Most of the group was asleep. It was a full moon and a still, warm night and everything we did was watched by our minders who were watched by the militia.
I was leading a group of journalists and experts, the first Americans allowed back into Ethiopia since the Dirge broke with the West and allied with the Soviet Union. It was hard, tense work reminding the dilettantes that we could all be killed if they didn’t behave.
I climbed to the top of a small kopje overlooking the acacia woodlands guided by the full moon for just a few minutes alone. Few had wanted to visit a country run by a disparate ragtag triumvirate that toppled the final Emperor of a kingdom that had lasted 5,000 years. Even fewer were allowed to enter after the triumvirate met at its triangular table, and Mengistu Haile Mariam raised his Luger and shot the other two of his colleagues between the eyes.
My hoped-for, secret respite atop the kopje never happened. As I approached the top I had to stop to wonder at the silhouette of a tiny dikdik in front of the full moon, like a malformed deer pulling a hidden Santa’s sleigh into the wilderness. Then, the screaming.
The Gambela militia was torturing our Tigrayan guide. The young and dapper Oromo student from the elite commissariat accompanying us as a “translator” tried frantically to stop it. Centuries – indeed millennia – of tribal division trumped any reasoning I heard the poor kid yelling about the “revolution” and need for “unity,” the only two words I understood because he had to say them in English. There were no native equivalences.
Obama flew into Ethiopia several years ago against the advice of many of his African experts to address the opening of the OAU, but really to support the new regime of Ethiopia.
Abiy Ahmed is a young, extremely educated and seemingly empathetic man who percolated to the top of a still rigid communist system because of his refreshing ideas of compassion and democracy. Obama wanted to support him.
What Obama’s experts understood and he didn’t was that refreshing ideas of compassion and democracy are not intrinsic foundations for lasting policy. In fact, they’re often threats to millennia of social stability.
Ahmed broke many norms after the Obama visit, including treaties with Ethiopia’s ancient enemy of Eritrea that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize, and a couple first democratic elections at very local levels. But his critics say he went “too fast.”
The Emperors of Ethiopia held society together with ruthless policies of separating classes of supplicants defined by language and racial background. They were aided by an unnaturally stark geography for Africa where nearly impenetrable mountains and great rivers enclose the country off from the rest of the world.
Airplanes, internet, dams and prosperity compromise the value of the latter defense. Revolution was inevitable.
But cultural divisions and biases are much more impervious to airplanes, internet, dams and prosperity than mechanisms of government. Democracy has arrived Ethiopia, but democracy is one one-hundredth as old as the rift between the Tigray and Oromo.
“Tigray’s leaders see Mr Abiy’s reforms as an attempt to centralise power and destroy Ethiopia’s federal system,” the BBC explains well.
The federal system of America is likewise destroying America’s much less mature stability. Like Ethiopia only centralization will bring stability to America, but centralization threatens individualism.
In Ethiopia’s case individualism was cultivated as a means to subjugate, a successful multi-thousand year process.
In America individualism was the default of revolutionaries thrown into the wilderness.
For many years we believed that Madisonian democracy would reconcile the two: individualism and stable government.
When I had to listen to the screaming of my tortured guide I doubted that would ever be the case. When I followed Obama’s hopeful support of Abiy Ahmed, I wondered if my branded beliefs were wrong.
Now, I wonder, again.