and commit themselves and their resources to solving them in a way that will be inclusive and egalitarian. 

We will absolutely know when we have begun to accomplish this goal when Ethiopians stop running away from the country, when Ethiopians in the Diaspora start moving back to the country and when local groups and regions are empowered to exercise self-determination as well as have a say in national issues rather than our current model where a one-party authoritarian government controls every aspect of life.  Fearing that loss of control would make them the victims, the Meles regime clings all the more tightly to power no matter what the cost; believing others would do the same if they had the chance. This is a powerful incentive to ignore the suffering of the people.

The flip side of this could be considered, “separatist politics” that could be applied to any groups who saw themselves as used, abused and excluded from the mainstream. Thinking it is hopeless to try to change the mainstream society, they seek to withdraw from it and claim their own independence. Separatism and insurgency movements should be an expected reaction to the current Ethiopian model of “winner takes all” politics; particularly among the most marginalized whose survival is at risk.

Over the last decades of feudal tribalism, the rights of these groups have been unendingly violated; however, under the Meles regime, the government has waged a counter-insurgency war; particularly in areas where the regime seeks indigenous natural resources like in Gambella, the Ogaden, Oromia, Afar, Amhara and Benishangul.

The current Ethiopian political model of feudalistic tribalism is held in place by deeply held fears that the regime reinforces for their own survival. Here are some examples:

  • It is dangerous to see others as fully human for then you might see their hunger, pain and suffering and feel guilty about the regime’s actions towards others because maintaining control is necessary to survive. 
  • It is important to deny the truth and minimize what you do, see or hear as a defense against one’s conscience or future accountability.
  • If the minority Meles regime is not ruthless enough in suppressing resistance and maintaining a divided public (and Diaspora)—through ethnicity, religion, politics and self-interest—the majority will rise up to overpower the regime. 
  • If the voices of truth, opposition and unity are not silenced, the regime will “look bad” to outsiders and that will weaken its position. 
  • This is our chance to prosper; others took from us and now it is our turn to take from them.
  • If we are both clever and ruthless, this can go on forever and we will never be held accountable.

We can take this model a step further and apply it to other groups like the multitude of political groups who oftentimes operate under the same paradigm as described. When this is the case, it makes it impossible to succeed in working towards shared goals. 

Stepping Out of the Ethnic Box: It’s All About Choices!

If we want sustainable change in Ethiopia, Ethiopians—one at a time—must step out of the confining box we are in. Only then can we create a country where there is unity that works.  I too was in that box.  Let me start by telling my own story of how I got out of the Anuak box.

Following the massacre of the Anuak, I was angry and wanted justice. I personally knew over 300 of those Anuak leaders who had been brutally murdered, with countless others wounded, raped or forced into exile. I saw years of meager developmental progress in this very marginalized region; destroyed in days. I saw how the devaluation of the Anuak as human beings created the heartless backdrop for the atrocities committed by the TPLF military and militia groups. I felt how easy it would have been to retaliate; however, I also knew that doing so would only perpetuate a cycle of grievances and revenge until those of us caught up in it stepped out of that box and helped create something better for all people. 

The Anuak Justice Council (AJC) rightly acted on behalf of the Anuak who greatly needed protection as an ethnically-targeted and vulnerable minority group; yet, it became very clear that freedom would never come only to Anuak unless the people of Ethiopia worked together in changing a system that persistently violated the rights of the majority of its people; regardless of who was in power. 

This was when I decided to reach out to others; particularly after I started seeing the widespread abuses and suffering of others and how little compassion existed between separate groups of people. Some from my own ethnic group did not agree and still do not agree; believing the only solution was separation from the country. I can understand that viewpoint as some of my fellow Anuak question whether our present system of feudal tribalism—with the Anuak perpetually marginalized—will ever change. I believe that with God’s help, we can do it and I have already seen great evidence of that. Such change should be our goal even if some groups eventually seek independence because the people of the Horn of Africa still must learn how to live and flourish together. 

Unless we start building a political system based on respecting the equal dignity, rights and value of all Ethiopians, as well as other people of the Horn, we have no future as a people, a country or a region. The decision to change must start with each individual. I personally hated the cycle of injury and retaliation that supported the continuation of a top-down hierarchy ruled by a few elite at the top who could benefit as we wounded each other.

