By Abdissa Zerai
If there is a generation that has for long occupied a central stage in the psyche of the Ethiopian society, it is the generation that has commonly been referred to as ‘Ya Tiwulid’ (or The Generation). As is known, ‘Ya Tiwulid’ is the generation that emerged in the 1960s and played an active role in the student movement and the revolution that brought down the imperial regime in the early 1970s, and one that has since continued to shape the Ethiopian political terrain up until now. Through a plethora of writings, media narratives and rudimentary public discourses, the ‘Ya Tiwulid’s’ uncontested ‘exceptionalism’ has relentlessly been echoed to the point where it has almost assumed a mythical stature in our collective memory. Obviously, the outsized valorization and veneration of the ‘Ya Tiwulid’ has not been without reason. But before delving into that, situating the discussion within the generational theoretical framework is in order.
Extant literature on generations often proceeds from the theoretical contributions of a Hungarian-born sociologist Dr. Karl Mannheim. According to Mannheim’s (1959) classic formulation, the social phenomenon of ‘generations’ represent nothing more than a particular kind of identity of location, embracing related ‘age-groups’ embedded in a historical-social process. In other words, a generation constitutes a cohort of people born within a similar span of time who share a comparable age and life stage and who are shaped by a particular span of time. Along a similar line, William Strauss and Neil Howe (1991), well reputed scholars on the subject, see a generation as a group of people who share a time and space in history that lends them a collective persona. They further argue that members of a generation share an age location in history, i.e., they encounter key historical events and social trends while occupying the same phase of life. To put it differently, members of a generation are shaped in lasting ways by the eras they encounter as children and young adults and certain common beliefs and behaviors they share. Aware of the experiences and traits that they share with their peers, members of a generation would also share a sense of common perceived membership in that generation.
Although both Mannheim (1927) and Strauss-Howe (1991) acknowledge the role of history and society in their generational theories, they hold different views on the relative importance of the two factors in shaping a generation. While accepting the notion that generations are influenced by those who preceded them, Mannheim (1927) believes that social change occurs at a much slower pace. Hence, he argues that major historical events are what change a society quickly in a much more direct and linear way. As such, Mannheim seems more at home with an old dictum that “people resemble their times more than they resemble their parents” (McCrindle 2007, p. 4).
On the other hand, Strauss-Howe (1991) tend to lean more toward the argument that past generations have the greatest influence on their successor since each new generation responds to the previous generation.
Unlike the views represented by the two groups of scholars noted above, DeChane (2014) believes that both the generation that came first and the major events of the day shape a generation, since a generation is the result of a normal ebb and flow of change created by history and society. It means that a generation emerges and becomes defined by the previous generations and the historical context in which it finds itself. It is, thus, logical to argue that any analysis of a generation that takes into account the two factors in tandem would provide a better and fuller picture of the phenomenon than one that skews toward one of the two factors. In order to better understand the Ya Tiwulid, therefore, it is imperative that we begin with the analysis of the historical and social contexts under which the Ya Tiwulid grew and came of age.
As is well known, the generation represented by the Ya Tiwulid was born and grew up in a backward agrarian society ruled by a feudal monarchy whose authority ostensibly emanated from a ‘divine’ source. Growing up in a society where the feudal aristocracy virtually owned the land and where the masses were condemned to live at the mercy of the aristocracy, this generation witnessed firsthand harrowing exploitations and horrendous abuse of society by the anachronistic autocratic feudal aristocracy.
From the historical front, this was the time that entertained a confluence of significant historical occurrences. Among these was the intensification of the geopolitical, ideological, and economic struggle between two world superpowers, the USA and the USSR. This was a phenomenon which was commonly referred to as the Cold War that started in the aftermath of the end of the Second World War and continued in full swing in the 1960s and beyond. This time also saw a decolonization frenzy going on around the colonized world in general and on the African continent in particular. It was a period where the wind of civil rights movement was blowing in tandem with sustained and violent anti-Vietnam war demonstrations held across the United States. The period was also characterized not only by a fervent anti-imperialism sentiment that enveloped the third world and the Soviet camp, but also by a relentless worldwide demand for freedom, equality and national self-determination. Generally speaking, we could say that this was a period of socio-political and ideological ferment of an epic proportion engulfing the entire world.
