Cheetahs, Hippos and Saving Ethiopia

By Alemayehu G Mariam

August 20, 2012, George Ayittey, one of the foremost African public global intellectuals, metaphorically suggests that Africa’s destiny will be determined by the promise of the “Cheetah Generation” or the paralysis of the “Hippo Generation”. As he explains,

The Cheetah Generation refers to the new and angry generation of young African graduates and professionals, who look at African issues and problems from a totally different and unique perspective. They are dynamic, intellectually agile, and pragmatic. They may be the ‘restless generation’ but they are Africa’s new hope. They brook no nonsense about corruption, inefficiency, ineptitude, incompetence, or buffoonery. They understand and stress transparency, accountability, human rights, and good governance. They also know that many of their current leaders are hopelessly corrupt and that their governments are contumaciously dysfunctional and commit flagitious human rights violations. The Cheetahs do not look for excuses for government failure by wailing over the legacies of the slave trade, Western colonialism, imperialism, the World Bank or an unjust international economic system. To the Cheetahs, this ‘colonialism-imperialism’ paradigm, in which every African problem is analyzed, is obsolete and kaput. Unencumbered by the old shibboleths, Cheetahs can analyze issues with remarkable clarity and objectivity. The outlook and perspectives of the Cheetahs are refreshingly different from those of many African leaders, intellectuals, or elites, whose mental faculties are so foggy and their reasoning or logic so befuddled that they cannot distinguish between right and wrong. They blame everybody else for Africa’s problems except themselves.

On the other hand, the “Hippo Generation” is

intellectually astigmatic and stuck in their muddy colonialist pedagogical patch. They can see with eagle-eyed clarity the injustices perpetrated by whites against blacks, but they are hopelessly blind to the more heinous injustices they perpetrate against their own black people. They are stodgy, pudgy, and wedded to the old “colonialism-imperialism” paradigm with an abiding faith in the potency of the state. They lack vision and sit tight in their air-conditioned government offices, comfortable in their belief that the state can solve all of Africa’s problems. All the state needs is more power and more foreign aid. And they would ferociously defend their  territory since that is what provides [us] with [our] wealth. (Hippos kill more people in Africa than any other animal.) They care less if the whole country collapses around them, but are content as long as their pond is secure… But now is not the time for the cheetahs to take over. They will be ripped up by the ornery and nasty Hippos. Rather, they should build up on their skills, strength and accumulate knowledge and wealth — in the private sector — while methodically draining the swamp of the Hippos. Soon, the [Hippos] will find themselves ‘homeless’ and then the Cheetahs can take over.

The youth are the most dynamic segment in any society. Two of history’s evil men understood the importance of controlling and “owning” youth. Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the totalitarian Soviet state promised, “Give me just one generation of youth, and I’ll transform the whole world.” His counterpart in the Third Reich proclaimed, “He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” Both used their nations’ youths as cannon fodder to realize their warped vision of world domination. For the past decade, Ethiopia’s dictators have sought to buy the loyalty and allegiance of the country’s best and brightest. Most of the country’s university graduates have been held hostage to dictator Meles Zenawi’s corrupt neopatrimonial system. Zenawi has used various means to recruit, control, politicize and depoliticize the country’s youth. He has made economic survival impossible for the youth of the country except through membership in a syndicate palmed off as a political party.

Now is the Time for Ethiopia’s Cheetah Generation to Lead the Way to National Reconciliation

It is now time for Ethiopia’s cheetahs to take a leading role in the national dialogue to transition Ethiopia from dictatorship to democracy. Such a prescriptive declaration might be surprising to some coming from a card-carrying member of the “Loyal Order of African (Ethiopian) Hippos”. But over the years, I have learned to appreciate the sacrifices of Ethiopia’s cheetahs and have been awed by their transformative potential. In numerous weekly commentaries, I have despaired over their plight under Zenawi’s dictatorship but nevertheless insisted that they must be the tip of the spear in bringing about democratic change in Ethiopia. In June 2010, I reflected over what could happen if the rage bottled up in Ethiopia’s youth suddenly exploded:

The wretched conditions of Ethiopia’s youth point to the fact that they are a ticking demographic time bomb. The evidence of youth frustration, discontent, disillusionment and discouragement by the protracted economic crisis, lack of economic opportunities and political repression is manifest, overwhelming and irrefutable. The yearning of youth for freedom and change is self-evident. The only question is whether the country’s youth will seek change through increased militancy or by other peaceful means….

