This Compulsive Urge to Flee Ethiopia!


Addis Tribune, September 1, 2000


By Amberbir Ferede


It is a sad country we live in. One often hears people speaking loosely "Everyone wants to leave the country, get away from it all, go somewhere and live a life of less misery, and more hope." I guess this is also true of many countries in Africa, Asia, and

Latin America.


I am not sure of these countries, but it wasn't so in Ethiopia only a few decades ago. The young and everyone else were proud (perhaps too proud) to be Ethiopians, and the thought occurred to hardly anyone to leave the country and settle in Europe or the U.S. Young Ethiopians who were sent overseas for higher education after the Second World War (and for many, many years afterwards) were always eager to get back home soon after completing their studies.


Even naturalized Ethiopians of European or Asian origin (Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Yemenis) had a similar urge to get back to the old country, once their holidays or business trips ended. The story is told of a naturalized Ethiopian of Armenian origin who was stranded in Germany during the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, and who could not get back to Ethiopia on account of the closure of Egyptian air space to international traffic. To a friend similarly stranded whom he met in his hotel, he said in flawless

Amharic "Menew kagere kemewtate befit egzer egren beseberew! (If only the Lord had crippled my legs before I left my country!)


To the ears of many young Ethiopians today, this would probably be taken as an anecdote, made up by some septuagenarian romanticizing the past. The story is true, however. And it is told of Hegazian Garbis, the Armenian-Ethiopian who had a radio shop on Haile-Selassie Avenue (not far from the Greek church) and who used to swear l' Ethiopienne - Garbis Yimut! on the flimsiest of pretexts, as do all Ethiopians.


Why have times changed, and changed so badly? For reasons we all know, Ethiopia has been through trying times this past quarter century; and still is, in some ways. During these years, the country was transformed into a laboratory of political, economic and social experimentation by its young sons and daughters; idealistic and high-minded in some ways, but sadly unmindful of the needless pains inflicted on millions upon millions of their compatriots. Collaboration with the military, unsurprisingly bloody and power hungry, only intensified the pains and prolonged the misery of the people, in whose name and for whose higher interests all the destruction and murder was carried out.


In the midst of all this, one old enemy of Ethiopia was given a golden opportunity to gain ground. Surreptitiously at first, but more blatantly in subsequent years, it managed to expand its grip on the entire country. Today the enemy is practically everywhere to be seen, Addis Ababa offering the most distressing sight. It is this enemy which now threatens Ethiopians (the young in particular) to flee the country, or else be devoured. Who is this seemingly invincible enemy? You guessed it. Poverty.

That is the enemy. Which is one major explanation for the compulsive urge to quit.


There are, of course, other reasons. Among the more visible of which are: the uncertainty among many citizens about the sustainability of the fundamental beliefs on the basis of which the country's politics is currently conducted; signs that those in power practice a politics of exclusion rather than of inclusion; and a good deal of unease about human rights (though much improved when compared with the murderous derg regime).


The more important question, to ask, however, is not why there is such a gripping desire among our population to flee the country, but what can be done about it. Before addressing that question, one should perhaps ask if this phenomenon is purely an urban one? Our compatriots in the countryside (far more numerous than us urbanites) haven't spoken in large enough numbers on the issue. But there have been repeated indications that poverty, famine, and conflict do drive our farming communities to neighboring countries. (The reverse is also true, as recent events in South Eastern Ethiopia clearly demonstrate).

So, this is a countrywide phenomenon.


To come back to the question: What can be done? What can be done to restore a sense of hope, and of dignity, to our people and help them realize that they have a future here in Ethiopia; that poverty is not invincible; that other peoples in other countries and at other times have conquered this enemy (sometimes within the span of a generation, like South Korea and the other countries in South East Asia). What can be done to impress upon them that they can find strength in their diversity, that they should look into themselves and rediscover their collective strengths, their age-old common bonds of blood, of culture, and of history (even the not-so-harmonious episodes of that history). What can be done to persuade them that they need to stop the obsession (often incited by government officials and other politicians these past ten years or so) of which group did what wrong to whom, when, how, and for how long in order to right past wrongs, or simply settle old scores; that they should stop poring over their differences (ethnic and otherwise), and re-direct their obsession and energies to the one enemy they all have in common. What can be done to make them understand that they should try to restore faith in themselves to subdue their principal enemy; and that they need to cast aside age-old instincts of confrontation, dominance, and intolerance, in favour of compromise, reconciliation, and a culture of democracy. And demonstrate to the entire world that Ethiopia has finally turned the corner!


Idle talk, you might say. Perhaps. Perhaps not. If there is one small lesson which the recent conflict with Eritrea holds, it is that even in circumstances where the government is not hugely popular, people can be mobilized to respond robustly to their nation's call. Compared to poverty, Eritrea is small fry, an indescribably minuscule enemy. This is not to minimize the tens of thousands dead and maimed in battle, but to say that poverty can kill (and has killed) several times more, and will continue to, if little or nothing is done.


All this is evident. But the most important question of all is "What is being done? And a corollary to that question is: "Is enough being done, if something is indeed being done?" Other related questions need to be posed: "Who is to do what needs to be done? The people? The Government? And what are their respective roles? A mouthful of questions, you might say. Yes indeed, but questions which need to be asked and answered. Questions clearly beyond the capacity of this author to put to rest.


But let me say this in closing. Every citizen obviously has a role to play, individually as well as collectively in civil society organizations. But in a country like Ethiopia, the role of Government is, what shall I say, Cardinal? Indispensable? Vital? All that and more; in order to galvanize the people to make an all-out war against poverty, in every city, town, parish, and village; and, no less importantly, to create a political climate of tolerance, of inclusion, of a shared sense of history, culture, and country; in brief, of national unity.


Does the Government realize all this? Is it taking the requisite measures? The mother of all questions, these! And a good topic for a rejoinder by a responsible spokesman of the Government. A rejoinder which manifests concern, sincerity, and commitment; not a defensive or pro-forma rejoinder.


And the last question: Is there a future for a country whose youth have given up hope and want to move in search of a place where there is a future, and a hope?