As a better educated segment of the society, the young, energetic, idealistic, and daring coeval of the Ya Tiwulid threw itself in the ongoing ferment. By appropriating conceptual and theoretical tools from Marxism-Leninism, they explained and articulated the prevailing condition of the Ethiopian society and the unsustainability of maintaining the status quo. Hence, it placed itself at the forefront of setting in motion a radical overhaul of the ancien regime in favor of instituting a new progressive system that would do away with any form of marginalization, oppression and exploitation and thereby direct Ethiopia in the path of modernization and development. In order to realize this goal, members of the generation committed themselves to paying whatever price the struggle might require. Remaining true to their commitment, they played a pivotal role in accelerating the demise of the ancien regime. Unfortunately, however, the euphoria was short lived as the aftermath of the collapse of the monarchy proved more chaotic and unpredictable. This was mainly attributable to the fact that there was a glaring absence of consensus on how to go about shaping the political future of post-Monarchy Ethiopia.
Following the demise of the monarchy, the military junta led by Colonel Mengistu H/Mariam took advantage of the fractured political environment of the time and controlled the lever of power. Soon after, the new dispensation unleashed unspeakable current of terror and bloodshed against and among the disparate political groupings that constituted the ‘Ya Tiwulid’. As a result, thousands perished, thousands more went to prison, a staggering number of the cohort fled the country, and a few remaining vanished into the wilderness and started an armed struggle.
While the Marxist junta was consolidating its power over a traumatized society, those who fled the country would have to settle in their new destinations (largely in Europe and North America); those who went to prison would have to learn to live in the shadow of death; and those who decided to take up arms would have to face the harsh reality of never seeing their loved ones again. Except such shared misfortunes, agony and trauma, however, there was little love lost among the disparate groups that constituted the ‘Ya Tiwulid’.
Regardless of their new destinations, these disparate groups of the generation continued their political struggle both against the Derg and against each other. After a protracted struggle, the TPLF-led-EPRDF overthrew the Derg and took control of the lever of power. It was hoped that the new dispensation would seize the opportunity to put an end to this vicious cycle of fratricide by bringing the disparate groups together to bury their hatchets and charter a new future that everyone would believe in. Unfortunately, however, the new order has not been able to live up to the expectation in terms of bringing about a wider political consensus and bridging the sharp divisions among the disparate groups. In fact, in some respects, the new order has accentuated the polarization to the point where the situation now appears hopelessly irredeemable.
The same time when our problems are getting more intractable, both biology and longevity-induced fatigue appear to be taking their toll on the remaining and residual cohort of the Ya Tiwulid. As a result, the Ya Tiwulid is fading away from the Ethiopian political scene, which it had dominated for close to half a century. According to an online Cambridge English dictionary, to fade away means to slowly disappear, lose importance, or become weaker. Hence, the ‘fading away’ argument here does not necessarily imply that it has started to suddenly disappear into oblivion; rather, it means that its grip on the Ethiopian politics is becoming weaker, and in the next five to ten years, its influence might even be relegated to a thing of the past.
On the other hand, we are observing the emergence of the Millennials on the Ethiopian political scene. Although the term Millennials is often used to refer to those who were born between 1982-2002, I use the term here to refer generally to those who were born toward the end of the Cold War and came of age during the reign of the EPRDF. The impeding waning of the political influence of the Ya Tiwulid and the likely gradual takeover of the Ethiopian politics by the Millennials would force us to raise questions as to what lie ahead. In other words, how will the impeding generational shift shape the Ethiopian political terrain? Will it signal continuity or rupture in the realm of our national politics? What does the future hold for the Ethiopian state in general and the Ethiopian national politics in particular? What are our hopes as well as our fears going forward?
It is understandable that providing definitive answers to these questions would obviously require one to be a prophet rather than a humble political analyst. And the purpose of this piece is not to effect a declaration of prophecy over the future direction of Ethiopian national politics under the auspices of the Millennials; rather, it is an attempt to provide a tentative analysis of potentially plausible political developments with the Millennials in the ‘driver’s seat.’
