Beautiful Addis Abeba View As we noted initially, nation-building is a contested process and the path to consensus is neither linear nor guaranteed. Consensus is especially difficult to achieve in a nation as ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse as Ethiopia. This has become a singularly arduous task especially now that a generation of Ethiopians have grown up in an EPRDF Ethiopia, who are more and more alienated from actual inter-ethnic-lived experiences of Ethiopians of present and past generations. It is also naive to expect the debate to remain even-tempered. Emotions can run high as communities attempt to reconcile their identity and group status as they negotiate the meaning of their shared history with others. However, prerequisites to making meaningful progress are high-trust communication mediums, shared facts and shared goals. At the moment, the opposite appears to be true.
Each side accuses the other side of positing totalizing narratives, but there is a glaring absence of willingness on both sides to engage in reasoned debates with each other leaving no room to explore the authenticity and truthfulness of alternative narratives. What is worse, social media being the dominant medium of communication—which thrives on disagreements and antagonism—it is even questionable if such engagement is possible, or even the intended goal. It is not an accident that much of the narrative war is being fought on social media. Social media is fertile ground for having one sided debate. For the elites, it is a place where captured attention can be exchanged for dollars and because of it, careful analysis and nuance—arguably the most important characteristics of intellectuals— are disincentivized.
To use Edward Said’s words, “aggrieved primal innocence”- owing to past or present perceived or actual violence – or a sense of self-righteousness are the least of positions to start a debate on a history as long and contentious as Ethiopia’s and a process of nation building, which has been made even more complicated with the divisive ethnic politics of the last 28 years. Nonetheless, even if we disagree on where we started and how we got here, we could at least agree on where we are heading. To be sure, it may still be argued that we would not know where we are heading if we do not know where we started. That may very well be the dilemma we might have to learn to live with and, even the right place to start the debate. But denialism, lack of empathy, and cancel-culture are the last traits we should carry into this debate not only because people’s lives, but also the future of Ethiopia as a state, are at stake. Good faith debate based on shared facts and shared goals are required if the historical Ethiopia is to survive another century.
We shouldn’t also lose sight of the fact that, while not denying that there are genuinely invested individuals and groups of actors in each camp, there are still many in this “war” owing to other factors that have little or nothing to do with a genuine concern for Ethiopia and everyday Ethiopians. The harsh truth is that this is not just a debate about history, identity, or self-governance. It is also, if not more so, about elites’ drive for resource monopolization and the prestige that comes with power and other factors external to the debate.
Abiy’s government, like the EPRDF before it, is attempting to limit internet access, especially to social media, to quell recent unrest. The government’s desperate act to avoid future incidents like these are understandable. Expanded internet access to all, in theory, at least, is a positive development in the right hands. And it would be misguided to argue that the broadening of access to free speech that has been made possible through social media is wrong or detrimental. The detriment, actually, is with the unchecked nature of social media. As well, the absence of meaningful fact checking and understanding of local knowledge among social media companies make it possible for misinformation to spread easily.