Lost in Political Translation

May 23 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye

There are two types of elites within Ethiopia’s marketplace of ideas. The predominant ones are the political elites, armed with the skill of communicating in local languages. On the other side are the intellectuals, who, through their education and reading, have a mesmerising handle of the English language but often have a hard time communicating their ideas to the public.

This divide was most obvious during the ongoing debate that is taking place on the constitutional conundrum the nation faces. Following parliament’s decision to push the matter to the Council of Constitutional Inquiry, which advises the House of Federation, for interpretation, there have been televised hearings to collect opinion from constitutional and legal professionals.

These hearings are one of the few examples of a democratic exercise the nation has ever seen. There has not been a time when the spirit and intent of the Constitution has been respected to such a degree.

But there was a problem. A number of the experts that had been invited to the hearing left something to be desired in terms of getting their ideas across. Often, they could be seen reaching for words, searching for the correct legal terms in Amharic and failing at it.

One of the more authoritative speakers was Tedesse Lencho (PhD), an assistant professor at Addis Abeba University's School of Law & Governance. He was honest about the dilemma he faced and explained that he may not be able to express all of his ideas in Amharic. He talked both in Amharic and English when he was answering questions. He felt the need to use not just English words but expressions as well.

Interestingly, many of the professionals that were present at the hearing have also been debating and writing about the constitutional crisis on social media and penning opinion pieces.

They did this in English. And they were articulate, authoritative and lucid in the arguments they were making. They are academics, and the written text is their forte. They are the most comfortable communicating in this manner.

Unfortunately, this is not a style of delivery that the public identifies with. Politicians, on the other hand, are able to get their points across and appear as if they have a good handle of the subject matter they are talking about for the simple fact that they are much better at speaking in one of the local languages. Combined with their oratorical skills, they appear authoritative and perceptive. Unfortunately, they are usually neither, but, in the absence of a challenge from the intellectual class in that same language, they are the undisputed leaders of opinion among the public.

This is not unprecedented. In every country, it is politicians that speak the language of the masses. Not the intellectuals. The latter's use of language in philosophising and theorising are so removed from a layperson's terms that they may as well be speaking to extraterrestrials. In Ethiopia’s case, this is made worse by the fact that the means of discourse by the intellectual and academic class is an entirely different language – English – than the means of communication utilised by the masses. I recognise the irony of writing this in English.

What is the purpose of an intellectual class if it cannot communicate its ideas to the public properly? What is the justification for the existence of politicians when most of what they say is logically and factually suspect?

There have been and continue to be a few out there that buck the trend. The most prominent one is perhaps the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Whatever his style of exercise of power may have been, it is hard to deny that he combined oratorical skill with intellectual curiosity like few other modern-day African leaders. He had a profound understanding of political theory and Ethiopian history, which he combined with a command of at least one language, allowing him to appear confident and garner attention.

This is why the public hearings on the constitutional crisis are crucial. It may inspire greater oration among the intellectual class and an interest in political theory and jurisprudence among the politicians.

PUBLISHED ON May 23,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1047]

Christian Tesfaye (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) 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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