In order to begin with the analysis, we have to recall our theoretical discussion about generations in which I have indentified two important factors that could explain how a generation might behave once it comes of age. These are the socio-historical contexts under which a generation grows and comes of age. From the historical point of view, the millennials grew up during the time when the liberal capitalist market democracy triumphed over communism following the disintegration of the former Soviet Union in 1991, and became the dominant and widely appealing organizing principle for politico-economic development around the world. This means that unlike its predecessor, this generation did not have to contend with the issue of having to pay allegiance to any particular ideological dogma as there was no any measure ideological war. What is more, this is the generation that has found itself in the midst of an unprecedented proliferation of communication technology that transcends temporal and spatial barriers; that breaks monopoly over information; that facilitates interconnectivity and interaction; and that empowers citizens by enabling them to reclaim their agency. This was also the time the phenomenon of globalization has swept the world.
On the sociological side, the Millennials grew up in a society that has been undergoing radical reorientation and restructuring on many fronts. They have witnessed the division of the society on the basis of ethno-linguistic cleavages and the resultant meteoric rise of ethno-linguistic consciousness among the various groups and the uncritical celebration and valorization of ‘nativism.’ They are the product of a society whose access to power and resources has normatively been fought along ethnic fault lines. Theirs is a society that has been characterized by favoritism and nepotism and an unconcealed contempt for meritocracy. It is also a society where the hitherto taken-for-granted and shared grand narratives about national history, national culture, national symbols and the whole notion of Ethiopiawinet have been contested, deconstructed and displaced, and where new ones have been constructed/reconstructed and invented/reinvented. In general, theirs is a society that has been preoccupied with an exercise of self-construction/reconstruction in the form of ‘imagined communities,’ to borrow Benedict Anderson’s phrase.
If these are some of the major historical and social contexts under which the Milennials grew up and came of age, what might our hopes be and what could our fears be, with such a generation assuming an increasing role in the Ethiopian political space? These are questions whose answers might vary depending on the perspectives of the individuals who might wish to respond to them. In the subsequent section, I will attempt to provide my perspectives with respect to these important questions.
To begin with, it is my hope that the Millennials would categorically reject the conduct of politics on the basis of Manichean worldview, which has bedeviled the Ethiopian body politic for the last half a century. As we know, the word Manichean comes from the word Mani, which is the name of an apostle who lived in Mesopotamia in the 240’s and taught a universal religion based on dualism. One who believes in Manichean dualism looks at things as having two sides that are inherently opposed. For such a person, life is neatly divided between good and evil, light and dark, or love and hate, etc. and nothing in between. It is a polarizing worldview that simplistically reduces the world to a struggle between two inherently opposing forces. The hitherto political behavior of the Ya Tiwulid has been rooted in such a worldview where each political group sees itself as having the monopoly over ‘truth’ and regards others as political ‘heretics’ that ought to be forced to recant their views in favor of the other’s ‘truth’ or be subjected to obliteration. Although it is often said that politics is the art of compromise, ours has often been nothing short of a zero-sum game. As they grew up and came of age during the time when grand ideological war was over on the global stage, I hope that the Millennials would adopt a more accommodating approach in the conduct of democratic politics that is rooted in the principle of compromise and give-and-take.
Since the Millennials came of age in the era of globalization which has been fueled by the proliferation of Internet technology, they have been exposed to divergent viewpoints, cultures, races, identities, symbols, images, and politico-economic arrangements; they have had the opportunities to establish networks and relations with others who live across the globe through either virtual interactions or physical contacts or both, and thereby developing an attitude of tolerance and receptivity toward differences and empathy for others. Such opportunities for exposure and the resultant change of attitudes toward differences would help the Millennials to have more sense of cosmopolitanism and would enable them to be more prone to cooperation than confrontation and conflict. In this sense, I would hope that the Millennials would be able to stay above the political fray and attempt to work out a mechanism that could amicably resolve the Ethiopian political debacle.
