This impressive agenda-setting book builds on Ethiopia’s past but looks to its futureI bought a copy of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s Medemer because of the nagging feeling that I was not going to consider myself a concerned Ethiopian citizen if I did not read the first ever book by a sitting leader. It was a matter of a ‘have-to’, until I turned some pages and it became a strong ‘want-to’.
Medemer is about creating something greater than the sum of its parts. It is about taking a shortcut to positive change by merging our social and physical capital. You medemer as individuals, as businesses, governments, countries, regions of the world, and one with the other too. Poverty, the author writes, is what happens when there is a lack of this.
Medemer is Abiy Ahmed’s wake up call for the people of the poor nation of Ethiopia to medemer to have any chance of catching up with the world. It could mean Ethiopian coffee exporters competing for sales, while also cooperating to achieve common goals by taking measures like jointly supporting growers, or constructing common storage facilities. It could mean siblings cooperating at home, yet competing to realize their individual potential.
As a national doctrine, it is more favorable to economic activity than ubuntu, the southern African social value of communalism, which has been said is true for all of Africa. Or ujamaa, the Swahili concept carrying the same meaning which Julius Nyerere based his socialist plan for Tanzania on, including a one-party system, nationalization of industry, and villagization of agricultural production.
Medemer has breadth, depth and novelty
Medemer is a state where our human nature to be competitive is in equilibrium with our nature to cooperate. Medemer argues that cooperation and competition are laws of nature that serve irreplaceable functions in the human need for completion, which is also what drives them to socialize. But, if someone’s relationship with others is overly competitive, they withdraw, because, contrary to the reason they reached out, their interaction breeds feelings of incompleteness. If, on the other hand, it is too cooperative, efficiency, innovation and capacity decline, and again people withdraw due to the lack of stimulation that comes from competition. When people withdraw, “loneliness” occurs.
Medemer has the breadth, depth and novelty to establish itself as not only the basis of political and economic policies of Ethiopia, but also as an Ethiopian philosophy for this generation and those of the future, drawing on all that should be inherited from our past. But for now, Medemer is just a theory and an assessment of its practice would be premature. Patience, open-mindedness, and active engagement through constructive dialogue and critique will be critically important to offer the great promise of Medemer the chance to bear fruit.
Now that there is more variety to people’s judgement of the Prime Minister, I was somewhat self-conscious about being seen with the book in public, easy to spot as it is. I could see women in the other hair dryers throwing me curious looks. Good thing it was possible to finish it as quickly as I did.
The book has three main parts. The first is a treatise about the Medemer ideology. In the prime minister’s usual forward-looking oratory, his occasional touch of humor (not flippancy, which he writes is different), and inspiring eloquence, it explains characteristics that are prerequisites for Medemer, mainly integrity. It also describes negative characteristics of Ethiopians today, including the desire to please those in authority (“people were so slavish that at one point we couldn’t tell whether they were supporting us or against us”). It explains, convincingly, the positive cumulative effect of citizens being honest and hard-working.
This part includes a detailed criticism, as well as praise, of Ethiopia’s revolutionary democratic state. But it is by no means a tell-all on the previous administrations. In fact, when it talks about the failures of past leaders, it does so with observable self-control, with a generality that demonstrates decency, but with specificity where it is needed, on the actions done rather than the doers. Rarely does the writer call out previous leaders or specific cases by name. However, in the first chapter, the Metals and Engineering Corporation (MeTEC) is implicated: “One of the failures of our developmental state was that, completely forgetting that the government was supposed to gradually decrease involvement in the market, we began to set up more enterprises than we were privatizing. We celebrated it when the grand enterprise we set up to work in industrial engineering began to assemble TV sets.”
The final two parts of the book read less like popular philosophy and more like policy documents, analysing the Ethiopian political and institutional reality. In summary, there are many problems caused by oppression, both structural and individual. The reason why our politics is dominated by issues related to ethnic identity is partly because of the past oppression. People’s consciousness of their ethnic identity (and not their other identities, such as class, generation, or gender) becomes pronounced when that identity has a history of being oppressed. But one should not forget, Abiy writes, ethnic identity becomes a point of mobilization and political struggle primarily when elites frame it that way.
Medemer argues that Ethiopian public institutions are filled by technically incompetent officials who have no desire to serve the public, put self-interest ahead of the good of the people, and who themselves are in office as a result of nepotism. Institutions are also chronically inflexible. But reforms are not easy, the author says, because the Ethiopian civil service has ‘reform-fatigue’ thanks to the several nation-wide initiatives including Business Process Re-engineering and Kaizen that have been tried. Instead, the author writes, what we need is sector-specific reforms led by change agents in each sector supported by strong leadership.
Chapters five to ten discuss the flaws and merits in Ethiopian state-building, break down the causes of ethnic tensions in Ethiopia, and offer policy recommendations for how to diffuse these tensions and bring about national peace and reconciliation. For Ethiopia’s most thorny political questions, Medemer seems to suggest that our elites fanning these conflicts need a reset to a medemer mindset. This would translate into them holding peaceful discussions; demonstrating good leadership by trying to appeal to constituents, not trying to ‘buy’ loyalty; letting bygones be bygones; and in case of grave injustices, doing in-depth studies and truth-finding analyses to correct wrongs; while always seeking to promote alternative identities other than ethnicity for political mobilisation.
