The Dwindling Currency of Social Activism in Ethiopia

Aug 16 , 2020
By Christian Tesfaye

There is politics, and then there is Ethiopian politics. No doubt, each country has its discontents, contradictions and ambivalences. These complexities are informed by history, culture and resource distributions. They are subject to the forces of technology, nature and outside intervention. They are not set in stone, but neither are they tractable. How they transform, change and ossify may seem obvious in retrospect, but they are hard to predict going forward.

So how can we traverse this minefield? Can it even be understood, rationalised, in a country where chunks of its people’s history are either unwritten or told in a manner that is inescapably politically tinged?

I do not know how this can be done. But I know how it should not be done – through the employ of the activist class. Yes, I do believe activism has solidified into a class of its own, in Ethiopia and elsewhere.

We have all come to know activists. They are usually charismatic, fluent in the use of languages and even more articulate in the written form. They come from a wide range of circles, including academia, and are proudly nationalist under most circumstances.

They are also, I admit, well informed about ongoing happenings in the country. They seem to have their social media accounts at the ready, set on "Create Post," like a loaded gun ready to be fired at any moment. Their knowledge of historical events is also impressive. They reach deep into the recesses of history to pull something out of context and present it in a manner that upsets and disaffects their enemies.

I almost forgot. There are also rivalries, sworn loyalties and betrayals - sure to impress even the aficionados of palace intrigue novels - between activists. They bicker and fight, and an incident later, they may become compatriots. Another incident and they are enemies once more. The shifting alliances, occasional truces and feuds are perplexing, and the shrapnel from this chaos often manages to claim the reputations of sober voices that get caught up in the fight.

Important to stress is that not all forms of activism are problematic. In fact, some of the most meaningful social and political progress that has been made over the past century has had morally and intellectually upstanding activists at the forefront. Many have paid dearly, socially and financially, and even lost their lives for the causes they stood for.

They have left behind them a real-life story to draw inspiration from and a legacy that left the world a better place than they found it.

But like any activity, social and political activism can be abused. Activists flirt with money, power and fame and betray the causes that they stand for. Worse still, their causes become co-opted or deformed, but they refuse to acknowledge the mishaps and inconsistencies. They insist on going down with the sinking ship, and in an effort to cut corners to rescue the dwindling popularity of their causes, they start invoking the more extreme versions of their politics.

It is hard to stress the bad image social activism has come to develop in Ethiopia because of its players. Its currency has been depreciating in proportion to the increasing intellectual dishonesty of social activists. A tool that could have been used to rally for justice and equitable representation has been corrupted and currently finds itself as an instrument to offend and disparage groups and individuals.

This period will pass, and with the rise of a new generation, activism may yet be guaranteed its rightful place - an instrument for bringing about structural change. But the disservice some of our activists are doing to our understanding of history may be irreversible. Their lack of context, unwillingness to acknowledge the experiences of other groups and the attempt to essentialise specific cultural groups and communities into convenient stereotypes may be a scar that will forever be etched in our political psyche.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 16,2020 [ VOL 21 , NO 1059]

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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