The Dearth of Political Comedy

May 4 , 2019

Eshetu Melese performed in front of a packed audience at Gonder University during an Easter Holiday programme late last month. He stood against an eclectic assembly of students and academics to discuss issues of media professionalism, the rising cost of living and lingo-cultural diversity - all under the theme of displacement. Unsurprisingly, the young stand-up comedian made more sense and brought more substance to the discussions than the slew of political activists and commentators that have become staples of our TV screens.

Most of the political insights we get on TV have as many falsities as truths today. Eshetu Melese delivered an informed, tasteful and stylish political comedy. He seems to know where the balance lies between the contending forces of Ethiopia’s politics and what  appeals to the youth.

He waded into controversial subjects like ethnic conflicts and came out of it unscathed. This, at a time when politicians can barely discuss historical, cultural and political matters without offending each other.

There is a glaring absence of political comedy in Ethiopia that can contribute to the sociopolitical maturity of the country. The fact that we have been unable to balance our history, culture and current circumstances with humor has elevated these subjects to taboos. Political discourses in the past were uninspired because of fear of prosecution. Discourses today are lacking in substance, because there are not that many who point out to the falsity and senselessness of political correctness.

Political comedy is the missing cog in the current stuffy atmosphere of pontification and lectures by the political elite. Much of the sober and insightful discussion about the current predicament is the monopoly of the few. The discussions are delivered in hushed voices, like in newspapers, and only a handful of subjects imagined to be acceptable to the incumbents are discussed.

Indeed, an informed and an articulate author, commentator or an opposition figure could do what political comedians do - hold a mirror to society. But these are elitist and their messages dry. Only someone that can entertain can grab attention, package and articulate a message that the masses can understand and care about. Political satirists and comedians are vital links between the political elite and the people.

For instance, the people are impacted by the rising cost of living in Addis Abeba. These are matters sufficiently discussed in elitist circles and at times in the media. The former though uses language that is full of jargon, while the latter is consistently crude and vague.

To hear Eshetu describe it is to look at the matter in a wholly fresh perspective. He describes a youth from Addis Abeba as a duck swimming in a lake. Above water, the duck may seem completely relaxed, even enjoying the swim. Below water, its webbed feet are paddling tirelessly. It is all a facade, he says, and the image of youth in Addis Abeba as entitled is horribly misguided, he suggests.

“An Addis Abeba youth looks kempt, because he is working on image building,” he said. “Because there is no one to build him a house.”

This is the perspective and articulation of our economic and political dilemmas we have been starved of. It appeals to the people and informs them in a language they can understand. The average Ethiopian has a job or is going to school and has personal and social engagements. Most do not have the time to read a detailed analysis of a certain issue. All they ask for is to be informed in plain language what the issues are and their solutions.

This is especially important for the youth. Few grow up with any interest in politics. Most become acquainted with it as their economic and social contribution within the state increases. In a country where the average age is under 20, it is of great importance that the youth are informed of the sociopolitical and economic circumstances of the country early on. This is a gap that political comedy can address.

PUBLISHED ON May 04,2019 [ VOL 20 , NO 992]

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