Country of Old Men

Dec 11 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye

Every once in a while, society has a rebirth. History still matters and may ultimately be what decides how things pan out. But these brief moments that occur once in a generation make it appear as if there can be new beginnings with clean slates. Ethiopia has had two of these. One was in 1974. The other was in 2018. Some may include 1991, but it was in many ways a continuation of the flames that burned since the mid-1970s.

For the youth, these are truly exciting times. Change is desirable. There is no accumulated cynicism threatening to break their wills. They have high hopes, sometimes enough for them to decide to sacrifice their lives.

Unfortunately, they rarely get to be the protagonists in these revolutions. They are in the background or at best employed as foot soldiers. The old men still control the power levers, and they could not be further from idealistic. They have historical memory, but it is highly distorted by their own biases. They have an understanding of realpolitik, but it has only served to make them more cynical.

When change comes, they are still the ones controlling the political and economic power. The social revolution comes from the bottom, rarely ever from the old men in control of the patriarchal system. Thus, how they respond is often as important, if not more, as the change that erupts from the bottom. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

These old men are also the custodians of tradition and history. The youth may be trying to change a certain political and economic system, but it rarely does it ever do away with tradition in its entirety.

If our cultures and history inform our identity, how can we entirely get rid of the old men?

It is at least impossible to do it in one go. It is a dilemma.

But who are these old men anyways?

Call it Uncle Sam or The Man. But it is the group that wields an outsized economic and political power. This group is almost always a group of old men that spoil the idealism and stand in the way of change, as it is their privilege that is usually threatened.

It is this same group that has turned what was supposed to be a period of democratic and pluralist dawn for Ethiopia sour, first in 1974 and then in 2018. The change of administration two years ago heralded a more tolerant and resilient Ethiopia. Just two years after that, there is armed conflict. All the more ironic is seeing these old men blame one another as to whose fault the whole thing is.

Will this cycle ever have an end?

Perhaps. One route is a violent overthrow of the prevailing economic and political system. But the old men control much of the means of war-making; thus there is no guarantee that such a plan would work out. More importantly, any movement that justifies violence as a means to a political end is, by definition, corrupted. It should be abandoned.

The better route would be to advocate for the alleviation of what makes these old men insecure, which is a loss of privilege and status. That any meaningful social change can only come at the reduction of their economic and political power is evident, because both of these are limited resources. Everyone cannot become a billionaire or a prime minister at once. But the majority can be a thriving middle class with a measure of political power expressed through universal suffrage.

But "what should be" should not be rammed through everyone’s throat without attempting to gain a certain level of consent and understanding. The powerful will not give up power of their own accord, but sustained and consistent social movement will chip away at their influence. This is a process that will take longer than we are eager to see change, but it is a compromise if we want to avoid violence.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 11,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1076]

Christian Tesfaye ( is a researcher and Fortune's Deputy Editor-in-Chief whose interests run amok in the directions of political thought, markets, society and pop culture.

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