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Zecharias Zelalem, Special to Addis Standard

An eternal slogan unapologetically shouted out loud with defiance and determination at rallies as much as it is mumbled at quiet prayers under one’s breath is a term Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur, loosely translated as “long live Ethiopia.” It is a statement that seemingly foretells Ethiopians’ love to their motherland whilst simultaneously reminding the divine above for a constant reconnaissance over Ethiopia.

It has been uttered over and over throughout the generations by both the fiercely and the not so fiercely patriotic Ethiopian masses. Unlike many of Ethiopia’s nationalist slogans which are tied to a certain era regime, Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur is considered free from political affiliations; as such it has survived the comings and goings of regimes in the history of contemporary Ethiopia and remained one of the rare terms applied by Ethiopians of various backgrounds.

Of course, no one could possibly wish one’s own country and fellow citizens an ill fate. As such, Ethiopians in general aspire to see the blossoming of their land and want to see fellow citizens reaping the benefits of this prosperity. So, with this in mind, it might be considered unthinkable to condemn Ethiopians’ use of a term that couldn’t possibly signify anything other than a dedication and love for ancestral land and compatriots.

Nothing disputable in the phrase then, right?

The “devil” is in the details

But anyone with some background knowledge on Ethiopians’ political and cultural inclinations would be able to comprehend how, despite the sugar-coated, pleasant outer meaning, that statement can actually be deceptive; and how it falls short of expressing the ideas and the foundations of a nation, which they claim to want to see to last forever and a day.

It is no secret that Ethiopians are known for being fiercely opinionated Africans, especially when it comes to their nation’s domestic affairs and foreign policy; both in Ethiopia and abroad, it is rare to encounter an Ethiopian who is apolitical. It may even appear to be heart-warming to see many Ethiopians sincerely concerned about how their country is performing politically and the direction it is headed to, hence often using the timeless term Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur.

But at the same time, the ideological divide between Ethiopians of different political leanings (mostly owing to their cultural inclinations) is known to have created vitriolic divisions that fuel endless quarrelling between them, especially those living abroad. (At home, due to the regime’s intolerance for dissenting views, one hardly sees the sort of opinion differences exercised in the open.)

That said, one must keep in mind that the everyday opinionated Ethiopian – be it in Ethiopia or abroad – will most likely want to see his/her country ruled in a certain way. But the concept of “My way or the highway” is an idiom that describes how these Ethiopians would react when told they need to compromise a tad on their ideals.

Although, Ethiopians in general, including those in privileged positions, have spent most of the 20th and 21st centuries crying for justices and freedom, and even took to the task of speaking on behalf of oppressed fellow citizens, most are, at the same time, prone to be ruthless towards those who believe in a different ideas for a greater, stronger united Ethiopia. So, the term Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur, indisputable a meaning it has, appears to mean different things to different sections of Ethiopians.

‘Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur’ the old way

There exist quite a sizeable number of somewhat elderly Ethiopians who, having spent the peak of their lives during Emperor Haileselassie, remain closely attached to the ideals of that era. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that many of these folks are completely disillusioned about what has happened to the country ever since their heydays came to an end. It is, in fact, safe to assume that most of these elderly folks are out of touch with the youth of today; and due to their inability to adjust to the total facelift Ethiopia has gone through over the last forty plus years, they have a tendency to believe that everything in the country is going wrong. These are mostly the people who first popularized (and remain at the lead) of the term Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur. This is despite the fact that the Ethiopia they remember so fondly is long gone.

By many standards, (and sadly) the conversation among this group has also managed to steer clear the fact that majority of Ethiopians are forced to languish under deplorable living conditions in the same country which they want to see live forever.

From ‘Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur’ to ‘Ethiopia Tikdem’

Next we have a generation who were young university students and who grew up listening to the Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur mantra. But later on, through a fierce resistance known as the Ethiopian Student Movement, they hastened the demise of the oppressive imperial regime and shaped the direction the country would head towards.  Tragically, thousands of them would be killed in cold blood by the militarist Derg regime which came to power using the chance the student movements had created to weaken the imperial state.

