Meditating about leaders: Quintessentially Indifferent

November 2 , 2019
By Dawit Wondimagegn ( Dawit Wondimagegn (MD) (, associate professor of psychiatry at Addis Abeba University’s School of Medicine and chief executive director of Tikur Anbessa Hospital. )

What socio-psychological explanation is there to understand the indifference of our leaders and their casual willingness to let others, especially poor young men and women, die for their cause?, asks Dawit Wondimagegn (MD) (, an associate professor of psychiatry at Addis Abeba University’s School of Medicine and chief executive director of Tikur Anbessa Hospital.

As I sit in my office and scribble this, I felt with overwhelming clarity that the quintessential nature of our leaders, from all sides of the political field, past and present, is indifference to death. The death of the poor youth has been the play in the house for quite a while now. People of my age are born and raised in this same house. We know nothing else. The name of the game seems to be: "Let’s leave some young lives behind, while we ascend to power."

As painful as it is to swallow what is going on, we have to continue to grapple with the question. What socio-psychological explanation is there to understand the indifference of our leaders and their casual willingness to let others, especially poor young men and women, die for their cause?

The truth remains that all leaders are pursuing their individual goals. There is no doubting that. When you see leaders acting as if nothing strange is going on, you know that the only surprise is that we, the people, are in for more surprises.

We all were used to living under a delusion of safety: our unshakable false belief that we are safe, the world around us is safe, the person next to us is safe, there is protection and someone is there to look after us. This was a false belief that was not amenable to reason.

Even when there were signs that was not the case, our false belief was still firmly fixed. We always had explanations, and we were quite amenable to our own simple answers. All our ailing was due to bad political systems, not bad politicians. Our problem is a lack of democratic culture not a result of a style of governance that is indifferent to the suffering of others.

But now that delusion of safety is pierced. Like the ozone layer, poisonous ideas have been weakening our sense of safety slowly but surely. We are turning to our primal aggressive instincts to save ourselves from each other. What explains such collective self-destruction?

We are aggressive beings. We only need to ask mothers - the eternal sufferers of the Ethiopian tragedy. Mothers know every child has an aggressive instinct. They experience it through breastfeeding. Every angry child bites its mother’s breast. Mothers are the first recipients of a child’s aggression; in our case, they are the enduring recipients of our aggression. Civilisation is supposed to tame this aggressive instinct through the processes of socialisation, culture, religion, art, language and technology. But no civilisation could eliminate it from our nature. It suppresses it enough for us to live together under some form of governance.

It is this same aggressive instinct in all of us that leaders activate to entice violence between groups. As the experience of violence is individual, we need to trace the origin of the individual aggressiveness to understand group violence.

We all have self-love. It is called narcissism. This is a completely normal phenomenon, and there is nether illness nor sin in loving oneself. In fact, we should all love ourselves. It is only when we love ourselves that we can begin to care for the other. This self-love needs protection from any perceived threat to our being. The child bites its mother to protect itself from its perceived threat of hunger, care or love. The aggressive instinct could serve as the guardian of the self.

As we grow and develop other guardians emerge as parents, family, teachers, friends, relatives, communities, ethnic groups, religious groups and of course the state with its instruments of oppression (I am sympathetic to the notion that the state is fundamentally oppressive).

When one’s provider of safety fails to comply with its duty, the individual is forced to retreat further and further into self-seeking for protection. When the onion layers are peeled off one by one, what will be found is the child with two front teeth at the core: the narcissistic and aggressive self.

This is what leaders can activate in every one of us. All leaders do not activate this all the time. Only leaders with a high deficit of love do this. Throughout history, the world has seen leaders who activated the worst in individuals. All genocides of recent history were activated by such leaders. Even though this might look like a bit of a stretch, one psychological feature could be shared by all. They seem to have weak and unfulfilled entitlements.

A child has a sense of entitlement to what it desires. Not every child gets all its desires fulfilled all the time. Depending on the consistent availability and capacity of the caregiver, some desires get fulfilled while others remain unaddressed. We all grow with a spectrum of fulfilled or unfulfilled entitlements.

Adults who grow up with severe levels of unfulfilled desires will project their personal sense of emptiness and feel a sense of injustice to their group by alluding to past injustices committed to one’s group as a justification for filling their developmental deficit.

This may sound surmising without evidence. But a look at history, eliminating time from the equation, reveals it will be a struggle to find one group that has never been a victim of any injustice. Only time confuses reality, because it determines narration. This invariably predisposes any group for manipulation. The group has and will always be the projection screen for individual frustrations.

The leader will amplify the minor differences between groups as a basis to form cohesion between members. The in-group cohesion can only be strengthened and maintained as long as there is an out-group which is portrayed as an enemy. When we look closely, we are always surprised to see that there are actually no observable differences between the warring groups, but they are willing to kill and die for what they call their group and their identity.

This, of course, looks quite spurious to others who are not members of any of the groups. In the absence of significant observable differences, a strong in-group cohesion, and the creation of an enemy alone will not be enough to push individuals in any group to violence.

This is where leaders come in with the creation of symbols to make unobservable minor differences to significant observable ones. A flag is a very good example of such symbolic representation of differences. The debate surrounding what national, regional or party flag should be held where and when at times seems a triviality, but it should be taken seriously, as it is an attempt to represent difference irrespective of how small or large it is. A flag then becomes relevant as a symbol of difference.

Difference is a great thing. One of the best gifts of creation or evolution or both. It is only at the margins of differences that human civilization is possible. There is no development where there is no difference. It is the small differences between individuals and communities that created art, language and society at large. A good leader or a leader with a lower deficit of love could use difference as an impetus for growth.

As much as differences are important for life to continue in the world. We have to also be honest when it is used for destruction and costs precious human life. “WE” the city elite,

"educated" individuals, politicians and leaders are not the people. “WE” are a burden to our society. We claim it is the millions unemployed who are causing our collective suffering. No! It is us the few employed who are using them as human shields to protect our selfish interest.

If there is a difference between each other it is this: some of us got lucky, while others did not. The people who died and will die are the poor. We can claim all we like about our differences, but the hard truth is that we are people who do not matter to the world as much as we think. Civilizations have come and gone. So will ours. The world will not care even when we do.

The people expect so much from our leaders and us, and we never fail to disappoint them. This is the hard truth we need to wake up to. When leaders do what they do they may have reasons. But they should also know this. Those who claim power and give out orders at will should know that sooner or later the people will turn on them.

Those who keep silent and claim that they are leading with wisdom should never forget that Ethiopia is the land of silent wise men and women. In this land wisdom does not emanate from them it comes from the people. Those who say they will eventually deliver justice to the people should know that justice delayed is justice denied.

Those of us who are obsessed with what makes us different from each other should know that we are the poorest of the poor bundled together by fate and history in a place. This is all we are: just people who found themselves in this particular land fraught with poverty, suffering, drought, famine, bad leaders, disease and infirmity.

We should be alarmed not only by the unspeakable nature of the violence we are witnessing, as that is within our nature. It is not only some young people who are capable of committing atrocities. We all are imbued with that capacity. We all have a hand in what is happening. We should be more alarmed by the quintessential nature of our leaders’ indifference toward death. The more we hope for change, the more it eludes us.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 02,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 1018]

Dawit Wondimagegn (MD) (, associate professor of psychiatry at Addis Abeba University’s School of Medicine and chief executive director of Tikur Anbessa Hospital.

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