This past April, in my ongoing series on “Ethiopia’s transition from dictatorship to democracy”, I argued against the “conventional wisdom [that] says the important task of managing the transition from dictatorship to democracy should be left to the elites—the politicians, party leaders, bureaucrats, academics and other institutional leaders.” I insisted that “for there to be a truly a… durable democracy in [Ethiopia], the dialogue base must be expanded to broadly include… women and the youth…”

Ethiopian Youth Must Lead a National Dialogue in Search of a Path to Peaceful Change

Ethiopia today is a country without a head of state or a functioning government. The “prime minster” has literally gone AWOL. Apparently, no one knows where he is or even if he is alive. He has not been seen or heard of in public for the past two months.  The “deputy prime minster” is as invisible as a ghost. The “president” is… Is there a president? The opposition is as silent as the gravestone. Who can save Ethiopia?

Since the beginning of 2012, I have been talking and writing about Ethiopia’s inevitable transition from dictatorship to democracy. More recently, I called for a national dialogue in the spirit of President Nelson Mandela. I now call upon and appeal to all of Ethiopia’s youth to lead the transitional national dialogue because I believe Ethiopia’s salvation and destiny rests not in the hardened jaws of the hippos but in the soft paws of the cheetahs. 

Why MUST Ethiopia’s cheetahs lead the national dialogue for a peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy? First, if the cheetahs do not initiate the dialogue, who will? Who can? The hippos have been dialoguing for decades using the language of finger pointing, mudslinging, hatemongering and grudge holding. Second, the future belongs to the cheetahs (an estimated 67 percent of Ethiopia’s population is said to be under the age of 35) and not the hippos who continue to wallow in the muddy politics of ethnicity and sectarianism. Third, Ethiopia’s cheetahs are already doing much of the heavy lifting. They have been paying the price for democracy, freedom and human rights in blood, sweat and tears. The best and the brightest have been persecuted, prosecuted, brutalized and  silenced by dictator Meles Zenawi. At the top of the list are Birtukan Midekssa, Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie, Bekele Gerba, Olbana Lelisa, Reeyot Alemu, Abebe Gellaw, Temesgen Desalegn, Yenesew Gebre, the hundreds of victims of the 2005 massacres and so many others. Fifth, Ethiopia’s cheetah’s are paying the full price for the stupidity, narrow mindedness and incompetence of the hippos. Sixth, unlike the hippos, Ethiopia’s cheetahs have the best chance of leading a successful transition because they are focused on the future and not the past. Current violations of human rights are more important to Ethiopia’s cheetah’s than historic grievances. They would rather seek justice today than remain paralyzed talking about the injustices of yesterday. Ethiopia’s cheetahs  would rather steer the Ethiopian ship of state looking through the windshield than looking in the rear view mirror.

Beginning the Dialogue on National Reconciliation

The dialogue on national reconciliation in Ethiopia must begin within Ethiopia’s youth communities. Ethiopia’s cheetah’s must empower themselves, create their own political and social space, set their own agendas and begin multifaceted dialogues on their country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy.  They must develop their own awareness campaigns and facilitate vital conversations among youth communities cutting across language, religion, ethnicity region and so on. Their dialogues must be based on the principles of openness, truth and commitment to democracy, freedom and human rights. They must dialogue without fear or loathing.  Above all, the cheetahs must “own” the dialogue process. At a gathering of cheetahs, hippos should be seen and not heard; tolerated but not involved. The cheetahs must keep a sharp eye on the hippos who are very skillful in political intrigues and expert at finding ways of getting involved to take over and manipulate the youth.