Chapter six discusses probably the most interesting topic, “What kind of democracy does Ethiopia need?” The author explains how to set in motion the process of building an Ethiopian brand of democracy. Firstly, a democratic structure that promotes cooperation among the different parties that focus on diversity needs to be in place. There is a need for ongoing negotiations to, among other things, bring into the fold civic nationalists that were sidelined in the previous constitution building which was dominated by ethno-nationalists.
To do this in a manner that is free from bias and resentment, it needs to be preceded by a national peace and reconciliation, or, if needed, in-depth study and truth-finding missions to address historical injustices. National forums need to be organized where previously suppressed voices speak up, our scholars and elites increase their active participation by coming out of where they are dying of loneliness (from lack of cooperation and competition) and civil society and media need to be strengthened so that rational thinking is promoted. This process, when fully operational, he writes, will start to form the unique Ethiopian democracy that is the right fit for our context.
Chapter nine discusses leadership styles, offering a useful framework by which to assess the leader himself. Chapters eleven to sixteen are more technical. They give a run down on politics and economy in Ethiopia, touching on all topics imaginable, in dry, text-bookish writing, with brief, general-level statements on Medemer’s way of dealing with the issues. It touches on the causes and consequences of macroeconomic failures, unemployment, income inequality, failure of Ethiopian higher education, foreign aid, government’s role in the private sector and the commercial market before the final chapter on Medemer and foreign relations.
As he writes in his book, so is he
True to its uncommercial objectives, Medemer is not a book that tries to sell itself, and the proceeds are reportedly going towards rural education projects. The book evidently went through a higher quality process of publishing than is often the case in Ethiopia (the design, editing and printing are almost world-class) but, like Abiy Ahmed himself, his book also adopts a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ stance. The opening does not try to ‘hook’ you, there is not an undertone that begs the reader to stay, and it never succumbs to the temptation of being sensational, for which there probably was fertile ground. The writer presents his truth simply and calmly. Its rootedness, and the absence of doubt in the narrative voice is remarkable.
Balance, you soon find, is a quality the writer finds great value in. Balance between being conservative and progressive. Balance between ethno-nationalism and civic nationalism. Balance between insisting on indigenous knowledge and importing knowledge—he makes it clear that he does not intend to reinvent the ideological wheel. “Knowledge,” he says, “we shouldn’t forget is a shared asset of all human beings,” and Medemer itself draws on lessons from the experience of capitalism and socialism in the world and in Ethiopia in formulating the Medemer economic ideology. Medemer, it seems, is a theory born out of such a balanced outlook, from a life-long contemplation and reflection on binary points of view. But, though it may be pensive, Medemer is highly dynamic. It is more a timeless tool for thinking than a belief bound to one place or time.
Medemer is a philosophical text. It presents contemplative, beautifully written discourse on matters like truth, time, human satisfaction, the value of work in Ethiopia, democracy and oppression that are edifying to read. One example that has stayed with me is his thoughts that we should always calibrate our outlook on time by our past experience and our hopes for the future. Today is the balancer of yesterday and tomorrow. If it is made to stand alone, it is always off. When our mentalities are stuck in one time period (the past, present or the future) it is destructive, but the worst of time-bound mentalities is the mentality possessed by despair about tomorrow. It is when our yesterday and today are bound up and dipped in the wax of our hope that it can be the candle to walk us through the dark, he writes.
The audacity of hope
Medemer is simply told, but without oversimplification. The Amharic was impressive; I found what I think may be newly coined words. For this level of specialised writing, the Amharic is unusually smooth as it almost never relies on English. Still, Medemer is not a light read, especially the second half. The later chapters are a bit of a slog; they need readers who are determined to stick to the end, which means that the book’s likely audience is relatively well-educated Ethiopians.
This takes us to the topic of our reading culture. I wonder, how many of these ‘educated Ethiopians’ will read the book, and how many dismissed the idea of reading it because of political differences? How truly capable are we of the skill of taking the time to understand the ideas of others and to convey ours, which is critical for a democracy that is not ‘the rule of the ignorant masses’?
I am deeply impressed by this book
At the very end of the book, the author partly addresses the question I had whether it would not have been better received if it were packaged differently to reach a wider audience—other versions of the book are forthcoming; simpler ones with fewer pages, which may help for Medemer to catch on among the masses. As well as a forthcoming English version.
As I conclude, I feel an urge to moderate my praise of the book. To admire it only modestly so that extensive praise wouldn’t suggest a lack of criticality. As if sheer admiration is somehow not ‘sophisticated.’ But the reality is that I am deeply impressed by this book, by the very act of the writing of this book. I encourage you to read Medemer. Read it to restore the chips of hope you lost every time a negative breaking news appeared on your feed.
Read it to continue with your insistence on Ethiopia’s exceptionalism despite being told that is not so. Read it because that would be one practicable step you can take to make Ethiopia a nation of readers. Read it to honor a man’s attempt to make his case, and to send a message to others, that this is how you make your case—respectably.
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This is the author’s viewpoint. However, Ethiopia Insight will correct clear factual errors.
Editor: William Davison
Main photo: A cake at the launch of Medemer in Addis Ababa; October 19, 2019; Prime Minister’s Office
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