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Tolerating free marketplace of ideas that never was, and still is

In many ways than few, the Ethiopia of 23 years before look nothing like the Ethiopia of today. Nor should it, under any circumstance, look the same anyway – for better or worse. Fortunately, Ethiopia is a lot better today than it was then; and not without proof. Ethiopia’s absolute command-turned-mixed-economy was a source of pain for its citizens; communist Ethiopia had little space to accommodate its educated youth; and famine was a thing scheduled to strike at a disturbing interval of every few years.Today that Ethiopia has turned the tide upside down and is at a point of no return to that place. That is one reason worth celebrating.

But unfortunately there are a few other things the Ethiopia of today look strikingly similar to the Ethiopia of 23 years ago (and longer). Top on this list is its indisputable track record of generating politicians with little stomach to stand what is known to the rest of the world for more than a century and half as the free marketplace of ideas.  

During his recent visit to Addis Abeba, US Secretary of State John Kerry was more animated than perhaps his status can allow him to be when he talked about the enormity of today’s Ethiopia: Addis Abeba is “a city of enormous energy”, and Ethiopia, too, is “generating enormous energy.” But, for what it was worth, he was under no illusion when he said he told the authorities in Ethiopia that in order “to support economic growth”, or may be to keep that enormity budding, “for the long term, the free marketplace of ideas matters just as much as free markets.” Secretary Kerry’s remark was in reference to the mass detention of three journalists and six bloggers in Ethiopia of today just a week before his unexpected (and as some say, unscheduled) visit. 

Regrettably, John Kerry’s (for that matter John Stuart Mill’s) free marketplace of ideas is a concept the architects of the Ethiopia of 23 years before never wanted to hear about. The architects of the Ethiopia of today know about it, but are bent on re-choreographing it in their own and only way.  

In November last year, during the 6th annual conference of the African Media Leaders Forum held in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia’s Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen dared telling a large audience that his doze of prescription for the only type of media that should exist in Ethiopia of today was a media that narrates the developmental policy his country is perusing. His statement bears a lot more meaning in pointing how Ethiopia’s politicians think Ethiopians (and the rest of the world) should accept their version of the concept of free marketplace of ideas, even if it means it’s them against the rest of the world.

Independent media is on the right track of progress only if it sticks by the one narrative of the rise and rise of Ethiopia. Individuals are progressive and nation loving if they are willing to accept, not challenge, the state-composed narrative of a democratic republic of Ethiopia where the rule of law is in charge. The odds that journalists (and now bloggers, too) who don’t follow the conventional narrative are terrorists, or work for anti-peace elements are breathtaking. The chance that rights activists who raise their voices against arbitrary arrests or mysterious disappearances of individuals are at the same time foreign agents is more than 100 per cent. It is not ridiculously coincidental that every opposition party member is more interested in operating outside of the law or painting the country with black than helping it rise above all. And what many people in the rest of the world think is the concept of the free marketplace ideas stands a higher than normal probability of being defined as “right-wing extremism.” That was the Ethiopia of 23 years before, and shamefully, is the Ethiopia of today.

This has to stop now. Yes, the true color of politics is not like a fairytale where everyone lives happily ever after; it pleases some and upsets others. But it is not normal when it pleases a few and anguishes the good many. After all, it is not a myth, nor a sheer coincidence that countries with higher chances of enormity both socially and economically are countries where differences of opinions are celebrated, not penalized. 

Ethiopia’s economy is known for its unforgiving state-interventionist policies, and for the time being it seems it is working. But the same prescription for the economy will prove disastrous when applied relentlessly to maneuver the concept of free marketplace of ideas.Twenty three years is long overdue for the rite of passage to learn what this constitutes in reality.

Ethiopia is not only a country of enormous energy, but enormous assignment in the wait. From a mega dam that it wants to finance by itself to mega railways and roads whose borrowed financing bill has to be footed by every Ethiopian for the generations to come. That means the government in Ethiopia should not only dive into Ethiopians’ pocket when it needs to, but has to listen to and engage with everyone even when it doesn’t want to, and when everyone differs from it.         

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