Informal dialogues among activist youthFor a variety of reasons, it is most practical for Ethiopia’s cheetahs to begin dialogue on national reconciliation at the informal level. For instance, such dialogues could initially take place among like-minded activist youth at the neighborhood level. Activist youth could undertake an assessment of their capabilities, potentials, opportunities and obstacles in setting up and managing a community-based informal reconciliation youth dialogues. Youth activist should focus on creating broader youth awareness and involvement in the dialogue process and utilization of existing organizations, institutions, associations, forums, etc., for national reconciliation dialogue. These dialogues should begin by focusing on certain key questions: Who are Ethiopia’s cheetahs and how committed are they in shaping the democratic destiny of their country? Are these cheetahs committed to nonviolent political change? Are they willing to commit to national dialogue as brothers and sisters?

Cheetahs should rely on themselves (and not expect much help from hippos) in beginning informal dialogues. In the past, Ethiopia’s cheetahs have looked up to the hippos for political guidance and direction. But hippos in and out of power have sought to marginalize the cheetahs.In the aftermath of the 2005 election, the hippos in power understood the power of the cheetahs and took active measures to blunt their impact by organizing them to support the regime and avoid involvement in opposition politics. They tried to control the cheetahs by creating and inducting millions of them into mass organizations and indoctrinating them in the bogus and mindless ideology of “revolutionary democracy”, bribing them with educational and job opportunities and threatening them with a variety of legal and extra-legal sanctions. By co-opting the most dynamic segment of the youth, the hippos in power were able to prevent large-scale youth engagement on the issues of human rights and democracy. Regrettably, the cheetahs were abandoned by the hippos out of power after the 2005 election. Ethiopia’s cheetahs must begin to develop self-reliance in transitioning their country from dictatorship to democracy.

Learning from and supporting each other and learning from the mistakes of the hippos and other youths. Ethiopia’s cheetahs have much to learn from each other, from the mistakes of the hippo generation and youths from other nations. Dialogue involves not only talking but also listening to each other. Youth from Ethiopia’s multiethnic society have much to learn from each other and build upon the strengths of the diverse youth communities. Much can be learned from the mistakes of the hippo generation. For starters, the cheetahs should learn that to disagree on issues does not mean becoming mortal enemies. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable. Civility in dialogue, though lacking among hippos, is essential for cheetahs .Ethiopia’s cheetahs must also learn from the mistakes of other youth movements. Youth power was the catalyzing force in Tunisia and Egypt. They creatively used mobile technology to mobilize the youth population, but in the end they were marginalized.

Ethiopia’s Destiny Hangs in the Balance 

Many societies face generational gaps as the youth rebel against tradition and societal norms. In Ethiopia today, there are two different generations. The cheetah generation wants freedom, human rights and democracy now. The hippo generation wallows  in a mucky swamp  of corruption, nepotism, cronyism, criminality and inhumanity. The cheetah generation wants to drain the swamp. The hippo generation is hopelessly trapped in the bog of ethnic politics and revenge politics.

Africans know all too well that hippos (including their metaphorical human counterparts) are dangerous animals that are fiercely territorial and attack anything that comes into their turf. Every year more people are killed by hippos (both the real and metaphorical ones) in Africa than lions or elephants. Cheetahs are known to be the fastest animals, but their weakness is that they give up the chase easily if they fail to make a catch quickly or surrender the prey thet have caught when challenged by other predators including hyenas. A group of hippos is known as a crash. A group of cheetahs is called a “coalition”. Only a coalition of cheetahs organized across ethnic, religious, linguistic and regional lines can crash a crash of hippos and a cackle of hyenas and save Ethiopia.