But those whom the Derg didn’t kill, it convinced and coerced them of the presence of an ulterior threat to the country’s sovereignty and unity – which had, fair to say, threatened the concept of Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur  they grew up listening to.

The Derg succeeded in creating a generation of hardened nationalists who chose to stand by it than watch homemade rebel groups conquer Ethiopia and dismember the nation. It’s these Ethiopians, of the seventies and eighties, who, assisted and guided by the Derg, adopted the use of the phrase Ethiopia Tikdem, alongside Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur.

Ethiopia Tikdem had originally been Yaleminim Dem Ethiopia Tikdem, loosely translated as: “Without a drop of blood, Ethiopia first.” But that slogan was rendered obsolete from the get go when the Derg itself openly called on the murder of its critics. Regardless of that however for this generation of patriots, anything less than an Ethiopia, which stretched all the way to the Red Sea and included the province of Eritrea, was an Ethiopia they couldn’t accept as a country.

So, for this group of Ethiopians, who mostly constitute the diaspora Ethiopian community today, Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur is a slogan deployed within the context of an over militarized country shaped in Soviet hardware; a country that celebrates the likes of Marx and Lenin. It means much more than expressing long live to a prosperous Ethiopia. And deep inside it also carries a wish to see the speedy downfall of the current regime in Ethiopia, which engineered the end of Ethiopia’s access to sea after it wilfully, handed over the port of Assab to the regime in Eritrea, or so their narrative goes.  So when these group refer to Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur , their “Ethiopia” includes two internationally recognized sovereign countries – Ethiopia and Eritrea – and it’s a non-negotiable demand.

‘Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur’ all the way to a federated Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s dabbling with federalism has gone on for over two decades now, although current events confirm suspicions that the true extent of it is nowhere near what a generation of school text books have been feeding to Ethiopian children.

Despite the regime’s repeated propaganda to show its determination to defend the country from elitist exploitation, today’s Ethiopia has seen the emergence of yet another class of elitist adherents to the ruling clique. For this group the scream of fellow countrymen and women who are fleeing the country (and for whom Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur signifies nothing but a prolonged miserly) is a pure nightmare, something that is deeply disturbing.  “Ethiopia”, for these elitists, is a capitalist paradise; a place to do business and a land of opportunities.

The whirlwind of resentment that sometimes threatens to engulf them is “anti-Ethiopian” by nature and a sheer determination to “terrorize” them off their comfort. The ample evidence that the facade of social issue this section of Ethiopians chose to turn a blind eye to is nothing but a threat ready to dismantle the foundations of their country.  Simply put, Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur signifies a little more than a wish for a ‘long live’ to the paradise they currently live in; it is an expression of preserving a system in which they remain on top of the food chain.

So, a call for a reversal of the roles – a call which yearns for the true meaning of this timeless expression of Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur – is an idea funded by the external enemies of the country hell bent on destabilizing the federal democratic republic and stunting the developmental agenda.

Given the above three different contexts in which the term Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur is applied, it is easy to see that this timeless expression isn’t always the pure-hearted declaration of loyalty one assumes it is, after all.

The question remains, therefore, just what kind of Ethiopia should Ethiopians build so all its citizens can agree to preserve forever and chant Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur with all its meaning?  

Since time immemorial, Ethiopians have written poetry, songs and chants hailing their luscious green landscape, arable farming land, mountain peaks and endless resources. But do all Ethiopians have a country suited for them? Do we have an Ethiopia that accommodates the needs and wants of its people from different ethnic backgrounds, religious beliefs, political affiliations and economic statuses?

The day Ethiopians are able to look directly into one another’s eyes and truthfully answer “yes” to these questions is the day when the term Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur can meaningfully be evoked, deployed, unapologetically shouted out loud with defiance and determination at rallies and mumbled at quiet prayers under one’s breath. A true “patriot” is one who will work hard to see this dream brought to fruition.

In honor of this dream, I say Ethiopia Lezelalem Tinur.


Cover photo: Children cerebrating Ethiopian Patriots’ Day 2015

Photo: Satenaw

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