Ethiopia: The Future of the Future Country, Part I

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Looking Through the Glass, Brightly

"Ethiopia is the country of the future," Birtukan Midekssa would often say epigrammatically. Ethiopia's number 1 political prisoner is always preoccupied with her country's future and destiny. Her deep concern for Ethiopia is exceeded only by her boundless optimism for its future. For that reason, her maxim echoes not only a manifest general truth, but also makes a profound and complex historical argument that calls for a paradigm shift in the way we understand contemporary Ethiopian politics and envision the future.

To be the country of the future necessarily means not being the country of the past. Birtukan's Ethiopia of the future is necessarily the categorical antitheses of an imperial autocracy, a military bureaucracy and a dictatorship of kleptocracy. Her vision of the future Ethiopia is a unified country built on a steel platform of multiparty democracy. Birtukan would have been pleased to explain her vision and dreams of the future country of Ethiopia; unfortunately, she can not speak for herself as she has been condemned to "rot" in jail.

As we begin the second decade of the 21st century, it is important for the rest of us to carry on the conversation that Birtukan has so insightfully sparked. She is concerned about Ethiopia's future because she understands that a nation without a clear sense of its future is a nation without a destiny, and one doomed to suffer the scourges of tyranny and oppression. When Birtukan speaks of Ethiopia as the country of the future, she speaks of it in the same way as Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of his American dream. He dreamt that one day in the future, America "will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed... that all men (and women) are created equal." He dreamt that Americans, despite their bitter history of oppression and injustice, "will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood" and resolve their differences amicably and peacefully. Above all, he dreamt of a future where his "four children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Birtukan also has a dream that one day Ethiopians will sit together at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood to discuss their historic grievances and current issues, atone for and forgive each other for past transgressions, and in a renewed spirit of reconciliation, compromise and accommodation, forge a common destiny. She dreams of the day when her 4-year old daughter and the millions of children in Ethiopia will grow up in a country where they are judged not by their ethnicity, tribal affiliation, gender, language, religion, region or wealth, but by their abilities and the content of their character. She dreams of a just and moral society.

Fully accepting and working towards such a future for Ethiopia may sound naïve and idealistic to some given the present grim state of affairs. If the trend projections of the doomsday soothsayers are to be believed, in Ethiopia's future, there is no future. The scientists tell us that Ethiopia will prove to be a poster child for "environmental determinism" in 40 years. It's population will double to 150 million by 2050; and overpopulation, coupled with large and growing per capita resource consumption and negative environmental impact will trigger a complete collapse of the society by the middle of the century. These scientists point to evidence of large-scale deforestation and habitat destruction, soil degradation, decline in potable water supply and water pollution, overgrazing, desertification and so on as the unmistakable present warning signals of future collapse.

The agricultural experts express shock and dismay in the sale and lease of millions of hectares of land to foreign corporations who are set on producing food for export back to their home countries while Ethiopians are dying of massive starvation and famines (officially known in the politically correct phrase "severe food shortages"). The economists paint an equally dire picture of a country overburdened by debt to international lenders and a local economy in the chokehold of businesses closely allied with the ruling regime, and whose principal capitalization is derived from conversion of previously government-owned properties through a bogus privatization process. With land and key sectors of the economy such as telecommunications under the control or ownership of the regime or its supporters, without a functional financial services sector and youth unemployment in excess of 70 percent, the practitioners of the "dismal science" predict a dismal economic future for Ethiopia.

There are even those who predict political implosion long before systemic collapse. A research group with expertise in international crises analysis recently sounded the alarm over "the potential for a violent eruption of conflict in Ethiopia ahead of the May 2010 elections amidst rising ethnic tensions and dissent." The international human rights groups and organizations who have extensively documented the regime's sustained pattern of crackdowns on dissent, criminalization of civil society groups, persecution of the independent media, election rigging and theft, massive rights violations and implementation of repressive decrees consign Ethiopia to the scrapheap of the most hopeless and wretched nations on the planet. If we are to believe the doomsday soothsayers, Ethiopia is presently in critical triage on life support. They peg her survival without complete societal collapse and political implosion in the first half of the 21st century at much less than 50 per cent.