On the other hand, I also see some serious factors that could militate against the hopes I have outlined above and which could potentially be a source of fear. The new Millennials who grew up and came of age under the new political dispensation have had divergent experiences with the new order. As the new federal structure is organized along ethno-linguistic cleavages, ethnic consciousness has dramatically increased among the Millennials. The fact that the struggle for access to power and resources is often carried out along ethnic fault lines has accentuated the tension among the various groups and played an important role in reifying and solidifying ethnic boundaries and thereby created and normalized the us-and-them and the in-group and the out-group mentality. As is known, identity based politics has the proclivity to reinforce groupthink and it does not lend itself well to a cross-fertilization of ideas across ethno-linguistic cleavages. As a result politics has become an art of finding particularistic solutions to particularistic problems instead of becoming an art of finding common solutions to common problems.
There is also a widespread feeling among the Millennials that the new dispensation has created ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ among the various groups that have constituted the Millennials. No doubt that the coming of these disparate groups on the Ethiopian political scene would likely be fraught with increased tension as the ‘losers’ would decide to fight their way to improving their lot and as the ‘winners’ would attempt to maintain their privileged position or to at least try to minimize their losses. More importantly, significant number of the Millennials grew up and were schooled in an environment where they were exposed only to their own native language, leaving them unable to effectively communicate and interact with those from other ethnic groups.
Beyond being an identity marker, language is an important instrument for access to opportunities and power. In order to maximize their access to such opportunities and power, these Millennials would likely engage in a fierce fight among themselves over which language(s) would enjoy official status or over jealously guarding the exclusive dominance of their native language in their respective regions as a means of ensuring monopoly control over their region’s politics, resources and opportunities. The unsustainable rate of population growth coupled with the likelihood of increasing climate change-induced drought, which could in turn cause drought, food and water shortage and overall scarcity of resources, could also be a potential source of conflict among the Millennials.
Although the modern communication technology, if utilized properly, has the potential to bring us together, foster mutual understanding, broaden our horizon of thinking, cultivate democratic culture, dispel prejudice and stereotype, manufacture national consensus, and help in creating one politico-economic community, it has also the potential to bring about the opposite outcomes if misused. As a cursory examination of the way it has so far been used by the Ethiopian Millennials, both at home and abroad, would easily indicate, there seems to be less ground for optimism. Notwithstanding tireless and commendable efforts being exerted by some in harnessing the power of the communication technology to a positive end, a significant proportion of the Millennials’ use of the technology tends to be more of encouraging polarization, of sowing division, of inciting hatred, of preaching intolerance, of reifying groupthink, of inflaming rather than informing, and of democratizing incivility. Such unhealthy utilization of a potent and ubiquitous instrument as modern communication technology would likely complicate more the relations among the Millennials going forward.
Weighing between the hopes and the fears associated with the emergence of the Millennials on the Ethiopian political scene and their increasing role in our national politics, therefore, I am afraid that the balance seems to tip more toward the fears than the hopes. Unless situations change in a dramatic fashion, as it stands now, it seems to me that the Millennials are heading more likely toward collision rather than cohesion.
If this scenario makes some sense, what then should we do, if anything, to avoid or at least minimize the possible train wreck? Or is it already too late to attempt to do anything of value to avert the impeding catastrophe? I believe there is still a window of opportunity although it is a narrow window. I argue that the question of whether we would be able to make the best out of this narrow window will largely depend on the willingness of the remnants of the Ya Tiwulid who still wield significant influence on the Ethiopian political landscape (be it in the manner of incumbency, or opposition, politically active at home or abroad) to decide to bury their hatchets and make peace with themselves and among themselves. It depends on whether they will be willing to tame their egos and start seriously thinking about their legacy and take a bold move in order to make the necessary atonements for their hitherto ‘sins’ of omission or commission and show real leadership by coming together to collectively rescue the Millennials from the impeding calamity for the sake of the wellbeing of their beloved country. The failure to do so will likely take our country to the abyss, and no volume of books made available to chronicle the contributions and achievements of the Ya Tiwulid writ large will be able to exonerate it from its culpability when history judges the generation in the years to come. May the good Lord give us all the wisdom to do the right thing!
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McCrindle, M. (2007). Understanding Generation. Y. North Parramatta: Australia Leadership Foundation.
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