I chose to commit myself to working to change the cycle and the flawed system. This is when some of us decided to move from the ethnic-based model of the AJC to the national model of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE). It includes actively seeking justice, but also includes reaching out to break down barriers of ethnicity, political viewpoint, region, language and religion in order to see the humanity of others as we see our own. 

That began the journey of meeting countless wonderful people, like those of you here. When I arrived in Australia, I met brother Sisay for the first time when he met me at the airport. I am now staying with him and it feels like we are family. The same is true of those of you here. I have never seen any of you face-to-face before. I did not grow up with you. I do not know your backgrounds or what you do; however, as I meet you, as well as many Ethiopians all over the world, you have all become part of my Ethiopian family. If I had not stepped out of my ethnic box, I would never have known you, my Ethiopian brothers and sisters.  

Summing it all up in practical terms:

  • This is a principle-driven movement; not leader-driven, for leaders come and go; principles live on.

 Ethiopian feudal culture is leader-driven; with passive and dependent supporters who continue to wait for the leaders to do something without understanding what one or a few persons could accomplish by starting with one doable task close to them.   The people at the grassroots have never been empowered and still do not know their rights. One of the problems is that our political parties and institutions are linked to individuals rather than to enduring principles; so when that individual goes, fights with other leaders within the organization or suffers a fall in approval; it can bring division and cause the whole institution to collapse. This is one of the reasons we are going nowhere.

For example, when the monarchy of Haile Selassie collapsed, the entire structure of his government collapsed. The same thing happened with Mengistu. After his government was overthrown we had to start all over again. The same thing has been happening in our local governments and religious institutions. Instead of fixing problems, when the leaders become divided, the people become divided and then the institutions, which have not been built on principles but on individuals, collapse. Even when these institutions are principle-based, they must have checks and balances that hold leaders accountable so that they remain effective; regardless of the leaders.

Right now, Meles is above everyone. In the West, if a leader does something wrong, people force the person to resign or to be held accountable in some way. In Ethiopia we have leaders who stand above the law and above every institution. The same weakness exists in political parties; which are so easy to be divided and once they are, they collapse, often without salvaging important achievements. Some just want to rid Ethiopia of everything the TPLF/EPRDF has done, but the truth is; when this regime ends, there will be some good aspects, contributions and people that can help build a New Ethiopia. Any system that can only be built by discarding everything and everyone from the previous system and starting all over again, fails to capitalize on previous progress and present assets. 

  • Creating a community of people grounded on principles of valuing one another as a means to build a New Ethiopia. 

 The change we need starts in Melbourne where people from this city engage with one another to solve issues affecting them here; for example, to build an institution(s) for Ethiopians, which would not be based on ethnicity, but on shared needs. In some ways, you are already practicing it. When people die, people will visit the family and contribute money for their body to be brought back to their family members in Ethiopia, but we should not need someone to die to bring people together. As Ethiopians make transitions into other cultures, where are the community organizations and resources to support them? An effective community could help with transitional adjustments, family issues, educational resources, job-seeking and resource referral as well as organize community events and other supports. 

For example, what can we do to make sure our kids do not become involved in crime or drugs? How can we create healthy, well-functioning children who can reach their potential despite having one foot in Australian culture and one foot in Ethiopian or one’s own ethnic-based culture? How can this instead become a real asset for them? 

When I talk about changing Ethiopia, we must rout out the old system among us by starting here in Melbourne and then applying it back home. If we can work together regardless of ethnicity, religion or political viewpoint here in Australia, we can do the same in Ethiopia but it should be based on valuing and remembering others.

  • Empowered citizens in a bottom-up model of governance can develop strong local and regional governance that better responds to the diverse needs of the community and which can join efforts with other regional or national partners for their mutual benefit. 

If we apply this bottom-up approach to local self-determination here in Melbourne, Ethiopians back home can do the same. If we cross barriers of diversity to do it here, Ethiopians back home can also do the same! If we can join with Ethiopians beyond Melbourne, so can Ethiopians back home as long as we operate by the principle that whatever is good for oneself is also good for other people. What makes Africa impoverished is selfishness; like Meles who thinks about what is good for him, his family, his cronies or his own ethnic group.

