I remember him driving in Sidist Kilo campus blasting the air waves with Marvin Gaye’s “Brother, Brother”. College juniors, I and my friends wondered, “Who is this guy?” Apparently he was an Economics professor who happened to be one of the most consequential and inspiring faculty members that Addis Ababa University was graced with during my undergraduate days. Dr. Berhanu’s classes drew so many of us who were not economics students at all. I remember dropping in one of his classes, “History of Economic Thought”, on borrowed time from another upper level course from my own department, Sociology. His mastery of the subject matter, passion about Ethiopia, and liberal mannerisms were legendary
I remember he used to invite all his students to a night out to celebrate the end of each semester. Among the very conservative and status conscious cadre of AAU professors, Dr. Berhanu stood out a cosmopolitan, liberal and critical thinker who inspired most of us. It seems that streak never left him. He once took me by surprise talking about the National Football League (NFL) and Pittsburgh Steelers in the middle of a heated political discussion about Ethiopia. He topped it this week when he picked a baseball lingo and employed it to talk about the two revolutions (1974 and 1991) we underwent in the 20th century and this last bout we are in. If we miss this third history critical junction, he quipped, it would be “three strikes and we (the nation) will be out!”
I agree. This is a historic moment. It is a do or die moment for a great segment of the Ethiopian population that ardently believes in the very existence of a supra-ethnic, state-national identity called Ethiopian. This is a critical moment for those of us who point out how the current ethno-federal design and the excesses of ethno-nationalism in TPLF’s Ethiopia suspended our collective identity as Ethiopians, stifled our individual freedoms and liberties, and hamstrung our well-being consigning us to be one of the poorest nations in the world. For a country that prides itself as one of the most ancient African civilizations, played crucial role in the fight against European colonialism, in the struggle for African Unity and stood out as a symbol of independence to Black people all over the world; our current state of demise is simply heartbreaking.
Berhanu was on point when he listed out some of the lasting ill effects of the past two transitions. The Ethiopian revolution and the Derg meant authoritarianism couched in the language of Marxism Leninism. It meant the end of feudalism but peasants moved from being gabbars of feudal land lords to being tenants of the state. Ethiopia’s agrarian crisis reached its apogee with the 1984 famine. State driven collectivization, villagization and coopertivization schemes designed to transform our agriculture did not succeed. Our social capital got eroded by a modern elite that scoffs at and ridicules the cultural and moral fabric its country was made of. That generation had, and still has, a giddy penchant to import foreign models and transplant them into the Ethiopian reality. These problems further intensified in TPLF’s Ethiopia but with a sinister addition to the fray. The TPLF instituted a state structure where access to political power and economic resources is single handedly determined by one’s ethnic allegiance. Of course, the TPLF elite that hailed from Tigray reaped economic benefits, concentrated political and military power in its hands effectively isolating the elite from all other cultural communities.
Despite repeated calls about the risk of total state collapse this would entail, Meles Zenawi dared to fuse iron clad dictatorship and ethnic patronage in a highly extractive lower base economy. These factors culminated in the explosion of protests and popular outbursts of resistance among Ethiopian Muslims, the Oromos and Amharas followed by incidents and conflicts in many other parts of the country. A notable exception here is, of course, Tigray. Hundreds died. Tens of thousands were arrested, jailed and tortured. Millions were displaced because of inter-ethnic conflicts, some allegedly masterminded by the military security complex of the TPLF. The political turmoil forced the regime to declare a state of emergency twice. The prime minister resigned opening an era of confusion, intra-party wrangling and competition within the EPRDF leading to the final selection of Dr. Abiy Ahmed.