We must categorically reject the dark predictions of the naysayers and the merchants of doom and gloom. The future of Ethiopia is in the hands, hearts and minds of its people, not in the tea leaves read by the experts. As John M. Richardson, Jr. said, "When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who make things happen, those who let it happen, and those who wonder what happened." Birtukan belongs in the first category. Because of the enormous sacrifices she has made, she rightly deserves to be called a future maker, as anyone who chooses to join her in her quest for a better future in Ethiopia would be. What makes Birtukan unique is that she understands that if we do not work together actively to shape the future, the past will assuredly shape it for us. Only when the future makers put their shoulders to the grindstone and do the heavy lifting can we prove the experts wrong and guarantee that Ethiopia's best days are yet to come.

The future of the future country will be decided in a battle between the "future makers" and "future takers." We are witnesses to the handiwork of the future takers today. They have taken everything in the present -- the rights of the people, their dignity, their daily bread, their land, their hopes and their dreams -- so that there will be no future. They calculate the future to be a continuation of the past, and they will do everything in their power to perpetuate the past into the future. Future takers worship at the altar of greed and corruption; and for them fairness, decency, generosity and morality are anathema. The battle between the future makers and future takers will be waged and decided in the hearts and minds of the people. The future takers will wage a war of tears and fears. The future makers will fight back with hope, faith, charity and love.

We should reject the static and deterministic outcomes predicted by the experts because their assumptions about Ethiopia are fundamentally incorrect. Their analytical models are predicated on a flawed postulate that Ethiopians are fundamentally a weak and desperate people who are passive objects of oppression, charity and pity. We must reject out of hand, and without hesitation, any argument that suggests Ethiopia's future will be sealed in ethnic fragmentation, political dissolution and national self-destruction. We must cast aside any theory that predicts the systemic collapse and the end of a nation whose history dates back 3000 years. We have been a nation of survivors. We have survived and prevailed over the plague of European colonialism when nearly all of Africa succumbed to it. We have survived recurrent famines of Biblical proportion. We have endured conflicts and wars. We have survived autocracy, despotism and kleptocracy. Let there be no doubt: We will survive until the end of time because we are the "masters of our fate" and the "captains of our destiny".

Philosophers and historians speak of a recurrent cycle in human events. Great nations rise and fall. Governments come and go. Leaders change and are replaced. But nations survive because each generation accepts its responsibilities and forges ahead with the enormous tasks of future-building. When Birtukan says Ethiopia is the country of the future, she means to say that this generation of Ethiopians has a rendezvous with destiny. Whether Ethiopia will self-destruct in ethnic fragmentation and strife is not carved in stone. This generation can avert that dark future by working for and promoting ethnic diversity and national unity. A new generation of statesmen and stateswomen could trump the political expediency and machination of those desperately clinging to power. Whether Ethiopia is doomed to ecological collapse is not determined by the inexorable forces of global warming. Carefully planning and prioritization of societal needs, implementation of creative policies, public awareness, education and mobilization could help steer away the Ethiopian nation from the dangerous shoals of ecological calamity.

The future requires responsibility, creativity, endurance and sacrifice. It can not be left to a few leaders, politicians, intellectuals or experts. If there is one thing to be learned from the recent past, it is that the Ethiopian people know what kind of a future they want. Their verdict in the 2005 elections stands as a final testament for a genuine multiparty democracy. History is also on the side of freedom and the youth. Despite all the setbacks of recent years, the values of democracy, freedom and human rights have taken deep root in the psyche of Ethiopian youth. They will be leading the forward march of Ethiopia into a glorious future. With Ethiopia's future in the hands of her young people, we have cause to be confident and even to celebrate. Let our youth learn from a wise African saying: "Tomorrow belongs to the (young) people who prepare for it today."

"The Future of the Future Country" is a special commentary to be offered in periodic serialized future segments by the author.