Where you go from here in Melbourne is the responsibility of individuals; not political parties. People in Melbourne do not have to wait for Obang, Berhanu, Birtukan or anyone else to do it. You can start right now where you are. If you move ahead today, it will be based on a solidarity among the people who believe in the betterment of families, communities and nations. Even a small core group can start it.

In Melbourne, there are Ogadenians, Oromo, Amhara, Tigrayans and even a few Nuer and Anuak. If a few of you really worked together, it could be a SMNE model that could be replicated in four or five other cities in Australia. The SMNE could help link these chapters to those in other cities throughout the world. If all began to listen to each other, we would have a community-empowered movement—with impact beyond the components—that could be transplanted and replicated back at home. Again, it would be empowered by diverse citizens at the local level that would join with others to have a greater impact while still representing local interests.

We must recruit other people. Most everyone here today has family members at home and in the Diaspora. All you need to do is to help change the mindset of these family members back home and abroad. Engage you wife, your siblings, your parents and your children in an effort to raise awareness and encourage taking initiative. Remember, it starts with persuading others around you to consider a different viewpoint. Once others among our families and friends understand; you are not alone. If 100 people here in Melbourne with 100 or more family members in the country can change their mindset; we will have a true people-driven movement. Take action rather than passively waiting for some leader or someone else to do it. With God’s strength, guidance and help, the change we so desire in Ethiopia can start within our hearts and minds and become contagious as we apply it to ourselves, our families, our communities, our homeland and beyond.

We do not have to wait for a crisis to happen. Even a few committed people can make a drastic change within their community.  The appreciation for the God-given humanity in each of us undergirds it all and it starts with us. Let people know their rights and potential and then apply it until we create a healthy society. If Ethiopians do not know their rights or responsibilities, they give up all their power and influence to leaders they fail to hold accountable. This is a feudal model that is holding us back both individually and collectively.  

When Kinijit divided, everyone became divided. The disappointment felt by the people led to disillusionment with all political leaders that deflated the entire struggle for a period of time. When a religious organization or institution has been divided, the people have become divided. If there is strong ownership by the members, such problems can often be resolved and if wrongdoing has been done, those involved can be held accountable. Such an empowered constituency along with a clear mission and guidelines are all safeguards against collapse when divisions occur. This is what we must do in forming Ethiopian institutions for the future.

For example, when I leave Melbourne, I am hoping that core people here could engage with others in creating a strong, principle based community for everyone; where you are able to carry on without me. You are in charge. My only role now is to connect you with others once you are strong. Everyone with whom I meet in various places maintains autonomy at the local level; which can then be linked to other cities, countries and then back home. Leaders will emerge from among the people at these local levels and some of them will end up assuming greater responsibility at regional, national or international levels. As diverse people among you in Melbourne start to work together; you will not only achieve your local goals, you will discover that you can achieve larger goals as well. This is how the people of Melbourne will bring unity to our joint struggle for freedom in Ethiopia because you will already been living it out here within your own community.

You are in charge! Learn from each other and if you are doing something well, share your ideas, knowledge and inspiring stories. If some are in need, share the burden; even small contributions can help a lot rather than a few taking it all on. This has never been done before and is a road to broader success.

In closing, I want you to know what a privilege it has been to me to be here with you. I thank you for your wonderful reception and look forward to seeing what can be accomplished by those of you here in Melbourne. I want to remind you of this fact. We have almost 300 people here today because of one Ethiopian among you who reached out to me and then worked with others of you to make this meeting happen. After this I have meetings with various government officials and special interest groups in Melbourne before traveling to Perth to meet with other Ethiopians and then to Sydney. 

What a loss it would have been had I remained in my Anuak box. I would never have had the joy of meeting all of you! You are part of our greater family of Ethiopians. I hope you now will reach out; building new relationships and encouraging others to do the same.   

May God raise up many servant-leaders and empower us to build strong, just and effective institutions in Ethiopia that can bring help and healing to our broken, divided and wounded society. As we individually examine our hearts and minds, may God free us from what holds us hostage to an ideology of destruction; enabling us to reach out with respect, cooperation and kindness to others so that we may accomplish more together in making Ethiopia a truly livable home for all its people than we ever could have imagined! 

Thank you!


Please do not hesitate to email me if you have comments to: Obang@solidaritymovement.org
Mr. Obang Metho, is the Executive Director of the Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia

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